Friday, April 22, 2011

What Was the Best Day of Dismas’ Life?

(Good Friday 2011: This homily was given on April 22, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI, by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12; also read the Passion Narrative of St. Luke.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Good Friday 2011]

What was the best day of Dismas’ life?

Dismas, of course, was the so-called “Good Thief,” who had a change of heart as he hung on the cross next to Jesus on Good Friday. The Bible indicates that at first both he and the other criminal verbally abused our Lord after they were crucified. As we are told in Matthew 27: 44, “The insurgents who had been crucified with [Jesus] kept taunting him in the same way [that is, in the same way that the chief priests and scribes and elders were taunting him].”

However, at some point during the 3 hours that he hung there with Jesus, the Good Thief experienced a genuine conversion of heart.


Well, we don’t know for sure. The Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us. One of my theories is that he was deeply impressed by how Jesus responded to the verbal attacks that were being hurled at him. I’m sure that most people who were crucified by the Romans in the first century did NOT respond in such a loving way to the insults of those passing by! They probably answered those insults with a lot of words that cannot be repeated from this pulpit.

Jesus, on the other hand, responded with love and with silence—the silence of a lamb being led to the slaughterhouse (to use Isaiah’s famous image that we heard in today’s first reading).

I also believe that Dismas was deeply moved by the way Jesus forgave his murderers. Contrary to what many people believe, forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. You don’t need any inner strength at all to let anger and unforgiveness get the better of you. That’s easy—all you have to do is let your negative emotions take over!

Only a strong person can sincerely forgive.

And it takes a doubly-strong person to forgive the people who have harmed him while he’s in the midst of experiencing the suffering that they have inflicted on him! It’s one thing to forgive somebody after you’ve had time to deal with the pain they’ve caused you and perhaps get over it; it’s quite another thing to forgive people while you’re experiencing the pain they’ve caused you at its worst!

Jesus forgave his murderers—totally and completely—while they were in the process of murdering him! That had to be impressive to a man like Dismas, whose life up to that point had probably been ruled by hatred and unforgiveness.

We do not know for sure why the Good Thief opened his heart to Christ, but we do know that he did. And that’s enough for us to know, because it means that his personal life story—as bad as it might have been previously—had a happy ending!

Once his heart had been touched, he said those famous words of repentance to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”; and our Lord responded with his famous words of forgiveness and mercy, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Which brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning: What was the best day of Dismas’ life?

If you had questioned the Good Thief himself about that, as he was being nailed to the cross late Good Friday morning—if you had said to him at that precise moment, “Dismas, what was the best day of your life?” he might have said, “Any day but this one!”

Of course, if he was married, he also might have said, “The best day of my life was the day I met my future wife.” If he had a child, he might have said, “The best day of my life was the day my child was born.”

There are many possibilities. There are many things that we can reasonably assume he might have said.

But there’s one thing we can be 99.999% certain he would NOT have said at the moment he was being crucified. He would not have said, “The best day of my life is THIS ONE.”

But it was! Good Friday was, without question, the best day of this man’s life on planet earth. And the very best part, of his very best day, was the part when he hung on the cross next to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, in utter agony!

How’s that for ironic?

It was best day of the Good Thief’s life, because it was the day he opened his heart to Jesus Christ and received the gift of salvation. Without that day—and specifically without the suffering of that day—he would probably have spent eternity in hell!

And I’m sure that Dismas himself realized this once he heard Jesus say to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

So, if you had asked him this question just a minute before he died: “Dismas, what was the best day of your life?” he would have given you a very different answer than he would have given 3 hours earlier. Looking at his life from a new perspective—an eternal perspective—would have led him to say, “TODAY is the best day of my life, without question—not because of my suffering on this cross, but rather because of how I’ve responded to my suffering.”

Hopefully, you can see how all of this applies to us.

Speaking personally, for example, I wonder: When my life is over (which I hope it won’t be for awhile!) will I look back and say, “One of the best days of my life was the day my father died”; “One of the best days of my life was the day my mother died”; “One of the best days of my life was the day I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease”?

Not if I’m on my way to hell! But if I’m on my way to heaven, in part because I’ve allowed the tragic experiences of my life to affect me in the same way that the Good Thief allowed his suffering to affect him, then yes, in the end I will look on many of the most difficult days of my life as great days—or perhaps I should say “blessed” days—because in the midst of them I will have grown in faith and holiness. And that will have a direct influence on the level of happiness I experience forever in heaven! To paraphrase Bishop Sheen on this point: Sometimes God allows us to suffer to make us good (as was the case with Dismas); but, if we’re already good, there are times when God allows us to suffer to make us better.

And better we will definitely be, IF we make the choice to respond to our crosses like Dismas, the Good Thief, responded to his.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Passion of Jesus--In Wilcox Park!

On Sunday, April 17, 2011 at 2 p.m., in Wilcox Park, Westerly, RI, the Stage Door Theater Company performed "The Passion of Christ," written, produced and directed by Eugene J. Celico, artistic director of the company.

Please forgive the quality of the audio as it was a windy afternoon in an open field.

To view the YouTube video, click here: The Passion of Jesus]

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The 4—not the 2!—Last Things

Stephen DeAngelis

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on April 17, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 11: 1-45.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2011]

You know you’re getting old when . . .

How would you complete that sentence?

You know you’re getting old when . . .

I can think of a number of ways to finish that sentence off—based, sad to say, on my own personal experience of the last few weeks. For example,

• You know you’re getting old when you get together with your old buddies from high school, and the primary topics of conversation (at least initially) are what aches and pains you have, which doctors you’ve seen lately, how many surgeries you’ve had, and what medications you’re currently on!

• You also know you’re getting old when your previously non-religious, carefree friends suddenly become very serious and philosophical about life and its meaning. (That’s because they realize that they’re now closer to the end of life than they are to its beginning.)

• You also know you’re getting old when your contemporaries begin to die in greater numbers—some of them suddenly and unexpectedly.

Like my good friend, Stephen DeAngelis. Steve passed away a couple of weeks ago of a massive heart attack. He woke up that day, realized what was happening, and called 911 (he was home alone)—but by the time the EMTs got there and broke into the house he was gone, and they were unable to revive him.

His death made an deep impact on a lot of his classmates from Barrington High School, but it really hit home with me, because not only had we graduated together in 1975, not only had we played sports together as little kids—our lives had literally been linked from birth! Our moms knew one another in 1957, they were both living in Barrington at the time, and they were both were admitted to the old Lying-In hospital in Providence during the same week to deliver their babies. Stephen beat me by a day: he was born on April 17; I was born on the 18th (which also happened to be Holy Thursday that year—but that’s another story).

Two days before Stephen died I found out that another one of my classmates from high school had passed away from breast cancer in late January of this year—and perhaps that explains some of the very serious conversations that I had with old friends at the reception after Stephen’s funeral.

Now don’t get me wrong, these were good conversations about our mortality and about the ultimate purpose and meaning of life—but they were very different from the conversations we’ve had at past funerals.

This time, the reality of death seemed a lot closer.

It’s good for all of us, at least every once in awhile, to reflect on death and its meaning, as some of us did at Steve’s funeral the other day, and as the family and friends of Lazarus probably did at his funeral 2,000 years ago. As ironic as it might sound, reflecting on death can actually help us to live life better and with the proper focus. And even more importantly, pondering death and its meaning can help us to be better prepared to face it when it comes. And we definitely need to be prepared, because it sometimes comes suddenly and unexpectedly, as it did for Stephen DeAngelis the other day.

On that note, whenever we do ponder and discuss death as Catholics, it’s essential to remember that there are 4 so-called “Last Things”—4 final realities, 3 of which will be experienced by you and by me and by every human person on the planet. Hopefully most of us know them already: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

And please do notice, my brothers and sisters, that there are 4 of these Last Things, not 2! I say that because there are many people—including I dare say, many professed Christians—who seem to think that the only last things most people experience are death and heaven.

I was at a funeral the other day in which the priest said that the deceased is in God’s eternal kingdom already. I wanted to ask the priest afterward how he knew that, and why he also encouraged the people in the congregation to pray for the deceased!

Logically speaking, that didn’t make sense.

You see, if someone is already in heaven, that person doesn’t need our prayers; that person does not need to have Masses offered for the repose of his or her soul. They don’t need our assistance on their way to the kingdom because they’re already in the kingdom!

Praying for the dead only makes sense if the deceased person is undergoing the final purification that many souls need on their way to the kingdom—the final purification which we call “purgatory.”

Have you ever noticed that we never have a Mass offered FOR St. Peter or St. Paul or St. Catherine of Siena or St. Teresa of Avila or any other canonized saint? We offer Masses in their honor on their respective feast days, but we never pray FOR them either at Mass or outside of Mass! That’s because they don’t need our prayers. Quite to the contrary, we need them to pray for us!

And this is no small point. Actually, this tendency to reduce the 4 Last Things to 2 is one of the biggest reasons why we have so many problems in the world right now! Because so many men and women do not believe in God’s judgment and in the possibility of going to hell, they think they can do whatever they want in this life! They think they can hurt other people and live by their own set of rules and still end up in God’s eternal kingdom when their earthly lives are finished!

They don’t believe that they will be accountable for their actions—and that erroneous belief is reflected in their behavior.

It can even lead, in some cases, to despair! Think about it: If there’s nothing at stake in this life—if God’s going to push us through the pearly gates of heaven regardless of how we’ve lived on this earth—then what’s the point of continuing to live this life when things go bad?

There really isn’t any point at all!

The response of Jesus to Martha in today’s gospel scene from John 11 implicitly affirms the reality of ALL 4 of the Last Things. Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

The reality of physical death (the first Last Thing) is affirmed in the section where Jesus says, “whoever believes in me, even if he dies (that is to say, physically dies) will live.”

As for the second Last Thing—judgment—that’s implied if we look at the sentence in its totality. Notice that Jesus makes a distinction in this verse between those who believe in him and those who don’t. And here it’s important to remember that in the New Testament “belief” is not simply a “head trip”—it’s not simply a matter of saying, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” Biblically speaking, if you really believe in Jesus you will strive to obey him. Belief implies obedience. Belief and obedience go hand-in-hand. So Jesus could have said, “Whoever believes in me and obeys me, even if he experiences physical death, will live forever after being judged”—and it would have had the same meaning.

And where will the person who believes in and obeys Jesus live forever? In heaven, of course—which is the third Last Thing.

As for the possibility of Last Thing number 4, hell, that’s alluded to in the final part of the sentence where Jesus says, “And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” The “death” Jesus is talking about there is not physical death, rather, it’s spiritual death—the death of the soul—what the Bible calls “the second death.”

So the bottom line is this: we can’t avoid the first death (the physical) no matter how hard we try, but by the power of Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, we can avoid the second death.

And, please God, by his saving grace, we all will. Then we’ll get to meet some great and wonderful people in the kingdom of God, including, hopefully, my old friend, Steve DeAngelis.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Blindness as a State of Mind—and Heart

Marc Paskin

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on April 3, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 9:1-41.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2011]

We all know that blindness is a physical condition. But what many people are not aware of is the truth that Jesus alludes to at the end of today’s gospel: that blindness can also be a state of mind—and heart.

Blindness as a physical condition is usually beyond the victim’s control. It’s not something for which he or she is personally responsible. The person in question is either born blind—as the man in today’s gospel story was—or they become blind because of a disease or accident.

Blindness as a state of mind, however, IS under the sightless person’s control; it IS something for which the blind person is personally responsible—as Jesus makes very clear in this gospel reading, with respect to the Pharisees. They refused to “open their eyes” to the fact that Jesus had been sent by the heavenly Father, and that his miracles were performed by the power of God, with the Father’s approval.

Jesus says to them, “If you were blind (that is, physically blind), you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” (In other words, “You have made yourselves blind in mind and heart, and for that you are personally responsible before God.”)

It is a wonderful thing when this kind of blindness is healed in a person. It’s something to thank God for; it’s something to rejoice in. On that note, the other night I happened to see an episode of the new ABC program, “Secret Millionaire.” This is a show that tells the stories of wealthy people—millionaires—who want to give away some of their fortune to help needy people and worthy causes. For some, I suspect, being this generous is a new experience. And so they go incognito and work at minimum wage jobs and at charitable organizations, in the process establishing friendships with some poor and well-deserving people. Then, toward the end of the shows, they reveal their true identities and give some money to each deserving group or individual. The amount of money they donate must total at least $100,000.

In the episode that I saw, a successful real estate investor from California named Marc Paskin spent a week living like a poor person in a run-down, one bedroom house on the east side of Detroit—an area with a bad reputation for crime, drugs and gangs. During the time he was there, he only had $50 to spend on food and other personal needs (since that’s the amount of welfare assistance that a single man over 55 receives these days in the city of Detroit).

Needless to say, it was not an easy task for this man who could normally afford almost anything. But, in the midst of it all, he met some very good people who are currently trying to make a positive difference in their struggling communities. One was a 28-year-old father of three named Randy, who volunteers for the “Man Network”—an organization of concerned citizens that helps patrol his neighborhood in Detroit, where violence and crime are rampant. Randy does this because one day many years ago when he was just a little boy he heard some gunshots outside his front door. He then heard his mother scream. When he went out to investigate, he found his dad bleeding to death in his mother’s arms. His father had been shot in a drive-by shooting. He died that night on the way to the hospital.

Marc also met some members of the Young Detroit Builders, an organization that helps young adults get away from drugs and crime by getting them back to school and by teaching them carpentry skills.

He met a former limousine driver and current dialysis patient named John Cook, who founded a little company called “Really Living,” to provide poor medical patients with free transportation to get to their doctor’s appointments. Through this contact he met a young dialysis patient named Courtney, with whom he was very impressed. She’s only in her mid-20s, but she’s already had a kidney transplant, which unfortunately failed. She hopes to get another kidney in 3 or 4 years, but until then she’ll need dialysis. In addition, she also has a 2-year-old daughter with some very severe medical problems. Marc asked her at one point what she would wish for if she had 3 wishes. In a response that clearly demonstrated her selfless love for her child, Courtney said she wouldn’t want anything for herself. All she would want is for one wish to be fulfilled: she would want her daughter to be happy and healthy.

In the end, Marc revealed his true identity to everyone, and with tears in his eyes he gave them checks that ranged from $10,000 to $40,000.

It was great to see how appreciative these people were to receive these special and unexpected gifts. But what was even more important, at least in my mind, was the effect that this experience had on Marc Paskin, the millionaire. During the course of one, short week, his eyes were opened to many things: the needs of the poor; the struggles of the chronically ill who don’t have any health insurance; the difficulties that are experienced by those who are trying to overcome addictions; the difficulties that are faced by good people who are trying to help the poor, the sick and the elderly. His final words on the show were a witness to the fact that at least some of his blindness to these realities has now been healed. He spoke these words tearfully after he gave Courtney a gift of 20,000. He said, “I see what she’s going through, and, you know, she breaks my heart; and I wanted to do something nice for her and help her life. . . . Not everybody has money they can give away, but everybody can give some of their time, and some of their love to people, and it would be a better world if everybody would do that. It’s time to give back.”

Hopefully Marc Paskin will continue to "give back" in the future.  Hopefully this is just the beginning for him.

In one way or another, all of us are afflicted with some blindness during the course of our lives--even if we have 20/20 vision.

Some are blind in the ways that Marc Paskin was blind: blind to the needs of others; blind to the suffering of the poor, the sick and the elderly; blind to the good things that many people are already doing in our communities to try to help those in difficult circumstances.

Or we can be blind in other ways:

• Blind to the love of God

• Blind to our own self-worth

• Blind to the true meaning of life here on earth

• Blind to the sanctity of human life

• Blind to the dignity of the human person

• Blind to the serious sin in our life

• Blind to the need we have for God’s mercy

• Blind to the reality of what marriage is—that it’s the union of one man and one woman in a lifetime commitment of love (that type of blindness afflicts many people right here in our own town!)

All this having been said, my suggestion is to say this simple prayer to Jesus when you go back to your pew after receiving Holy Communion: O Lord, help me to recognize whatever blindness is present right now in my mind and in my heart, and help me to do whatever I need to do to be healed of it. Amen.