Sunday, October 02, 2011

Paul’s Saintly Self-Confidence

Philip Rivers

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 2, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Philippians 4: 6-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-seventh Sunday 2011]

In the last line of today’s second reading from Philippians 4, St. Paul writes these words: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen IN ME.  Then the God of peace will be with you.”

Do you sense a bit of arrogance in that statement?  I mean, you have to admit that it sounds a little prideful, does it not?  Paul, in effect, is saying to the people of Philippi, “My dear friends, if you want to know what it means to be a true, dedicated, faithful follower of Jesus Christ, just look at me!  Follow me around for awhile.  Imitate my example.  See how I act in situations of temptation and stress and conflict.  Listen to the things I say; watch how I treat other people—and conduct yourselves accordingly.  Then you’ll be good Christians, too.”

Well, let me offer you an alternative interpretation this morning.  Rather than being filled with pride, I would say that Paul was filled with what might be called ‘a saintly self-confidence’.  He knew he was a sinner like everyone else—in fact, in his first letter to Timothy he called himself “the worst of sinners”—but by the time he wrote this letter to the Philippians he had been forgiven for the major sins in his life and had completely turned away from them.  And he was so confident in the way he was currently living that he knew he could, in good conscience, be a true role model for the Christians at Philippi.  He didn’t have any deep, dark secrets; he didn’t have any skeletons in his closet (so to speak); he didn’t have to worry about causing scandal among the faithful.  He was continually and consistently ‘fighting the good fight and running the race and keeping the faith,’ so he had no qualms whatsoever about encouraging the people of Philippi to imitate him.

Obviously our world today needs more Christians like St. Paul, especially, I dare say, more MALE Christians like him—since men are called to exercise many roles of leadership, especially as fathers!

I had this thought after I read an email last Friday from one of the female adults who attends our Thursday night youth group.  The previous evening she had been present when I had the teens read an article about a man named Philip Rivers.  Now for those of you who are not followers of the NFL, Philip Rivers is the star quarterback of the San Diego Chargers football team.  He’s also a very committed Catholic.  Earlier this year he was the guest speaker at a Catholic men’s conference in Phoenix, Arizona, where he did an interview with a representative of the Life Teen organization.

It was the transcript of that interview that the teens and I read that particular Thursday night.  Now what was somewhat amusing (at least it was somewhat amusing to me) was the starry-eyed reaction that some of the female teens had to Mr. Rivers.  Needless to say, they found the young quarterback to be very attractive—although it went beyond looks.  As this adult woman reminded me in her email the following day, it was the ideas Rivers expressed in his interview—his commitment to faith and prayer and marriage and family in particular—that also appealed to many of the women who were present, young and not-so-young.  This female adult wrote, “Our men need more prayer warrior role models.  Men like Philip Rivers and Jason Evert and others are rooted in prayer. They have that solid foundation.  They are men who shout to the world, ‘Bring it on… we’ve got what it takes to win!’  That’s why we were all ‘goo-ing’ and ‘gaa-ing’ over Philip Rivers!”

Let me share with you now a few excerpts from the Rivers interview.  These are some of the responses that had them ‘goo-ing’ and ‘gaa-ing’ (I’m not sure those are real words, by the way, but they were in her email, so I’ll use them to make the point). 

The interviewer said, “So you grew up in a Catholic home, and you took that into your adulthood as a football player. That’s pretty rare for professional athletes.  How did you do that?”

Rivers responded, “I was fortunate to grow up in the faith; my mom taught me the faith.  In North Alabama there were only like 15 of us in my county in my confirmation class.  We were quite the minority in Alabama.  But one thing I remember is when I went to college at North Carolina State, the biggest thing that stuck in my head from my mom was never miss Mass.  That was the thing that she definitely got across.  When you go to college, that’s when the faith becomes your own.  Your mom and dad aren’t waking you up and reminding you, ‘Hey this a good day to go to confession.’  It’s up to you.”

He was asked about the challenges of getting to Mass on game day.  His answer indicated that, like a true man of God, he takes responsibility for his actions and makes sure he gets to Mass no matter what.  He said that he considers it “special” to go to Mass on Sunday before the game begins.  I suppose you could say his philosophy is “Pray before you play.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if more Catholic parents had that philosophy—especially Catholic parents here in Westerly whose children participate in weekend sporting activities?

When Rivers was asked, “Is there any piece of advice that you would give to high school young men?” his answer was very St. Paul-like.  He said, [I would tell them to] Appreciate the faith. Appreciate what we have and what a great gift the sacraments are.  It’s hard to see that as a young man, but I think that, again, [young men are called to be] the leaders of their age.  They grow in their faith and everybody will follow—both their girlfriends and others.  And then also, this can apply to their faith but also to anything else they do.  My dad always said that if you’re going to do something, do it all the way.  If you’re going to be a Catholic man, be it all the way.  If you’re going to clean your room, clean it the right way.  You know, all those little things add up and they stick with you.”

And finally, regarding the temptations and challenges he faces as a pro football player, Rivers said, The biggest key to avoid those temptations is not to put yourself in those situations.  And it’s not just as a NFL player, it’s in any work-place, in any city, anything you’re doing, anywhere after dark, after midnight.  I think it’s [in 1 Corinthians 15 where it] says ‘bad company corrupts good morals.’  If you’re not in the wrong, but you continue to put yourself in tempting situations, eventually you may give in.  So that’s always been something I’ve lived by all the way through—don’t put yourself in those situations.  Even though you may be strong enough to go somewhere and not fall into the sin, avoiding it from the get-go will certainly help.”

I should also add that I was pleasantly surprised to see that, when he talked about his family life, Rivers explicitly mentioned NFP (Natural Family Planning), and the positive impact that has had on his relationship with his wife.

No artificial contraception for Mr. and Mrs. Philip Rivers.

He really IS a serious Catholic!

In fact, based on all that he said in this interview, it seems that Philip Rivers is even more serious about his faith than he is about football (which is saying a lot, because he’s an extremely intense player—one of the most intense in the entire National Football League!).

I ask you to join me today in praying for him that he will remain a committed Catholic throughout his life—because it’s not a given!  He could give in to one of those temptations he talked about and turn away from God in an instant, if he chose to.

He has free will just like the rest of us!

Let’s pray that he’ll stay the course, and grow in his faithfulness to the Lord each and every day, so that eventually he’ll be able to say to his children and to his grandchildren and to the other people in his life the same words that St. Paul said to the Philippians in this reading: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen IN ME.  Then the God of peace will be with you.”

Let’s pray that he’ll be able to say those words as Paul did—with saintly self-confidence.

And, while we’re at it, let’s also pray for ourselves and for one another during this Mass, that we’ll be able to do the very same thing.