Sunday, February 26, 2012

Repentance and Belief: Two Sides of the Same Coin

(First Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on February 26, 2012, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Lent 2012]

Let me begin today by asking you to use your imagination.

Imagine a coin—a coin that has two words written on it.  On one side, you find the word “Repent;” on the other side you find the word “Believe.”

I begin with that image this morning, because it will help you to remember the message of my homily today, which is that repentance and belief are two sides of the same coin.

That is to say, these two ideas—belief and repentance—go together.  Or at least they should go together in our minds and in the minds of all Christians, because we know from today’s gospel reading that they definitely went together in the mind of Jesus!

In this text from Mark 1, we heard about the opening days of our Lord’s earthly ministry.  St. Mark doesn’t tell us everything Jesus preached on those occasions (to do that would have taken him several chapters, at least); but he does give us a clear and concise summary of Jesus’ message.  He tells us, in other words, the most important ideas contained in the early preaching of our Lord.  These are ideas that Jesus would share in one way or another with almost everyone he ministered to during the next three years.

The summary is recorded for us in three short sentences and two key commands: “This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the gospel.”

The two key commands, of course, are there in the very last sentence: repent and believe.  For Jesus, these two realities were inseparable.  And that’s also the way it is for the Church today, especially during the season of Lent.  This explains why the priest or deacon or extraordinary minister who gave you ashes a few days ago probably put them on your forehead while saying these very words: “Repent and believe in the gospel.”  You’ll remember that we used to say, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel,” but now we use the exact words of Jesus as recorded in  Sacred Scripture—which is really the way it should be.

I mention all this because many people in the modern world—including, sad to say, many Catholics—treat repentance and belief as if they were two separate and distinct coins (to use the image of this homily) rather than two sides of the same one.  This is something that Pope John Paul II alluded to in the encyclical he wrote back in 1993, Veritatis Splendor (the Splendor of Truth) when he talked about “the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality,” and the tendency many people have to separate those two things. 

Notice that St. Peter implicitly connects belief and repentance in today’s second reading.  There he says, “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.”  The fact that Jesus suffered and died for our sins is something we believe; but the only way to be saved by the death of Jesus (or, as Peter puts it here, the only way for a person to be led to God by Jesus) is through repentance.  So, in that one sentence, we see both sides of the coin implied. 

Let me share with you now one real life example to make clear how important it is to keep these two ideas—belief and repentance—together ALWAYS.

The difference between treating belief and repentance as two separate coins and treating them as two sides of the same coin, is the difference between Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter.

Judas despaired and hung himself precisely because of the fact that he separated his repentance from his faith in Jesus (which, unfortunately, was pretty weak to begin with).  You know, it’s clear from Scripture that Judas did repent after he betrayed our Lord on Holy Thursday night.  Here’s how St. Matthew puts it in chapter 27 of his gospel: “Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done.  [Sounds like repentance to me.]  He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.’  They said, ‘What is that to us?  Look to it yourself.’  Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself.”

Judas repented, in the sense that he deeply regretted his actions, but he definitely did not believe!  His “coin” had “Repent” written on one side, but absolutely nothing written on the other.  He didn’t believe that Jesus still loved him; he didn’t believe that Jesus would forgive him.  And he certainly didn’t believe that Jesus was dying for him and wanted to save him from his sins.  He probably didn’t even believe that he could be saved—or that he was worth saving.

And that lack of belief made all the difference in how he responded to the situation he found himself in.

This reminds me of the people who come into the confessional and confess the same sin over and over again—not because they’ve committed the sin over and over again (because they haven’t).  They confess it again and again because they don’t believe God has forgiven them for it!  Even though they’ve repented; even though they’ve done the right thing and brought their sin to the sacrament—they don’t believe that Jesus has taken it away (even though he has!).

Like Judas, these men and women repent, but they don’t believe.

And so they have no peace.

How different Simon Peter was—even though his denials of Jesus were every bit as bad as Judas’ betrayal!

The Bible tells us that after he denied our Lord for the third time and heard the cock crow, Peter went out and wept bitterly.

So, like Judas, he repented.

But unlike Judas, he never ever stopped believing.  He never stopped believing that Jesus loved him; he never stopped believing that Jesus could and would forgive him if he sincerely repented. 

So he never gave up.  Consequently, when he had the opportunity after the resurrection, he went back to Jesus and professed his love.  He did it three times, in reparation for his three denials.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Peter’s coin had “Repent” on one side and “Believe” on the other—always.

If we want to be like Peter during this season of Lent, I think we should plan to do two things:

First of all, we should plan to attend the parish mission, beginning on March 12.  Doing that will help to strengthen us in our belief (side 1 of the coin).

And secondly, we should repent by getting to confession at some point before Easter (side 2 of the coin).

Belief and repentance—TOGETHER—helped to make Simon Peter a saint.

May they help us to attain the very same goal in our lives.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Word for Lent: Cross!

(This homily was given on February 22, 2012 (Ash Wednesday) at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ash Wednesday 2012]

I asked the Lord to give me a theme word for the season of Lent two years ago, and the word he gave me was “perseverance.”  He didn’t speak it to me audibly (no, Fr. Ray isn’t hearing voices these days); he simply, I believe, brought the word to mind and put it on my heart as I was praying in preparation for Ash Wednesday of 2010.

And so I spoke in my homily that day about the need to persevere in our Lenten disciplines—especially if and when we’re tempted to give up on them halfway through the season.

Last year I did the same thing, and the word that came to mind was “consistency”.  So I spoke on that Ash Wednesday about the importance of being consistent in our prayer, fasting and works of charity during the season of Lent—and throughout the year.

So I figured that if it worked twice, I should try it again this year.  And when I did—when I went before the Lord in prayer to ask for a theme word to share with you today—what popped into my mind was the word, “cross.”

Now when that happened my first thought was, “Well that makes sense, Lord, since the season of Lent prepares us to celebrate our eternal salvation—the salvation you won for us by your sacrifice on the cross.”

But as I reflected on it a bit more, I also came to realize that the cross symbolizes (or at least it should symbolize) the two purposes of this season for us and for all Catholics: deepening our relationship with God, and improving our relationships with other people.

It’s not one or the other of those two things; it’s both.

Notice that every cross has two beams: one is vertical, the other is horizontal.

That vertical beam symbolizes our relationship with the Lord; the horizontal beam symbolizes our relationships with other people.

The season of Lent is a time to bring both these realities together (so that they, hopefully, will stay together for the remainder of the year!).  We are to work, first of all, at deepening our relationship with God by spending more time in prayer, and Scripture reading and adoration; and perhaps by coming to daily Mass and the parish mission; and by getting to Confession if we need to.

But that can’t be the end of it.  If it is, then we’ve really missed half the message of this season—and half the message of the Christian life!  Remember Jesus said that there are two great commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. 

And that’s where the horizontal beam comes into the picture.  That beam of the cross symbolizes our relationships with our brothers and sisters.  Improving those relationships (and healing them when necessary) should also be a primary focus for us, especially during this season of the year.  That’s why “almsgiving” is included among the 3 traditional activities of Lent.  Prayer and fasting concern our relationship with God, but almsgiving directly involves our relationships with our brothers and sisters. 

And it symbolizes more that just giving money (although it certainly includes that!).  To give alms is to extend charity—love—to one’s neighbor.  And that charity can take many forms.

To forgive, for example, those who have offended us in any way is an act of charity symbolized by the word “almsgiving”.  (That means if you’re harboring a grudge against anyone else in your life right now, you need to work at forgiveness during this Lenten season!)

Visiting a sick relative or friend is another act of charity symbolized by “almsgiving”.  So is showing patience to those who try our patience.  So is giving your time to worthy causes at your church or in your local community.

Even praying faithfully and persistently for the needs of others is a form of giving alms—since we’re asking God to help those people in whatever way they need to be helped.

So I ask you to keep that word “cross” in your mind during the next 40 days, and to evaluate your Lent by that standard. 

Every once in awhile say to the Lord, “Lord, am I truly ‘living’ the cross this Lent?  Am I really working to improve my relationship with you and my relationships with my brothers and sisters?”

And if the answer to either of those questions is no—then make the changes you need to make, so that when you reflect on those questions again later on in Lent, you’ll be able to answer them BOTH with a resounding yes!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Catholics Today: Social and Cultural Lepers

Archbishop Timothy Dolan

(Sixth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on February 12, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Leviticus 13: 1-2, 44-46; Mark 1: 40-45.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday 2012]

Let me begin my homily today by asking you to join me in doing something.

Together let’s say the word, “Unclean.”


Say it again.

And one more time.

Very good.

Now you might say, “Fr. Ray, why did we just do that?”

We did it because, according to the reading we just heard from Leviticus 13, that’s what lepers are supposed to do.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “The one who bears the sore of leprosy . . . shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’  As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean.  He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”

Perhaps you didn’t realize that you were a leper, since your skin is perfectly healthy (leaving aside a few wrinkles and blemishes here and there!).

Well, the fact is there’s more than one way to be a leper in today’s world.  There are physical lepers who are afflicted with what’s called “Hansen’s Disease”—like the man who was healed by Jesus in today’s gospel story.  But there are also what might be called “social and cultural lepers”: that is to say, people who are marginalized and discriminated against and even sometimes actively persecuted in a particular society.

Well, if you happen to be a devout, sincere Catholic who wants to be free to express and fully practice your Catholic faith in the United States in 2012, then you are, sad to say, one of modern America’s “social and cultural lepers.”

And I would say it’s about time we all faced this reality and started dealing with it.

The reason I’m speaking on this subject today is because of the vicious attack on our religious freedom and conscience rights that was made by the Obama administration last August, and which was reaffirmed just a couple of weeks ago.  Now I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on politically, if you care about your rights as an American citizen—especially the precious right you have to practice the faith of your choice—then this ought to have you upset.  Very upset.

This is a perfect example of how Catholics and other religious people are being treated like lepers these days.

Maybe even worse than lepers.

The problem concerns the new health care bill, known to most people as ObamaCare.  According to the way the law was originally written, Catholic institutions in the very near future will be required to violate the moral teachings of the Church!  There will be no respect, as their always has been in the past, for religious freedom and the rights of conscience.  As Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York said recently in a column he wrote for the Wall Street Journal:  “[The Obama administration] has refused to exempt religious institutions that serve the common good—including Catholic schools, charities and hospitals—from its sweeping new health-care mandate that requires employers to purchase contraception, including abortion-producing drugs, and sterilization coverage for their employees.”

When the administration first proposed this mandate last August, many religious groups (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) voiced their opposition.  Even some people without any faith protested.  As Archbishop Dolan said, these men and women rightly understood that their beliefs could be next “on the block.” 

You see, once one freedom is taken away, others usually follow.

The archbishop (and soon-to-be cardinal) noted in his column that religious freedom is “the lifeblood of the American people, [and] the cornerstone of American government.”  He said, “When the Founding Fathers determined that the innate rights of men and women should be enshrined in our Constitution, they so esteemed religious liberty that they made it the first freedom in the Bill of Rights.”

He went on to quote George Washington and James Madison, both of whom fiercely defended the rights of conscience.  Almost every president has in the past.  As Madison, the author of the First Amendment, said, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.”

Well apparently, according to the current administration, Madison’s words no longer apply to people like us. But I guess that’s what happens to you when you’re a social and cultural leper.

Our own bishop, Thomas Tobin, was even more blunt about the situation in a statement he issued just over a week ago.  He wrote, “The ruthless decision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to impose mandatory coverage for sterilizations and contraceptives upon private insurance programs, including those offered by the Catholic Church, is an unprecedented, outrageous and unacceptable attack on religious freedom and the moral life and ministry of the Church.  In practical terms, the imposition of this mandate could mean that Catholic institutions will no longer be able to provide health insurance for their own employees.”

We need to contact our representatives in Washington to let them know how upset we are about this—and that the president’s “compromise” this past Friday is totally unacceptable, because all it does is mandate that the Church pay for these immoral services indirectly.  In case you missed it, because of the uproar this has caused, the president said on Friday that now the insurance companies, and not the Church herself, will have to pay for abortions and for contraception. 

And how, Mr. President, will these insurance companies get all the extra money they’ll to need to pay for these services?

Answer: By charging higher premiums to the Church.

So the Church will still pay, only indirectly.

The contact information for our representatives, along with Bishop Tobin’s statement on the matter, can be found on an insert in today’s bulletin.  Please take this seriously, my brothers and sisters—and act!  Because if we don’t take this seriously and take appropriate action, you can be sure that our situation as lepers will only get worse. 

I’ll give the final word today to Archbishop Dolan:

“The Catholic Church defends religious liberty, including freedom of conscience, for everyone.  The Amish do not carry health insurance.  The government respects their principles.  Christian Scientists want to heal by prayer alone, and the new health-care reform law respects that.  Quakers and others object to killing even in wartime, and the government respects that principle for conscientious objectors.  By its decision, the Obama administration has failed to show the same respect for the consciences of Catholics and others who object to treating pregnancy as a disease.

‘This latest erosion of our first freedom should make all Americans pause.   When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead.”

Lord Jesus, we pray today for our president and for all those involved with the formation of this unjust policy, that you will touch their minds and hearts with your truth, so that they will come to respect the religious freedom and the conscience rights of every American citizen, and stop treating Catholics like unclean lepers.  Amen.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Job Syndrome

Job after his 'bad day'

(Fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on February 5, 2012, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Job 7: 1-4, 6-7.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday 2012]

You could call it, “The Job Syndrome”—after the man who spoke the words we just heard in today’s first reading.

The Job Syndrome is a very common ailment of the soul, although most people who have it probably don’t realize that they have it.

It typically afflicts you when you’re going through difficult times: for example, when a close friend or relative dies; when you lose your job; when you find out that you or someone you love has a serious illness; when a friend or acquaintance betrays you.

It’s named for the Old Testament figure Job, because he definitely had a very serious case of it, as is clear from this text we heard a few moments ago.

Job, as most of us know, was a man who initially “had it all” when it came to the blessings of this earthly life.  The Bible indicates that had good health, a large, loving family consisting of 7 sons and 3 daughters, lots of sheep and camels and oxen—and he had a great relationship with God to boot!  He was a good, pious, devout, righteous man.

And then he had a bad day—a REALLY BAD DAY—and he lost everything: all his animals were either stolen or killed; all his children died when the house they were in collapsed during a terrible windstorm, and he himself was afflicted with a horrible skin disease in which painful boils appeared all over his body.

For Job, it was a time of intense physical, emotional and spiritual pain.

And he struggled to makes sense of it (as I’m sure we all would in similar circumstances). 

It’s in the midst of that internal struggle that he says those words we heard in our first reading.  Listen to some of them once again:

“Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?  Are not his days those of hirelings?  He is a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages.”

Here we see the first characteristic of people with the Job Syndrome: the tendency to look to the past and see only the bad, the negative, the evil.

Think about it, my brothers and sisters, Job’s life before his “bad day” was not a drudgery!  It was anything but a drudgery!  It was awesome!  It was almost perfect.  He didn’t live like a hireling or a slave back then; he lived like a king!  He experienced a superabundance of graces and favors and blessings from God.  And yet, in the midst of the pain he was in when he spoke these words, all poor Job could remember from the past was the bad, the negative, the evil.

Skip down now a few lines to the words Job says at the very end of the text.  He says, “Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.”

I don’t know about you, but after reading that line, my question is this: How did Job know that?

How did Job know that he would never, ever, ever experience happiness again in his life?

The answer is: He didn’t know that!  He couldn’t possibly have known with absolute certitude that he would be miserable and unhappy for the rest of his life.

(And, of course, he wasn’t—as we find out at the end of the Book of Job.  You’ll have to read it at home to get the details!)

This, then, is the second characteristic of people with the Job Syndrome: the tendency to project the suffering of the present onto the unknown future.

Hopefully you now see why I said at the beginning of my homily that the Job Syndrome is a very common ailment of the soul.

When we suffer, it’s human nature—that is to say fallen human nature—for us to look to the past and get focused on the negative aspects of our lives, and then to look ahead and imagine that the sufferings of the present will always be with us (and perhaps even get a lot worse!).

So, in reality—since we all have our crosses—the Job Syndrome is something we all have to battle against constantly!  I’ve certainly had to fight against it in dealing with Parkinson’s Disease.  How easy it would be for me to fall into a pattern of thought where I begin to look to the past with regret (regret for things I would like to have done but wasn’t able to do) and then look ahead to the future with fear (What will I be like in 10 years?  In 5 years?  In 1 year?  What will my speech be like?  What will my balance be like?  What will my tremor be like?).

We all have issues in our lives that can cause us to think in this way—which is why our relationship with the Lord needs to be our number 1 priority!

Only the grace of God can help us to overcome the Job Syndrome.

I think it’s providential that this gospel text from Mark 1 was also read at today’s Mass.  There Mark tells us that Jesus, after a night of ministering to people, rose early the next morning—before dawn—and went to a deserted place by himself to pray.

Imagine, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the Eternal word made flesh— felt the need to pray!

How much more do we need to?

If we commune with God on a regular basis, he will help us, over time, to do 4 things with respect to our past: number 1, he will help us to be grateful for our past blessings; number 2, he will lead us to repent of our past sins (and he will prompt us to go to Confession to get them taken away); number 3, he will help us to draw positive lessons, even from our negative past experiences; and, number 4, he will help us to “let go” of the rest.

And, with respect to our future, he will help us to trust and to hope: to trust that he will always be with us, that his grace will always be sufficient for us, and that he is always in control (even when things seem out of control!).  And he will help us to keep our eyes, in hope, on the eternal prize that will be ours if we are faithful.

And in the process of all that, he will help us keep the Job Syndrome out of our lives.

So we need to pray—every day.

Let me end this morning on a lighter note (although still on point): As I was preparing this homily for Super Bowl Sunday, I thought of many of the Patriot and Giant fans that I had conversations with during the NFL regular season.  You came to mind, specifically because many of you, I believe, had a form of the “Job Syndrome” with respect to your favorite football teams!  (You see, this ailment is so prevalent that it can even manifest itself in our recreational lives.)

For example, about mid-season I had a number of Patriot fans say to me, “Sure Fr. Ray, the Pats have a great offence, but their defense has been terrible.  Did you see how many yards they gave up in the past 2 or 3 games?” (Notice, there, the first characteristic of the Job Syndrome: focusing on the negative in the past.) Then they’d go on, “And I’m not so sure how well they’ll do in the playoffs this year.  You know, defense usually wins championships and the Patriots defense leaves a lot be desired.” (There you have characteristic number 2: projecting the suffering of the present onto the unknown future.)

And some of you Giant fans were even worse in your assessment of your team and your team’s chances to get to the big game this Sunday.

Well, I’m sure you’re all happy today that you were wrong.

And the good news is that one group of you will still be happy later tonight!

May the best team win.