Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Saints: The “Best” Of The Church, Whose Lives Were Transformed By The Power Of The Holy Spirit

(Pentecost 2012 (B): This homily was given on May 27, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 2: 1-11.)

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

If you were trying to decide whether or not it would be a good idea to apply to a certain college—for example, to my alma mater, PC—how would you proceed?  What would be your thought process?  In other words, how would you judge the value of a Providence College education, and whether it’s worth investing in?  Would you make that judgment based on someone you know who partied from the first day he arrived on campus and who finally flunked out in his junior year?  Or would you make your assessment based on other people you know who graduated from PC with honors and then went on to do great things in the world?

If you were trying to decide whether or not to become a doctor, how would you evaluate the medical profession as a whole?  Would you evaluate it by the bad doctors you know, or by all the good doctors you know?

If you were trying to decide whether or not marriage was a worthy vocation worth pursuing, how would you do it?  Would you focus your attention primarily on the people you know who are in bad, unhappy marriages, or would you focus your attention primarily on the people you know who are in good, solid, happy marriages?

Pretty easy questions, right?

Well, that’s okay; they’re meant to be easy questions—easy questions which illustrate a very important truth: We almost always evaluate things in this life by looking at the best, not the worst.

To properly assess the value of a Providence College education, you need to focus on the best and most intelligent graduates of PC that you know—not on those who flunked out!

To properly evaluate the medical profession, you need to look at the good doctors in your life, not the bad ones.

And to properly assess the goodness and dignity of the vocation of marriage, it’s imperative that you focus your attention first and foremost on those who are living that vocation well, not on those whose marriages are on the rocks.

We almost always evaluate things in this life by looking at the best, not the worst.

But notice I say “almost always.”

That’s because there is at least one institution on planet earth right now which is normally evaluated not by its best members, but by its worst members, its absolute worst members.

And you all belong to it!  It’s called “the Church.”

  • When priests are talked about in secular society, for example, (especially in the media) the focus is almost always on the 4% who are bad, not on the 96% who are good.  Most of the time the 96% don’t even get mentioned!  It’s as if they don’t exist.
  • When the history of the Church is spoken of or written about, the focus is almost always on the terrible sins that some members of the Church have committed over the centuries, and not on the billions and billions of loving acts that the majority of Catholics have performed over the same period of time in the name of Jesus Christ.
  • And when people who have left the Church or given up the practice of their faith want to make their point and justify themselves, what do they say?  They say, “All those Catholics who go to church—they’re all the same; they’re a bunch of phonies; they’re a bunch of hypocrites.”

It’s nice to be loved, isn’t it?

Now, as baptized, believing Catholics I don’t think we should be looking for any kind of special treatment in this regard.  But I do think that we have the right to be judged and evaluated like everyone else is judged and evaluated: by our best representatives, not our worst.

And that’s great, because our best representatives are literally the greatest people who ever lived—the saints!

And who were the saints?

Very simply, the saints were ordinary people—like us—who allowed the Holy Spirit to transform their lives in a radical way.  For them, Pentecost wasn’t simply a liturgical feast that was celebrated once a year; rather, it was an experience they lived throughout the year! 

Just think of the apostles.  Before Pentecost, Peter, for example, was a hot-headed, impulsive coward, who couldn’t even defend Jesus to a servant girl in the high priest’s courtyard on Holy Thursday night.  After Pentecost, as we see in Acts 2 (where today’s first reading is taken from), Peter was—by the power of the Spirit—a level-headed, faith-filled man of incredible conviction and fortitude, who was willing to defend Jesus to anybody, regardless of the consequences.

Thomas went from super-doubter to super-missionary and martyr—by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Before he experienced his own personal Pentecost—beginning on the road to Damascus—Saul of Tarsus was, by his own admission, “a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance” (that’s how he described himself in his first letter to Timothy).  But by the power of the Holy Spirit, he was transformed into the loving St. Paul, who wrote—and who lived—the message of love that we find in 1 Corinthians 13 (that beautiful text that you hear so often at weddings).

Today is a day to invite the Holy Spirit into our lives more fully, to transform us as he transformed these men 2,000 years ago—and as he transformed the many other saints of Church history.

Now you might ask, “Fr. Ray, why do we need a fuller outpouring of the Spirit in our lives?  Haven’t we already received the Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation?”

Well, yes, we have. 

But, lest we forget, the Holy Spirit is God, and God is eternal.  Hence, there’s always more of his life and grace that we can receive—if we desire it and are open to it.

All it takes is a simple and sincere prayer.  Begin it with the words, “Come, Holy Spirit,” and then ask for what you believe you need: a deeper faith, a stronger hope, a more fervent charity—whatever.

And don’t just ask the Spirit today; pray to him often—like the great saints did.

And one final point: Remember to tell your friends who are critical of Catholicism that they should evaluate our religion by the best people in the Church, not the worst; by the people who truly have lived the message the Church proclaims; by the people who have lived their lives in the power of the Holy Spirit: people like the apostles, Blessed Mother Teresa, Catherine of Siena, Blessed John Paul II—and hopefully, someday, you and me.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Lesson From The Ascension Of Jesus And From Les Miserables: Only In Heaven Will We Experience Perfection

(Ascension Thursday 2012: This homily was given on May 17, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 1: 1-14.)

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

I’ll begin by giving some free publicity to David DeAngelis and the Westerly High School Theater Scrapbook Company:

This weekend they are performing Les Miserables—my favorite musical, which is based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name.

I highly recommend that you go.  (I already have my ticket for the matinee performance on Sunday afternoon.)

This is the ‘student edition’ of the show, which I’ve never seen.  But I have seen the full version of Les Miz three times—twice in Toronto and once in Providence—and for me, each of those performances, in addition to being very entertaining, was also a very powerful spiritual experience!

That’s because there are so many profound, gospel-inspired lessons in the story itself, and in the music and lyrics.

Now for the benefit of those who are not familiar with the story, the basic plot centers around a man named Jean Valjean, who lives in France at the beginning of the 19th century.  Valjean spends almost 20 years behind bars doing hard labor on a chain gang. 


For stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her child! 

Well, as you might imagine, he comes out of prison a bitter man: full of anger, hate, and unforgiveness.  And because of the yellow ticket he is forced to carry—which identifies him as a paroled criminal—nobody treats him kindly.  Nobody, that is, except a holy bishop.  The bishop takes Valjean in, feeds him, and gives him a place to sleep.  Valjean responds by running off in the middle of the night with some of the bishop’s silver!  The police catch him (Valjean never was a very good thief) and they bring him back to the bishop.  Well, both the thief and the police are shocked when the bishop says that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift!  He even chastises Valjean for leaving behind part of the present: two valuable silver candlesticks.  The police, of course, are forced to let Valjean go, and so they leave the scene.  At that point the bishop says to Valjean (and here I’m quoting from the musical) . . .

But remember this, my brother

See in this some higher plan;

You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.

By the witness of the martyrs,

By the passion and the blood,

God has raised you out of darkness,

I have bought your soul for God.

At that moment, grace is given to Jean Valjean:  the grace of forgiveness, the grace that Jesus Christ won for him and for all of us by his passion, death and resurrection.  This grace that he didn’t deserve (that nobody deserves) comes to him through this saintly bishop.

And the good news is he responds to this grace by changing his life!  Consequently, for the rest of the story, Jean Valjean becomes a man for others, a man of mercy.  He becomes the mayor of a town, and he serves his people with kindness and compassion.  He befriends a dying prostitute, and raises her daughter as his own child when the prostitute dies.  He doesn’t just “talk the talk” of being a Christian, he also walks the walk—and he’s taken up to heaven at the end of the story to share the fullness of life with his risen Savior.

And this is where the connection with the Ascension of Jesus comes into the picture.  The Ascension of Jesus reminds us of our ultimate destiny, which is heaven.  This life is only for a time; this earth is not our final home.  As the Collect—the opening prayer for this Mass—put it, “Where the Head (that is, Jesus) has gone before in glory, the Body (that is, his Body, the Church) is called to follow in hope.”

And it’s important to remember that only in heaven will we experience perfection: perfect love, perfect happiness, perfect justice, perfect peace and perfect joy.  We will never experience those realities in their fullness here on this earth.

However many people over the centuries have made the mistake of thinking that they could experience those realities in their fullness here!  They’ve thought that they could create a kind of utopia—a heaven on earth—by their own power and according to their own design.

And they’ve ended up very frustrated and extremely unhappy.

In Les Miserables, these people are represented by the students—the idealistic students—who decide to revolt against their oppressive government. 

Their intentions are good; they mean well—but their revolt is a dismal failure.  Almost all of them die in a gun battle with government soldiers at the barricade in the center of the city.

After his conversion, Jean Valjean tried to make the world a better place by living and by loving as Jesus Christ lived and loved—which is exactly what we, as Christians, are called to do.  And he ended up experiencing some happiness in the process—especially through his adopted daughter, Cosette. 

But he didn’t believe for one minute that he could somehow create heaven on earth by his own will and power.

He knew better; he had suffered too much.  He was a Christian realist.

If you go to see Les Miz this weekend, please notice something: notice that all the characters in this story have hopes and dreams—but none of them finds perfect happiness.  Not a single one.  Some, like Valjean, do find a measure of happiness—praise God—but even these characters are “les miserables” (i.e., the wretched ones). 

Happiness (to the extent that we can experience it in this life), comes from keeping our eyes on our goal of heaven, and by living in faith, in hope and in charity.

Just like Jean Valjean.

It’s all summed up beautifully in the final song of the musical, in these words that are sung by the souls welcoming Jean Valjean into heaven.

May they inspire all of us to keep our eyes on the light of God’s kingdom, as we strive to live in faith, hope and love here on earth:

Do you hear the people sing

Lost in the valley of the night

It is the music of a people

Who are climbing to the light

For the wretched of the earth

There is a flame that never dies

Even the darkest night will end

And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom

In the garden of the Lord

They will walk behind the plough-share

They will put away the sword

The chain will be broken

And all men will have their reward!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Powerful, Natural Bond Between A Mother And Her Child

(Sixth Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on May 13, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 15: 9-17.)

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

I remember a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a young mother from the parish.  She was telling me that, when she was pregnant with her second child, she went to see her doctor because she was convinced there was something wrong with her baby.  She wasn’t experiencing any glaring symptoms; it was just a feeling—a sense—she had.

The doctor probably thought she was overreacting, but he decided to order some of the standard, pre-natal tests for her anyway—all of which showed nothing.

But the woman wasn’t satisfied.  She kept pressing the physician.  Finally he ordered a specialized test, and, sure enough, they discovered that the baby had severely enlarged kidneys.

The doctor then asked the woman if she would consider an abortion.  At that point the baby was already five months old.  The woman told me she was shocked to find out that abortion was an option that late in a pregnancy (I told her that it’s legal in our country for all nine months—and it has been since 1973.)

To her credit, she got upset with the doctor and told him, “No, I would never do that!”

And, happily, four months later, she delivered a healthy baby girl into the world—and had her baptized here at St. Pius!

I tell this story on this Mother’s Day, not to focus on the abortion part of it (although that is certainly noteworthy!); rather, I tell this story because it illustrates in a powerful way how deep the natural bond is between a mother and her child—even when that child is still in the womb!


This young mother discerned that there was something wrong with her baby—even though all the initial tests said otherwise!

She knew it intuitively!

By the way, how can people in the pro-choice movement have the audacity to maintain that abortion does not harm women?

What a lie!!!

Even if the mother doesn’t want the child, this bond which is there by natureby God’s design—gets violently severed!

And that has to hurt emotionally and spiritually, unless the mother is hard-hearted or in total denial.

This is why Rachel’s Vineyard retreats and other such events are so important and such a blessing: they help to heal that gaping wound in post-abortive women.

Praise God.

(I should add that if you want more information on these retreats (or know someone who might), go to our new parish website and consult our parish handbook.)

The love that Jesus describes in today’s gospel text from John 15 is the kind of love that many of us were blessed to experience through our mothers, even before we were born.  This is real love—the love of Jesus himself—the love he witnessed to in his own earthly life, and especially in his passion and death.

Notice that Jesus says here, “Love one another as I love you.”  That’s a very important qualifying phrase at the end of the sentence: “as I love you.”  In today’s world, as we all know, love means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.  For some, sad to say, it’s just become a synonym for sex.  

St. Thomas Aquinas defined love based on Jesus’ teaching here in John 15 and other places in the New Testament.  Aquinas said that to love is to desire the good for another person—which definitely describes Jesus’ attitude toward us.  Jesus came to this earth, and suffered and died on that cross, because he desired the good—the ultimate good—for every human being, namely, eternal life!

In this regard, his love was absolutely, positively selfless.  All real love is.  He suffered and died for us, not for himself.  In fact, Jesus never thought of himself first.

Neither do good mothers.  Good mothers always put the needs of their children before their own.

This is what motivated that young mother to continue to press her doctor about the condition of her unborn child.  She didn’t care if he thought she was crazy; her one and only concern was for the welfare of her daughter in the womb!

Jesus’ love was also patient.  Just think of how patient he had to be—and was—with his own apostles.

Good mothers are also patient.  Mine sure was with me—and I know I tried her patience a lot!

Jesus’ love was also forgiving: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Good mothers will often forgive their children when almost nobody else will.

I think this is one reason, incidentally, why we refer to the Church as our “Mother”.  It’s because through the sacrament of Confession she will forgive us for anything.  Literally, anything!

And, above all else, Jesus’ love was self-sacrificial.  As we heard him say in today’s gospel, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  The best visual definition of love is the one hanging on the back wall of our sanctuary: the cross!

Now I haven’t done a scientific survey on this, but every mother I’ve ever talked to about this issue has told me in no uncertain terms that she would be willing to die for her children if she had to.

No questions asked.

And I believe these women. 

But this really should not surprise us—given that very special bond that a mother has with her child by natureby God’s design—even before birth.

Now it’s true—not every mother does in fact love her children with the selfless, patient, forgiving, self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.  For those mothers we pray a prayer of petition at this Mass: a prayer that they will allow Jesus Christ into their hearts and experience a real transformation in their lives, both for their own sakes and for the sake of their children.

But for the rest—for those mothers, living and deceased, who have faithfully witnessed to Christ’s love in their motherhood—we, your children, offer a special prayer of thanksgiving at this Mass: We thank the Lord from the bottom of our hearts for your presence in our lives, and we ask Almighty God to reward you—here and in eternity—for all you have done for us.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

How to Stay Connected—to Jesus

(Fifth Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on May 6, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 9: 26-31; 1 John 3: 18-24; John 15: 1-8.)

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

This homily is about “staying connected.”

Now this is a topic that should be of interest to most of us, because this is precisely what most people in the modern world spend most of their waking hours trying to do!

We live in an age of what’s commonly called “social media”.  The term “social media” includes things like Facebook and Twitter and regular old email, the primary purpose of which is to help people stay connected to each other.

However, the sad irony is it doesn’t seem to be working!  In fact, generally speaking, it all seems to be having the exact opposite effect!  It’s appears that the more social media options we have—and use—the more distant we tend to get from one another.

Our social media are leading many of us to social isolation.  “Interfacing” has become a common substitute for “people-facing”!  Now don’t get me wrong, interfacing isn’t bad in and of itself—I, for example, email people throughout the day; it’s become a very important part of my priestly ministry.  But this kind of thing does become a problem when it almost totally replaces person-to-person contact and interaction!

Telling 10,000 people through Twitter that you’re about to take a bath is not the same as actually having a conversation with another human being!

To really “stay connected” with other people, we need to go beyond the kind of interaction we get through the social media.

And, believe it or not, something similar is true of our relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our Lord calls himself “the vine” in today’s gospel text from John 15, and he refers to all of us as “the branches.”  That’s not a coincidence.  The branches need the vine to live: we need Jesus Christ and his saving grace to live eternally.  But we also need the Lord for everything else in life—even for things that we would normally call “natural”.  As Jesus says here, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”  And, as St. Paul reminded the Athenians, in God “we live and move and have our being.”

So a relationship with Jesus can’t be optional; at least it can’t be optional if we want to reach our ultimate goal of heaven, and if we want to live this earthly life to the fullest.

Now most Catholics and other Christians will readily acknowledge this.  They’ll have no problem admitting that having a relationship with Jesus and “staying connected” to him is essential.

The problem comes in actually building that relationship and sustaining it!  Well here’s where the analogy of the vine and the branches—and the analogy of the modern social media—become very helpful.

As I just said, Jesus makes the point here that our relationship with him is like the relationship of branches to a vine.  Well, as every gardener will tell you, for a branch to remain on a vine—and flourish—and produce a lot of fruit—two things have got to happen:

1.      The branch has to avoid being cut off; or, if it does get cut off for some reason, it has to get grafted back on

2.      It has to get enough nourishment

And that’s precisely the way it is in the spiritual life.  Branches (that is to say, people) who produce great fruit for Jesus Christ are people who, first of all, don’t allow themselves to get cut off from the Lord through mortal sin (or, who, if they do get cut off, get “grafted on” again as soon as possible by making a good confession). 

Believe me, nothing pleases the devil more than when we either ignore or deny the serious sins in our lives—because the devil knows that those sins sever us from Jesus, the vine!  And think of how often this happens today!  Serious sins like hatred, adultery, fornication, self-abuse, artificial birth control, homosexual activity—even missing Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation: these are now socially-acceptable sins that are committed a lot more than they’re confessed.

But avoiding and/or dealing with mortal sin is only half the story.  As Christian “branches” on the vine of Jesus Christ we also need nourishment (just like branches in nature need nourishment).  This is where prayer comes into the picture, and it’s also where we can learn a few lessons from the analogy with today’s social media.

I think it’s safe to say that many Christians do send “tweet-style prayers” or “text message-style prayers” up to Jesus every day.  You know what I mean . . . the quick one-liners: “Jesus, help me!”  “Jesus, heal me.”  “Jesus, give me strength!”  “Jesus, get me out of this mess and I’ll never do anything bad for the rest of my life!”

Now there’s nothing wrong with prayers like this.  In fact, many of the great saints have spoken about the importance of talking to God throughout the day in precisely this way—especially by praising him and thanking him and professing our love for him.

But if that’s as far as it goes, our relationship with Jesus won’t amount to very much.  Common sense should tell us that.  Think about it: if all you did was tweet and text-message a particular friend, without ever having a more extensive conversation with that person, how deep or strong would your friendship be?

They might know what time you took a bath every day, but that’s about it!

“Staying connected” to our earthly friends requires more than tweeting and texting.

And so does staying connected to Jesus, the heavenly vine.

But fear not, my brothers and sisters, as Catholics we have all kinds of opportunities to do this.  They’re actually built into the very fabric of our religion.  For example, I don’t know about you, but I really enjoy eating with my earthly friends as often as I can.  Well, as Catholics we have the opportunity to “dine” with Jesus at least once a week here at Mass in order to intensify our connection to him.  Perhaps you’ve never thought of Mass as “dinner with Jesus”—but in a very real sense that’s what it is!

And he himself is our food!

I also like to call my friends on the phone and have conversations with them that are a lot longer and deeper than “tweets”.  Doing that makes our friendships stronger.  Well the same applies to our friendship with Jesus.  This is why we need to have a regular prayer time every day that goes beyond those one-liner prayers. 

(I would say at least 15 minutes.)

But face to face contact with our friends is always the best, right? 

Well, in a certain sense, isn’t that precisely what Adoration is?  As one man put it, “When I go to Eucharistic Adoration I look at Jesus and he looks at me.”

There’s a lot of truth in that statement.

Finally, there’s the importance of our Christian friends in helping us stay connected to Jesus. 

Hopefully we all have Catholic, Christian friends.

Here’s an interesting question: What would have happened to Saul of Tarsus without his good friend, Barnabas?  As we heard in today’s first reading, the Christians in Jerusalem wanted nothing to do with Saul, even after his conversion!  They didn’t trust him; they didn’t believe that he had really converted!

Only with Barnabas’ help did all of that change.  He talked to the apostles and somehow convinced them that Saul’s conversion was genuine.

Without Barnabas, Saul of Tarsus might never have become St. Paul!

So the bottom line is this: We live in a world where it’s very hard to stay connected.  It’s hard to stay connected to our friends and to develop strong relationships with them (even with all our social media), and it’s even harder to stay connected to Jesus and to develop a strong relationship with him.  But the good news is that both of those things are possible, if we work at them.

Every day.