Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mary’s Ultimate Destiny—and Ours!

Timothy Hutton and Kelly McGillis in the film "Made in Heaven"

(Solemnity of the Assumption 2013: This homily was given on August 15, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Revelation 11:19a; 12: 1-10; Luke 1: 39-56.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Assumption 2013]


The other night I watched a movie on TV entitled, “Made in Heaven.”  It was a 1987 film that starred Timothy Hutton and Kelly McGillis.  Hutton plays a young man named Mike Shea, who drowns as he’s helping a woman and her children escape from their car, which has just gone off the road and into a river.

I watched this movie for a specific reason.  I wanted to see exactly how heaven was portrayed in it.  So often these days, in movies and in novels and on television programs and in popular songs, God’s eternal kingdom is depicted in a very strange way.  Hopefully you’ve noticed.  It’s depicted as being almost exactly like earth!  Life in heaven is portrayed as being almost exactly like life here—sometimes even including the presence of sin and other imperfections! 

And that, I’m sorry to say, turned out to be the way it was in this particular film.  In fact, heaven in this movie was pretty much a place where souls went after death while they waited to be reincarnated back on earth!  It was not a place where people lived eternally and joyfully in God’s loving presence.  (Now, just in case anyone here is not clear on the matter, we as Catholics do not believe in reincarnation!  As Hebrews 9: 27 reminds us, we each die ONE TIME, and after death we are judged.  There are no “second-times-around” or “do-overs” with respect to this earthly existence—which is why we need to “get it right” the first time!)

This film also portrayed heaven as a place where bad language and fornication are allowed—along with almost every other sin (with the exception, I suppose, of murder.  Murder, after all, would be impossible, simply because all the people in heaven are already dead!)

Today we celebrate the feast of Mary’s Assumption into heaven—the REAL heaven!  This teaching of the Church, which was officially promulgated in 1950 but is part of the Deposit of Faith that goes back to the Apostles, reads as follows: “ . . . the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.”

Mary’s Assumption reminds us of our ultimate destiny at the end of time—if we leave this life in the state of grace.  When we physically die our souls are separated from our bodies, and they go either to heaven, hell or purgatory.  But even those people whose souls go to heaven directly (or who go to heaven after passing through purgatory) will be without their bodies until the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.  But when Mary’s earthly life was over, her body and soul were not separated; rather, they were assumed—taken—by God, into heaven.  One of the pieces of evidence we have for this is that, in the early Church, no one ever claimed to have relics of the Blessed Mother!  No one ever claimed to have relics from her earthly body, because there were no relics from her body to be had!

Her body was already glorified and in heaven. 

So the bottom line is this: In anticipation of what will happen to all the saints at the end of time (and that includes, hopefully, you and me), Mary has already entered the kingdom of heaven soul AND body!

That’s what the feast of the Assumption is all about.

This means that the life of heaven will ultimately involve our entire being (our soul and our body—our resurrected body), and will be far greater than anything we can or will experience here on this earth!  For those who are blessed to enter it, heaven will be a place of perfection—absolute perfection: a place where death (and everything that goes along with death, such as sickness and suffering) gets “swallowed up in victory” (to coin a phrase from St. Paul).

Even if there were such a thing as reincarnation, the fact is that people who are in heaven—the real heaven—would reject it!  They’d want no part of it!  I mean, why would they want to trade a life of absolute perfection for a life back in this “valley of tears”?

I sure wouldn’t!

St. Paul indicates in 2 Corinthians 12 that he once had a profound spiritual experience in which he had a brief glimpse of heaven.  (That, by the way, is the most anyone ever gets on this side of the grave: a brief, veiled glimpse of heaven.  Paul had one.  I’m not so sure about Dr. Eben Alexander, who spoke in Westerly this week.  I recently read his book, and I have some questions about his experience.)

St. Paul, who had that incredible experience, also wrote these words: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Please keep that truth in mind the next time you see a movie, or read a book, or hear a song about heaven.  As soon as we begin to imagine God’s eternal kingdom with our finite human minds, we fall short.  (And sometimes, as was the case with the movie I saw the other night, “Made in Heaven,” we fall really short!)  Yes, it’s true, the Bible compares heaven to earthly things like a wedding banquet and a beautiful city, but we need to understand that these are just images that God gives us in his word, because they’re things we can relate to and comprehend.

However, the reality of heaven is much, much greater—as Paul reminds us in that text I read a few moments ago.  

This is why staying close to God through the sacraments—and especially through Confession and the Eucharist—is so important.  There’s an awful lot at stake in this life—so we need to get it right the first time around, because it’s our ONLY time around!

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.  Pray for us today and every day.  Pray that we will follow your example of faithfulness and holiness here on this earth, so that we will someday follow you—body and soul—into the real and eternal kingdom of heaven.  Amen.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

To Live a Fully Human Life You Need Faith—Even if you’re an Atheist!

An act of faith

(Nineteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 11, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Hebrews 11: 1-2, 11-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Nineteenth Sunday 2013]

There once was a poor boy who had no shoes.  A neighbor of his who was an atheist saw him praying one day and immediately made fun of him.  He said to the boy, “You pray so much.  If God really existed, he would tell somebody to buy you a pair of shoes.”  The boy replied, “I’m sure God does—but they don’t listen.”

That little boy, in some ways at least, demonstrated a very mature, adult faith in his response to that atheist!  He obviously believes that there is a God; but he also believes that God always hears—and always responds to—his prayers.  He has faith that when he turns to the Lord with a request, the Lord answers him by pouring forth his grace.  He’s convinced that whenever he prays God always does something, even if it’s not exactly what he wants the Lord to do.  He also understands that we human beings can say no to God’s grace—and sometimes do—such that God’s will is not accomplished in every situation of life.

Now I’m sure that the atheist neighbor thought this boy was foolish for believing all these things, since the boy couldn’t demonstrate them empirically or prove them scientifically.

Of course, neither could the atheist do that for most of what he believes in his life!  He probably wouldn’t admit this—most atheists probably wouldn’t—but it’s true nonetheless.

You see, my brothers and sisters, as ironic as it might sound, every atheist is actually a person of faith.  Deep faith!  He can’t scientifically prove that there isn’t a God any more than a believer can scientifically demonstrate that there is.  He can only have FAITH that God does not exist—which actually presents him with a major problem, namely, explaining how something can come from nothing!  Matter exists; I exist; the world exists—and all of this constitutes “something”.  As a religious believer, I say that this “something” came from something else—really Someone else—namely, God.

But an atheist says that there is no God.  So where did this “something” come from?  I’ve never seen something—anything—come from nothing.  Yet that’s what an atheist ultimately believes about creation. 

And if he says he believes in the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe that doesn’t solve his problem, even though he might think it does.  The Big Bang Theory says that 12-14 billion years ago the universe as we know it expanded from a tiny speck of matter after a huge cosmic explosion.  Okay.  So where did that “tiny speck of matter” come from?  If that speck was like a bomb, then who or what made it?  And who or what lit the fuse?  And who or what designed the blueprint for the explosion?

Did it come from nothing?  But how does something come from nothing?  Where is the scientific evidence that such a thing could—and actually did—happen?

But the faith of an atheist even goes beyond this.  In fact, it touches almost every area of his life.  Today’s second reading from Hebrews 11, which we heard a few moments ago, is all about faith (specifically about the faith of Old Testament saints like Abraham and Sarah), and it begins with these famous words: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for, and evidence of things not seen.”

Now what’s interesting about that definition is that it applies to every human person, not just to religious believers like you and me!

Every single human person has things that they hope for; and every single human person has things in their life that they believe in but do not see.

And that includes atheists!

Atheists and religious skeptics often talk about faith as if it were something that’s totally foreign to them, something that they completely reject in their lives.

But the truth of the matter is that they live by faith every day!

And so do we.

Those of you, for example, who are parents of young children—when you put your children on a bus in the morning to send them to school, you exercise faith.  You exercise faith whether you believe in God or not!  You have faith that your children will be safe in the hands of the bus driver.  You have faith that they will be well taken care of by the faculty and administration at the school.  You have faith that the teachers will teach them the right things in their classes.

You don’t know with absolute certitude that they’ll be safe, or well taken care of, or taught the truth; you can’t scientifically demonstrate any of those things.  But you put your children on the bus anyway, because you trust and have faith in all the people I just mentioned who are associated with the school.

Or how about eating at a restaurant (something that many of us do quite frequently—including atheists!)?  How do you know with absolute certitude that the food the waitress brings you on a given day is good and fresh and healthy?  How do you know that it’s not laced with arsenic or some other poison?  Unless you bring some kind of “food testing machine” into the place—and test everything on your plate—you don’t know those things.  Once again, you have to exercise faith.

Ever sit in a history class at school?  How do you know that all those historical figures you hear about really existed?  How do you know that they really did the things your history book says they did?  Did you know all these people?  Did you ever have a personal conversation, for example, with George Washington or Julius Caesar?  I know I never have!  But when I took history courses I do know I had faith: faith that at least most of what I was hearing and reading about these people was accurate.

Or how about science?  Scientists who are atheists will tell you that they only believe what they empirically verify for themselves.  But every scientist I’ve ever known has accepted as true the discoveries of other scientists—things that they themselves have not experimentally verified.  They put their faith in what those other scientists have written and said—and they do that without giving it a second thought. 

Most of you will leave church today in a car.  As you drive down Elm St. or Cross St. after Mass, I ask you to notice the cars coming toward you in the opposite direction.  Do you know with absolute certitude that none of those cars will swerve into your lane and hit you head-on?

No, you don’t.  The fact is it could happen.

But you have faith that it won’t!  And if you don’t have that kind of faith, you won’t go anywhere after Mass today (at least you won’t go anywhere in a motorized vehicle!).  You’ll leave your car out there in the parking lot until it rots, or until I get tired of looking at it and have it towed away.

Even in our relationships of love, we operate, for the most part, on faith.  Is there someone in your life who has said to you the beautiful words, “I love you”?

I hope so.

Well, how did you know with absolute certitude that what they said to you was true?

The answer is you didn’t!

They could have been lying; they could have said those words, “I love you,” in order to manipulate you in some way (that kind of thing happens all the time, unfortunately).

If you believed what they said, then you had faith that the person was actually telling you with his or her lips what was truly in his or her heart.

My point in this homily is simple: to live a fully human life, you need faith—even if you’re an atheist.  But your life will be incomplete and without ultimate meaning if you don’t have faith in the one, true God.  As St. Augustine put it, “Oh Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

So the next time you’re having a conversation with an atheist (and, if you believe the news polls, that’s an experience which is becoming more and more common for believers these days), try to get him to recognize the fact that he already lives his life by a certain kind faith.  Then share with him the reasons for your faith in the one, true God and his Son, Jesus Christ.  Just as we have reasons for our faith in the school bus driver and the restaurant cook and the people who say they love us, so too we should have reasons—good, rational, solid reasons—for our belief in God.

And then pray: pray that your unbelieving friend will be touched by God’s grace and take your words to heart, so that his life of faith will expand to include religious faith: faith in the God worshipped by Abraham, and by Sarah—and by us!

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Contemporary Culture of Lying

The Royal "Baby" and his parents.

(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 4, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ecclesiastes 1: 2; 2: 21-23; Colossians 3: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 12: 13-21.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Eighteenth Sunday 2013]


“When Is a Royal Baby a Fetus?”

That was the title of an article that I came across the other day on the website of the people who produce The Atlantic magazine.

It was written by Owen Strachan not long after the most important news event of the year (at least it was the most important news event to many in the mainstream media).  I’m talking, of course, about the birth of Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, the son of “Bill and Kate” (a.k.a. Prince William and Kate Middleton).

Now the reason I mention this today is because in his piece Strachan focused on a very strange phenomenon surrounding the little Prince’s birth, namely, how the secular press referred to the royal infant before he was born.  Normally the pro-choice members of the news media (who are clearly in the majority) refer to an unborn child as a “fetus,” not a baby—and they adamantly refuse to do otherwise.  As Strachan noted,


Countless media reports [in recent weeks] bore news about the “royal baby.”
Why was this noteworthy?  Because this term, to get exegetical for a moment, was not used to describe the future state of the child--once born and outside of the womb, that is.  No, the American media used this phrase “royal baby” to describe the pre-born infant.  It’s not strange for leading pro-life thinkers like Eric Metaxas and Denny Burk to refer to a fetus as a “baby.”   It's not strange, either, for people to refer to a child they're expecting as a "baby," regardless of where they stand on the issue of abortion.  It is strange, though, for outlets like the
New York Times and the Washington Post and Boston Globe--which purport to be neutral on the issue--to use this seemingly explosive phrase without so much as a qualification.  And why is this strange?  Because it codes a pro-life position into their description of the unborn child.


Of course, those news organizations are anything but pro-life, which was precisely Strachan’s point!  As he said a little later in the article:


In both the mainstream media and the pro-abortion movement, fetuses are future humans being knit together in a woman’s body.  They are not humans while in the womb.  To kill them is not to kill a human, but something not-yet human.
How strange was it, then, that leading news sources referred to the fetus of William and Kate as the “royal baby.” There were no pre-birth headlines from serious journalistic sources like “Royal Clump of Cells Eagerly Anticipated” or “Imperial Seed Soon to Sprout.”  None of the web’s traffic-hoarding empires ran “Subhuman Royal Fetus Soon to Become Human!”  No, over and over again, one after another, from the top of the media food chain to the bottom, Kate’s “fetus” was called, simply and pre-committedly, a baby.  Why was this?  Because, as I see it, the royal baby
was a baby before birth.  The media was right; gloriously, happily right.


Yes, that’s correct; the media, in this instance, did tell the truth.  But do you know what that means, my brothers and sisters?  THAT MEANS THAT 99.999% OF THE TIME THEY LIE TO US!!!

Which would lead St. Paul to say—in the words of today’s second reading from Colossians 3—“Stop lying to one another!”

And how about the other abortion-related lie that’s been in the news lately concerning the new Texas law—a law which is designed, primarily, to protect the health of women?  Don’t pro-choicers tell us all the time that what they’re most concerned about is protecting a woman’s health?  Well apparently they lie about that concern, because aside from banning abortions after 20 weeks, the chief purpose of this new Texas law is to require higher safety standards in abortion clinics. 

You would think that pro-choicers would be ecstatic about that—but they’re not.  They’re much more concerned about having abortion available, even if it’s in a filthy, unsanitary clinic like the one Kermit Gosnell, the convicted murderer, ran for decades in Philadelphia.

Young Michael Najim, long before he was Fr. Michael Najim, used to give talks to Confirmation classes in which he often said to his fellow high school students, “We are the most lied-to generation ever.”

That was back in the early 1990s.  Well that’s no longer true.  What’s now true is that THIS PRESENT generation is the most lied-to generation ever!

And it’s that way largely because of the media, and because of the expanded means of communication that we have in our modern world.  Let’s face it, in generations past if you wanted to get a lie into the minds of a lot of people, it was pretty difficult. You had to work really hard at it—especially before the advent of television and radio.  Now, however, you can literally tell a lie to millions of people all over the world in less than a second!  You can “tweet it” or “text it” or “blog it” or “Facebook it”—and it’s out there for almost everyone to see!

The technologically-driven lies that are with us right now are many and varied, but some of them we hear constantly:  fetuses are not truly human; human life does not begin at conception; science and religion are incompatible enemies; marriage is something other than a relationship between one man and one woman; marriage has little or nothing to do with having and raising children; sex is a recreational sport with few or no serious consequences. 

That last one, by the way, is pretty much the message of the movie that just came out, called “The To Do List.”  Have you heard about it?  As one film reviewer put it, the main character in the story “loses her virginity to a guy who really doesn’t know her and definitely doesn’t love her, and then she . . .  packs up her things and goes to college, un-traumatized and un-stricken by tragic regret.”

What a lovely family film.

Is it any wonder that some of our young people have such a difficult time telling the truth?  They hear so many lies every day, and then they hear about (and sometimes encounter) adults who are living various lies—athletes, for example, who are caught using steroids after claiming for years that they were “clean”; politicians who lie about where they stand on certain issues, and about their faithfulness to their spouses in their marriages; even members of the clergy who lie about their faithfulness to the moral teachings they claim to believe. 

So much of what our young people have to deal with every day encourages them to be untruthful.

I’m not making excuses for them; I’m simply saying that this is the reality of where we’re at in our culture right now.

Can it change?

Of course it can! 

But the spirit of lying will not be eliminated (or even diminished) unless each of us makes the effort to kill it in our life by being truthful!  Notice what St. Paul says in this text.  He says, “Put to death the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.  Stop lying to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.”

None of this evil stuff goes away magically.  (That’s the key point that Paul is making here.)  By the grace that comes to us through faith and the sacraments, we have to actively and willfully KILL these evil realities in our lives, or they will continue to live within us!  We “kill” sin, of course, by choosing to be virtuous.  For example, we kill immorality by choosing to be moral; we kill impurity by choosing to be pure; and we kill lying by choosing to be truthful—even when we’re tempted not to be (and, let’s be honest about it, from time to time we all are tempted not to be!).

I’ll leave you today with the words of our new Holy Father, Pope Francis.  In one of his talks at World Youth Day last week, he told the young people to “rebel”.  He said, “Rebel—against this culture!”

And that’s exactly what we have to do.  We have to rebel against this “culture of lying” that we’re presently living in.

May God help each of us to do that, today and everyday.