Thursday, May 29, 2014

What Jesus Left Behind At His Ascension

(Ascension Thursday 2014: This homily was given on May 29, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 1: 1-14; Ephesians 1: 17-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ascension 2014]

What’s important about the Ascension is not only that Jesus left; what’s also important about the Ascension is what Jesus left behind: what he left behind when he left.

Hopefully you were able to follow that.

For forty days after the Resurrection Jesus appeared in his risen body to many people.  St. Paul makes a partial list of them in 1 Corinthians 15.  There he says:

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas [that’s Peter], then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

And then came Ascension Thursday, when our Lord ascended to heaven, took his seat at the right hand of the Father to complete the work of our redemption—and then stopped appearing in his risen body to his friends here on earth.  (At least he stopped appearing on a regular basis.)

In that sense, he left.

But when he left, he left some very important things behind.

First of all, he left HIS TRUTH (the truth of his Gospel), and he left HIS CHURCH—which he had established on the “Rock” of St. Peter—to guard and to defend and to proclaim that saving truth to all the world!

Do you believe that?

I’m sure most of you do—or you wouldn’t be here for this holy day Mass.

But the sad reality is that many people today—especially in the hedonistic and materialistic western world—don’t believe that.  They openly reject Jesus and his Gospel—even if they were born and raised Catholic!

A perfect example of this was given to us recently by Fr. Richard Lifrak.  Fr. Richard preached at all our Sunday Masses a few weeks ago, to seek financial support for the missionary work of his religious order.  

His personal conversion story was very interesting: he was born Jewish; in adulthood he became a biologist and what he refers to as a “scientific atheist”; he dabbled in Zen Buddhism for a while; and then—finally—he was converted to Catholicism and eventually discerned a vocation to the priesthood.

But the reason I mention him today is not because of his conversion story; it’s because of where he told us that he served recently as a missionary, and where he intends to serve as a missionary again in the near future: Belgium.


I hope you realize, my brothers and sisters, that if a missionary priest had come to St. Pius 50 years ago and had said, “I have been engaged in some very challenging work as a missionary in Belgium,” he would have been laughed out of this church!

Those in the know would have said to him, “With all due respect, Father, you can’t be serious.  Belgium?  Belgium is one of the most Catholic countries in all of Europe.  It’s the home of the great Catholic University of Louvain—where Bishop Sheen got his doctorate in philosophy.  It’s not a mission country like some of the third world nations of Africa and South America.  You say you’re a ‘missionary’ in Belgium?  Well then you must have the easiest job in the world!”

Oh, how things have changed!

At the present time Belgium is one of the most anti-Catholic countries out there!  I read the other day that only 5 percent of the Catholics in that nation go to Mass regularly.

5 percent!

Here’s how bad it is in Belgium: In February of this year, the Belgian Parliament passed a law that allows children to be euthanized.  Belgium became the first nation ever to do that!  This means that if your 5-year-old son has a serious illness and decides that he wants to end his life, Belgian law now permits him to do so.  And you as a parent have absolutely nothing to say about it.  Oh yes, by the way, the vote in Parliament was 86 to 44—which means it wasn’t even close!

Fr. Lifrak has his work cut out for him.  I’m sure he’d rather be in a poor, third world country where people are really hungry for God, as opposed to being in the midst of a lot of proud, arrogant, wealthy people in a beautiful country like Belgium who think that they know more than God knows—or who think that they don’t need the Lord at all in their lives.

Jesus left behind his truth and his Church precisely because we don’t know everything, and because without these things (his truth and his Church) we are lost—as so many people in Belgium and in the western, industrialized world are now lost.

But even when we know the truth and believe in the truth that the Church teaches, it’s still very hard to be faithful to it in our daily lives—which is why Jesus at his Ascension also left behind THE SACRAMENTS.  

For example, he left behind the sacrament of the Eucharist to give us the power to live his Gospel, and he left behind the sacrament of Confession to get us back on track whenever we fail to live it as we should.

Hopefully we take advantage of BOTH those sacraments as often as possible.

And the availability of these sacraments gives us HOPE which is one of the most important and necessary things that Jesus left behind for us at his Ascension.

Without the hope of eternal life which flows from the resurrection of Jesus Christ, this life has no ultimate meaning.  We’re just here to “do some time”—and then we die!

St. Paul knew how important the gift of hope was for us, which is why he said these words to the Ephesians (which we heard a few moments ago in our second reading):

“May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him.  May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the HOPE that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones.”

I’ll end my homily now as I began it, by saying that what’s important about the Ascension is not only that Jesus left; what’s also important about the Ascension is what Jesus left behind.

I’ve highlighted some of those “left behind” realities for you this morning.

The bottom line is this: Jesus Christ at his Ascension left behind for us on this earth EVERYTHING THAT WE NEED!   He left behind everything that we need to deal with our difficulties and our sins; he left behind everything that we need to navigate our way successfully through this mortal life and into his eternal kingdom of heaven.

And for that we should thank him—profusely!—at this Ascension Thursday Mass.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The “small g, small s” good shepherds of life.

Pope St. John Paul II's tomb in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on May 11, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Peter 2: 20-25; John 10: 1-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2014]

There is only one Good Shepherd (that’s Good Shepherd with a “capital G” and a “capital S”)—but there are many good shepherds (“small g, small s”) through whom he shepherds his flock.

And when you encounter three of them at the very same time—three of them who have shepherded you personally—it can be a very powerful experience.

Which is precisely the way it was for me this past Wednesday during the pilgrimage that I was on in Italy with 28 other people—most of them from our community here in Westerly.

We began in Assisi on April 30.  We then went to Siena, where St. Catherine was born.  We also went to the monastery where St. Padre Pio lived in San Giovanni Rotondo; we saw the famous Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano, where the bread and wine visibly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ (a miracle which has been verified in recent years by scientific analysis); we went to the Abbey of Monte Cassino, which was established by St. Benedict; and, of course, we went to Rome for a papal audience and for a tour of the 4 major basilicas and some of the catacombs.

But, without question, the personal highlight for me occurred this past Wednesday, the day before we left, when I had the awesome privilege of celebrating a Mass (along with Fr. Brian Sistare and Fr. Mike Rogers) for our group at the altar which is built directly over the tomb of St. John Paul II.

It was early in the morning (7:15); St. Peter's Basilica was almost empty—the basilica that probably 10,000 people (no exaggeration) would pass through later in the day.  And I was overwhelmed.  In fact, after I reverenced the altar with Fr. Brian and Fr. Mike and turned around to everyone to begin the Mass, I had to stop—because as I looked out my eyes were immediately drawn to the opposite side of the near-empty basilica, to the altar under which another pope is buried: our own patron saint, Pius X.

So here I was in the presence of three good shepherds (“small g, small s”) who have taught me how to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd in my life (that’s Good Shepherd with a capital G and a capital S). 

Jesus makes it clear in today’s gospel that his true disciples—his true sheep—know how to recognize his voice.  But those sheep do not learn to distinguish the true voice of Jesus from the many counterfeit voices of Christ out there in the world unless other good shepherds (“small g, small s”) teach them how to do it.

Well, at that Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica the other day I felt a special bond—a special closeness—to three of the most important “small g, small s” good shepherds in my life: to St. John Paul II, who for 26 years taught me the Faith with clarity and conviction, and who is now teaching me how to carry the cross of Parkinson’s Disease (I pray I keep learning the lessons!); to St. Pius X, who by his devotion to the Eucharist and by his love for young people has been a tremendous inspiration for me in my priestly ministry; and to St. Peter himself, who has taught me that Almighty God can do the most extraordinary things through the most ordinary people; and who has also taught me what perseverance is all about!  

Through St. Peter I have learned that I must never give up in my relationship with Christ, even when I fail him.  Providentially, today’s second reading contains an encouraging word to us about perseverance from our very first pope.  Peter says there, “If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.”

Yes, it can be overwhelming (to say the least!) when you encounter three of the most powerful “small g, small s” shepherds of your life at the very same time.

And so it was for me last Wednesday morning.  It was a moment—it was a Mass—that I will never forget.


If you are a true follower of Jesus Christ, you also have had shepherds like this in your life.  And you still do.  Some of your personal shepherds (small s) may also be popes, and bishops, and priests.

And that’s great.  In fact, that’s the way it should be—since these men are the official teachers and guardians of the Gospel.  But some of your personal shepherds—perhaps many and even most of them—may be ordinary lay people who love the Lord, who embrace the fullness of God’s revealed truth themselves, and who have taught you by their words (and even more importantly by their deeds) how to live your Catholic faith.

On this Mother’s Day, we thank the Lord in a special way for all those mothers and grandmothers out there in the world who have shepherded their families in this way by their teaching and by their sacrificial love. 

I was certainly blessed with a mom like that, as many of you were—and as some of you still are.

On that note, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, recently wrote about the powerful, shepherding influence that his grandmother had upon him in the days of his youth.  Once again this week, I’ll give the last word of my Sunday homily to him.  The Holy Father said:

I had the great blessing of growing up in a family in which faith was lived in a simple, practical way.  However, it was my paternal grandmother, in particular, who influenced my journey of faith.  She was a woman who explained to us, who talked to us about Jesus, who taught us the Catechism.  I always remember that on the evening of Good Friday, she would take us to the candlelight procession, and at the end of this procession, “the dead Christ” would arrive, and our grandmother would make us—the children—kneel down, and she would say to us, “Look, he is dead, but tomorrow he will rise.”  This was how I received my first Christian proclamation, from this very woman, from my grandmother!  This is really beautiful!  The first proclamation at home, in the family!

And this makes me think of the love of so many mothers and grandmothers in the transmission of the faith.  They are the ones who pass on the faith.  This used to happen in the early Church too, for St. Paul said to Timothy, “I am reminded of the faith of your mother and grandmother” (cf. 2 Timothy 1:5).  All mothers and grandmothers who are here should think about this: passing on the faith!  Because God sets beside us people who help us on our journey of faith.  We do not find our faith in the abstract, no!  It is always a person preaching who tells us who Jesus is, who communicates faith to us and gives us the first proclamation.  And this is how I received my first experience of faith.

If Pope Francis were here this morning, I think he would end by saying to each of us, “Yes, this is how I received my first experience of faith; how did you receive yours?  Who have been—and who are—the ‘small g, small s’ good shepherds of your life?  If these men and women have truly led you to Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd (‘capital G, capital S’), then you owe these people—literally—an eternal debt of gratitude.  And not just on Mother’s Day.”