Monday, February 23, 2015

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Word for Lent: Priorities!

(Ash Wednesday 2015: This homily was given on February 18, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 6: 1-18.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ash Wednesday 2015]

Every year since 2010 I’ve asked the Lord to give me a “theme word” for Lent to share with you on Ash Wednesday—a word that can help to focus us and guide us in our Lenten disciplines.
So this year I prayed about it for a while, and the word that came to my mind (put there, I trust, by the Holy Spirit) was the word “priorities”.  And that should not have surprised me because Lent is about conversion—it’s about deepening our personal conversion to Jesus Christ—and personal conversion always involves adjusting one’s priorities.

For example, when we take our teenagers to the Steubenville East youth conference in July every year, many of them open their hearts to God and experience a deepening of their faith.  And, in the process, their priorities change.  All of a sudden getting to Mass every Sunday and holy day—and even sometimes during the week—becomes very important to them.  It becomes a priority—or at least more of a priority than it was before.  Praying every day becomes a priority; developing good Christian friendships with other teens becomes a priority; getting to confession regularly becomes a priority; standing up for the truth becomes a priority; helping other people becomes a priority.

In his message for Lent this year Pope Francis said this:

“Usually, when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others (something God the Father never does): we are unconcerned with their problems, their sufferings and the injustices they endure … Our heart grows cold. As long as I am relatively healthy and comfortable, I don’t think about those less well off. Today, this selfish attitude of indifference has taken on global proportions, to the extent that we can speak of a globalization of indifference. It is a problem which we, as Christians, need to confront.

We become indifferent to the needs of others when our priorities are out of order—when they need adjusting.  And, as the Holy Father indicates here, this often happens when we’re experiencing good health and our lives are relatively comfortable.  We’re so busy enjoying the ways God has blessed us that we forget that there are many other people out there who are not so blessed.

The three traditional disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—are supposed to help us change or at least modify our priorities, so that we are more concerned with the things that really matter, namely, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and loving our neighbor as ourself.

Decide today how you intend to practice those 3 disciplines this Lent.  For prayer, how about coming to daily Mass, at least a couple of times a week?  How about making a holy hour once a week?  How about coming to Stations of the Cross every Tuesday at 6:05?  How about praying the Rosary or reading the Scriptures every day?  How about getting to confession?  How about coming to our parish mission?

For fasting, in addition to fasting as the Church says we must today and on Good Friday, and besides giving up candy or something else you like, how about giving up some of your leisure time?  How about giving up some of your leisure time to volunteer to help a local charitable organization?  How about giving up some of your leisure time to go visit someone you know who’s homebound or in a nursing home?  (Fasting, remember, is about more than simply giving up food!)

And almsgiving.  We think of almsgiving in terms of giving financial assistance to others (and it does include that, of course); but there are other ways to engage in this discipline.  For example, if you’re young and in good health, you could volunteer to shovel out your elderly neighbors (without pay, of course!) after the next snow storm.  Now I’d like to think we won’t have any more snowstorms this year—but, in all likelihood, that’s just wishful thinking.

My prayer today is that all of us will re-prioritize our lives in some way during the next forty days through our Lenten disciplines.  And for some of us the process can begin right now with the distribution of ashes.  You know, for all too many Catholics, ashes actually have a priority over the Eucharist!  And so, as soon as they receive their ashes after the homily, they walk out of church!  Well, those people need to reverse their priorities!

We need to remember, ashes are a sacramental, but the Eucharist is a sacrament.  Ashes are a sign of our desire to change and re-prioritize our lives, but the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of the One—Jesus Christ—who saves us and gives us the power to change our lives for the better!

And that’s why Mass—and especially Sunday Mass—should always be our TOP SPIRITUAL PRIORITY as Catholics.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Satanic Nature of Cynicism

Roger Staubach: Then (top) and now.

(Sixth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on February 15, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday 2015]

Satan is a cynic.

And one of his greatest desires is to make us as cynical as he is.

A cynic is somebody who believes that the only motive for human conduct is self-interest.  So for the cynic, there’s no such thing as selfless, sacrificial love—and there’s certainly no such thing as holiness!  Even if people appear to be selfless, and self-sacrificial, and holy—it’s all an illusion!  According to the cynic, such people act in virtuous ways exclusively for their own benefit; they act in virtuous ways only because of what’s in it for them.

The reasons that Satan wants us all to be cynics should be obvious.  First of all, Satan knows quite well that if we become cynical people we will not pursue holiness in our own lives.  (Why would we pursue something that we don’t believe exists?)  And Satan knows that if we take on a cynical attitude we won’t believe that holiness is possible for anybody else.

All that having been said, it should also be obvious that a true cynic would scoff at what St. Paul says in today’s second reading.  There, as we heard a few moments ago, he tells the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

Paul was so confident in the fact that he was living the Gospel as it was supposed to be lived, that he could say to the Corinthian people, “Look, if you want to know what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ; if you want to know what it means to live in faith, hope and charity; if you want to know what it means to serve the Lord—just follow me around for a while!  Just imitate me.  Do what I do; treat other people like I treat them; follow my example of prayer and love and sacrifice—and you’ll be following Jesus yourselves.”
St. Paul was no cynic.  He knew that holiness was possible.  He knew it was possible for him, and he knew it was possible for every other human person—regardless of what that person’s past had been like!  That’s because Paul was keenly aware of how much he had changed in his own life!  As he said in his first letter to Timothy, “I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance …”

That’s important for us to remember as we begin Lent this week.  Lent is an opportunity for change—positive change—and change IS possible!

Despite what the cynics of this world tell us.

And speaking of cynics, have you heard about the new movie that’s out this week—“Fifty Shades of Grey”?  Unless you’ve been on Mars for the last several months I’m sure you have—many times!  This is a film that glorifies just about every kind of deviant sexual behavior (in fact, it’s so raunchy that many secular critics have referred to it as “mommy porn”).  Dr. Drew Pinsky—who is considered to be a “relationship expert” and who is definitely not a conservative traditionalist—has gone so far as to say that the movie is yet another example of “violence against women.” 

And yet, it’s being promoted by many people like it’s the greatest film since “Gone with the Wind.”

Make no mistake about it, my brothers and sisters, the makers of this movie are cynics.  The promoters of the film—especially those in the mainstream media—are also cynics.

In fact, I’m sure many of them would say, “Dr. Drew—Fr. Ray—what’s the big deal?  Don’t you guys know that everybody does stuff like this?  This is the real world, man.  Get with it!”

That’s not true, of course.  It’s not true that everyone does such immoral things.

But if you’re a cynic you think it is!

Because to a cynic real goodness, and real virtue, and real holiness are not possible.

Needless to say, I do NOT recommend that you either see this movie or read the book upon which it’s based!

That’s because I don’t recommend that people support pornography in any form.

If you want to spend an hour of your time doing something much more productive and inspiring, then tune in to the NFL Network and try to catch the next rebroadcast of the documentary they recently did on Roger Staubach.  It’s part of that series called, “A Football Life.”

I saw it a couple of weeks ago.

For the non-football fans among us, Roger Staubach is a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and a two time Super Bowl champion.  He retired in 1979, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.  He also won the Heisman Trophy in 1963 when he played football for the Naval Academy.

He was called “Captain America” when he played in Dallas because of his “All American boy, squeaky-clean” image.  He was devoted to his wife and children; he lived a moral life—and he took his Catholic faith VERY SERIOUSLY!
He even used a Catholic image once to describe a play he was involved in.  In a 1978 playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, Roger threw a last-second, 50 yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson.  When he was asked about the play after the game, he said that when he threw the ball, “I just closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”

And ever since then last-second, desperation passes in football games have been called “Hail Mary passes.”

It all started with Roger Staubach.  (A little football trivia!)

But what impressed me most about this documentary was that it made something very clear: people are saying the same positive things about Roger Staubach now—36 years after his retirement—that they were saying about him when he played in the NFL.  In fact, many of his former teammates are saying even greater things about him now, because of how Roger has helped them emotionally, spiritually—and even financially—since they left the game.  At least two former teammates were quoted in this program as saying, “Roger saved my life—he literally saved my life.”  One was linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, whom Roger helped in the early 1980s, when Henderson had a very severe drug problem.

Fellow Hall of Famer Troy Aikman summed it all up beautifully when he said, “He’s everything that people think that he is—and that’s rare.  Roger is held to such a lofty standard that it would be hard for anyone to live up to that.  But he does.”

Am I saying here that Roger Staubach is a saint?

No, I’m not.  He’s a sinner, just like the rest of us: a sinner who, like the rest of us, is called to be a saint.  But the good news is that he seems to be on the right road.  From all external indications, Roger Staubach seems to be on the road that he needs to be on in order to attain that heavenly goal.

And apparently he’s been on it for many years.

It was refreshing to watch a program like this one, where goodness and virtue were NOT dealt with in a cynical way—which is the way they are normally dealt with these days in the secular media.

That’s why I mention the program in my homily this afternoon, and why I recommend that you try to see it when the NFL Network rebroadcasts it in the future—even if you’re not a football fan.

The makers of the documentary might not have intended it, but they ended up giving their audience a very inspiring and powerful message.  The message was: “Yes, it’s possible—it’s really and truly possible!  It’s possible that this man, Roger Staubach, actually is a good, moral, caring, virtuous person who lives the faith that he professes.  And if it’s possible for him to be that type of person, it’s possible for everyone to be that type of person.”

Which is precisely why Satan, cynic that he is, would absolutely hate this television program—whereas St. Paul, the apostle, would absolutely love it.

Although someone would probably need to take St. Paul aside before he watched it and explain to him exactly what a football is.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

‘The Pain Chain’ And How To Break It

(Fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on February 8, 2015, 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 2015]

You’ve probably never heard of “the pain chain”.

That’s because I made up the term for this homily!

But, in all likelihood, you have experienced it—many times.

Pain, of course, is a fact of life.  We can’t escape it totally, no matter how hard we may try.

And there are various types of pain.  There’s physical pain; there’s mental or emotional pain; there’s even what might be called “spiritual pain”—which often results from physical and/or emotional pain.  For example, we contract a disease or we experience a broken relationship, and we wonder if God still loves us; we wonder if the Lord is with us and cares about what we’re going through.

And that wondering causes spiritual pain.

Job, in today’s first reading, is clearly a man who’s in the process of experiencing all 3 of these types of pain—TO THE MAX!  And it all stemmed from one bad day—one very bad day!

Most of us know the story.  The Bible makes it clear that Job was a good, pious, devout, righteous man.

And then, during the course of one 24 hour period, 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.

He was in physical pain; he was in emotional distress—and he wondered why God had allowed him to be afflicted in that way.

He finally got to the point where he said those words we heard in our first reading:

“Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?  Are not his days those of hirelings? … So I have been assigned months of misery and troubled nights have been allotted to me. … My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope.  Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.”

Here we have a perfect example of a man who was shackled by what I would call “the pain chain.”  The pain chain has 3 links in it: one is “the past”; one is “the present”; and one is “the future”.

Job was experiencing pain in the present moment as he sat there in sackcloth and ashes.  The problem was that he wasn’t only experiencing the pain of the present moment!  He was also, in a certain sense, experiencing pain from his past and pain from his future life—which made the situation much worse.

Notice his first statement: “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?”

Job’s life was not a drudgery before he had his “bad day”!  It was anything but a drudgery!  It was awesome!  He had good health, and a loving family, and lots and lots of earthly possessions.  From a strictly worldly perspective, the guy had it all!

And yet, in the midst of his present suffering, the only things he was conscious of from his past were the bad things: the sufferings, the trials, the pain (however minimal it might have been).

And then he proceeded to project his present suffering on the future, saying, “I shall not see happiness again.”

How, in heaven’s name, did Job know that?  How did he know that he would never, ever, ever experience a single moment of happiness for the rest of his days on planet earth?

The answer is, he DIDN’T know it!

But once again, in the midst of his present suffering and pain, all he could imagine for his future was more suffering and more pain.

Pain in the present moment (link #1), added to pain from the past (link #2), added to anticipated pain in the future (link #3).

That’s “the pain chain”.

It shackled Job, and it can also shackle us at various points in our lives—as most of us (if not all of us) know from personal experience.

So how are we supposed to deal with it?  How do we go about breaking the pain chain?

This is very important to know because if the pain chain does not get broken, it can eventually lead us to despair.

From my perspective—and from my experience—there are 3 realities that will break the pain chain, especially when we experience them together.

Those realities are faith, hope and love (which should make them pretty easy to remember!).

By faith we know that “For those who love God all things [including our pain and suffering] work together for good”—as St. Paul tells us in Romans 8.  By faith we know that God will not allow us to be tested beyond our strength—as St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10.  And, as today’s responsorial psalm reminds us, God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Faith—real faith that’s rooted in truths like these—breaks the pain chain.

So does hope.  Hope focuses us on the reality of eternal life—which means that every problem, every suffering, every pain that we have in this life is ultimately only temporary.  Understanding that makes a difference!  Notice that Job lacked this hope when he spoke those words we heard in our first reading.  There he said, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope.”

And when we experience the love of God—either directly or through other people—that, too, breaks the pain chain.

The other day a woman who’s been battling a very serious form of cancer said to me, “Fr. Ray, I know now why God allowed me to get this illness.  He allowed me to get it because, without it, I never would have gotten as close to him as I am right now.”

Here’s a woman who’s battling physical, emotional and spiritual pain but who, at the same time, has faith, hope and love: faith that God is at work in her life and still loves her, and hope that he will continue to draw her closer to himself unto eternity.

Faith, hope and love are breaking her pain chain—at least for the moment.  My prayer is that she will continue to seek those gifts every day, so that her pain chain will remain broken—even if she’s never physically healed.

Jesus once said, “Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”  Put in the terms of this homily that means, “The pain of today is enough for us to deal with.  We don’t need to add any real pain from our past or any imagined pain from our future—like Job did.”

Which is one of the most important reasons why we should ask the Lord to fill our hearts with faith—and with hope—and with love EVERY DAY!