Sunday, June 28, 2015

Three False Beliefs about Death—and Their Antidote

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on June 28, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 1: 13-15; 2: 23-24; Psalm 30; Mark 5: 21-43.)

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

What we believe about death directly affects what we believe about life.

Perhaps you’ve never made that association before, but it’s true nonetheless. 

This means that if we have the right perspective on death—a perspective that’s rooted in the truths of Sacred Scripture and our Catholic faith—we will also have a healthy perspective on life.  We will understand the purpose of life, the meaning of life, the value of life—and the sacredness of life.

And we will probably act accordingly—at least most of the time.

On the other hand, if we have the wrong perspective on death, we will, in all likelihood, understand none of those things.  And that will have a negative impact on how we act: on how we treat our neighbor, and on how we treat ourselves.

To illustrate this let me share with you now three common errors—three common false beliefs—about death, and how those beliefs affect people’s actions.

False belief #1 concerning death: God is to blame for it.  He’s the cause of it.  He’s the source of death; it comes directly from him.

Now if you believe that (and many people today do!), I ask you: How likely will you be to love God and serve God and obey God in your life?

Not very!

You’ll want nothing to do with him!  You’ll look at God as your enemy—as the source of evil—as the ultimate killjoy who gets his jollies out of taking from you the people you love.

This is the false belief about death that was directly addressed in our first reading today, which was taken from the Old Testament Book of Wisdom.  Listen again to these words:
God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.  For he fashioned all things that they might have being … For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.  But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world …
Our God is the Lord and Giver of life; he’s not the “dealer of death”!  Death came into the world when sin came into the world through our first parents.  So it was ultimately the work of the devil.

And it’s the eternal effects of that sin of Adam and Eve which Jesus came into the world to eliminate by his passion, death and resurrection.

Believing that God loves us so much that he sent his only begotten Son to do this for us—to save us from eternal death—will cause a person to see God as he really is: a Friend and a Savior, not an enemy.

Which brings us to false belief #2 concerning death: We should have absolute control over it as human beings.  People who believe that support things like physician-assisted suicide and the so-called “right-to-die”—which, by the way, sooner or later becomes the duty-to-die!  This came home to me in a powerful way when I read an online article recently by Michael Brendan Dougherty concerning the current situation in Belgium, where physician-assisted suicide has been legal for quite some time.  In that article, Dougherty wrote the following:   
And chillingly, doctors pressure patients into making the decision. One doctor, who performs euthanasia eight to 10 times a year, told [writer Rachel] Aviv, “Depending on communication techniques, I might lead a patient one way or the other.”
How could it be otherwise? The idea that suicide, alone among medical treatments, would solely be the patient's decision, absent any social or financial pressure from a doctor, was always a fiction. Doctors are in the business of advising and steering patients toward recommended treatments. That’s precisely why suicide should not be a treatment, and certainly not one offered to people who aren't ill. (“How Belgium went down the slippery slope of assisted suicide,” The Week, June 18, 2015.)
Today’s gospel story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead reminds us that God—and only God—is the Lord of life (as we say in the Nicene Creed each week at Mass).  And so only he should determine the exact moment when we leave this earthly existence.

I should also mention here that this false belief that people should have absolute control over death sometimes extends beyond the self, to others.

That’s why some doctors perform abortions, and why ISIS terrorists and South Carolina racists kill innocent people who’ve done nothing wrong.  They want absolute control over the deaths of other human beings.

What a person believes about death directly affects what that person believes about life—their own life AND the lives of others.

The third and final false belief about death that I’ll mention today is this one: It’s the end; it’s the final chapter of a human life.

With atheism becoming more and more prevalent in our world (at least according to the news polls), this error is obviously becoming more and more widespread; which is scary because, as the Russian author Dostoevsky once said, “If God does not exist, EVERYTHING is permissible.”

Including things that you and I—and a lot of other civilized people—would find repugnant and reprehensible.  Think about it, my brothers and sisters: if there is no Judgment, and no final moral Authority in this earthly life, then right and wrong become matters of opinion and opinion only. 

Your ideas about right and wrong are just that: they’re your ideas.  Others have their ideas about those very same issues, and you have no valid reason for saying that their ideas are wrong.  You can make your own rules, and live by your own rules; because death is the end, and there’s no one to whom you will have to answer afterward for your actions.

Doesn’t this make you glad you’re a Catholic Christian?

It should!

It makes me glad—and thankful—because Catholic Christianity is the antidote to all of these false beliefs about death!  Every single one of them.  Our faith tells us, first of all, that physical death is not the end.  Quite to the contrary, Catholic Christianity tells us that the physical death of the body is actually a new beginning—and potentially a glorious one!  It tells us that this life matters; that we’re here for a reason; that there’s something at stake in this mortal existence.  It tells us that we’re really here on this earth to make a decision: THE DECISION—the ultimate decision about where we want to live for all eternity.

And it tells us how to make the correct ultimate decision so that we will eventually arrive at the place we were made for.  It tells us that we make this decision by following the Lord—the Lord of life—until he chooses, in his time, to call us home.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Some Messages for Fathers

(Twelfth Sunday of the Year (B):  This homily was given on June 21, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Job 38: 1-11; 2 Corinthians 5: 14-17; Mark 4: 35-41.)

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

What messages does the Lord have in these readings for fathers?

When I prepare my homily for Father’s Day weekend each year, that’s the question I always reflect on.

For reasons that should be obvious.

Now I will admit that when I did that this past week in preparation for this Sunday’s Liturgies, my first reaction was to think, “Gee, there’s not much here.”

Which is ALWAYS the wrong reaction to have when it comes to the Word of God!

That’s because God ALWAYS speaks to us whenever the Scriptures are proclaimed at Mass (or whenever we read them in private, for that matter!).

The problem is that our “spiritual ears” aren’t always open—as mine weren’t open the other day, at least initially.

But after I spent a little time with the three passages—reflecting on them, thinking about them and praying over them—I came to realize the Lord actually has a number of important things to say to fathers through these texts.

(And that includes spiritual fathers as well as natural fathers.)

Take, for example, that first reading from the book of Job.  Most of us know at least the basic outline of Job’s story.  He was a good man—a very good man—who had one really bad day: a day on which he lost all his animals (they were either stolen or killed); all his children (they died when the house they were in collapsed during a terrible windstorm); and his health (he was afflicted with a horrible skin disease in which painful boils appeared all over his body).

And he knew he hadn’t done anything seriously wrong!

Three of his friends proceed to drop by and give him some terrible counsel, telling him that he must have done something to bring this evil on himself, and that he’ll figure out what it is if he thinks long and hard enough.

But Job continues to assert his innocence.

In the midst his pain and frustration, he eventually cries out to God, demanding to know why he’s been allowed to suffer all these things, and in chapter 38 (which is where today’s first reading is from) God gives him an answer—although it’s not the answer Job is looking for.

The answer goes on for a number of chapters, and in it God basically says to Job, “Who are you, little man, and what do you know?  Don’t you realize that there are some things in this life that you will never fully understand?—because you don’t have the capacity, with your finite human mind, to fully understand them.”

What an important lesson for fathers to teach their children!  I was speaking to Fr. Michael Sisco this week, and he told me about a funeral Mass he had said the previous Saturday for an 18-year-old girl from his parish who had died suddenly and unexpectedly—while exercising!  She was a former altar server of his who was known as a really nice girl—a girl who donated her time to a number of local, charitable causes.  And her death remains a mystery because the medical examiner couldn’t find a reason why she collapsed and died the way she did.

How do you make sense of something like this when it happens?

The answer is, you don’t!  And young people need to know that!  They need to be taught by their fathers—and mothers—that some things in this life are mysteries and will always remain mysteries.

At least on this side of the grave.

But we can know all that we NEED to know!  We can know all that we need to know in order to attain the ultimate goal of this earthly life—which is, of course, eternal salvation.  This is also something every father needs to teach his children, lest they lose their way and despair in the midst of all the tragic things that they will not be able to understand.  That’s why our second reading from 2 Corinthians is so appropriate for Father’s Day: because it reminds fathers (and the rest of us) of the core of the Gospel message, namely, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Fathers, how often do you talk to your children about Jesus, and about the truths of our Catholic faith—truths that will help them to navigate their way through this sometimes difficult and very confusing life?  They need you to do that!

And there’s another message for dads in that reading.  It comes specifically in these lines: “[Jesus] indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

“So that they [your children] might live for him.”  Not for you, dad—or for you, mom—but for him: for Jesus Christ.  Your role as Christian parents is to help your children to know the Lord and love the Lord and serve the Lord, and to encourage them to do what GOD wants them to do in their lives—not what you as parents want them to do.  What you want them to do with their lives and what God wants them to do might be the same thing, but it might not be the same thing.

And in the latter instance a good Christian father needs to yield to the heavenly Father—always!

This truth, by the way, applies to spiritual fathers as much as it applies to natural ones.  You know, because we’ve had so many vocations to the priesthood and religious life from our parish and community in recent years, there are some who think that I put pressure on young people to enter the seminary and the convent.  But I don’t!  I simply tell young people that they need to prayerfully discern what God wants them to do with their lives, and then follow THAT plan.

Because what matters most in this life is discovering and carrying out the will of the Lord, not the will of Fr. Ray (or any other human person).

All that I’ve said so far is, in a certain sense, summed up in this gospel story of Jesus and the apostles on the Sea of Galilee.  The message here for dads is: Make sure Jesus Christ is in your “boat”, and then do your best—your very best—to get him into the “boats” of your children.  It says in this text that the apostles “took Jesus with them in the boat”.  Had they not done that—and had they not cried out to Jesus in their distress—they might have died in the storm that night.

We take Jesus into our “boat”—that is to say, our life—(and we keep him there) when we build a strong personal relationship with him that’s rooted in baptism, and nurtured by prayer and the sacraments.  And if we ever make the mistake of throwing Jesus “overboard” (so to speak) by committing a serious sin, we can always get him back in our boat by repenting and getting to confession.

Dads, are you doing these things in your own personal lives?  Do your children ever see you pray? Do you lead them in prayer by bringing them to Mass EVERY weekend?  Do you lead them in prayer by saying grace before meals?  Do you set an example for them by getting to confession regularly—even if you don’t have a serious sin on your soul? 

If they can see that Jesus Christ is truly present in your boat; in other words, if they can see that you are building a strong personal relationship with Jesus Christ in your life—a relationship through which you are finding the strength you need to face the storms of your life—chances are they will follow your example.

Which will make all the difference in the world in terms of how successfully they deal with the trials, the difficulties—the storms—of their lives.

I’d like to end my homily now by first apologizing to the Lord for thinking that he hadn’t provided any messages for dads today in these three Scripture readings (I should know better!); and then by asking him to bless all the fathers here present by giving us the grace that we need to live these messages faithfully.

And I ask all of you who are not fathers to join me in making this request, because if we dads actually do live these messages faithfully, you—and especially you young people—will be the primary beneficiaries.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

What’s Grown Depends on What’s Sown

(Eleventh Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on June 14, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 4: 26-34.)

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

What’s grown depends on what’s sown.

That’s a truth that all farmers and gardeners understand based on their experiences of farming and gardening.  When a farmer plants a field of corn, for example, he doesn’t expect to reap a harvest of tomatoes (at least not in that particular field).  When a gardener plants some geranium seeds in the flowerbed in front of her house, she doesn’t expect petunias to grow there.

“Fr. Ray, this is common sense.”

Yes, it is—at least when it comes to corn and tomatoes and geraniums and petunias and other plants that are grown from seeds.  But the thing is, this principle (What’s grown depends on what’s sown) applies to other areas of life besides farming and gardening.

And in many of those other areas of life, sad to say, the truth is not so obvious to a lot of people.  Either they’re unable—or unwilling—to see the connection between certain ideas that are “sown” into the minds of modern men and women, and the actions that result from (or you might say “grow from”) those ideas.

Case in point: Bruce Jenner—now known to most of the world as “Caitlyn Jenner” after undergoing what’s commonly referred to as a “sex change”.  (Although that’s a misnomer.  As Fr. Roman Manchester put it in a letter he wrote last week to the Providence Journal: “No amount of surgery, hormone therapy, makeup, and women’s clothing will ever change his Y-chromosome into an X-chromosome.”)

Now I don’t watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians on a regular basis, but after all the hoopla in the media surrounding Jenner’s actions I decided to tune in for a few moments the other night.  And I’m glad I did.  At one point two of the Kardashian daughters were having a conversation, and one proceeded to announce to the other that Bruce was having surgery that day (surgery obviously related to his physical transformation).  Well, immediately after she did that, there was complete silence between the two of them.  The two girls just stared at one another with these dazed, confused, very sad looks on their faces.

That silence—and those looks—said it all.

I think deep in their hearts they sensed what Dr. Paul McHugh, the former head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital has been telling people for years: that “this intensely felt sense of being transgendered constitutes a mental disorder”—a mental disorder that he says calls for “understanding, treatment and prevention”.

In a column he wrote for the Wall Street Journal last year, Dr. McHugh also makes the point that so-called “sex-reassignment surgery” doesn’t solve the problems that transgendered people have.  In fact, in many cases, it only makes their psychological and emotional problems worse!  

Listen to some of what he wrote:

We at Johns Hopkins University—which in the 1960s was the first American medical center to venture into "sex-reassignment surgery"—launched a study in the 1970s comparing the outcomes of transgendered people who had the surgery with the outcomes of those who did not. Most of the surgically treated patients described themselves as "satisfied" by the results, but their subsequent psycho-social adjustments were no better than those who didn't have the surgery. And so at Hopkins we stopped doing sex-reassignment surgery, since producing a "satisfied" but still troubled patient seemed an inadequate reason for surgically amputating normal organs.

It now appears that our long-ago decision was a wise one. A 2011 study at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden produced the most illuminating results yet regarding the transgendered, evidence that should give advocates pause. The long-term study—up to 30 years—followed 324 people who had sex-reassignment surgery. The study revealed that beginning about 10 years after having the surgery, the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties. Most shockingly, their suicide mortality rose almost 20-fold above the comparable nontransgender population. This disturbing result has as yet no explanation but probably reflects the growing sense of isolation reported by the aging transgendered after surgery. The high suicide rate certainly challenges the surgery prescription.

Now I must tell you, on the day I was ordained almost 30 years ago, if you had said to me that I would someday be addressing this particular topic in a weekend homily, I would have called you crazy!  So how did this happen?  How did this issue become so important and necessary to speak about?  How did we get to the point in our country where desperate acts of self-mutilation like this are actually called ‘good’ and ‘courageous’?”

Well it all goes back to the principle I mentioned at the beginning of my homily: What’s grown depends on what’s sown.

Think of the ideas that have been “sown” into the minds of Americans and others in the Western world for the last half century or so.  Ideas such as:

  • ·         Freedom means doing what you want to do, not what you ought to do.  So if you want to engage in some form of self-mutilation, go right ahead.  Don’t let anybody violate your freedom!
  • ·         Feelings matter more than facts.  So if you “feel” like a woman, it doesn’t matter that, biologically, you’re a male with XY chromosomes.  Ignore the science—ignore reality!—and follow your emotions.
  • ·         It’s your body and you should be able to do whatever you want with it.
  • ·         When it comes to sex, almost anything goes.
  • ·         Self-indulgence leads to happiness.
  • ·         You should be able to decide for yourself what’s right and what’s wrong.
  • ·         There are no moral absolutes; everything is relative.

Do those ideas sound familiar?  They should.  Those are some of the seeds—the really BAD seeds—the seeds of destruction—that have been “planted” in the minds of Americans on a daily basis for at least the last 50 years—especially in our universities, in the arts, and in the mainstream media.

And now we’re reaping the tragic harvest.  Bruce Jenner, who needs our compassion and prayers more than anything else, is just one example of it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way!  And that’s the message I want to focus your attention on as I conclude this morning.  There is still hope in the midst of the darkness.  Jesus makes that clear to us in today’s gospel text with these parables about seeds.  Here he’s talking specifically about good seeds and about the power of those good seeds—which are the seeds of the kingdom of God—to grow in the world.  These are the seeds of truth and love and peace—and true happiness!  And he indicates there that these seeds grow by God’s power, not ours.

But WE have to plant them!  That’s key.  Remember, what’s grown depends on what’s sown.  And, as every farmer and gardener will tell you, the sowing doesn’t happen magically!  When I planted a garden at my home in Barrington in the years after my father’s death, I knew that if I didn’t put the seeds and the plants in the ground every spring, only weeds would grow.

And they would grow quickly!

That’s a law of nature—but it’s also a law that applies to the spiritual dimension of our lives.

Dear Lord, give us all the desire to know the truth, and live the truth, and teach the truth—especially to our young people, who are being exposed to the bad seed of the world constantly—so that more and more of the good seed of your kingdom will grow among us.  Amen. 

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Justin’s Three Bs: Baptism—Belief—Behavior

St. Justin Martyr

(Corpus Christi 2015: This homily was given on June 7, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 24: 3-8; Hebrews 11: 9-15; Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Corpus Christi 2015]


Those are what I would call, “Justin’s Three Bs”.

“And who is Justin, Fr. Ray?”

I’m so glad you asked!  The Justin I’m speaking about here is none other than Saint Justin, who was a great philosopher and defender of the Christian faith—in addition to being one of the early martyrs of the Church.  In fact, he was born right around the year 100—which means he was almost a contemporary of the Twelve Apostles!

He definitely goes back a long way.

In his writings Justin gives us a pretty clear picture of the life and teachings of Christianity in its infancy.  In this regard, he’s both an authoritative—and a reliable—resource.  Some of his writings, not surprisingly, relate to the Mass and the Holy Eucharist—including this sentence, which is the one I want to focus on today:

“No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.”

There, in that one very simple sentence, we encounter all three of Justin’s Bs:

·         Baptism: “No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins.”
·         Belief: “No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true.”
·         Behavior: “No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.”

How often have you been to a funeral or a wedding in a non-Catholic church during which the minister invited EVERYONE to come to Communion?  How often have you been to a Liturgy in a Catholic church during which the priest did the very same thing—just to be “nice” and “inclusive”?

It happens a lot—unfortunately.

And because of that, priests like yours truly—who try to give people clear guidelines for receiving the Eucharist based on the authentic teaching of the Church—are sometimes called “uncharitable” and “insensitive” and a lot of other negative things.

And I have the emails to prove it!

Well, I don’t think it requires a lot of scholarly research to figure out where St. Justin and the early Church stood on the matter.  All you need to do is read that one line I just quoted to you and think of Justin’s “three Bs”—and you’ll have your answer.

The first requirement for receiving the Eucharist worthily and fruitfully according to Justin is Baptism—a valid Baptism in the name of the Blessed Trinity.  In fact, that’s a requirement for receiving any one of the other six sacraments.  If, for example, your unbaptized neighbor is on his deathbed, and he tells you that he wants to receive the “Last Rites” of the Church (i.e., the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick), your priest will not anoint him—until after he baptizes him!  As it says in paragraph 1213 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to the life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments.”

Baptism: Justin’s first B.

His second B—his second requirement for receiving the Eucharist worthily and fruitfully—is Belief: “No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true.”  Notice that Justin does not say, “No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach ABOUT THE EUCHARIST is true.”  If that’s what he had said, I know some Episcopalians and some other Protestants who would fulfill the requirement.  They will tell you, in effect, that they believe in the Catholic teaching on transubstantiation, which basically says that after the consecration at Mass the substance (in other words, the inner reality) of the bread and wine changes into the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ—while the accidents (in other words, the physical properties) of the bread and wine remain the same.

That much they believe.  They believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  The problem is that they don’t believe in a lot of other things that the Catholic Church teaches.  (If they did, they’d be Catholic!)  But the Eucharist is the sign of our unity in faith—which is the point St. Justin is making with his second B.  St. Paul says the same thing, essentially, in 1 Corinthians 10: 17 when he says, “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”

So Catholics should not be receiving at funerals and weddings at Christ Episcopal Church (or at any other Protestant church for that matter)—even if they’re invited to do so by the minister—because we Catholics are not sufficiently united with these other Christians in what we believe.  (And also because, from our perspective, their Eucharists aren’t valid—which is another story that I won’t get into today.)

I remember being at a big Charismatic conference at the Providence Civic Center in the late 1970s, and hearing a very dynamic Protestant minister give an excellent talk—a talk in which he spoke about another conference he had attended previously that was ecumenical in its makeup.  In other words, there was a group of Catholics in attendance as well as groups from many different Protestant denominations.  And he said they spent most of each day of the conference together: they prayed together, they sang together, they shared their faith with one another in discussion groups, they listened to the same talks—but when the time came to celebrate the Eucharist (or something akin to the Eucharist), each group gathered separately.  The Catholics went to one room for Mass; the Episcopalians gathered in another room for their liturgy, etc.

And that’s exactly what they should have done!  Rather than pretending that they were all fully united in faith (when, in fact, they weren’t), these people came together and affirmed and celebrated their common beliefs about Jesus, but they also acknowledged the fact they were not united enough in their beliefs to share the Eucharist together.

That’s real ecumenism!

Which brings us, finally, to Justin’s third B—his third requirement for receiving the Eucharist worthily and fruitfully—Behavior: “No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.”  This is why St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11: 28, “A man should examine himself first; only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”  An honest examination of conscience should always take place before we approach the altar to receive Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  And if, in the process of doing that examination, we realize that we’ve missed Mass without a good reason—or committed some other serious sin—we should not go to Communion again until we’ve repented and made a good sacramental confession.

Hopefully you can see that this is not just “Fr. Ray’s idea” or “Fr. Ray’s personal opinion”.  St. Paul said it in the first century (which is when he wrote 1 Corinthians), and St. Justin Martyr said it in the second century when he wrote about his three Bs. 

This has been the consistent and unchanging teaching of the Church for 2,000 years—and it’s given to us for OUR BENEFIT! 

We need to remember that.  You see, the Church wants us to be open to all the graces that come to us through the Blessed Sacrament!  But that openness will only be present if we receive the Eucharist while we’re in the state of grace—in other words, worthily.  Otherwise, it becomes a sacrilege.

So the bottom line is this (and I’ll leave you with this thought): We need to take Justin’s three Bs very seriously in our lives, if we want to experience “the Big B” someday.  Getting baptized, believing the Gospel as taught by the Church, and keeping tabs on our behavior, lead to a worthy and fruitful reception of the Eucharist in this life; but, even more importantly, they ultimately lead us to what I would call “the Big B”—the Beatific Vision—which, of course, is just another way of saying “heaven”!