Sunday, May 15, 2016

Stir the Gift into Flame!

(Pentecost 2016 (C): This homily was given on May 15, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 1:1-2:11.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Pentecost 2016]

“For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God bestowed when my hands were laid on you.”  (2 Timothy 1:6)

That, I would say, is one of the most important verses in the Bible—especially if you want to understand what’s going on (and what’s not going on) in the lives of young people in the Church today.

St. Paul wrote those words 2,000 years ago to a young priest named Timothy, reminding him that he needed to grow in the grace of his ordination.  It wasn’t enough that Paul had placed his hands on Timothy’s head and had ordained him a priest.  If Timothy was to be the faithful servant—the faithful disciple—that Jesus wanted him to be and needed him to be, then Timothy had to respond to the grace he had been given at his ordination by “stirring it into flame”—through prayer, and the Eucharist, and Scripture reading, and by taking advantage of the opportunities God was giving him in his life to grow in his relationship with Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior.

As the old saying goes, “A fire not fed is very soon dead.”  (Actually that’s not an old saying; I made it up for this homily—but it’s true nonetheless!  And it summarizes Paul’s message to Timothy here.)

The reason I mention this today, on this feast of Pentecost, is because whenever I hear this particular verse of Scripture, I always think of its application to another sacrament: the sacrament of Confirmation.  When that sacrament is administered to people—as it was to our teenagers this past Wednesday night—hands are “laid upon them” (usually by the Bishop) and they receive another outpouring of the Holy Spirit (in addition to the one they received at baptism), so that they can be witnesses to Jesus Christ in the sometimes hostile environment of the world.

That’s the purpose of the sacrament: to empower us to be strong and committed disciples who want to win the world for Christ!  As Jesus said to his apostles before the first Pentecost, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

But that’s not what happens very often, is it?  All too frequently young people (and not-so-young people) get confirmed, and then, instead of winning the world for Christ, they end up being won-over by the world!

Bishop Tobin wrote about this recently in our diocesan newspaper.  Here’s some of what said:

There’s a cloud that hangs over Confirmation these days—an elephant in the room if you will, and that’s the reality that a majority of young people being confirmed will, sooner or later, stop practicing their faith—and these days it’s often sooner rather than later.
One national statistic indicates that 80% of young Catholics fall away from the Church within ten years of receiving the Sacrament. That’s an astonishing number! Some will return to the regular practice of their faith as adults, especially when they get married (if they’re married in the Church, that is!) and have children of their own. Some will join the ranks of cultural Catholics, maintaining a structural link to the Church but attending Mass only occasionally, on Christmas and Easter for example. And some will never return to the Church, having discarded their religious practice as an unwarranted intrusion in their life, foisted upon them as children by well-meaning parents.
In any event, it’s terribly discouraging to know that so many young people, having just publicly renewed their profession of faith and commitment to Christ and his Church, will abandon the practice of their faith, with some dropping out as soon as they can. For these, Confirmation is no more than a graduation ceremony, and having placated their parents and grandparents, they’re set free to fly their separate ways.

So what’s the problem, my brothers and sisters?  Why is this happening?  Is there something wrong on God’s end of things?  Is he withholding his Holy Spirit from these teenagers?  Is the sacrament they’re receiving invalid or defective in some way?

Well, of course not.  If it is administered with the proper matter and form by a competent minister, a sacrament (any sacrament) is valid—meaning that it gives the grace that it signifies.

So these adolescents have received the Holy Spirit.  When the bishop or priest traced a cross on their forehead during the Confirmation Liturgy and said, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” that’s precisely what happened.

So the problem’s not with God! 

The problem is that these young people are failing “to stir into flame the gift they received” when hands were laid on them and the Holy Spirit came to them in the sacrament. 

As far as I’m concerned, it’s that simple.

Now there can be many reasons for this failure: a bad example from their parents; poor religious instruction at their parish; a sin (or a number of sins) that they’re not willing to repent of in their lives; the lack of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; lies that they’ve been told in school about Christianity and the Church.

There are lots of possibilities.

One of the reasons I have youth group every Thursday, one of the reasons we go to Steubenville East every summer and Youth Explosion every fall, is to give teenagers here—especially those who have already been confirmed—the opportunity to “stir into flame” the gift they received from God at their Confirmation ceremony.

Because doing that is essential.

So, young people, am I saying that all of you have got to come to youth group and these big retreats?

No—although I wish you would!  But I am saying that you need to be doing something in your life right now to stir your gift into flame—if you want to BE STRONG and if you want to REMAIN STRONG in your Catholic faith.

Remember, a fire not fed is very soon dead.

So here’s a little homework assignment.  Those of you who are parents of teens who have been confirmed: Sometime in the near future (perhaps on the way home from Mass today) sit down with your child and ask him or her that very important question:  What are you doing? What, exactly, are you doing at the present time to feed the fire of your Catholic faith?

If they say “Nothing,” then tell them that that situation needs to change, and that it needs to change VERY SOON!

Do that, at least, if you value their Catholic faith.

And then, of course, share with your son or daughter what YOU are doing in your life at the present time to “stir into flame” the gift you received from the Lord at YOUR Confirmation—because what applies here to teenagers applies to the rest of us as well.