Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Beatitudes: Jesus’ Prescription for Happiness

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 29, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 5: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday 2017]

“Latest Happiness Index Reveals American Happiness at All-Time Low”

That was the headline of a brief article that I found recently on the Harris Poll’s web site.  It was published on July 8th of last year.  The article was about their annual survey on the happiness level of the citizens of our nation.  The people at Harris call it the “Happiness Index”.  Well, as the headline indicates, this past year’s results were not very encouraging.  According to the poll only 31% of Americans are very happy at the present time—which is an all-time low, but not all that different from previous years.  Since Harris began doing this back in 2008, their Happiness Index has consistently been in the low-to-mid 30s.  Now that’s bad enough, but according to this article, the number of truly happy people might actually be even smaller.  That’s because the pollsters believe that many people “may overstate how happy they really are.”

How can this be?  How can this be with all the possessions we have?  How can this be with all the comforts we have?  How can this be with all the educational and recreational opportunities we have?  How can this be with all the technology we have?

Shouldn’t we be the happiest people on earth?
Shouldn’t we be the happiest people in the history of the world?

Yes, we should be.

But we obviously aren’t.

If Jesus were standing here this morning instead of yours truly, I think he would tell us there’s a reason for this; it’s not a coincidence.  There’s a reason why the Happiness Index in America is so low right now in spite of all the blessings and opportunities we have in our country.

I believe that Jesus would say it’s because not enough Americans believe that the Beatitudes are what he told us they are—namely, the keys to true and lasting happiness. Each beatitude you will notice begins with the word “Blessed.” That word in the original Greek text of Matthew’s gospel is “makarios.”  Makarios can be translated by the English word “blessed” (as it is here), but it can also be translated by the English word “Happy.” And in some versions of the Bible it is. In those versions, the first beatitude reads, “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

And the others begin in the same way.

The Beatitudes are the attitudes that keep us on the road to eternal life—which is why they have the power to bring us happiness.  But we need to be clear about it: this is not the superficial kind of happiness that depends on circumstances (which is the kind of happiness that Patriots’ fans have right now and Packers’ fans don’t!).  That kind of happiness comes and goes, depending on what’s going on in your life (and whether or not your favorite football team won its last game!).

The happiness that comes from embracing and living the Beatitudes is different.  The happiness that comes from embracing and living the Beatitudes is a happiness—a kind of peace, really—that dwells at the very core of your being, which means that it can exist—and persist—even in the midst of great sorrow.

Which is very good news.

So Jesus says, “Happy will you be if you are poor in spirit.”  In other words, happy will you be if you know you need God and then put him first in your life, because in doing that you will be on the road to heaven—even if from time to time you experience a few bumps in the road here on earth.

Happy will you be when you mourn: when you mourn, first of all, for your own personal sins—because your mourning will lead you to repentance.  And happy will you be when you mourn in the midst of the “bumps in the road” you experience, because those sufferings will bring you closer to Christ, and when you “offer them up” (as the nuns used to tell us to do) you'll draw down many blessings into your own life and into the lives of others.

Happy will you be if you are meek—in other words, if you humbly accept God's will in your life with serenity and confidence.

Happy will you be if your first goal in this life is to be holy, and not rich or famous.

Happy will you be if you are merciful and forgiving.  Unforgiveness will not destroy you, and God will be merciful to you in your own life.

Happy will you be if you are single-hearted and if you serve God for the right reasons and not for selfish motives.

Happy will you be if you work to establish the peace that Jesus came to this earth to give: peace in your family, peace in your place of employment, peace wherever you happen to be.

Happy will you be even in the midst of persecution, because you'll realize that you're sharing in the Cross of Christ, which means that in heaven you'll share more fully in the fruits of the Lord's resurrection!

The Happiness Index in America that I spoke about at the beginning of my homily will only improve significantly, I believe, if more people begin to embrace—and live—Jesus’ prescription for happiness, as expressed in these Beatitudes.  If the majority of Americans continue to base their happiness on the ever-changing circumstances of their lives (like whether or not their favorite football team wins), then the percentage of happy people among us will probably stay where it’s been in every Harris Poll since 2008: somewhere between 31 and 35 percent.  Because in all likelihood that’s about the percentage of the population that’s not dealing with difficult circumstances at any given time.  For example, I’ll bet if I took a survey today on how many of you are dealing with difficult circumstances in your lives right now, at least 7 out of every 10 of you would raise your hands.

So obviously it’s a mistake to try to find lasting happiness—lasting beatitude—in the things and in the circumstances of this earthly life.  If you do that, you’ll be crying 7 out of every 10 days!

The happiness—the beatitude—that endures comes from Jesus Christ, and is rooted in his words to us in today’s gospel.

And so we pray this morning: Lord, may your Beatitudes become our attitudes, and may we inspire others to make your Beatitudes their attitudes, so that we will all experience a measure of beatitude here on this earth, and eternal beatitude someday with you in your heavenly kingdom.  Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

In the Christian Life, What’s Most Important is What You Take with You, Not What You Leave Behind

(Third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 22, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 4: 12-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday 2017]

Several years ago Randy Travis came out with a song entitled, “Three Wooden Crosses.”  It’s about three people who die in a tragic bus accident while on their way down to Mexico.  I’m sure many of you have heard it.  The refrain to that song has these lines in it: “I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you.  It’s what you leave behind you when you go.”

Now from one perspective I would say that Randy Travis is absolutely correct.

But from another perspective I would say the exact opposite is true.  In fact, from a distinctively Christian point of view, I would say that what’s most important is what you take with you, and not what you leave behind.

This is an insight we get in the New Testament, in passages like the one we just heard as today’s gospel reading.  Here, in Matthew 4, Jesus calls four men to be his apostles—his full-time, fully-committed followers: Peter and Andrew and James and John.

He calls, and they follow—immediately, without any hesitation (probably because they had already encountered Jesus at least one time previously).

Think of all they left behind in responding to the words of Jesus as they did.  They left behind their fishing businesses; they left behind their families (although I’m sure they made arrangements for them to be provided and cared for).  They left behind their friendships, their possessions, their homes.  As Peter said to Jesus later on in Matthew 19, “We have left everything to follow you!”

Obviously they left behind a great deal.

But what did they take with them?  They left behind some very important relationships and parts of their lives, that’s true, but what did they take with them when they began to accompany Jesus that day?

Very simply, they took with them A DESIRE—A HOLY DESIRE!  They took with them a desire to follow Jesus faithfully and to do his perfect and holy will in their lives!

In other words, they took with them the desire to do what’s most important in life!  Now, as we all know, this desire that they had—the desire to do God’s will—did not always prevail in them.  They were weak human beings just like the rest of us.  Sometimes this desire was overridden by things like fear (as was the case for Simon Peter on Holy Thursday when he denied Jesus 3 times) or doubt (as was the case for Thomas after the resurrection)—but it was always present to some extent.  And eventually it became the driving force in their lives.

That’s why they’re all canonized saints!  They took with them the desire to do God’s will when Jesus called them away from their fishing businesses, they lived with that desire in their hearts until they died (most by martyrdom), they produced good fruit in the process, and they took that good fruit with them into the Lord’s eternal kingdom.

There’s a great line in the Book of Revelation that says this beautifully.  It reads, “Happy are the dead who die in the Lord!  Yes, they shall find rest from their labors, for their good works accompany them.”  (Rev. 14:13)

The saints—that is to say, all those who are saved—take their good works with them when they leave this life, and those good works reap from God an eternal reward.

What’s ultimately most important is what you take with you, not what you leave behind.

This is certainly something we all need to be aware of.  But it’s also something that we need to share with others—especially, I dare say, people we know who are in public life.  I say that because their tendency these days is to reverse this truth—with potentially disastrous consequences.  Their tendency these days is to focus on what they leave behind, not on what they take with them.  Have you noticed that?  Have you noticed how many of our politicians and other public figures are focused on—some would say “obsessed with”—their “legacies”?  They’re consumed with the desire to be recognized for their worldly achievements, and with the desire to be written about favorably in history books in future generations.  That’s the driving force in their lives of public service.  And the tragic irony is that many of these public figures have promoted evils like abortion and euthanasia and “same sex marriage”—which means that even though they may be leaving behind what they consider to be a great legacy, what they’re actually taking with them is a lot of sinful behavior—sinful behavior that they will someday have to answer for.

That’s why we need to pray for our president and for all those who hold public office—every day!

So in conclusion I invite you to ponder this question during the coming week.  It’s really one of the most important questions you will ever reflect on in your life:

If I died today, what would I take with me?  What would be in my “spiritual luggage” (so to speak)?

Hopefully we will come to the realization that if we died today we would take with us the same kind of desire and good works that Peter and Andrew and James and John took with them when they left this earthly life 2,000 years ago. 

And if, perchance, we don’t come to that realization, hopefully we will get to confession in the very near future, and begin repacking our bags.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Do You See?

Kevin Becker

(Second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 15, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 1: 29-34.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday 2017]

In today’s gospel story, John the Baptist sees what no one else sees.  Everybody else sees a young, Jewish rabbi walking toward John at the Jordan River.  Nothing extraordinary about that.  But John has a deeper perception; he “sees” something more.  John sees “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”!  John sees his Messiah; John sees his Savior.  In short, John sees God ALIVE and PRESENT and AT WORK in his cousin, Jesus.

Which brings us to Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, and a young man named Kevin Becker. 

Many of you know the story of Blessed Pier Giorgio, who’s become a great inspiration and role model to Catholic young people all over the world, especially in the last few decades.  Recent popes have often mentioned him and quoted him in their World Youth Day talks and homilies—and in other addresses they’ve given where lots of young people have been present.  Pier Giorgio was born in Turin, Italy in 1901, and died just 24 years later of polio—a disease that he probably contracted from the many sick people he visited and cared for during his relatively short life.  He came from a wealthy family (his father owned a newspaper), but he gave away most of what he had to the poor—even, sometimes, his bus money.  He was also a very athletic young man—a mountain climber, among other things.  And, of course, he was deeply devoted to prayer and the sacraments and his Catholic faith.

He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1990.

Now on to Kevin Becker.  In 2011, Kevin was a student at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.  He didn’t know any of this information about Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati; he didn’t even know Pier Giorgio’s name.  Then came the terrible day that year when he fell from the second floor of the house he was renting with two friends, two fellow college students.  He fractured his skull in five places and his brain was severely injured.  The doctors did emergency surgery immediately, but for nine days afterward he was completely unresponsive.  The doctors thought he probably wouldn’t live; and if he did somehow recover they said that in all likelihood he’d be severely handicapped for the rest of his life. 

Well, one of Kevin’s cousins suggested that the family begin praying to Blessed Pier Giorgio, asking for his intercession, because, as she put it, “He needs one more miracle to be canonized a saint.”  So the family did, and Kevin’s mother placed a picture of Pier Giorgio by her son’s hospital bed.

The next day, much to the surprise of everyone, Kevin opened his eyes for the first time since the accident.  Shortly thereafter he began to stand, speak and walk normally.  When he left the hospital and began his physical rehab, he discovered that he was miles ahead of the other people who were there with brain injuries—including those who had been in recovery for six months to a year.  When he was given some cognitive tests to determine how much brain damage he had experienced, he passed with flying colors.  In fact, the doctors told him it was like he had never been injured.

On the day after he came home from the hospital, he decided to take a walk with his mother, and during the course of that walk he told her about a strange, dreamlike experience that he had during the time he was unconscious.  Kevin said that, during this “dream,” he woke up in the house he shared with his friends, and he heard someone moving downstairs.  Kevin said it was unusual for one of the other guys to be downstairs first in the morning, because he was normally the first one up.  So he went down to investigate, and in the living room he found a young man—a young man he didn’t know.  He said, “Who are you?”  The man said, “I’m Giorgio, your new roommate.”  Kevin said, “That can’t be.  I already have two roommates, Nick and Joe.”  The stranger said, “You don’t have to worry about them for now.”

Kevin then spent the “day” with Giorgio, who, he said did everything possible to keep him in the house.  And that was difficult for Kevin, because he’s an athletic guy—an ardent soccer player—who hates to stay indoors.  But Kevin said that every time he tried to leave the house Giorgio would say to him, “You’re not ready to go out there yet.”

Kevin’s mother then said to her son, “Do you think you’d recognize this person if you saw a picture of him?”  Kevin said, “Yes.”  So she showed him the picture of Pier Giorgio that had been at his bedside (he hadn’t seen it in the hospital), and Kevin said, “Yes, that’s him.  That’s the guy in my dream.  That’s the guy who kept telling me not to leave the house.”

I read recently that the medical records of Kevin Becker’s case have been sent to Rome, to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  Perhaps it will be the miracle that results in Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati finally becoming Saint Pier Giorgio Frassati!

I certainly hope it is!

In today’s gospel story, John the Baptist sees what no one else sees: He sees God ALIVE and PRESENT and AT WORK in his cousin, Jesus. 

In the story I just told in this homily, what do you see?

  • ·         A mysterious case of spontaneous healing?
  •           An unexplained phenomenon that has a natural explanation that we just don’t understand yet—but someday will?
  • ·         A young man who got lucky?

Or do you see a God who is ALIVE and PRESENT and AT WORK in his world?

In this story, what do you see?

I’m not sure how you would answer that question, my brothers and sisters, but I can tell you with almost absolute certitude how John the Baptist would answer it.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The ‘Light’ of the Magi and the ‘Darkness’ of Herod

Jagger goes to the gallows.

(Epiphany 2017: This homily was given on January 8, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 2: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Epiphany 2017]

Light and darkness.  The contrast between those two realities is crystal clear in the story we just heard from Matthew 2—and in the verses that immediately follow this passage in Matthew’s gospel.  The “light” of the star that guided the Magi from their homeland (probably ancient Persia) to the Savior of the world in Bethlehem, stands in sharp contrast to the “darkness” that filled the heart of King Herod: a darkness—a hatred—which led him to murder a lot of people, including some members of his own family.

First, the light.  The journey of the Magi can be seen, from one perspective at least, as a metaphor for the Christian life.  The life of a disciple—a true disciple—of Jesus Christ is really a lot like the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem: it’s a journey to Jesus. It’s not always an easy journey; there are obstacles and difficult people (like Herod) that you have to deal with along the way.  But you don’t have to do it alone and without help!  As a baptized, Catholic Christian you have a “light”—the light of your Catholic Faith—to guide you safely to your destination, just like the Magi had the light of the star of Bethlehem to guide them on their way.  And if you follow that light of faith and persevere in your journey as these Magi persevered in theirs, it will be worth it in the end.  You will meet Jesus as they did; only not in a manger, but rather in his eternal kingdom!  As the priest used to say in the old opening prayer for the Mass of the Epiphany: “Father, you revealed your Son to the nations by the light of a star.  Lead us to your glory in heaven by the light of faith.”

Which brings us to the darkness—specifically the darkness of King Herod—which, as I said a few moments ago, filled his heart with hatred, and motivated him to kill a lot of innocent people, including the Holy Innocents.

His purpose in killing was usually to get rid of rivals: to get rid of any and all potential rivals to his throne.  That, of course, was why today’s gospel said that he was “greatly troubled” when the Magi told him that they were there to see the “newborn king of the Jews.”

If he were alive today and were evaluated by a modern-day psychologist or psychiatrist, I suspect that Herod would be diagnosed as a “paranoid psychopath”—or something along those lines.  After all, among the people he murdered were two of his own sons, his wife and his brother-in-law.

Now you know why Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, once made the remark that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than it was to be Herod’s son.

Which brings us, finally, to 2017.  What really has me concerned, my brothers and sisters, is that in our American society right now the “darkness of Herod” seems to be eclipsing the “light of the Magi.”  In other words, in many places and in so many ways hatred seems to be trumping faith these days.  And I use the word “trumping” there as a kind of pun, because nowhere has this been more evident to me in recent weeks than in the response of many of our cultural elites (and other people as well) to our new president-elect!

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican—it doesn’t matter whom you voted for in this past election—this kind of Herod-like vitriol that we’ve been hearing since November 8 ought to concern you.  It ought to concern everybody!  It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s policies, it’s quite another to use every four-letter word you can think of on social media to describe a man and his family—or to purposely engage in violent, hate-filled protests; or to beat and torture a mentally handicapped man, as those 4 young people in Chicago did last week!

And of course, our president-elect hasn’t always responded to others with charity and respect either—which has only compounded the problem.

The darkness of Herod, I’m sad to say, is enveloping our culture right now.  On this matter, and on many other issues.  Hopefully we are not contributing to it—and, if we have been contributing to it, hopefully by the grace of God we will stop, because no nation built on hatred can survive for very long.

The destructive power of hate was illustrated beautifully in an old Twilight Zone program that I saw the other day during the Syfy Network’s New Year’s Day Twilight Zone “marathon”.  In this particular episode a man named Jagger is to be hanged for murder.  He’s unrepentant, and filled with hatred toward the people of the town where he allegedly committed the crime—and by the same token the townspeople all hate him.  They can’t wait to see him strung up and hanging from a noose.  Then on the day of the execution something very strange happens: the sun doesn’t rise.  Darkness covers the town throughout the day—and deepens after Jagger is hanged.

The people can’t understand the reason for the phenomenon, until the local reverend steps forward and says that the sky is black because of hate—their hate—the hatred they’re holding onto in their hearts.

The episode then comes to a close when someone turns on the radio to hear the local news report.  The announcer says that the darkness is not only happening locally, it’s also being reported in other places around the country and around the world: North Vietnam, Dallas, Budapest, Chicago, Shanghai, etc.

The last word of the program, of course, as usual, goes to the creator of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling—and it’s a powerful one (so powerful that I’ll also make it the last word of my homily).  It gives us the message he wants us to take from the story, which is the same message I would like people to take from this homily.

Serling says:

A sickness known as hate. Not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ—but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don't look for it in the Twilight Zone—look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.