Sunday, October 06, 2019

“GUARD the Deposit of Faith!”—St. Paul's Command to Timothy and to All Priests

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 6, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4; Psalm 95:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-seventh Sunday 2019]

It happened many years ago, but I remember the encounter as if it occurred yesterday.  I happened to be in Warwick one afternoon, and I ran into a married couple that I knew from the northern part of the state.  During the course of our conversation the wife said to me, “Fr. Ray, please keep us in your prayers.  My husband and I have been trying to have children for nine years.  Tomorrow I'm undergoing “in vitro-fertilization” for the FOURTH time.  Please pray that it works so that we can finally have a child.”

Well, immediately, I was put on the spot.  That's because the Catholic Church, in the name of Jesus Christ (not in its own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ) teaches that in vitro fertilization is immoral.  The desire to overcome infertility is, of course, a good desire.  But, as St. Paul teaches in his letter to the Romans, we may never use an evil means to attain a good end.  IVF is an evil means.  Why?  Not because technology is involved.  The Church is not against technology as such.  In fact Jesus, through his Church, teaches that some medical methods of treating infertility are quite acceptable.  But any method which REPLACES the marital act is immoral.  And, unfortunately, IVF does that: children are conceived—not through the loving union of two parents—but rather in a petri dish.  And there are other immoral dimensions to this procedure. For example, the method that's normally used to obtain sperm is immoral, as is the common practice of destroying some of the eggs that are fertilized.  Lest we forget, to destroy a fertilized human egg is to destroy a human being made in the image and likeness of God.

Well, as gently as I could, I tried to explain all of this to the woman and her husband.  And, not surprisingly, they were devastated.  The wife finally said, “Fr. Ray, do you hate us now for having done this 3 times?  Will you think less of us when you see us in the future?”  I said, “Of course not.  You're wonderful people.  And besides, in the past you didn't realize this was wrong—as many other Catholics don't realize that it's wrong.”

Then she added this comment, which I will never, ever forget: “But Father Ray, our PRIEST told us it was okay.  We went to see him before we did any of this, and he said that as long as they intended to put all the fertilized eggs back, it would be fine.”

At that, my blood pressure went through the roof!  I was livid!  Not at the couple, but at the priest, who should have known better!  You see, instead of telling these two people the truth, instead of being courageous and giving them the right message, he told them what he thought they wanted to hear—probably because he didn't want to offend them.  And what was the end result of his “compassionate act?”  Well first of all, he put me in a terribly awkward position; and secondly, he made it much worse for this good, sincere couple.  In trying to be a “nice guy,” he ultimately caused them to experience more pain when they finally learned the truth—the truth that he should have told them in the first place!

Why do I mention this incident today?  Number one, because this is an issue which many Catholics are unclear about (in fact, someone in the parish asked me about this exact topic just a few days ago); and number two because our second reading for this Mass is addressed to Timothy, who was one of the very first leaders in the Church.  St. Paul wrote two letters to Timothy, in which he tells the young priest how to be a true shepherd in the family of God.  But nowhere in either of the letters does Paul say: “Tim, be a nice guy.  Don’t ever offend anybody.  Tell people exactly what they want to hear.  Give them an easy message.”  Rather, Paul encouraged him to speak the TRUTH in love, even if it hurt—even if it was offensive to some.  For example, in the text we just heard he says (and here I’m using the old New American Bible translation), “[Timothy], take as a model of sound teaching what you have heard me say, in faith and love in Christ Jesus.”  Now Timothy must have heard Paul say many difficult things, because Paul did that on a regular basis. That's clear from his many New Testament letters.  He was not a wimp.  He was not afraid to confront the pressing social and cultural issues of his day. And make no mistake about it: Paul suffered for being so honest and truthful.  That's why he also tells Timothy, “Never be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but with the strength which comes from God bear your share of the hardships which the gospel entails.”  In other words, “Tim, if you intend to be a good priest, get ready to be opposed by some people when you speak the full truth of the gospel.  It's happened to me; it will certainly happen to you.  Don't think you'll somehow be exempt from the experience.  But don't be afraid either.  God will give you the strength you need to deal with it.” 

Then, a few verses later, Paul gives him this most important instruction: “Guard the rich deposit of faith with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.”  The key word there is the word “guard.”  Notice that Paul DOESN'T say “change the deposit of faith if you feel like it;” he doesn't say “water down the deposit of faith if it challenges you too much.”  He tells Timothy to "guard it."  That's because neither Paul, nor Timothy, nor Peter, nor anyone else had the power to change it.  The same is true today.  Now this is something that many modern Catholics (and others) don't seem to understand.  They want the Church to change her teaching on the priesthood, and on certain aspects of sexual morality.  The Church does not have the power or the authority to do such a thing!  It never did, and it never will!  All the Church can do is what Paul says here.  All it can do is GUARD and PROMOTE the deposit of faith (which is the full gospel of Jesus Christ).

I am confident that Timothy followed Paul's instruction.  Which means that if he had been a priest today, and a married couple had come to him seeking guidance on how to deal with their infertility, Timothy would not have given them the wrong advice in order to be a nice guy. He would have gently, patiently (and courageously) explained to them the clear teaching of the Church on the matter.  And he would have helped them to explore morally acceptable options to deal with their difficult situation—like NaPro technology, which treats infertility with natural methods that are based on good science.

I ask you today to pray that we will have more leaders of this type in God's family.  And it's certainly in your interest as lay people to do this: because good priests like Timothy not only save their own souls, they also take many lay people with them to heaven.  Bad priests, on the other hand, do exactly the opposite. 

And we’ve had far too many of them in the Church in recent decades, as we are all painfully aware.

St. Paul and St. Timothy, pray for us—and pray especially today for our leaders: for all bishops, priests and deacons in the Church. Pray that they will speak the truth in love to their people ALWAYS—as you both did.  Amen.