Friday, April 19, 2019

Which Wound am I Most Grateful for?

(Good Friday 2019: This homily was given on April 19, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 31:2-15; Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Good Friday 2019]

As we contemplate the sufferings of Jesus tonight, we might, quite naturally, feel some sadness in our heart—remembering all that Jesus endured for us on that first Good Friday some 2,000 years ago.  But Good Friday is not first and foremost a day for sadness.  It’s first and foremost a day for GRATITUDE—for thanksgiving.  Because, as Isaiah tells us in tonight’s first reading, by the wounds of Jesus we are healed.  That is to say, by the wounds of Jesus, we can be forgiven for anything and everything.  By the wounds of Jesus, we can break with whatever evil is present in our past—we can put it behind us, forever—if we sincerely repent.  That is possible by his wounds, and only by his wounds. 

Thank you, God! 

It reminds me of the woman who went to her parish priest one day and told him that she had seen Jesus.  He was rightly skeptical about her claim, so he said to her, “Madam, when Jesus appears to you again, ask him to tell you my sins, the sins I confessed to another priest in confession last week.  Only Jesus and the priest know those sins, and the priest is bound by the seal of confession.  If this apparition tells you what my sins are, then I’ll believe it’s Jesus.”  Two weeks later the woman came back, and the priest said to her, “Well, did Jesus appear to you again?”  She said, “Yes.”  “And did you ask him what my sins were?”  She said, “Yes.”  “And what did Jesus say?”  “He said, ‘Go tell your priest I have forgotten his sins.’”  Jeremiah prophesied (chapter 31, verse 34) that when the new covenant was instituted, God would FORGET our sins.  In other words, once we repented of them and they were forgiven, they would never come between us and him again.  Never!  I think we all know how much it hurts when another person says that they forgive us for a sin, but then later on that same person throws the sin back in our face and rubs our nose in it.  God will never do that—he’s told us so—because of the wounds of his Son. 

So I suppose for each of us the important question tonight is: Which wound am I most grateful for?  As an individual, as a sinner, which wound am I, personally, most grateful for?  You see, it’s not a coincidence that Jesus had the specific wounds that he had.  Those different wounds, which were inflicted on different parts of his body, point to the many different sins that he carried to the cross.  For example, we’re told that his head was wounded with a crown of thorns—that was for all our sins of the mind: the uncharitable thoughts, the angry thoughts, the prideful thoughts, the impure thoughts, the despairing thoughts.  Believe it or not, he was also wounded there for our many sins of the tongue—because every sin of the tongue begins in the mind.  So as his precious blood flowed from the deep cuts the thorns made in his head, our sins of lying, gossip, slander, and cursing were all washed away. 

He was also wounded in his hands.  Because of those wounds, every abortionist who uses his hands to destroy innocent human life can be forgiven if he repents.  Because of those wounds, every murderer can have his sins washed away if he repents.  Because of those wounds the repentant thief on our Lord’s right was forgiven.  Because of those wounds all sins of violence and impurity committed with our hands can be washed away forever.

The heart of Jesus.  As we heard tonight in John’s account of the Passion, “One of the soldiers ran a lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out.” Our Lord’s heart was wounded for the many times that we put other things (or other people) before God: the times when something (or someone) other than the Lord reigns supreme in our heart.  It might be a spouse; it might be a friend; it might a group of people that we want to fit in with; it might be a sport or money or getting ahead professionally—or something else.  But praise God, whatever it is, the fact that our Lord’s heart was punctured with that spear means that we can be forgiven—if we turn away from the idol, and put the real God back on the throne of our heart, where he belongs.

And finally--our Lord’s feet.  These were pierced with nails for all the times when we didn’t walk away from situations where we knew we’d be strongly tempted to sin.  They were wounded for the times when we’ve gone to places we knew we shouldn’t have: the party where we knew that people would be drinking excessively and acting promiscuously; the movie where we knew our mind would be filled with violent or lustful images.  We say in the Act of Contrition that we will “avoid the near occasion of sin.  Our Lord’s feet were wounded for all the times we have failed to do that—so that forgiveness would be possible even for those sins that we could have easily avoided and should have easily avoided, but didn’t.

Which wound am I most grateful for?  As we venerate the cross tonight during this Good Friday service, let’s think of that question, and by our veneration let’s express our deep, heartfelt gratitude to the Son of God who has saved us by his wounds, and who now offers us forgiveness and strength: the strength to live a life free from the power of sin.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews said to us a few moments ago: “Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”  May we all do that tonight, as we approach the cross, and then later as we receive the Savior himself—body, blood, soul and divinity—in the Holy Eucharist. 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Holy Week: A Time of Change

(Palm Sunday 2019 (C): This homily was given on April 14, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Palm Sunday 2019]

The very first Holy Week was a period of time when changes took place in many different people: some of those changes were good, and some of them were not-so-good.

One of the most disturbing changes in the not-so-good category took place in the hearts and souls of CERTAIN RESIDENTS OF JERUSALEM.  Think about it: Some of the same men and women who were hailing Jesus as the Messiah on Palm Sunday were screaming for his blood on Good Friday!

The changing tide of public opinion: one day you’re the greatest person on earth, the next day you’re “public enemy number one”!

(That’s why we should always try to please God, and not human beings.)

And how about the change in JUDAS ISCARIOT?  That was another terrible tragedy of Holy Week!  This man went from being a close, intimate friend of the divine Son of God, to the worst traitor in the history of the world!

PETER also changed for the worse during these few short days, when he denied three times that he even knew our Lord—although, thankfully, he eventually changed back through repentance.

Actually ALL THE APOSTLES changed for the worse, since, as St. Mark tells us, they all abandoned Jesus as soon as our Lord was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane. 

But, thanks be to God, many other people changed for the better during the first Holy Week!  The “GOOD THIEF,” for example (who is only mentioned in Luke’s version of the passion), changed radically as he hung next to Jesus on Good Friday.  He made a 180 degree turnaround in his heart, and so he joined our Lord that day in Paradise!

(All of which shows that deathbed conversions can and do happen!  Yes—they might be rare, but they certainly are possible.)

The ROMAN CENTURION who stood at the foot of the cross changed for the better: he became a believer—a man of faith—after he saw the way that Jesus died.

JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA changed in a positive way by becoming an openly-committed disciple of Jesus when he came forth to claim our Lord’s body for burial, having been a secret disciple of Jesus before that.

Even our BLESSED MOTHER underwent a kind of change from Palm Sunday to Good Friday.  She went from being “the rejoicing Mother” of the Messiah as she watched her Son enter Jerusalem in triumph, to “the sorrowful Mother” of the Savior as she stood at the foot of his cross—in the process becoming a role model for us as we struggle to deal with our daily crosses.

I share these thoughts with you today in this brief homily to encourage us all to make some time for the Lord during this Holy Week—because if we do that we also have the opportunity to change for the better!  This Holy Week is like the first one in that sense: it provides an opportunity for us to change our lives in a positive way!  But for that to happen, we need to enter into it by our active participation. 

Let me conclude now by sharing with you this week’s schedule of events here at St. Pius.  When you go home, I highly encourage you to put at least some of these events on your calendars:

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we will have morning Mass as usual at 7am; on Thursday, Friday and Saturday we will have Morning Prayer at the normal Mass times.  The Easter Triduum begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday evening at 7pm, followed by adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the church hall until 11pm (a time for us to remember the Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane).  On Friday we will have Stations of the Cross twice: once outside at noon; then, at 3pm, here in church.  The celebration of the Lord’s Passion will take place on Friday evening at 7; and the first Mass of Easter—the glorious celebration of the Easter Vigil—will be held at 7:30pm on Saturday night. 

Please note: there will be no 5pm Mass next Saturday!  The normal time for our vigil Mass is CHANGED (as hopefully we will be—for the better!—when this Holy Week is over).

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Parable of the Prodigal Son: What Was the Rest of the Story?

Paul Harvey 1918-2009

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (C):  This homily was given on March 31, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 34:2-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32.) 

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2019]

Radio personality Paul Harvey became famous for ending his newscasts with the expression, “And now you know the rest of the story.” 

Too bad Mr. Harvey died back in 2009.  Because if he were still around, he might have been able do some research on the two brothers in today’s gospel parable, and give us some insights as to what happened to them AFTER these events that we heard about a few moments ago.

What was “the rest of the story”?

It all ends rather abruptly, does it not?

What was “the rest of the story,” first of all, for the prodigal son?  We know that he went back to his dad and was forgiven for his many sins, but did he stay with his father?  Did he live a happy and grateful life from this moment onward?  Did he really appreciate his father’s forgiveness and pass that lesson on to his children and grandchildren?  Or did he give into temptation a second time and walk away, never to return?  Or did he walk away and come back again?  Did he do that a number of times?

Inquiring minds want to know!

And, just as importantly, what was “the rest of the story” for the older, faithful son?  Did he stay angry at his brother—and his dad?  Did that unresolved anger eventually lead him to abandon his family?  Or did he finally let go of it and find peace?  And did he ever get tempted to do what his brother did?  Did he ever give in to the temptation?  And if he did give in, did he ever repent—or did he despair?

Now you might say, “Fr. Ray, hold on a minute.  This is just a parable!  This is a story Jesus Christ made up to illustrate the mercy and forgiveness of his heavenly Father.  As far as we can tell, it didn’t really happen historically.”

Well, that’s true.  But these are still valid questions to ponder, because they apply to all of us and to all human beings who DO experience the love and forgiveness of God the Father in real life.  The ways these two fictional sons might have reacted (had they been real people) show us the ways we might respond in real life in similar circumstances.

So what was “the rest of the story” for the two brothers?

Well, if you asked me which of these two boys was more likely to fall into serious sin and get off the right track later in life, I would say without question it was the older son—the “non-prodigal one”—the son who had been with his father from the beginning.

That might surprise some of you, although I don’t think it should.  After his return home, the prodigal son was deeply aware of his father’s love and mercy—the love and mercy his dad had for him, personally!  After everything this boy had done, his father was willing to take him back when he repented—no questions asked!  And then he treated his repentant son like he had never left!  The father forgave—and in a very real sense he forgot—his son’s many sins.

The bottom line is this: After he returned and was welcomed home, the prodigal son had a relationship with his dad which was rooted in love—real, agape love; whereas the older son had a relationship with his dad which—from all external indications at least—was superficial and cold.  It was not a loving father/son relationship; rather, it was a lot like the kind of relationship a client has with a businessman, or a servant with a master.

Notice how this boy speaks to his father after he finds out his younger brother has come home and his dad has thrown a big party for him.  He says, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.”

In other words, “I paid my dues; I did what you asked me to do; I fulfilled my end of our father-son deal.  Why haven’t you given me what I’ve earned?  Why haven’t you given me a just reward for all my years of faithful service?”

To me, that sounds like something a disgruntled employee would say to his boss, not something a loving son would say to his dear, old dad!

When we see a relationship with someone primarily in legal terms (like this older son apparently saw his relationship with his father), we don’t feel very sorry when we hurt the other person.  Nor do we feel a lot of loyalty to the other person.  This explains why you and your local car salesman will haggle about the price of the car you’d like to buy on his lot.  He’s trying to get you to pay the highest amount possible; you’re trying to get him to charge you the lowest amount possible.  And in the process you’re not concerned about hurting his feelings, and he’s not concerned about hurting yours!

The relationship is strictly business!

Unfortunately, I think that’s also how many people interact with God.  It becomes a business-like connection: “Ok, God, I’ll give you an hour each weekend, I’ll say some prayers every day, I’ll observe all the rules your Church gives me, and in exchange you give me (fill in the blank).”

That’s how the older boy in this parable would relate to the Lord if he were a modern-day Catholic.

Every once in a while someone will say to me, “Fr. Ray, I don’t get it.  I used to see so-and-so in church every Sunday; now they don’t even want to talk about God.  What happened?”

Well, in many cases what happened is that something went wrong in their “business deal” with the Lord.  God didn’t fulfill his part of the “deal” to the person’s satisfaction, so the person stopped fulfilling his part of the bargain.

God wants to have a loving relationship with each and every one of us.  He’s not our employer; he’s our Father!  And such a relationship is always possible.  That’s the good news!  That’s the message of this parable!  If we’re like the prodigal son before his conversion, all we need to do is run back to our Father by making a sincere, sacramental confession—maybe during this week’s parish mission!  If we’re like the older son, who seemed to think of his father as his boss, all we need to do is to change our way of looking at reality and invite the Lord into our hearts—something I’m sure we’ll also have the opportunity to do during the mission.

Doing these things will make it much more likely that “the rest of our stories” will include a happy ending—the happy ending we long for, the happy ending we were made for, the happy ending we call “heaven”!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Thank God for the ‘Fourth Year’

(Third Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 24, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 103:1-11; 1 Cor 6:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Lent 2019]

“Thank God for the fourth year.”

That should be our response after listening to today’s gospel reading from Luke 13.

Jesus tells us a parable here about a man who planted a fig tree in his orchard that didn’t produce any figs for three years.

Now if I had the opportunity to talk to this particular orchard owner today, I would say to him, “You, sir, are patient man—a very patient man.  Far more patient than I am.  After my father died I took care of the landscaping on our property in Barrington, and I know that if I had ever planted something that was supposed to bear fruit every year but didn’t, it would have been gone—after one year!  No doubt about it.”

But the orchard owner in the parable went one step further.  He not only gave the tree three years; he actually listened to the words of his gardener and agreed to give the tree another year—a fourth year—to bear fruit.

And not only that …

He even agreed to let the gardener cultivate the ground and fertilize the tree to give it the best chance it could possibly have to finally become fruitful.

To me this parable makes clear the importance of praying and doing penance for the conversion of those in the state of mortal sin, who are squandering God’s gifts and are in danger of losing their souls.  The owner of the orchard here represents the Lord, the barren fig tree represents the sinner—that’s clear enough.  As for the gardener, to me he represents all those who are currently praying and offering spiritual sacrifices for the sinner.  Notice that the orchard owner gave the fourth year (the bonus year) to the fig tree specifically because of the pleas of the gardener.  It was his intercession that was key in the process.  And because of what he did, the tree received special graces that it would not otherwise have received.  (Specifically, the ground around it got cultivated and fertilized.)

So never stop being the “gardener” for those who are estranged from God and the Church—especially members of your families.

As long as they’re in their “fourth year” (in other words, as long as they’re alive and breathing) there’s hope for their repentance and conversion.

Of course, their “fourth year” won’t go on forever.  It didn’t go on indefinitely for the barren fig tree, and it doesn’t go on forever for any one of us—which is why Jesus preceded this parable by mentioning the sudden and tragic deaths of two groups of people: first of all, a group of Galileans murdered by Pontius Pilate (who, by the way, was not the nice guy he’s sometimes portrayed as being in Hollywood movies), and secondly a group of 18 people who died when a tower fell on them at Siloam. 

Notice that Jesus said the same thing after mentioning each of these events: “But I tell you, if you will not repent, you will all perish as they did.”

He meant that, of course, in the spiritual sense—alluding to hell.

The moral here is really simple and straightforward: Don’t delay repentance!  If there’s a serious sin in your life that you need to deal with, go to confession and deal with it.  Confess it, be absolved of it, and be freed from the guilt of it!  You’ll make the priest’s day.  We priests like to catch “big fish”—as St. John Vianney (the Cure of Ars) used to call them.

Let me end my homily today by mentioning a movie which is being released this week and which I strongly urge you to see.  It’s called Unplanned, and it’s based on the best-selling book of the same title (which some of you have probably read).  For those who might not have read it, Unplanned is the autobiographical story of a woman named Abby Johnson, who was once the director of the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Bryan, Texas.  Abby wanted to help women in crisis situations, and so she volunteered for the organization in 2001, while she was still in college at Texas A&M University.  She started off as a volunteer escort (an escort at an abortion clinic is the person who’s responsible for taking a woman from her car and into the building—while at the same time keeping her from listening to the pro-life volunteers outside the gate who are appealing to the woman not to kill her baby).

Abby, who ended up having two abortions herself, believed the lie that Planned Parenthood really wants to reduce the number of abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies, so when she graduated from college she became more deeply involved in the organization—thinking that this was a way to show compassion and love for women and to reduce the abortion rate at the same time.  Her intentions, at least to some extent, were good.

She rose through the ranks rather quickly and eventually became the local clinic’s director.  Of course, there were some things that bothered her—like the pressure she was receiving from her superiors to do more abortions and more late term abortions so that the clinic would bring in more money.  But what finally opened her eyes to the truth of what she was involved in occurred in late September of 2009, on the day she was asked to hold the ultrasound probe on the abdomen of a woman during an abortion.  She had never done that before, but they were short staffed that particular day and the doctor needed her assistance.  And so, for the first time (through the miracle of ultrasound) she was able to see what really happens to a baby in the womb during an abortion procedure.  Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty.  Actually, it was horrific—so much so that when it was over Abby dropped the probe because she was so upset.

She then left the clinic in tears. 

And where did she go?  Where did she go in her anguish and in her distress? 

Well, believe it or not, she went immediately to the nearby office of the Coalition for Life—and to the people of that organization who had been opposing her for years; to the people who had been protesting and praying in front of her clinic!

You might say, “Why did she go to them?  Why did she seek help from these men and women who had been her enemies for so long?”

It’s because they had been respectful and nice to her, in spite of the fact that they detested what she was doing!  And it’s because they had prayed for her!  To put it in the terms of this homily, it’s because they had been faithful and persistent “gardeners” for the “barren fig tree” of Abby Johnson’s life from the time she had been an escort at the clinic.  And so when the full reality of what abortion is hit her square in the face, Abby trusted that the people at the Coalition for life would take care of her and give her the support and guidance and love that she needed.

And she was right.  They did.  They helped her find forgiveness, and healing—and the truth (which ultimately led her to become Catholic in 2012, along with her husband).

Now, ten years later, Abby Johnson is one of the strongest and most persuasive voices in the pro-life movement.  She’s as powerful as she is because she knows the dirty business of abortion from the inside-out.  She’s been a victim of its many lies—and now she’s determined to expose those lies to the world. 

This new movie is part of that effort.  See it!—and challenge your pro-choice friends to see it as well.

Through the prayers and good works of the men and women at the Coalition for Life, God gave Abby Johnson a “fourth year” to bear fruit, and—thanks be to God—she’s made the most of it.

May all of us do the same thing, if ever we need to.