Sunday, May 08, 2022

The Faithfulness of a Mother’s Love


(Fourth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 8,2022 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalm 100; Revelation 7:9-14; John 10:27-30.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2022]

 

“Patient dead.  Mother prayed.  Patient came back to life.”  Those words were written by the first doctor who treated 14-year-old John Smith on January 19, 2015—the day he fell through the ice on a frozen lake near his home in St. Charles, Missouri.  By the time the first responders located John and pulled him out of the icy water, he wasn’t breathing, had no pulse, and had been without oxygen for a full 15 minutes.  They immediately started CPR and took him to the local hospital, where doctors and medical personnel continued to work on him feverishly for 43 more minutes—with no response.  The medical team finally gave up, and called in John’s adoptive mother, Joyce, so that she could pay her final respects to her son before they officially declared him dead. 

But Joyce Smith was not ready to give up hope for her son’s recovery!  And so she began to pray over his lifeless body—in a loud voice that could be heard throughout the emergency room of the hospital.  She doesn’t remember her entire prayer that day, but she does recall saying these words to God: “Please send your Holy Spirit to save my son!”

Suddenly, without any further medical intervention, the boy’s heart monitor began to register a pulse—which put him on the road to what has become a full and complete recovery.

John’s miraculous story is the subject of the film, Breakthrough, which debuted in theaters in 2019.  I highly recommend it (you can probably get it on Netflix or some other such service), since it’s a beautiful testimony to the power of prayer, and to the faithfulness of a mother’s love.

The reason I mention it in my homily today is primarily because of that last point. It’s Mother’s Day weekend, and this story witnesses in a powerful way to the faithfulness of a mother’s love—a good mother’s love.  The love of a good mother is not conditional; it does not depend on circumstances.  The love of a good mother is consistent and hopeful and selfless.  Some of us, unfortunately, might not have experienced that kind of love from our moms, but thankfully many of us have.  We should praise God today for that.

This kind of love was certainly present in Joyce Smith.  Here I think it’s important to note that even after John began to register a pulse in the ER, most of the medical personnel involved in his case were not very hopeful.  Neither was John’s adoptive father.  They all believed that even if John did somehow manage to survive this ordeal, his quality of life would be extremely poor—since he had been deprived of oxygen for so long and had probably experienced severe brain damage in the process.

Only Joyce persevered in her hope for a complete recovery.  Only she continued to believe that a positive outcome was possible.  She never gave up!  She had the kind of determination and perseverance that Paul and Barnabas exhibited in today’s first reading.  There we were told that these two apostles went into the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia on two consecutive sabbaths, where they proclaimed the gospel message with clarity and conviction.  But not everybody liked what they heard on those two occasions—and these opponents of the apostles were definitely not quiet in their opposition.  As the Bible puts it, “They were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.”  Ultimately they threw the two apostles out of town.  But notice that Paul and Barnabas did not throw in the towel!  They didn’t give up their mission to preach and teach in the name of Christ.  They didn’t stop doing what they believed God wanted them to do.

They simply shook the dust of Antioch in Pisidia off their feet, and took the gospel message to the next town. And they did it joyfully, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In her faithful love for her son, Joyce Smith (like Paul and Barnabas) refused to give up.  Yet her love was not perfect—as you’ll find out if you see the movie Breakthrough.  But that should not surprise us, since no earthly mother (however good she might be) loves her children with a perfect love. However the good news is that we do have a Mother in heaven who does love us in that way!  Regardless of what our earthly mother is or was like, our heavenly mother Mary loves us unconditionally and with a perfect faithfulness, always praying for us to grow closer to Jesus.  She never gives up on us or on any one of her children—even when they’re in the state of mortal sin and as dead spiritually as John Smith was dead physically. 

Some people would probably say that Mary’s faithful love for her children (that is to say, for all of us) is like Joyce Smith’s faithful love for her son John—but that would be wrong.  It’s actually Joyce’s imperfectly-faithful love for John that’s a bit like Mary’s perfectly-faithful love for us.  Mary’s love is the standard!  Her love is the perfect standard by which every earthly mother’s imperfect love is measured.  So let’s conclude now by seeking Mary’s prayers for all earthly moms (especially all the moms here present): that they will love their children in the future more like Mary loves her children always.  And so for all mothers we pray, “Hail, Mary …”


Sunday, May 01, 2022

The ‘Reparation’ of Simon Peter: An Example for Us

 



(Third Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 1, 2022 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read “Acts 5:27-41; Psalm 30:2-13; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19.)

 [For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Easter 2022]


John steals $25 from his brother, Michael.  The next day John feels guilty for what he’s done, and he tells Michael that he’s sorry.  Michael says to John, “I forgive you.”  John says, “Thank you, Michael,” then turns around and starts to walk away.

If you were Michael, what would you do at that point?

I’ll tell you what I would do.  I’d yell out, “Hey, John, where are you going?  Come back here right now and give me my $25!”

And I’d have every right to do that.

12-year-old Tim is told by his dad not to play baseball too close to the house.  Well, Tim doesn’t listen to his father, and later that day he hits a long fly ball through the living room window.

Sound familiar to anyone?

Tim immediately regrets what he’s done and goes to his dad to apologize.

If you were Tim’s father, and you really cared about the moral and spiritual development of your son, what would you do at that point?

Once again, I’ll tell you what I would do.  I’d say, “Apology accepted; but you can forget about getting any allowance money for the next several weeks.  That cash will be used to help pay for a new window to replace the one you just broke!”

Those two little stories, my brothers and sisters, illustrate the idea of “reparation.”  Catholics used to talk about reparation—and specifically about “the need to make reparation”—all the time.  However, nowadays you rarely hear the concept even mentioned—although the Church still teaches it, and most people (even non-religious people) believe in a form of it, as those two stories make clear.  Even non-believers would agree that John should give the $25 back to his brother, Michael, and that Tim should use his allowance money to help to pay for the window he broke on his house.

That is to say, they would agree that these two boys need to repair the damage they caused by making some concrete acts of “reparation.”

If you are a member of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or some other 12-step group, then you are definitely familiar with this idea and practice.  For the benefit of those who may not be aware of it, Step 8 of AA’s recovery program reads as follows: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed [through our abuse of alcohol], and became willing to make amends to them all.” And then we have step 9, which is: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

That’s reparation.

The need for reparation also explains why we are asked to do some kind of penance after we go to confession.  In paragraph 1491 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church it says this: “The sacrament of Penance is a whole consisting in three actions of the penitent and the priest's absolution. The penitent’s acts are repentance, confession or disclosure of sins to the priest, and the intention to make reparation and do works of reparation.”

During a confession, when I give a penitent prayers to say for his or her penance, I almost always tell the penitent to pray those prayers for specific people—usually the people (or at least some of the people) who were mentioned during the confession (people, in other words, who were hurt by the sins the penitent committed!).

That’s one way they can make reparation for what they’ve done: by praying for the people they’ve sinned against.

Here it’s important to note that reparation is rooted in justice, and is different from forgiveness.  Michael, for example, forgave his brother John when John said he was sorry for stealing Michael’s $25, but John still needed to give that money back to his brother—out of justice.  In the same way, Tim’s dad forgave his son immediately when Tim apologized for breaking the living room window.  But, out of justice, Tim still needed to help with the cost of getting the window fixed. 

The Catechism puts it this way: “Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. . . . Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance.’”  (CCC, 1459)

I mention all this this morning because we have, in today’s gospel reading, a biblical precedent for this idea of reparation.  It comes from Simon Peter’s verbal exchange with the risen Christ at the Sea of Tiberias.  As we heard a few moments ago, three times in this post-resurrection scene Jesus says the same thing to Peter. 

He asks him, “Do you love me?”

Now Jesus was (and is!) God, so he obviously already knew the answer to that question!  He knew the love (and the repentance) that were in Peter’s heart—so why did he ask the question at all, let alone three times?

It’s because, only a few days earlier, Peter had denied three times that he even knew Jesus!  You remember the story, I’m sure; no need to recount it here. 

That means the questions were for Peter’s benefit; they were not designed to enlighten Jesus as to how Peter felt about him!  The three questions of Jesus at the Sea of Tiberius gave Peter three separate opportunities to make three separate acts of reparation for his three terrible sins of Holy Thursday night.

And make no mistake about it, answering those questions was definitely a penance for Peter—especially after Jesus said, “Simon, do you love me?” for the third time!  In fact, the text explicitly tells us that Peter at that point was “distressed”.  He was visibly upset.  He was also probably more than a little bit embarrassed at having to answer the same question three times in front of the other apostles!

I ask you this morning to think of the people whom you regularly hurt by your sins—starting with the people in your family: your husband, your wife, your parents, your children, your brothers and sisters, your co-workers, your fellow students, your friends—and the many other people with whom you share your life.

How often do you think of making reparation—through prayer or through various acts of charity—to these individuals for the sins you commit against them?

Hopefully you think of it often—and hopefully the thought often leads you to prayer and to some kind of concrete action.

Because remember, if we don’t make reparation for our sins here on this earth, we will need to do it after death—in that place we call purgatory—before we will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

To HEAR is one thing; to UNDERSTAND and BELIEVE what you hear is something else entirely!

 

"But daddy, what happened to the flea?"


(Easter 2022: This homily was given on April 17, 2022 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; Luke 24:13-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Easter 2022]

 

To hear is one thing; to believe and understand what you hear is something else entirely.  Let me make this point clear by sharing with you 3 little anecdotes my sister sent me:

A four-year-old girl was learning to say the Lord’s Prayer.  She had heard her mother say it many, many times.  She finally decided to try it on her own.  She said, “Mommy, listen to this: Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us some e-mail.  Amen.”

A father was reading Bible stories to his five-year-old son Billy.  He read, “The man named Lot was warned to take his wife and flee out of the city, but his wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt.”  Billy said, “But daddy, what happened to the flea?”

After Mass one Sunday, a little boy said to the pastor, “Father, when I grow up, I’m going to give you lots of money.”  The priest said, “Well, thank you, Tommy—but why?”

“Because daddy says you’re one of the poorest preachers we’ve ever had.”

All three of those children HEARD something, but all three children misunderstood what they heard!  That four-year-old girl’s mother must have been having trouble downloading her e-mail; little Billy didn’t understand that “flee” was a command given to Lot’s wife, not a companion of Lot’s wife; and Tommy thought his dad was making a comment on the size of the pastor’s bank account, not a comment on the pastor’s speaking ability (or lack thereof).

And, by the way, Tommy and his father are NOT parishioners of St. Pius X!

To hear is one thing; to understand what you hear is something else entirely.

Today we hear—over and over again—the glorious proclamation of Easter: “Jesus Christ is risen!  He’s alive.  He has conquered sin and Satan and eternal death!”

We’ve all heard the message many times, right?  But a more important question is: Do we really understand it?  Do we really understand the importance and the meaning of this decisive event in human history?

It’s not a sin to say we don’t, or that we’re struggling with the issue.  After all, not even the disciples understood the resurrection immediately!  Remember the encounter Jesus had with two of them Easter Sunday afternoon on the road to Emmaus?  As they were walking along, Jesus appeared to them in his resurrected body (although the Bible says they were restrained from recognizing him).  They began to converse with our Lord, and very quickly the subject turned to the tragic events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.  At one point in the discussion, the two disciples say, “We were hoping that [Jesus] was the one who would set Israel free,” indicating that they thought our Lord had somehow failed in his mission.  That, of course, was a gross misunderstanding on their part.  Then they add, “Besides all this, today, the third day since these things happened, some women of our group have just brought us some astonishing news.  They were at the tomb before dawn and failed to find his body, but returned with the tale that they had seen a vision of angels who declared he was alive.”

Jesus responds, “What little sense you have!  How slow you are to believe all that the prophets have announced!  Did not the Messiah have to undergo all this so as to enter into his glory?”

Jesus then gives them a long sermon (longer, by the way, than any sermon Fr. Ray will ever give!), in which he helps them to understand all the prophecies of the Old Testament which predicted his suffering, death and resurrection.

So it’s clear from this story: in spite of the fact that these two disciples had already heard about the resurrection from Mary Magdalene and the other women, prior to their conversation with Jesus, they did not understand it—or even believe it!

The world today is full of those who call themselves “Christians”—and yet, many of these professed followers of Christ also misunderstand the nature and the meaning of what happened on that very first Easter Sunday. 

For example, some think that the resurrection of Jesus was just an experience the apostles had in their minds: something like a dream or a mirage.  I wonder what “Doubting” Thomas would say to that?  Pardon the pun, but no doubt he’d say, “Look, friend, I touched his wounds with my own two hands; it was no dream!  Although in many ways it was a dream come true—for me, and the apostles, and the Blessed Mother, and the other faithful women.”

Some think that the resurrection of Jesus was like the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Not so!  When Lazarus came back, he returned to THIS mortal, earthly life, and he eventually had to die again!  He was a man who had 2 funerals! 

Jesus rose to a life in which there is no death!

Some think that since Jesus has risen from the dead, heaven is guaranteed for everyone—except maybe a few sordid characters like Hitler and Stalin.  Wrong again.  The resurrection of Jesus means that everyone’s ticket to heaven is bought and paid for in full.  But—as some of us know from experience—you can have a ticket to go somewhere, and never make the trip!  To actually go on the trip you’ve got to pick up the ticket and use it.  Faith and charity, rooted in God’s grace, enable us to obtain and cash-in on our ticket to the kingdom, which has been bought and paid for in full by Jesus.  As our Lord said in Matthew 7: 21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” 

Does that mean that Jesus was raised only for good, holy people?  Not at all.  That’s yet another misunderstanding.  He was raised for everyone, and his salvation is offered to everyone—but each of us must reach out for it in freedom and repentance!

It reminds me of the story of a very holy woman I once knew named Annamaria Schmidt.  Annamaria, who was a very good friend of my mother, grew up in what is now the Czech Republic.  She lived through the horrors of World War II, saw the Nazis kill members of her family and close friends, and suffered imprisonment and torture herself .

One day during the war, she came upon a seriously wounded Russian soldier lying in a ditch.  He was very close to death.  At that point she had almost lost her faith (given all she had been through), but this providential encounter renewed it.  After she had wiped his face, and given him a drink of water from her water bottle, this soldier—who had grown up in an atheistic, communist country—said to her, “Can you tell me about the man?”  At first she didn’t know what he meant.  He repeated himself, “Can you tell me about the man?  Many years ago, my grandmother told me that there was a man who had died for me, and who would help me and save me if I called out to him.”  So she told him about “the man” who died and rose—and she baptized him in that ditch just a few seconds before he died.

Jesus was raised from the dead for everyone—even that Russian soldier.  In his dying moments, he reached out for salvation in Baptism.  Some of us have already been baptized, but have committed serious sins which we think cannot be forgiven.  That’s a lie!  Jesus did not rise only for good people; he died and rose to make us good!  All we need to do is make a good confession, and we can begin again!

And finally, there are some who think that the resurrection of Jesus means that he’s now up in heaven and no longer here on earth.  It’s very sad that so many have this particular misunderstanding about the resurrection—because it leads them to miss Mass on Sundays and holy days.  The truth is: the risen, glorified Jesus becomes present to us, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist at every single Mass.  Pope Pius XII once said, “Jesus Christ [rose and] ascended to heaven, but he never left the earth!”  He was speaking there of the Eucharist. 

And, of course, the Lord is present to us in many other ways as well—if we have the eyes of faith.  As he himself said, “I am with you always, until the end of the world!” (Matthew 28: 20)

To hear is one thing; to understand and believe what you hear is something else.

Lord Jesus, we have heard the glorious proclamation of your victorious rising from the dead.  Give us the grace to understand what we have heard—and to believe it with our whole heart, so that we will joyfully live our Catholic faith on this earth, and someday share your resurrected life forever in heaven.  Amen.


Thursday, April 14, 2022

Priests: Flawed, But Not Hopelessly Flawed

 

The real "Fr. Stu"


(Holy Thursday 2022: This homily was given on April 14, 2022 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:12-18; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2022]


One day many years ago a priest friend of mine sent me a copy of a letter—a fictitious letter—supposedly written to our Lord, giving him the results of personality tests that were done on the twelve Apostles.  The letter reads as follows:

Dear Jesus, son of Joseph,

Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men that you have picked for managerial positions in your new organization.  All of them have taken our battery of tests.  We have run the results through our computer and arranged personal interviews for each one of them with one of our psychologists and vocational aptitude consultants.

It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background and vocational aptitude for your enterprise.  They have no team concept.  Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper.  Andrew has no qualities for leadership.  The two brothers, James and John, place personal interest above company loyalty.  Thomas shows a skeptical attitude that would tend to undermine morale.  Matthew has been backlisted by the Jerusalem Better Business Bureau.  James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus definitely have radical leanings and register a high score on the manic-depressive scale.

One of the candidates, however, shows great potential.  He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind, and has contacts in high places.  He is highly motivated and ambitious.  We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man.

That letter, as I said at the beginning, is fictitious; it’s the product of someone’s very fertile imagination.  But it does reveal, in a somewhat amusing way, an important truth about the apostles (who were, of course the very first priests): they were all flawed in some way.  They were ordinary men who were called and empowered to do extraordinary things—things that other people cannot do.  You know, in a very real sense, we priests are the most powerful people on earth.  Did you realize that?  We can summon God to act, and he acts!  Guaranteed!  We can call upon the Creator of the universe to change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Savior of the world and God does it.  We can say the words of absolution over the worst sinner in the world, and God forgives that person.  Immediately!  Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin can’t do that!  Tom Brady and Tiger Woods can’t do that.  But every priest can—by virtue of his ordination.

And yet, at the very same time, every priest is flawed in some way (perhaps in many ways)—just like the original priests were.  That’s why you should pray for priests every day, that they will receive the grace they need to deal with their flaws.  Because even though every priest is a sinner, and every priest is flawed, no priest is hopelessly flawed.  Think, again, of the twelve Apostles.  By the grace of God they dealt with—and in some cases overcame—their personal weaknesses (with the exception, sadly, of Judas).

God chooses people not so much for who they are; rather he chooses them for who he knows they can become.  He chose Peter, for example, not because of Peter’s impulsiveness and hot temper.  Jesus chose Peter for the great leader he knew he could become if he cooperated with God’s grace.

I heard a great quote the other day from Catholic actor Mark Wahlberg.  He said, “God is always looking for flawed people that he can turn into polished gems that will go out and do his will and serve his greater good.” 

He said that specifically in reference to Fr. Stuart Long, who’s the subject of a new movie appropriately called, “Fr. Stu”—which opened in theaters yesterday.  Wahlberg financed the film himself and plays Fr. Stu.

The film is based on the true story of a man from Montana, Stuart Long, who for many years was an agnostic, and who lived a fast and sometimes wild lifestyle in his young adult life.  He dreamed of becoming a professional boxer, and was well on his way to accomplishing that goal until his jaw was shattered in a fight and he had to undergo reconstructive surgery.  That put an end to his boxing career.

He then left Montana and went to L.A. to pursue an acting career.  He was able to get into a few commercials, but that was about it.  He worked as a bouncer for a while, and eventually was hired (believe it or not) to be the manager of a museum in Pasadena, California.  Then one night, as he was riding his motorcycle home from the museum, he was involved in a horrible accident: one car hit him; another ran him over.  He nearly died—but God obviously had other plans for him here on this earth.  

After the accident, he had several religious experiences which led him—with the help and encouragement of his girlfriend—to seek Baptism.  It was after that that he began to think of the priesthood.  (I’m not sure whether his girlfriend ever regretted the fact that she had encouraged him to get baptized.  I hope not!)

Fr. Stu was ordained in Montana in 2007.  But he only served 4 years as a priest.  That’s because he came down with a rare, incurable disease—inclusion body myositis—the symptoms of which are a lot like the symptoms of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  Which means it’s really bad!

But in his 4 short years of ministry, this priest touched a lot of lives—especially the sick and the suffering.  His tough background, his terminal illness—and his strong faith—made him very effective.  In fact, toward the end of his life, when he was living in a nursing home, people would line up outside the door to his room for long periods of time waiting to go to confession to him.  One bishop was quoted as saying that Fr. Stu did more in his 4 years of priesthood than he had done in 40!

If you didn’t before, I’m sure that now you understand Mark Wahlberg’s quote that I mentioned a few minutes ago: “God is always looking for flawed people that he can turn into polished gems that will go out and do his will and serve his greater good.” 

That truth, my brothers and sisters, actually applies to all of us.  We’re all flawed, but none of us is hopelessly flawed.  But this truth applies in a special way, I would say, to priests, who are empowered to act in the person of Christ whenever they celebrate the sacraments.

Tonight we praise God for the 11 flawed men who allowed themselves to be transformed into polished gems for Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago. And we pray for all priests in the Church today, that they, like Fr. Stuart Long, will allow the Lord to transform them in the very same way.