Sunday, September 24, 2023

Equality: What It Means, and What It Doesn’t Mean

St. Maximilian Kolbe

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 24, 2023 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-18; Philippians 1:20-27; Matthew 20:1-16a.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2023]

It’s not fair, is it?

From a purely human perspective, the people who worked a full day in the hot sun were treated unfairly by this landowner, who gave the very same pay to the people he hired at 5 o’clock in the afternoon—who ended up working for only one hour!

But, of course, we can never look at this or any other parable that Jesus told from “a purely human perspective.”  Although even on that level it’s a great story, isn’t it?—because it reminds us of the simple truth that life is not fair!  Hard working people sometimes suffer and experience great hardships; lazy people sometimes prosper and have it relatively easy.

But the primary point of the parable is NOT about the fairness or unfairness of life!  The primary point concerns the generosity of God, who makes heaven possible to Gentiles like us, and to those who come to him in repentance even at the very end of their time on this earth.

This means that, in a certain sense, WE GENTILES are just like those 5 o’clock workers!  The Hebrews—the Jews—on the other hand, are just like the workers hired at the beginning of the day.  Remember, the Hebrews were called by God centuries before we were!  But now we are also called; consequently we have just as much right as they do to become members of the Church—and an equal possibility of attaining eternal salvation through Jesus Christ.

Now that you realize that those 5 o’clock workers symbolize people like us, I’ll bet the landowner doesn’t seem so unfair anymore, does he?

You could say that this parable is ultimately about EQUALITY: It teaches us that God loves all people equally; it teaches us that we all have an equal dignity in God’s eyes as human beings created in his image and likeness, and it teaches us that we all have an equal opportunity to go to heaven by the grace of Jesus Christ—even if our conversion happens at the final moment of our life.  It also teaches that we have an equal obligation to give God our complete obedience and service.  We are all called to be workers in his vineyard.

What the parable does NOT teach is that everything else in life is supposed to be equal! 

I mention this because there are some who seem to believe that this gospel teaches that everyone on earth is supposed to have the same amount of everything—including money and material possessions.

But that’s not true!  Yes, the Catechism, based on the teaching of Jesus, does condemn materialism and greed and what it calls “excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples,” but this doesn’t mean that it’s the will of God that those who have a lot should be taxed or robbed into poverty!

Several years ago I came across a great writing of St. Maximilian Kolbe on this very subject.  Listen to St. Maximilian’s words.  If you’re like me, you’ll react by saying, “Wow, he’s right.  That makes perfect sense!”

He wrote:

“Let us imagine that one day all the inhabitants of the world would assemble and put into effect this sharing of all goods; and that in fact each person, granted that the world is very big, received an exactly equal portion of the wealth existing on earth.

“Then what?  That very evening one man might say, ‘Today I worked hard: now I am going to take rest.’  Another might state, ‘I understand this sharing of goods well; so let’s drink and celebrate such an extraordinary happening.’  On the other hand, another might say, ‘Now I am going to set to work with a will so as to reap the greatest benefit I can from what I have received.’  And so, starting on the next day, the first man would have only the amount given him; the second would have less, and the third would have increased his.

“Then what do we do?  Start redistributing the wealth all over again?

“Even if everybody began to work right away with all his might and at the same time, the results would not be identical for all.  There are, in fact, different kinds of work which are unequally productive; nor do all workers enjoy the same identical capacities.  This leads to a diversity of results achieved, and consequently to differences in people’s profits.”

St. Maximilian was right.  Here on earth, not everyone will be equal in every way.

But that’s also the way it will be in heaven!

Did you realize that?

Yes, everyone has the potential to go to heaven: even if they’re not Jewish, and even if they come to Jesus in repentance on their deathbeds—at “the 5 o’clock hour,” so to speak, of their lives.  We learn that, as I said earlier, in this parable.

But this doesn’t mean that everyone’s experience of God in heaven will be exactly the same!  In heaven, not everyone will be “equal” in that sense.  We know this because Jesus often spoke of “the least” and “the greatest” in the kingdom of his Father.

Those two terms, “least” and “greatest” imply a difference in people’s status—and in their experience.

The key here, as usual, is HOLINESS: the holier a person is when he leaves this life, the greater his capacity will be to experience God in heaven—which is why it’s not good to wait until your deathbed to repent!

May this be all the motivation we need to “work” for holiness every day: to pray often, to get to Mass at least weekly, to get to Confession regularly, to forgive everyone in our lives, and to be charitable to the poor and the needy, according to the means God has blessed us with.  

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Ten Good Reasons to Forgive

(Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 17, 2023 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Sirach 27:30-28:9; Psalm 103:1-12; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2023]


About a year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bishop Kenneth Angell of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont (and formerly of the Diocese of Providence), wrote the following lines in a magazine article:

The Lord says that we have to love him first and foremost.  But we have to love our brothers and sisters as well, including the people who committed this terrible act.  Acts of terrorism are evil, but we have to love those who committed this evil—and that is hard to do.  I suppose I’ve preached that my entire priesthood.  And I’ve tried to live it, but when it comes to something like this, it’s difficult.

Yet we know that this is what the Lord wants of us: We have to forgive those that perpetrated this terrible violence against our country.  We have to say, “Lord, they know not what they do, and so we forgive them.” 

Bishop Angell’s brother, David, and his sister-in-law, Lynn, were among those killed on American Airlines Flight 11 (one of the two planes that hit the World Trade Center)—which means he wrote these words about a situation that had affected his life on the personal level.  He was not just offering some pious advice for the rest of us to follow.

Peter said to Jesus in today’s Gospel text from Matthew 18, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?  As many as seven times?”   Peter obviously thought he was being generous!

Jesus answered him, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  (Which, in today’s terminology, means “as often as necessary!”) 

Forgiveness, unfortunately, is a much-misunderstood concept.  Some think that it means we must condone whatever evil was done to us; others think it means that we’re supposed to pretend that nothing bad ever happened in the first place; still others believe that if they forgive, they must automatically dispense with justice.  Thus, if we forgive a known terrorist who’s on the loose (like Osama bin Laden was for so many years), we should stop trying to find him and let him go free. And, finally, there are those who believe that forgiveness is always a “once-and-for-all” decision.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong!—although the people in the last group have it half-right: forgiveness is a decision!  It’s an act of the will, not an emotion!  And, in some cases, it must be a daily or even hourly decision: once is not enough!

But exactly why should we do it?  Why should we make this difficult choice to forgive one another?

Glad you asked.  Here are ten short reasons why.  (You may be able to think of others, but these are the ones that came to me in preparation for this homily)— 

  1. We should forgive, because of how much we have been forgiven.  Many people have an unreal assessment of themselves: they think they’re God’s gift to the world, because they’re not like all those bad folks “out there.”  Consequently, they don’t have a true sense of how much God has forgiven them in their lives.  They take his mercy for granted.  Now that was precisely the problem with the unmerciful servant in today’s Gospel parable, was it not?  He had no sense of how much he had been forgiven; thus, he wasn’t ready to show any mercy to his fellow servant.

  2. We should forgive, because of how much the Lord WILL forgive us.  God is ready, willing, and able to forgive every sin—including the ones we haven’t even committed yet!

  3. We should forgive, because, if we don’t, we won’t be forgiven and we risk eternal damnation!  Aside from being sorry for our sins, this seems to be the one condition the Lord puts on our receiving his pardon.  In today’s first reading from Sirach, we were told that the Lord remembers the sins of the vengeful “in detail.”  And Jesus said, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.”

  4. We should forgive, because Jesus did.  (He even went so far as to forgive his murderers!)  As Christians, we say we want to imitate Jesus, do we not?  Well, here’s a great opportunity to do that on a daily basis!

  5. We should forgive, because, if we don’t, “the torturers” will come.  In this parable it says that the unforgiving servant was turned over to “the torturers.”  I heard one commentator say that the modern day “torturers” are things like anger and depression and resentment.  I think there’s a lot of truth in that!  Unforgiveness ultimately makes us miserable.

  6. We should forgive, because our loved ones will have to bear the consequences of our unforgiveness.  It should be obvious: if we are filled with anger, resentment, bitterness, and the like, we will take it out on the people we love the most—our family, and our close friends.  It almost always happens that way.

  7. We should forgive, because it contributes to our own sanctification, and can bring other people to conversion.  When Charlie Osburn, the Catholic lay evangelist, forgave the man who had molested his children, the molester had a conversion, and returned to the Church and the sacraments before he died.  And, in the process, Charlie himself grew closer to the Lord and stronger in his faith.

  8. We should forgive, because it frees us to move on with our life.  Unforgiveness keeps us trapped in the past; it keeps us focused on the evil that happened to us “way back when.”—which can keep us from doing God’s will in the present moment and moving forward in life.

  9. We should forgive, because there can be negative physical consequences—as well as spiritual and emotional consequences—to unforgiveness.  Sirach says, “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?”  I’ve known many people who have experienced physical healings after they’ve made the hard decision to forgive.  Their unforgiveness was making them sick—literally!
  10. And, finally, we should forgive others, because it’s very good practice for forgiving ourselves!  Some of us may have great difficulty forgiving ourselves for things we’ve done in the past—even after we’ve taken those matters to Confession!  Well, if we develop the habit of forgiving the sinners “out there” who hurt us every day, maybe it will become a little easier for us to forgive the sinner we see in the mirror every morning.

Those are my ten good reasons to forgive.  Of course, the real question is, “Are those ten reasons good enough for you?”  I pray that they are, and that they will motivate each of us to respond to God’s grace every day by forgiving others—even our worst enemies.

Sunday, September 03, 2023

Persevering Peter


"Quo vadis, Domine?"

(Twenty-second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 3, 2023 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63:2-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-second Sunday 2023]

“Persevering Peter.”

That’s the title of today’s homily: Persevering Peter.

Now when we think of Peter—and here I’m talking specifically about Peter before the Resurrection (in other words, the Peter we encounter during the earthly ministry of Jesus)—perseverance is probably not the first word that comes to mind.  Some words that do come to mind when describing the Peter we see during Jesus’ 3-year ministry (at least they come to my mind!) are words like: impulsive, weak, inconsistent, impatient, erratic and hot-headed.

But even back then he was also a man of perseverance—almost incredible perseverance.

Which is probably one of the biggest reasons why Jesus chose him to be the very first pope!

Can you imagine how frustrating and how discouraging it can be at times to be the spiritual leader of a worldwide community of faith that includes not only some of the greatest saints on the planet, but also some of the worst—some of the most reprehensible—sinners on the planet?

Obviously our present Holy Father, Pope Francis, needs an immense amount of perseverance to lead the Church in the midst of those circumstances.

And so did Peter 2,000 years ago! 

Well, by the grace of God, the man had it—in great abundance—even before Jesus rose from the dead and anointed him with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  We see Peter exercising perseverance throughout the gospels, but especially in passages like the one we heard last Sunday and the one we heard this morning (these two texts from Matthew, chapter 16).  Recall, for a moment, what we were told last weekend in our gospel reading: Jesus was with his apostles at Caesarea Philippi and there he asked them a crucial question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter spoke up and gave his famous answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”; to which Jesus immediately responded, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Peter must have felt like a million bucks when Jesus said those words to him.  I know that’s how I would have felt!  I’m sure he didn’t fully understand what our Lord meant in telling him these things, but he knew it sounded pretty good—especially the part about having “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”

Well today’s gospel reading picks up where last week’s left off.  Jesus begins to teach his apostles that he will be a suffering Messiah, not a great earthly ruler like King David (which was the kind of Messiah the Jews were expecting at the time: someone who would get rid of the Romans and make Israel a great earthly nation again).

It was also the kind of Messiah Peter was expecting—which explains his reaction to this prophecy of our Lord about his suffering and death.  Peter says to him, in effect, “No way, Jesus!  That can’t possibly happen to you!  You’re the Messiah—you’re God’s anointed one—you’re gonna help us get rid of the Romans and become a great nation again!  You can’t suffer and die like that.”

Jesus immediately turns on Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Why, oh why, did he call Peter, “Satan”?

It’s because at that moment Peter was saying to Jesus exactly what Satan would have wanted him to say to Jesus!  Satan, you see, did not want our Lord to go to the cross on Good Friday, because he knew that if Jesus died on that cross his kingdom would be destroyed—since the sacrifice of Jesus would make it possible for every human person to avoid hell and go to heaven!

This, incidentally, was the constant and most serious temptation that Jesus faced during his time on this earth: the temptation to abandon the mission the Father had given him and forget about the cross.  It was the temptation Satan threw at him in the desert just before his earthly ministry began; it was the temptation that Satan presented to him through the mouth of Peter in this event at Caesarea Philippi; and it was the last temptation our Lord faced as he hung on the cross.  (No, the last temptation of Christ had nothing to do with Mary Magdalene.  Please tell that to film director Martin Scorsese!)

Coming back now to Peter’s dialogue with Jesus: If you had been in Peter’s shoes that day, what would you have done?  How would you have responded?  Try to imagine this: Jesus, the Messiah, the only-begotten Son of the Father, doesn’t just reprimand you (that would have been bad enough!); he doesn’t simply tell you that you’re wrong—he actually goes so far as to call you “Satan”!

He equates you, in some way, with the devil himself!

I think most people, if they’re truly honest with themselves, would tell you that they would have been so undone—so completely devastated by these words of Jesus—that in all likelihood they would have walked away in despair and never come back.

I know I would have been tempted to respond in that way.

But Peter didn’t!  That’s what’s so amazing about him.

He didn’t throw in the towel; he didn’t despair.  In spite of the horrible feeling he must have had on the inside, he didn’t walk away like the rich young man did when Jesus challenged him to give up all his possessions.

Peter took the rebuke, and persevered.  He kept on following the Lord.

Peter’s perseverance was also evident at the end of the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6: Jesus told the people that he intended to give them his Body and Blood for their spiritual nourishment, and most of them freaked out!  Even a lot of our Lord’s disciples walked away.

But not Peter!  He persevered—as usual.  When Jesus said to his apostles, “Are you going to leave me, too?” Peter immediately responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe; we are convinced that you are God’s holy one.”

Even on Holy Thursday, after he denied the Lord 3 times, he didn’t give up!  Judas did, but Peter didn’t.  And let’s remember, their sins were both grave: both betrayed their Lord and Savior.  Judas despaired and hung himself, but Peter came back and repented.

He always did.

I mention all this today because there are many times in our lives when we can be tempted to give up on God and our Catholic faith: when a loved one dies suddenly and unexpectedly; when we come down with a serious disease (Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease—whatever it might be), when we’re praying for something for a long time and God doesn’t seem to be answering; when we find ourselves falling into the same sins over and over and over again.

In situations like these it would be good to say a prayer to St. Peter, asking for his special intercession so that we might receive from God the grace we need: the grace of perseverance—a grace that Peter had in such great abundance.

We need to pray because even persevering people can be tempted at times NOT to persevere!  Such was the case, apparently, even for Peter himself—at least on one occasion.

Some of you have probably heard the story.  It’s not found in the Bible, but in a very ancient Christian tradition.  The event happened during the terrible persecution of the Church under the Roman Emperor Nero.  Peter, of course, was Pope by then—the official leader of God’s New Testament people—but, in the midst of all the violence and confusion, he decided that enough was enough.  So he left the city.  He abandoned his post—and his flock—in fear, and fled from Rome on the famous Appian Way.

But as he was going along he ran into somebody—Jesus—walking in the opposite direction toward the city.  Peter said to him, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (“Where are you going, Lord?”)

Jesus answered, “I’m going to the city of Rome, to be crucified again.”

Peter got the message.  He turned around; he went back; and he courageously led the Church until he was martyred—crucified upside down—in that area now known as St. Peter’s Square.

People who persevere can sometimes be tempted—even strongly tempted—not to persevere.  But in the end, by the grace of God, they remain faithful.

Just like Peter.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

’Pick-a-Pope’: It’s the game EVERYBODY plays!

(Twenty-first Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 27, 2023 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 138:1-8; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-first Sunday 2023]


“Pick-a-Pope”: It’s the game EVERYBODY plays!

Every once in a while, someone (usually a non-Catholic) will say to us, “Do you believe in the pope?”

Now there’s a very subtle presumption behind that question, and we need to be aware of it.  The presumption is that if you don’t accept the authority of the Holy Father in Rome (currently Pope Francis), then you don’t believe in a pope.  But that’s not true!  It’s my contention that EVERYONE has a pope!  Presbyterians have a pope; Anglicans have a pope; Baptists have a pope; people who call themselves “non-denominational” have a pope; Muslims, Buddhists and even atheists have a pope!

That’s because everyone has an authority who guides them, who defines the meaning of human existence for them, and who teaches them right from wrong.  So the real question is not, “Do you believe in the pope?”  The real question is, “Which pope do you believe in?”

In this regard, there are a number of possibilities.  For example, there’s what I would call the “Feel-Good Pope.”  Those who follow him live almost exclusively by their emotions.  If it feels good, then in their estimation it must be okay.  Or how about the “Gallup Pope?”  He’s named after the famous poll-taker.  Those who follow him form their views and attitudes based on what the majority says.  Thus if 85% of Catholics polled say they think artificial contraception is morally acceptable, those who follow the Gallup Pope immediately add their names to the 85%. 

A very popular pope among young people today is what I would call the “Peer Pope.”  He lives, and acts, and speaks through their friends.  Whatever these friends say, is considered to be the truth.

Or how about the “Pop Pope?”  (He is a close relative of the “Woke Pope” who’s come on the scene in the last few years.)  Those who follow the Pop Pope are those who are unduly influenced by the ideas of contemporary “pop” culture—ideas which come through the music they hear, through the media, the press, the Hollywood crowd, sports heroes and self-help gurus.  Of course, most of all, followers of the Pop Pope are influenced these days by the ideas they encounter on social media.

Because everyone knows, if it’s on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook it’s got to be true.  Right?

Now those are just some of the possibilities.  Believe it or not, other possible popes even include some Protestant evangelists and theologians.  Think, for example, of how many people followed the late Billy Graham as if he had been designated the authoritative interpreter of God’s Word!  These people would have denied that they believed in a pope; and yet, they listened to Graham as if he was God’s appointed mouthpiece here on earth.  Consequently they obeyed him as good Catholics will obey the Holy Father.

Even those who have no religious affiliation whatsoever have a pope—in the sense that they have a person or group of people to whom they look for guidance and direction.  For example, many of the people who caused those riots on our city streets a couple of summers ago—as well as the university professors who have been stifling free speech on college campuses in recent years—have the same pope.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him; his name is Karl Marx.  The secular media in this country doesn’t tell you this stuff, my brothers and sisters, but it’s true.  Many of those rioters and university professors are professed Marxists, who literally want to destroy American culture as we know it and create some kind of socialist utopia—with themselves in charge, of course.

It’s scary what’s going on out there these days!

Everybody has a pope, whether they’re conscious of it or not.  That’s why I began my homily by saying, “Pick-a-Pope: It’s the game EVERYBODY plays!”

So, which pope do you pick?

Personally, I want to pick the pope that Jesus Christ picked.  Because that’s the right pope!  In today’s Gospel text from Matthew 16, we see Jesus making his choice.  He says to Peter, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build by Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  Here Jesus gives papal authority to Peter—the authority of “spiritual fatherhood” in his Church.  And then Jesus indicates that this authority is to be passed on to others in the future when he says, “I give you [Peter] the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”  In Isaiah 22 (the text we heard in our first reading today) the “keys” symbolized dynastic authority—authority which would be passed on from one person to another.  The authority Eliakim received in the kingdom of David was the authority of an established office.  And so it is with the papacy.  Peter’s authority didn’t die when he did.  It was passed on to Linus, then to Cletus and Clement . . . and finally to Pope Francis. 

So you see, contrary to what some non-Catholics would have us believe, the Church didn’t “invent” the Catholic papacy—Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior did!

And so, for me, the game is easy.  The pope I pick is the same one Jesus picked.  My prayer today is that the Pick-a-Pope game will be just as easy for all of you.