Sunday, September 21, 2003

How Do You Define ‘Greatness’?

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 21, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 9: 30-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2003]

How do you define “greatness?”

That’s an important question for all of us, but it’s particularly crucial for the young people here present. God willing, you all have the better part of your lives ahead of you. How you define “greatness” will influence almost everything in your future (whether you realize it or not): it will guide you in setting your personal goals in life; it will influence how you treat others; it will have an effect on your choice of a vocation and your choice of friends; it will even determine whether or not you pray and go to Mass when you’re older and out on your own. (You see, if you think you need God in your life in order to achieve true greatness, then you’ll be here; if you think you don’t need God in your life in order to be great, then you won’t).

When some people read this Gospel text we just heard from Mark 9, they mistakenly think that Jesus was criticizing his apostles for wanting to be “great.” He was not! What he was criticizing was their worldly definition of greatness! Believe it or not, Jesus wanted them all to achieve greatness—but in a very different sense than they wanted to be great. Happily, they would eventually change their perspective—all except for Judas.

You young people are growing up in a culture right now where the prevailing understanding of “greatness” is quite similar to the one these apostles were wrongly embracing.

And what is that prevailing understanding or definition of “greatness?” I would express it in this way: Greatness means getting your ‘15 minutes of fame’ (as Andy Warhol would say), and then tacking on as much extra time as you possibly can!

This explains why so many people these days think nothing of doing idiotic things and compromising their morals for the sake of a little notoriety. I’m sure you’ve all noticed how many so-called “Reality Shows” are currently on TV. It’s unbelievable. Now I’ll be honest, I’ve never watched one of these programs from beginning to end (I do not have that much patience); but every time I’ve caught even a ten minute segment, I’ve had the exact same thought: “What’s wrong with these people? Why are they doing this? Why are they jumping into the sack on live TV with someone they met 3 hours ago? Why are they making fools of themselves by eating live caterpillars or by bobbing for plums in a tank that’s filled with snakes? Are they crazy?”

Not really. They’re just people who want to be “great”—according to the contemporary understanding of that term. They want their 15 minutes of fame—they want to achieve something noteworthy—in the hope that maybe they can stretch it out for a few years with a job in show business, or in modeling, or in some other career that will keep their name in lights.

But Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Here we have the Lord’s definition of greatness: humble service. Not surprisingly, it’s very different from the world’s. To be great in the eyes of the world, you need to be self-centered; to be great in the eyes of God you need to be selfless and self-sacrificial.

True greatness, according to Jesus Christ, comes through humble service—of which there are two types: direct and indirect.

The so-called “corporal works of mercy” are examples of “direct service.” When you fulfill your obligations to your family, that’s direct service. When you take time to visit sick relatives or friends—or even strangers (as the members of our Legion of Mary do every week), that’s direct service. When you volunteer for something here at church or in the local community, that’s direct service.

And then there’s what I would call “indirect service.” When you pray for someone, you are rendering them “indirect service,” because you’re asking God to do something: you’re asking God to bless them in some way. When you render financial assistance to a group or to an individual, you are also engaged in indirect service. Our parish, for example, indirectly serves the people of Jeremie, Haiti. We send them the money we collect each week at our Monday night novena (we send it through Dr. Lowney and the Haitian Health Foundation), and with that money they build small homes for needy families. In fact, over the last several years they’ve been able to build so many little houses that they now call it a village: “St. Pius X Village.”

Within the next month or so, you will all be asked to engage in some “indirect service” by contributing to a major capital campaign here in our parish. With the money we raise we intend to put air conditioning in our church, refinish the pews, put an addition on our school (which will also provide more space for parish activities), and do some repairs to the rectory. I hope and pray that you will all support this effort. It will require sacrifice on the part of everyone—including me (I’m not going to ask you to do anything that I’m not prepared to do myself). But I think the end result will be well worth it.

And while I’m on this point, let me issue a little challenge to the young people here present: Do you indirectly serve your Church and other charities by financially supporting them? Do you put anything in the collection basket on Sunday? Or do you leave that to others? Sometimes teenagers will say, “But I don’t have any money to give.” And yet, amazingly, when some of those same teens want a new CD, or when they want to go to a concert, or a movie, or to dinner with their friends, or when they need a dress or a tux for the prom—all of a sudden the money materializes! Perhaps it’s a miracle—miracles do happen!—but, in this case, I’m not so sure that’s the explanation.

The story is told of a man who died and went to heaven. (Some of you may recall this story. I told it in a homily several years ago.) The man met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, and Peter said to him, “Congratulations, John, you made it. Now follow me, and I’ll show you where you’ll be living for all eternity.” So John and St. Peter begin to walk down Main St. in the Kingdom, and the first house they come to is a huge, magnificent mansion with white pillars. It has beautiful trees and gardens all around it, and a brand new Rolls Royce parked in front. John looks at St. Peter, thinking that this might be his, but Peter shakes his head and says, “No, John, that one’s not yours.” They continue down the street for quite some time, and all the while John notices that the houses are getting smaller and smaller and smaller—until they finally come to a tiny, beat-up old shack at the very end of the city, with a broken down bicycle parked in front. Peter says, “Well, here it is, John—it’s all yours. Enjoy.” John gets all upset and says, “Wait just a minute, St. Peter. Are you serious? I can’t live there. How can you expect me to spend eternity in a place like that?” Peter responds, “I’m awfully sorry, John, but that was all we could build for you with the materials that YOU sent up to us!”

We send good materials ahead of us to heaven by our humble service, direct and indirect. “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” May we all strive to be faithful to these very important words of Jesus, so that those big, white mansions in the kingdom of heaven will someday be ours!

Sunday, September 14, 2003

The Catholic Church And The Reality Of Human Suffering

Fatima Basilica

(Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: This homily was given on September 14, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Philippians 2: 6-11; John 3: 13-17.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Cross 2003]

Why do you remain a Catholic?

Think about that question for a moment.

Why do you remain a Catholic?

That’s not the same as asking, “Why did you become a Catholic?” In most cases that was because of a decision your parents made many years ago without ever asking your opinion on the matter. You were a little too small for that!

But why do you remain a member of the Church—especially after all the scandals and difficulties of recent months?

I’ll give you my personal answer this morning. If someone were to say to me, “Fr. Ray, why do you remain a Catholic?” I would say, “That’s simple. It’s because Catholicism is the best explanation of reality that I’ve ever found! No other philosophy, no other religion, no other system of thought helps me to understand myself, and the world around me, and the meaning of life, like Catholicism does.”

And this is especially true when it comes to the crucial issue of suffering.

How do you make any sense whatsoever of the trials and difficulties of life? That’s one of the fundamental questions of human existence, since we all suffer!

Some religions teach that suffering is just an illusion; others teach that it has no value whatsoever and should be avoided at all costs—if you have to sin to avoid it, then so be it; still others teach that you can eventually escape from it totally on this earth (perhaps after you’re reincarnated several hundred times!).

But none of those perspectives squares with the “real” world!

I know (by my own experience) that suffering is definitely not an illusion. When someone hits me or offends me I feel it! That’s reality!

And suffering does have a value, even on a purely human level. I know, for example, that when I “suffer” for an hour at the gym I feel better afterward. I’m physically healthier. I know that I’m standing here today because my parents sacrificed and “suffered” to give me what I needed when I was growing up.

And if you think you can escape from suffering on this earth after you’re reincarnated 1,000 times (as some New Age types believe), all I can say is, “Good luck!”

I mention all this because on this weekend the Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, also known as the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.

Here we are reminded of the fact that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, suffered! He really suffered—far more than any of us can even imagine! His passion and death were not illusions. But by his suffering we are saved! Jesus tells Nicodemus in today’s Gospel that “the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

St. Paul puts it this way in that beautiful text from Philippians 2 (which we heard in our 2nd reading), “[Jesus] humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. [But] because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name that is above every name.”

The bottom line is this: Jesus Christ really suffered, but he was not destroyed by his suffering!!! Rather, he used it to destroy the power of sin, Satan, and eternal death! He used it to save the world!

And it’s in the light of this victory of Christ (the triumph of his cross) that our crosses take on a new meaning and a new value.

If Jesus used his Cross for good (and we know he did!), then it follows that I—his disciple—can also use my daily crosses for good (if I unite mine to his). I can use my crosses, for example, as a motivation to change my life for the better—as a motivation to become holier.

When people suffer a terrible tragedy and sincerely convert their hearts, this is what they’re doing, is it not?—they’re using their cross as a path to holiness.

I can also use my crosses like prayer, to draw down God’s blessings and graces into my own life and into the lives of others. St. Paul said to the Colossians, “Even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. For in my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.”

Paul believed his sufferings were like his intercessory prayers: as he offered them up for the Colossian people, they were blessed by the Lord.

Most of you know that I just got back from Lourdes and Fatima, two places where the Blessed Mother appeared to young people: to Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858, and to Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia at Fatima in 1917.

This idea that I’m talking about today was at the heart of the messages our Lady gave in both those places. At both Lourdes and Fatima she said to the children—and through them she says to us—“Pray, and do penance for the conversion of sinners.” Prayer—and penance!

What’s a penance?

A penance, in effect, is a voluntary cross—a voluntary suffering that we take upon ourselves for our own personal sanctification, and for the sanctification of others. That’s why at Fatima you will see people saying the Rosary as they circle the chapel on their knees! They walk on their knees for hundreds of feet on hard marble or cobblestone.

Are these people masochists? No! They simply understand this truth about suffering. They understand reality—far better than some geniuses do.

You know what Bishop Sheen used to say? He used to say, “The real tragedy of this life is not that people suffer; the real tragedy of this life is that so many people waste their suffering! They waste it, because they never offer it up, in love, for anybody.”

At this Mass we pray that whenever we suffer in the future, we won’t waste any of it.