Sunday, October 26, 2003

The Bartimaeuses of John Paul II

Jesus Cures Bartimaeus

(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 26, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 10: 46-52.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirtieth Sunday 2003]

Here’s a legitimate “Trivial Pursuit” question:

Who is the only 83-year-old man who can outdo any rock or rap star when it comes to drawing a crowd of young people?

The answer, of course, is “Pope John Paul II”; and for proof of that, just look at the films of any past World Youth Day. They come from all over the planet just to be in his presence! And they listen to what he says, even if they sometimes struggle to be faithful to his words.

Why? Why is this man so appealing to youth?

It certainly isn’t because of his flashy appearance (since his appearance—especially now—is anything but flashy). It’s not because he uses pyrotechnics or some other clever gimmick to get their attention; the man has no gimmicks. And it’s certainly not because he tells them what they want to hear, because he doesn’t. If anything, he tells most people what they don’t want to hear!

So, what’s the attraction?

Let me offer you this morning my theory on the matter, and let me express it to you by means of a verse found in this Gospel text we just heard from Mark 10.

Jesus, we are told, was on his way out of the town of Jericho one day, when a blind man named Bartimaeus began calling out to him, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me. And the sightless man was persistent!—he refused to stop, even when some people in the crowd told him to be quiet. Finally, our Lord asked them to call Bartimaeus over. What happened next is described by St. Mark with these words: “So they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.’”

Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.

“Take courage”—it reminds me of the very first address John Paul II gave to the world as pope. Do you remember it? On October 16, 1978, when he appeared on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s square right after being elected the successor of St. Peter, he said to all of us—young and not-so-young—“Be not afraid.”

This command, coupled with the final words of the verse I just quoted from Mark 10, encapsulate the Holy Father’s consistent message to the youth of the world over the last quarter century:

“Be not afraid, young people. Get up, Jesus is calling you! He’s your creator; he’s your redeemer; he has a plan for your lives. Give yourselves to him; give yourselves to others out of love for him, and discover the truth that will set you free—the truth that will guide you through this earthly existence and into God’s eternal kingdom.”

No wonder so many of our youth love this pope! That’s a message of profound hope, which is rooted in truth—consequently it’s a message they don’t hear too often. They currently live in the midst of the culture of death, where even the most innocent (the unborn, the sick, the elderly) are sometimes treated like disposable objects. They live in a society where they’re taught through music and the arts to abuse their bodies with sex, drugs and alcohol. They live in a culture of broken promises, broken relationships—a culture where fear, not faith, rules the majority: the fear of not having enough; the fear of not being pretty enough or popular enough or successful enough; the fear of being a nobody.

The Holy Father’s message to the youth of the world is radical and counter-cultural, as well as deeply challenging. It’s the pure, unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ.

You might think that this message would be much too hard, and the messenger much too old. And yet, young people consistently applaud the Holy Father’s words with youthful enthusiasm—and clamor for more!

I believe the reason for their positive response is twofold. First of all, young people can sense this pope’s holiness and are greatly attracted to it, even if they don’t fully understand it. They know that he says what he means and means what he says! They know he’s not a political double-talker. They know he’s not a phony. If he were, you can be sure that they would tune him out immediately—because young people hate phonies!

But there’s another reason why this man connects with youth so effectively: it’s because he’s someone to whom they can easily relate. They know, for example, that he’s suffered, as so many of them are suffering through the awkward years of adolescence and young adulthood. They see the Holy Father suffering as he struggles to deal with Parkinson’s Disease and a host of other ailments; they know from reading history books that he was shot back in 1981. And many of them have also learned that his childhood was literally filled with crosses: his mother died when he was in the third grade; his only brother, a young medical doctor, died a few years later of scarlet fever; and his father—to whom he was deeply devoted—died suddenly and tragically when the future pope was only 20.

That’s not to mention the many sufferings he experienced for decades living under Nazism and Communism.

And yet, when they look at the Holy Father today, these young people see a man who still smiles, who still has faith, who still loves, who still cares. That inspires them—as it rightly should! That should inspire all of us!

And so, when the pope tells them, “Be not afraid; go to Jesus, he’s calling you,” they know he’s speaking from personal experience. What he’s telling them to do, he’s already done—for years and years and years.

Young people also identify with the Holy Father on other levels. He loves sports, for example, as so many of them do (he was once an excellent skier and mountain climber). He has a great appreciation for music and the arts (he even did some acting in the years before he became a priest). He has a deep reverence for marriage and family life, even though he joyfully embraces a life of consecrated celibacy. Some of his closest friends in his early days as a priest were married couples. The practical insights he received from dialoguing with them, have influenced his university teaching, his writing, and the addresses he’s given to young people over the years (at the World Youth Days and in other settings).

Yes, it’s true, our present pope is well into his 80’s—but he’s definitely young at heart.

“Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.” When Bartimaeus heeded those words in today’s Gospel story, he was not only healed of his physical blindness. Even more importantly (as St. Mark tells us), he began to follow Jesus—and live a new life.

And that’s the way it’s been for all the youth of the world who have wisely heeded the Holy Father’s message to them over the last 25 years. They have been healed of their spiritual blindness, and have begun to walk with Christ. They have come to recognize the lies of the world and the timeless truths of the Gospel. They’ve discovered the pearl of great price and the road less traveled: the road that will lead them to eternal life with Christ, if they continue to follow it with persevering faith.

You might call these youth “The Bartimaeuses of John Paul II.” It’s my prayer that all the young people here this morning will make the decision to become members of this very special—and, thankfully, very large—group.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

The Rich Young Man: A Spiritual Minimalist

(Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 12, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 10: 17-30.)

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

Imagine Pedro Martinez saying this at the beginning of a baseball season: “I think I’ll go out this year and try to win 10 games. I don’t need any more victories than that. If I win 10 games, the Red Sox will definitely keep me on the team, and I’ll get to keep my multi-million dollar contract.”

Imagine a parent saying this: “I think I’ll feed my children only one meal today. They should be able to survive on that.”

Imagine a student saying this on his first day of medical school: “It doesn’t matter how much homework they give me during the next 4 years: I intend to study only one hour per day. That will have to suffice. I have too many other activities that I’m involved in. Besides, I’m pretty smart, so I should be able to pass all the courses.”

My brothers and sisters, those are 3 examples of what might be called “minimalistic thinking.” And they’re all hard to imagine, aren’t they? Pedro Martinez setting out to win only ten games a year; a parent thinking it’s acceptable to feed his children one meal per day; a medical student who believes an hour a day is enough for his studies—“Fr. Ray, I don’t think so!”


And that’s precisely the point I’m trying to make! In most areas of life (such as education, family responsibilities, and even athletics), we do not advocate—nor do we tolerate—minimalism. For example, if Pedro Martinez told the management of the Red Sox that his goal was to win only 10 games next year, you can be sure that he’d be put on the “trading block” immediately! Bye, bye, Pedro! If a parent intentionally fed his children only one meal per day, those children would be taken away from him by the state—and rightly so! And I don’t know about you, but I’d never want to go to a doctor who had been so casual and irresponsible about his studies in med school! I’d be worried that he’d kill me instead of curing me!

But I ask you this morning: If minimalism is so unacceptable when it comes to education, sports, family life, etc., why is it tolerated so often in the area of spirituality?

Let’s be honest about it, when it comes to spiritual and moral matters—i.e., to matters of the soul—many people today are quite content to be minimalists!!! As they go through this life, the crucial questions are not: How can I be the person God wants me to be? How can I be holier and more virtuous? How can I be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect?

The key questions for them are: How much can I get away with and still not go to hell? What’s the absolute minimum I need to do as a Catholic? What are my obligations to God and others?

Cardinal John Henry Newman once put it this way: he said that the key issue for many people is not, “How can I please God in my life?”—rather it’s “How can I please myself without displeasing the Lord?”

This is the ever-present temptation to be a “spiritual minimalist!”—and we all face it, constantly (whether we realize it or not).

Which brings us to the rich young man who met Jesus in this Gospel scene from Mark 10.

Do you know what’s very interesting about this story? It’s the fact that we don’t understand the exact nature of the young man’s question until his interaction with Jesus is over and he walks away.

The Bible tells us that he came up to our Lord one day, knelt down, and said to him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now at first glance, it appears that this boy had the right attitude. With his simple question, he seemed to be asking Jesus all the right things: “Good teacher, how can I be the person God wants me to be? How can I be holier and more virtuous? How can I be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect?”

But when our Lord challenged him to go the extra mile by selling his possessions, giving to the poor and becoming a disciple, the truth suddenly became clear: at heart, the young man was a minimalist! Thus, when he said to the Lord, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” what he really meant was, “Jesus, have I done enough yet? I’ve been a great guy—Moses would be proud of me—I’ve kept the rules throughout my life! Is that sufficient for entry into your kingdom? Or do I need to jump through a few more hoops beforehand?”

He was obviously hoping that Jesus would pat him on the back and say, “No more hoops for you, my friend. Sit back and relax. You’re in! Congratulations!”

How appropriate it is that I give this homily today—because within a week, Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be beatified! (Beatification, of course, is the second step in the three-step process of canonization in the Church.)

Mother Teresa was who she was—and is where she is—simply because she was NOT a minimalist when it came to matters of the soul, when it came to serving Jesus Christ and living for him.

By the grace of God, may her attitude become ours—and always be ours—so that we will someday be where she now is.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

The Marriage Crisis and What We Can Do About It

Senator Rick Santorum

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 5, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 10: 2-12.)

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

I hope you won’t be offended by what I’m about to share with you. These are the words of a man who has been called an “evil, narrow-minded, hateful bigot” (among other things!). So brace yourselves for his potentially-offensive words:

I believe that Congress has an obligation to take action to defend the legal status of marriage— before the Supreme Court or individual state supreme courts take away the public's ability to act.

Every civilization since the beginning of man has recognized the need for marriage. This country and healthy societies around the world give marriage special legal protection for a vital reason — it is the institution that ensures the society's future through the upbringing of children. Furthermore, it's just common sense that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

There is an ocean of empirical data showing that the union between a man and a woman has unique benefits for children and society. Moreover, traditional family breakdown is the single biggest social problem in America today. In study after study, family breakdown is linked to an increase in violent crime, youth crime, teen pregnancy, welfare dependency and child poverty.

Marriage has already been weakened. The out-of-wedlock childbirth rate is at a historically high level, while the divorce rate remains unacceptably high. Legalization of gay marriage would further undermine an institution that is essential to the well-being of children and our society. Do we need to confuse future generations of Americans even more about the role and importance of an institution that is so critical to the stability of our country?

The last thing we should do is destroy the special legal status of marriage. But galvanized by the Supreme Court victory [which called the Texas anti-sodomy law unconstitutional], proponents of removing that status are out in force. Ruth Harlow, lead attorney representing the plaintiffs in the Texas case, said, "The ruling makes it much harder for society to continue banning gay marriages."

That is where we are today, thanks to the Texas ruling. But the majority of Americans will have the final say in the battle to preserve the institution of marriage.

I hope elected leaders will rally behind the effort to defend the legal status of marriage from a non-elected group of justices, and I urge you to join those elected leaders in this vital case.

Now that was horrible, wasn’t it? I sincerely apologize to any of you who were offended by these divisive, crude, unenlightened, and terribly un-American remarks.

How dare this evil man—Senator Rick Santorum from Pennsylvania—how dare he assert that marriage is to be given special legal status in our nation! How dare he make the claim that marriage is crucial to the health and well-being of society! How dare he make the claim that marriage is between a man and a woman only! What an evil, narrow-minded bigot!

Have I made my point yet? I wish I could stand here today and tell you that I just engaged in some lighthearted hyperbole, but I can’t do that. Hyperbole is defined as “extravagant exaggeration,” but I did not exaggerate one bit. This is exactly how many people—especially in the media—have responded in recent months to Senator Santorum (and to all those who publicly express similar views on marriage—like our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II). They have been vilified, slandered, and called every name in the book by those who want to destroy the institution of marriage as God designed it!

This is something that we as Catholic Christians need to be deeply concerned about—and also angry about! Husbands and wives please understand: your vocation has been under severe attack in our culture for the last 40 or so years—and the assaults are now getting more intense and more frequent. And if something isn’t done about it very soon, family life as you and I have known it will someday disintegrate. That means your children and grandchildren will be forced to suffer the consequences.

Let me now share with you some of the more glaring assaults on married life that we’ve faced in the last 4 decades:

The general acceptance of living together before marriage—this has been an attack on marriage itself. Did you know that couples who live together before their wedding have a 50% greater chance of divorce than those who don’t? And about 60% of couples who cohabitate break up without ever marrying. Cohabitation is often the “kiss of death” for a relationship. So much for the wisdom of the world which has maintained for years that it’s a great blessing!

Contraception and abortion have also been attacks on marriage and on marital fidelity. Contraception causes many men to treat their wives as objects and playthings (pornography, by the way, has the same effect). The legalization and availability of contraception has also made infidelity in marriage a lot easier. Now you can have an affair and not worry very much about pregnancy. And the effect abortion has on a woman, psychologically and emotionally, will certainly have an impact—a negative impact—on her relationship with her husband (or future husband). Psychologists call it “post-abortion syndrome.” Those of you who came to our pro-life conference a few weeks ago heard a lot about this from a woman—Vera Faith Lord—who has lived through it.

And how about the general acceptance of divorce in our culture? This has also undermined the institution of marriage. On that note, the Catholic Church is the only church I can think of which takes the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel seriously. Notice that Jesus takes a very hard line on divorce in this scene. He tells the Pharisees that Moses tolerated divorce because of the Israelites’ hardness of heart. And then he goes back to Genesis—to God’s original design for marriage. He summarizes it all with this very strong statement: “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Not surprisingly, the disciples have a problem with this (since they were taught the Law of Moses), but Jesus doesn’t back off. When they question him about it, he responds even more forcefully: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This is why the Church doesn’t recognize the spiritual validity of divorce. The Church recognizes it as a civil reality only.

Now I know that whenever I speak of divorce, I need to qualify a few things. First of all, there are some divorced people who are in that condition through no fault of their own. They never wanted to get divorced. They did everything possible to save their marriages—God bless them. Others separated from their spouses for legitimate reasons (for example, they feared for their own physical safety). The Church says there are valid reasons for separation. But if you were validly married and are now separated (and perhaps civilly divorced), remember that in God’s eyes you’re still married—you’re just not living with your spouse. Therefore, as long as you’re living a chaste life and not remarried outside the Church, you can practice your faith fully. And finally, an annulment is not a “Catholic divorce.” A divorce says, “There once was a marriage, now there isn’t a marriage;” an annulment says, “There was never a true marriage bond there to begin with—even though the couple probably went through the wedding ceremony in good faith.”

And finally there’s the general portrayal of married couples on television and in movies. This also constitutes an attack on marriage itself, since most of the time the portrayal of married couples in these settings is decidedly negative. Face it, those of you who are married are usually depicted in the media as poor fools who’ve lost your freedom and your opportunity for personal growth and fulfillment. You can’t have fun anymore; your partying days are over; diapers and bills and pot bellies are all you have to look forward to for the next two or three decades!

So, is marriage finished? With all these attacks going on, is this the end for marriage as the Lord designed it? NO!!! Unless we all sit back and do nothing! If we do nothing, we are in trouble. Praise God for Senator Rick Santorum and others who are leading the fight for what’s right in this area. He’s certainly better than the two pathetic senators and two pathetic congressmen from Rhode Island—who, by the way, do not support the proposed marriage amendment to the Constitution!

So what can we do?

Well, here are some concrete suggestions for promoting marriage as God designed it:

First of all (this is for those who are married): talk about the blessings of marriage with your children and grandchildren. Tell them how your marriage has made you a better person—despite the trials and difficulties you’ve faced over the years. Don’t presume they know these things!—because in today’s anti-marriage culture they probably don’t.

Secondly, defend what you treasure! Go on-line and voice your support for the marriage amendment. Write a letter to each of our senators and congressmen in Washington. Tell them you’re upset that marriage is being undermined in America right now—in part by them!

Thirdly, resolve to vote for people in the future who will support traditional marriage and family life by the laws they vote for in our state and national legislatures.

And finally—last, but certainly not least—pray! Nothing good—including the renewal of marriage and family life—happens without prayer.

Senator Rick Santorum predicted (and here I quote), “The majority of Americans will have the final say in the battle to preserve the institution of marriage.” One of the reasons we are where we are, is because the majority of Americans who support traditional marriage have remained silent and passive, while the enemies of marriage have been hard at work promoting their evil agenda. May that change soon—very soon—and may each and every one of us do our part to make the change happen!