Sunday, December 26, 2004

Pay Attention Whenever You Point Your Finger Unnecessarily!

(Holy Family 2004 (A): This homily was given on December 26, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr Raymond Suriani. Read Colossians 3: 12-17; Matthew 2: 13-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Family 2004]

Let me begin by making a few clarifications. (In past generations this would not have been necessary, but in the wild and wacky world of the early 21st century it’s a must!)

On this feast of the Holy Family, I will be speaking about family life. “Family” here means the traditional, nuclear family consisting of a man and a woman validly married to each other, along with their children.

Now, to be sure, there are some legitimate variations of this standard. For example, my father died when I was 14, so for the better part of my teenage years I lived in a family without a male parent. Some of you, no doubt, had similar experiences growing up. But, in spite of legitimate variations like this, the traditional nuclear family is—and always will be—the norm; it’s the ideal family structure designed by Almighty God himself.

That’s clarification #1.

Secondly, in this homily I want to talk about how we deal with the problems of family life. Here my focus will not be on those major difficulties that sometimes tear families apart, like alcoholism or abuse (verbal, sexual or physical). Obviously whenever those are present they need to be confronted and dealt with if the family is to survive intact.

Rather, my focus today will be on the little conflicts, disagreements and hurts that are part and parcel of every family’s day-to-day experience—but which in the long run can be just as devastating as the more serious issues I mentioned a few moments ago. Unkind words, daily arguments, little resentments and the like can eventually have a cumulative effect on the best of families and make life exceedingly miserable for everybody in the household. And that, unfortunately, is something we probably all know from personal experience!

For instance, how many of you had a family argument before you came to church this morning? Ah yes, I can hear it now: “Get in the car, John. You’re gonna make us late for church—and you know how Fr. Ray gets when he sees people coming in late. The old guy loses it!”

“Don’t yell at me! It’s her fault. She spent a half-hour in the shower. I told her to get out but she wouldn’t listen!”

How, you ask, do I know about this type of pre-Sunday Mass conversation?

Because we had exchanges like that at my house on some Sunday mornings a few decades ago—except the pastor was Fr. Pat and not Fr. Ray!

In today’s second reading from Colossians 3, St. Paul shares with us some challenging words—words which apply in a special way to family life. He says, “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against one another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”

That, as we all know, is easier said than done.

Well today let me share with you one suggestion as to how to move closer to this ideal of Colossians 3. . . .

If you want your family to be more peaceful and loving, then you and every member of your household need to do one very important thing: YOU NEED TO PAY ATTENTION WHENEVER YOU POINT YOUR FINGER UNNECESSARILY!

Finger pointing is something that goes on in every family; it’s a natural part of contemporary family life—because every family is made up of sinners. The Holy Family had two who were not sinners, but we’re not so fortunate!

Now I know what some of you are thinking: “Oh Fr. Ray, we never point fingers. We were taught it’s not polite to point your finger at somebody else.”

Well that may be the case, but trust me, you still do it. You may not do it physically, but you certainly do it verbally; because to point your finger simply means “to blame.” And blaming goes on in every family. In that imaginary conversation I shared a few moments ago, young John pointed his finger at his sister, did he not? He blamed her! “Don’t yell at me! It’s her fault. She spent a half-hour in the shower. I told her to get out but she wouldn’t listen!”

In the next few days, try to be sensitive to the words you speak to members of your family. How often are you pointing your finger?

Sometimes, of course, finger pointing is good and necessary. When a child does something wrong, for example, a good parent needs to point the finger in blame and administer appropriate discipline. But at other times, finger pointing is clearly not necessary, and when we do it in those situations, we drive wedges between ourselves and other people that we supposedly care about deeply.

In recent months, for example, I have witnessed my otherwise good 14-year-old nephew drive a real wedge between himself and his parents (as many teenagers will do), because 99% of the time he insists that everything is somebody else’s fault and somebody else’s problem. He loves to point his finger. I’ve actually seen him point more fingers in a day than he has on both of his hands! And nobody in the family is happy when he does it, including him!

A few moments ago I said that if you want your family to experience more of the love and harmony that St. Paul speaks about in Colossians 3, then you need to “pay attention whenever you point your finger unnecessarily.” I chose my words carefully when I made that statement.

Have you ever taken a look at your hand when you’ve physically pointed your finger at another person?

Your index finger is extended in their direction (obviously), and your thumb is pointed either up in the air or toward the ground, but those other 3 fingers on your hand are pointed right back at you!

And it’s THOSE fingers that you need to pay attention to!

“Pay attention whenever you point your finger unnecessarily.”

Those fingers are a reminder that YOU are part of the problem; it’s not only the other person who’s at fault!

But those fingers are also a reminder that YOU are part of the solution—or at least they’re a reminder that you can be part of the solution if you choose to be!

Most family problems—at least in my experience—are not one person’s fault. One person may have started it, but usually others have freely and willingly added to it.

For instance, on some of those days many years ago when my sister monopolized the bathroom and made the family late for Mass or some other early-morning function, I’m sure that I could have taken a shower before she did. But maybe I just wanted to watch TV instead, or stay in bed a little longer.

Much as I’d rather not admit it, on those occasions I was also part of the problem.

At those moments, did I pay attention to the 3 fingers pointed at me when I had my index finger pointed at my sister? To be honest, sometimes I did, but at other times I didn’t.

When I did pay attention, and resolve to change my attitude and behavior in some way, there was a greater measure of peace in the house; when I didn’t, World War III usually began!

I encourage you all to have a talk with the members of your immediate family in the near future—perhaps on your way home from Mass this morning.

Is this an idea that each of you is prepared to take seriously? Are you willing to look at your own personal contribution to the problems your family faces on a daily basis?

That’s the issue you need to discuss.

If everyone in your household is willing to do it, then your family has a definite opportunity to experience more of the blessings of Colossians 3, and an opportunity to become a lot more like the Holy Family.

And I don’t think anyone in the house would complain about that.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

St. Joseph: Adversity revealed his true character.

(Fourth Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 19, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 1: 18-24.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Advent 2004]

It’s been said that “Adversity reveals character.”

Adversity reveals character.

I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement. When you’re in the midst of a trial—when you’re put into a very stressful situation where your patience and love are put to the test—your true character will often show through. The kind of person you really are will be revealed.

And that’s the way it was with St. Joseph.

Perhaps it’s hard for us to fully appreciate the difficulty this good man faced when he learned that Mary was pregnant. After all, we know how everything worked out. We know that this story would eventually have a happy ending.

But Joseph didn’t know that! In fact, from his perspective, this story could have easily had a disastrous ending, especially for Mary—and for Mary’s Child!

The text says explicitly that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph when she became pregnant. Now please understand, this did not mean that she and Joseph were engaged to each other in the modern sense of that term. In ancient Israel, betrothal was actually the first stage of marriage. It took place roughly a year before the couple consummated their relationship and lived together as husband and wife. But, according to Mosaic Law, during this 12-month interim period the couple was still legally married. Hence, a betrothed woman who had relations with another man was guilty of the sin of adultery. And the penalty for adultery was clearly stated in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 22. There we read the following: “If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

Obviously when he first learned that Mary was pregnant, Joseph did not know she had gotten that way through a supernatural event! He couldn’t possibly have known that! He presumed it had taken place by natural means. He probably said to himself, “This is shocking. I’ve always known Mary to be holy and righteous, but I guess even holy and righteous people can be tempted and fall into sin.”

The bottom line is that he initially thought his otherwise saintly wife had been unfaithful to him.

It was then—in the midst of this disappointment and stress and (probably) anger—that Joseph demonstrated the type of person he really was. This terrible adversity—this apparent tragedy—helped to reveal his true character.

First of all, he showed that he was a man of deep moral conviction AND at the same time a man of deep human compassion. He couldn’t ignore his wife’s apparent unfaithfulness; to him this was a sin that needed to be confronted, not “swept under the rug.” In that, he demonstrated his moral conviction. And yet, he still had a loving compassion for Mary. Even when he suspected that she had been unfaithful, he wasn’t willing to “throw the book at her” (so to speak), by making the sin public. If he had done that, our Blessed Mother (as I indicated a few minutes ago) would have been stoned to death.

His compassion and conviction led him to make the decision to divorce Mary quietly. Divorce was allowed under Mosaic Law at the time, and it was necessary here because they were already in the first stage of marriage.

We live in a world right now where many people think it’s either conviction OR compassion: either you have to be a cold-hearted legalist when it comes to the commandments of God and have no compassion for others, or you have to be a wishy-washy “nice guy” who has no solid moral convictions about important issues of the day. (Many of our Catholic politicians have fallen into that latter category in recent years, have they not?)

Joseph shows us that this is a false dichotomy. It’s a lie! It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. As Catholics we are not to be either people of conviction OR people of compassion, we are to be people of both conviction AND compassion—like Joseph was!

Secondly, in the midst of this apparent crisis, Joseph demonstrated that he was very open-minded. Now the interesting thing is, in today’s world he would be called the exact opposite. In modern western culture, Joseph would definitely be labeled “narrow-minded.”


Because he was open-minded only when it came to the truth! He was not “open-minded” when it came to error and sin! When the angel revealed to him the truth about Mary and her pregnancy—that she had conceived this child through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that the child was the divine Son of God who would save the world from sin—Joseph immediately accepted it. He was open-minded to the truth of God’s word as spoken to him through this heavenly messenger.

In today’s world, of course, “open-minded” is normally used to describe those who accept and promote gross moral evils—especially in the area of sexuality. Those who embrace Biblical moral principles and accept the truth of God’s word as proclaimed by his Church are considered to be hopelessly narrow-minded.

Well, if that’s your perspective, if that’s where you stand—and I pray it is—then take heart: St. Joseph would be right there with you.

No doubt about it.

These are just two aspects of Joseph’s character that shine through brilliantly in this well-known scene from the Gospel of Matthew. There are, of course, many others I could have mentioned. In this story, for example, we also see that Joseph was a man of great courage, who was ready to do the right thing regardless of what other people might say. We see that he was a man who walked by faith, not by his feelings. We see that he was someone who believed that God could do great things—even “impossible” things.

And, amazingly, we see all these truths, we know all these things about St. Joseph and his character, without ever hearing him speak a single word.

Did you realize that?

In the entire New Testament, not one single word of St. Joseph is recorded!

It must have been in reference to him that the old saying was first coined: “Actions speak louder than words.”

Joseph’s actions—especially in times of adversity—clearly revealed his character, and showed him to be a holy, faithful, obedient servant of God.

St. Joseph, pray for us, that we will be the same—especially in our moments of adversity.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Mary Shows Us What It Means To Be Human.

(Immaculate Conception 2004: This homily was given on December 8, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Luke 1: 26-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Immaculate Conception 2004]

What does it mean to be human?

Sounds like an easy question, doesn’t it?

Well don’t be fooled! It’s anything but easy! In fact, when it comes to analyzing what it means to be a human person, errors are very common. But one particular error overshadows all the rest.

Let me describe it in this way . . .

We’ve all heard the expression, “He’s only human.” Many of us—probably most of us—have used it casual conversation at some point in the past.

Think about it: In what circumstances is that line usually spoken? When do we look at another person and say, “He’s only human; she’s only human”?

Well, sometimes it’s when the person makes an innocent mistake—a mistake they weren’t expected to make.

When Tiger Woods, for example, makes a bad shot during a round of golf, the commentators will sometimes say, “That just goes to show that even Tiger Woods is human and makes bad shots like the rest of us.”

But even more frequently that expression is used when someone commits a sin—often a serious sin.

A man is caught in adultery, and some of his buddies will say, “Poor Bob. He just couldn’t say No. And that’s understandable, because he’s only human.”

A woman loses her temper on the job, and some of her coworkers will say, “Joan usually keeps her cool, but she was under a lot of stress the other day. That’s why she lost it like she did. It just goes to show that she’s only human.”

We use the adjective, “human,” in situations like these, as if to imply that to be truly human means to commit sin.

But that’s not true! And today’s feast illustrates the point perfectly!

Today we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Mother. This, of course, does NOT refer to the virginal conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb (the event we heard about in our Gospel reading a few moments ago). The Immaculate Conception prepared Mary for the virginal conception of Jesus at the Annunciation; but the Immaculate Conception itself refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother, Ann. Here’s how Pope Pius IX defined the dogma: “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin.”

We sometimes think of Mary as “Super-Human,” but that’s because in many ways we live in a “sub-human” manner ourselves. Mary, because she was free from original sin and never committed any personal sins in her life, was really the only perfectly “human” person who ever walked the face of this earth—aside from Adam and Eve before the Fall. (Remember that Jesus was a divine person, so he’s in a separate category altogether.)

You see, when God created us, he did not make sin a part of our nature. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were created in a state of original justice. In truth, sin is anti-human; it “deforms” human nature; in many respects it actually “de-humanizes” us!

And deep down inside, we all understand this. When someone, for example, commits a horrible crime (murder, rape, torture), don’t we often say, “He acted just like an animal”? In other words, he didn’t act as human beings are supposed to act! In his conduct he was less than truly human.

Mary reminds us that to be human means to live as God created us to live: in holiness and without sin.

That, of course, is something we need to work at, by the grace of God, each and every day. And part of “working at it” involves repentance—ongoing repentance—and the sacrament of Confession.

In the opening prayer of this Mass, we prayed, “Help us [O Lord] by Mary’s prayers to live in your presence without sin.” That line could have read, “Help us [O Lord] by Mary’s prayers to live a truly human life.”

May that be our prayer at this Mass, and may that be our deepest desire every day.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

John the Baptist: Back Again This Advent With His Message of Repentance

(Second Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 5, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 3: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Advent 2004]

He’s back!

On the Second Sunday of Advent each year, he’s back.

Now in case you’re wondering, I’m not talking about “the Terminator.” I’m talking about John the Baptizer. In the 3-year liturgical cycle of readings, John is always the central character in the Gospel text that’s read on the Second Sunday of Advent.

Which is a bit surprising, because during this season of the year we’re preparing to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. Recall that John and Jesus were almost the same age; according to the Bible, John was born roughly six months before our Lord (that’s why the Church celebrates the feast of the Birth of John the Baptist on June 24).

So obviously John did not come to prepare people for Jesus’ physical birth. He would have had a difficult time doing that from the cradle. But John did come on the scene 30 years later to prepare people for their own spiritual rebirth—a rebirth that would soon be available to them through Jesus.

Because of John’s work—because of his preaching and teaching—many people were prepared to “receive” Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. And that’s why it’s so appropriate that he makes an appearance in our Scripture readings each year. Every time we come to Mass, we Catholics have the opportunity to receive that same Jesus, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist. But, as John would certainly remind us, we need to be properly prepared—properly disposed—for that encounter.

Notice that in today’s Gospel story, two groups of people are denounced—“chewed out” if you will—by John: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.


It’s because these men were not prepared to receive Jesus! They weren’t ready to receive him because they weren’t repentant—and John knew it! That’s why he shouted at them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.”

John knew they weren’t sincere; he knew that they were just “going through the motions” by coming to receive his baptism; he knew that they really didn’t think they were sinners in need of God’s mercy and pardon.

As Catholic Christians we need to be careful—lest we simply “go through the motions” when we come to receive Jesus in Holy Communion at Mass. And how do we avoid that pitfall? Simple: through sincere repentance. Before we approach the altar for the Body and Blood of the Lord we need to repent—sincerely and properly—of any serious sins we’ve committed.

We do that, of course, in the confessional—or as it’s often called nowadays, the “reconciliation room.”

But even if we don’t have mortal sins on our soul, frequent confession—frequent repentance—is necessary if we’re really serious about growing closer to Jesus in our lives. If we’re satisfied with spiritual mediocrity then it doesn’t matter; but if we want to be the best people, the best disciples of Christ that we can possibly be, then Confession is crucial.

So I suppose you could say that ultimately John the Baptist comes to us every Advent to remind us to get to Confession!

Now I’m sure we have some men and women here with us today who have been avoiding Confession—or who have not made a good, thorough Confession—for a long time. Since that’s probably the case, let me now address some of the more common excuses people will use for staying away from this most important sacrament. Perhaps some of these will sound familiar.

Objection #1: “Father, if I go to Confession the roof will fall in on the church.”

I have done extensive research on this subject, and I have not found one instance in 2,000 years of Christian history, of a roof ever caving in on a church because somebody went to Confession!

Objection #2: “I don’t need to go, because I confess my sins directly to God every day.”

Very good. So do I. There’s only one problem with that: your sins don’t just involve you and God. Your sins involve you, God AND OTHER PEOPLE! So you need reconciliation with the Lord and with your brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s what happens in Confession. The priest not only acts in the person of Christ; he also represents the community that you’ve offended by your sins. So when you’re reconciled in the sacrament, you’re reconciled vertically and horizontally: with the Lord, AND with others.

Objection #3: “Father Ray will yell at me.”

Do not confuse Fr. Ray at the pulpit with Fr. Ray in the reconciliation room. There is a difference, believe it or not. In my priesthood I have always tried to follow the advice of St. Alphonsus Liguori, who once said that a priest should be a “lion in the pulpit, but a lamb in the confessional.”
Trust me; I’m not so bad. Here it’s “roar, roar”; there it’s “bah, bah.”

Objection #4: “Fr. Ray will remember my sins and not like me anymore.”

Since I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday morning, it’s highly unlikely that I will remember your sins. I’ve literally heard a million of ‘em! Of course, if that’s a big concern you can always go anonymously behind the screen, or you can go to a priest you don’t know. On that note, we will have extended periods of Confession on the next two Saturdays, as we do every Advent and Lent. Fr. Giudice will be here helping me next Saturday afternoon from 2:30 until 4:30, and Fr. Myers will be here the Saturday after that at the same time. Go to one of them if you’d rather not go to me. It’s the same Jesus who will forgive you!

Objection #5: “I don’t have any sins.”

Another form of this objection is: “I don’t know what my sins are.”

This little difficulty can be easily overcome in one of two ways: either you can make a formal, academic examination of conscience, or you can make what I would call a “living examination of conscience.”

The academic version involves sitting down and honestly answering some questions about your life, questions like those found on the sheet that I’ve inserted into this week’s bulletin. How convenient, eh? I’ve given this out before, but some of you might have missed it and others might have lost or misplaced it.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, then there is this alternative: find someone who knows you well, and ask them to tell you your sins! They will help you to make a “living” examination of conscience. If you’re married, for example, I’m sure your spouse would be happy to give you a rather lengthy list of what you do wrong. And think of how happy you’ll make your husband or wife in the process! They’ll really enjoy assisting you in this way, I can almost guarantee it!

And finally, objection #6: “I’ve committed too many serious sins for God to forgive me.”

If you honestly believe that you’re “too far gone” in terms of the sins you’ve committed in your life, my suggestion is that you get a copy of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” on DVD and watch it within the next few days.

I’m serious about that.

Jesus Christ went through that living hell so that every sin from the beginning to the end of time could be washed away. If for some reason you think your particular sins are beyond his forgiving touch, then in effect you’re telling him that he wasted his time when he went through all that on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. I don’t think that any of us would want to say that to Jesus.

John the Baptist is back! He’s back once again with his message of repentance, to prepare the people of God to receive Jesus spiritually at Christmas, and eucharistically at every Mass.

May we all heed his message—and may we do so not only during this season of Advent, but throughout the year.