Sunday, December 25, 2005

'The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe': An Opportunity For A Metanoia Experience

(Christmas 2005: This homily was given on December 25, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 1: 1-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Christmas 2005]

I love Jesus Christ. I’m not ashamed to say that. I love Jesus Christ. He is my Lord, my Savior, my Redeemer.

And I want everyone else to love him.

That is the deepest desire of my heart; it’s why I became a priest.

I want people to know, love and serve the Lord, because that’s why they were created (whether they know it or not!).

They were made to glorify God here on this earth, so that they will someday live with him forever in his eternal and glorious kingdom.

This is the message that I and many others all over the world preach every single Sunday: the message of repentance, the message of hope, the message of salvation in and through Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.

And believe it or not, there are many who listen. Praise God! They take the words we preach to heart, fall in love with the Lord, and make concrete, visible changes in their lives.

They come to recognize the presence of Christ in the Scriptures and in the Holy Eucharist, and so they make the commitment to be faithful to Mass. In fact, it soon gets to the point where they wouldn’t even think of missing on either a Sunday or a holy day.

They also start to go to Confession on a regular basis. That’s because they’ve met Jesus in a personal way. Before they met the Lord, they almost never went to Confession, because they normally compared themselves to other people, and they thought they looked pretty good. (“I’m not as bad as she is!” “I’m a lot better than that guy!”) But now they compare themselves to Jesus, and they realize how far they have to go to achieve perfection.

They even begin to see other people in a different light—as their brothers and sisters in the Lord. Consequently, their charity grows, because they’re no longer focused only on themselves and their own wants and desires.

There’s a technical name for this type of spiritual transformation. It’s called “metanoia”. The word literally means “to turn around”: to stop walking away from God, and to begin walking toward him.

Thankfully, metanoia-type conversions happen all over the world every day. They occur in the lives of ordinary men and women when they hear the word of God, and take it to heart.

But, sadly, it doesn’t happen for everyone. As we all know, there are many who hear God’s word proclaimed to them at Christmas, or at Easter, or at some other time of the year—and who think it’s nice (so much so, that they may even compliment the homilist at the end of the Liturgy). But when all is said and done, their lives are no different. Everything else—and anything else—remains more important than Jesus, the sacraments, and living a life of charity and holiness.

Obviously, for these men and women, something more is required. They need to hear (as we all do) the Gospel message preached to them from the pulpit, but they also need to encounter Jesus and his truth in other settings and through other channels, if they’re going to open their hearts up to the Lord. Mel Gibson understood this, which is why he made the film, “The Passion of the Christ.” He knew that some people would be converted through that movie who probably never would have been converted in a specifically religious setting. That’s because there are certain men and women who rarely go to church, but who go to the movies all the time!

So here’s my idea: In order to reach out to these lost souls who need a “metanoia-type conversion,” I’m going to write a book—a children’s book. Isn’t that wonderful? Every child loves a good story, right?

But it won’t be exclusively for children; even adults will love it!

Now here’s the plot I’m thinking of . . . (you can let me know what you think of it after Mass):

I’ll begin by having a child, or 2 children—or maybe even 3 or 4 children—pass from this world into an imaginary, magical one. I’m not sure how I’ll do that; but I can figure out those details later. Maybe I’ll have them walk through a closet of some kind.

Anyway, in this new world they’ll meet all kinds of wild and exotic creatures. There will be centaurs, and dragons, and dwarfs, and giants, and fauns—and even a beaver or two, since beavers are cute and rather cuddly and friendly.

And they’ll all live in a land where it’s been winter for a hundred years, but never Christmas. That, of course, will be a crucial detail in the story. The hundred year winter will represent the world before Jesus, when all the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve lived with a barrier between themselves and God the Father, a barrier that they could not tear down themselves, even with millions and millions and millions of prayers and good deeds.

You see, from the day Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—from that moment until Christmas, Satan had a claim on all of humanity. He was in control, which is why it’s constantly winter in my imaginary world at the start of the story. Satan rules; and he’s created an existence without joy or love or warmth.

Now I must admit, I struggled for some time as to how to portray the devil in my story. I was thinking about putting him in red tights and giving him a big pitchfork, but then I decided that would be a little too obvious. Besides, he’s much more subtle than that. In fact, St. Paul says that Satan can sometimes disguise himself as an angel of light, pretending to be our friend and enticing us with attractive things—like Turkish Delight candies—which satisfy us for a time, but ultimately leave us empty, and can easily lead to despair.

You’ll probably never guess how I decided to cast the devil, so I’ll tell you. After thinking about it for a long time, I decided to portray him as a witch, a “White Witch.” This witch will be strange; she’ll be both attractive and repulsive at the very same time (because that’s the way Satan is).

Now the turning point in my story will come when one of the children—let’s pick a name out of the air and call him Edmund—gives in to the temptation of the witch and betrays the other 3. She gives him some Turkish Delight to draw him in, then she promises that she will make him a king, and give him the chance to rule over the others. He likes that idea, and buys into her lie, because he’s filled with pride (as we can all be at times).

Can Edmund be saved? Will this magical land ever see spring and summer again?

The other 3 children can’t do it, because they’re weak and sinful: they’re sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. The savior in the story has to be strong and powerful and without any sin or evil within him. Like Jesus.

So who could it be? I’ve got it! How about a lion? Do you think that will work? Yes, that’s it! I’ll have a magical lion come on the scene—the lion who created this fanciful world. And that will be the perfect animal to use, because in the Old Testament one of the titles for the Messiah is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.”

When this magnificent lion comes it will be Christmas at last; and then everything will begin to thaw as his presence is felt all over the land. The long winter will finally be over. Then he’ll confront the white witch and do her in and finally rescue Edmund.

But not before she demands his blood; not before she claims the right to kill him! And she’ll be correct, you know. As St. Paul tells us in Scripture, “the wages of sin is death.” Edmund sinned by betraying the other 3, and now his blood belongs to the witch.

But in the greatest act of love imaginable, the lion will actually offer his life for Edmund’s! Even though in his great power he will have the ability to destroy them all, this extraordinary lion will allow the witch and her minions to taunt him and spit at him and beat him and finally kill him.

And just like on Good Friday, it will seem as if the devil has won.

But no! Because this lion is without sin and has offered himself in sacrifice for an unworthy sinner, he will rise from the dead and roar again! He’ll destroy the witch, and bring back to life by his breath—his spirit—all those good fauns and animals that the witch had killed. And then he’ll make repentant Edmund and the other 3 children kings and queens of this magical land. And all 4 will reign with the lion (as we reign with Christ through Baptism and by remaining in the state of grace throughout our lives here on this earth).

So what do you think? Do you like my story?

Some of you are acting like you’ve heard it before.

Well I guess you have, haven’t you?

A former atheist, who was a professor at Oxford and Cambridge for many years, C.S. Lewis, wrote it after his conversion to Christianity. It’s called “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” He wrote it as a reflection on what it would have been like if the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity had come to a magical world like Narnia in order to save it.

The movie version of the story was released on December 9. I highly encourage you to see it. If you know the real message behind the story (and now you all do!), it can be a religious experience.

You will understand that you are Edmund—and so am I.

You will understand the meaning of Jesus’ birth at Christmas, his sacrificial death on Good Friday, and his glorious resurrection at Easter.

And if you’re open to the grace God will be offering you at that moment, you may even have the kind of life-changing metanoia experience that I spoke about at the beginning of my homily.

And then no one and no created thing will be more important to you than Jesus.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

When Exactly Did Mary Become The Mother Of Our Savior?

(Fourth Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 18, 2005, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Luke 1: 26-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Advent 2005]

As I was sitting in front of my computer one day last week, pondering what I was going to preach about this weekend, an email suddenly dropped into my mailbox. I took that as a sign—especially after I read through its contents.

The email contained a copy of a letter to the editor of the Providence Journal, written by David O’Connell, who is the executive director of The Mother of Life Center in Providence. The Mother of Life Center offers help and services to women in difficult pregnancies.

Mr. O’Connell wrote his letter in response to an op-ed piece by Froma Harrop, which had appeared in the Journal a few weeks earlier. There Ms. Harrop categorically denied that the so-called “morning-after pill” has the potential to cause a spontaneous abortion under certain circumstances. Her point was that since the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) has decreed that pregnancy begins when the fertilized egg actually implants itself in the wall of a woman’s uterus, anything that happens before that moment is to be considered contraception and not abortion.

In his letter, Mr. O’Connell agreed that the morning-after pill will function as a contraceptive if it’s taken before fertilization (that is to say, conception) has occurred. However he rightly added that if conception has already taken place, the morning-after pill can cause a spontaneous, chemical abortion, since it makes the wall of the mother’s uterus hostile to implantation.

But why does the FDA disagree? Why does the FDA say that it’s always contraceptive and never abortive?

Very simply, it’s because they’re following the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who changed their “official definition” of pregnancy back in the 1960s!

Did you know that? Many people don’t.

In the 1950s and earlier, common-sense biology ruled the day, and it was understood that pregnancy began at the moment when conception occurred in the mother’s fallopian tube.

But then came the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, when artificial birth control became a big business in this country through the introduction of the birth control pill and the marketing of devices like the IUD.

The problem with the IUD, of course, was that it didn’t prevent conception from taking place. Rather, it prevented an already fertilized egg (in other words, a new human being) from implanting in the mother’s uterus, thus causing a spontaneous abortion!

The same scenario was possible with the birth control pill—and all the experts knew it! Ask any honest medical doctor and he or she will tell you that the birth control pill does not always prevent either ovulation or conception. But since the pill also has the effect of changing the lining of the uterus, if it fails to prevent a woman from ovulating and conceiving, it will likely prevent the newly-conceived child from taking up residence in its mother’s womb.

Thus you have, in effect, a spontaneous, chemical abortion.

For those in the contraception business in the 1960s, this created a big legal problem, because in that decade abortion (thanks be to God!) was not legally permitted in most places.

So what did the makers and promoters of the pill and the IUD do?

Why, they did what any immoral group of people would do in similar circumstances: they lobbied the medical establishment, and pushed them very hard to change the definition of pregnancy! In that way, they could have the “game” without the “name”! They could cause abortions, without being called “abortionists”. They could say, “Pregnancy doesn’t begin until the fertilized egg is implanted in the uterus. That’s the official, medical definition. So our products don’t cause abortions; they just prevent pregnancy.”

This is yet another example of what St. Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:10: “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

Which leads us to consider a very interesting question about Mary, our Blessed Mother:

When exactly did she become the mother of our Savior?

Was it in today’s Gospel scene, at the Annunciation?

Was it when she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done unto me according to your word” (as we’ve always presumed)? Or was it sometime afterward?

Was it the next day? Or the day after? Or a week later?

What would the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say?

Not that what they think on the issue really matters; but, given their nonsensical definition of pregnancy, it’s an interesting question to ponder.

And if Mary did not really get pregnant until the fertilized egg (which contained the Savior of the world!) implanted itself in her uterine wall, could she have reconsidered her Yes? Since experts say it can take 6-10 days for implantation to take place, could she have chosen to have an abortion during that time without it being a sin?

We can’t imagine it, can we? We can’t imagine Mary even considering such a thing!

And, of course, she never would have. She treasured life too much.

Although, by today’s standards, she had all the “legitimate” reasons for terminating her pregnancy, did she not?

Think about it. . . She was young, probably only 13 or 14 years of age. She was poor. She had no marketable skills; she had no trade with which to support herself and a family. She was not married (in the sense that she was living with her husband). And initially her life was in grave danger because of the very fact that she was pregnant! As many of us know, if it had been made public that she was with child before her marriage to Joseph was finalized, she could have been stoned to death.

You talk about a “health of the mother” exception! Without question, Mary had one! And the Supreme Court of this country would have agreed!

Oh, how far we have fallen in just a few decades!

Are you uncomfortable right now?

I am.

I’m uncomfortable even associating Mary with abortion. No doubt many of you are as well.

We can’t imagine it, first of all, because we know how holy and how loving Mary was!

But that’s not the only reason!

We also can’t imagine this happening because we have put a human face on that zygote, that embryo, that fetus in her womb!

We know it wasn’t simply a “cluster of cells” or a “product of conception” that she was carrying and nurturing in her body for 9 months: it was Jesus Christ!

The Son of God had a human face. On one level, at least, that’s the message of Christmas.

Well the fact is, every child today—from the moment he or she is conceived—has a “human face” (in other words, a human identity). Just like Jesus!

And every woman who conceives a child is like the Blessed Mother, at least in one important respect. Mary was called to bring the only begotten Son of God into this world. Every mother today is called to bring an adopted son or daughter of God into this world.

This means that both mother and child deserve our love, our encouragement, our respect, our assistance, our prayers—and the protection of our laws!

May they someday receive those things from every Catholic, and from every citizen of this country. May we come to look upon them—and to treat them—as we would look upon and treat Mary and Jesus.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Is It Good To Be Open-Minded?

(Third Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 11, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1: 19-34.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Advent 2005]

Philosophy professor Donald DeMarco was having a conversation with his barber recently as he was getting his hair trimmed. At one point, the topic of “same-sex marriage” came up in the discussion. The barber told Dr. DeMarco that he’s not completely comfortable with the idea of men marrying men and women marrying women, but he’s willing to go along with it because, as he put it, “I have an open mind.”

Which leads to the obvious question: Is it good? Is it good to have an “open mind”?

If you took a poll of Americans today, I think the majority would say that it is. In fact, it’s quite common these days for men and women to boast of their “open-mindedness” (especially in matters of personal morality), while at the same time pointing fingers at people like me, whom they accuse of being close-minded and hopelessly out of touch. You could say that for these “enlightened” men and women open-mindedness is the greatest of all virtues, and closed-mindedness the worst of all vices.

But is that the case?

Before I answer that question, listen to these four statements:

Two plus two equals twenty-four.

Adolf Hitler was a great guy.

Wife-beating is a healthy activity for husbands to engage in.

Murder is okay.

My brothers and sisters, do you realize that people who are intent on always being “open-minded” would not be able to say that any of those statements is false?—even though they all are!

In their commitment to being open-minded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, they would be forced to say that every one of those statements might be true!

A consistently open-minded person, for example, could never commit himself to say that two plus two equals four. He’d have to be “open” to the possibility that two plus two actually equals something else: twenty-four, forty-four, or some other number.

Nor could he condemn the evil actions of Hitler, since he’d have to be open to the possibility that “the Fuhrer” was really a nice guy, who’s been the innocent victim of 70 years of bad press.

He’d even have to be open to the possibility that wife beating and murder are morally acceptable human activities.

The logical conclusion here is that open-mindedness is fine—until you know the truth! Once you know the truth about something, open-mindedness is no longer a virtue! At that point (believe it or not) close-mindedness is the virtue and open-mindedness the vice!

It makes perfect sense, does it not? Once you recognize and accept the truth about something, you need to close the doors of your mind tightly! You need to do that in order to lock out all the errors!

For example, it’s good for a little child to be open-minded about the possibilities of what 2+2 might equal. But once he’s taught that the correct answer is 4, he needs to close the doors of his mind around that fact and shut out all the other possibilities—or someday he won’t even be able to balance his own checkbook!

It’s not wrong for someone to think Hitler might have been a good guy—until he learns the truth about what the man actually did before and during the Second World War! At that point, his mind needs to close itself around the truth that Adolf Hitler was one of the most hateful people to ever walk the face of the earth.

This is why St. Paul tells us in today’s second reading from 1 Thessalonians 5 to “Test everything, [and then] retain [only] what is good.”

In a recent article he wrote, Dr. DeMarco said this: “The human mind has not completed its natural function while it remains in the state of openness. It is only when it closes itself on something true or good or right that it has completed the activity for which it was created.”

Close-mindedness, in other words, should be the ultimate goal of all our thought and reflection.

Here John the Baptist is a great role model for us. John was a man who was open to the many possibilities, until the truth was revealed to him. In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, for example, (which is the chapter today’s reading was taken from), John indicates very candidly that at first he didn’t understand that his cousin Jesus was the Messiah. He was not clear on the matter; he was open to the many possible candidates living in Palestine at the time. But once he saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus after he baptized him in the Jordan, John knew his cousin was the one (since God had told him that when he saw the Spirit come down on someone, that person would be the Messiah).

Consequently, when the priests and Levites from Jerusalem questioned him in the passage we heard a few moments ago, John made it crystal clear that he was no longer open-minded when it came to the Messiah’s identity. Please notice, when they said to him, “Who are you?” he did not respond, “Gee, I don’t know. I’m not sure. I might be Elijah, or the prophet, or even the Messiah. I’m certainly open to the possibilities.”


He said, unequivocally, “I am not the Christ.”

Then he added, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord, as Isaiah the prophet said.”

Once John knew the truth that Jesus was the Messiah, the idea that he or anyone else might be the Christ was completely shut out of his mind. On that particular issue, he was as close-minded as he could possibly be.

Praise God!

So the next time someone accuses you of being close-minded on abortion, or euthanasia, or embryonic stem cell research, or “same-sex marriage,” or any other hot-button issue—specifically because you accept the teaching of the Church on the matter—take it for what it is.

Take it as a compliment!

Say to the person, “Thank you. Thank you very much! And you’re absolutely correct. I have prayed, I have studied, I have reflected, I have learned the truth about this important issue, and now my mind has closed itself around that beautiful truth. And someday, I hope and pray, you’ll have the good sense to do the same thing.”

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Mary, The Children Of Narnia, Adam And Eve—And Us!

The Kings and Queens of Narnia

(Immaculate Conception 2005: This homily was given on December 8, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Genesis 3: 9-20; Luke 1: 26-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Immaculate Conception 2005]

In case you haven’t already heard, C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, has been made into a feature length film that premieres in theaters tomorrow. You’ll definitely hear more about the book from me in a future homily, but today I simply want to focus on one important detail of the story. The four children who wander through the wardrobe and into the magical world of Narnia (Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy) are referred to in the book as “the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve.”

That is not a coincidence. These titles were given to them by C.S. Lewis for a very definite reason.

The reason goes back to the very beginning of the Bible, to the sad and tragic story of Genesis 3 (part of which we heard in today’s first reading).

We all know what happened . . . Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord by eating fruit from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in the Garden of Eden—the one tree from which God had forbidden them to eat.

And ever since that day, human beings have suffered the terrible consequences of this “original sin”: sickness, evil, conflict with others—and physical death.

So by giving Peter and Edmund the title “sons of Adam,” and by giving Susan and Lucy the title “daughters of Eve,” C.S. Lewis was telling his readers that these four children were weak, fallible people who were struggling (as we all are) to deal with the residual effects of original sin.

And yet, in the midst of their fight against temptation and the inclination to sin, it’s clear from the very beginning of the story that these four also had the potential to be something more, something better—something great! With the help of Aslan, the kingly lion, they had the potential to become kings and queens themselves, and to reign with Aslan in a renewed, transformed Narnia.

Sound familiar?

It should. That’s the human situation in which we live. That’s reality! And that’s what C.S. Lewis was ultimately trying to portray. Keep that in mind when you see the movie. It’s not just a cute children’s story!

We, like Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy, are sinners. We are children of Adam and Eve, who are born into this world with original sin (which means that we lack sanctifying grace, the grace we need to get into heaven).

But we have the potential to be something more, something better, something great! In a word, we have the potential to be saints!—not by our own power, but by the power of a Lion!

Here, of course, I’m not talking about Aslan! I’m talking about the man the Bible calls “the Lion of the tribe of Judah”; I’m talking about the one whose birth we are preparing to celebrate in a few weeks, namely Jesus Christ our Savior!

And the process has already begun. Whether we realize it or not, each of us began to “reign” with this “Divine Lion” on the day we were baptized. That was the moment when we were born again, received sanctifying grace into our soul, and were given (spiritually speaking) a “crown of glory” as God’s adopted son or daughter! And that crown will remain on us throughout our time on this earth, provided we stay in the state of grace by living a life of faith, hope and charity.

But even if the crown happens to fall off at some point along the way because we commit a mortal sin, the good news is that it can be quickly and easily restored through the sacrament of Confession.

So please get to Confession if you need to!

The ultimate goal, of course, is to die with the crown on (to die, in other words, in the state of grace)—because then we will reign with the Lion of Judah forever, in his heavenly kingdom (as St. Paul tells us in 2 Timothy, chapter 2, verse 12).

I mention all this today because at this Mass we honor a woman who had this “crown of glory” on her head from the first moment of her life—our Blessed Mother!

In a certain sense, that’s what her Immaculate Conception was all about!

Remember, this feast 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.”

And so the crown was hers from the beginning.

Many people don’t realize it, but this event was actually prophesied in the passage from Genesis 3 that we heard in today’s first reading. There God indicates that at some point in the future he will do something extraordinary FOR a woman and through a woman!

He says first of all that he will put enmity (hatred) between this chosen woman and Satan. God promises to act in such a way that this lady will be at odds with the devil from the very first moment of her life. Well, who is the only woman after Eve to come into the world “at enmity” with the devil? The answer is: Mary! Because she was immaculately conceived, and had sanctifying grace in her soul at her conception, she was the devil’s enemy from the first second of her existence.

That’s what God did FOR her.

And then through her—specifically through her Yes to Gabriel at the Annunciation—God brought his Son into the world, so that his Son could “strike” at Satan’s head by dying for our sins on the Cross.

Let me conclude today with this simple thought: In Christian art, our Blessed Mother Mary should probably always be pictured with a beautiful crown on her head. I say that because, when you stop and think about it, in the spiritual sense she always had one on!

She had a crown on at the start of her life, because she was immaculately conceived; she kept it on throughout her life, because she never committed even one personal sin; she died with it on when her earthly life was finished; and, as Revelation 12 and the 5th Glorious Mystery of the Rosary remind us, she continues to have it on now in God’s eternal kingdom.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, crowned in glory both on earth and in heaven, pray for us—and pray for the many other sons and daughters of Adam and Eve living in the world today. Pray that we will all receive our crowns from “the Lion,” Jesus Christ, your son, and then keep them on always—following your perfect example. Amen.