Monday, February 27, 2006

Her Race Wasn’t Over—And Neither Is Ours!

Lindsey Jacobellis tumbles her way to silver.

(First Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 5, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Lent 2006]

Her race wasn’t over—but she acted like it was.

And it cost her the gold medal.

I’m talking about Lindsey Jacobellis, the U.S. Olympic snowboarder, who was ahead by fifty yards in the women’s snowboard cross final a couple of weeks ago in Torino, Italy, with only about a hundred yards left in the race.

She was literally coasting to an easy victory—one of the easiest of her career—until she allowed pride to get the better of her. (And you all know what the Bible says about pride, right? In Proverbs 16: 18 it says that pride precedes a fall! Someone needed to quote that line to Lindsey before the race began.)

In a moment she will never forget as long as she lives, she decided to showboat a little for the cameras during her second-to-last jump by reaching down and grabbing hold of the back of her snowboard (a move that snowboarders call “method air”).

And that’s precisely what she did. Unfortunately, however, when she came back down to earth, she slipped, fell, and tumbled off the course just a few yards from the finish line. She tried as quickly as she could to get back on track, but it was too late. Those few short seconds were more than enough time for her nearest competitor, Tanja Frieden of Switzerland, to pass her, cross the line, and win the gold medal. Lindsey had to settle for the silver.

From the moment Lindsey Jacobellis left the starting gate, until the moment she finally crossed the finish line, her race wasn’t over.

And neither, my brothers and sisters, is ours! Our race is also not over! How important it is for us to understand that! Here, of course, I’m not talking about snowboard racing (as a dedicated skier, I don’t even like snowboarding!). Rather, I’m talking here about life—this earthly life we’re all blessed to be experiencing right now! St. Paul, on more than one occasion, made this comparison in his letters. He compared this mortal life of ours to a race, the prize of which is eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom.

That, I would say, is a very fitting analogy. It’s definitely one that Lindsey Jacobellis could easily understand, given her recent experience at the Olympics.

She missed out on the big prize because she made the fatal mistake of thinking that her snowboard race was over when it really wasn’t.

Well, believe it or not, the very same thing can happen to us with respect to the ultimate prize of eternal life, if we make the serious mistake of becoming complacent and thinking that we’ve already “arrived” (spiritually speaking).

In today’s second reading from 1 Peter 3, for example, the very first pope reminds us that sanctifying grace—the grace Jesus won for us by his passion, death and resurrection— the grace we need in our souls in order to get into heaven—comes through the sacrament of Baptism. Noah and his family in the Old Testament were saved by “passing through” the waters of the great flood. That event, Peter says (and here I quote) “prefigured Baptism, which saves you now.” In other words, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, gives to each of us the grace of salvation, as we “pass through” the waters of the baptismal font.

That’s wonderful. That’s good news! But, unfortunately, it leads some Catholics to mistakenly believe that they’ve got it made! They don’t think they need Mass; they don’t think they need Confession; they don’t think they need to pray every day; they don’t even think they need to live a morally upright life. After all, they’ve been baptized! They’re card-carrying members of the Church! They’ve been saved!

Like Lindsey Jacobellis, they act as if their race is over—but it isn’t! Yes, it’s true, Baptism did bring them sanctifying grace. But that grace can be lost through mortal sin! And committing a mortal sin is a very real possibility, as long as our hearts are beating and we still have breath within us.

This is one of the reasons why Lent is so important! This is why Lent, for all its challenges, is really a great blessing! In fact, if someone ever says to you, “What’s the point of Lent? Why do you give up things and pray more and perform more acts of charity during this season of the year?” you should respond, “It’s because I know that my race isn’t over yet! It’s because I know that I need this season. I have a prize that I’m seeking: HEAVEN! And I’m bound and determined to stay on the narrow road that leads to that goal. But I also know how weak I am. I know that, just like Lindsey Jacobellis, I can easily let pride get the better of me. And when that happens, mortal sin isn’t very far away. So during these 40 days of Lent I make a special effort to deal with my weaknesses: I pray more frequently, because I know that through prayer (and especially through the Mass) I receive the grace I need to stay on course—on that narrow road that leads to life. I fast and engage in other acts of self-denial to discipline my body and mind, so that my flesh doesn’t lead me off course and into serious sin. And I give alms and perform extra works of charity to lessen my attachment to the things of this world. Because the more I’m attached to money and objects, the easier it is for me to get off track.”

Let’s pray at this Mass for ourselves and for one another: that we will have the good sense to take a lesson from Lindsey Jacobellis and never act as if our race is over—until it is!

And yet, as we do this, we need to remember that there is one very big difference between her experience on the race course during the Olympics, and our experience in life . . . .

Once she made her prideful mistake, Lindsey Jacobellis couldn’t do anything about it. As soon as she hit the snow and veered off that race course, her fate in the final of the women’s snowboard cross was sealed. The gold medal was gone.

But if we should happen to get off course at some point by committing a mortal sin, all is not lost. As long as we’re still alive, we have the opportunity to get back on track and win the eternal prize. All we need to do is enter one of those little rooms on either side of the church and say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned . . . “

May all those Catholics who have fallen and are presently off the race course, do that during this season of Lent.

Friday, February 10, 2006

He Tuned Out Distracting And Dissenting Voices—And He Was Greatly Blessed!

(Sixth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on February 12, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 1: 40-45.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday of the Year 2006]

He was a man who “tuned out” distracting, dissenting voices. And in the process, he was greatly blessed!

I’m talking about the leper in today’s Gospel story from Mark 1.

This is something we can discern once we look back at the first reading. There Moses (the author of the first 5 books of the Bible) proclaims the Hebrew law concerning lepers. In the last two verses of the text, it says: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13: 44-46)

All of which means that this sick, diseased man shouldn’t have been anywhere near Jesus! He should have been with his fellow lepers, miles away from those who were fit and healthy.

Given that fact, what do you think the eyewitnesses of this event were saying? What do you think their response was when they saw this leper approaching? Do you think they were saying, “Come, friend; come closer to us; come and see Jesus”?

I don’t think so!

They were probably screaming at the guy: “Get away! What the matter with you? Don’t you know the law? Get out of here!”

This leper, thankfully, was not deterred! As I said in the first line of my homily, he “tuned out” all the distracting and dissenting voices around him (that is, the voices that were commanding him to stay away). He tuned them out, came right up to Jesus, and knelt down within an arms-length of our Lord. (We know that, incidentally, because St. Mark says that at one point Jesus reached out with his arm and touched the leper with his hand.)

And because he tuned out all the negative voices and then “tuned in” to Jesus, this leper was greatly blessed. He was, as we heard a few moments ago, completely healed of his horrible disease. Perhaps the words of today’s responsorial psalm refrain were his words afterward: “I turn to you Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.”

What a great lesson there is here for all of us—and in particular for our young people: If you want Jesus to bless your life in extraordinary ways, then you need to “tune in” to him, AFTER YOU TUNE OUT THE DISSENTING AND DISTRACTING VOICES OF THIS WORLD!

Needless to say, in our extremely noisy, anti-God culture, this is a challenge—a very big challenge! It’s hard for all of us to “shut out” the voices of dissent and distraction; it’s equally as hard to “tune in” to the person and message of Jesus.

I’ll give you one example to illustrate the difficulty. . . .

A few weeks ago, we began to prepare for this year’s trip to the Steubenville East youth conference, which will take place (as always) in mid-July. We did that by gathering some of the chaperones together for a brief meeting here in church. During the course of our discussion that night, some of the “veteran” adults (i.e., those who’ve been coming for many years) made an interesting observation. They noted that, on our most recent trips to the conference, we’ve had to deal with many more “resistant” and “disconnected” teens than we had to deal with in previous years.

Some resistance, of course, is always to be expected. God never forces himself on anyone; he always respects a person’s free will. Even when Jesus preached the Gospel in person 2,000 years ago, some freely resisted and refused to say Amen to what they heard.

Thankfully, most of the young people who come with us each year do open up to the Lord and have a great experience at the conference. But some don’t. Unfortunately, the number of those who “don’t” has noticeably increased of late—and our adults have noticed.

Personally, I don’t think this is peculiar to our group, either. I think every group that goes has had a similar problem.


We’re convinced that one of the biggest reasons for this is that many of our teenagers are no longer getting away from distracting, dissenting voices when they attend the conference! For the most part they used to, but not anymore—especially because of the new technology that’s out there.

If a teen goes to Steubenville East, for example, with a negative attitude (as some do!), and then he spends every free moment he has on his cell phone, talking with his friends back home—friends who are reinforcing his negativity with their discouraging and sarcastic comments—what chance does that young person have of opening up to Christ at some point during the weekend?

The answer is: Very little.

Teenagers, that’s why we will be very strict this year—stricter than ever before—when it comes to cell phones, pagers, ipods, CD players, etc!

If we find one of those little items on your person, we will confiscate it immediately! You’ll get it back when we return to St. Pius on Sunday.

We will do this, of course, for your own good: so that you will not be negatively influenced when you’re there! Remember, the reason they call it a “retreat,” is because that’s what you’re supposed to do—retreat! You’re supposed to pull away from your everyday circumstances, activities and acquaintances, so that you can tune in to Christ on a deeper level, and receive the graces and blessings that he wants to give you!

A man who made an Adult Search at St. Dominic Savio Youth Center many years ago reminded me the other day that, when he arrived at the retreat house on Friday evening, the people in charge took his watch away! And they kept it for the entire weekend! That’s because they didn’t even want “time” to be a distraction for him on the retreat! A woman in the parish told me that the same thing happened to her and her husband when they made a Marriage Encounter several years back.

So this is obviously not something that’s peculiar to teenagers! All of us, young and not-so-young, are easily affected by negative voices that seek to keep us from focusing on God, and from coming to Jesus in the way that this leper did.

He was a man who consciously and resolutely “tuned out” the distracting and dissenting voices around him.

If we want to be blessed as powerfully as he was blessed, we need to follow his example.

May the Lord help us all to do so.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Big Difference Between Job And Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz

Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz in the missions.

(Fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on February 5, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Job 7: 1-4, 6-7.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of the Year 2006]

The title of this homily is: “The Big Difference Between Job And Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz.”

I know—it’s not the most “catchy” title in the world, but it's accurate nonetheless.

Most of us, I’m sure, know the story of Job. The Bible tells us that he was a deeply religious man, “who feared God and avoided evil”. He was also quite wealthy. And for many years he led a very happy life; that is, until the day when he literally lost everything! First, his herds and flocks were either destroyed or stolen; then his ten children died when a house collapsed on them during a severe windstorm; and, finally, he was afflicted with a terrible disease that left his entire body covered with painful boils.

At that point, along came Mrs. Job, who took one look at her husband and said to him, “Are you still holding to your innocence? Curse God and die.” (Obviously, Mrs. Job never received the “Wife of the Year Award”!)

Then three of his closest friends came on the scene “to give him sympathy and comfort.” However, all they ended up giving him was a lot of bad advice, more aggravation—and probably a really big headache (which was the last thing the poor guy needed at the time!).

In the midst of all this intense suffering, Job uttered the famous words we heard in today’s first reading: “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of a hireling? He is a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages. So I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me. . . . My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope. Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.”

What’s important to note in this context is that Job had faith in God—always! Even at his worst moments—even in the midst of all the pain and suffering he experienced—he still believed in the Lord. And yet, as this passage I just read vividly illustrates, that was not enough to give him any real peace or hope! If it had been enough, he certainly wouldn’t have called life “a drudgery,” and been so close to despair.

Most of us, as I said earlier, know at least the basic outline of the story of Job. But, if I had to venture a guess, I would say that few (if any) of us know the story of the other man I mentioned at the beginning of my homily, Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz.

In fact, most of us have probably never even heard of him.

He was born in Washington, D.C., in 1930, and was ordained a priest in 1957. Until 1992 (the year he died), he served as a missionary—mostly in South Korea and the Philippines. Among his many accomplishments in the missions were the following: he founded two religious orders—one of women and the other of men—to work with the poorest of the poor; he established “Children’s Villages” to provide care and educational opportunities for orphans and those abandoned by their families; he started hospices for the homeless and the handicapped; he was even deeply involved in pro-life work. And, in the process, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice (in 1984 and 1992).

Monsignor Schwartz was a powerful witness for Jesus during the years he served God in good health as a priest. (That should be obvious from the brief resume I just shared with you.) But he was just as powerful a witness at the very end of his life, after he was diagnosed with ALS. ALS, of course, is the sickness commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” It’s a fatal, neuromuscular disorder, in which a person’s voluntary muscles become weaker and weaker over time, until they finally become immobile. But the person’s intellect and senses are often unaffected by the illness—which means that the person enters into his suffering with a complete awareness of what is happening!

From a purely human perspective, that’s a scary thought!

About a year ago, I came across a brief but powerful meditation that Monsignor Schwartz either wrote or dictated at some point during his final months on earth. As I share it with you now, please keep in mind that this was composed by a man who was in the process of experiencing a long, drawn-out, horrific death. I think you’ll agree that the good monsignor definitely had faith in God—as Job did. But there was something else that he possessed, that Job did not have.

He wrote:

“I believe that for those whom God loves he makes all things work for their good. I believe that God loves me with an everlasting love. He loves me more than I love myself. He loves me to such an extent that he sends his only Son, Jesus Christ, as a living sacrifice to redeem me. He loves me so much that he sends anew each day his Son, Jesus Christ, as my food and drink in the Eucharist.

“So, I believe that ALS is sent to me as a sign of God’s love and it is given to me for my own good and happiness. The object of faith is not what is seen but what is not seen. Who can grasp the designs of God? Who can understand his wisdom? ‘My ways are above your ways, as the heavens are above the earth and my thoughts are different from your thoughts,’ says the Lord. No, I do not understand with my reason and intellect why this should be so, but I believe he has sent me ALS as a sign of his love and special favor. I believe this and I try to renew this belief at each instant. So it is, I do not look at ALS as an enemy which I fight. I accept it, embrace it, and welcome it as a friend.

“I believe in the words of St. Paul that God is faithful and he does not permit us to be tried beyond our strength. With every trial he gives us the strength to endure it and he shows us the way to overcome it. I believe God gives me this pain and suffering. I believe at the same time he gives me the strength and grace to accept it, endure it, and cope with it . . . I believe the grace of Jesus will always be adequate. The problem is, I would like it to be more than adequate. But it is enough, just enough, for that moment, and that instant. As Jesus on the cross, I do not look back. I do not consider the future but I trust God. I believe in his grace from instant to instant.”

Job had faith in God, and so did Monsignor Schwartz. But the good monsignor understood God on a much deeper level than Job did, because he knew Jesus—the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity who had redeemed him and had given him the hope of eternal life. No, he didn’t understand everything, as he himself admits there—but he definitely understood an awful lot! He understood, for example, the power and the meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ, and how all of that applied to him in his terminal illness. He understood the writings of St. Paul, and the truths contained in those writings. Consequently, he had a strength and a hope in his heart that Job did not have in his.

Today you often hear people say, “It doesn’t really matter what religion you profess, because all of them are pretty much the same. They teach the same basic ideas; they have the same basic moral principles.”

Have you heard that before? I have—many times!

Can you imagine how Monsignor Schwartz would have responded to a statement like that? Based on what he wrote in this little meditation, I’m convinced he would have said something like this: “My friend, you are sadly mistaken. All religions are not created equal. Other religions may teach certain aspects of the truth, but only Catholic Christianity teaches God’s revealed truth in its fullness. And because I believe it—because I believe all that the Church teaches and meditate on that truth daily—I have a power and a peace and a hope in my life right now that other people in my situation do not have.”

Job had faith, and that was good; Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz had faith and understanding, and that was even better.

As Catholics, we all have the potential to be like Monsignor Schwartz—which is very good news! We’re not like Job, who lived many centuries before Christ. We have Jesus; we have the New Testament; we have the teachings of the Church; we have the sacraments; and we have the example and writings of holy people like this faithful monsignor. Thus we have the potential to understand God as deeply as he understood him, and to experience the same power and peace that he experienced, in the midst of our own personal trials and sufferings.

Let’s pray at this Mass that, by the grace of God, we will all come to realize our potential.