Thursday, July 27, 2006

Will You Give Jesus Your Loaves And Fish?

(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 30, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 6: 1-15.)

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

We just heard St. John’s version of the multiplication of the loaves and fish.

But here’s another version of the very same story. Believe it or not, this is the way some people think it should have happened:

“When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?’ He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.’ Jesus said, ‘My goodness!” Then he took his magic wand out from under his flowing white robe, and he waved it in the air three times. Immediately the sky opened up, and several thousand little angels came down from heaven with beautiful wicker baskets in their hands. Each basket contained a dozen freshly baked rolls and the best tasting fish in the universe! Not surprisingly, every one of the baskets had a ‘heavenly’ aroma. The angels descended to those who were seated on the mountain and served them a glorious meal of bread and fish. Each person present had his own angelic server. When they had finished their mission, and all the people were as full as they could possibly be, the little angels flew back to heaven with 12 baskets of food left over, as Jesus waved his magic wand three more times.”

If there were such a thing as “The Gospel according to Harry Potter,” that would be the type of story you’d find in it, because the story portrays Jesus as a kind of “divine magician”.

But Jesus was NOT a divine magician!

During his earthly life, Jesus was a divine person who typically did powerful things with the involvement and the cooperation of human beings—like you and me!

That was his normal “MO”.

Notice that in this magical version of the miracle of the loaves and fish, Jesus acts alone. He does what he does on his own; he simply waves his magic wand, and bread and fish drop down from heaven for the people on the mountainside to eat.

In the real version of the story, however, Jesus does not act alone! Yes, he performs a great miracle and feeds thousands of people—but only after a little boy offers him the five loaves and the two fish that he has in his possession!

This begs the question: “What if?”—What if this young man hadn’t made his offering? What if he had held back? What if he had acted selfishly and kept the five barley loaves and the two fish for himself?

Could Jesus have performed the miracle without him?

Of course.

But I’m not so sure he would have.

Recall that Jesus did not work the miracles he wanted to work in his own hometown of Nazareth because the people there did not respond to him in faith. In the same way, he might have chosen to send all these people home that day without a miraculous meal in their bellies, if this young man had not come forward with his gift.

Obviously there’s an application here to good, charitable causes—like the building of an addition on a parish school! We can pray all we want, a great work like that doesn’t happen and doesn’t get paid for unless we are willing to give our “five loaves and two fish,” so to speak.

Just like the little boy in this story, God expects us to take action and to donate according to our means.

But it goes far beyond finances.

For example, if we really love Jesus Christ—if we have a living, personal relationship with him that’s rooted in the Church and the sacraments, then we will want our relatives and friends to have the very same type of relationship. That is to say, we will want them to “get converted”—and to stay converted throughout their lives. And we will pray every day for that to happen.

But that’s not sufficient! That’s not enough! If all we do is pray, then we’re expecting almighty God to act like a magician and “zap” these people with lightening bolts from heaven to get them to change.

Every once in awhile, of course, God does act in that kind of sovereign manner. He certainly did with St. Paul on the road to Damascus.

But most of the time, the Lord works to convert men and women gradually and indirectly—through people like you and me. So prayer is essential, since no conversion happens without the grace of God. But the Lord also expects us to offer our personal “five loaves and two fish” to those who need conversion: by giving them good example, and also by verbally sharing the Gospel message with them when appropriate.

Please hear this!—those of you who went to the Steubenville East Youth Conference last week and had a good experience there. Do you want your friends to know the Lord? Do you want your friends to open up to God like you did last weekend?

If you do (and I hope you do!), then pray for their conversions! Pray for that intention every day.

But make sure you don’t leave it at that! If you really want your friends to come to Christ in a radical and decisive way, then you need to take action. God expects you—and needs you—to do certain things. He needs you first of all, to be consistent in your personal witness. In other words, you can’t act like a good Catholic at Sunday Mass and then act like a pagan for the rest of the week. If you do, your unconverted friends won’t take you seriously—and neither will anyone else. They’ll simply call you a hypocrite and laugh.

But you also need to be willing to express your faith verbally—and respectfully—to them when it’s appropriate.

And please don’t tell me you can’t do this, because I know you can! We all can, regardless of our age. And we all should!

The devil, incidentally, wants us all to keep quiet about Jesus! He wants us to be intimidated and to say nothing about the Lord. He wants us, in other words, to refuse to offer our ‘loaves and fish’—so that Jesus won’t be able to work his miracle of conversion in the lives of those around us.

Thankfully, there are some people who are willing to speak. There are even teens in Westerly who are willing to do so! And there always have been, at least during my tenure here. In fact, about 10 years ago, 18 or so of them formed a little evangelization group that called itself “the Road Crew.” It’s something I’d like to start again, if we had enough teens who were interested—and committed. The Road Crew used to go to different parishes around the state and give a presentation—usually to Confirmation classes in Catholic churches. (Although we once were invited to Christ Episcopal Church, and had a very good experience there. They loved it.)

We’d begin by having two or three of our teenagers talk to the group. They’d stand up in front of their peers and speak very candidly and very courageously about their lives and about their faith. And the assembled teens would almost always listen, because these were people their age who were speaking. (It wasn’t some old guy like me!)

Then came the heart of the program. About a dozen of them would put on a very brief but very powerful skit. It was about the temptations teenagers face (alcohol, drugs, sex and the like) and how Christ forgives us and sets us free.

When it was over, you could usually hear a pin drop in the room. Sometimes there were even tears. It really ‘hit home,’ so to speak, because the young people in the audience easily made the connection between what they saw in the skit and the circumstances of their own lives. (That’s what made it so effective!)

After this our teens would lead small group discussions about the message of the witness talks and the skit. Then we’d end with a short prayer service.

I mention this today because those young people 10 years ago did what the little boy in today’s Gospel did: they offered Jesus Christ their ‘loaves and fish’—their time, their talent, their example, and their words. And Jesus did something great with their offering: he touched the lives of other teenagers through them.

Jesus wants ‘loaves and fish’ from all his followers, including you and me—so that he can do great things among us, and bring many people to repentance and conversion.

Will we give him ours?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fr. Francis J. Giudice: A Faithful Shepherd

(Sixteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 23, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Jeremiah 23: 1-6; Mark 6: 30-34.)

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

If I look a little bleary-eyed this morning, it’s because I got home quite late last night. It was Saturday evening at the Steubenville East High School Youth Conference—which means that I didn’t leave Attleboro to come back to Westerly until a little after 10:30 pm (which at my age is normally the time I go to bed!).

I go through this routine, as most of you know, every summer.


Why do I go back and forth to LaSalette Shrine a couple of times on Steubenville weekend in July, in between all my other parish duties (like celebrating 3 Sunday Masses!)? Why do I sit under big, dusty tent under the hot summer sun for long periods of time in the midst of 2,000 noisy, excited teenagers? Why do I listen to their confessions for 2 or more hours at a clip?

Am I insane? Am I a glutton for punishment?

(Perhaps—but that’s another story!)

The truth is I do it because I am a priest. And because I’m a priest, I’m a shepherd—a spiritual shepherd—a shepherd of souls. Consequently, this is what I’m supposed to do! A spiritual shepherd (just like an earthly one) guides and leads his sheep—in this case even his “teenage sheep”. He watches over them, feeds them, disciplines them when necessary, and helps them to navigate through the many dangers that surround them. That is to say, he makes—or at least he should make—every effort to live in imitation of the divine Shepherd of Psalm 23. There the psalmist (who considers himself to be a sheep) writes, “In verdant pastures he [the divine Shepherd] gives me repose; beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul. He guides me in right paths, for his name’s sake. Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.”

Jesus, as we all know, called himself “the Good Shepherd.” He did that in John 10. But Jesus didn’t just talk about being a shepherd; apparently he also thought about it quite often. That fact can be discerned, I think, from what St. Mark tells us in today’s Gospel reading. There he says that when Jesus saw the vast crowd in front of him “his heart was moved with pity for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” With his bodily eyes Jesus saw human beings in front of him that day (obviously!), but with his mind’s eye he saw “sheep”—sheep who were desperately in need of a shepherd! And so as St. Mark tells us “he began to teach them many things.” Even though Jesus was clearly exhausted from all he’d been doing, he went the extra mile for his sheep that day and taught them the Gospel.

So why shouldn’t I go a few extra miles back and forth to Attleboro every July for my sheep?

Not every shepherd, of course, is a good one who tries to live in imitation of the divine Shepherd. In today’s first reading, for example, the Lord berates the religious leaders of his people at the time of Jeremiah. He says, “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture . . . you have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them.” (This text, I would say, is a clear warning to those modern-day priests and religious who preach their own ideas from the pulpit, and not the official teaching of the Church.)

Perhaps these bad shepherds who lived at the time of Jeremiah didn’t have good role models to emulate. Maybe that was their problem. After all, doctors learn how to be doctors from other doctors; carpenters learn how to be carpenters from other carpenters; and shepherds learn how to be shepherds from other shepherds. Consequently, it’s extremely important that the “teaching shepherds” be good ones!

Personally, this means that I don’t have any excuses! I don’t have any excuses for being a bad shepherd in my priestly ministry. I say that because I grew up surrounded by many excellent priest role models, one of whom you all know, Fr. Francis J. Giudice. I first met Fr. Giudice back in the early 1960s, when I was 5 and he was about 35. But the man really hasn’t changed in all these years. Even now, in his late-70s, he’s still energetic; he still loves being a priest; he still understands the importance and the power of priestly ministry. Even though he’s “retired,” he helps out in two parishes; he does work as a hospital chaplain a couple of times a week; and he does all kinds of things to raise money for the poor in Haiti. (Believe me, most people half his age couldn’t keep up with him.) And his life is still centered on the Eucharist and the sacraments, as well as daily, personal prayer (I know that, because I constantly find him in his room at the rectory or here in church praying his Breviary).

Without a doubt, Fr. Giudice has been a good shepherd to many of God’s sheep; but he’s also been an excellent example and role model to many younger shepherds in the Church—including yours’ truly.

To him, the priesthood is not a “job,” any more than being married is a “job”. Although being married may sometimes feel like “work,” it’s much more than that. Marriage is a vocation.

And so is the priesthood.

It’s my prayer to day that the Lord will inspire many more young men (even here in our local community) to become priests in the future. And may he pour forth his blessings upon all those who are already serving him in the priesthood, so that they will take their vocations seriously and always be good shepherds.

Like Fr. Giudice.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Parish Picnic 2006

God provided us with gorgeous weather for our annual parish picnic on Sunday, July 9, at Burlingame Picnic Area in Charlestown.

Here are some photos from the event (click to enlarge):

Bye, until next year!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Three Possible Philosophies Of Life

Jairus sought Jesus out, asked him to come and heal his sick daughter, and brought our Lord into his home. Then--AFTER Jairus did all these things--Jesus raised his daughter from the dead!

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 2, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Wisdom 1: 13-15; 2: 23-24; 2 Corinthians 8: 7, 9, 13-15; Mark 5: 21-43.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirteenth Sunday 2006.]

Bishop Fulton Sheen used to say that there are 3 possible philosophies of life for the believer.

The first is to think that God, in his great power, can and should take care of every problem on earth himself, without the involvement of human beings like you and me. As Sheen used to say, this is the philosophy that says God does everything, and we do nothing. People who follow eastern religions tend to have this perspective on life, although you can also find it in many Catholics and other Christians.

For example, how often have you heard Christian friends of yours say things like this: “Why didn’t God do something to stop the Holocaust? Why didn’t he save those innocent Jews and others from the gas chambers?”; “Why doesn’t God do something to end poverty and lower the crime rate?”; “If God exists, why has he let so many innocent people die in suicide bombings in Iraq?”

Those who have this perspective on life seem to think that the Good Lord should operate like a heavenly magician or puppeteer—waving his magic wand or “pulling the right strings” constantly, so that everyone on earth always does the right thing in every situation.

But I wonder—would they really want a God like that? Would they really want a God who negated their free will and forced them to act like robots?

I don’t think so! Even though there’s something rather appealing about giving God all the responsibility for making the world a better place, it could only happen if we were willing to give up our freedom.

And most of us—rightly—would not want to do that.

The error of this view is made clear in today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom, chapters 1 and 2. There the sacred author reminds us that death was not a part of God’s plan for the human race when he created our first parents: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being. . . . God formed man to be imperishable.”

Death became part of the human experience only after Adam and Eve made the free choice to sin, in response to a temptation by the devil. God didn’t do it; it’s not his fault! (So, obviously, God doesn’t do “everything.”) As the writer of Wisdom puts it, “But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world.”

So if we’re going to blame anyone, we ought to blame Satan.

The second philosophy of life that Bishop Sheen used to speak about is the exact opposite of the first. The first says that God does everything and we do nothing. The second says that we do everything, and God, in effect, does nothing—or next to nothing.

This idea (or at least some of form of it) stands behind many of the expressions we use in daily conversation: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”; “Stand on your own two feet!”; “I don’t need any help; I can do it on my own”; “I’m an independent person; I’m an independent thinker”; “He’s a self-made man”.

Now obviously we can use expressions like these and still have God at the center of our life. That is to say, we can use them figuratively and not literally. But in a secular society like ours, the prevailing tendency is to think that we really don’t need the Lord, and that we can make it through life on our own—without having to submit to some higher authority and power.

To some, in fact, that’s “the American way.” They say, “Our country, after all, was founded on the idea of independence.”

That, of course, is true, as we’re reminded every year on the 4th of July. But, since most of our Founding Fathers were believers, they never understood the idea of independence to mean “independence from God and his moral law”.

But, sadly, that’s precisely what some contemporary Americans believe.

So what’s the proper perspective? If it’s wrong to believe that God does everything and we do nothing, and if it’s equally erroneous to think that we do everything and God does nothing, where’s the middle ground?

Bishop Sheen found it in that line from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians—chapter 4, verse 13—where the apostle says, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me!” In other words, by the grace of God, I can—and I should—discern and carry out the Lord’s perfect will in my life—for the betterment of myself and others.

Jesus once said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” (John 15: 5) Whether we realize it or not, it’s only by the grace of God that we can do anything good in this life. In fact, it’s only by the grace of God that anything truly good happens in life.

But there are many wonderful things in this life that God has made conditional. In other words, there are certain good things that will only happen if we freely cooperate with God’s grace and do what he wants us to do! So it’s not a case of God doing everything; it’s not a case of us doing everything; it’s a matter of God and us in a very real sense working together according to the Lord’s plan!

Look at today’s Gospel text from Mark 5. There God the Son—our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—does two great things: he heals a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years, and he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead!

But when you read the story carefully, you realize that neither of these miracles would have occurred unless human beings had taken appropriate action and done God’s will.

If Jairus, for example, had not sought Jesus out, and invited him to come and pray for his daughter, and accompanied our Lord to his house, his daughter would have died—AND SHE would have remained dead! Jesus performed the miracle, but only after Jairus had taken appropriate action, moved by God’s grace.

The same is true of the bleeding woman. If she had not actively pursued Jesus, and reached out her hand in faith to touch his clothes, she would have remained sick! She would have gone on bleeding for another 12 years—and perhaps for the rest of her life.

You young people who will be coming with us in a couple of weeks to the Steubenville Youth Conference need to remember this. Having a good experience on that retreat is not a matter of God acting alone and doing something “magical”. God will pour out his grace upon you, for sure. But if you want a good experience you also need to do your part! You need to open your heart to the Lord; you need to tune out the distractions; and you need to reach out to Jesus in faith, as this bleeding woman reached out to him in faith.

It would be good for us today to consider how this truth applies to our second reading from 2 Corinthians 8. Here St. Paul is writing about the importance of financial charity in the life of Christians. He says that those who have an abundance (and most of us, in Paul’s view, would be in that category)—he says that we have a responsibility before God to help others according to our means. It’s not enough, in other words, to pray that God will supply a financial need for someone else (as if God does everything and we do nothing). Paul would say that as followers of Christ we must respond to God’s grace and give as best we can.

Please keep this in mind in a couple of months when we begin our capital campaign to raise $1-1.2 million to pay for our school addition. We say we want our young people to be well educated in the truths of the faith—in our school and in our CCD program. God will certainly do his part to make that happen, but we need to do ours by giving our children a decent place in which they can study and learn the Gospel.

(See how I weaved that idea into my homily today?—“Ah yes, Fr. Ray, you are definitely a pastor!”)

Let me conclude this morning with a line attributed to the great St. Augustine: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

Pray, because without God nothing truly good can or will happen. Then work, and do what you believe God wants you to do—like Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman in today’s Gospel story. Because if you don’t, even if you pray very hard, the good that you desire might never happen.