Sunday, January 21, 2007

How To Deal With The Two ‘Strangers’ In Our Homes

"Hello! Allow us to introduce ourselves . . . "

(Third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on Sunday, January 21, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Nehemiah 8: 1-12; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-30; Luke 1: 1-4; 4: 14-21.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of the Year 2007]

My sister sent me this, via email, a few months ago:

A few years after I was born, my dad met a stranger who was new to our small town. From the beginning, dad was fascinated with this enchanting newcomer, and he soon invited him to live with our family. The stranger was quickly accepted and was around from then on.

As I grew up, I never questioned his place in my family. In my young mind, he had a special niche. My parents were complementary instructors: mom taught me good from evil, and dad taught me to obey.

But the stranger—he was our storyteller! He would keep us spellbound for hours on end with adventures, mysteries and comedies.

If I wanted to know anything about politics, history or science, he always knew the answers about the past, understood the present, and even seemed to be able to predict the future!

He took my family to our first major league baseball game.

He made me laugh, and he made me cry. He also never stopped talking—but my dad didn’t seem to mind.

Sometimes, mom would get up quietly while the rest of us were “shushing” each other so that we could listen to what the stranger had to say, and she would go into the kitchen for some peace and quiet.

I wonder now if she ever prayed for him to leave.

Dad ruled our household with certain moral convictions, but the stranger never felt obligated to honor them. Profanity, for example, was not allowed in our home. Not from us, or from our friends, or from any visitors.

The stranger, however, got away with saying four letter words that burned my ears. They made my dad squirm and my mother blush.

My dad didn’t permit the liberal use of alcohol, however the stranger encouraged us to try it on a regular basis. He made cigarettes look cool, cigars manly and pipes distinguished.

He talked freely—much too freely!—about sex. His comments were sometimes blatant, sometimes suggestive, and generally embarrassing.

I now know that my early concepts about relationships were influenced strongly by the stranger. Time after time, he opposed the values of my parents, yet he was seldom ever rebuked—and he was NEVER asked to leave!

More than fifty years have passed since the stranger moved in with our family. He has now blended right in, and is not nearly as fascinating as he was at first. Still, if you walk into my parents’ den today, you will find him sitting over in his corner, waiting for someone to listen to him talk and watch him draw his pictures.

What’s his name, you ask?

We just call him, Television!

I should also mention that he has a younger sister who moved in a couple of years ago. Her name is Computer.

There are some families out there who do not own a TV set, but they are few and far between. An even smaller number lack computers. That means for the rest of us—the majority—this little story is reality! We’ve invited a couple of strangers into our homes who’ve brought us a great deal of enjoyment, but who, at the very same time, have brought poison into our lives—spiritual and relational poison.

The antidote, of course, is the truth of God’s word. The antidote to the poison of the world that comes to us through television and the internet and from other sources is the truth of God’s holy word, especially that portion of the word that we find in Sacred Scripture. And we all need to take this antidote in some fashion every day, because we’re all exposed to this poison on a daily basis (even if we don’t own a TV set or a computer!).

Do you? Do you make a conscious effort to take in “God’s antidote” each and every day?

Many Christians do not.

In today’s responsorial psalm—psalm 19—we read, “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye.”

According to that text, the truth of God’s word brings joy and enlightenment. That is to say, it counteracts the poison of despair and confusion that comes to us through the television and the computer and from other such places.

We see this fact verified for us in today’s first reading from Nehemiah, chapter 8. There Ezra, the scribe, reads the Old Testament scriptures to the people—the Jews who had just returned home from the Babylonian Exile. We are told that he did this “from daybreak till midday. (So please do not complain that I'm too long!)

Six or seven hours later, when Ezra finally stopped reading the Lord’s word, we’re told that (and here I quote) “all the people went to eat and drink, to distribute portions, and to celebrate with great joy, for they understood the words that had been expounded.”

Hearing—and internalizing—the message of God’s word, brought those Jews joy and enlightenment.

The Scriptures also have the power to keep us from buying into some of the lies that are currently destroying our culture! That’s another blessing they bring to us. Television and Computer, for example, lie to us all the time by telling us that some human beings are not worthy of life and should not be protected by our laws. The antidote to that poisonous idea—to that evil lie from hell—is found in God’s word, in passages like the one we heard a few moments ago from 1 Corinthians 12. St. Paul tells us there that we are all members of Christ’s body. ALL of us! That includes EVERYBODY, from the moment of their conception until the moment of their natural death! Thus no part of the body can say to any other part, “I do not need you”—even if that other part is very old and sick, or even if it’s in the first nine months of its life.

And what’s the message of the second half of today’s Gospel—this text from Luke, chapter 4? Simply put, the message is that Jesus is the Messiah—the Anointed One of God who is to be the ultimate moral and spiritual authority in our lives! That, of course, is not the message we generally get from those two strangers, Television and Computer,—unless we happen to be watching a station like EWTN or surfing their web site!

In most other locations on the television dial and in cyberspace, we encounter the voices of other “messiahs”: other self-proclaimed “authorities”, who frequently tell us that their way is better than Jesus’ way.

My simple prayer this morning is that I’ve somehow managed to convince you that reading the Bible is important—because it is.

If you’re not in the habit of doing it, I would say start small. Read it for just 5 minutes a day, and begin with the New Testament (because those books are more familiar to us and relatively easy to understand).

Put your Bible in a location where you’ll have easy access to it. In other words, take it off the bookshelf or off the coffee table where it’s presently collecting dust! Put it next to your bed or wherever you do a lot of reading.

“But, Fr. Ray, the only place I read on a regular basis is in the bathroom!”

Wonderful! If that’s where it has to be, then that’s where it has to be!

Just make sure you store your Bible in a respectable location in your bathroom between your reading sessions!

Remember, those two strangers will probably not be leaving your house anytime soon. Very few of you will go home from Mass today and throw your TVs and computers out the window! And because they’ll always be around, you won’t be able to monitor them 100 percent of the time (as we all know, even during sporting events like the Super Bowl, Television can bring images into our living rooms that shouldn’t be there).

To counteract that negative influence, we need to make a special place for God’s word in our homes and in our lives.

Or to put it another way, to keep from being influenced by the two strangers, we must make the word of God our treasured friend.

It’s really that simple.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Discernment: One of the Most Important Gifts of the Holy Spirit!

What should I do?
Discernment needed.

(Second Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on January 14, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Corinthians 12: 4-11; John 2: 1-11.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of the Year 2007]

It looks like the right thing to do.

It sounds like the right thing to do.

It seems like the right thing to do.

It even “feels” like the right thing to do.

So—is it the right thing to do?

Many people in the modern world—even many Catholics—would be quick to say, “Yes!” But the correct answer is actually, “Maybe”.

Because something can look and sound and seem and feel like the right thing to do and still be wrong!

This is one of the problems we all face in making important decisions in our lives. But, fortunately, our loving and merciful God understands our human condition. In fact, he understands it far better than we do.

Which is one reason why he has sent us the Holy Spirit—the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity!

The Spirit is given to us for many reasons—not the least of which is to bring us the grace of forgiveness and salvation through Baptism. But he’s also there to help us discern the perfect will of God in our daily lives; he’s there to help us discern the right course of action in particular circumstances.

St. Paul reminds us of this in today’s second reading—this text from 1 Corinthians 12. There he mentions a number of gifts of the Spirit, one of which is the “discernment of spirits”.

That’s a gift, my brothers and sisters, that we should all pray for constantly—at least once a day!—because we all make lots of decisions each and every day (some of them very important ones!).

Every decision, you see, begins with a thought. Discernment helps us to identify where that thought has come from: from God, from our own weak human nature, or from Satan (those, ultimately, are the 3 possibilities).

Once we arrive at a moral certitude about where a particular thought has come from, we will know whether or not we should act on it.

So, obviously, discernment is crucial! In order to discover—and carry out—God’s will in our lives, we must discern properly.

But that’s easier said than done! As I indicated at the beginning of my homily, we might have the thought to do something that looks good and sounds good and seems good and feels good.

But that doesn’t mean it is good!

After someone cuts you off on Route 95, for example, you might have the thought to run that individual off the road! In the heat of the moment, that might “seem” and “feel” like the right thing to do!

But, of course, it isn’t.

Discernment makes that clear to us. So we need to pray for the gift.

And then we need to follow good, practical, spiritual advice, so that we can put the gift into practice.

Like the kind of advice I found on-line a couple of weeks ago, in an article by Maurice Blumberg. The article was entitled, appropriately enough, “Discerning God’s Will in Our Decision Making.” In it, Blumberg outlines several questions that we should ask ourselves whenever we’re faced with very important decisions.

The questions come from Fr. Michael Scanlan, the retired president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Here are a few of them:

The very first question Fr. Scanlan says we should ask ourselves when we’re facing an important decision in life and considering a certain course of action is this: Does it—does this course of action—conform to God’s law as revealed through Scripture, tradition and the teaching of the Church? If it doesn’t, then we definitely shouldn’t do it.

So if you’re trying to decide whether you should sleep with someone to whom you’re not married; if you’re a teenager and you’re trying to decide whether you should go to a drinking party with your friends next Friday night; if you’re trying to decide whether you should cheat on your income tax this year; or if you’re trying to decide whether you should run a bad driver off the road on Route 95, you don’t have to go any further than this question for your discernment!

The answer in all 4 cases is No—you should not! You should not sleep with that person; you should not go to that party; you should not cheat Uncle Sam and the IRS; and you should not run that rotten driver off the road (even though the guy should probably have his driver’s license revoked immediately!).

This makes a lot of decisions really easy to make, does it not? If the action in question does not conform to God’s law as revealed through Scripture, tradition and the teaching of the Church, then we shouldn’t do it. Period!

That’s proper discernment.

Another question Fr. Scanlan says we should ask ourselves is this: Does the action in question foster personal conversion and growth in holiness? If you’re presently a senior in high school, for example, and are trying to decide which college to attend next year, this would be a very important question for you to consider: Which college will help me to develop the most in the moral and spiritual dimensions of my life, in addition to giving me the skills that I need to succeed in my chosen profession?

And then there’s always what I would call the “fruit issue”. This isn’t directly mentioned in Blumberg’s article, but it’s definitely implied. When we’re considering a certain course of action, we need to think of what the fruit of that action will be. As Jesus told us, “Every good tree produces good fruit, while every bad tree produces bad fruit.” In the context of this homily, you can legitimately substitute “action” for “tree” in that passage: “Every good action produces good fruit, while every bad action produces bad fruit.”

Speaking of Jesus, in today’s Gospel story our Lord decides to perform a miracle in order to save a young couple from humiliation at their wedding. Obviously Jesus discerned that this was the proper course of action; he discerned that this was the right thing to do.

First, a little historical background. In first century Palestine, a wedding celebration was not a one-day event as it is for people in our country today. The actual ceremony took place late one evening, after a big feast, but then for 7 days the newly-married couple received visitors into their home. They wore crowns and dressed in their wedding robes. It was during this period that “the wine ran out” on this particular bride and groom.

Scripture scholar William Barclay says the following about the importance of wine at these celebrations: “It was not that people were drunken, but in the East wine was an essential. Drunkenness was in fact a great disgrace, and they actually drank their wine in a mixture composed of two parts of wine to three parts of water. At any time the failure of provisions would have been a problem, for hospitality in the East is a sacred duty; but for the provisions to fail at a wedding would be a terrible humiliation for the bride and bridegroom.” (Daily Bible Study Series, Commentary on John, vol. 1, page 97)

Jesus, of course, could have made the decision not to get personally involved in this situation, since, as he told Mary, his “hour” had not yet come.

But, as we all know, he did decide to act!

And we can see at least part of the reason why, if we look at the situation in light of the criteria for good discernment that I mentioned a few minutes ago.

First of all, was making wine contrary to God’s law?

Answer: No! There is no moral law against making—or drinking—wine (if there were, a lot of us would be in big trouble, wouldn’t we?). There is a moral law against drunkenness, but that’s different.

So there’s nothing ostensibly wrong about supplying wine for a wedding—even if you do it in a miraculous way!

Secondly, did the action of changing water into wine foster personal conversion and growth in holiness? The answer, believe it or not, is yes—at least for the apostles (and maybe for the stewards and the couple as well). We know it affected the apostles in a positive way because of the last line of the story: “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.”

That, in and of itself, more than fulfills the “good fruit” requirement: the disciples began to believe! They began to put their faith in Jesus and in his word. But there were other bits of good fruit that were also produced by this miracle, not the least of which was that the newlyweds were preserved from disgrace by being able to show proper hospitality to their wedding guests.

Clearly Jesus’ discernment in this situation was perfect—absolutely perfect! That, of course, really shouldn’t surprise us because Jesus was God, and as such he was perfectly united in his divinity to the Holy Spirit.

Today we ask Jesus to send that same Holy Spirit, once again, into our hearts—so that our ability to discern God’s will in our lives might improve.

And let’s try to remember to make that same request tomorrow, and the next day, and every day thereafter—because discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit that we will always need!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Magi: Men of Science AND Faith!

My favorite brain surgeon, Martin, and his wife Arlean at the Vatican.

(Epiphany 2007: This homily was given on January 7, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 2: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Epiphany 2007]

Who were they, and where did they come from?

I’m talking about the so-called “Magi”—these mysterious men who were the very first non-Jews to adore Jesus Christ. In that sense, they prefigured all those Gentiles—all those non-Jews like us—who would worship Jesus in future generations.

Here we are reminded of the fact that our Lord came into this world to save everyone—Jew and Gentile alike.

According to the Bible, these Magi were “from the east”. Now that covers a lot of ground—literally; but in all likelihood they came from ancient Persia, an area of land now known to the world as Iran.

They are not identified as “kings” in the Bible—at least not directly. That idea comes from today’s responsorial psalm—psalm 72—part of which says, “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.”

This prophecy predicts that even non-Jews (and non-Jewish leaders) will pay homage to the Messiah when he comes. And since the Magi (as I said a few moments ago) were the very first non-Jews to adore the Savior, many believe that this prophecy was fulfilled in them when they visited the baby Jesus after his birth.

But that doesn’t mean they were kings themselves, and they probably weren’t.

However, in all likelihood, the Magi were the teachers of kings—the teachers of the kings of Persia. They took on that role in their country because they were so highly educated; they were skilled in philosophy, in medicine, and in the natural sciences.

They were also star-gazers, who mixed a little science with a little astrological superstition. But that’s understandable, since this was an era of human history when most people believed in astrology.

I like the portrayal of them in the movie, “The Nativity Story”. It shows them as scholarly, intelligent, analytical men—who also had a pretty good sense of humor! And that last point is probably historically accurate, given the fact that the distance between ancient Persia and Bethlehem was somewhere between 1000 and 1200 miles. To be perfectly frank, if you’re going to ride on the back of a camel for all that time—several months at least—you’d better have a really good sense of humor! You’d better be able to laugh a lot!

Most of us have accepted the notion that there were 3 of them. However, the Bible doesn’t specify a number. The idea that there were 3 Magi comes from the fact that there were 3 gifts given: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Neither does the Bible say that their names were Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchior. Those names only date back to about the 7th century.

As I said earlier, these Magi, in spite of their mysteriousness, represent the Gentile world; they represent God’s desire to save all humanity through Jesus Christ.

But at the same time they remind us of an important truth that many have forgotten in our technological generation: they remind us that science and theology are not natural enemies!

Please hear that, young people! I say this, because at some point in the future, you will probably be taught in school that religion and science are enemies—irreconcilable enemies! But that’s not true! It’s a lie!

The Magi were learned men who saw no contradiction whatsoever between their scientific study of the universe, and the truths of Jewish biblical prophecy! In that sense, they were men of science AND men of religion!

Today, of course, the implication is that you have to choose to live in one camp or the other. Either you have to say, “I’m a religious person, and I reject modern science”; or you have to say, “I’m a rational, scientific person who rejects anything rooted in religion.”

To this, the Catholic Church says no! The Church says this is a false dichotomy. The Church says that when it comes to religion and science, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and!

As Catholics, therefore, we should say yes to good theology (like the theology we find in the Catechism), and yes to good science!

On the other hand, we should say no to bad theology (theology, in other words, that’s not compatible with Church teaching), just as we should say no to bad science!

That last point, incidentally, is the real crux of the issue. The Church is often portrayed as the enemy of scientific inquiry, but what she’s really the enemy of is BAD SCIENCE: science, in other words, that’s used to destroy human life; science that undermines the dignity of the human person.

That’s what the Church is against—and that’s what every Catholic should be against.

People are often surprised when I tell them that some of my most devout parishioners—some of the best Catholics I know here at St. Pius X Church—are people of science: people of science who have some pretty impressive credentials.

I could give lots of examples of this phenomenon, but I’ll mention only one today. We have a parishioner with two doctorates (an MD and a PhD)—a brain surgeon (literally, a brain surgeon!)—who takes his faith extremely seriously. So much so, that one of the first things he did when he joined our parish was to request a meeting with me so that he could learn how to become a better apologist for Catholicism.

An apologist is a defender of the faith. This man wanted some good information—some good reading material—so that he could learn how to be a better defender of what we believe as Catholics!

So I happily provided it for him!

Now he wants to do some writing for various publications, so that he can put his vast medical and scientific knowledge to use in defense of the Gospel!

Obviously this man doesn’t see any contradiction between what he reads in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and what he’s done in the operating room, working on people’s brains!

In that respect, he is a modern day descendant of the Magi! He’s a spiritual descendant of those mysterious men from the east—those great men of science and faith—who visited Jesus our Savior on the very first Epiphany.

Let’s pray at this Mass that there will be many more of these “descendants” around in the future—because our modern world desperately needs them.