Sunday, April 29, 2007

Why We Need Good Shepherds

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on April 29, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 10: 27-30.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2007]

I was watching a program on a cable news channel recently (the channel that has the reputation of being ‘conservative’ in its perspective). In the first segment of the show, 4 journalists were talking about the horrible murders that had taken place a few days earlier at Virginia Tech University. They expressed shock and they expressed outrage at how these 32 innocent students and faculty members had been gunned down in cold blood by a deranged individual.

And they were right in doing so!

Then they moved on to the next segment. This time the subject matter was the decision that had been handed down that day by the members of the United States Supreme Court—the decision upholding (thankfully!) the ban on partial birth abortion.

It was then that they began to talk about the procedure itself—a procedure which is incredibly gruesome, as most of you know. But what really struck me was how they discussed it; it was their tone. These were 4 journalists who have the reputation of being at least somewhat conservative, and yet they talked about the partial-birth abortion procedure like I would talk about brushing my teeth! There was no anger, and certainly no outrage. There was no outrage that this type of infanticide had been legal in our nation for many years; no outrage that the decision of the court was 5-4 and not 9-0; no outrage that some politicians—including some Catholic ones—still have the audacity to support it!

More on this in a few moments. I will come back to it.

Today the Church celebrates “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The reason for that should be obvious: In today’s Gospel reading from John 10 Jesus speaks to us as a shepherd. He says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

Of course, the Lord’s sheep don’t hear his voice today in the same way that his sheep heard it 2000 years ago. That’s because the Good Shepherd ascended to heaven with his risen body 40 days after he rose from the dead. We’ll be celebrating that event in a few short weeks, on Ascension Thursday.

But the voice of the Good Shepherd is still heard today through his Church, which speaks with his authority. That’s what we believe—or at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe—as Catholics.

And yet, that’s not sufficient. The very fact that the Good Shepherd continues to speak to us through the universal Church is not enough to keep his sheep from wandering away and being eaten by the wolves.

Because the Good Shepherd isn’t present now in the exact same way that he was 2000 years ago when he walked the streets of Palestine, he needs the help of other people—other fallible human beings—in order to care for his flock. He needs other shepherds—specifically bishops and priests—who are willing to love his flock and serve his flock and be examples for his flock and instruct his flock in various places throughout the world.

So today is a day to pray that God will provide good human shepherds for his Church, who will not be afraid to teach the full, complete Gospel message of the Good Shepherd! And do we ever need them! The story I shared with you at the beginning of my homily should make that fact crystal clear. I shared it because I think it illustrates the incredible moral confusion of our generation. Here we have 4 ‘conservative’ journalists who apparently are no longer outraged by infanticide! That’s scary! To them—at least as far as I can tell—partial birth abortion is just another political issue.

Well, it’s not! It’s also a moral issue and a human rights issue! And it’s the role of the Church—speaking through her shepherds—to make that clear! It’s the role of the Church and her shepherds to speak out against this and every other kind of violence! It’s the role of the Church to speak out against hatred, racism and every form of injustice. It’s the role of the Church and her shepherds to speak out against deviant sexual and scientific activities that undermine the dignity of the human person.

This is why the world needs good, holy, intelligent, courageous priests—and why we need to pray for more of them! We’ve been blessed here in Westerly with several vocations in recent years (in fact, we have another parishioner who’s planning to enter seminary in the fall), but the Lord is calling more. He’s calling more to serve him from our community and certainly from other places.

I’m convinced of that, because the voice of a good priest who teaches in union with the Church is ultimately the voice of the Good Shepherd. And it’s only the teaching of the Good Shepherd that will save this culture of ours from self-destructing.

The journalists at the Fox News Network certainly won’t save us!

And, for that matter, neither will the ones at CNN.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Forgiveness and Satisfaction

Jesus to Peter: "Feed my lambs."

(Third Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on April 22, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 21: 1-19.)

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

I steal a hundred dollars from you. I ask for your forgiveness, and you graciously give it to me. Is that where the story should end?

I write a letter to the Westerly Sun in which I accuse you of doing something that I know you haven’t done. I call you the next day, and apologize. You forgive me, because you’re such a nice person. Is that where the story should end?

I’m envious because you have a nicer car than I have. So late one night I sneak over to your house, and put scratches all over your vehicle with one of my house keys. A week later, I apologize; and once again, you extend me mercy and forgiveness. But is that where the story should end?

The answer, of course, in all three cases is NO!!!

These three anecdotes illustrate the difference between forgiveness and what the Church calls, “satisfaction”. Seeking forgiveness is always necessary when we’ve wronged another human being and sinned against them in some way. But receiving forgiveness doesn’t do away with the need to make appropriate amends for our actions! It doesn’t do away, in other words, with the need to make “satisfaction”. If I steal a hundred dollars from you, I definitely need to seek your forgiveness. But I also need to give you back your hundred dollars! If I write a letter to the Westerly Sun in which I falsely accuse you of something, I need to ask you to forgive me—and then I need to write a letter of retraction and apology, and get it published in the local newspaper! And if I intentionally scratch your car with my key, I need your forgiveness—and then I need to open my wallet and pay for a new paint job on your nice vehicle!

This, incidentally, is akin to step eight in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (or any other twelve step program). Step eight reads: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”

That’s satisfaction. It’s also the purpose of the penance given in the sacrament of Confession, even when that penance consists of prayers. Normally when I give a “prayer penance” in the confessional I specifically tell the person to pray those prayers for the people whom they have hurt by their sins.

Praying for those we’ve offended is one way to make satisfaction for what we’ve done.

Here’s how the Catechism explains it in paragraph 1459: “Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm. . . . Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance’.”

I mention this subject this morning because in today’s Gospel text Peter, in effect, makes satisfaction for the terrible sins he had committed on Holy Thursday night. Three times that evening, in the courtyard of the high priest, he had denied even knowing Jesus.

Had Jesus forgiven him? Of course! He had forgiven Peter, as he had forgiven the rest of the apostles for running away during his passion. But Peter still needed to make satisfaction for what he had done! And that’s why Jesus had him profess his love three times. Three times Peter had denied Jesus with his words, so in order to make satisfaction Peter had to profess his love for Jesus three times with his words.

Perhaps Jesus also required this of Peter because of what he expected from this man in the future. Peter, as we all know, was to be the very first pope—the first visible head of the Church here on earth. Obviously, therefore, Peter needed to have his relationship with Jesus in very good order. He didn’t need to be carrying around any extra ‘internal baggage’ from his Holy Thursday sins! He needed to be right with God and right with his fellow apostles.

But his Holy Thursday sins had definitely weakened him; they had affected his ability to be a strong leader in the early Church. As the Catechism reminds us (in that text I quoted a few moments ago): “Sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor.”

Peter’s three-fold profession renewed his bond of love with Jesus, and reinforced his position of leadership among the apostles and within the universal Church. Jesus said to Peter: “Feed my lambs. . . . Tend my sheep. . . . Feed my sheep.” The Bible tells us that Thomas, Nathaniel, James, John and two other disciples were present when the Lord said these words to the future pope. At that moment they understood that what Jesus had said to Peter at Caesarea Philippi: “You are ‘Rock,’ and upon this Rock I will build my Church” was still valid, in spite of Peter’s denials.

And I’m sure they passed on this message to the apostles and disciples who were not present at the time: “Yes, Peter is still our leader—even though he messed up on the night before Jesus died!”

One final point needs to be made here: It wasn’t easy, nor was it pleasant. Yes, Peter made satisfaction for his three sins of Holy Thursday night, but it was definitely not a pleasant experience for him! As we heard a few moments ago, he was disturbed—he was deeply hurt—when Jesus said, “Simon, do you love me?” for the third time!

But when it was all over, and he realized WHY Jesus had questioned him in this way, I’m sure Peter was happy—and thankful—that he had swallowed his pride and had answered yes all three times!

Making amends—making satisfaction—isn’t normally a pleasant experience for any of us; but it is rewarding, since it improves our relationship with God, and our relationships with others.

So I leave you with this question to ponder: Do I need to make amends to anyone in my life?

Ponder that question as you pray after Communion today, and reflect on it honestly during the week.

Do I need to make amends to anyone that I’ve hurt by my sins?

And if the answer is yes, then ask the Lord to give you the grace to make those amends through prayers and through good deeds as soon as possible.

Because if we don’t do it here—if we don’t make adequate satisfaction for our forgiven sins while we’re still on this earth—we will be required to make satisfaction for them somewhere else: in purgatory.

So we can do it now, or we can do it later. But do it, we all will—just like Peter.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Mercy + Repentance = A Relationship Restored

David and Holly Stephenson

(Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Year C): This homily was given on April 15, 2007, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 20: 19-31.)

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

I looked at the picture on the front page of the Rhode Island section of the Providence Journal last Monday morning, and I immediately said, “Hey, I know that guy!”

It was a picture of David Stephenson and his wife, Holly.

I know David because he’s been the photographer for a number of weddings here at St. Pius over the years. Some of you may know him because he was once an English teacher and a guidance counselor at Westerly High School.

Let me share with you now a healthy portion of the article about David and Holly that was directly under their picture in the Journal that day. It makes a very important point:

They were college sweethearts. Holly was 21, David, 23, when they married on June 26, 1965.

“We had three beautiful kids and a good life. But things began to wear.”

They divorced after 18 years of marriage. Holly bought a house at the other end of Narragansett from David so the kids could get the school bus from either place. “We shared the kids but little else. Both of us dated. Both of us had meaningful and lasting relationships. But for 11 years, neither of us married.”

Then their first grandchild was born. To make sure they would both have time with her, Holly and David began to invite each other over when her parents brought her for a visit. “It wasn’t long before we were looking forward to these visits. Our phone calls got longer. Goodbyes were soon accompanied by hugs. I invited her to use my extra Garrison Keillor ticket.

“A month later, I had a dream about Holly. In my dream she was walking toward me. She turned to walk down a side street, and as I watched her walk away, my companion said, ‘You want to follow her, don’t you?’ I awakened and my cheeks were wet with tears.

“Several days later, armed with several glasses of sherry, I asked her out to dinner. We went to Benjamin’s in Taunton — we didn’t want to get caught. We didn’t know where we were headed, and we were frightened.”

“After dinner in Taunton, we were seeing each other often but not letting anyone know. We did some sneaking around. We visited David’s family in Atlanta for Christmas, and his sister asked if we were ‘engaged.’ We had been avoiding the ‘m’ word.”

“It had crossed our minds but not our lips,” says David. “On the way home, Holly asked: ‘Do you think we’re engaged?’ I said no but that was just because I hadn’t bought her a ring yet.”

“I bought a ring, invited her to dinner, had flowers delivered to the table and proposed.”

On June 25, 1995, Holly and David married again. This time, they were 30 years older than the first time: 51 and 53. Their daughter was maid of honor; one son gave Holly away. The other son was David’s best man. “And 19-month-old Madeline was our flower girl. After all, she was the catalyst that brought us together.”

“I was never so sure of anything,” says Holly. “It was like being home again. It was all so easy because of the history we have together, most of which was wonderful.”

“All the good stuff came back and very little of the bad,” adds David. . . .

On June 25th, 2006, Holly and David celebrated their 11th anniversary; the next day, they celebrated their 41st.

I share that story with you on this Divine Mercy Sunday, because it’s all about a relationship restored! After 11 years of being separated from one another, David and Holly Stephenson had their marital relationship restored in an unusual—but very beautiful—way.

To restore a relationship. That, in one simple phrase, is what the mercy of God is all about; it’s what the mercy of God is aimed at. The purpose of God’s mercy is to restore our relationship with the Lord and make it what it should be—after we’ve damaged or destroyed it by our personal sins. And since we all sin every day (at least in small ways), it logically follows that we all need God’s mercy each and every day!

That’s why it’s a good idea to say an act of contrition before bed every night.

And sometimes we may need mercy in great abundance—like Thomas. We all know what he and his 10 apostle friends did on Holy Thursday and Good Friday: they ran away from Jesus at warp speed when our Lord needed them the most! Out of fear, they all sinned. Consequently, they all needed mercy—a lot of mercy! The other 10 had received it on Easter Sunday night, when Jesus appeared to them in the upper room and said, “Peace be with you.” To be at peace with Jesus means to be “right” with him. So with those simple words—“Peace be with you”—Jesus extended mercy to these apostles and repaired his relationship with them (the relationship they had broken a few days earlier).

Thomas, unfortunately, wasn’t there on Easter to receive Jesus’ gift. And he spent the next 6 days making matters worse for himself by adding the sin of disbelief to the list of things he needed mercy for! Thankfully, Jesus appeared to him on the following Sunday to restore him to grace. And just to make sure that all the disbelief was gone, he made Thomas touch his 5 wounds.

Thomas responded by saying to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” Those words of faith were said in repentance and in reparation for his sin of disbelief.

Jesus’ offer of mercy, combined with Thomas’ sincere repentance, finally restored the relationship between the Lord and his apostle.

Mercy + repentance = a relationship restored.

I said earlier that the purpose of mercy is to restore a relationship. But that purpose is only fulfilled and the relationship is only restored IF repentance is added to the equation! That we must never forget!

Mercy + repentance = a relationship restored. And if you don’t believe me, just ask David and Holly Stephenson. I’m sure that each of them had 18 years of hurts to overcome before they were finally able to renew their wedding vows in 1995. That meant each of them had to repent for some things they had said and done, and each of them had to be willing to extend mercy and forgiveness to the other.

On Easter Sunday night Jesus gave his apostles the power to be instruments of his forgiveness for human beings who sin after Baptism and then repent. As we heard a few moments ago, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

That power is exercised most completely, of course, in the sacrament of Confession: a sacrament that we need to take seriously and make a regular part of our religious practice.

On that note, I will give St. Faustina Kowalska the last word. St. Faustina was the Polish nun who received a number of private revelations from Jesus back in the 1930s—revelations that dealt specifically with the mercy of God. It’s because of them that John Paul II named the Sunday after Easter “Divine Mercy Sunday”.

In one of these private revelations, Jesus reportedly said this to St. Faustina about the sacrament of Confession: “Tell souls where they are to look for solace: that is, in the Tribunal of Mercy. There the greatest miracles take place [and] are incessantly repeated. To avail oneself of this miracle, it is not necessary to go on a great pilgrimage or to carry out some external ceremony; it suffices to come with faith to the feet of my representative and to reveal to him one’s misery. . . . The miracle of Divine Mercy restores that soul in full.” (Diary, 1448)

Confession is the place where mercy and repentance come together perfectly. And so in a certain sense it’s like David and Holly’s renewal of vows—except our bond is not being restored with a human being for a certain period of time; it’s being restored with Almighty God himself, and it has the potential to go on forever.

Not a bad deal, if you ask me, for a few minutes of humble honesty inside a reconciliation room.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The ‘Beauty’ of the Crucifixion

(Good Friday 2007: This homily was given on April 6, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI, by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12; also read the Passion Narrative of St. John.)

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

In the recently released movie, Bridge to Terabithia, one of the main characters—a 12-year-old girl named Leslie—goes to church for the very first time in her life. She goes with her friend, Jess, and his family.

Afterward, on the way home, Leslie tells Jess and his younger sister May Belle how much she enjoyed the service.

Jess and May Belle are shocked; they can’t believe it!

Leslie says, “That whole Jesus thing is really interesting, isn’t it?—all those people wanting to kill him when he really hadn’t done anything to hurt them.”

May Belle responds, “It ain’t beautiful. It’s scary. Nailing holes right through somebody’s hand.”

Then Jess chimes in, “May Belle’s right. It’s because we’re all vile sinners that God made Jesus die.”

The conversation continues until finally Leslie says to Jess and May Belle, “It’s crazy isn’t it? You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.”

“And I think it’s beautiful.”

Jess and May Belle, who came from a believing family, took Jesus’ sacrifice for granted. They had heard about it and read about it and sung about it so often in church, that the meaning of the event almost totally escaped them. It reminds me of the reaction some people had to Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, a few years ago: they were so distracted by the brutality of what they saw on the silver screen, that they missed the point—they missed the deep significance—of the event being portrayed in the movie!

Jess and May Belle took the sacrifice of Jesus for granted, and they found it ugly. Whereas Leslie, who came from a family without faith, found it attractive and even beautiful!

How do you see it? Think about that for a moment. What do you see when you look at a bloody image of Christ crucified? Ugliness—or beauty?

The reaction of Jess and May Belle is certainly understandable, because on the physical level the crucifixion was a horrible, ugly event. And it was meant to be; the Romans designed it that way. In words that we recognize as a prophecy of our Lord’s sufferings, Isaiah says in tonight’s first reading, “Many were amazed at him, so marred was his look beyond that of man, and his appearance beyond that of mortals.”

It’s only when we move “below the surface” of the event that we’re able to see what Leslie saw. It’s only when (and if) we get beyond the physical brutality of it all, that we’re able to see the beauty of what occurred on Mt. Calvary on that very first Good Friday.

This, of course, is not the kind of beauty that the world extols today—which is physical, and shallow, and temporary at best. Rather it’s the kind of beauty that goes to the very heart of things; it’s the kind of beauty that touches the deepest parts of the human spirit.

  • The beauty of the crucifixion is the same kind of beauty that we see in a photograph of a dirty, sweating New York City firefighter, who’s carrying an old woman to safety after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. There’s no physical beauty in the outward appearance of the firefighter—on the surface he’s a filthy mess; but there’s an incredible beauty present in the selfless act of heroism he’s performing.
  • The beauty of the crucifixion is the kind of beauty that the prisoners in the concentration camp at Auschwitz saw in Maximilian Kolbe in July of 1941, on the day he stepped forward to offer his life in sacrifice for another prisoner.
  • The beauty of the crucifixion is the kind of beauty we saw so many times in the face and in the actions of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Mother, of course, never would have won the Miss Universe or Miss World pageants; she never would have become “America’s Next Top Model”! But there definitely was a kind of radiant beauty about her—and that was evident even to people who didn’t believe in God.
  • The beauty of the crucifixion is the kind of beauty that we see every day and usually take for granted: the beauty of a young mother or father comforting their colicky baby at 3 in the morning; the beauty of a teacher staying after school to help a needy student without getting any extra compensation for it; the beauty of a family gathered together around the bed of a sick and dying relative, praying for the person and comforting the person as death approaches. (That’s a beauty that I have seen many times as a priest. I saw it just the other day in one of our local nursing homes.)

That’s the beauty of sacrificial love. We see it all the time. But it’s a beauty that finds its greatest and most complete expression in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ—the event we meditate on tonight.

Think, for a moment, of our Lord’s wounds on the cross. They are beautiful (in the sense I’m using the term in this homily). The crown of thorns on Jesus’ head is beautiful, for example, because of why Jesus wore it: he wore it for love; he wore it so that we could be forgiven for the sins we commit in our thoughts (which, incidentally, also includes the sins we commit with our tongue, because every sin of the tongue begins in the mind). The holes in his hands are beautiful because they bring us forgiveness for the sins we commit with our hands; the holes in his feet are beautiful because they bring us forgiveness for the times we’ve walked willingly into temptation and failed to avoid the near occasion of sin; and the hole in his heart is beautiful because through it we can be forgiven for the many times we’ve put other things before God—for the times, in other words, when we’ve allowed something else or someone else to occupy the first place in our heart.

As I indicated a few moments ago, it’s incredibly beautiful when people like you and me make tough, personal sacrifices for others; but it’s infinitely beautiful when an eternal God sacrifices himself for his imperfect and sinful creatures—as Jesus Christ did for us.

In the movie, Bridge to Terebithia, Leslie—the girl from the unbelieving family—began to sense this truth. She was definitely on the verge of having a conversion. She began to sense the deeper meaning of Jesus’ passion and death, and she found it beautiful.

May God help us to do the same, and may he also give us the grace to see more beauty in the ordinary events of our lives—especially in the acts of charity and in the acts of sacrifice that he asks us to perform for others each day.

Jess (Josh Hutcherson) and Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) in a scene from
Bridge to Terabithia

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Priesthood, the Eucharist—and Pelagianism

(Holy Thursday 2007: This homily was given on April 5, 2007, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15.)

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

Tonight, and every Holy Thursday night, the Church commemorates the anniversary of the priesthood, as well as the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

Now it’s no secret that both the priesthood and the Eucharist are greatly under-valued and under-appreciated in the world today—even by a lot of baptized, practicing Catholics. Many Catholic parents, for example, will get extremely angry and upset if they find out their son is seriously thinking about becoming a priest. What used to be considered a noble way of life—an honorable path to follow in the service of God and neighbor—is now looked upon by some as “throwing your life away.”

As for the Eucharist, most surveys show that less than 4 out of 10 American Catholics attend Mass every single week. About the same number, interestingly enough, say they believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. And of those who do come faithfully, how many of them arrive late nearly every week, half-pay attention while they’re here, and then leave right after Communion?

This lack of appreciation for the priesthood and the Mass is evident to me whenever I hear the confessions of young people, and I’m forced to listen to their excuses for not being in church every Sunday (excuses that, in most cases, they’ve learned from their parents!): “We were on vacation”; “We had to go to a birthday party”; “We were away at soccer camp”;—or the lamest excuse of all: “We were just too busy.”

Jesus made sure he instituted these two great sacraments—Holy Orders and the Eucharist—on the night before he died, even though he had a lot of other things on his mind. Obviously he thought they were EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!

But many of his modern-day disciples don’t. And it shows! Believe me, the fact that certain Catholics don’t take the Eucharist and the priesthood seriously has a direct effect—a direct, NEGATIVE effect—on their daily lives (whether they’re conscious of it or not).

I’ll give you an example of what I mean . . .

In his book, Priests for the New Millennium, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee tells the story of a prominent Jewish psychiatrist in St. Louis, Missouri, who used to take walks at night through the grounds of the local Catholic parish—the parish that Archbishop Dolan was serving in at the time as a newly ordained priest. The archbishop writes: “One night the pastor and I were taking an after-dinner stroll, and we met up with [this psychiatrist]. He asked us about an article he had recently read documenting the sharp decline in the use of the sacrament of penance, and the two of us regrettably had to agree, sharing with him some observations as to why people were no longer frequenting the sacrament. As he got to the end of the parking lot and turned to go home, he said with a chuckle, ‘Well, a decline in confession is good for my business. If that sacrament ever really caught on, I’d be out of a job. People pay me well to do what you guys do in confession, and I can’t even forgive their sins, all I can do is help them live with the results!”

People don’t take confession seriously, because they don’t take the priesthood seriously. And they suffer the consequences—sometimes even in terms of their mental health.

So why is this the case? Why are the priesthood and the Eucharist—as well as confession and the other sacraments—taken so lightly by so many?

Well here’s my theory on the matter. Others may have theirs, but this is mine: The Eucharist and the priesthood are under-valued and under-appreciated by many in the Church today, because a lot of people in the Church today are not Christians at all! They’re actually Pelagians, who embrace Pelagianism!

Pelagianism is the problem! In fact, I would say it’s so prevalent that it almost qualifies as a plague! Thus you could say that the plague of Pelagianism is the pressing problem (if you wanted to make a little alliteration).

Now I warn you: Be prepared to be misunderstood if you ever mention this subject in the presence of a writer or a journalist or a doctoral student who’s in the process writing his dissertation. The person might think you’re accusing them of stealing another author’s material. At that point you’ll have to make it clear to them that you’re not talking about “plagiarism”, you’re talking about Pelagianism, which is something very different.

So what exactly is it?

Well, very simply, Pelagianism is one of the oldest Christian heresies—one that dates back to the 5th century. It was first taught by a lay monk named Pelagius (hence the name), who didn’t believe in original sin—among other things. According to Pelagius, Adam’s sin affected only himself, not us—except by giving us a bad example to follow. And, of course, if there’s no such thing as original sin, then the logical conclusion is that you and I don’t need the grace of Christ in our souls—sanctifying grace—in order to be saved from eternal death. We can, in effect, save ourselves. So according to Pelagius, Jesus didn’t die on the cross to bring us the grace we need to get into heaven. All he did was give us a good example to follow, like Adam gave us a bad example to follow. Jesus didn’t save us, because he didn’t need to save us. We ultimately can save ourselves by being good through our own natural powers.

Like most heresies, Pelagianism never really died. And it certainly isn’t dead in our day and age. In fact, I’m convinced that many Catholics—perhaps even the vast majority of Catholics—are really Pelagians in terms of what they believe about grace and salvation.

For example, ask a Catholic on the street, “Why should God let you into heaven when you die?” and see what kind of answer you get. See if the person even mentions Jesus Christ and grace in his response! I think he’s far more likely to say, “God should let me into heaven because I’m a good person” or “God should let me into heaven because I do many works of charity” or “God should let me into heaven because I say my prayers and keep all the rules of the Church”—as if he can merit heaven by his own natural ability and power.

That, my brothers and sisters, is Pelagianism! It’s not Christianity! According to the teaching of the Church that goes back to the apostles, the only reason God will let us into heaven when we die is because we have the grace of Jesus Christ in our soul!—the grace that Jesus died on the cross to give us, namely sanctifying grace! It’s not because we’re nice, and do good things, and say a lot of prayers—although all of that is important for helping us REMAIN in the state of grace and grow in holiness.

But we cannot save ourselves!

Do you see the connection with the priesthood and the Eucharist?

The connection is this: If Pelagius was right, and I can save myself simply by being a nice guy, then why do I need the priesthood? And why do I need the Eucharist? In fact, why do I need the baptism and confession and all the other sacraments? The answer is, I don’t! I can get to heaven through my own natural ability and power. So every once in awhile I might go to Mass and say a few prayers and maybe even go to confession to make myself feel good, but I know I don’t really need those things. They don’t provide me with anything that I can’t get completely on my own!

That’s how Pelagians think—and we have many of them in the Church today.

On the other hand, if I understand that I am saved only by grace—the grace Jesus won for me by his passion, death and resurrection—then I know how important the priesthood is! I know that the priest, although a sinner, is God’s anointed instrument for bringing me the grace I need to get into heaven—sanctifying grace—and for restoring that grace to me in the sacrament of confession if I lose it through mortal sin. And I know how much I need the Eucharist, because the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ: the Jesus Christ who saves me from sin and eternal death, and who strengthens me every day to remain faithful to him.

I read a story the other day about a surgeon in a Catholic hospital, who one day performed a very serious operation on the mother of a priest. After the surgery, the doctor took the family aside, to tell them the good news that the priest’s mother would be okay. As soon as he finished, a voice came over the hospital’s P.A. system: “Mass begins in the chapel in ten minutes.”

At that point the surgeon said to the family, “Excuse me; that’s my cue. I have to go. If I don’t make Mass, I’m not much good for the day.”

Based on that story, I think it’s safe to say that that particular surgeon is NOT a Pelagian! He’s a Christian; he’s a Catholic Christian through and through! He knows he needs the grace of God not only to be saved—but even to do the good things he does for others in the operating room.

Dear Lord, please fill our hearts with that same knowledge and understanding on this Holy Thursday night, so that we will have a deeper appreciation for the gift of the Holy Eucharist, and for the gift of the priesthood. Amen.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Palm Sunday and April Fools’ Day

(Palm Sunday 2007 (C): This homily was given on April 1, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56.)

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

In case you haven’t noticed, this year Palm Sunday happens to fall on April Fools’ Day. That, of course, is a rare phenomenon, since the dates of Easter and Palm Sunday change every year.

And yet, I find it both meaningful and providential that the two coincide at least from time to time, because when Jesus Christ hung on that cross and died for our salvation 2,000 years ago he definitely looked like a fool!

And that’s exactly how he was treated, first by his Jewish brothers and sisters and later by the pagan Romans. The Jews did it on Holy Thursday when they ridiculed him and blindfolded him and then beat him, saying “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?”

The Romans did it the next day when they crowned him with thorns and dressed him in a purple robe and pretended to honor him as their king.

The words of Psalm 22, our responsorial psalm today and the one that Jesus prayed when he hung on the cross, express it perfectly: “All who see me scoff at me; they mock me with parted lips, they wag their heads.”

In other words, they look at me like I’m a fool.

And this really shouldn’t surprise us, because crucifixion was a form of execution reserved by the Romans for slaves and the dregs of society. Notice that in today’s second reading from Philippians 2, St. Paul says that Jesus was obedient unto death—“EVEN DEATH ON A CROSS”. It’s as if Paul were saying, “Jesus obeyed his Father even to the point of looking like a complete fool and dying like a slave in a Roman crucifixion.”

And yet, who were the real fools in all this?

The real fools were those like Herod and Pilate who missed the significance of what was happening right in front of their eyes! The real fools were the Lord’s enemies who closed themselves off from his love and saving grace. The real fools were those who didn’t repent and believe and experience salvation when they had the chance.

They were the real fools—not Jesus!

This Holy Week we have the opportunity to succeed where they failed. We have the opportunity to reflect more deeply on the saving events that brought us—and the world—salvation; we have the opportunity to ponder and get in touch with the incredible love of God, which led him to offer his only begotten Son for the forgiveness of our sins; we have the opportunity to grow in sanctity (at least a little bit!); we even have the chance to make some sense of our own daily sufferings, in light of the sufferings of our Savior.

Those are just some of the spiritual benefits we can experience if we make Holy Week “holy” on a personal level. But doing that means we will have to turn off our TV sets and our cell phones and our computer games and our iPods from time to time in the next 7 days, and stay away from the casino, and make a conscious effort to rearrange our busy and hectic schedules so that we can spend some extra time in church and in prayer.

Simply put, if we really want to make this upcoming Holy Week “holy”, we will need to tune out the foolishness of the world for awhile—especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday—so that we can tune in to the wisdom and love of God.

Remember, the Lord Jesus was willing to look like a fool and he was willing to be treated like a fool for you—to save you from eternal death! He was willing to do the same for me, and for every other human person. The question is: Are we willing to put aside the world’s foolishness this week for him, and for the sake of improving our relationship with him?

That’s a question that all of us will answer in the next 7 days. It’s my prayer on this Palm Sunday that we will all answer it with a faith-filled yes!