Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Presence And Power Of The Holy Spirit In The Life Of Eduardo Verastegui

(Pentecost 2007 (C): This homily was given on May 27, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 2: 1-11; John 14: 15-16, 23b-26.)

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

He was named one of the “50 most beautiful people in the world” by People magazine. He’s been a very popular actor in Mexico and in Latin America for a number of years, although he’s only 33. 

He’s been a soap opera star, a singer, and a model. In 2006 he starred in the movie, “Bella,” which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival.

“Bella” will be officially released in the United States later this year.

His name is Eduardo Verastegui. You’ve probably never heard of him before. Personally, I didn’t know who he was until last week, when I read a couple of articles about him—one in our diocesan newspaper, The Providence Visitor; the other online. It’s a sad fact that the lives of most Hollywood actors these days are terrible tragedies. But that’s definitely NOT the case with Eduardo Verastegui.

Quite to the contrary, the story of his life in recent years is the story of the Holy Spirit at work in a very powerful way: the same Holy Spirit who descended on the apostles at Pentecost—the same Holy Spirit who comes to us in Baptism and Confirmation, and who is, as Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel, “with [us] always”.

Eduardo has admitted that, early in his acting career, he wasn’t very discriminating when it came to the roles he played on TV and in the movies. It didn’t matter to him whether the character he portrayed (or the program he starred in) gave good moral messages to the viewing audience or bad moral messages. He was making money; he was doing what he wanted to do; he was becoming famous. In his mind, that was all that mattered.

But after awhile his conscience began to bother him. That disturbance, I believe, was caused by the Holy Spirit working through other people in his life. Here’s how the article in the Providence Visitor described it:

While studying English in Los Angeles, [Eduardo] found himself drawn to a deeper faith in Jesus through the example of his Catholic teacher, and he began to see all the reasons he had wanted to be an actor—fame, money and pleasure—as empty and vain.
He also realized that he had been typecast into portraying the unfaithful, lying Latin lover, which promoted negative stereotypes. He said the media portrayal of Hispanics in general demeaned both men and women, resembling nothing like the dignity and beauty of his mother and sisters in Mexico.
He discovered he had hurt people through his work, and the messages in his movies were ‘poisoning society.’
“It broke my heart,’ he said, ‘I realized I had offended God.”

He also started questioning things. As he put it, “In my search to know what was beyond this emptiness [I felt], I began to ask myself the great questions that everyone asks at some point in life: What am I doing in this universe? Where do I come from? Where am I going? What’s the meaning of all this? And in this search . . . I realized I had been selfish, walking ahead blindly in vanity and pride. . . . I wanted to do good things and I was not doing them.”

It was faith in Jesus Christ that changed Eduardo Verastegui’s life. That’s important to note on this Pentecost Sunday, because faith is one of the 3 most important gifts of the Holy Spirit (along with hope and charity). And what opened Eduardo’s heart to faith was the Holy Spirit-inspired witness of another human being: an ordinary person like you and me—his English teacher.

That’s often the way it happens.

Another major influence in this regard was his mother. In the online article I read Eduardo was quoted as saying, “[In my professional life] I was living in constant contradiction. What changed it was faith—the faith. It was a gift through the prayers of my mother.”

Now notice what the Holy Spirit did in order to bring Eduardo to the point of opening his heart to Christ—this is also very important: he convicted him of his sins! As Eduardo said, “I realized I had offended God.”

There are some who confuse the Holy Spirit with the “warm and fuzzy” feeling they sometimes get when they pray or come to church.

We’ve got to be very careful about doing that. Yes, there are times when the Holy Spirit will give us good feelings (and we should thank God for those moments whenever they occur); but at other times the Holy Spirit will make us feel anything but good! In those moments—because he wants us to repent of our sins and convert our hearts—the Holy Spirit will make us feel empty and uncomfortable (like Eduardo felt when he realized how much he had offended God in his acting career).

Many, of course, respond to this kind of inner conviction by resisting God and remaining in sin. But Eduardo Verastegui didn’t do that, which is what makes his story so noteworthy.

He let the Spirit in, reformed his life, sold many of his possessions, contemplated becoming a priest for a time, and finally returned to acting.

However he went back to the entertainment industry, as the Visitor article indicated, with a different attitude. He went back vowing “to refuse parts unless they affirmed life and human dignity.”

And guess what.

He wasn’t hired for 3 years!—because every part he was offered during that time involved the “same negative stereotypes”.

But he refused to give in.

In his Letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, St. Paul lists a number of “fruits” of the Spirit. One of those fruits is “patient endurance”. Eduardo Verastegui definitely manifested patient endurance by refusing to accept roles that would have caused him to compromise his faith and his morality.

And I’m sure that wasn’t easy, since some of those acting parts probably came with big, six-figure salaries!

He could have rationalized by saying to himself, “Well it’s only an acting part; all the other stars take roles like this.”

But he didn’t. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit at work.

Since then, this same Holy Spirit has motivated Eduardo to show love for his neighbor by getting involved in a number of pro-life activities. He’s spoken at pro-life conferences; he’s counseled women at abortion mills; and he’s founded an organization in California which offers assistance to women experiencing difficult or untimely pregnancies.

And in his professional life he’s co-founded a production company, Metanoia Films, with producer Leo Severino, another committed Catholic whom he met in 2004 at a weekday Mass. (Clearly the Holy Spirit arranged that meeting!) Their purpose is to make top notch films with good, moral messages. Their first effort is “Bella,” the movie I mentioned at the beginning of my homily.

Here we have two Catholic men in the hostile environment of Hollywood, fulfilling their Confirmation mandate through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Remember, the Holy Spirit comes to us in Baptism in order to free us from original sin, and make us God’s adopted children. But he comes to us in Confirmation for another reason: to empower us to be the Lord’s witnesses in the world! If you’re a layperson, that means you’re called in the power of the Spirit to take the Gospel with you to work every day, and you’re called to make the effort to transform that work environment with the love and truth of Jesus Christ.

And that’s precisely what Eduardo Verastegui and Leo Severino are doing! They’re not saying, “We’re Catholics, but”—“We’re Catholics, but we’ll act like pagans at work. We’re Catholics, but we’ll still make immoral films because that will earn us a lot of money.” Rather, they’re saying, “We’re Catholics, so”—“We’re Catholics, so we will act like Catholics—even at work! We’re Catholics, so we will make decent films with positive moral messages, regardless of how much money we make (or don’t make) at the box office.”

A lot of Catholic politicians could take a lesson here, couldn’t they?

My prayer on this Pentecost Sunday is that Eduardo Verastegui will continue on his present path, allowing the Holy Spirit to make him a bright and shining light in the moral wasteland of the modern entertainment industry. And may his story inspire all of us to be more open—and more responsive—to the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Ascension Of Jesus And The Importance Of The Human Body

(Ascension Thursday 2007: This homily was given on May 17, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 1: 1-14.)

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

When Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh—the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity made man—ascended into heaven 40 days after he rose from the dead, he did so with his human body.

That fact is significant, because it means that ever since Ascension Thursday, heaven has been inhabited by a divine person who has a body like ours (although his body is already in a glorified state).

This is a truth of our faith—a truth of our faith that has some very practical implications for our daily lives. It’s not just a tenet of the Creed!

You see, if the Son of God had discarded his human body after his resurrection, and gone to heaven as a pure spirit, it would have sent us a message that our bodies are really not very important; it would have said to us that only our souls and spirits matter.

But that’s not what happened. As I just said, Jesus went to heaven with his body! That means our bodies do matter—they matter a lot!

It’s not a coincidence that the Church says we are to respect the human body always—even in death.

Sometimes when a relative dies, an otherwise good Catholic will ask questions like, “Why can’t I scatter grandma’s ashes to the four winds at the beach? Grandma loved the beach!” “Why can’t I keep grandma’s ashes in the living room on her favorite coffee table? She sat in front of that table for years; it was her favorite place in the house.”

Grandma’s ashes are to be interred in the ground or in a mausoleum, as the proper committal prayers of the Church are prayed, because her ashes are the ashes of a human body that will be raised from the dead at the end of time! They’re the ashes of a body that was redeemed by Jesus Christ; they’re the ashes of a body that was made to live forever in a glorified state in the kingdom of heaven. Hence they’re not to be thrown around like confetti at a wedding; nor are they to be used as a decoration for the living room coffee table!

Human bodies are to be treated with proper respect in death, because that’s the way we’re supposed to treat our bodies in life!

Of course, in treating our bodies with respect in life, we need to avoid two extremes: worship and abuse—both of which are extremely common today.

People who “worship” their bodies are people who value their physical health above everything else—including the health of their souls.

It’s a phenomenon that Pope John Paul II and other popes of the past have referred to as “the cult of the body”.

Now what makes this attitude so difficult for us to resist is the fact that our materialistic and hedonistic culture actively promotes it! For proof of that, just watch one of those cosmetic surgery programs on the Discovery Health Channel; or pick up a bodybuilding magazine or the latest issue of Cosmopolitan; or read the statistics on how many people—men and women alike—suffer from eating disorders.

Now don’t misunderstand me here. As one who loves to work out at the gym, I’m a firm believer that maintaining your physical health is good; I’m a firm believer in the importance of taking proper care of your body. But your body in its present condition is not immortal—so its value is not absolute. You can do 1,000 push ups and sit-ups a day, and have plastic surgery on 90% of your body—the fact is you’re still gonna die!

You may “die at your ideal weight” (as the old saying goes), but you’re still gonna die!

Pope Pius XII said it very simply and very clearly many years ago: “Care for the body, strengthening of the body—yes; but cult of the body, making a god of the body—no.”

It’s a hard balance to achieve—especially nowadays—but we all need to work at it.

Which brings us to the other extreme that must be avoided, namely abuse. Those who worship their bodies care for them too much; those who abuse their bodies care for them too little.

Obviously it’s wrong to abuse your body through drugs or alcohol—that’s a given. But it’s also wrong to abuse your body in other ways: for example, by eating too much—or by not eating enough.

It’s wrong to abuse your body by failing to go to the doctor when you’re sick, or by failing to take the medication you know you need to take for an illness that you have.

And it’s wrong to abuse your body by engaging in immoral sexual behaviors.

The Ascension of Jesus Christ reminds us that our bodies are made for heaven, not just for earth.

Lord Jesus, help us all to remember that, and help us to live our lives accordingly—treating our bodies (and the bodies of others) with the respect they deserve, so that someday our glorified bodies will join yours in the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Role Of An Earthly Mother; The Role Of Holy Mother Church

(Sixth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 13, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 15: 1-29; John 14: 23-29.)

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

It’s the role of a mother to give birth to her children (for further information on that subject, consult a biology textbook!).

It is the role of a mother to nurture her children.

It is the role of a mother to comfort her children.

It’s the role of a mother to discipline her children—even if they respond by whining and stomping their feet and calling her names!

It’s the role of a mother to challenge her children—whether they want to be challenged or not!

It’s the role of a mother to settle arguments that take place between her children. In fact, in most homes it’s the mother who functions as the family’s unpaid referee!

It’s the role of a mother to teach the truth to her children. Most of us learned our first—and perhaps most important—lessons in life from our mothers.

Speaking of important lessons, it’s the role of a mother to be a teacher of forgiveness and a facilitator of forgiveness. Think about it: Who was the first person you said “I’m sorry” to in your life? It was probably your mother. And how often did your mother say to you, “Tell that person you’re sorry”?—“Tell your sister you’re sorry for calling her names”; “Tell your brother you’re sorry for taking his toy without his permission and breaking it”.

Obviously I mention all these things today, because it’s Mother’s Day. But I also mention them because they have an application to the spiritual dimension of our lives—specifically to that reality we call “the Church”.

And our readings today confirm this.

Now if you’re one of those people who sees the Church only in institutional terms, what I’ve just said might sound a little crazy to you. You might be thinking, “The Church is an impersonal institution and a big bureaucracy. It’s not anything like my mother!”

Oh yes it is!

As I said at the beginning of my homily, it’s the role of a mother to give birth to her children. That happens for us, spiritually speaking, at the moment we’re baptized. Through a sacramental act of Mother Church, we are “born again” of water and the Holy Spirit; we become God’s adopted children; we receive sanctifying grace into our souls. And remember, if a person does not have sanctifying grace in his soul when he dies, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven!

Sanctifying grace: don’t leave earth without it!

So for that reason alone—for bringing us the grace we need to attain eternal life—we should be grateful to the Church as our spiritual Mother.

But it doesn’t end there.

As I said a few moments ago, it’s the role of a mother to nurture her children. The Church does that for us spiritually every day through the word of God—if we let her. As Jesus said in today’s Gospel text from John 14, “Whoever loves me will keep my word (in other words, whoever loves me will be nurtured by my word—formed in obedience by my word through prayer and the sacraments), and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

But we must allow this nurturing to happen. It’s not automatic! You see, just as we can cut ourselves off from our nurturing earthly mothers, so also we can cut ourselves off from our nurturing spiritual Mother. We can choose not to pray; we can choose not to actively participate at Mass; we can choose to tune-out the truth of Scripture and Church teaching.

But when we do that—when we choose to turn our backs on our spiritual Mother and live by our own rules—we almost always end up angry and unhappy (just as we become angry and unhappy if we cut ourselves off from our earthly mothers).

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I know a woman here in Westerly who has a very close friend in the entertainment industry. Her friend is a world famous comedienne (if I mentioned her name, most of you would recognize it immediately). Sad to say, this comedienne is also an ex-Catholic—a very bitter and angry ex-Catholic. And every time she gets together with this woman from Westerly or talks to her on the phone, she spouts her venom against the Church and the Church’s teachings. In the terms of this homily, she “whines and stomps her feet and calls her ‘Mother’ all kinds of names”!

She has not allowed herself to be nurtured by her spiritual Mother, the Church, for many years. In fact, she would tell you in no uncertain terms that she “hates” her spiritual Mother.

She also has no inner peace; that’s evident from her conversations with her friend here in Westerly.

To me, that’s not a coincidence! You can’t have peace if you hate your mom.

I said earlier that it’s the role of a mother to comfort her children. As Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” This woman would find comfort, if by the grace of God she let go of her anger and came back home to her spiritual family and her spiritual Mother. She’d find the peace she doesn’t have at the present moment.

And it’s certainly possible. It’s happened to many other people in the past; it can happen to her now. We should pray that it does!

I said earlier that it’s the role of a mother to teach and to challenge and to discipline her children—whether they like it or not.

The story in today’s first reading from Acts 15 is a perfect example of our spiritual Mother, the Church, doing all three of those things: teaching, challenging and disciplining.

Apparently some early Jewish converts to Christianity were telling people that Gentiles were bound to observe the Mosaic Law if they wanted to be Christians. Among other things, this meant that adult, Gentile men would be forced to undergo circumcision.


Under the guidance and anointing of the Holy Spirit, the apostles met and discerned the will of Jesus on the matter. Their final decision was that Gentiles could become Christians without being circumcised and observing all the ritual laws of the Old Testament.

The Gentile men of the time must have been thrilled!

That became the official teaching of Holy Mother Church. The teaching was then announced everywhere (as we heard a few moments ago), people were challenged to be faithful to it, and those who continued to promote what was false were disciplined (at least verbally).

Holy Mother Church continues to teach and to challenge and to discipline—with the authority of Jesus Christ—in the world today; and many people (including many Catholics) don’t like it! But what do we expect? Every good earthly mother teaches her children and challenges her children and disciplines her children out of love, so that they will fulfill their potential and be the best they can be!

Shouldn’t we expect the very same thing from our spiritual Mother?

Of course, as I said at the beginning of my homily, every good mother also forgives, and is a facilitator of forgiveness when her children fail to live according to her teachings. The same is true of Holy Mother Church, who forgives us through the sacraments, especially Baptism and Reconciliation.

So today is a day to remember and to thank God for the mother who gave us physical birth—who nurtured us and taught us and challenged us and disciplined us and comforted us when we were in pain, and who forgave us when we hurt her and said we were sorry. Even if she was not the best mother she could possibly be, she did choose life for us, and for that alone we should praise God!

But at the same time we should also thank the Lord for providing us with a Mother who has given us our spiritual re-birth, a Mother who will nurture and teach and challenge and discipline and comfort and forgive us for the rest of our lives, if we let her.

We should thank and praise God, in other words, for giving us Holy Mother Church to be our guide here on this earth—because we all need a mother; we all need a motherly presence in our life.

That’s true whether we’re 5 or 105—or 50 (like old Fr. Ray).