Sunday, August 19, 2007

Is Division Always Bad, or Can It Be Tolerated For a Time in Certain Situations?

Mike Sweeney and Jeff Weaver on August 10, 2001

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 19, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10; Luke 12: 49-53.)

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

Which is it, Lord Jesus?

We know that “division”—being divided from other people—is a fact of life. We experience division, unfortunately, within our own families; we experience it in school and at work; we experience it in casual conversation with friends; we experience it in almost every situation and setting of life.

Is that always bad, or is it sometimes good?

What confuses us, Lord Jesus, is the fact that in the Gospel of John, chapter 17, you prayed very hard for unity among your people. You said, “I pray that all may be one as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; I pray that they may be [one] in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”

And yet, in today’s Gospel text from Luke 12, you say to us, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? I assure you, the contrary is true: I have come for division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three . . .”

So which is it, Lord Jesus? We need to know how these two statements can both be true (these statements that seem to contradict each other!). We need to know this, Lord Jesus, so that we can be faithful to your words!

As I reflected on this matter the other day in preparation for this homily, I came to realize that part of the solution to this problem comes with asking the right question. In retrospect, I think it’s wrong to ask, “Is division always bad, or is it sometimes good?” I think Jesus would tell us that division is never “good” in and of itself; ideally it’s not what God wants in any situation. But sometimes it can be tolerated, because of the presence of human sin. So a better way to frame the question would be: Is division always bad, or can it be tolerated for a time in certain situations?

This idea actually helps us to reconcile the two passages of Scripture I mentioned a few moments ago. In John 17, Jesus is expressing to us the ideal: that all people live peaceful lives united in his truth. But because some men and women will refuse to say Yes to Jesus and his Gospel of truth, there will be division—and that division will happen even within families. That’s the message of Luke 12—and I know many of you, unfortunately, have experienced it firsthand. A man in the parish said to me just the other day, “My daughter is very upset with me and with my wife. She wanted to come to visit us with her boyfriend, and we told her that she couldn’t sleep in the same room with him because they aren’t married. Now she’s angry with us.”

Those parents are right; their daughter is wrong. But because she refuses to do the right thing and insists on committing sin right under their roof, the family is divided—at least for the present moment.

Division is never the ideal, but from our personal perspective it can be tolerated for a time if the division is caused by our faithfulness to God and someone else’s unrepented sin. This was the situation that Jeremiah the prophet faced over and over again in his ministry. Division followed him everywhere—because he was so faithful to the Lord and those around him were not. In today’s first reading, for example, we heard about the time he was thrown into a muddy cistern and left there to die—until a court official finally came to his rescue. That happened to Jeremiah because he was speaking the truth to the religious and civil leaders of the land of Judah, and they didn’t like it. And what’s interesting here is that they—the evil leaders—actually accused Jeremiah of being the cause of the division! They went to King Zedekiah and said, “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.”

So if you’re ever being accused of causing division somewhere because you’re trying to be obedient to God and his commandments, know that you’re in good company. Jeremiah had to deal with the same problem—many times.

Now at this point we need to be careful—and we also need to be humble. There’s an old saying, “It takes two to tango.” Someone else’s sin may be the initial cause of division in a certain situation, but sometimes our sin may end up adding to the problem and driving the wedge more deeply between us and the other person. A good example of this can be found on the baseball DVD that John Brodeur was selling a few weeks ago, “Champions of Faith.”

The first player profiled on that DVD is Mike Sweeney, the All Star first baseman of the Kansas City Royals. On August 10, 2001, Sweeney was facing pitcher Jeff Weaver of the Detroit Tigers in a game in Kansas City. Weaver shouted some rather uncharitable things at Mike, then turned around and walked off the back of the pitcher’s mound. Well Sweeney didn’t like what he heard, and charged at Weaver. The two got into a huge fight—one that eventually involved everyone on both teams. It was your classic “bench-clearing brawl”.

Two weeks later, Sweeney—who’s a very devout Catholic and a youth minister at his local parish—went to church for a youth group meeting. Well as soon as he walked through the door, one of the teenage girls who was there ran up to him with tears in her eyes. She said, “Mr. Sweeney, Mr. Sweeney, why did you do that? I turned on the TV the other night and I saw you charging the mound and fighting with that pitcher. That broke my heart. You let me down.”

Sweeney asked her to forgive him. But deep down inside, he knew that wasn’t enough. Weaver had initially caused the division between them by his uncharitable comments from the mound; but Sweeney knew that he had made the division much worse by charging the mound and starting the fistfight.

And yet, for 5 years, he did nothing. It just goes to show that sometimes even devout Christians can block out God’s grace. Finally his conscience was bothering him so much that he decided to act: just before Christmas of last year, he got down on his knees and asked God to give him the right words; then he picked up the telephone and called Jeff Weaver to apologize. Sweeney said to him, “Jeff, I come to you, and I just want to ask that you forgive me.” And, to his great credit, Weaver did forgive him. Sweeney went on to say, “You know, Jeff, I have a two-year-old boy; and someday he’s going to watch that video, and he’s going to ask me, ‘Daddy, why did you do that’? And I want to be able to look my son in the eye and say, ‘Son, I messed up; but, in the end, I did the right thing’.”

Division is never the ideal. If it’s caused by someone else’s sin, we should pray for that person to repent and for reconciliation to occur. And we need to “keep the door open,” so to speak, to the person.

If, on the other hand, it’s caused by our sin—or made worse by it—then we need to follow the example of Mike Sweeney and humbly seek forgiveness (without waiting for 5 years!).

The bottom line is this: Division can—and division must—be tolerated at times. But God wants us—and God expects us—to do everything that we possibly can to make the divisive situation only a temporary one.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mary’s Assumption and What It Teaches Us about the Human Body

Oh yes, there's one other thing they have in common: They both appeared on the cover of Time Magazine!

(Assumption 2007: This homily was given on August 15, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 1: 39-46.)

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

Here’s a question you’ve probably never considered before:

What do Hugh Hefner and Jack Kevorkian have in common? (Hefner, of course, is the founder of Playboy Magazine; Kevorkian, also known as “Dr. Death,” remains the poster boy for physician-assisted suicide.) They’ve probably never been mentioned by name in the same sentence—until now.

What do they have in common—aside from the fact that at this point they’re both pretty old?!!!

The answer is: They both believe that the human body is not very important!

Now that may surprise you, especially regarding Hefner. Here, after all, is a man who is constantly surrounded by fit, beautiful bodies; he’s a man who has made a fortune off those same bodies. . . .

“Fr. Ray, how could you say that he doesn’t think the human body is very important?”

Because at the deepest level of his being, he doesn’t! And his magazine and pornography empire merely serve to illustrate the point.

Jack Kevorkian says, “A person can legitimately kill his body whenever that body doesn’t function in the way he wants it to.” Hefner says, “The human body can be used as a toy, or as an object, or as a tool to manipulate others; it really doesn’t matter.”

In both cases, the message is that the body isn’t all that valuable! We can do with it whatever we feel like doing with it.

To which Mary, our Blessed Mother, says, “No!”

Mary says to us—especially on this particular feast day—“The human body has been redeemed by my Son. He took on a human body in my womb, died in his human body on the cross, rose in his human body on Easter Sunday, and ascended to heaven with his human body on Ascension Thursday. He did all that in order to save not only our souls from eternal death but our bodies as well. You see, our bodies are made not only for earth; they’re also made for heaven! That means they matter a lot! My Assumption illustrates the point. At the end of my life, my Son did not allow my body to decay in any tomb; rather he took me up to heaven immediately, soul AND body. When you die, unfortunately, your soul is separated from your body—but only for a time. At the end of the world, your body will be raised from the dead and will be reunited with your soul. If you ended your earthly life in the state of grace, you will then join me—soul AND body—in my Son’s kingdom. This is why the preface of the Mass of the Assumption calls my Assumption your ‘hope.’ As I am now, you hopefully will someday be.”

When you stop and think about it, my brothers and sisters, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, the corporal works of mercy, the Church’s pro-life teachings--and even the Church’s norms on how to treat the bodies of the dead--are all tied to this simple truth that our bodies have value; that our bodies have been redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and are destined to become like Jesus’ glorified body—and like Mary’s.

We live in a culture right now where many people either don’t know this truth, or have forgotten about it. And because of that, countless numbers of men and women go to extremes these days: either they care for their bodies too much—as if their earthly bodies will exist forever in their present condition; or they treat their bodies and the bodies of others as disposable objects (a la Jack Kevorkian); or they treat them as tools to manipulate other human beings (a la Hugh Hefner).

And a few actually do all 3 of those things!

Mary’s Assumption teaches us the proper attitude toward the body. Mary’s Assumption teaches us that we should give our bodies (and the bodies of other people) respect and reasonable care.

Respect and reasonable care.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, that we will all take this lesson to heart, and allow it to influence how we treat ourselves—and others—in the future.

And we offer that very same prayer today for Mr. Hugh Hefner and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and for the many, many people in the world right now who think—and who act—just like they do.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

“What Makes Our Faith The ‘Right’ Faith?”

(Nineteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 12, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Hebrews 11: 1-2, 11-19.)

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

Two weeks ago I asked the teenagers at Thursday night youth group to do some brainstorming. I said, “I want you to come up with a list of topics that we can discuss during the upcoming year on Thursday nights. What are the questions you have about God and the Church? What issues are important to you as a teenager? What questions about faith and life have other people challenged you with—at school, at work, or even in your own family?”

They responded with quite an extensive list: Can a Catholic believe in evolution? How do you show proper respect for someone of the opposite gender? How far is too far? How can you keep your prayer life strong when you don’t have a lot of free time? What do you say to someone who thinks that Catholics hate homosexuals? What are indulgences? What does papal infallibility mean?—those are just some of them.

One question, however, stood out among the rest, because it was so basic and so foundational. I thought of it as I was reflecting on today’s second reading from Hebrews 11. Interestingly enough, it was suggested by a young man who was at youth group for the very first time that night. He said, “What makes our faith the ‘right’ faith?”

You can’t get any more basic than that, can you?

He said, “Fr. Ray, there are lots of Christian groups out there; there are many different religions out there—Christian and non-Christian. Why is the Catholic faith the right one?”

Since this was just a brainstorming session, there wasn’t enough time to get into a big discussion and give him a satisfactory answer. But I did say to him, “Obviously we’re dealing here with a matter of faith. And because it’s in the realm of faith, you won’t be able to prove that Catholicism is the ‘right’ religion in the same way that you would prove that 2 + 2 = 4. But what you can do—and what you should do—is formulate reasons for your belief in the Church: strong, rational reasons for your belief that the Catholic religion teaches the fullness of God’s revealed truth. We can talk about what those reasons might be some Thursday night in the near future.”

After I said this someone else in the group quoted a passage from 1 Peter, chapter 3, where St. Peter imparts this same advice. He says, “Should anyone ask you the reason for this hope of yours, be ever ready to reply.” (1 Peter 3: 15)

At the beginning of this text from Hebrews 11, Abraham the patriarch is mentioned. In the Book of Romans, chapter 4—and in Eucharistic Prayer #1—Abraham is rightly referred to as “our father in faith”. That should come as no surprise to us, because Abraham is our spiritual ancestor, and he exhibited great faith at many crucial times in his life. But his faith wasn’t blind; his faith was never blind! Abraham had reasons for believing; he had reasons for following the instructions that God gave him. For example, it says there that Abraham believed God and became the father of a child in his old age because “he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy.” There we see one of his reasons for belief: his previous experience of God’s trustworthiness. His attitude was, “Sarah and I should continue to try to have a child, even though I’m a hundred years-old and she’s ninety, because God has promised me descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky—and God has never lied to me in the past.” Later on it says that Abraham was ready to offer up Isaac in sacrifice, because “he reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead.”

Abraham had these and other reasons for believing. And he was not unique. All the Old Testament saints mentioned in this 11th chapter of Hebrews had their personal reasons for believing; their personal reasons for embracing and following their religious convictions.

What about you? Most (if not all) of you are Catholic. If you haven’t heard the question already, the odds are you will hear it at some time in the future—perhaps from a Jehovah’s Witness or an Evangelical Protestant: Why do you remain a member of the Catholic Church? Or, as that teenager would put it: What makes you think that your faith is the ‘right’ faith?

Of course, since I’m asking you the question today, it’s only fair that I should pose it to myself. And I did—earlier this week. That led me to sit down and to write out some of the reasons why I believe that our Church is the “right one”—in the sense that it teaches the fullness of God’s revealed truth. I’ll share a few of them with you this morning. These, incidentally, are in no particular order.

The first reason I’ll mention is “the content of the message.” I believe the Catholic Church is the right one because of the message she teaches. I’ve tried to imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived the gospel as the Church teaches it in her Catechism. And what I’ve come to realize is that the world would be as good as it could possibly be (given its fallen condition) if everyone in it made the effort to live according to the Church’s commandments and guidelines. It wouldn’t be perfect—because we’re all imperfect sinners—but it would be as good as it could be, under the circumstances. That, of course, is exactly the way I would expect it to be if ours is indeed the “right” faith!

Another reason for my belief in the Catholic religion is “the consistency of the message.” Every other church has changed her teachings with the times. But the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Catholic Church have never changed. Our understanding of them has grown and deepened over the years—that’s true—but they’ve always remained consistent. That, too, is what I would expect of the “right” faith.

I also believe in the Catholic Church because of the example of those who have radically lived her message (i.e., the saints). As we all know, some people condemn the Church by pointing to the sins of individual Catholic clerics and lay people. But that’s wrong! You don’t judge the worth of any institution by the people who live on its fringes. You judge the character and worth of an institution by the people who live according to its true spirit; by the people who live closest to its heart. And when you look at those who have lived the Catholic message most completely in the last 2,000 years—the Mother Teresas and the John Paul IIs and the other great saints—what you find is that these men and women were the most perfect, even from a purely human perspective! They were the most loving, the most honest, the most virtuous people of all! Once again, that’s exactly what I would expect from those who practice the “right” faith in a deeply devoted manner. I would expect them to be the best.

Obviously my primary reasons for being Catholic are rooted in my convictions about Jesus Christ. I believe he is who he said he was—the divine Son of God. I believe that in part because I can find no imperfections in his teachings, as those teachings are interpreted for me by the Catholic Church. His words, as recorded in Scripture, are all words of truth!

I also believe he rose from the dead, as he predicted he would. I believe that for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the witness of Peter and the other apostles. Think about it: On Holy Thursday and Good Friday these men all ran away in fear. They acted like cowards, because they were cowards! Later on, however, they were willing to be beaten, and stoned, and even killed because of their faith in the resurrection. How do you account for this change? Do you really think that these otherwise cowardly men would have been willing to die for a lie, for something that they knew wasn’t true? I don’t think so. From my perspective, the only thing that could possibly have changed them was A PERSONAL ENCOUNTER with the risen Jesus! They were willing to go the distance for him, so to speak, only because they had actually seen him and touched him and talked with him after Easter.

Why do you believe what you believe? What makes the Catholic faith the “right” one?

I’ve just shared with you some of my personal answers to those questions. Now it’s important for you to think about yours. Please do that in the coming week. I even encourage you to write down some of your reasons, as I did the other day. Do it not only for yourself, but also for your family and friends. You see, many people today leave the Catholic Church for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups and even for non-Christian religions because no one ever gave them solid reasons for believing that the Catholic faith is the “right” one.

Don’t let that happen to your friends and relatives!

Reflect in a serious way on your reasons for believing. When you do, you will probably find that some of your reasons for being a Catholic are the same as mine, while others are different.

It really doesn’t matter.

The important thing is that you have solid reasons for your faith, that you know what they are, and that you can express them clearly to others—especially to those who are sincerely searching for the truth.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Vacation Bible School

Here are some pictures from this year's Vacation Bible School at St. Pius.
God bless Chris and all her young assistants!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

“Stop Lying To One Another!”

Barry Bonds

(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 5, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Ecclesiastes 1: 2; 2: 21-23; Colossians 3: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 12: 13-21.)

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

At the end of Mass a priest said to his parishioners, “Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying. In order to prepare yourself for this homily, you’ll need to read the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Mark. So please do that before you come to Mass next weekend.”

The following Sunday, the priest began his homily by saying, “As you will recall, I gave you all a homework assignment at the end of Mass last week. I asked you to read the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Mark. I’d now like to see a show of hands: how many of you did it?”

Every single person in the church raised his or her hand.

The priest smiled and said, “My brothers and sisters, the Gospel of Mark has only 16 chapters. I will now proceed with my homily on the sin of lying—which obviously we all need to hear!”

Lying is one of the activities mentioned by St. Paul in today’s second reading from Colossians 3. Paul’s basic point in that text is that we Christians are supposed to act like redeemed people, because we are redeemed people! He starts off by reminding the Colossians that they have been redeemed through Baptism; that they have received the grace of salvation into their souls by being born again of water and the Holy Spirit. He says, “If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above . . .” In other translations the first part of that line is rendered, “Since you have been raised with Christ,” which makes the point a little more clearly. Here he’s reminding the Colossians of their identity in Christ Jesus; he’s reminding them of the great spiritual gift they have received.

Of course, his message wasn’t just meant for the Colossians living in Asia Minor 2,000 years ago. His words are also directed to us in 2007. Paul is saying to us and to all baptized Christians of all times and places: “You’ve been forgiven and raised to new life with Christ in Baptism. You have been redeemed! Now the Lord expects you to live like you’re redeemed! As you are, so you should act! By his power working within you—by his saving grace—you are to seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”

Then Paul gets specific, just in case some of his listeners aren’t too clear about the details of Christian living. He says, “Put to death the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.”

It’s at this point that he mentions lying. In fact, he singles it out and puts it in its own sentence. He says, “Stop lying to one another.” Personally, I think Paul did that for a couple of reasons: first of all, because lying is so common (I dare say it was as common in the first century as it is today); and secondly, because it stands behind so many other sins that people commit. This is something we might not think of very often, but it’s true nonetheless, especially in our contemporary culture. It’s not a coincidence that the sin little children will mention most often in the confessional (besides the sins of disobeying their parents and fighting with their brothers and sisters) is the sin of lying. We live in a culture that is literally steeped in lies; so it should come as no surprise to us that children fall into the sin so easily.

Let me give you some examples. Greed—the sin that Jesus warns us against in today’s Gospel text from Luke 12—is rooted in a lie. Actually, it’s rooted in several lies. The greedy, materialistic person conducts his affairs as if his earthly life will last forever. But that’s a lie! As Jesus makes clear in this parable, our lives on earth are only temporary.

The greedy person acts as if he’ll be able to “take it with him” (as the old saying goes). That, too, is a lie. As the author of Ecclesiastes puts it in our first reading: “Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave property. This is also vanity and a great misfortune.”

It’s also reality! Ultimately the greedy person lives and acts as if money can and will buy him happiness, which, of course, is one of the biggest lies of all.

Another dimension of life where lying is rampant these days is in the area of sexuality. Sex is a gift from God and is sacred when it conforms to God’s plan. When it does not conform to God’s plan, however, it ends up becoming a lie—a lie that people tell with their own bodies! In the Catechism, paragraph 2361, it says: “Sexuality . . . is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death.”

God designed the marital act to be an expression of self-giving love which is meant to take place within the context of a total, exclusive, lifelong commitment between a man and a woman (that is to say, within a valid marriage). In any other context, it’s a lie! That’s because the sexual act itself has a certain “language” attached to it by God. Through the very act of sexual intercourse a man says to a woman and a woman says to a man, “I give myself totally and completely to you.” But you see, if the couple isn’t married—if they aren’t committed to one another totally, exclusively, and for life—then they’re lying to each other with their bodies when they come together! With their bodies they’re saying, “I give myself to you completely,”—but in reality they aren’t giving themselves completely because they haven’t made a total commitment to one another in marriage.

This is also one reason why artificial birth control and sterilization are wrong—even within marriage. In those situations spouses say to one another with their bodies, “I give myself totally to you,” but they don’t actually do that because they hold back a very important part of themselves: their fertility; their ability to bring new life into the world! Couples who practice NFP, on the other hand, do not lie with their bodies in this way. You might say that they have “honest sex.” And so it should come as no surprise that couples who practice Natural Family Planning have a 4% divorce rate, compared to the 50% divorce rate in the rest of society. Honesty in every dimension of marriage makes a big difference.

Speaking of lying, what about Barry Bonds, who stands on the verge of breaking Hank Aaron’s career home run record? (In fact, he tied it last night!) We know that Bonds used a testosterone-based ointment in the late 1990s to enhance his performance on the field; we can only imagine what else he used. And so I and many others are wondering: When he finally hits number 756, will it be a real record, or will this great athletic achievement also be rooted in a lie? Based on what I’ve read in recent months, my personal opinion is that at the end of this baseball season the legitimate career home run record will still be held by Henry Aaron, and the legitimate single-season home run record will still be held by ex-Yankee Roger Maris. Now it takes a lot for a Red Sox fan to make that last statement—but I really believe it’s true! I think all those who broke Roger’s record a few years back (Bonds, McGwire and Sosa) did it with some “help”. In other words, they lied! They acted as if they were hitting home runs with their natural ability alone, but they weren’t.

When we think of lying, we usually think of people denying the truth with their words—and that’s understandable. But the problem goes way beyond that, as I’ve hopefully made clear in this homily. Lying can involve a person’s actions as well as his words.

“Stop lying to one another.” May those words of St. Paul in today’s second reading motivate us—especially us adults—to examine our conduct, and to repent of whatever dishonesty we discover in our words and in our actions. Because maybe—just maybe—if we adults become more truthful in our words and in our deeds and set the right example, priests won’t hear that sin of lying confessed so often in the confessional by little children.

Those little children won’t confess it as much, because they won’t need to.