Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pride in Disguise

"Dear God, in case you're not aware of it, here's how great I am . . ."

(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 28, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 18: 9-14.)

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

Aren’t you glad you don’t live in Portland, Maine?

If you’re a responsible parent who cares about your children and who believes in the Ten Commandments, then I’m sure you’re ecstatic.

As many of you know, a few weeks ago the Portland school committee decided, by a vote of 7-2, to make artificial contraceptives—including birth control pills—available to students at King Middle School. This means that little girls as young as 11 years of age—who probably need special permission to get an aspirin from the school nurse—will now be able to get birth control pills at school without their parents ever knowing about it!

Obviously from an ethical perspective this new policy is gravely immoral. But aside from that, it’s also foolish! Don’t they realize that you will never stop young people from engaging in certain behaviors by giving them the tools they need to carry out those behaviors?

It’s like telling children not to shoot guns, and then providing them with loaded revolvers!

It makes no sense!

But on an even deeper level, this decision of the Portland school committee provides us with a very important spiritual lesson: It show us how easily pride can disguise itself as something good.

I say that because, in effect, the 7 committee members who voted in favor of this policy are saying to parents, “You mothers and fathers are a disgrace! You can’t be trusted to educate your own children in matters of sexual morality! But that’s understandable, because we don’t think your children are capable of making good decisions even if they are taught right from wrong! To us, your kids are like little animals in heat, and they need to be treated that way. So we—the enlightened, informed, compassionate people that we are—will help your little beasts deal with their raging hormones by giving them birth control—all the birth control they want.”

If I were a parent in Portland, I would be livid. I would be screaming, “How dare you? How dare you impose your immorality on me and on my family? How dare you be so arrogant and prideful?”

And then I would immediately pull my children out of King Middle School and put them in a good Catholic school—like ours here at St. Pius!

So here we have pride masking itself—very cleverly—as compassion and concern.

That, my brothers and sisters, is all too typical of how pride operates in our lives.

You see, of all the seven deadly sins, pride is without question the most dangerous! It’s the most dangerous because it’s normally the most difficult one to identify.

For example, if we’re truly honest with ourselves we know when we committed the sin of lust; we know when we’ve slipped into sinful anger; we know when we’ve committed the sin of gluttony (our digestive system makes that clear to us); we can feel envy welling up inside; we know when we’re being selfish and greedy; and other people tend to confront us when we’re being lazy—“Get up off that couch and do something!”

But pride is different. It’s different because it often comes disguised as something attractive, something GOOD! In Maine, as I just made clear, it’s currently disguising itself as genuine concern for young people. And in today’s Gospel story it’s very cleverly disguised as prayer and devotion. This Pharisee, we are told, goes into the Temple in Jerusalem and “prays”. But his prayer is not a humble request for help and mercy; it’s rather what I would call a little “news brief” directed to the Almighty: “Dear God, in case you’re not aware of it, here’s how great I am, and here’s how bad everyone else is—including this pathetic tax collector. Amen.”

His words are filled with pride. But please notice something: the man himself is totally unaware of it! In fact, as he leaves the Temple, he thinks he’s just drawn closer to the Lord!

But he hasn’t! If anything, he’s just done something that’s pulled him further away from God—the God he thinks he’s serving so well!

Pride disguised as prayer.

This phenomenon, incidentally—where pride conceals itself as something good—is really nothing new. It goes all way back to the Garden of Eden and the very beginning of human history! Do you remember what the serpent said to Eve when he wanted to get her to disobey the Lord? He said, “Look at that beautiful tree in the middle of the garden, Eve; take a good look at it. Do you know why God told you not to eat the fruit that comes from that tree? He told you that because he wants to hold you back! He told you that because he wants to keep you down! He knows very well that if you and your husband consume any of that fruit, you’ll be like gods yourselves!”

In effect, Satan was saying, “If you and Adam disobey the Lord in this way, you will become all that you can be! You will be on your way to realizing your full potential as human beings! You’ll be like gods!”

That was pride disguised as self-fulfillment: "Fulfill yourself, Eve, by disobeying God and his law."

Obviously pride still uses that disguise today—and very effectively! As we all know, it’s quite common nowadays for people to disregard God’s moral law for the sake of reaching what they consider to be their “full potential”. They do it in business; they do it in politics; they do it in the Church at times; they even do it in the world of sports!

It’s why athletes take steroids! Whether these sports stars realize it or not, they’ve all made the choice to use performance enhancing drugs because they’ve given in to pride: pride disguised as self-fulfillment.

How is pride disguising itself in my life right now?

That’s a very important question for each of us to consider. But, as important as it is, I don’t think any of us can answer it at this moment—at least I don’t think any of us can answer it ADEQUATELY at this moment. Because pride is so subtle and hard to identify, this is something we really have to think and pray about!

How is pride disguising itself in my life right now?

Please, please, please—don’t leave that question here in church today! Take it with you, and really reflect on it in the near future. Because when we don’t come to terms with the pride in our lives we suffer the negative consequences: like the Pharisee in this Gospel, for example, we don’t pray effectively; like the athletes who take anabolic steroids, we do harm to ourselves; and the like the 7 school committee members in Portland, Maine, we make rules and policies that hurt others—including our own children.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

If You Could Change One Thing About Yourself, What Would It Be?

(Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 14, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 2 Timothy 2: 8-13; Luke 17: 11-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-eighth Sunday 2007]

The new billboard on Main St., which advertises the services of Dr. Kevin Maguire, a local plastic surgeon, has upset many people in our community—and understandably so.

But even if you think the billboard is inappropriate—even if you think it borders on the pornographic—you have to admit that the question Dr. Maguire asks on the top of it is a very good one. It reads, “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”

As a plastic surgeon, of course, he wants everyone to read that sign, go home, look in the mirror, and take note of everything on their body that needs to be nipped, tucked, sliced, diced or reshaped in some way.

But notice, the question doesn’t state, “If you could change one thing about your BODY, what would it be?” The question says, “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”

So strictly speaking, as it’s written on the billboard, it applies to more than just our physical imperfections.

Let me now ask those of you who have seen the sign: When you first read Dr. Maguire’s question, what did you think of? What was the FIRST thought you had? Did you think of your wrinkles and aging flesh? Or did you think of something on the inside?—some aspect, in other words, of your personality and character that needs to be changed for the better?

The truly spiritual person would always think of the inside first!—because the truly spiritual person knows that what’s on the inside is ultimately much more important that what’s on the outside. What’s on the outside will eventually shrivel up and die (even with the best plastic surgery!), but what’s on the inside will endure forever! Our Catholic faith teaches us very clearly that we take what’s inside of us with us into eternity; in fact, what’s inside of us—what’s inside our heart—ultimately determines where we will live for all eternity! That’s why St. Paul indicates in today’s second reading that our salvation is conditional (notice all the “ifs” in the text!): the condition is that we have the right dispositions of heart on the inside—like faithfulness and perseverance—which lead to the right actions.

The bottom line is that truly spiritual person knows himself! And because he knows himself, he knows that allowing his heart to be changed is much more important than modifying his physical appearance. The obvious conclusion of all this is that the nine lepers in today’s Gospel story from Luke 17—the nine who failed to come back to thank Jesus after he healed them—did NOT know themselves very well! And that’s extremely easy to demonstrate. You see, if you had spoken to these 9 men the day BEFORE Jesus healed them, and you had asked them Dr. Maguire’s question, “Gentlemen, if you could change one thing about yourselves, what would it be?” I’m sure they all would have answered, “Why, of course, we would change our physical condition! We would get rid of this terrible scourge of leprosy! We would become physically healthy again!”

But that was not their greatest need, as the story illustrates! That was not the most important change that needed to take place in their lives! Without a doubt, their greatest need was internal, not physical! By their failure to come back and thank Jesus after he had taken away their disease, they clearly showed that their greatest need—or at least one of their greatest needs—was gratitude! They needed to be more thankful for their blessings, and more willing to express that thanks to others.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? What would you ask for?

Would you ask for more gratitude? Or for more patience? Or for a greater willingness to forgive others? Would you ask for the ability to stop gossiping or swearing or lying? Would you ask to be set free from an addiction to pornography or alcohol or gambling?

Lord Jesus, there are many changes that we need to make in our lives because we are weak and imperfect human beings. Help us to recognize the ones that are most necessary—the ones on the inside. Help us to believe that making these changes is possible over time with the help of your powerful grace. And help us to be open to that grace when it comes to us, especially in the Holy Eucharist. Amen.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A Lesson From Habakkuk and Our Lady of Fatima: The Vision Still Has Its Time

The three children to whom Our Lady appeared at Fatima: Jacinta, Francisco and Lucia.

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 7, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Habakkuk 1: 2-3; 2: 2-4.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-seventh Sunday 2007]

It was sometime between 605 and 597 B.C.—during one of the darkest periods in the history of God’s chosen people. At the time idolatry was the internal threat to the Kingdom of Judah, while the nation of Babylon with its strong army was the external threat.

In the midst of this terrible situation the prophet Habakkuk cried out to God. He cried out in the words that we heard in today’s first reading: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.”

The Lord then answered Habakkuk with these important lines of Scripture: “Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”

For the vision still has its time. God was saying to Habakkuk, and to the faithful people of Judah, “My plan for you will be fulfilled; this I promise. It may not happen instantaneously, or as quickly as you would like it to, or even in the way you would like it to. But don’t give up! Continue to live by faith, even if the fulfillment of this prophecy is delayed for a long time.”

These were important words for the people of Judah to hear and take to heart, because in point of fact things would get a lot worse before they got any better! At the beginning of my homily I told you that this prophecy was given between 605 and 597 B.C. Well in 597 B.C. the Babylonians invaded the holy city of Jerusalem and captured its king; ten years later they destroyed the city and burned down the Temple. Then they took most of the people of Judah with them to Babylon, where they would remain in exile until 537.

That means that this prophecy of Habakkuk wasn’t fulfilled for 70 or so years! And I’m sure that many of the Lord’s chosen people wondered during those 7 decades whether it would ever be fulfilled. They were hoping and praying—and hoping and praying—but for a long time nothing seemed to be happening!

Was that because God was slow in responding?

Not at all! It took almost 70 years because human beings are slow to respond to his grace—the grace that he pours out on us and on the world whenever we pray and intercede!

The vision still has its time. This is also an important message for us to hear and take to heart. We need to apply it to our own individual lives, and to the current situation of the world in which we live. Most of us, for example, pray for peace in the world. We pray for justice; we pray for conversions. Many of us actively and vocally oppose immorality. Some of us devote our time and our talents and our resources to promote a greater respect for human life.

And yet, in spite of our many prayers and efforts, the positive changes don’t come instantaneously! That can be very discouraging.

But the Lord is still at work; the vision still has its timethat’s God’s message to us today! And so we need to pray perseveringly and to work for peace and justice perseveringly, knowing that if we do those things God will continue to pour out his saving grace on the world. And if grace is continually poured out, eventually some people will respond positively to it.

Let me give you one very timely historical example that illustrates what I’m talking about, and why this type of perseverance in prayer and good works is so important. On October 13 in 1917—exactly ninety years ago next Saturday—the Miracle of the Sun occurred in conjunction with one of the apparitions of Our Blessed Mother at Fatima in Portugal. We will commemorate that event, incidentally, with some events here next Friday. (We’re doing it on Friday instead of Saturday so that we can involve the children from our school.)

The Miracle of the Sun, which was witnessed by tens of thousands of people—including a number of non-believers and atheists—was a sign that was sent by God to verify the messages Mary had given to the 3 children (Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia) beginning on May 13th of that year.

This, of course, happened toward the end of the First World War. That’s important, because Mary told the children to (and here I quote) “pray the Rosary every day, in order to obtain peace for the world, and the end of the war.”

Then she gave a warning about Russia—which is very interesting because at the time Russia was not the world power that it was for most of the rest of the 20th century. The Bolsheviks, in fact, were just coming to power during the month when the last Fatima apparition took place.

Mary said that Russia needed to be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart and that prayers needed to be offered for the nation—especially in the form of the First Saturday Devotion—so that it would be converted. Here are Mary’s words as Lucia later wrote them down: “If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred, and the Holy Father will have much to suffer, various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”

Well, we all know what happened. Russia was not converted; Soviet Communism was exported to a number of other nations—by force; and the world lived under the threat of nuclear war for decades.

But then, amazingly, in late 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern Bloc Communism as we knew it quickly disintegrated.

If you had told me back in the 1960s that the powerful Soviet Union would break up, and that communism in Eastern Europe would come to an end in a relatively peaceful manner and without a major military conflict, I would have said you were crazy—and so would almost everyone else who was alive at the time!

In my humble opinion (and in the opinion of many other people) this peaceful collapse of Soviet Communism was not primarily the result of politics and diplomacy (although politics and diplomacy were involved, to be sure). Rather, the primary cause of the collapse was spiritual: it was the combined spiritual effect of all those millions of Rosaries and Communions and prayers that had been offered for Russia’s conversion since the apparitions at Fatima in 1917. All of that, coupled with the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by Pope John Paul II, was at the heart of this peaceful miracle of recent history.

And speaking of our former Holy Father, I definitely don’t think it was a coincidence that he was one of the primary human instruments that God used (even in the diplomatic arena) to bring this about. As a Catholic man, he was deeply devoted to the Blessed Mother; and, as pope, he was consecrated to her in a special way. As you will recall, his papal motto, “Totus Tuus”—Totally Yours—referred to Mary!

The vision still has its time.

In 1917, Mary set forth “the vision”—the vision of a world without Russia’s atheistic system of government. I’m sure that many believers doubted if the vision would ever become a reality—especially believers in Communist countries who were suffering for their faith during the years when the Soviets were directing their governments.

But the vision still had its time. Because of the prayers of so many, grace continued to be poured forth from the throne of God, until enough hearts were softened in the world, and positive changes began to take place. In the words of the Lord to Habakkuk, the vision “pressed on to [its] fulfillment, and did not disappoint.”

The “visions” of today also press on to their fulfillment—which is why we should never stop praying for God’s will to be done, or doubt God’s ability to do the “impossible”.