Thursday, November 22, 2007

Religious Liberty: Something To Be Thankful For!

(Thanksgiving 2007: This homily was given on November 22, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Sirach 50: 22-24; 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9; Luke 17: 11-19.)

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

My favorite brain surgeon, Dr. Martin Bednar, gets to travel all over the world in his present job. Recently he was in China for several days. From there, he sent me the following email:

Dear Fr. Ray,

Hello from Shanghai! My trip to China so far has been (thankfully) uneventful. There was a “super” typhoon named “Krosa” that hit here today—the worst for this time of year in decades. Areas south of here had 40 inches of rain!

The Chinese culture and their medical treatment have been fascinating. However, [as far as religion is concerned], the state has essentially banned Chinese nationals from attending Christian services, so in order to get into the churches you need a passport as proof you are a foreigner! I was not specifically asked for my passport, probably for obvious reasons. It was quite the challenge though. My friend ran printed-out information on some churches obtained on the internet, and it was only when I arrived there that I realized it was a Protestant service (wrong address!). Then I went back to the hotel, where I was left with either a Korean or Mandarin service on Sunday evening. The Korean service was just fine. Having never sat through even 5 minutes of a service other than a Catholic one, I can’t tell you how much comfort I found with the Catholic Mass. I guess I was first struck by the lack of a shepherd: it was essentially a collection of lay people organizing everything. It’s only when you don’t have it that you realize how important it is. I can only hope it is better when I go to Beijing before returning home late Sunday.

On Thanksgiving Day believers frequently express their gratitude to God for the people in their lives and for the things they have: “I thank you, Lord, for my family, for my friends, for the people I’m blessed to live with and work with and socialize with on a daily basis.” “I thank you, Lord, for my job and my possessions; I thank you, Lord, for supplying my material needs.”

People will even thank the Lord for their faith.

All of that, of course, is good. But after reading Dr. Bednar’s letter I realize that it’s also important for us to thank God explicitly today for the freedom that we have to worship him according to the dictates of our consciences. And George Washington would agree! In fact, our first president, when he instituted this holiday back in 1789, said that on Thanksgiving Day we should express our gratitude to God for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.”

So let’s resolve today to thank God for the religious freedom we currently enjoy as American citizens; and just as importantly, let’s resolve not lose it! Because there’s a very good chance we might, given some of the things that are going on in our nation at the present time.

There are groups in the United States right now, for example, who are trying to change our conscience laws. In doing so, they are attacking our freedom of religion (although they would never admit that publicly). Their intention is to enact laws that will force Catholic and other pro-life doctors to refer women for abortions. Under our present laws, a pro-life doctor can refuse to give a woman the phone number of an abortionist by appealing to his conscience: “I believe abortion is the killing of an innocent human being; therefore I don’t refer anyone for abortions.”

However in the near future, if certain activist groups have their way, a doctor could be put in jail for saying that.

As some of you know, in Connecticut they’ve already forced Catholic hospitals to give out plan B contraception to rape victims without a prior ovulation test. That’s a clear violation of religious freedom! In commenting on this new law, the National Catholic Bioethics Center said, “[We object] strongly to state mandates [like this] that do not allow health care professionals and facilities to exercise their best medical judgment and which do not protect the consciences of all parties.”

Last year a Swedish pastor was arrested and prosecuted by his government for preaching against homosexual activity. With the gay lobby as strong as it is here in the United States, I wonder how long it will be before our government tries to tell me what I can and cannot preach from this pulpit.

And of course, every year in December our public school children have their freedom of religion—and their freedom of speech—violated by being told they can’t say, “Merry Christmas!” to their teachers and friends on school grounds during school hours!

Those are just a few of the many contemporary threats to religious freedom that we’re facing right here, right now, on our own soil! Sad to say, but in this area it seems like we’re becoming more and more like Communist China, instead of China becoming more and more like us!

In Dignitatis Humanae, one of the documents of Vatican II, it says this: “Religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.”

Most of our Founding Fathers would have said “Amen!” to those words of Vatican II—if they had been able to read them back in the late 1780s. That’s obvious because in 1789 they added an amendment to our country’s Constitution, part of which explicitly stated, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”

They believed in religious freedom—passionately! Today, unfortunately—as I’ve indicated in this homily—not every United States citizen does. As Catholics who love our country and its Constitution, we need to know this! We need to be aware of the attacks on our religious freedom that are currently taking place, so that we can take appropriate action to counter them!

And that includes countering them with our votes! We need to vote men and women into public office who will recognize—and work to uphold—the God-given right of every American citizen to practice his or her religious faith. That’s so important!

Heavenly Father, on this Thanksgiving morning we thank you for all your many blessings, including, as George Washington said, our “civil and religious liberty.” And we pray that the right to religious freedom will always be recognized—and honored—in the United States of America, so that Christian visitors to our country will never, ever have to deal with the kind of situation that Dr. Martin Bednar had to face a couple of weeks ago when he visited Communist China. This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Artificial Nutrition and Hydration for the Terminally Ill

(Thirty-second Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on November 11, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 2 Maccabees 7.)

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

They were violent. They were brutal. They were merciless—and they were proud of it!
I’m speaking here of the Seleucid kings of the second century B.C.
And who, Fr. Ray, were the Seleucid kings?
Glad you asked!
Most of you, I’m sure, have heard of Alexander the Great. In the 4th century before Christ, Alexander conquered the Holy Land—and a lot of other places in the known world. When it was at its largest point, his empire stretched all the way from Greece to modern day Pakistan. Then he died.  After his death, his generals divided up his empire.  One of those generals was named Seleucus.  He began what historians refer to as the Seleucid Empire.
Eventually the Seleucids took control of the area we now know as Palestine.
Well, in 175 B.C. a descendant of Seleucus named Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power. King Antiochus, unfortunately, was not what you would call “a nice guy.” In fact, he was just the opposite—especially when it came to his relationship with the Jews. In 168 B.C., for example, he invaded the holy city of Jerusalem, desecrated the Temple, and instituted laws that prevented the Jews from practicing their religion freely.
Those who violated these laws and who tried to remain faithful to their Judaism were immediately put to death—like the 7 brothers we heard about in today’s first reading from 2 Maccabees 7. This, incidentally, is the “PG version” of the story. If you want all the gory details of what they did to these 7 boys—and their mother—you’ll have to open your Bibles later on and read all of 2 Maccabees 7.
Hopefully, you now see why I began my homily by saying of King Antiochus and his successors: “They were violent. They were brutal. They were merciless—and they were proud of it!”
As sick as it might sound, they reveled in the blood and the gore and the torture!
We, of course, are much more refined in the United States of America in 2007. And so we rightly call Antiochus and his friends “barbaric”!
But, unfortunately, at times we can be just as brutal as they were! We’re just more technological and sanitary in our contemporary brutality.
The horrible things we do to the embryo and to the pre-born child in the womb through embryonic stem-cell research and abortion certainly fit into this category, but so do other activities—some of them done very quietly in the name of compassion: compassion for the sick and the terminally ill.
This is something we all need to be aware of.
I have noticed, for example, a growing tendency in recent years among medical and hospice personnel to withdraw food and hydration very quickly from terminally ill patients—sometimes, in my estimation, MUCH TOO QUICKLY! There is, of course, according to Catholic moral teaching, a time when one can legitimately stop feeding and nourishing someone by artificial means (for instance, when death is only a few hours away and the feeding process is causing the patient a great deal of physical discomfort, or when the patient’s body isn’t able to assimilate the food and water because they’re in the final stage of their disease). But if the doctors tell you that grandma could die of her cancer “sometime in the next two weeks,” and then they tell you that they want to take out her feeding tube and IV drip TODAY, then you need to be an advocate for grandma and tell those doctors, “Don’t you dare!”
Because if they do those things—or if they refuse to hydrate and feed her artificially when death isn’t imminent—then it is highly likely that grandma will actually die from starvation and dehydration and not from her cancer!
Catholics are not bound to use “extraordinary means” to prolong life in the case of a terminal illness, but as Pope John Paul II made clear in an address he gave to a group of American bishops back in 1998, nutrition and hydration are to be considered ordinary care and ORDINARY means for the preservation of life—even when they’re administered artificially. They are not “extraordinary”!
In writing about that statement, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome recently said this: “The address of John Paul II to a group of bishops from the United States of America . . . on October 2, 1998, is quite explicit: Nutrition and hydration are to be considered as normal care and ordinary means for the preservation of life. It is not acceptable to interrupt them or to withhold them, if from that decision the death of the patient will follow. This would be euthanasia by omission.”
That’s the bottom line, my brothers and sisters: It’s euthanasia by omission.
Food, water, cleanliness, warmth and the like, are basic needs of the sick and the dying. They’re basic needs for all of us! We are obligated to supply these needs because each and every human person—regardless of how sick or weak or handicapped they are—has an inherent dignity, given the fact that they’re made in the image of Almighty God.
If you didn’t know this important teaching of the Church before (and some of you may not have), the fact is you do know it now! This means that God expects you in the future to be an advocate for the terminally ill, specifically your terminally ill relatives and friends.
And please also remember to pray every day for all doctors, nurses and hospice caregivers. Pray that they will be men and women of sound moral principles, who fulfill their true calling as instruments of God’s healing, and who do no harm to any of the patients entrusted to their care.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Would Jesus Feel Welcome in Your Home?

"Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house!"

(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on November 4, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 19: 1-10.)

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

If a particular person invites himself into your home, you will probably either be very happy or very angry. It all depends on the quality of your relationship with the person. If you like him, you’ll be happy; if you don’t like him, you’ll be angry and annoyed.

But if Jesus Christ invites himself into your home, you should definitely feel happy, honored and thankful—like Zacchaeus did when Jesus called him down from the sycamore tree in Jericho and said to him, “Zacchaeus, today I must stay at your house.”

Of course, the real question is: Once Jesus entered your home and actually began to interact with you and with your family, how would HE feel? Would he feel at home? Would he feel welcome? Would he feel like he belonged?

That’s the issue I want to deal with today in my homily, because in point of fact Jesus Christ DOES invite himself into your home and mine each and every day!

I say that because the family is called the “domestic church” in the Catechism (CCC, 2204), and the Church as a whole is called “the Body of Christ” in Scripture. This means that every Christian family—every “domestic church”—is a place where Jesus wants to dwell, as he dwells in the Church as a whole.

I think it’s safe to say that Jesus did feel welcome in Zacchaeus’ home on the day he visited him—and for a number of reasons. First of all, he probably felt that way because he knew he was an important person to Zacchaeus. Generally speaking, people feel welcome in your home when they know they’re important to you, when they know that they’re special in your eyes.

Which leads to the obvious question: How important is Jesus Christ to you and to your family? Where is Jesus Christ on your list of priorities? I know many families, for example, for whom the worship of Jesus at Sunday Mass is very important—unless they’re on vacation, or unless they’re involved in a sporting activity, or unless it’s the week of grandma’s big birthday party.

I know families for whom the worship of Jesus at Sunday Mass is very important—but not on holy days (like the one we had this week, All Saints Day!). Remember, Mass attendance on holy days is obligatory, not optional!

In all honesty, how important is Jesus to you and to the people you live with? Is he welcome under your roof because he’s the most important person in each of your lives?

Jesus also felt welcome in the home of Zacchaeus because Zacchaeus talked to him! Obviously if someone comes into your home and you don’t say a word to him while he’s there, he probably won’t stay very long. He’ll get the message that you really don’t want him around, and he’ll leave.

How often do you and the members of your family speak to Jesus? Do you do it at your family meals? Do you do it at EVERY meal? Do you pray at other times in your home TOGETHER AS A FAMILY? I’m happy to say that I know of certain families in this parish who pray together every single night for 5 or 10 minutes. They offer up personal intentions; they say a decade of the Rosary; they say a few other prayers. It’s nothing fancy, but you can be absolutely certain that Jesus Christ feels very much at home when that type of activity is going on!

Jesus also felt welcome in Zacchaeus’ home because the man sincerely repented of his sins! And as a typical Jewish tax collector of first century Palestine, Zacchaeus no doubt had lots and lots of sins to repent of! Jesus felt welcome in and through Zacchaeus’ repentance because he had come into the world specifically to forgive sins and to save human beings from eternal death! As he himself said at the very end of the story, “Today salvation has come to this house . . . for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

And notice that Zacchaeus expressed his sorrow by vowing to make amends for the many wrongs he had done. He said, “Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” Zacchaeus knew that he needed to do penance to undo the damage—or at least some of the damage—that his sins had caused.

Jesus feels welcome whenever people sincerely repent—and whenever they make amends. How often do the members of your family say, “I’m sorry” to one another—and mean it? How often do they make amends to one another? And how often do the members of your family say they’re sorry to Jesus directly in the sacrament of Confession? Parents, how often do you take your children to Confession—and how often do you yourselves go?

Hopefully when Jesus entered Zacchaeus’ house, he didn’t see or hear anything that upset him. I say that because people feel welcome in a home only if they’re not scandalized or embarrassed by what they see and hear there. Would Jesus feel welcome in your home if he heard the way the members of your family speak to one another? Or would the language he heard upset him? Would he feel at ease watching your favorite television programs with you, or listening to your favorite music with you (all the stuff, for example, that you’ve downloaded from iTunes)? Speaking of downloading off the internet, would Jesus be happy sitting at your computer and viewing your “history of visited sites” on the web?

And would he find his image prominently displayed in your home? (I must tell you, I always feel very welcome in homes when I find my picture on the refrigerator door! And I do from time to time! It’s a nice feeling!)

Would Jesus find an image or two of his dear Mother and his dear friends, the saints? Or would he find other, disturbing images on your walls and on your furniture that would scandalize or anger him?

“Lord Jesus, our homes are not perfect (you know that far better than we do!). None of us lives in a family in which you find a perfect welcome all the time. Sometimes we may put other things ahead of you; sometimes we may ignore you by not praying as we should; sometimes we may hurt other family members and not repent and make amends; sometimes we may fail to create a loving, holy atmosphere in our living space. And so today we simply ask you for the grace to help us improve. Help us to do whatever ‘remodeling’ is necessary to make our homes, our families—our domestic churches—more welcoming to you. Because if we can create homes where you feel welcome, Lord Jesus, chances are everyone else who comes through our front door will feel welcome too. Amen.”

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Seven Benefits of Being a Saint

(All Saints Day 2007: This homily was given on November 1, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Revelation 7: 2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3: 1-3; Matthew 5: 1-12a.)

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

In one of his books Fr. Stephen Rossetti wrote the following:

“A survey was given to fifth-graders in which they were asked to rank in order the desirability of thirty-five careers. They were given such choices as doctor, teacher, lawyer, and others. They were asked to list in order which ones they most wanted to be. One of the thirty-five vocations listed was saint. Any idea where saint was listed by these boys and girls? It was second to last, thirty-fourth! The only less desirable position was garbage collector. In the minds of many, being a saint is only slightly more desirable than being a garbage collector. When asked why saint was listed so low, the children said that being a saint was a negative, unhappy life.” (From “The Joy of Priesthood,” page 210.)

This is obviously one reason why churches aren’t filled to the brim on All Saints Day! Too many people think sanctity is boring! They don’t see the concrete, practical benefits of striving to live a life of holiness.

Apparently these men, women—and children—have forgotten that in the next life there will ultimately be only 2 groups of people: the saints and the damned! So if they don’t want to be saints, what do they want to be? What’s their ultimate goal? If they’re consciously rejecting the path to heaven (because they think there’s no fun to be had on the way there!), then what path are they currently on?

The other day I decided to sit down and write out some of the many benefits of being a saint—just in case anyone here has the same perspective as the fifth graders who took that survey mentioned by Fr. Rossetti. Perhaps this will give some of us a new outlook—a more positive outlook—on the life of holiness, and therefore inspire us to pursue holiness each and every day.

Benefit #1 of being a saint: You need less “Excedrin”; that is to say, you avoid a lot of the headaches that people who commit serious sins are forced to deal with. Because we live in a media culture that glorifies sin, many people think it’s cool to fight and get drunk and fornicate and cheat and lie. After all, men and women who do these things are often portrayed in a positive light in movies and on television. But when you look at the matter objectively—and honestly—what you see is that sins like these always come with a price tag! And not only in the afterlife! Even on this side of the grave, you pay a price! These violations of God’s law destroy marriages and families and everything else we hold dear as human beings. As Paul put it in Romans 6, “The wages of sin is death.”

Benefit #2 of being a saint: You have a goal in life! And not just any goal! You have the right goal, namely, heaven! Consequently you’re not like so many people today who go through life with no sense of direction, meaning or purpose.

Benefit #3 of being a saint: You have a sense of your dignity and worth as a human person (because you know that Almighty God, the Creator of the universe, was willing to die for you and for your sins on a cross!). Hence, you don’t have the self-image problem that plagues many serious sinners.

Benefit #4 of being a saint: You have the right set of priorities, which is so crucial for successful living. You know what’s really important, and what isn’t.

Benefit #5 of being a saint: You can identify spiritual poison! In other words, you can identify those realities—those ideas, those attitudes, those friendships, etc.—that will harm your relationship with God as well as your relationships with others. And, of course, if you can identify these realities that are spiritually poisonous, you can take the necessary steps to avoid them.

Benefit #6 of being a saint: You have the ability to keep your problems in perspective, because you understand that no trial will last forever, and you know that your God is so powerful that he can bring good even out of your worst suffering. As St. Paul said, “For those who love God all things work together for good.”

And finally, benefit #7 of being a saint: You have heaven waiting for you when you die—a place of happiness and joy beyond your wildest imagining; a place where, as St. John tells us in today’s second reading, we “will see [God] as he is!" Once again, the words of St. Paul: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man what God has prepared for those who love him.”

So there they are: 7 clear, practical benefits of being a saint. (Someone needs to tell those fifth graders who took that survey!) And the good news is: this is not an exhaustive list! There are lots and lots of other benefits that I could have mentioned. These, believe it or not, were the ones I thought of in about two or three minutes as I was preparing this homily!

Today in the Church we honor all those men and women who have received their eternal reward because they believed that resisting sin and striving for holiness each and every day was worth the effort. They understood the benefits.

May God help us to believe what these saints believed and to live like these saints lived—because they were right!