Sunday, December 30, 2007

Avoidable and Unavoidable Stress

What happens when you combine AVOIDABLE STRESS with UNAVOIDABLE STRESS!

(Holy Family 2007 (A): This homily was given on December 30, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr Raymond Suriani. Read Sirach 3: 2-7, 12-14; Colossians 3: 12-17; Matthew 2: 13-23.)

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

We’ve all got it in our lives and none of us likes it; but it’s there and so we have to deal with it!

I’m talking about STRESS!

It’s become such a problem in our fast-paced American society, that (believe it or not) a non-profit organization has actually been formed called, “The American Institute of Stress”! I know this because when I “googled” the word “stress” the other day on my computer, that was the very first hit—out of 165,000,000!—that came up on the screen.

Now we can all take some consolation this morning in the fact that even the members of the Holy Family had to deal with stress in their lives. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were not immune from the phenomenon, even though both Jesus and Mary were sinless! And yet, there was one big difference between the stress they dealt with, and the kind we face: almost all of theirs was unavoidable.

You see, there are two kinds of stress that we human beings experience, especially in our families: there’s the kind that we can avoid, and there’s the kind that we cannot avoid—even if we’re very holy, even if we do all the right things. Since there was only one sinner in the Holy Family—Joseph—most of their stress was of the unavoidable variety. By contrast, our lives are a mixture of some stress that we could pretty easily avoid (if we simply thought and acted in a certain way), and other stress that we’d have to face even if we were perfect in all our thoughts and actions. What makes life unbearable, I think, is when a great deal of our stress—maybe even the majority of it—is of that first kind: the kind that we could avoid. This is stress that we don’t need to have; this is stress that I would say God doesn’t want us to have. Unavoidable stress is bad enough; the addition of this other type can be overwhelming—and it can sometimes push us over the edge.

Perhaps you’ve been there—at least once or twice.

So what are some of the unavoidable stresses of life? Well here are 3 of them—3 that often manifest themselves in our families; and 3 that also were present in the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate in the Church this weekend.

Number 1, there’s what I would call the stress caused by unforeseen circumstances. This is the stress we experience when someone close to us gets sick and then dies suddenly; it’s the kind of stress a person has to deal with when they’re laid off from work unexpectedly; it’s the kind of stress parents feel when their son calls to tell them that he just got into his first car accident.

This was also the kind of stress that Joseph and Mary experienced in today’s gospel story when they found out that crazy King Herod was trying to murder their child! After all, this was not something they had expected! There was stress in their journey down to Egypt; there was stress during their time of exile—because they were forced to live as refugees in a foreign country; and there was stress in their journey back to Palestine after Herod had died.

Number 2, there’s the stress of living with other people—which is also unavoidable, unless you’re a hermit living all by yourself in the middle of the desert! Let’s face it, people—even the best of people—don’t always do what we would like them to do; they don’t always say what we would like them to say. And that quite naturally causes stress—even if there’s no sin involved. A perfect example of this in the life of the Holy Family was the finding of Jesus in the Temple. When she and Joseph finally tracked Jesus down after 3 days of frantic searching, Mary said to our Lord, “Son, why have you done this to us? You see that your father and I have been searching for you in sorrow.”

Those are the words of a very holy woman under a tremendous amount of stress. But notice, there was no sin involved; it was simply a case of stress caused by the ordinary circumstances of living in a family.

There’s also the stress that comes into our lives when we do the will of God. This, too, is unavoidable—if we’re serious about living the way God wants us to live. As a priest, for example, I am called to preach the word of God—that’s the Lord’s will for my life (some of you, understandably, might not like it—you might wish God had called me to something else; but, alas, he did not). But sometimes preparing to preach causes me to experience a great deal of stress (especially when I have to prepare 4 major homilies—Christmas; Holy Family; Mary, the Mother of God; and Epiphany—within a few short weeks!).

But I count my blessings because any stress I might experience in preparing to preach is NOTHING compared to the stress that Jesus, Mary and Joseph experienced in doing God’s will in their lives 2,000 years ago. Just think of the stress Jesus and his mother had to deal with on Holy Thursday and Good Friday!

These are just a few of the many stresses of life that cannot be avoided. We can’t escape them; they’re part of the fabric of daily living.

But others, thanks be to God, can be avoided and should be avoided! A few of these also need to be mentioned today, because we’ve probably all experienced them at some point in our families.

The first avoidable stress is the kind that comes when God’s order in the family is violated. When children reject their parents authority, for example, there is stress—lots of stress. Guaranteed! That type of stress, incidentally, was absent in the Holy Family, because, as we’re told in Luke 2, Jesus always obeyed his parents.

So children, if you want your parents to be less stressed and in a better mood more often, obey them! Honor God’s order in the family, as Sirach tells you to do in today’s first reading! Do what mom and dad tell you to do when they tell you to do it! And that message even applies to teenagers! In fact, let me tell you teens a secret: When your parents know that you’re obedient and honest and trustworthy, they end up giving you more freedom! And that’s what you want, isn’t it? However, when all they get from you is disobedience, they clamp down—hard! And then everybody in the house gets stressed!

Here’s another avoidable stress in family life: the stress that comes from not being responsible. When young people, for example, don’t pick up their toys, and clean their rooms, and do their chores, and finish their schoolwork when they’re supposed to—it adds to everyone’s anxiety level in the home. I was speaking with a woman the other day who was just about as stressed out as I’ve ever seen her—and I’ve known her for many years. She’s normally a very strong person, but on this day she was in tears. She said, “Fr. Ray, I just can’t deal with it all! It’s overwhelming me. I have to do everything: I have to get the kids up in the morning, and make their lunches, and go to work for 8 to 10 hours a day, and then clean the house, and do the shopping . . . (and on and on she went with her list—it was quite long).”

Finally I said to her, “Wait a minute here. You have two children—but they’re both teenagers! You mean to tell me they can’t make their own lunches? You mean to tell me that you have to get them up in the morning? Whatever happened to their alarm clocks? They need to take responsibility where they’re capable of taking responsibility! That alone would take a lot of stress out of your life immediately!”

She agreed—and so did one of her children, who happened to be standing there at the time, noticeably concerned about his mother.

And finally, there’s this avoidable stress: the type that comes with unrepented sin! When family members speak unkind words to one another, and don’t say they’re sorry; when they lie and violate one another’s trust; when they refuse to forgive—all of that creates what I would call “an atmosphere of stress”. And we all know the truth of this, because we’ve all been there! That’s why today’s second reading from Colossians 3 is so appropriate for the feast of the Holy Family, where the focus is on family life: “Put on,’ St. Paul says, ‘compassion, kindness . . . patience—bearing with one another and forgiving one another.”

This, of course, is the ideal. The reality is always something less, which is precisely why repentance is so necessary! Did I say that Confession is good for family life? Did I say that Confession is a good remedy for stress in a family? Well, I’m saying it now! Imagine a family where each member honestly faces his or her faults, admits them, confesses them, is forgiven for them, and then makes a sincere effort to change his or her behavior for the better.

That family, I can assure you, will avoid a great deal of avoidable stress. Common sense should tell you that.

Let me end today by paraphrasing the closing prayer of this Mass. I’ll tell you why I’m doing this in a moment. Today’s closing prayer—which is the one I will say after Communion and before the final blessing—reads as follows: “Eternal Father, we want to live as Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in peace with you and one another. May this communion strengthen us to face the troubles of life.”

When I was trying to come up with a conclusion for this homily, I happened to glance at those words in my Magnificat, and I suddenly realized something: this is an “anti-stress prayer”! To live like Jesus, Mary and Joseph means to avoid the avoidable stresses of life—like they did. And facing the troubles of life involves coping with the stresses that we cannot avoid.

So now I’ll paraphrase the prayer and make it the closing prayer of my homily. I’ll say it for all of us, and for our families: “Eternal Father, we want to live as Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who avoided most of the avoidable stresses of this life, and thus lived in peace with you and with one other. Help us to follow their example. And may the Eucharist we receive at this Mass strengthen us so that we can face all the troubles of life—especially those difficult and stressful situations that we cannot escape, no matter how hard we try. This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Get Rid of Your Apple!

(Christmas 2007: This homily was given on December 25, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 1: 18-25.)

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

I don’t often read a story during a homily, but today I’ll make an exception, because I think this is an exceptional story—an exceptional Christmas story. It was written by two French authors, Jerome and Jean Theraud, and it goes like this:

It was Bethlehem, the end of a long night. The star had just disappeared, and the last pilgrim had left the stable. The Virgin arranged the straw: at last the Child could sleep. But who can sleep the night of Christmas? Gently the door opens, so gently that it seems more like the wind was pushing it than a hand. A woman appears on the threshold, covered with rags. She was so old and wrinkled that you would have thought her mouth was one more deep wrinkle in a face the color of dirt. A fearful chill came over Mary when she saw her, as if a malicious fairy had come into the room. Fortunately Jesus was asleep. The ass and the ox placidly continued munching their hay, as if there was nothing unusual, as if they had known her forever. The Virgin didn’t take her eyes off her. The woman walked slowly, each step seeming to take centuries. She continued, the old woman, and approached the manger. Thank God, Jesus was still sleeping. How can one sleep on Christmas night? Suddenly he opened his eyelids. His mother was completely astonished to see that the eyes of the old woman and his eyes were exactly the same, they both shone with the same hope. The old woman sank down on the straw. One hand disappeared into her rags, looking for something, taking ages to find it. Mary watched her closely, still concerned. The animals watched her too, but always without surprise, as if they knew beforehand what was going to happen. Finally, after a long time, slowly, tiredly, the old woman pulls out of her clothes a little object hidden in her hand, and she gives it to the child. After all the treasures of the Wise Men and the offerings of the Shepherds, what could this present be? From where she was, Mary could not tell. She saw only the shoulders bowed down, the woman’s back, bent over from age, now bent over even more before the crib, and the Child within it. The ox and the ass watched, and were not amazed. The woman stayed bowed before the Child a long time. Finally she arose, as if relieved from a great weight which had dragged her to the ground. Her shoulders were no longer bowed down, her head almost touched the low roof, her face seemed miraculously renewed, as if she was finding once more the vigor of her youth. She turned from the crib, smiled at Mary, and went out through the door into the dawning day. Finally Mary could see the mysterious present. An apple, a little apple, having within it all the sin of the world, given to the baby Jesus by Eve, for it was her, the old woman, who had come to worship the Child born of her blood, who would save her from her sins. The apple of the original sin, and the sin of so many who would follow her. And the little red apple shone in the hands of the Child, as if it were the globe of the kingdom and of the new world which had just been born with the King.

If you understand that story, then you understand Christmas. At the beginning of human history, Eve thought that eating an apple would make her like God—or at least that’s what the devil had told her. But, as we all know, Satan lied! In reality, Eve’s sin ruined everything in her life (sin always ruins things): it ruined her relationship with her husband (they were never again “a happily married couple” in the same sense that they had been before the Fall); it led to tragedy in her family (out of envy her oldest son Cain murdered his younger brother Abel); it brought her pain: emotional pain, physical pain, spiritual pain—and it eventually led to her death: her physical death.

And even though I’m sure she was sorry for what she had done, she was forced to hold onto that apple, in a certain sense, from the moment she bit into it. She was forced to hold onto it for the rest of her earthly life—and to take it with her when she died!

That’s why she still had it in the story.

No one had the power to take it away—because everyone else, including her husband, Adam, had an apple of their own to deal with.

Only that baby in the manger could take it away—and Eve knew it! Why? Because only that baby in the manger had the ability to atone for a sin that was infinitely offensive to an infinitely holy God. He had that ability because he was God, and as such his actions had infinite power and value! You see, Eve’s sin (and Adam’s) had placed an incredibly huge “gap” between us and our Creator: a gap that, believe it or not, was even larger than the distance from one end of our universe to the other. Only someone who was both God and man could bridge a spiritual gap of that size! He could bridge it by performing an act of atonement for all the infinitely offensive sins of the human race (including yours and mine!). Since he was God and without sin, his act would be infinitely meritorious, and since he was man he could represent us before the heavenly Father, and win God’s forgiveness for every human being who sincerely repented—like Eve.

And that’s precisely what this baby did 33 years later on the Cross of Calvary: he made atonement for Eve’s sin and for every sin—which is why Acts 4: 12 says: “There is no salvation in anyone else [but Jesus Christ], for there is no other name in the whole world given to men by which we are to be saved.”

Every single one of us is like Eve in that story (whether we realize it or not; whether we want to admit it or not). That is to say, every single one of us has an apple of our own. And if we say we don’t, we’ve probably got a very big one!

That apple is a symbol of our pride, our anger, our gluttony, our lust, our sloth, our greed, and our envy. It’s a symbol of all those sins that we think will make us happy in this life, but never do. It’s a symbol of all those earthly realities that can keep us from getting into heaven, which is our true home.

There’s a beautiful line in that story, which says that after Eve gave her apple to the baby Jesus, she rose, “relieved as if from a great weight that had dragged her to the ground.” Then it describes her as she walked out the door. It says, “Her shoulders were no longer bowed down, her head almost touched the low roof, her face seemed miraculously renewed, as if she was finding once more the vigor of her youth.”

Like Eve in that story, each of us must freely choose to give our apple to Jesus Christ (in other words, we must freely choose to repent of our sins!). Jesus will not force us; he will not grab our apple out of our hands. He wants to lift the burden of guilt off our backs—like he lifted the burden of guilt off Eve’s back—but that will only happen if we follow the example that Eve gives us here. Like her, we have to bow to the baby in the manger with humility and contrition of heart, and willingly place our “apple of sin” in his hands! And we have to do that often, simply because we sin often! I don’t know about you, but I like to go to Confession at least once every two weeks. I guess that’s one of the reasons I was so attracted to this story: because I can identify with Eve when she walks out the door at the end feeling so much better—better about herself, better about the future, better about her prospects for eternity.

That’s how I feel after I go to Confession. That’s how every Catholic should feel.

Let me conclude my homily today by saying first of all that I’m not na├»ve. I realize that some people in this church right now probably like their apples—a lot—even though those apples ultimately make them miserable. (All of us can have moments when we foolishly cling to our sins.) If that’s where you’re at right now—if you’re really not interested in letting your apple go and in letting Jesus Christ more fully into your life, then feel free to disregard what I’m about to say.

For the rest of you, I have a suggestion—a very simple suggestion. I invite you to this when you get home—or at least within the next few days. Take an apple—a nice red one (or a green one; it really doesn’t matter)—and put it next to the baby Jesus in the manger scene you have in your house (hopefully you have a manger scene somewhere on display—every Christian family should!). And let each member of your family do the same thing. (If you’re part of a large family you might want to put all the apples in a bowl). You might even want to write your names on your apples—although that’s not absolutely necessary.

But please—don’t just put your apple down quickly and then walk away! Place it near the baby Jesus with reverence—like Eve in that story—and then pause to say a silent prayer like she did (just a prayer between you and Jesus; no one else needs to hear it). This is a time for you to thank him for coming to this earth to save you from your sins; it’s a time to invite him more fully into your life; it’s a time to ask his forgiveness; and it’s a time to promise him that you’re going to go to confession in the near future, to experience his mercy in that great sacrament—especially if you haven’t been in awhile.

Then let all the apples stay there! Keep them by the manger throughout this Christmas season. Leaving them there will help you to keep your focus on the true meaning of the Lord’s birth, and it will also give you a great opportunity to evangelize others. You see, I’m sure a number of people will come into your home in the next week or so, take a look at your manger display, and then say to you, “If you don’t mind me asking, what is that apple—what are all those apples—doing next to the baby Jesus in the manger?”

Then you can tell them: You can tell them why Jesus Christ came to earth 2,000 years ago; you can tell them what Christmas—and Easter—are really all about; and best of all, you can tell them the really great news of how they can get rid of their apples!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Rejoice in the Lord Always!

It's not often that I give two DIFFERENT homilies on one weekend. However, we had a terrible winter storm on Saturday night, so I was moved to give a different message at my Sunday morning Masses from the one I had given at the Saturday night Liturgy. (For the Saturday night homily, see the previous post--the one with the picture of my little friend, Elizabeth Hopkins.)
The Sunday homily has no text, but is available in audio form by clicking here: Third Sunday of Advent: Rejoice!]

Two Messages to Women from John the Baptist

My friend Elizabeth Hopkins

(Third Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 15, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10; Matthew 11: 2-11.)

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

After she heard my homily at the 10:30 Mass last Sunday on how to be a real, godly man like John the Baptist (as opposed to being a ‘manly man’ of the type I encountered at the Patriots-Eagles game on November 25th), my little friend, Elizabeth Hopkins—who is all of 7-years-old—came up to me in the vestibule, gave me a kiss (as she does every week), and then proceeded to ask me when I was going to give a homily like that for the girls!

My first thought was, “Wow, this little girl pays more attention to me than some adults do!”

I said to her, “You know what? Believe it or not, I had that same thought before Mass ended.” (And it’s true; that exact thought had crossed my mind.)

So I took her words as a confirmation that this is what God wanted me to do in my homily this weekend. Psalm 8 indicates that the Lord sometimes speaks to us “out of the mouths of babes”—and I think that was the case for me last Sunday. He spoke to me through little Elizabeth.

Consequently today’s homily will be addressed primarily to the women in the congregation—which, of course, does NOT mean that the men have permission to go to sleep for the next 10 minutes or so. The women listened attentively to your homily last week (apparently even 7-year-old women did!), so you can do the same.

And isn’t it interesting—it was John the Baptist who provided us with a message for the men a week ago, and it’s the very same John the Baptist who appears in our gospel this Sunday, and who has, I believe, an equally important message for the women.

Actually, I would say he has 2 important messages.

In this scene, first of all, Jesus harkens back to something that St. Matthew told us about John last week. Making reference to John’s camel hair outfits (which would have made him, as I said a week ago, a very good candidate for that show, ‘What Not to Wear’), Jesus said to the crowds, “What did you go out [to the desert] to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.”

The implication was that if they were expecting to find “Dapper Dan” in the desert when they went to see John the Baptist, they were in for a big shock!

A little dingy, perhaps; but dapper—never!

John the Baptist, therefore, reminds us that what’s on the inside is much more important than what’s on the outside! Jesus called John “the greatest man ever born of woman,” but obviously his greatness had nothing to do with his physical appearance. It definitely had nothing to do with the clothes he wore.

His greatness came from within; his greatness was rooted in his character and in his holiness.

Certainly both men and women can profit by that insight, but for you women I think it’s extremely important. The fact is, you are pressured every day in this hedonistic culture of ours to look a certain way (and to act a certain way!). You’re pressured much more than we men are. And because there’s no way you can possibly “compete” with the celebrities and fashion models you see in movies and magazines (who have been nipped and tucked—and airbrushed—so that they appear to be physically perfect), you are vulnerable: vulnerable to depression, vulnerable to anorexia and bulimia, vulnerable even to despair.

You suffer. But you know what? So do the men in your lives—and you need to be aware of that! Believe it or not, when you become obsessed with your physical appearance—to the neglect of your character and your spiritual life—the men around you become worse.

In case you didn’t know, when it comes to influencing men, women have power—incredible power! They have the power to bring out the very best in men, and they have the power to bring out the absolute worst in men.

Virtuous women who are like John the Baptist—that is to say, virtuous women whose lives are centered on God and not the things of this world—raise up the men around them morally and spiritually. Women, on the other hand, whose lives are centered on physical appearance and material possessions (a la TV’s Desperate Housewives) pull men down morally and spiritually and bring out the worst in them.

Like it or not, that’s the way it is. That’s reality!

On a personal note, it was not a coincidence that my father went from a man who didn’t go to church when my mom married him, to a man who went to daily Mass for the last 6 months of his life. It wasn’t a coincidence because he lived with a virtuous, godly woman—a virtuous, godly woman who brought out the best in him.

One other important lesson for women needs to be shared today, courtesy of John the Baptist. And the best way to introduce the lesson is with this question: Ladies, have you ever wondered if all your good efforts have been wasted—especially with members of your families? I think many of you have—especially those of you who are mothers of what might be called “difficult” children!

You’ve done your best to be a good example of faith to them (and when you’ve failed, you’ve acknowledged it and sought forgiveness from them and from God); you’ve tried to teach them right from wrong, and the importance of putting God first in their lives, but now they don’t go to Mass anymore, and they live by their own rules. And maybe some of them say they don’t even believe God exists.

If you find yourself in this situation with respect to your children—or anyone else for that matter—think of John the Baptist when he was sitting there, all by himself, in Herod’s prison. And then do what he did.

Remember that John had spent his entire life focused on one thing: Preparing the way for his cousin, Jesus—whom he believed to be the Messiah.

But obviously Jesus hadn’t conducted himself in the way that John had expected him to. Maybe John had expected Jesus to be less the preacher and more the fiery judge; maybe he had expected him to be more of a civil leader like King David of old. We’re not sure what the problem was, but there clearly was a problem in John’s mind.

So there he was, sitting in Herod’s prison, thinking to himself, “Have all my good efforts been wasted? I was convinced that my cousin was the Messiah, and I did everything I could to point other people toward him. I said to them, ‘Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!’ I thought I was doing the right thing. But he’s not exactly what I expected him to be; and now I’m stuck in this prison. Did I make a mistake? Is the Messiah actually someone else—someone who will come after my cousin Jesus?”

John wondered and John questioned—but then he did something. He took action! Through his disciples, he went to Jesus and he said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus responded, in effect, by saying, “Think about it, John, I’m doing all those things that Isaiah said the Messiah would do when he finally came.” (Many of those things, incidentally, are mentioned in today’s first reading—which is why the Church gave us that reading from Isaiah at this Mass.)

So John had his answer: his good efforts had not been wasted! But that’s only part of the story. Even after his disciples came back and told him what Jesus had said, John still had to trust, and he still had to persevere. He had to trust that his work was actually bearing good fruit and helping people to be open to Jesus, and he had to persevere in his own faithfulness to God in the midst of his present suffering—both for his own sake and for the sake of the people he had baptized and preached to. You see, if news had gotten around that John the Baptist had lost his faith in prison, some of his former followers might have lost their faith too.

Look to Jesus; trust; and persevere. When your children stray, ladies, and when your other good efforts in this life seem to fail, remember to do those three things: look to Jesus (in other words, pray!); trust that his grace will continue to touch the lives of those you love and pray for; and persevere in your own good works, and in your personal walk with the Lord. That, I believe, is what John the Baptist would tell you to do—because that’s what he did.

And, incidentally, he’d probably give the same word of advice to the men—who hopefully stayed awake throughout this homily and actually heard it.

Ladies, you have my permission to quiz them about it on the way home today.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

John the Baptist: A Real Man

Gillette Stadium: Where a lot of 'manly men' hang out on Sunday afternoons in the fall.

(Second Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 9, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 3: 1-12.)

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

On the Sunday night after Thanksgiving, for the first time in at least a decade, I went to a New England Patriots football game. And I’m glad I did. This was the game they played against the Philadelphia Eagles, and it was one of the best of the season—in the sense that it was highly competitive. That is to say, it was one of the few times this year that the Patriots didn’t completely annihilate their opponents! In fact, it took a touchdown halfway through the 4th quarter by Lawrence Maroney, and a big interception by Assante Samuel in the end zone with 4 minutes left on the clock to give New England a narrow 31-28 victory.

And even though I’m a Green Bay Packer fan deep down inside, I must tell you that I did cheer for the home team that night. And I’ll cheer for them again . . . as long as they’re not playing the Green Bay Packers (which they might, since both teams do have the potential of reaching the Super Bowl again this year)!

Now when you go to a professional football game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, or at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, or at any other NFL park, what has to strike you is the number of MEN who are there! Oh yes, I know there are lots of female football fans who go to games every week, but the vast majority of people in the stands are clearly MEN. And these are not ordinary men, these are MANLY MEN, who are doing their best to look like MANLY MEN, and who are trying very hard to act like MANLY MEN.

For example, they have an unofficial contest at every game to see who can string together the most four-letter words in one sentence—because everybody knows that swearing is a MANLY thing to do! And, of course, it’s extremely cool when you swear at the fans of the other team, and say colorful things about their mothers and other relatives.

But you can’t do this very effectively unless you have a little brown bottle in your hand—or maybe even one little brown bottle in each hand! After all, only girly-men stay sober for the whole game. By the way, someone needs to tell the fans at Patriots games that when Teddy Bruschi’s name is announced over the loudspeaker, it does NOT mean that it’s time to get another beer! The name is spelled B-r-u-s-c-h-i, not B-r-e-w-s-k-i!

And then, as the ultimate expression of their manhood, it’s imperative that these MANLY men make a MANLY mess when they go to the restroom!

Let me tell you, I have been in lots of locker rooms and stadiums and arenas in my life, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Ever!

You ladies are right to complain!

Welcome to the world of MEN—MANLY MEN—in 21st century America!

And we wonder why we have so many cultural problems these days?

Which brings us to the main man of today’s gospel—John the Baptist—who would probably have enjoyed the Patriots-Eagles game a couple of weeks ago (if someone had explained football to him beforehand), but who definitely would not have been amused by all the extra-curricular activities that went on before, during, and after the game!

He would NOT have been amused because he was, as Jesus said, “the greatest man ever born of woman”! You see, John the Baptist knew what it meant to be a man according to God’s design! Obviously that’s something very different from being a man according to the fashion of the world (which, unfortunately, is the kind of manhood that we see embraced and lived out at Patriots games—and in many other places in our society right now).

First of all, John the Baptist was humble, and he submitted himself to the authority of God—which is one of the marks of a real, godly man! He wasn’t filled with himself; he wasn’t filled with bravado and pride like so many guys at that Patriots game were. As John once said to his disciples, “He [i.e., Jesus] must increase, while I must decrease.”

Please hear that, gentlemen: REAL MEN—REAL, GODLY MEN—LOVE THE LORD FIRST, AND SUBMIT TO HIM AND HIS DIVINE LAW IN A SPIRIT OF HUMILITY. They acknowledge an authority in their lives higher than themselves.

They’re not ashamed of their faith; they’re not ashamed of their love for God, as John the Baptist wasn’t ashamed of his faith and of his love for the Lord! This means, among other things, that real, godly, Catholic men aren’t afraid to pray—out loud—even at Mass!

John the Baptist was also willing to admit his faults, his sins—which is yet another quality of real, godly men! Macho men pretend to be perfect because they’re afraid: they’re afraid that if they admit their failings others will accuse them of being weak. Real, godly men are not afraid to admit their imperfections—even to members of their families—because real, godly men are not afraid of reality! They know—as John the Baptist knew—that acknowledging personal sin is a sign of a man’s integrity and strength, not a sign of weakness.

Real, godly men go to Confession!

Do you remember what John the Baptist said to Jesus when our Lord came to the Jordan to be baptized? He said, “I should be baptized by you!” In other words, “I’m the sinner, Jesus, not you! I’m the one who needs this inner cleansing, not you!”

And yet, Jesus still called John “the greatest man ever born of woman.”

(Believe it or not, being willing to admit his faults was a big part of what made John so great!)

Real, godly men also discipline themselves for the sake of others—like John the Baptist did. We’re told in today’s gospel that John wore clothing made of camel’s hair (he was obviously a candidate for that TV show, 'What NOT to Wear'!), and that he lived on a diet of locusts and wild honey.

Yum, yum.

John the Baptist disciplined himself physically—wearing uncomfortable clothes and eating unappetizing food—for a reason: in order to prepare himself to do God’s work. He disciplined himself, in other words, for the sake of the people he baptized and preached to.

Let me tell you something: at the Patriots game the other night, I did not see too many men disciplining themselves for the sake of anybody. I didn’t see too many guys disciplining their tongues, for example, or denying themselves when it came to drinking beer—in spite of the fact that there were a lot of impressionable children present! They had the opportunity to discipline themselves for the sake of others—for the sake of giving a good example to those young people who had gone to see the game, but they didn’t.

Real, godly men also have a tender side, especially when it comes to repentant sinners—again like John the Baptist. They don’t put on a false, “tough-guy” front! They can be firm, yes, when circumstances require them to be—as John was firm with the Pharisees and Sadducees in this gospel scene. (He was firm with them, incidentally, because he knew they really weren’t sorry for the things they had done. He knew they were just going through the motions, so to speak, by coming to get baptized.)

Real, godly men have genuine compassion for those who are hurting, and for those who sincerely repent for the sins of their past. It says here that people “from the whole region around the Jordan” were going to John to receive his baptism as they confessed their sins. Obviously they did that because they felt welcomed and not condemned. John was a lion when he preached, and a lion when he confronted hard-hearted people like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but he was a merciful lamb when he dealt with sinners who were really sorry for what they had done, and who really wanted to change their lives for the better.

And that was one of the biggest reasons why he was so popular.

So, gentlemen, I ask all of you in conclusion: Which do you want to be (which do you REALLY want to be): a “manly man” who’s cool in the eyes of the world, but a fool in the eyes of God, or a man like John the Baptizer: devout, honest, humble, disciplined, strong, loving and compassionate?

If you really want to be the latter—if you REALLY want to be like John, then you can prove it right now by kneeling in your pew and joining me in this little prayer . . .

And please repeat this prayer after me OUT LOUD! After all, real, godly men aren’t afraid to pray out loud in front of other people, since they’re not ashamed of their faith and of their love for God:

St. John the Baptist, pray for me. You were the greatest man born of woman, so I know you can help me! Pray that I will be a faithful disciple like you. Pray that I will never be afraid to express my love for Jesus Christ. Pray that I will always be strong in my Catholic faith—even when those around me are weak. And when I fail (as I know I will!), pray that I’ll have the humility to admit it, and the good sense to repent. Pray that I’ll learn to love as you loved, and to sacrifice myself for others, as you sacrificed yourself for others. Pray that I’ll be a real man; pray that I’ll be a righteous man; pray that I’ll be the man God wants me to be. Amen.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Mary: Willing To Help Fix a Problem She Hadn’t Caused!

Where 'the problem' began

(Immaculate Conception 2007: This homily was given on December 8, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Genesis 3: 9-15, 20; Luke 1: 26-38.)

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

“You did it; you fix it! You caused the problem; now you fix the problem!”

That’s often our attitude, isn’t it?—especially when it comes to problems within our own families!

And sometimes it’s the right attitude—because the person we’re dealing with needs to learn to be responsible for his or her actions.

But at other times God wants us to do what we can to make a bad situation better, and for whatever reason—maybe because of laziness, or selfishness, or anger—we refuse.

We say things like, “He did it, so he should fix it!” “She brought this on herself and on the rest of us; now she needs to make it better!”

Today, on this Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we should thank God that Mary, the ‘new Eve,’ never said those words about the wife of Adam, who was the original Eve.

Because if she had, we’d all be going to hell when we die! We’d have no hope.

Let me explain . . .

When we say that Mary was “immaculately conceived,” we mean that from the moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, Ann, she was preserved by the grace of God from original sin. The saving grace that Jesus would later die on the Cross to give the world was given to Mary beforehand. (God, after all, is not limited by space and time in terms of what he can do.)

One little aside here: This means that the gospel text we just heard from Luke 1 is not the story of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, as many people mistakenly think. This is the story of the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary at the Annunciation; the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary in the womb of her mother, Ann!

So why is the story of the Annunciation read on this feast day? Simply because Mary’s Immaculate Conception prepared her to be the pure vessel through which the Son of God would come into the world. The Immaculate Conception, in other words, prepared Mary for the Annunciation—and for everything that would follow it.

Now when Mary agreed to become the Mother of God—when she said to the Lord, “Be it done unto me according to your word”—she had to know that she was saying yes to something that was extremely difficult! I mean, how do you raise a Son who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit? How do you give motherly instruction to the Creator of the universe? What can you possibly teach him? And what if you make a mistake? What will happen to the world if you fail to do for this boy what God wants you to do for this boy?

And the difficulty of the job was confirmed several months later in the Temple, when the prophet Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her soul because she was the mother of the Savior.

This brings me back to something I said earlier: today we should thank God that Mary never said about Eve, “She did it; let her fix it”—as we sometimes say about other people.

Mary never said it, although might have, if she had been like the rest of us!

You see, when God spoke to her at the Annunciation, he was really asking her to help him “fix a problem”—a big problem that had started in the Garden of Eden with Eve (and with Adam), as we heard in today’s first reading. It was the problem of human sin and its effects. But, this was a problem that Mary hadn’t caused, nor had she added to it in any way by her actions as we’ve added to it by ours (remember, by the grace of God, Mary never committed even one personal sin in her entire life!).

So knowing how difficult the job was going to be, Mary could have said, “Wait a minute, Lord. I didn’t cause this problem! It’s not my fault! So why are you asking this of me? I didn’t bring sickness, evil and death into the world through sin—Eve did! So let her fix it! Or let some other sinner do the job—someone who’s doing evil and causing problems in the world right now!”

The next time we’re asked to help fix a problem that we haven’t caused, it would be good for us to do three things:

First of all, we should think of Mary! We should think of her Yes to the Lord at the Annunciation—a Yes that was repeated over and over again throughout her entire life. We should remember that she took on an incredibly difficult role in helping to free the world from the problem of sin, although she herself was immaculately conceived and perfectly sinless.

Secondly, we should pray to—and through—Mary. We should say, “Blessed Mother, I’ve been asked to help fix a mess that I had nothing to do with—like you were asked to help fix a problem that you had nothing to do with. Ask God to give me the grace of discernment, so that I’ll know the right thing to do—as God helped you to know the right thing to do.

And thirdly, we should imitate Mary, and say yes, and do whatever God wants—even if it’s difficult.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

How to Ruin Things

One way to ruin a house
(First Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 2, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 37-44.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Advent 2007]

Today’s lesson is on how to ruin things.
Now that might sound like a rather negative topic for a Sunday homily, but I can assure you that at the end of it all, the message will be a very positive one.
How to ruin things . . .
If you own a car, and want to ruin it, the good news is you have a number of options. For example,
  • You can drain the oil out of the crankcase and then attempt to go on driving the vehicle (you probably won’t get very far);
  • You can slash the tires, smash the windows and put dirt in the gas tank (that will certainly do the trick);
  • Or you can just “let things go,” so to speak. In other words, you can neglect the oil changes, the tune-ups, and the many other items of routine maintenance called for in the owner’s manual. It will take a little longer, of course, to ruin your car in that way—through neglect—but eventually it will happen.
If you own a house, and want to ruin it, you also have a lot of options:
  • You can have your teenagers play contact sports in the living room, and allow your three-year-old to do artwork on the walls with his finger paint;
  • You can smash the furniture, rip the curtains and break all the dishes and glasses in the kitchen;
  • You can turn on the water in the upstairs bathtub and then let it overflow—for 3 or 4 hours;
  • Or, once again, you can just let things go. You can avoid painting the house, fixing the roof, cleaning the floors and doing all the routine maintenance that’s required to keep a home in good shape.
If you want to ruin a friendship, you can do a number of things:
  • You can call your friend and tell him off;
  • You can spread false rumors about him;
  • You can cause division in his family and break up his marriage;
  • Or you can simply ignore him and pretend he doesn’t exist! Every friendship needs to be nourished by personal contact on some level. Without that contact, a friendship can very easily weaken and die with passage of time.
I give these examples today because on this First Sunday of Advent the focus of our gospel reading is on the second coming of Jesus Christ. This, as most of us know, is one of the foundational beliefs of our faith. As we say in the Creed every Sunday, “[We believe that Jesus, our Lord and Savior,] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” That same belief is expressed in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer when we say, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ WILL COME AGAIN!”
We believe that the physical world as we know it will eventually come to an end. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “We do not have here a lasting city.” At some unknown time in the future, Jesus will come again as our judge, and put a definitive end to human history.
But even if we don’t live to see that day, we will all experience the Lord’s second coming: we’ll experience it at the moment we die! And because that moment can literally come at any time, Jesus urges us in this gospel to always be ready!
Here’s an interesting thought: In today’s second reading from Romans 13 it says, “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”
Our salvation is also nearer now—at this moment—than it was when I began my homily! Did you realize that? And it will be nearer at the end of my homily than it is right now!
Every second that passes, brings each of us one second closer to the end—to our end.
That end, of course, is also supposed to be a beginning: the glorious beginning of a new life with Jesus Christ in his eternal kingdom. But getting into that kingdom is NOT automatic, as Jesus makes clear in this text! Which is precisely why I entitled this homily, “How to ruin things”! Just as it’s possible to ruin a car, and a house, and a friendship, so it’s also possible to ruin our eternal salvation!
And we can ruin our salvation in the very same ways that we can ruin those other things I mentioned. For example, I said that you can ruin a car by DOING certain things to it: by taking out the oil, by slashing the tires, by smashing the windows, etc. But then I said that you could also ruin a car by simply neglecting it: by neglecting to change the oil and perform the normal maintenance specified in the owner's manual.
I also said you could ruin a house or a close friendship in either of those two ways: by actions or by neglect.
I said all those things for a reason: to make an important parallel with our spiritual lives!
Think about it: How does a person ruin his or her salvation?
Well the obvious answer is: by doing something really bad! We lose salvation—we lose sanctifying grace after Baptism—by committing a mortal sin and never repenting of it.
But that’s only half the story! We can also ruin our salvation through neglect. And I base that assertion on the words of Jesus in this gospel. Jesus starts off here by comparing people who are not ready for his second coming with the people at the time of Noah who were unprepared for the Great Flood. Now I would have expected Jesus to say that these unprepared people back in Noah’s day were lying, cheating, stealing, killing one another and committing adultery—and this is why they weren’t ready.
But notice something: THAT’S NOT WHAT HE SAYS! Listen again to his words: “In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.
Now I ask you, what was so bad about eating—and drinking (we all need water, don’t we?)? What was so bad about marrying and giving someone away in marriage?
The answer is: Nothing! Those things were—and are—all GOOD! That was not the problem! The problem was NEGLECT! What Jesus was saying is that these unprepared men and women were guilty of NEGLECT! They lost their lives simply because they were going about their daily business while at the same time neglecting to take care of their souls!
So how do you ruin your salvation?
By committing a mortal sin, yes; but also by neglecting your spiritual life! Because when you neglect your spiritual life, you can easily fall into mortal sin.
Think now of all the things that most people do NOT neglect during the season of Advent:
· They do not neglect shopping (although they might wait until the last minute!);
· They do not neglect cooking and baking (they’ve just got to make those special Christmas cookies for everybody in the family!);
· They do not neglect socializing;
· They do not neglect decorating (even if they don’t like to do it);
· And they certainly don’t neglect eating—and eating—and eating!
But a lot of people neglect their souls, don’t they? They neglect spending extra time in prayer. They neglect coming to Mass on the Holy Day that falls during these 4 weeks: the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8; they may even neglect attending a Sunday Mass if they’ve got a lot of shopping or baking to do. They also neglect the extra opportunities they have to make a good examination of conscience and go to Confession.
They make extra time for everything and for everybody during this holy season of the year—except Jesus (who just happens to be the reason for the season!)!
Today, as many of you know, is “New Year’s Day” in the Church: it’s the first day of the Church’s new liturgical year. That means it’s a good day for all of us to make a joint resolution. Let’s resolve at this Mass NOT to neglect our spiritual lives during the next 4 weeks of Advent.
And by the grace of God may that resolution then carry over to the other 48 weeks of the year.