Sunday, April 27, 2008

Samaritans and Immigrants

(Sixth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on April 27, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 8: 5-8, 14-17.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday of Easter 2008]

Imagine that there were televisions in Palestine way back in the first century. And imagine that one night in the holy city of Jerusalem, on cable channel 7, anchor Katie Couricstein read the following news item (which includes a direct quote from today’s first reading):

“It was reported today that Philip, a follower of Jesus the Nazorean, recently went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Christ to them. With one accord the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard and saw the signs he was doing. For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured. There was great joy in that city.

‘And this just in: It’s also being reported that the apostles Peter and John were sent to Samaria a few days ago to minister to these new converts to Christianity and to pray for a fuller outpouring of the Holy Spirit on them in what Christians refer to as the sacrament of Confirmation.”

If that announcement of Katie Couricstein had ever found its way into the living rooms of first century Jews who had recently become Christians themselves, do you know what the reaction would have been?

In all likelihood, many of those Jewish Christians would have needed to go to Confession immediately—because they would have been screaming in anger at their television sets! And some of them might have actually thrown their sandals through the TV screen!

“Did you hear that, Miriam? Philip went where? Peter and John did what? They preached to them?! They ministered to them?! They healed them?! Oy vey! How dare they associate with them—with those half-breed foreigners! How dare they welcome THEM into OUR church!”

The Samaritans—the “them” being referred to in that little tirade—were the descendants of Israelites who had intermarried with foreigners after the collapse of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. The problem was, to devout first century Jews, that kind of intermarriage was a big no-no! Consequently in their minds the Samaritans were nothing more than racially impure half-breeds, and were to be avoided at all costs. And the negative feelings were mutual: the Samaritans detested the Jews every bit as much as the Jews detested them.

In some respects, my brothers and sisters, it’s like the anti-immigrant prejudice that some people in our country have right now. Hopefully no one in the congregation today shares those feelings, especially since most (if not all) of us are the direct descendants of immigrants—and a few of us actually are immigrants!

Now let me be clear before I get into this: My purpose in my homily this morning is not to propose concrete solutions to the current problems involving legal and illegal immigrants in our country. Quite frankly, I’m a priest and that’s not my role. Hashing out those particulars is the job of the legislative and executive branches of our government. And it’s not easy! I was talking to Senator Algiere about this a couple of weeks ago and he said to me, “It’s a very complicated matter, Fr. Ray, and there are no easy solutions.”

This is one reason, incidentally, why we always pray for our civil leaders in our Sunday prayer of the faithful; and it’s why we should remember our president, our governor, and our state and national legislators in our personal prayers every day! Wisdom is needed to find the right answers to the many questions surrounding immigration and the securing of our borders—and wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

So our leaders need the Spirit’s help—whether they realize it or not!

But even though I won’t offer any specific solutions today, what I will do is share with you briefly the Church’s moral teaching on how to deal with immigrants from other countries. That, after all, is my role as a priest! I do it because even here in our own state there’s been a lot of confusion lately about where Catholics should stand on these kinds of issues.

No doubt one of the reasons for all the confusion is that the Church in her teaching doesn’t propose specific laws (nor should she!). Rather, she merely sets forth the moral principles that should guide a given society in making its laws. This means that good people can embrace the same guiding principles, and yet disagree on some of the particulars of a given law. We’ll see an example of that in a moment.

Now whenever we have a question on what the Church actually teaches on a specific subject, the first place we should look is the Catechism. With that in mind listen to what the Catechism says in paragraph 2241:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.

The first point made there is that prosperous nations have a moral obligation before God to welcome at least some foreigners into their countries. Well I think it’s safe to say that we are one of the more economically blessed nations on the face of the earth right now, so clearly this message applies to us. Of course, it’s interesting, the Catechism immediately qualifies this principle by saying that we are obliged to welcome foreigners to the extent we are able to. There, obviously, is one issue that good people can and will disagree on: Where do we draw the line in terms of numbers? How many immigrants are too many?

Now the corollary to this first principle is that nations also have the right—as well as the duty—to secure their own borders! Please hear this: The idea of people sneaking over national boundary lines whenever they feel like it is not a Catholic idea! It’s not something the Catholic Church supports! As the Catechism says, “Political authorities . . . may make the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions”—like passing through a border checkpoint, and having the proper government documentation!

The Catechism goes on to say that those who are welcomed into another country should receive respect, appropriate help and legal protection. That idea, along with every other principle of Catholic moral teaching, is rooted in the notion that every human being has a fundamental, God-given dignity—since every human being is made in the Lord’s image and likeness.

But notice that it’s not a one way street! Immigrants are to be respected and helped and protected, yes—but according to Church teaching they also have duties and responsibilities to the citizens of the country that’s been good enough to take them in! Among these are the responsibility to obey the country’s laws (including, I dare say, its immigration laws) and “to assist in carrying civic burdens” (that includes paying taxes like the rest of us).

Let me conclude now by quoting two paragraphs from Bishop Tobin’s public statement of two weeks ago concerning immigrants here in Rhode Island. Our bishop took a lot of heat for the things he said that day, but in point of fact the basis of what he said was the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church that I just shared with you.

Listen carefully to his words—they incorporate almost every point I just made:

I join the Catholic Bishops of the United States in calling for comprehensive immigration reform. Such policy begins with securing our borders and providing for an orderly and welcoming immigration policy. Every nation has the right, and even the duty, to have safe and secure borders. I encourage the members of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation – Senators Reed and Whitehouse, and Congressmen Kennedy and Langevin –to recognize the immigration challenges of our State and to take a more proactive role in promoting positive immigration reform.

In the meantime, while our nation strives toward the goal of an effective immigration policy, the immigrants who are already in our State should be able to live without fear. They should not be persecuted, intimidated or harassed. Immigrants come to the United States to seek freedom and prosperity, to provide a better life for themselves and their families. It is an aspiration shared by all members of the human family. The overwhelming majority of immigrants are law abiding individuals, pay a variety of taxes and contribute to the economic development of our community.

My brothers and sisters, the Jewish Christians of the early Church learned to accept and to love the Samaritans who were converted to the faith by St. Philip. It’s my prayer today that God will help us to do the same with respect to the many good and law-abiding foreigners who come to the United States as so many of our ancestors did—desperately seeking a better life for themselves and for their children.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Horton and the Holy Father

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on April 13, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 10: 1-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2008]

I’m not sure how the pope would feel about being linked to a fictitious elephant with exceptional hearing, but I hope that if he ever heard this talk he would end up being very pleased. I say that because the title of my homily this morning is, “Horton and the Holy Father.” I was going to call it, “The Pope and the Pachyderm,” but I thought better of that one.

In today’s gospel text from John 10, Jesus refers to himself as “the gate”. In so doing, he tells us that he is the only way to the Father; that he is the only source of the grace that we need to get into the kingdom of heaven. As St. Peter put it in Acts 4, “There is no salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name in the whole world given to men by which we are to be saved.”

But Jesus also refers to himself here as “the shepherd”—the Good Shepherd. This means that he’s not only the way to heaven; he’s also the one who leads us to heaven. And one of the ways he leads us is by the truth that he speaks to us. If we follow his truth, we follow him—and we eventually end up in his kingdom.

But how exactly do we know what this truth is? Jesus says here that his faithful sheep “hear” and “recognize” his voice. But how is that possible? How do we discern the voice of the Good Shepherd, in the midst of the millions (and I mean millions) of other voices out there that are begging for our allegiance and obedience every day?

That’s a crucial question, because if Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven as well as the one who leads us there, then nothing less than heaven is at stake in all this!

Well, in point of fact, the Good Shepherd can—and does—speak to us in many ways that we can recognize: through the Sacred Scriptures, through the Magisterium, through the Catechism, through the Mass, and sometimes through the godly people in our lives. He even speaks to us in the events of daily living, and especially in and through our sufferings. As C. S. Lewis once put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures; he speaks to us in our consciences; but he SHOUTS to us in our pain! Pain is God’s megaphone!”

Now some of these are obvious, right? It’s not too hard to believe, for example, that the Good Shepherd speaks to us in and through the Bible, since his words are right there in print for us to read.

But some of the other ways the Lord speaks to us are not so obvious. And yet, they’re every bit as real!

One of the obvious ways the Good Shepherd speaks to us and to the world—in addition to the Sacred Scriptures—is through the Holy Father, the pope, when he makes official declarations on matters of faith and morals. Jesus said to Peter and the apostles, “He who hears you hears me!”

Please keep that in mind, this week, when Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States for his first pastoral visit to our country. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, will be speaking to us through him! So we’d better listen—especially when he challenges us in our love for the poor, the sick, the elderly and the unborn.

Of course, most of the people in the secular media will do their best to try to distract us from the Holy Father’s message (and ultimately from JESUS’ message!) by focusing us on what a “divisive figure” Benedict is. So be prepared; get ready!

They will tell us that John Paul II (whom most of them hated when he was alive and defending innocent human life around the world)—they will tell us that John Paul II was a “really nice guy” who established good relations with people of other religions, but that Benedict has set things back 500 years with the way he’s antagonized Muslims, Jews and Protestants alike.

Then we’ll hear about how many Catholics disagree with the pope on all the crucial issues of our day: abortion, contraception, gay marriage, married priests, etc, etc, etc.

We’ll probably even hear a few of them try to blame Benedict for the sex abuse scandal of 2002, implying that he somehow approved of it—when, in reality, he condemned it with incredibly harsh language, at one point calling molesting priests “filth.” And, of course, they will fail to mention that if these bad priests had lived according to the teachings that Benedict has promoted for decades as a priest, a bishop, a cardinal, and now as pope, there would have been no scandal in the first place!

Remember, Jesus speaks to us through human instruments like the pope—but so does Satan! He has his mouthpieces as well. And many of them will be in action this week!

You can bet the farm on it! Or the house, or the car—or all 3! It’s as close as you’ll ever get to a “sure thing” on this side of the grave!

But what I really love about the Good Shepherd is this: Even when people tune out his obvious messengers (like the pope), he still manages to get his word to his flock—as well as to those lost souls that he wants to become part of his flock! He does it by touching people—even worldly people—with actual grace, and moving them to promote his truth in unexpected ways.

Take the people, for example, at 20th Century Fox! The men and women in charge of that film company probably had no intention of reminding America in 2008 that all human life is sacred, from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death. They also probably had no intention of promoting the teachings of Jesus Christ on forgiveness and mercy.

But that’s exactly what they’ve done—by putting good old Horton, Dr. Seuss’ loveable elephant, on the silver screen. If you haven’t seen “Horton Hears a Who” yet, my brothers and sisters, make sure you do! And be sure to bring your children and/or grandchildren with you (if you have them), so that you can discuss the movie and its message with them afterward!

Jesus Christ would want you to!

For those in the congregation who might not remember the story, Horton is the only animal in the imaginary Jungle of Nool who is able to hear the cries of the “Whos” (I think it has something to do with his incredibly large ears.) The Whos are small people—very small people—who live in a town called “Who-ville,” which is located on a speck of dust that has deposited itself on a clover plant. (Obviously Dr. Seuss had a very fertile imagination!) This means that the other animals in the jungle aren’t able to see the Whos either. They can’t see them, they can’t hear them—so they presume that these microscopic people don’t exist.

The Whos beg Horton to protect them, and Horton does—even though he’s ridiculed and called crazy and put into a cage for a time by his persecutors, among whom are Vlad Vladikoff, a gang of crazy monkeys known as the Wickersham Brothers, and the Sour Kangaroo.

Horton would easily understand the message of our second reading from 1 Peter 2, where our first pope talks about suffering for doing what is right!

And through it all, the elephant keeps saying the same thing, over and over and over again: “A person’s a person, no matter how small!”

A person’s a person no matter how small. That’s his core philosophy. It’s his reason for taking action to protect the Whos living on the little speck of dust; it’s the reason he’s willing to be ridiculed and called names; it’s the reason he allows himself to be locked up in a cage!

By the way, in essence, isn’t that exactly what the Catholic Church says in her teaching on the sanctity of human life—that a person’s a person no matter how small (even if he’s an embryo)? Isn’t that what the Good Shepherd was getting at when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and when he told us the parable of the Good Samaritan?

By gosh it is!

Well fancy that!

Isn’t it wonderful? Many university professors, judges, public school officials and politicians are doing all they can to silence the voice of the Good Shepherd in our culture right now, but somehow his truth still goes forth. In this case, courtesy of a cartoon character named Horton, whose heart is even bigger than his body.

The voice of God—the voice of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd—is never completely silenced! Only fools think it is.

There’s even a beautiful lesson in this movie on forgiveness, which illustrates magnificently the words of Jesus in the gospels. When you go to see the film, pay close attention to the interaction between Horton and the Sour Kangaroo at the very end.

It might even bring a little tear to your eye.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.”

May the Lord give us the grace today to keep our spiritual ears open all the time, so that we will hear his voice not only when it comes to us through obvious sources like the pope, but also when it comes through unexpected sources like Horton the elephant.

Or perhaps I should say, “through Horton, the pro-life pachyderm!”

Sunday, April 06, 2008

‘Hope’ and ‘Hopes’

On the road to Emmaus

(Third Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on April 6, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 24: 13-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Easter 2008]

“Hope” and “hopes”. On paper, those two words are almost exactly the same; in fact, only one little letter distinguishes them. But, theologically speaking, those two words—hope and hopes—mean very different things.

For example:

  • It’s possible for a person to have many hopes, but no hope—at the same time! Most atheists and agnostics probably fall into this category. Genuine hope is impossible for them, but they can certainly have as many hopes as the rest of us.
  • It’s also possible for a person to have a lot of hope, and at the same time very few—if any—hopes. When my mother was on her deathbed back in 1990, she certainly fit into this category—as have many faithful believers over the years.
  • You can have lots of hopes, and still despair; but if you have the virtue of hope planted firmly in your heart, you will never despair, even if all your hopes are dashed in a single instant!

Are you confused yet?

No need to be, because the difference is really quite simple. “Hopes” refer to our aspirations: they’re the desires we hold in our hearts; and they concern the things that we need—or want—in this life:

“I hope to get accepted at the college I’ve always wanted to attend.”

“I hope to get a good job soon.”

“I hope to get married and have a family someday.”

“I hope to get a big refund on my taxes this year—so I can take a nice trip this summer AND give a big donation to Fr. Ray for St. Pius X Church!”

I can only hope!

Those are just a few examples of some common “hopes”. You could all give me many others, I’m sure. The possibilities are almost endless.

But that’s not what we mean when we speak of the theological virtue of hope! Hopes relate to the things of this world; the virtue of hope, on the other hand, points us toward heaven, the ultimate goal of human existence! Hope, in this sense, is rooted in faith (that’s why I said in my Easter homily that your hope is only as strong as your faith is!). The Catechism sums it up beautifully when it says: “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC, 1817)

In today’s Gospel story from Luke 24, two disciples meet the risen Jesus as they’re walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus on Easter Sunday—although they initially don’t recognize our Lord. These disciples are clearly upset, and confused—and very depressed! In fact at one point St. Luke explicitly says, “They stopped, looking downcast.”

Then our Lord begins to question them about the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. In the course of their response, they say to him, sadly, “We were hoping that [this Jesus] would be the one to redeem Israel.”

“We were hoping”.

Clearly these men had a hope with regard to Jesus. But the real question is, did they have the theological virtue of hope in their hearts?

I would say No they did not—at least not at this point. And that’s one reason why they were so depressed!

You see, most Jews in the first century expected the Messiah to be a great earthly ruler like King David, a ruler who would get rid of the Romans and restore the nation of Israel to its former greatness. Well apparently that’s also what these two disciples thought. They were looking to be redeemed from Roman domination, not from sin and eternal death! And so one of their “hopes” for Jesus was that he would become a popular revolutionary leader: a leader who would bring the Jewish people together and lead a successful revolt against the evil Roman Empire.

Well, obviously, that misguided hope was totally and utterly destroyed when our Lord was nailed to the cross on Good Friday.

No wonder they were so upset!

But, thankfully, Jesus made sure that this false hope was replaced in these two disciples by something much greater and much more important, namely the Christian virtue of hope.

Jesus starts off by helping these men to understand that true redemption—redemption from sin—has in fact taken place through the Messiah’s suffering and death—and that this death was actually the Messiah’s path to eternal life. He says to them at one point, “Oh how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and so enter his glory?”

And when they finally recognize him at table and realize that he’s alive, they begin to understand that his resurrection means something wonderful FOR THEM—PERSONALLY—and for all the other faithful followers of Jesus, present and future.

And that’s when they begin to have hope—true, Christian hope—as well as the joy that comes from that hope.

The things I said at the beginning of my homily should now make perfect sense to you. I said that it’s possible for a person to have many hopes, but no hope—at the same time! In other words, a person can have many earthly aspirations and goals, but if his ultimate focus is not on Jesus Christ and the kingdom of heaven, then his life will be without the hope that comes from faith in Jesus.

I also said that it’s possible for a person to have a lot of hope, and at the same time very few—if any—hopes. When my mother was on her deathbed in 1990 she knew she was dying and she accepted that fact, so she didn’t have any more earthly aspirations and desires. But she did have hope—the hope of living forever with Jesus, whom she always called her “best friend.”

In preparing this homily I also thought of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. Way back in the 4th century Monica prayed very hard for her son to give up his wild ways and become a Christian. Finally, after many years, he did. Listen, now, to how Augustine described a conversation he had with his mother shortly before she died:

The day was now approaching when my mother Monica would depart from this life . . . The two of us, all alone, were enjoying a very pleasant conversation, forgetting the past and pushing on to what is ahead. We were asking one another in the presence of the Truth—for you are the Truth—what it would be like to share the eternal life enjoyed by the saints, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, which has not even entered into the heart of man. We desired with all our hearts to drink from the streams of your heavenly fountain, the fountain of life.

That was the substance of our talk, though not the exact words. But you know O Lord, that in the course of our conversation that day, the world and its pleasures lost all their attraction for us. My mother said: “Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world. I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect, for I know that you have even renounced earthly happiness to be his servant. So what am I doing here?”

At the end of her life, St. Monica apparently had no hopes whatsoever—but she had a superabundance of hope!

You can have lots of hopes, and still despair (as I said at the beginning); but if you have the virtue of hope planted firmly in your heart—like St. Monica and my mother both did—then you will never despair, even if all your hopes are in the past, or even if all your hopes are dashed in a single instant.

Having hopes is good; having hopes is very good; but having hope is much, much better.

Dear Lord, through the power of the Holy Spirit, fill us with hope—now and always. Amen.