Friday, August 15, 2008

Jesus, the ‘firstfruits’; Mary, the ‘secondfruits’; You and I, the ‘thirdfruits’

(Assumption 2008: This homily was given on August 15, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Corinthians 15: 20-27; Luke 1: 39-46.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Assumption 2008]

The Immaculate Conception, which we celebrate each year on December 8th, reminds us that Mary was different from us in one very important respect: she was conceived without original sin. She was also different from us in other ways. For example, she never committed a single sin in her entire life (no one of us can make that claim!), and she was different in that she had a unique calling from God to be the physical mother of the Savior of the world!

But today’s feast, the Assumption of Mary into heaven, reminds us that Mary was also like us in one very important way: she was a human person, who had a human body—a body that was made for earth and which had the potential to be “re-made” for heaven!

Today Catholics throughout the world gather to proclaim that this “potential” in our Blessed Mother became a reality on the day she was assumed into heaven. In today’s second reading from 1 Corinthians 15, we are told that when Jesus rose from the dead in his human body he was “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Well, I suppose you could say that the teaching of the Church is that Mary was the “secondfruits”. According to the dogma of the Assumption, Mary was taken up into heaven, body and soul, at the end of her earthly life. The Lord did not allow her flesh to decay in the grave. This was one aspect of her “blessedness”—a blessedness that she herself prophesied in the Magnificat when she said, “From this day all generations will call me blessed.”

The ultimate blessing for Mary was to be taken to heaven, body and soul, to be with her Divine Son in eternal glory.

Which brings us to what I would call “the thirdfruits”—US!

Jesus was the firstfruits because he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, body and soul, by his power as God. Mary was the secondfruits because Jesus raised up her body when her earthly life was over, and brought her into his kingdom, body and soul.

We are the thirdfruits because what happened to Mary will happen to those of us who die in the state of grace. With one difference: It won’t happen to us at the same time that it happened to the Blessed Mother; in other words, it won’t happen when we die! (I always like to review this on the feast of the Assumption, because many Catholics are unclear about it.) The Church’s teaching, based on the Sacred Scriptures, is that when we die our souls are separated from our bodies. Our souls go either to heaven, hell, or purgatory.

However, our bodies go into the grave; and, unless they’re preserved by some special miracle, they decompose there. But they will be raised up again: at the end of time—at the Final Judgment—and at that point they will be reunited with our souls. Then everyone will go—soul and body—either to heaven or hell; purgatory will cease to exist.

We call Mary “our hope” in the Hail, Holy Queen because we hope that what happened to her at the Assumption will happen to us at the end of the world. And so, in the preface for this Mass (which we will hear in a few moments), the priest says, “Today the virgin Mother of God was taken up into heaven to be the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection [the Church, remember, is us!], and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.”

Ultimately the feast of the Assumption is a reminder that the true goal of life is not to make a six-figure salary, or to “make-it” in the eyes of the world. The Assumption tells us that the true goal of life is heaven, and that it’s not only our souls but also our bodies that are meant to reside there forever (without all the aches and pains and imperfections that we have here on earth, of course!).

We sometimes say that Jesus died to save our souls. And that’s right—but it’s really only half-right. It’s much more accurate to say that Jesus died to save us, soul AND body.

This is why the Church teaches that our bodies are important, and that what we do to them and with them and for them matters!

Hedonists will sometimes accuse the Church of teaching that the body is “dirty”—as if the Church believes that the body doesn’t matter as much as the soul matters. Hopefully you now see what a lie that is! People who tell you to “do whatever you feel like doing” with your body are actually the ones who think that the body doesn’t matter. They’re the ones who say, “It’s my body and I’ll do whatever I want with it.”

The Church says, “No, your bodies deserve better! Your bodies deserve respect and care—they should never be abused with alcohol or drugs or promiscuous activity or through violence—simply because your bodies are made to reside forever with God!

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, that we will learn the lesson of your Assumption and treat ourselves—and our brothers and sisters—accordingly, always keeping in mind that their bodies and ours will someday be raised and glorified, just like yours and just like your Divine Son’s.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

One Of The Roots Of Fear And How To Deal With It

The moment when fear took control of Simon Peter

(Nineteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 10, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 14: 22-33.)

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

It’s a well-known fact that more people fear flying than driving (and that was the case even before September 11, 2001!).

This is because, as psychology professor David Myers has said, “We fear what we can’t control. We fear flying more than driving because we feel we are in control of the car, but we know we’re not in control of the plane.”

In today’s well-known gospel story from Matthew 14, Peter walked on the water in faith, but then sank in fear. And that fear was rooted in what he could not control, namely the weather! Scripture says, “Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened, and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’”

“When he saw how strong the wind was . . .”

Before that moment he was doing just fine; in fact, he was doing a lot better than “just fine”—he was doing what was humanly impossible! He had his eyes on Jesus—meaning that he was totally unconcerned with what he could not control—and he walked on the water.

But once he took his eyes off the Lord, the “uncontrollable” suddenly grabbed his attention—and that was the beginning of the end of his little stroll on the lake.

There are many things in life that we cannot control no matter how hard we try: certain aspects of our health, for example. We can do our best to take care of our body through diet and exercise and yearly check-ups with our doctor, but in spite of our best efforts it’s still possible to come down with a serious disease. We can’t control the other terrible drivers on the highway; we can’t control the price of gas; we can’t control the weather. We can’t control what other people say about us; we can’t control what other people do to hurt us (I’m sure you parents wished you could control your children in this way, but you can’t. They will disobey and hurt you at times in spite of all the good things you teach them, and the good example you try to give them.)

If we really stop and think about all the events and circumstances of our lives, we’ll realize that the vast majority of what we have to deal with each and every day is totally beyond our control.

But “the majority” is not “all”! That’s good news, because it means that there are some dimensions of our lives that we can control successfully if we choose to. And these, believe it or not, have a direct impact on how we deal with all of those uncontrollable things in life that sometimes cause us to be fearful.

Here Peter serves as a great example. As I noted at the beginning of my homily, he could not control the weather that day on the Sea of Galilee: he couldn’t stop the wind; he couldn’t calm the waves that were tossing around the apostles’ boat. But he did have the power to control his mind—his thoughts—in the midst of it all! And he actually did that very well—for a brief time.

That’s when he walked on the water. He had his mind centered on the Lord; he had his eyes riveted on Jesus; he put his complete and total focus on his Savior—and he acted fearlessly! Even though he was in the midst of a situation that he could not possibly control, he had no fear in his heart!

But then he chose to focus his attention somewhere else. He made the decision to take his mind and eyes off Jesus, and allowed himself to be distracted by what was uncontrollable.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Like Peter, we can also control our choices—especially our choices regarding Jesus Christ and our Catholic faith. We can choose, for example, to take the teachings of the Church seriously every day and apply them in every circumstance we face; we can choose to nourish our relationship with Jesus through daily prayer and frequent reception of the Eucharist; we can choose to read at least one passage from the Bible every day so that our thoughts get in line with God’s word; we can choose to read books that will build up and not undermine our faith; we can choose to strengthen (or repair if necessary) our relationship with Jesus by going to Confession on a regular basis.

If we choose to take positive, spiritual steps like these every day (all of which are under our control), they will have a direct, positive impact on how we deal with the many things in our lives that we cannot control. We will be spiritually stronger in the midst of those uncontrollable events, and less fearful.

Once again, look at Peter. The man who freaked out in the midst of some bad weather on the Sea of Galilee, later went to his death fearlessly! He obviously had changed. He obviously had grown spiritually. And his was no ordinary death, remember: Peter was crucified upside down near the obelisk that now stands in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

Jesus had said to him, “When you were a young man you fastened your belt and went about as you pleased; but when you are older you will stretch out your hands, and another will tie you fast and carry you off against your will.”

Peter could not control Nero and the Romans who condemned him to death. But he could control his inner response to their condemnation.

This time he made the right choice—and stuck with it! This time he chose to keep his eyes—the eyes of his soul—firmly fixed on Jesus till the end.

So today’s lesson is simple: By controlling what we can control in life, we strengthen ourselves to face the things that we cannot control. And this can eliminate—or at least lessen—our level of fear (perhaps even our fear of flying!).

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Chase Hilgenbrinck and Priestly Ministry

Chase Hilgenbrinck in his Revolution uniform

(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 3, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 55: 1-3; Romans 8: 35, 37-39; Matthew 14: 13-21.)

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

It was a big story—but relatively few people heard about it.

I have my own theories as to why, one of which is that it made the Catholic Church look really good; and, sadly, there are many in the secular press who would rather not publish any news story that paints the Catholic Church in a positive light.

But if you didn’t hear it before, you’ll hear it today, at this Mass.

It concerned a professional soccer player for the New England Revolution named Chase Hilgenbrinck, who shocked his teammates and most followers of pro soccer in early July, when he suddenly announced his retirement.

It was shocking first of all because he’s only 26-years-old and at the height of his physical abilities.

But it was also shocking to a lot of people because of why he’s leaving: he wants to be (of all things) a Catholic priest!

This fall he’ll begin 6 years of study at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmittsburg, Maryland (where Fr. Mike Sisco and Fr. Greg Stowe both studied; and where Frank Francese from our parish will be a student for the next 4 years). When he’s ordained, Chase Hilgenbrinck will go back to the Diocese of Peoria in Illinois to serve in a parish there.

Here are a few of the things Chase said when he announced his retirement:

  • “After years of discernment, I feel strongly that the Lord has called me to become a priest in the Catholic Church. Playing professional soccer has been my passion for a long time, and I feel blessed to have successfully lived out this dream. My passion now is to do the will of God, which is wanting only what he wants for me. Though I will miss the game of soccer, I know that I am moving on to something much greater.”
  • “I grew up as a Catholic. I was always involved in the Church, went to Catholic schools. It was when I got out on my own that my faith really became mine. I really embraced it.”
  • “I looked to strengthen my personal relationship with Christ. And when my personal life started to flourish, I couldn’t turn my back on that relationship.”
  • “It’s not that I’m ready to leave soccer. I still have a great passion for the game. I wouldn’t leave the game for just any other job. I’m moving on for the Lord. I want to do the will of the Lord. I want to do what he wants for me, not what I want to do for myself.”
  • “Delayed obedience is disobedience. We are all called to do something. I feel like my specific call is to the priesthood. So no, it was not possible to continue with soccer. It’s absolutely inevitable.”

It was nice to see that one person who reacted very positively to this news was Michael Burns, the New England Revolution’s vice president of player personnel. He was quoted as saying, “Chase said it was time for him, that he had been thinking long and hard. Purely from the Revs standpoint, it’s too bad. But a lot of players leave the game not on their own terms. He’s clearly left on his own terms, which is great for him.

“We understand Chase’s decision to retire from soccer and pursue his mission of helping others, and we support his desire to make this change in his life. We wish Chase the best and thank him for the service and leadership he provided in his brief tenure with us.”

In today’s gospel reading from Matthew 14, Jesus says to his 12 future priests, “Give them some food yourselves.” Why did he say that to them, when he knew he would feed the crowd himself in a few minutes by working this tremendous miracle?

I think it was to prepare them in a remote way for their future ministry. Within 3 years, they would be called upon to help people spiritually, emotionally—and even physically—as priests, and this gave them an opportunity to think about how they would do that. And, of course, this event also gave Jesus the opportunity to teach his future priests that God could and would do extraordinary things through them, if they simply trusted and prayed and stepped out in faith.

Our 3 readings today are not specifically about priestly ministry. But I prepared this homily shortly after reading Chase Hilgenbrinck’s story, so the priesthood was definitely on my mind as I reflected on these 3 passages. I just mentioned the gospel. In the first reading, the Lord tells us to come to him in our spiritual thirst. He says, “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. . . . Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.”

The role of a priest is to bring people into a close relationship with God through word and sacrament: the God who quenches their spiritual thirst and who gives them what they need (which is not necessarily what they want!).

And then, in our second reading, St. Paul speaks of all the things that we usually think of as separating us from God: anguish, distress, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword—in other words, our sufferings and trials. How often have you said, “God, why are you allowing me to go through this? Don’t you care? Don’t you love me anymore?”

I confess—I’ve had that thought many times!

In part, the ministry of a priest is to help people to understand that God never, ever abandons them—even in their darkest moments—and that the only thing that can possibly separate them from the Lord is their sin.

And the easy cure for that is repentance in the confessional!

Chase Hilgenbrinck believes all these things. He believes the truths contained in these 3 important passages from the Bible. He also believes that acting on these truths and spreading them to the world full time as a Catholic priest is more important than a career in pro sports.

Do you believe that?

If you do, and you’re a single man, you’ll at least consider the possibility that God might be calling you to serve him as a priest.

If you do, and you’re not eligible to serve yourself, you’ll at least pray for vocations every day.

And if you’re married with a son you’ll also encourage that son of yours to be open to a vocation—and then support him if he’s called.