Sunday, September 28, 2008

Is It Good to Change Your Mind?

Pope Paul VI

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 28, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 21: 28-32.)

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

I knew a man that I did not care for

And then one day this man gave me a call

We sat and talked about things on our minds

And now this man he is a friend of mine

If you’re over 45—like I am—you might recognize those words as some of the lyrics to a popular song of the 1960s, “Reach out in the Darkness”. I thought of them in preparation for this homily, because they’re the words of a man who has obviously changed his mind.

In this case, what the man did was a good thing—since it led to the healing of a bad relationship he had with another human person. But the act of changing one’s mind is morally neutral in and of itself. That’s important for us to realize.

In other words, the act can be either morally good or morally evil: it all depends on WHAT YOU’RE CHANGING YOUR MIND ABOUT!

Today’s gospel parable of the man with two sons provides us with a perfect illustration of this truth.

Notice that both boys changed their minds in this story: the first initially refused to go to work in his father’s vineyard, but then he changed his mind and went; the second initially said he would go, but then didn’t.

In the first instance, the son’s act of changing his mind was good, because in doing so he ended up honoring his father by his obedience; in the second instance, the son’s act of changing his mind was bad, because in doing so he was refusing to obey the 4th commandment.

Jesus used this story to reprimand the chief priests and elders of the people, who didn’t like John the Baptist, and who refused to change their minds about him, even after they saw tax collectors and prostitutes experience genuine conversions through John’s preaching and ministry.

The chief priests and elders refused to change their minds when they should have changed their minds because of pride—and probably also because of fear: they feared that if they accepted and honored John as a prophet, they’d lose some of their power and influence among the people.

Which only proves that human nature hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years!

As was the case at the time of Jesus, people sometimes refuse to change their minds when they should change their minds, while others do change their minds when they should not.

Concerning the latter phenomenon, do you know what Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Richard Gephardt and Al Gore have in common?

They all “changed their minds” on the abortion issue—when they shouldn’t have! Most people don’t realize that all those politicians were once pro-life.

But not anymore. They changed their minds in the wrong way for material gain and to increase their popularity. Unfortunately, those are very common reasons why people change their minds when they shouldn’t.

So is the fear of punishment: you’ll recall that this is why Simon Peter “changed his mind” about Jesus on Holy Thursday evening in the courtyard of the high priest.

He was afraid of being hurt—or killed.

Or it can even be something as simple as laziness. In fact, that’s probably why the second son in this parable changed his mind and never went to his father’s vineyard: he just didn’t feel like working that afternoon!

But, thankfully, it does work in the opposite direction sometimes. Like the first son, many people do change their minds and end up doing what’s right—even when they might be tempted to do otherwise.

In this regard, a few weeks ago I came across a great online article by Dr. William E. May, in which he defended the Church’s teaching regarding artificial contraception. Dr. May is a well-known theologian, who also happens to be a married man with children—and grandchildren.

He’s not a celibate priest.

But the interesting thing is, 40 years ago—in 1968—he was on the opposite side of this issue. And he was quite vocal about it! 1968 was the year that Pope Paul VI issued his famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in which he reiterated the Church’s traditional teaching on this subject, much to the chagrin of many Catholics—including theologians like young Dr. William E. May. In fact, May was one of the more than 600 professors who signed the infamous “statement of dissent” as soon as the encyclical came out!

He was one of the pope’s biggest critics!

But he eventually changed his mind. And now he writes books defending and explaining the truth on this and many other moral issues. As he later said, “I was beginning to see that if contraception is justifiable, then perhaps artificial insemination, test-tube reproduction, and similar modes of generating life outside the marital embrace are morally justifiable too. . . . I began to realize that the moral theology invented to justify contraception could be used to justify any kind of deed. I saw that it was a consequentialist, utilitarian kind of argument, that it was a theory which repudiated the notion of intrinsically evil acts. I began to realize how truly prophetic the pope had been, and how providential it was that he had been given the strength to resist the tremendous pressures brought to bear upon him.”

Dr. May could have added, “Pressures brought to bear on him by people like me!

It was good for Dr. May to change his mind.

It was good for the first son in this parable to change his mind.

And sometimes it’s good for each and every one of us to change our mind.

May the Holy Spirit help us to know when those times are, and may that same Holy Spirit give us the courage we need to actually do it.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Equality: What It Means, and What It Doesn’t Mean

St. Maximilian Kolbe

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 21, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 20: 1-16a.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2008]

It’s not fair, is it?

From a purely human perspective, the people who worked a full day in the hot sun were treated unfairly by this landowner, who gave the very same pay to the people he hired at 5 o’clock in the afternoon—who ended up working for only one hour!

But, of course, we can never look at this or any other parable that Jesus told from “a purely human perspective.” Although even on that level it’s a great story, isn’t it?—because it reminds us of the simple truth that life is not fair! Hard working people sometimes suffer and experience great hardships; lazy people sometimes prosper and have it relatively easy.

But the primary point of the parable is NOT about the fairness or unfairness of life! The primary point concerns the generosity of God, who makes heaven possible to Gentiles like us, and to those who come to him in repentance even at the very end of their time on this earth.

This means that, in a certain sense, WE GENTILES are just like those 5 o’clock workers! The Hebrews—the Jews—on the other hand, are just like the workers hired at the beginning of the day. Remember, the Hebrews were called by God centuries before we were! But now we are also called; consequently we have just as much right as they do to become members of the Church—and an equal possibility of attaining eternal salvation through Jesus Christ.

Now that you realize that those 5 o’clock workers symbolize people like us, I’ll bet the landowner doesn’t seem so unfair anymore, does he?

You could say that this parable is ultimately about EQUALITY: It teaches us that God loves all people equally; it teaches us that we all have an equal dignity in God’s eyes as human beings created in his image and likeness, and it teaches us that we all have an equal opportunity to go to heaven by the grace of Jesus Christ—even if our conversion happens at the final moment of our life. It also teaches that we have an equal obligation to give God our complete obedience and service. We are all called to be workers in his vineyard.

What the parable does NOT teach is that everything else in life is supposed to be equal!

I mention this because there are some who seem to believe that this gospel teaches that everyone on earth is supposed to have the same amount of everything—including money and material possessions.

But that’s not true! Yes, the Catechism, based on the teaching of Jesus, does condemn materialism and greed and what it calls “excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples,” but this doesn’t mean that it’s the will of God that those who have a lot should be taxed or robbed into poverty!

I recently came across a great writing of St. Maximilian Kolbe on this very subject. Listen to St. Maximilian’s words. If you’re like me, you’ll react by saying, “Wow, he’s right. That makes perfect sense!”

He wrote:

“Let us imagine that one day all the inhabitants of the world would assemble and put into effect this sharing of all goods; and that in fact each person, granted that the world is very big, received an exactly equal portion of the wealth existing on earth.

“Then what? That very evening one man might say, ‘Today I worked hard: now I am going to take rest.’ Another might state, ‘I understand this sharing of goods well; so let’s drink and celebrate such an extraordinary happening.’ On the other hand, another might say, ‘Now I am going to set to work with a will so as to reap the greatest benefit I can from what I have received.’ And so, starting on the next day, the first man would have only the amount given him; the second would have less, and the third would have increased his.

“Then what do we do? Start redistributing the wealth all over again?

“Even if everybody began to work right away with all his might and at the same time, the results would not be identical for all. There are, in fact, different kinds of work which are unequally productive; nor do all workers enjoy the same identical capacities. This leads to a diversity of results achieved, and consequently to differences in people’s profits.”

St. Maximilian was right. Here on earth, not everyone will be equal in every way.

But that’s also the way it will be in heaven!

Did you realize that?

Yes, everyone has the potential to go to heaven: even if they’re not Jewish, and even if they come to Jesus in repentance on their deathbeds—at “the 5 o’clock hour,” so to speak, of their lives. We learn that, as I said earlier, in this parable.

But this doesn’t mean that everyone’s experience of God in heaven will be exactly the same! In heaven, not everyone will be “equal” in that sense. We know this because Jesus often spoke of “the least” and “the greatest” in the kingdom of his Father.

Those two terms, “least” and “greatest” imply a difference in people’s status—and in their experience.

The key here, as usual, is HOLINESS: the holier a person is when he leaves this life, the greater his capacity will be to experience God in heaven—which is why it’s not good to wait until your deathbed to repent!

May this be all the motivation we need to “work” for holiness every day: to pray often, to get to Mass at least weekly, to get to Confession regularly, to forgive everyone in our lives, and to be charitable to the poor and the needy, according to the means God has given us.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Triumph Of The Cross Is A Given; The Triumph Of Our Crosses Is Not.

(Feast of the Triumph of the Cross: This homily was given on September 14, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Philippians 2: 6-11; John 3: 13-17.)

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

The triumph of the Cross is a given; the triumph of our crosses is not.

“Fr. Ray, what exactly does that mean?”

I’m so glad you asked!

The triumph of the Cross—the Cross of Jesus Christ—is one of the most important and fundamental beliefs of Christianity.

Of course, to those who do not share our faith in Jesus, it probably sounds like the ultimate oxymoron—the ultimate contradiction in terms. And that’s understandable, because in the ancient world crucifixion was a sign of defeat, not a sign of victory!

It would be like someone today speaking of “the triumph of the electric chair” or “the triumph of the firing squad”.

To most people those expressions would make no sense!

Only those of us who have faith can see the victory that came in and through Jesus’ sufferings! That victory is spoken of in today’s second reading from Philippians 2, where we are told that Jesus “humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a Cross. [But] because of this God highly exalted him [in the resurrection], and bestowed upon him the name above all other names.”

Jesus said in today’s gospel reading that he would be “lifted up” in crucifixion, so that he would become the source of eternal life for all who believe in him.

And that’s precisely what happened on Good Friday: Jesus took our sins upon himself on the Cross (including, incidentally, the sins we haven’t even committed yet), and made atonement for them to the heavenly Father.

This is why St. Andrew of Crete went so far as to say that the Cross was Jesus’ “trophy”: he said that because “it was the means by which the devil was wounded and death conquered.”

Put it this way: Without the victory of the Cross, there would be no resurrection, no forgiveness, and no hope of heaven!

It’s as simple as that.

I said at the beginning of my homily that the triumph of the Cross is “a given”. By that I meant that it’s an unchangeable fact of our Catholic Christian faith. Jesus won the victory over sin and death by his sacrifice on Good Friday, and nothing can ever negate that victory.

It’s true, and it will always remain true—even if some people don’t believe it!

But, if you recall, I said something else a few moments ago. I said the triumph of the Cross is a given, but the triumph of our crosses is not a given.

The good news is that because of Jesus’ victory on his Cross, we now have the potential to experience many “victories” ourselves in the midst of our personal crosses. But having the potential and realizing the potential are two different things!

I think one of the problems is that some of us don’t know what these potential victories are; hence we don’t pursue them, nor do we recognize them when they actually do occur.

So what are they? What are these potential victories—these potential “triumphs” that we can experience through our daily crosses?

Well, think, for a moment, of the major sufferings you’ve experienced in your life.

Have you learned any positive lessons from those crosses? Have you learned the importance, for example, of being compassionate? Have you learned the importance of trying to be more patient? Have you learned to put other problems in perspective? Have you learned what’s really important in life?

Well, those positive lessons you’ve learned—whatever they might be—are victories! They represent the triumph of YOUR cross! That’s one reason why, when I’m going through something difficult, I always say to God, “Lord, what are you trying to teach me through this suffering? Help me to get the message!”

Another question: How have you changed in a positive way through the crosses you’ve experienced? This is a little different than the first question, because, as we all know, it’s possible for a person to learn a lesson intellectually, but never really apply it to his life! This question is specifically about positive change. I know people, for example, who have become less materialistic after they’ve been afflicted with a serious disease. They’ve suddenly become much more generous with their money, time and possessions. That positive change is a victory of God in them. I know people who have become much more humble after they’ve lost their job, or had a struggle with drugs or alcohol. That positive change is a triumph of their personal cross.

Another question: For whom have you offered up your sufferings? Like St. Paul, Catholics are supposed to believe that offered up suffering is like offered up prayer: it draws down God’s blessings upon us and upon other people. Well, to the extent that you consciously do this—to the extent that you offer up your personal daily crosses to God in union with the Cross of Jesus Christ—you experience victory, since you do something good with an evil you’re experiencing in your life.

Have your sufferings brought you closer to God? This is yet another way that you can triumph through your cross. In fact, there are probably people in this church right now who returned to the practice of their faith after something bad happened to them.

Another question: Have you ever used your suffering as an occasion to share Christ with someone else? If so, that act of witnessing was a victory—a triumph—of your cross. Not long ago I had to take a taxi cab to a doctor’s office, and I ended up getting into a conversation about Christ with the cab driver—a young woman in her late 20’s—on the way there. I wasn’t happy about having to go to the doctor, but I still used the occasion of that cross to do something good—spiritually—for someone else.

Looking back on it now, I realize that was a victory.

And finally, by looking to Jesus and reflecting on his Cross, have you found strength to deal with your own sufferings? If you have, then you’ve experienced victory and triumph by allowing the Lord to build you up in faith and hope. Your cross may not have gone away, but you were better able to deal with it.

My brothers and sisters, these victories are all possibilities that can become realities for us every day, since crosses come to us every day. And to some extent at least, they’re under our control!

We can’t always choose the sufferings we experience in life—that’s true—but we can choose to have victories in the midst of them! I can choose, for example, to learn from my crosses; I can choose to change in a positive way in response to my crosses; I can choose to offer up my crosses; I can choose to let my crosses bring me closer to God; I can choose to share my faith with others when I have a cross, and I can choose to look to Jesus for the strength I need to deal with my cross.

All this having been said, my prayer today is as follows (and I hope you make it your prayer as well):

“Dear Lord, since I’m going to suffer one way or another, help me to make the most of the opportunity. In the midst of the many crosses that come into my life, help me to experience all the victories that I possibly can—every day!”

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Is Silence Golden?

Jennifer O'Neill

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 7, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Romans 13: 8-10; Matthew 18: 15-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2008]

“Silence is golden.”

You’ve heard that saying before; you’ve probably even used that saying from time to time in conversations with other people.

And I will admit that there may be some situations in life when it’s true—when silence is indeed desirable (did I hear someone say, “At homily time during Mass”?—I certainly hope not!); but it’s never desirable when sin and evil are involved.

Silence may sometimes be golden, but not in the face of evil and sin. In those situations silence is harmful, destructive—and sometimes it’s even deadly.

And this is something that almost everyone believes deep down inside—even atheists and materialists and others who oppose Jesus Christ and his gospel!

Case in point: the controversy surrounding the conduct of Pope Pius XII in World War II.

According to some contemporary historians, what was the most glaring fault of Pope Pius XII? What was he most guilty of?


Right? They claim that he was totally silent in the face of the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews during the Second World War.

Now the truth is that Pius XII was not silent. He spoke up and he spoke out many times—and for that he was praised after the war by prominent Jews like Albert Einstein, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and the Chief Rabbi of Rome (who eventually became a Catholic himself due to Pius’ example and influence).

But even though Pius’ accusers are wrong, the fact that they’re so upset does show that they believe exactly what we believe: that in the face of evil silence isn’t golden, it’s reprehensible!

On a separate subject, I read an interesting statistic the other day. According to the New York Times—whose editors are definitely pro-abortion—64 percent of Americans oppose the idea of abortion-on-demand.

64 percent!

So how come Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land?

Why might we elect a man for president this year who got a 100% positive rating from the abortion rights group NARAL; a man who voted against a law in his home state that would have mandated medical care for babies born alive in botched abortions?

How could these things be happening?

The simple answer is “Silence”: the deafening silence of at least 64 percent of our citizens—including many members of the clergy.

Thankfully some Americans have resolved to be “silent no more” on this crucial issue; and it’s interesting to see who many of them are: women who have had abortions! In fact, a number of them—like actress Jennifer O’Neill—have actually formed a group with the name “Silent No More.”

These are women who have suffered spiritual, emotional and even physical consequences from choosing to end their pregnancies, and who are now courageously coming forward to tell their stories to the world. As O’Neill said to a group of government officials in Washington back in 2002, "I had an abortion and paid for it all my life until I healed and am now able to help other women." May God bless these women of “Silent No More”! They’ll probably do a lot more to change the immoral abortion laws of this nation than most of our politicians will.

I encourage you to look up this organization online. And if you’ve been personally wounded by abortion, I encourage you to consider joining; it might do a great deal to help further your healing—which is certainly what God wants for you.

In today’s first reading from Ezekiel 33, God warns the prophet not to be silent concerning the sins of the people of Israel: “You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me (i.e., you shall NOT be silent!). If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.”

Obviously this word has a special application to bishops, priests and deacons in the Church today. Please pray that we all will take it seriously—for our sakes as well as for yours!

Let me add that this is why it amazes me when people are critical of the pope—or their bishop—or their pastor—for preaching against sin.

What do they expect us to do? Do they want us to allow people to go to hell? Do they want us to condemn ourselves?

After he murdered his brother Abel in the book of Genesis, Cain asked the famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Well, in today’s gospel reading from Matthew 18 Jesus gives Cain and us the answer: “Yes, you are—at least to a certain extent; at least to the extent that you are responsible for doing what you can to help him recognize and turn away from his sin!”

Bishops, priests and deacons are called to do this for the entire family of God here on earth by their preaching, teaching and personal witness—as Ezekiel was called to do it for God’s people in Old Testament Israel.

But fraternal correction is also a requirement for all of you! Notice that Jesus does NOT say here: “If your brother sins against you, be silent, because silence is golden”?

He says the exact opposite! He says, in effect, “If your brother sins against you, don’t be silent! First go and tell him his fault, but keep it between you and him alone.”

If that doesn’t work, Jesus says, go tell others and get them to help you; and if that doesn’t work, seek assistance from the Church. Finally, if that doesn’t work, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector (which basically means to avoid his company for a time, lest you become an accomplice in his sin).

It does not mean to completely close the door on the relationship you have with the person! And how do we know that? We know it because Jesus himself never closed the door on anyone—including Gentiles and tax collectors! He didn’t participate in their sins; he didn’t condone their sins in any way; however he did always welcome them when they recognized their sins and repented.

Think of St. Matthew; think of Zacchaeus.

Is there anyone in your life right now that you’ve “closed the door on,” so to speak?

If there is, then I think the Lord would say that this is a good time to at least unlock the door to that person! They might keep it closed on you, but you must not keep it closed on them. Who knows?—you may be the one who eventually leads them to salvation in Christ!

Stranger things have happened.

So today our prayer should be for courage—for fortitude (which is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit): “O Holy Spirit, give me the courage to say what I need to say, what I should say, what you want me to say—in every situation. May I never, ever be guilty of the terrible sin of silence.”