Sunday, November 30, 2008

To ‘Watch,’ You Must Focus—On The Right Things

(First Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on November 30, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 13: 33-37.)

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

To ‘watch,’ you must focus—on the right things.

Jesus says to us in this Gospel text from Mark 13, “Be watchful!” And he repeats that message twice with the simple command to “watch.”

He’s speaking here, of course, about his second coming: something that will occur for each of us either at the end of time or at the end of our earthly life—whichever comes first!

To watch means to be ready; to watch means to be prepared. But in order to be prepared we need to be focused: we need to be focused on the right things; we need to be focused on what really matters.

This is an idea that’s found in our Scripture readings on the First Sunday of Advent every year, as we begin what should be a season of spiritual preparation for Christmas. In fact, in the thinking of the Church, the 4 weeks of preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s coming at Christmas is supposed to be a sign of our lifelong preparation for meeting the Lord face to face when he comes to us at the end of our lives (or at the end of time).

One is supposed to parallel the other. The way we are preparing to meet Jesus at Christmas is supposed to parallel the way we are preparing throughout our lives to meet the Lord at the end.

Now does that thought scare you? I hope not; but it might, given how many Christians prepare for Christmas every year.

Let me put it to you this way: If being watchful means being focused on the right things, and if our focus during Advent is supposed to be a sign of how focused we are on the right things during the rest of the year, then a lot of Christians are in big trouble!

Because at this time of the year all too many followers of Jesus are focused on all the wrong things! They should be ‘watching’ by focusing on their relationship with God and on works of charity: making extra time for prayer, reaching out to the needy, spending some quality time with the people they love, repenting of their sins (and getting to Confession if they’re Catholic).

But let’s be honest about it, for a lot of Christians those are the last things on their minds in the month of December!

You know, if there’s one blessing to this economic crisis we’re in, it’s that many Americans will be challenged—and perhaps even motivated—to focus on the right things during the next 4 weeks. They won’t have as much money to spend, and so they’ll actually have some time—and hopefully some desire—to work at improving their spiritual lives.

Yes, God can bring good even out of this bad economy!

Apropos of all this, last year, in mid-December, someone sent me a little reflection, entitled, “A Christmas Version of 1 Corinthians 13.” (It's really an Advent version of the passage.) 1 Corinthians 13, of course, is the famous biblical passage on love that you hear at so many weddings. Let me read it to you now, since it ties in perfectly with the message of this homily:

If I decorate my house perfectly with bright red bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny Christmas balls, but do not show love to others, I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals, and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to others, I’m just another cook.

If I buy all the right gifts, and wrap them with the most beautiful wrapping paper I can find, but do not show love to others, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the tree with garland and ornaments, and attend a myriad of holiday parties, but do not focus on the Lord Jesus Christ, I have missed the point of the season.

Love stops the cooking to hug a child.

Love sets aside the decorating to kiss one’s spouse.

Love is kind, though harried and weary.

Love does not envy another’s home with its coordinated Christmas china and table linens, but is content with what it has.

Love does not yell at the children to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.

Love does not give only to those who are able to give in return, but rejoices in giving to those who cannot.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, fancy golf clubs will rust;

But the gift of true love, will never pass away.

To ‘watch,’ you must focus—on the right things.

May the words of that little reflection inspire us to do that this Advent, and in every season of the year.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Is Good For You

(Thanksgiving 2008: This homily was given on November 27, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Sirach 50: 22-24; 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9; Luke 17: 11-19.)

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

My message this morning is very simple: Thanksgiving is good for you.

Here I’m talking specifically about the activity, not the holiday (although the holiday we’re celebrating is also a wonderful thing: a great opportunity to get together with family and friends, to watch some football, to eat ‘a little bit’, and maybe even to take a mid-afternoon snooze, if you don’t have to do the dishes!).

But the holiday is ultimately about saying thank you to God for the many blessings he has given to us. This, of course, is an activity that we should engage in every single day, not just once a year on the last Thursday of November.

We should do it, first of all, as a matter of pure justice: “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”

Where have you heard those words before?

God is the one “from whom all good things come” (as it says in the third Eucharistic Prayer); therefore he deserves to be thanked.

In fact, to fail to thank the Lord is actually a sin—a sin against justice.

And when we do say thank you to God, our gratitude should not be superficial! In other words, we shouldn’t say thank you only for our material blessings; we shouldn’t say thank you only for our material blessings and for the people in our lives. When we say thank you to God, it should be for all the natural AND supernatural blessings he has given—and is continually giving—to us. These supernatural blessings include the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity; they include the other gifts of the Holy Spirit; and they include the sacraments.

Did you notice that our first two readings today cover both types of blessings? In our first reading from Sirach 50, God’s natural blessings are focused on. It says there, “And now, bless the God of all, who has done wondrous things on earth; Who fosters people’s growth from their mother’s womb, and fashions them according to his will.”

And then, in this text from 1 Corinthians 1, St. Paul focuses on God’s supernatural gifts to us. He says, “I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, that in him you were enriched in every way . . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”

But our God is a very generous Lord. Yes, we are to give him thanks because it’s right, because it’s just, because we should! But whenever we do that—whenever we give to God the thanks that he so rightly deserves—he responds by giving back to us.

That’s why I began my homily with the words, “Thanksgiving is good for you.” And not surprisingly, it’s good for you on the natural level and the supernatural level. Supernaturally it’s good for you for the simple reason that love tends to increase with thanksgiving. One of the reasons, for example, that people love their parents so much is because their parents have given them a lot, and they’re deeply grateful to them.

So growing in gratitude to God is actually an indirect way of growing in faithfulness to the first and greatest commandment: the commandment to LOVE God with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength!

But even on a purely natural level, thanksgiving has many benefits—and there’s a growing body of psychological evidence to support this fact. Last year, for example, a few days after Thanksgiving, an article appeared on the religion page of the Providence Journal, entitled, “The Benefits of Gratitude.” The article made reference to some recent “thanksgiving” research that’s been done by two college professors, Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California, and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami.

One experiment the professors did was very interesting. They had a group of adults keep “gratitude journals” for a period of time (in these journals, they would write down the many things they were grateful for), and they compared the attitudes and habits of these men and women with the attitudes and habits of two other groups of adults who didn’t spend any special time giving thanks. In one of his books, Fr. Stephen Rossetti summarizes the results of this experiment as follows:

“Physically, the gratitude group exercised more, had fewer physical symptoms, and slept better. Psychologically, they reported higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination and energy. They experienced less depression and stress as well as high levels of optimism and life satisfaction, without denying the negative aspects of their lives. Spiritually, they were more likely to help others, they were less envious of others, less materialistic, more generous, and more likely to attend religious services and engage in religious activities.” (from “The Joy of Priesthood,” pages 156-157)

So here’s an idea: Why not start a “gratitude journal” yourself—or at least make the resolution to engage in a personal weekly “gratitude session,” where you stop for 10 or 15 minutes and reflect on all the natural and supernatural blessings in your life? You could make it a part of your personal prayer time one day of the week—or every day of the week.

Remember, thanksgiving is good for you—but it’s only good for you if you actually stop and give thanks!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Church: A Reverse Representative Monarchy

(Christ the King (A): This homily was given on November 23, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 25: 31-46.)

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

  • Catholics For A Free Choice
  • Call to Action
  • Dignity USA
  • Women’s Ordination Conference
  • New Ways Ministry

Those are the names of 5 different organizations, all of which claim to be Catholic. You can look them all up online if you wish, as I did the other day in preparation for this homily.

The problem is, they all advocate and promote ideas which are contrary to the official teaching of the Church. That means they’re not really Catholic at all!

Catholics For a Free Choice, for example, is a pro-abortion lobbying group that has no formal connection with Catholicism, except for its name.

And the name obviously contains a lie! If you’re truly Catholic, you cannot be for free choice when it comes to killing babies!

Women’s Ordination Conference is a group pushing for the ordination of women to the priesthood—something that the Church says will not happen and CANNOT happen because it is not the will of Jesus Christ.

Dignity and New Ways Ministry are, in point of fact, gay-rights groups that want the Church to say yes to the gay lifestyle—something that the Church will never do.

Thankfully, there’s another great organization out there called Courage. Some of you have probably heard of it. It was started many years ago by Fr. John Harvey. The purpose of Courage is to support and assist homosexual Catholics who are sincerely trying to be faithful to Jesus and his gospel.

If you know any Catholics who struggle with same-sex attraction, please tell them to join Courage and to avoid groups like Dignity and New Ways Ministry.

These are just a few of the many organizations out there that try to pass themselves off as Catholic, when in fact they are anti-Catholic in much of what they teach and stand for.

I wonder how the men and women who are involved in these groups feel about the feast we’re celebrating in the Church this weekend: the Feast of Christ the King.

My guess is that they absolutely, positively hate it, and would dearly love to see it taken off the Liturgical calendar completely—or at least given a new name.

How about, “the Feast of Jesus Christ, the President” or “the Feast of Jesus Christ, the Governor”?

Those titles, I think, would be much more appealing to them, because they imply that the Church is a kind of democracy.

However the Church, as Jesus Christ established and designed it, is not democratic at all!

This, I think, is why so many Catholics here in the United States have trouble accepting the authoritative teachings of the Catechism, and why they have difficulty with the idea that the pope or a council can teach infallibly in the name of Jesus Christ: they expect the Church to function like the American government!

But that’s a false expectation! As today’s feast makes crystal clear, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior is a king, not a president or a governor! And because he’s a king, his word is law! Notice in today’s gospel passage from Matthew 25—in this famous scene of the Last Judgment—Jesus does not call each person forward individually and then say to everyone else, “Okay, let’s have a vote on whether or not this person should go to heaven”; he simply separates people into two groups and makes his final decree.

Basta! Finito! End of story.

There’s no court of appeals. He’s the king; his word is law, and his judgment is final.

And, of course, because he’s God, his judgment is also perfect and without error!

That’s one of the things that makes him different from all earthly kings—and presidents and governors, for that matter.

Here in the United States we have a democratic form of government; although, strictly speaking we do not live in a democracy. We live in a representative republic: we don’t vote on everything ourselves; we elect other people to represent us and to make laws on our behalf.

The Church, we need to understand, is completely different. The Church is what I would call a “reverse representative monarchy.”

In the representative republic we call the United States, our senators and congressmen represent us to the president. (At least that’s one way to look at it.)

There’s an “upward motion”.

In the Church, the pope and the bishops “represent” Jesus Christ to us through their ministry and teaching: Jesus Christ, who is the King, not the president. There’s a “downward motion.”

It’s a reverse representative monarchy.

Jesus said to Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth, will be bound in heaven;” and he said to all the apostles, “He who hears you hears me.”

The role of the Holy Father and the bishops in union with him is to pass on to us the decrees of the King! They don’t make the truths concerning faith and morals—they have no power to do that; they only teach and defend them. They represent the King to us and to the world.

This is why polls in the Church and about the Church are often meaningless—absolutely meaningless. Tell that to the people at ABC, NBC, CBS, and the cable news networks!

Now please don’t misunderstand. If it’s a poll, for example, concerning how a parish should celebrate its anniversary, then it’s a valid poll. (We had a one like that here in 2004—remember? I had everyone vote on what activities they thought we should have to celebrate our 50th year of existence.)

But if a poll is taken on whether or not the Church should approve of abortion, or artificial birth control, or euthanasia, or pre-marital sex, or some other sin, it’s absolutely meaningless and irrelevant! Even if 99.999% of baptized Catholics said that they thought the Church should say Amen to those things, it would not happen.

Nothing would change. The teachings would remain exactly the same.

And ultimately it would not be because the bishops and the pope said so.

It would be because Jesus Christ, the King, said so!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why Same-Sex Marriage Is Bad For Children

(Thirty-third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 16, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Proverbs 31: 1-013, 19-20, 30-31; Sirach 26: 1.)

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

The message of today’s first reading from Proverbs 31 can be summed up with a line from the Book of Sirach, chapter 26: “Happy the husband of a really good wife.”

Notice, if you would, that this line of the Bible does not say, “Happy the husband of a really good husband”; nor does it say, for that matter, “Happy the wife of a really good wife.”

But there are some in our country right now who would gladly make those changes to this verse of Sacred Scripture if they had the power to do so.

Needless to say, the Bible recognizes no other configuration for marriage than 1 man and 1 woman.

Do you agree with the Scriptures?

Can you imagine a priest asking that question to the members of his congregation 40 or 50 years ago? I was ordained in 1985, and I can’t imagine asking it at Masses back then!

But it’s definitely a valid question now.

In decades past, if you even implied that marriage was for 2 members of the same gender, or for 1 man and several women, or for 1 woman and several men, the average person on the street—or in the pew—would have called you crazy!

But now when you say things like that, you’re called “progressive” in some circles.

And yet, my brothers and sisters, in spite of all the efforts to redefine marriage which have been made in recent years by the Hollywood elite, the liberal media, high-powered college professors—and activist judges who legislate from the bench—the majority of Americans haven’t bought it.

At least not yet. This was demonstrated once again in this past election, praise God, as voters in 3 states rejected so-called gay or same-sex marriage. By the way, that includes the state of California—which has the reputation of being EXTREMELY liberal on social issues.

This fact alone should give the defenders of marriage a lot of hope!

Of course, we’d better not make the mistake of sitting on our past laurels! As Catholics, we need to keep working to promote marriage as God designed it, because the enemies of traditional marriage are already plotting their next attack—which will probably come in the courts.

Have you noticed, incidentally, that this is the only way they’ve been able to get laws on marriage changed—by forcing their will on the people through activist judges? That’s what happened in Massachusetts, and it’s what happened in nearby Connecticut. On the other hand, when democracy has been allowed to function properly, and they’ve put the issue to a vote in a particular state, the people have consistently said no—even in a state like California!

Let me share with you now a few insights from an article that appeared in the Rhode Island Catholic a few months ago. This article was entitled, “Love isn’t enough: 5 reasons why same-sex marriage will harm children,” and it was written by a clinical psychologist, Dr. Trayce Hansen.

I do this today because, if we’re intent on defending traditional marriage, we have got to be able to give people solid reasons why legalizing so-called gay marriage is not in the best interests of society as a whole, and of children in particular.

So here they are. Hopefully you’ll be able to remember them.

(But don’t worry; if you forget them, you can always consult my homily blog. The web address is in the bulletin.)

Reason #1 why it’s in the best interest of children to be raised by both a mother and a father: Mother-love and father-love are qualitatively different, and a child needs the complementary balance of the two. Dr. Hansen says here, “the unconditional-leaning love of a mother and the conditional-leaning love of a father . . . are essential to a child’s development. Either of these forms of love without the other can be problematic.”

In other words, moms and dads tend to show their love for their children in different ways, and children grow and develop best when they experience the love of both a mother and a father.

Reason #2: Children progress through predictable and necessary developmental stages. Some stages require more from a mother, while others require more from a father. Dr. Hansen says, “For example, infants tend to do better in the care of their mother. . . . Fathers are generally needed later when they play a restraining role in the lives of their children.” (“No, you’re not taking the car out tonight; end of discussion!”)

Reason #3: Boys and girls need an opposite-sexed parent to help them moderate their own gender-linked inclinations. Dr. Hansen says, “Boys generally embrace reason over emotion, rules over relationships, risk-taking over caution, and standards over compassion, while girls generally embrace the reverse. An opposite-sexed parent helps a child keep his or her own natural proclivities in check by teaching—verbally and nonverbally—the worth of opposing tendencies.”

Reason #4: Same-sex marriage will increase sexual confusion and experimentation by implying that all choices are equally acceptable and desirable. From my reading and observation—as well as from my discussions with lots of teenagers—I would say that a great deal of this kind of experimentation is already going on, resulting in many young people being introduced to the gay lifestyle who otherwise would not be.

But, of course, the legalizing of same-sex marriage would make the problem even worse.

And finally, reason #5: If society permits same-sex marriage, it also will have to allow other types of marriage. This is not the first time you’ve heard that warning given from this pulpit, is it? And it makes perfect sense, does it not? I mean, if Adam can marry Steve, then why can’t Adam marry Steve and Stan—or Steve, Stan and Eve—or several women—or several men—or some combination thereof? Someday it might even come down to the question of whether or not Adam can marry Fido the dog or Fluffy the cat.

Now if you think that last one is totally ridiculous and could never happen, please keep in mind that 50 years ago 99.9% of the population would have said that same-sex marriage was totally ridiculous and could never happen!

But now it’s a very real possibility.

Let me close today with a final message from Dr. Hansen. May her words inspire each of us to do our best to promote marriage as the Bible teaches it and as God designed it:

“Same-sex marriage definitely isn’t in the best interest of children. And although we empathize with those homosexuals who long to be married and parent children, we must not allow our compassion for them to trump our compassion for [young people]. In a contest between the desires of some homosexuals and the needs of children, we can’t allow the children to lose.”

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Three Common Errors Found In Funeral Homilies

(All Souls Day 2008: This homily was given on November 2, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.)

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

On this All Souls Day, the title of my homily is: “Three Common Errors Found In Funeral Homilies.”

Now you might say, “Fr. Ray, why are you sharing this with us? We’re lay people; we don’t write funeral homilies. You should be giving this talk to members of the clergy!”

That’s a good point. But the fact is—for better or for worse—you have to LISTEN to funeral homilies from those of us who do write them. And when you listen, you have the right as Catholic lay people to hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—which, unfortunately, is not what you always hear at funerals! Most priests and deacons are well-intentioned when they preach, to be sure, but unfortunately what they say at funeral Masses is not always in accord with official Church teaching.

And, believe it or not, this can have devastating consequences for you—and for your deceased loved ones (as I hope to make clear in a few moments).

Incidentally, this is not a complete list of errors. Today I’m simply focusing on what I would call “The Big 3”: the 3 most common and most serious errors that have been made at funeral Liturgies where I’ve been in attendance. Remember, I not only preach a lot of funeral homilies, I also hear a lot of them: homilies which are given by other priests and sometimes by deacons. That normally happens when I’m asked to concelebrate a funeral Mass at another church.

So here they are—“The Big 3” . . .

Serious error #1: Canonizing the deceased. Have you ever heard a priest say something like this during a funeral Mass: “We know that John is in heaven right now rejoicing with Jesus”; “We know that Nancy is with the Lord and with all her relatives and friends who died before her”?

Things like that are said at funerals all the time—and they’re wrong! The truth is that we do not KNOW that John or Nancy or anyone else is in heaven at this precise moment—unless they’ve been canonized by the Church!

We can HOPE that they’re in heaven—yes! And we should! But hope and knowledge are two different things!

My mother was one of the holiest people I’ve ever encountered in my life. But during her funeral Liturgy I did not say, “I know my mom’s in heaven”—because I didn’t know that! I spoke of the very confident hope I had that she was in the kingdom already or that she would be there very soon, but I did not canonize her!

Which brings us to the second serious and very common error that you encounter in funeral homilies: A failure to mention purgatory! Usually this follows directly from error #1 (which should be obvious, because if a person is already in heaven, purgatory becomes totally irrelevant!).

Now here’s the question I have for priests who ignore purgatory and canonize their deceased parishioners at funerals: “Why do you celebrate funeral Masses? We don’t celebrate Masses FOR people who are already in heaven; we celebrate Masses and offer prayers for those who are in purgatory or who might be in purgatory on their way to heaven!”

And here’s where the negative consequences can come, both for us and for our deceased loved ones.

If we are told at the funeral that our relative or friend is already in the kingdom—and if we believe it—that can disrupt the natural grieving process within us: a process which is both healthy and necessary. We can end up feeling guilty for being sad—which is not good! In the face of death, we all need to grieve. Even Jesus wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus.

And even worse, we might actually cheat our loved one out of the prayers that they need in order to have a speedy passage through purgatory.

In other words, we might inadvertently cause our loved one more suffering, since we will neglect to pray for them and have Masses offered for the repose of their soul—both of which would bring them through purgatory and into heaven much more quickly!

Which brings us to the third serious error that you find in funeral homilies: a true homily is not given! Rather, a eulogy is given by the priest in its place. You know what I mean: the priest gives a talk about how great the deceased person was, and this becomes the focus of all that’s said. If Jesus is mentioned at all, it’s usually to say that Jesus also thought the deceased person was a great individual, and on that basis took he took him right to heaven at the moment of his death.

This, among other things, is very bad theology—as any first year theology student could tell you. We do not earn heaven by doing good works and by being nice (although we should do good works and we should try to be nice!).

The only reason heaven is possible for any of us is because of what Jesus Christ did through his passion, death and resurrection. That idea—that foundational gospel truth—needs to be at the center of every funeral homily, since it’s the necessary precondition for our hope in eternal life!

Of course, it’s also true that heaven is not automatic. A person must be united to Jesus through baptism, faith and charity in order to receive the eternal blessings Jesus won for them on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

So obviously the details of the deceased person’s life do matter—specifically the faith they exhibited and the acts of charity they performed—since these give us a more confident hope that they died in the state of grace.

Therefore it’s certainly fitting that some of these details be mentioned in the homily—I speak of the deceased person’s life in funeral homilies all the time—but the ultimate focus should be on Jesus Christ and his saving work, since without his sacrifice all the charitable acts in the world wouldn’t be enough to get a person through the “pearly gates”.

So there you have them, the Big 3 Errors found in funeral homilies: canonizing the deceased, failing to mention purgatory, and giving a eulogy instead of a homily.

If you encounter one (or more) of these errors at a funeral in the future—and, unfortunately, you probably will!—my suggestion is for you to write a nice, respectful letter to the priest or deacon who delivered the message. Depending on what he actually said, tell him that you’d appreciate it if he:

1. Didn’t canonize people (that’s the role of the Church);
2. Spoke a bit about purgatory, and encouraged the congregation to pray for their deceased loved one; and
3. Gave a homily and not a eulogy: a homily built around the truth that Jesus Christ suffered, died and rose again to conquer sin and make heaven possible for everyone.

He might not appreciate your criticism—that’s true—but on the other hand you might just motivate him to think about taking a different approach when he preaches at funerals in the future.

And that will help both the dead and the living! The dead will receive the benefit of more prayers and Masses, and the living will receive the benefit of hearing much better homilies from this particular priest or deacon.