Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bartimaeus and ‘Choice’

(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 25, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 10: 46-52.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirtieth Sunday 2009]

What do you learn about Bartimaeus from the following statements?
Bartimaeus chose.

Bartimaeus chose again.

And he chose again.

And he chose again.

And in the midst of all this, he chose once more.

What have you just learned about Bartimaeus?

“Not much, Fr. Ray.”

That’s right! That’s exactly right. You’ve been told that he made 5 decisions, but that’s it.

Before you could learn anything substantial about Bartimaeus, you’d need to know WHAT he chose! Was it good or was it evil? Was it something harmful or something helpful? Was it a sinful act or a virtuous act?

If you had a 3-year-old son, and I said to you: “Your 3-year-old son was standing near the edge of a cliff today, and he chose,” you wouldn’t know whether to scream in horror or jump for joy, would you? But if I said, “Your 3-year-old son was standing near the edge of a cliff today, and he chose to turn away and walk to safety,” now you’d know how to react, because you’d realize that he had made the RIGHT choice.

“Fr. Ray, this is common sense.”

Well, in that case, it only proves the old adage, “Common sense is not so common.” Because right now in our society it’s considered a sign of brilliance and enlightenment if you say, “I believe in the right to choose”—and leave it at that.

If this is all common sense, then why don’t more people ask what should be the obvious follow-up question: “Choose what?” “Okay sir, you’re for ‘choice.’ So am I. I’m for making the right choice in every situation. What choice are you for? That’s what matters. Is it, perhaps, the choice to live an immoral lifestyle or the choice to kill innocent human beings: the pre-born child, the mentally handicapped person, the terminally ill cancer patient? Could that be why you choose not to finish your sentences? When I say, ‘I believe in the right to choose,’ I always tell people what the choice is that I support, because I only support GOOD choices. I’m not ashamed—or afraid—to finish my sentences.”

I indicated at the beginning of my homily that Bartimaeus made at least 5 choices on the day he encountered our Lord. Thankfully, they were 5 very good choices. And please note: if he had not made any one of these 5, he would not have been healed by Jesus! He would have ended the day as he began it—as a blind beggar.

St. Mark tells us the story:

“As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging.” Someone then told him that Jesus was passing by. At that moment, he made his first choice: THE CHOICE TO CRY OUT. He could have easily chosen to remain silent; he certainly had that option. But had he done so, he never would have met Jesus. And if he had not met Jesus, he would not have been healed.

St. Mark goes on: “On hearing it was Jesus of Nazareth, [Bartimaeus] began to cry out and say, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.” Which brings us to good choice #2: THE CHOICE TO GO AGAINST PUBLIC OPINION. You see, if you had polled all the people in the crowd at that moment and asked them, “What should Mr. Bartimaeus do now?” most would have said, “He should close his mouth and keep quiet!” We know that because St. Mark tells us, “And many rebuked [Bartimaeus], telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, ‘Son of David, have pity on me.’” Good for you Bartimaeus! We need more people like you in the world today: people who are willing to disregard the polls and do—and stand up for—the right thing!

(Like our Bishop, Thomas Tobin, did last Friday in his exchange with Congressman Patrick Kennedy about abortion funding in the proposed Congressional health care plans.)

St. Mark continues: “Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’ So they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.’ He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.” Here we encounter good choice #3: THE CHOICE TO OBEY JESUS. Our Lord said, “Come,” and Bartimaeus did.

Once the blind man was in our Lord’s presence, he made his 4th good choice: THE CHOICE TO EXPRESS HIS NEED TO JESUS IN AN HONEST PRAYER OF PETITION. As St. Mark tells us, “Jesus said to him . . . ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man replied to him, ‘Master, I want to see.’”

Jesus gives him his sight immediately, based on these 4 choices and choice #5, which was the one which stood behind the others. I’m talking about THE DECISION OF BARTIMAEUS TO PUT HIS FAITH IN JESUS. That choice motivated and inspired the other 4 I just mentioned. Jesus recognized this and commended Bartimaeus for it when he said, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” In other words, “Your choice to put your faith in me has made you well.”

Many people today are fond of telling us they’re “pro-choice.” Among other things, the story of Bartimaeus teaches us that this term—“pro-choice”—is absolutely, positively meaningless when it’s used in isolation (as it normally is!). First and foremost, the quality of a choice is determined by the goodness or badness of the object chosen. When the choice, for example, is to lie or cheat or steal or fornicate or kill babies in the womb, then to be pro-choice is actually to be pro-evil, because the object being chosen is evil. The only time it’s acceptable to be “pro-choice,” is when the object of the choice happens to be good: the choice to love, the choice to forgive, the choice to respect human life from natural conception to natural death.

Bartimaeus was blessed by Jesus because he made the right choices, and ONLY because he made the right choices! May we—as individuals and as a nation—experience the countless blessings of the Lord for the very same reason.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it—ALTHOUGH YOU MIGHT NOT GET IT IN THE WAY YOU EXPECT TO!

(Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 18, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 10: 35-45.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-ninth Sunday 2009]

There’s an old saying: Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it!

As it’s written, there’s a great deal of truth in that expression.

But, based on today’s gospel story—and on my own observation and personal experience—I would maintain that a qualifying phrase should be added to that saying in order to make it completely accurate:

Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it—although you might not get it in the way you expect to!

There are, as most of us know, three possible answers to the prayers of petition that we lift up to God: the Lord can say Yes; he can say No; or he can say Wait.

But that’s only half the story. I say this because most of the time when we ask God for something, we have our own ideas about how God should give it to us!

The problem is, our ideas about how God should supply our needs don’t always match up with his ideas on the same subject.

And this causes some people to think that God doesn’t hear their prayers, when, in fact, he does.

For example, we say to God, “Please give me patience”—and we want God to magically and instantaneously infuse that gift into our soul such that nothing bothers us anymore.

Of course, that’s not the way it usually happens. Normally when God gives us this particular gift, he also allows it to be tested—and I mean REALLY TESTED!

We say to God, “Please heal me of this illness”—and we want God to make us well immediately and directly by a special miracle.

And at times he does heal people that way.

But he also might heal us through the instrumentality of modern medicine, and only after some long and very painful therapy.

We say to God, “Please restore my relationship with my ex-friend, John; we haven’t spoken to one another in years”—and we want God to pour his grace into John’s heart, such that John immediately picks up the phone and calls us and apologizes for what he did and said to us all those years ago.

Well, maybe it will happen that way, but maybe it won’t. Maybe God will only answer that prayer after we have made the first move toward reconciliation with a letter or a phone call or a personal visit.

Sometimes God gives us what we want, but not exactly in the way we want it.

And so it was for James and John. They asked Jesus for special places in his kingdom, and, happily, they did get what they asked for! Here in this scene, of course, Jesus doesn’t commit himself on the matter, but we know for a fact that he did honor their request—their ‘prayer of petition’—because of what he said in Matthew 19. There Peter says to Jesus, “We have put everything aside to follow you. What can we expect from it?” And Jesus responds by saying, “I give you my solemn word, in the new age when the Son of Man takes his seat upon a throne befitting his glory, you who have followed me shall likewise take your places on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel.”

The Heavenly Father made it clear to Jesus that Peter, James, John and the other apostles would have special places in his eternal kingdom. So this request—in effect, this prayer of petition—that James and John made in today’s gospel was ultimately answered by Jesus with a resounding Yes; however their path to those special heavenly places was probably not what these two apostles expected.

When they made their request, they probably did not think they would have to endure great suffering beforehand, but that’s exactly the way it happened. James was the first apostle to be martyred (Herod Agrippa had him beheaded only a decade or so after the Resurrection of Jesus), and John endured a martyrdom of intense persecution throughout his life for his faithfulness in proclaiming the gospel. Both drank from the cup—the cup of suffering—from which Jesus drank.

They probably expected a much easier path to glory, a much easier ‘road to the throne’ so to speak! They accepted “the cup” willingly and eagerly in this gospel scene, but I doubt they really understood what that cup contained!

So let’s not be discouraged when we pray for good things for others, and suffering comes to them instead. In reality God might be saying Yes to our prayer, but by a different path than the one we think he should follow. God does not cause evil, but he will sometimes allow us to experience evil for the sake of a greater good.

That’s the way it was for James and John: he allowed them to experience the ‘cup’ and ‘baptism’ of intense suffering, for the sake of an eternal crown of glory.

I have known, for example, many people who have prayed for the conversions of their children who are addicted to drugs or alcohol or who are living an immoral, hedonistic, materialistic lifestyle. They pray and they pray and they pray—and nothing seems to be getting better. In fact, their children sink deeper and deeper into sin. They sincerely wonder if their prayers are falling on deaf ears. Finally their children hit rock bottom, and are on the verge of despair—but then, they turn their lives around. They open up to God; they make a humble and thorough confession; they get reconnected to the Church; they start coming to Mass again; they find a community of believers that supports them; they make ‘a complete 180’ in their lives.

Afterward, so very often, these converted men and women will say, “I’m not happy I brought all that suffering on myself and nearly destroyed my life, but I know that if I hadn’t suffered in that way—if I hadn’t hit rock bottom—I never would have changed my ways. I would have continued down the wrong path—and I probably would have ended up in hell.”

Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it—although you might not get it in the way you expect to!

But that’s ok. At least, that’s what these converted men and women would say. And I’m sure James and John would agree with them, sitting, as they now are, on their glorious thrones in heaven.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Seven Secrets of a Successful Marriage

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 4, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Genesis 2: 18-24; Mark 10: 2-16.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-seventh Sunday 2009]

“You’re not going back far enough.”

This, in effect, is what Jesus says to the Pharisees in today’s gospel, after they ask him the question, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?”

First Jesus asks them what Moses thought of divorce, knowing that these men considered themselves to be faithful followers of the Mosaic Law. Whatever Moses said, they believed.

When the Pharisees respond, “Moses allowed it,” Jesus concedes the point, but then he immediately clarifies the matter and refocuses the question.

He says, essentially, “You’re right—Moses did allow it. But he allowed it because of your stubbornness, because of the hardness of your hearts! He allowed it because he knew you weren’t ready to accept the truth in its fullness. So the real question here shouldn’t be, ‘What did Moses say on the subject?’ the real question should be, ‘What did God the Father say on the subject?’ You men are going back to Moses to get your perspective on marriage and divorce, but YOU’RE NOT GOING BACK FAR ENOUGH! You need to go back to creation, to the time when God made man and woman in his own image. And when you back to that point in time, you find God’s thought on the matter, which is preserved for us in the Book of Genesis, chapter 2 in these words: ‘God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’”

Jesus then interprets that verse with these powerful words, “So they’re no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

The Catholic Church has remained faithful to these words of Jesus for over 2,000 years (which really shouldn’t surprise us, since ours is the Church Jesus Christ founded on the rock of Peter). Every other Christian group and community I know of has compromised this teaching in some way.

Of course, the Church also understands that just because two people follow all the rules and go through a wedding ceremony in a Catholic setting does NOT necessarily mean that “God” has joined that couple together. Sometimes there’s a defect present at the very beginning which prevents the couple from making the full, free consent necessary to have a valid marriage. (One example of this would be if one or both of the parties was forced into the marriage; another would be if one or both of the parties positively intended never to have children in the marriage.)

This, of course, is the essential difference between a divorce and an annulment. A divorce says, “There once was a marriage, now there isn’t”; while an annulment says, “There was never a true marriage bond formed in the first place because of a defect present when the vows were exchanged—even though the couple entered the relationship in good faith.”

I know there are many people in this church right now who have gone through the painful experience of divorce. It is not something you planned on; it is not something you desired, but it happened. Remember, those who are civilly divorced and who are living a chaste, single life can still participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church. In the eyes of God they’re still married to their ex-spouses, they’re just not living with them (which is not the ideal, for sure, but neither is such a situation sinful in and of itself). The problem comes when a person remarries outside the Church; then they must refrain from the sacraments unless they’re in danger of death. But all is not lost. I always encourage those in that type of situation to apply for an annulment. If there was some defect present and the first marriage was not valid, that will hopefully be recognized by the tribunal, which means the person will be able to get married again in the Church.

But enough of the talk about divorce. I’d rather be more positive in this homily by talking about marriage itself. After all, the cure to the divorce problem in our culture is better marital relationships. That should be obvious: stronger, healthier marriages mean fewer marital breakups.

On that note, let me share with you this morning 7 secrets of a successful marriage that I recently came across on the web site of the Diocese of Austin, Texas. They were formulated by a psychologist, Dr. Joseph D. White and William R. Cashion. Properly speaking, they were written for people who are contemplating marriage, but many of them also apply to those already married.

They begin by saying, “Research in psychology and sociology continues to affirm the Church’s timeless teaching. Thus, we offer the following suggestions based on scientific data and clinical wisdom:”

Secret #1 for a successful marriage according to Dr. White and Mr. Cashion: Avoid cohabitation prior to marriage. They write, “Although about 50-80% of couples do it, research says they are 40-85% more likely to get divorced than those who don’t.”

And they cite 5 studies to back up their assertion.

So much for the idea that “trying it first with no commitment” makes for a better marriage!

Secret #2 for a successful marriage: Practice pre-marital and marital chastity. According to White and Cashion, “Couples who wait until after marriage to have [relations] are 29-47% more likely to enjoy [relations] during marriage.” Then they go on to give this word of advice: “After the wedding, be faithful to your spouse. Major hurt and disruption to relationships is often caused by extramarital affairs, the viewing of pornography, and ‘emotional affairs’ (in which one spouse invests him/herself emotionally in someone else, rationalizing the relationship because it is not a sexual one). While marriages in which these things happen usually are troubled prior to the affair, unfaithfulness can push the relationship to the breaking point, causing lasting wounds that may not heal.”

Secret #3 for a successful marriage: Keep the faith! Here they cite a University of Wisconsin researcher who found that couples who attend church weekly are 35% less likely to divorce.

Aren’t you glad you came to church today?

Secret #4: Spend time together in prayer. As Pope John Paul II said, “Prayer increases the strength and spiritual unity of the family, helping the family to partake of God’s own ‘strength.’” The authors then refer to another study, done in 1991, which found that only 1% of married couples who pray together and report a high quality sexual relationship think that divorce is even possible for them.

Secret #5 for a successful marriage: Practice Natural Family Planning. White and Cashion write, “A Michigan State University study (Tortorici, 1979) showed higher levels of marital satisfaction among couples who use NFP versus other methods of family planning, and some studies (e.g., Aquilar, 1980) have indicated that the rate of divorce for couples who practice NFP may be as low as 0.6%.”

And how blessed we are in this parish, since we have 2 couples who are certified NFP instructors. Their phone numbers, incidentally, are in the bulletin!

Secret #6 for a successful marriage: When you have a conflict, talk about it. Here the authors make a very important point which might surprise some of you. They write, “A healthy marriage is not one that is free of conflict. In fact, researchers have found no relationship between the number or frequency of disagreements and marital dissatisfaction. Some happy couples have lots of conflicts, and some unhappy ones have very few. What makes the difference between happy and unhappy couples is how conflicts are resolved once they occur. By using sensitive, healthy communication skills, a couple can work through conflicts and make their marriage stronger.”

And finally, secret #7 for a successful marriage: Practice empathy and forgiveness. I always tell couples on their wedding day that the two most important sentences they need to learn to say to one another from their hearts are the sentences, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” Obviously White and Cashion agree. As they say here, “When you are angry or dismayed by what your spouse is doing or saying, try to imagine yourself in his or her shoes. Work toward forgiveness and trust when hurts occur. Grudges can devastate a marriage, but choosing to let go of angry feelings gives us the freedom to go on.”

If you’re having trouble living these last 2 suggestions in your marriage, I highly recommend that you attend a Retrouvaille weekend, which is a Catholic workshop for troubled marriages. We advertise local Retrouvaille weekends periodically in our bulletin, and you can find lots of information about them online. I know for a fact that they’ve helped to save several marriages right here in our community. One of the things that makes them so effective is the great follow-up program they have for husbands and wives after they go back home.

Let me conclude today by saying how inspiring it is to have so many couples in our parish celebrating major wedding anniversaries each year: their 25th, their 40th, their 50th, their 60th. Believe it or not, we even had one couple, Barbara and Frank Liguori, celebrate their 70th anniversary in 2008.

They give us hope for the future: hope for the future of the traditional, nuclear family, hope for the future of our society, and hope for the future of marriage. They show us that those whom God has joined together can actually stay together—for life.