Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Haiti Earthquake and Abortion: Both Have a Human Face!

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on January 31, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Jeremiah 1: 4-5, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of the Year 2010]

A man was giving a talk one day to a group of 500 people. He began by taking out a crisp, new $100 dollar bill and holding it up to the audience. He said, “Who would like this $100 bill?”

500 hands immediately went up.

He then crumpled it up into a little ball and said, “Who wants it now?”

500 hands went up again.

He then threw it on the ground and stomped on it several times. He picked up the crumpled up, dirty bill and said, “Who still wants it?”

500 hands went up for a third time.

Finally he opened it up, poured coffee all over it and tore a small piece off each corner.

“Who wants it now?” he said.

Everybody’s hand went up again.

Do you see the point?

Those 500 people did! They understood that the intrinsic value of the $100 bill did not change—it did not lessen by a single penny—even after it was crumpled, and stomped on, and soiled, and given a coffee-shower, and its corners were torn off.

Ben Franklin’s face was still on the bill, and so it retained its value, in spite of the condition it was in.

I thought of this story relative to two very important events that took place in the world during the last few weeks. The first was the terrible earthquake on January 12, which devastated the nation of Haiti; the second was the sad and tragic anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision on January 22—a decision which legalized abortion in this country.

It’s been wonderful to see the outpouring of support—especially financial support—that’s come to the Haitian people in their hour of urgent need. Men and women from every walk of life, from every segment of society, from every religious group—and from every political persuasion—have been moved to reach out in some way to the poorest of the poor in that tiny Caribbean country.

And why is that? What’s the reason why so many of us have responded with such overwhelming goodness and charity to the Haitian situation?

It’s because we understand that the suffering in Haiti has a human face! That’s why! We’ve seen the pictures and videos of the devastation; and even more importantly, we’ve seen the pictures and videos of suffering men, women and children.

We know that these are not just statistics on a piece of paper. They’re human beings—brothers and sisters in the human family who are suffering and dying and who desperately need our assistance.

Remember the lesson of the story I told a few moments ago: Ben Franklin’s face was on that bill, and so it retained its value, in spite of the condition it was in.

Each of the citizens of Haiti has a human face, and so each of the citizens of Haiti has an intrinsic worth and dignity and value—in spite of the terrible physical and economic condition they might be in at the present time.

The contrast with abortion is striking, isn’t it? As many of us know, some of the very same people who have been extremely generous in helping the earthquake victims in Haiti in recent days are also some of the most vocal supporters of so-called ‘abortion rights’ in this country right now!

Now you might ask, “How can that be? How can certain people be so generous and so cold-hearted at the very same time?”

That’s easy. it’s because they refuse to recognize the scientific and biological truth that abortion has a human face! What they recognize in the Haitians, they fail to recognize in pre-born children. They’ve been so conditioned to believe that abortion is essentially about rights and laws and freedom and ‘choice,’ that they ignore the basic reality that every abortion hurts real, living people: the child who dies, and the mother—and father—who eventually have to face what they’ve done.

Every child from the moment of its conception has a human face! In other words, every child is a human being with an immortal soul. Notice what God says to young Jeremiah in today’s first reading. He says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” That is to say, “You, Jeremiah, had a human face from the moment you were conceived in your mother’s womb! You were not a mistake; you were not a thing or an object. You were a person—a human person—who was loved by me from all eternity.”

Whenever I’m discussing the issue of abortion with someone who is pro-choice, one of the things I always try to do is to get them to see this simple fact: that abortion has a human face. And so, when they bring up the so-called “hard cases” like rape or incest or Down Syndrome, I will get as concrete and specific as I can. Imagine, for example, that the person who’s pro-choice is friendly with a couple, Tom and Mary, who have a Down Syndrome child named Jane. I will say to that pro-choice person, “Are you telling me that your friends, Tom and Mary, should have aborted little Jane—that beautiful child who loves you so much? Is that what you’re saying to me?”

They’ll usually respond, “Oh no, Father, that’s not what I mean!”

To which I will respond, “Oh yes, it is! You’re saying it would have been okay to kill Jane!”

All of a sudden the stark realization comes that abortion is essentially about a person—a real, living person with a human face—and not an abstract concept like rights and freedom and choice.

This is the reason why the pro-life commercial that will air during the Super Bowl next week has the people at Planned Parenthood in such a tizzy! The commercial features Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and his mother—who was urged by doctors to abort Tim for health reasons during her pregnancy. Obviously she didn’t do it—praise God!

Not surprisingly, the so-called pro-choice crowd is desperately trying to stop CBS from airing this commercial. Because they’re not stupid! They know that when people see this during the Super Bowl many of them will come to the realization—maybe for the first time—that a real person with a human face and incredible potential dies in every abortion.

And that’s a message the pro-choice crowd doesn’t want Americans to hear—for obvious reasons.

In today’s second reading from 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul speaks of love—real love. (This is a passage of Scripture that you hear quite often at weddings.) He says that real love is patient and kind and a lot of other wonderful things.

Well, today the Lord adds one further insight to the ones Paul mentions in this text—although it’s actually an insight which is implicit in everything Paul says there about love: To love someone—to REALLY love someone—is to treat them, from the moment of their conception until the moment of their natural death, like they have a human face.

To love someone is to treat them like they have a human face.

Because they do!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Seven Hints on Reading the Bible

(Third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on Sunday, January 24, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Nehemiah 8: 1-12; Luke 1: 1-4; 4: 14-21.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday 2010]

The following was found in an old book, written on a scrap of paper:

This book contains the mind of God, the state of [humans], the way of salvation, the doom of sinners and the happiness of believers. Its doctrines are holy, its precepts binding. . . . Read it to be wise; believe it to be safe; and practice it to be holy. It contains light to direct you; food to support you; and comfort to cheer you. It is the traveler’s map; the pilgrim’s staff; the pilot’s compass; the soldier’s sword; and the Christian’s charter. Here heaven is opened, and the gates of hell disclosed. Christ is its grand subject; our good its design; and the glory of God its end. It should fill the memory; rule the heart; and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently, prayerfully. It is given to you in life, will be opened at the judgment, and be remembered forever.

“This book,” of course, is the Bible—the inspired word of God.

It helps us to understand the mind and the will of the Creator of the universe; it lays out for us the path to heaven; it brings us wisdom and comfort and all those great benefits I just shared with you.

Which brings up the obvious question: If the Bible is so wonderful (and it is!), why do so few people actually read it on a regular basis?

You would think they’d want to read it at least as often as they read the newspaper! After all, in the newspaper, they normally get the mind of Satan, a bunch of lies, and a lot of stories that cause them to experience anger, confusion, discouragement and maybe even despair. And yet I know many people who never read the Bible, whose day is not complete unless they put themselves through the self-inflicted torture of reading the Providence Journal—preferably with a cup of coffee in their hand.

Perhaps some don’t read Scripture simply because they’re lazy, or because their lives are not centered on God and the things of God.

But I think many others never crack open their Bibles because they get intimidated! They get intimidated at the thought of trying to find their way through such a massive book—which is really a collection of 73 separate books! And some of those books have several different types of writing contained in them.

To be completely accurate, the Bible is a library under one cover! It’s a library with many different types of literature in it. And that presents a problem for people who are trying to understand a particular line or passage. They have to try to figure out what part of the library they’re in, before they can accurately interpret what they’re reading! Are they in the history section, or the poetry section, or the apocalyptic section, or the legal section—or some other section? You don’t interpret a proverb like you interpret an apocalyptic writing; you don’t interpret historical writing like you interpret a parable or a letter.

But even though there are many difficulties associated with reading the Sacred Scriptures, the benefits do make it well worth the effort—as we heard a few moments ago.

The power of God’s written word is evident in today’s first reading and today’s gospel. In that first reading, the Jews who’ve come back from exile in Babylon hear the Bible—part of what we now call “the Old Testament”—read to them for several hours. They had not heard it proclaimed in that way for a very long time, and the truth of what they hear actually moves them to tears!

Then, in today’s gospel, Jesus reads a passage from Isaiah 61 in his hometown synagogue, after which he tells the people in no uncertain terms that he is the fulfillment of the text! He offers a few more comments, and some members of the congregation respond by hauling him off to the edge of a cliff and trying to throw him over the edge!

Ah yes, the truth of the Bible consoles, but it also convicts and challenges!

When we accept the conviction and challenge, and allow the word to change us, we grow in our faith; we become better disciples; we become holy. When we don’t accept the conviction and challenge, we become angry like those people in the Nazareth synagogue.

Let me now offer you some practical hints on reading the Bible for prayer and for spiritual nourishment (not for study—that would be a separate topic). Perhaps these hints will help you overcome any hesitation or intimidation you’ve felt in the past about reading the Sacred Scriptures.

Hint number 1: Start with the book of Psalms and the New Testament. The psalms are prayers—prayers that Jesus himself used as a practicing Jew. There are 150 of them. They say there’s a psalm to match every human emotion and circumstance. Most, in fact, are labeled in that way: “Prayer for help against oppressors”; “Prayer for guidance . . .”; “Prayer of Repentance”; “Thanksgiving for God’s blessings”—those are some of the titles given to various psalms in the New American Bible.

My suggestion is to pray one psalm per day. Flip through the book of Psalms until you find one with a title that relates to what’s going on in your life at the present moment, and pray it.

Then read one other passage of Scripture, starting in the New Testament (since the New Testament is easier for us Christians to understand).

This brings me to hint number 2: Don’t try to read massive quantities of Scripture all at once. That’s like overeating (spiritually speaking). If you’re going to read Scripture for prayer and meditation, it’s best to focus on one small section at a time.

This was my approach when I started reading the Bible as a teenager. Now please don’t misunderstand me, I was not a super-holy young person by any means. I was pretty normal in that regard. But after I lost my father at age 14, the thought occurred to me that there were probably things in the Bible that could help me deal with my grief and with everything else I was going through at the time. And I was right. I found lots of things in the Scriptures that helped me.

My format for reading was simple. I put my Bible on my nightstand and put a bookmark at chapter 1 of Matthew’s gospel (since that’s the first book of the New Testament). And before I went to bed at night I read one small section. Not a whole chapter—just one little section of a chapter (most chapters of Scripture are divided up into several sections). And over the course of many months I went through the 4 gospels and much of the rest of the New Testament.

Now, did I miss a few nights here and there? Yes—I will not tell a lie. But for the most part, I was faithful to this practice—and it made a big difference in my life.

Which brings me to hint number 3: Get into a routine! Find a time and place for reading Scripture that works for you and really try to be faithful to it. For me, as a teenager, it was right before I went to bed. Had I tried to read Scripture regularly at some other time of the day, I probably would have found 1,001 reasons not to do it.

Hint number 4: Consider using a meditation format like the one I sometimes use with our teenagers at youth group. Every once in awhile I’ll invite the teens who come on Thursday night to meditate on a story from one of the four gospels. I’ll read the story to them slowly 3 times. The first time I ask them to just listen. When I read it to them the second time, I tell them to listen for a word or phrase that really strikes them—a word or phrase that they find meaningful. Then, when I do it the third time, I ask them to think about what God might be saying to them through the story.

You’d be surprised at some of the deep insights they get through this kind of spiritual exercise.
You could do something similar on your own.

Hint number 5 is material in nature: Make sure you read from a Catholic Bible that has footnotes, or that you have access to a Catholic Bible commentary. These can help you to understand difficult verses.

And finally, hints 6 and 7. Number 6: Underline or highlight lines that really speak to you—lines that really “hit home,” so to speak. And hint 7: Try to memorize as many of those lines as you can!

St. Paul calls God’s word “the sword of the Spirit,” and for good reason. When we’re experiencing a temptation or a difficulty in our lives, we can gain power over it by calling to mind the truths contained in the Bible. For example, when I’m tempted to do or say something I shouldn’t, I often call to mind 3 short lines of Scripture that I’ve underlined in my Bible and memorized over the years: 1 John 4: 4—“Greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world”; Philippians 4: 13—“I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me”; and 2 Corinthians 12: 9 where God says to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for in your weakness my power reaches its perfection.”

Calling those Scriptures to mind makes a big difference in how I handle the situation I’m dealing with. God gave us the sword of the Spirit to guide us in good times, and to help us in temptation and trial—but we have to choose to read it and to put it to use.

May these 7 hints motivate us all to do that—every day.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Are You Born Again?

(Baptism of the Lord (C): This homily was given on January 10, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22; John 3.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Baptism of the Lord 2010]

“Are you born again?”

Catholics are often asked that question by Protestant friends and acquaintances, and many of them are not sure how to respond.

Well, if you’re one of those unsure Catholics, today’s homily will hopefully provide you with the insights you need to answer properly in the future.

First of all, it’s important to note that Protestants who ask that question—“Are you born again?”—believe that a person is born again when they consciously embrace faith in Jesus Christ, according to what St. Paul tells us in Romans 10:9-10. There St. Paul writes, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Faith in the heart leads to justification, confession on the lips to salvation.”

This is why preachers like Billy Graham always end their sermons with an “altar call,” in which they invite people to come forward and “accept Jesus Christ” by praying what’s known as “the sinner’s prayer.” In that prayer, people confess that they’re sinners who are in need of forgiveness; but they also confess that they believe Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead for the forgiveness of their sins. They then ask Jesus to forgive them, to come into their hearts, and to be the Lord of their lives.

They confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord; they profess their belief that God raised him from the dead—in other words they fulfill the two conditions that St. Paul mentions in Romans 10: 9—and so, at that precise moment, they believe they are “born again” or “saved.”

Our understanding as Catholics is quite different—although I will say that publicly professing your faith that Jesus is Lord and that God the Father raised him from the dead is a very good thing! We do that, after all, every Sunday and holy day when we profess the Nicene Creed. Our young people are invited to do it Protestant-style at almost every Steubenville East Youth Conference. And I think it’s great when it happens—not because I believe the teens are getting “born again” when they do it—but simply because I think it strengthens their faith when they’re able to proclaim it in that fashion.

The expression “born again” or “born from above” (“gennatha anothen” in the original Greek), comes from John, chapter 3. There Jesus is having a conversation with a devout Pharisee named Nicodemus, and during the course of their discussion Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again." [Other translations have "born from above".]

Obviously this is an extremely important teaching to understand, because nothing less than our eternal salvation is at stake! Note the words of Jesus here. He says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”


This is an absolute requirement for getting into heaven! It’s not an option.

Now you know why our Protestant brothers and sisters are so consumed with the idea! And that’s good; they should be. We all should be.

The problem is, they don’t read the rest of the passage in John 3; consequently, they ignore the very important line in which Jesus indicates exactly how a person is born again! Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can a person once grown old be born again: surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” To which our Lord responds, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

To be “born again” or “born from above”—according to Jesus Christ—means to be “born of water and Spirit.”

And that, my brothers and sisters, is baptism!

In the waters of baptism, we are born again! That is to say, we are “regenerated” spiritually—given new life in Jesus Christ. This is exactly what St. Paul is talking about in our second reading when he says to Titus that God in his mercy has saved us “through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”

Baptismal grace is sanctifying grace. This is the grace that makes us pleasing to God; the grace that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead to give us; the grace that we need in our souls in order to get into heaven.

Sanctifying grace: don’t leave earth at the end of your life without it!

This, incidentally, is what it means to have original sin taken away. Original sin is not like the personal sins we commit on a daily basis. When we say that a person is born with original sin, what we mean is that the person is born into this world without sanctifying grace.

However, at the moment of baptism, that saving grace comes into the person’s soul. Original sin is taken away, as are all of their personal sins (if they’re being baptized after they’ve attained the age of reason).

In baptism we also receive the Holy Spirit for the first time (as Paul indicates in that text from Titus 3); through baptism we become members of God’s family, the Church; through baptism we have access to the other sacraments; and, through baptism, we become God’s adopted sons and daughters and heirs to the kingdom of heaven.

Does that mean we are guaranteed eternal life?

No. We can lose sanctifying grace by committing a mortal sin. But, thankfully, God has provided the means for us to get this necessary grace back again after baptism—through sacramental confession.
Jesus, obviously, did not need Christian baptism. But he submitted to the baptism of John (which prefigured Christian baptism) as an act of humility, and, as he said, to “fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, he identified himself with sinners (even though he had no sin himself), in order to set us an example on how to get free from our sins through sacramental baptism.

So now you know what to say the next time a Protestant friend asks you the question, “Are you born again?” You should immediately respond, “Of course! Of course I’m born again! I’ve been born again of water and the Spirit through sacramental baptism, according to the words of Jesus in John, chapter 3.”

But let me warn you, your Protestant friend might then ask you a follow-up question. He might say to you, “Great! But are you living your life like a born again person?”

I can’t tell you how to answer that one. I hope that in all honesty you could say Yes! But if you couldn’t honestly do that, I hope that you would say, “No, I haven’t been living like someone who’s born again, but I will do my best to live that way from now on!”

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Good News IS NOT ALWAYS good news; at the same time Good News IS ALWAYS good news!

(Epiphany 2010: This homily was given on January 3, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 2: 1-12.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Epiphany 2010]

Here are two statements that seem to contradict one another. When you hear them, you will probably be thinking that only one of them can possibly be true, but I assure you that both of them are.

Statement #1: Good News is not always good news.

Statement #2: Good News is always good news.

Fr. Ray, how can both of those ideas be true at the same time?

It’s because one of the statements (the first one, to be exact) has to do with “perception,” while the other statement concerns “reality.”

Let me now explain.

Just in case anyone is unclear about it, the “Good News” referred to at the beginning of these two statements is the Gospel. In fact, that’s what the word “Gospel” means—Good News: the good news about who Jesus is and what he’s done for us, and the good news about how to get to heaven.

But when is this Good News not good news for a particular person?

It’s when that particular person does not want to change his or her life! It’s when that particular person is committing a certain sin that he or she does not want to repent of.

Then the person perceives the Good News as bad news! As I said a few moments ago, Good News is not always good news!

This, incidentally, is one reason why a priest will sometimes receive a less-than-charitable email or note after he delivers a homily. Of course, he might get a letter like that simply because he gave a bad homily—that is certainly possible; but more often than not those letters come because the message of the homily struck a ‘spiritual nerve,’ so to speak. The Good News of the Gospel is the good news of God’s incredible mercy, but for mercy to be experienced, sin has to be acknowledged—and that acknowledgement can sometimes be difficult.

Just ask King Herod.

We just heard how the Magi proclaimed “good news” to him when they arrived in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago: The Messiah had come! The Savior of the world—the King of kings and the Lord of lords—had been born. They knew that because they had observed his star in the heavens. It’s an historical fact that even many pagans in the first century expected a great king to be born in their lifetime—it was not only the Jews who had this expectation—and many of these pagans believed that the birth of this new king would be indicated by a special sign in the heavens.

Herod should have been happy about all this. His reaction should have been, “Halleluiah! Praise God! We have waited for our Messiah for centuries! Thank God he’s arrived! What a privilege I have to be able to welcome him into this world!”

But that was not his response, was it?

Rather, the Bible tells us that he was “greatly troubled”; other translations say that he was “greatly disturbed.”

In other words, he was angry and upset and didn’t like it one bit! Amazingly, for Herod, this good news was really, really bad news! That was his perception. It was his perception because he was a selfish, power-hungry person and didn’t want to change his ways!

Do you know that this particular Herod (one of 4 Herods mentioned in the Bible) murdered his own wife and 3 of his own children (and a number of other people as well!)? He did that because he was deathly afraid that they were plotting to take over his kingdom. Fear ruled his life, not faith.

It was that same fear that led him to slaughter the Holy Innocents when the Magi failed to return to him after their visit to Bethlehem.

And yet, in spite of Herod’s skewed perception, in reality the Good News of the Savior’s birth was still good news! It wasn’t good news to him, but it was good news nonetheless. The Messiah had still come to him to offer him eternal salvation. Yes, even him! His messed-up perception didn’t change that fact. This is why I said at the very beginning that both statements are true: Good news is not always good news to us (if, like Herod, we don’t want to face our sin); but, even if we have the wrong perception—even if we see things upside down like Herod did—in reality the Good News is always good news!

That’s why repentance is always possible for us, and why forgiveness is always available to us—until our dying breath.

But we need to reach out for it.

On that note, a few weeks ago a man whose confession I had heard wrote me a letter—a very nice letter—in which he said the following: “Many thanks for hearing my confession on Saturday afternoon. . . . I can understand why this is such an unpopular sacrament and why procrastination is so common. It’s a bit like repeatedly canceling a dental appointment to get a decayed tooth pulled until it really begins to throb. I put off going to confession to get my sins ‘pulled’ until my conscience begins to throb. As you suggested, more frequent spiritual check-ups are probably the better approach.”

Have you ever had a “throbbing conscience?”

Do you have one now?

From what we know historically, King Herod never had his sins ‘pulled’—for him the Good News remained bad news, and he lived and died in his fear.

God wanted something better for him, as he wants something better for us.

That “something better” comes with regular spiritual check-ups. Then the good news of God’s mercy becomes really, really good news for us, because we experience that mercy personally through repentance and through confession—which is the cure for a throbbing conscience.