Sunday, March 28, 2010

Direct—and Indirect—Evangelization

(Palm Sunday 2010 (C): This homily was given on March 28, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Palm Sunday 2010]

We just heard St. Luke’s account of the Passion of our Lord. Next year St. Matthew’s version will be read on Palm Sunday, and the following year we will hear St. Mark’s account. (St. John’s Passion narrative, of course, is read every year on Good Friday.)

There are certain details about the suffering and death of Jesus that all the gospel writers mention; there are some details that two or three of them mention; but there are others aspects of the story that only one of them mentions. (And that’s one of the reasons we should thank God there are 4 gospels! If there weren’t, we would know a lot less about Jesus’ suffering and death—as well as a lot less about his ministry and earthly life.)

One of the aspects of the story that’s peculiar to St. Luke’s version of the Passion is the conversion of the so-called ‘Good Thief.’ Tradition has given him the name “Dismas”—although that name is not found in the Bible.

St. John mentions that Jesus was crucified between two men; he says nothing else about them. St. Mark and St. Matthew do identify the two men as criminals of some sort, but they tell us that both of them verbally attacked Jesus as they hung alongside him on Mt. Calvary.

Only St. Luke mentions the fact that one of two thieves rebuked the other, acknowledged his guilt, repented, and then asked Jesus to remember him when our Lord came into his kingdom.

Does that mean that at least one of the gospel writers got it wrong? Is St. Luke correct? If he is, then how can Matthew and Mark also be right? Did one of the thieves repent and defend our Lord, or did both insult him?

Well, as a Catholic I believe that all 4 gospels are historically accurate on this matter, and that Matthew, Mark and Luke can be easily harmonized here.

Here’s how I believe it happened. I think that immediately after these two thieves were crucified on Good Friday, both of them did verbally attack our Lord! They heard the insults the chief priests and Pharisees were hurling at Jesus, and in their anger and frustration they joined right in!

But at some point during the time that these two men hung there with Jesus, one of them had a change of heart.

Which leads to the obvious question: Why? In other words, what led him to change? What melted his heart and led him to conversion?

Well, we don’t know for sure, but I would say that it must have had something to do with how our Lord handled his suffering!

Personally, I think the Good Thief was moved by the love and mercy he sensed in Jesus, which motivated our Lord to forgive his murderers—as he was in the process of being murdered!

“Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Our Lord suffered in love. That had to have a powerful impact on this thief, who initially was suffering in anger and bitterness.

The way in which Jesus suffered evangelized this hardened criminal, melted his hard heart—and ultimately brought him to heaven! We know he’s there because Jesus said to him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

I mention all this because this is the year of evangelization in our diocese. When we think of evangelization, we normally think of the direct type: speaking about Jesus with our friends and family members; inviting people to come with us to Mass—or a mission—or Confession.


Indirect evangelization can be every bit as effective as the direct kind.

And if you don’t believe me, when you get to heaven ask the Good Thief, because that’s precisely how Jesus Christ evangelized him on Good Friday.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

St. Paul—The Woman Caught in Adultery—Eva Lavalliere: Three Very Big Conversion Stories

Eva Lavalliere

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 21, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 8: 1-11.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2010]

St. Paul once called himself, “the worst of sinners.” He did that in his first letter to Timothy, chapter 1. Then he went on in that chapter to add these words: “But on that very account I was dealt with mercifully, so that in me, as an extreme case, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, and that I might become an example to those who would later have faith in him and gain everlasting life.”

This is why St. Paul often told his conversion story: he wanted to inspire other people to follow his example of repentance! He wanted to motivate men and women to seek the mercy of God with total confidence and faith. He hoped that people would hear his testimony and say to themselves, “Wow, if Jesus can forgive that guy, Paul, then he can forgive anybody—including me!”

Every once in a while, it’s good to hear a story like this—the story of a big sinner’s repentance and conversion—as an added incentive for us to change our lives for the better.

Because all of us need improvement!

The Church has given us one of those stories in today’s gospel text from John 8—this account of the woman caught in the act of adultery. She was condemned by everyone but Jesus, who read her heart and recognized her repentance. He forgave her, and asked only one thing: that she try to avoid committing the same sin in the future (which, of course, is the very same pledge we make at the end of the Act of Contrition, which we say just before we’re absolved in Confession).

Jesus said, “Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

Recently I read another inspiring story of repentance and conversion that I’ll share with you this morning. It involved a famous French actress of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Eva Lavalliere.

Eva grew up in what we would call today a “severely dysfunctional family.” She later said, “As a child, I knew not what the love and care of a mother was. My life was tears and suffering from the time I reached the age of reason.”

Her greatest suffering came, no doubt, on the day her alcoholic father shot and killed her mother—and himself—right in front of her.

She found a kind of escape from her pain in the life of the theater. She performed for royalty; she became perhaps the best known actress in France and much of Europe. As she later put it, “Gold ran through my hands. I had everything the world could offer, everything I could desire. Nevertheless, I regarded myself the unhappiest of souls.”

So unhappy that she even attempted suicide a couple of times.

I’m sure it didn’t help that during this period of her life she had also gotten involved in the occult, and had literally sold her soul to the devil in exchange for fame, fortune and beauty.

The events that changed her life happened in June of 1917, when she was 51. During that month she decided to rent a palace—literally, a palace!—near Tours, France, for some rest and relaxation prior to a singing tour she was to go on here in the United States. Well, the trustee of this palace just happened to be the local parish priest.

After inviting her to a Mass in which he preached about the conversion of big sinners, this priest began a dialogue with Eva that eventually resulted in her being reconciled to God and the Church. She renounced her involvement in the occult, went to Confession, and received Communion for the first time in many years. One observer said that after Eva received she spent a long time in prayer and seemed “in another world.”

Amazingly, she never went back to singing and acting. She gave away her fortune, got rid of her jewels, and canceled her contracts.

She wrote, “My resolution is made. From now on, only Jesus has a right to my life, for He alone gave me happiness and peace.”

This caused quite a stir in Europe at the time, as you might imagine—even without television and the internet.

From 1917, until her death in 1929, Eva Lavalliere led a life of penance, prayer and service to the sick and the poor. She had a few bouts with depression along the way—conversion doesn’t make all our problems disappear!—but basically she led a very joyful life.

In 1929, just before she died, a newspaper in Paris interviewed her. Here’s part of it. They asked her, “Do you suffer a lot?” (She was very sick at the time.)

She responded, “Yes, horribly.”

“Have you any hope of being cured?”

“None. But I am so happy! You cannot imagine how great my happiness is.”

“Even with so much suffering?”

“Yes, and because of it. I am in God’s hands. Tell my friends of days gone by that you met the happiest person on earth.”

St. Paul—the woman caught in adultery—Eva Lavalliere: three very big conversion stories.

Of course, my brothers and sisters, it doesn’t do us any good to hear stories like these, unless they inspire us to embrace repentance in our own lives.

And speaking of repentance and conversion, when was the last time YOU made a really good Confession?

If it’s been awhile, then resolve to be here next Saturday at 3:30pm!

Mark you calendar as soon as you get home—just to make sure you don’t forget.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Parable of the Prodigal Son: What Was the Rest of the Story?

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 14, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2010]

Radio personality Paul Harvey became famous for ending his newscasts with the expression, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Too bad Mr. Harvey died last year at the age of 90. Because if he were still around, he might have been able do some research on the two brothers in today’s gospel parable, and give us some insights as to what happened to them after these events that we heard about a few moments ago.

What was “the rest of the story”?

It all ends rather abruptly, does it not?

What was “the rest of the story,” first of all, for the prodigal son? We know that he went back to his dad and was forgiven for his many sins, but did he stay with his father? Did he live a happy and grateful life from this moment onward? Did he really appreciate his father’s forgiveness and pass that lesson on to his children and grandchildren? Or did he give into temptation a second time and walk away, never to return? Or did he walk away and come back again? Did he do that a number of times?

Inquiring minds want to know!

And, just as importantly, what was “the rest of the story” for the older, faithful son? Did he stay angry at his brother—and his dad? Did that unresolved anger eventually lead him to abandon his family? Or did he finally let go of it and find peace? And did he ever get tempted to do what his brother did? Did he ever give in to the temptation? And if he did give in, did he ever repent—or did he despair?

Now you might say, “Fr. Ray, hold on a minute. This is just a parable! This is a story Jesus Christ made up to illustrate the mercy and forgiveness of his heavenly Father. As far as we can tell, it didn’t really happen historically.”

Well, that’s true. But these are still valid questions to ponder, because they apply to all of us and to all human beings who DO experience the love and forgiveness of God the Father in real life. The ways these two fictional sons might have reacted (had they been real people) show us the ways we might respond in real life in similar circumstances.

So what was “the rest of the story” for the two brothers?

Well, if you asked me which of these two boys was more likely to fall into serious sin and get off the right track later in life, I would say without question it was THE OLDER SON—the “non-prodigal one”—the son who had been with his father from the beginning.

That might surprise some of you, although I don’t think it should. After his return home, the prodigal son was deeply aware of his father’s love and mercy—the love and mercy his dad had for him, personally! After everything this boy had done, his father was willing to take him back when he repented—no questions asked! And then he treated his repentant son like he had never left! The father forgave—and in a very real sense he forgot—his son’s many sins.

The bottom line is this: After he returned and was welcomed home, the prodigal son had a relationship with his dad that was rooted in love—real, agape love; whereas the older son had a relationship with his dad that—from all external indications at least—was superficial and cold. It was not a loving father/son relationship; rather, it was a lot like the kind of relationship a client has with a businessman, or a servant with a master.

Notice how this boy speaks to his father after he finds out his younger brother has come home and his dad has thrown a big party for him. He says, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.”

In other words, “I paid my dues; I did what you asked me to do; I fulfilled my end of our father-son deal. Why haven’t you given me what I’ve earned? Why haven’t you given me a just reward for all my years of faithful service?”

To me, that sounds like something a disgruntled employee would say to his boss, not something a loving son would say to his dear, old dad!

When we see a relationship with someone primarily in legal terms (like this older son apparently saw his relationship with his father), we don’t feel very sorry when we hurt the other person. Nor do we feel a lot of loyalty to the other person. This explains why you and your local car salesman will haggle about the price of the car you’d like to buy on his lot. He’s trying to get you to pay the highest amount possible; you’re trying to get him to charge you the lowest amount possible. And in the process you’re not concerned about hurting his feelings, and he’s not concerned about hurting yours!

The relationship is strictly business!

Unfortunately, I think that’s also how many people interact with God. It becomes a business-like connection: “Ok, God, I’ll give you an hour each weekend, I’ll say some prayers every day, I’ll observe all the rules your Church gives me, and in exchange you give me (fill in the blank).”

That’s how the older boy in this parable would relate to the Lord if he were a modern-day Catholic.

Every once in awhile someone will say to me, “Fr. Ray, I don’t get it. I used to see so-and-so in church every Sunday; now they don’t even want to talk about God. What happened?”

Well, in many cases what happened is that something went wrong in their “business deal” with the Lord. God didn’t fulfill his part of the “deal” to the person’s satisfaction, so the person stopped fulfilling his part of the bargain.

God wants to have a loving relationship with each and every one of us. He’s not our employer; he’s our Father! And such a relationship is always possible. That’s the good news! That’s the message of this parable! If we’re like the prodigal son before his conversion, all we need to do is run back to our Father by making a sincere, sacramental confession. If we’re like the older son, who seemed to think of his father as his boss, all we need to do is to change our way of looking at reality and invite the Lord into our hearts.

Doing these things will make it much more likely that “the rest of our stories” will include a happy ending—the happy ending we long for, the happy ending we call "Heaven".

Monday, March 08, 2010

Parish Mission 2010

Fr. Mike Sisco is preaching our parish mission this year. The theme is, "Who do you say that I am?"--The Kingdom Revealed.

Here are the audio versions of Fr. Mike's Sunday homily and mission talks: