Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Benefits of Forgiveness

(Seventh Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 16, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 7: 55-60.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventh Sunday of Easter 2010]

The last act of St. Stephen was to forgive. He forgave the people who were stoning him to death, and asked God to forgive them as well. As we heard a few moments ago, the final words he spoke were directed to the Lord on behalf of his murderers! He said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

He called their act a sin; he implicitly recognized the fact that it was unfair and unjust—but he still forgave!

This shows us that even though forgiveness is difficult—sometimes EXTREMELY DIFFICULT—it is not impossible! If Stephen could forgive his murderers—as he was in the process of being murdered by them—then we, by the grace of God, can forgive the people who have hurt us in our lives.

But it’s not a magical process! That’s important for us to realize. It wasn’t that way for Stephen, nor is it that way for anyone else. Forgiveness doesn’t just happen. In order to forgive, we must first of all want to forgive, as St. Stephen wanted to forgive!

In this regard, it’s very helpful to recognize some of the positive benefits of forgiving others. Let’s face it, most people will not want to forgive, unless they understand that forgiveness is actually beneficial: beneficial to them personally; beneficial to their families; beneficial to their relationships in general.

This is something, thankfully, that even people in the secular world are beginning to realize and understand: that forgiveness, although difficult, brings many blessings into our lives. I found an article the other day, for example, on the web site of the Mayo Clinic that listed the following benefits of forgiveness: healthier relationships; greater spiritual and psychological well-being; less stress and hostility; lower blood pressure; fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain; and lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse (see “Forgiveness: Letting Go of Grudges and Bitterness,” by Mayo Clinic Staff).

On another secular web site, a psychologist mentioned 3 studies that were done that yielded the following results:

“One study from the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found forgiveness to be associated with lower heart rate and blood pressure as well as stress relief. This can bring long-term health benefits for your heart and overall health.

‘A later study found forgiveness to be positively associated with five measures of health: physical symptoms, medications used, sleep quality, fatigue, and somatic complaints. It seems that the reduction in negative affect (depressive symptoms), strengthened spirituality, conflict management and stress relief one finds through forgiveness all have a significant impact on overall health. (This is why many people have experienced physical healings when they have finally forgiven someone they needed to forgive.)

‘A third study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that forgiveness not only restores positive thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward the offending party (in other words, forgiveness restores the relationship to its previous positive state), but the benefits of forgiveness spill over to positive behaviors toward others outside of the relationship. Forgiveness is associated with more volunteerism, donating to charity, and other altruistic behaviors. (And the converse is true of non-forgiveness.)”
(from “The Benefits of Forgiveness,” by Elizabeth Scott, M.S.)

Of course, as good as all these earthly benefits are, Catholics know that they pale in comparison to the ultimate and most important personal benefit of the forgiveness of others: forgiveness for ourselves, and eternal life!

Remember, God’s forgiveness of us is conditional on our willingness to forgive our brothers and sisters!

I hope no one is surprised by that fact. After all, we implicitly agree to it every time we say the Lord’s Prayer (as we will in a few minutes at this Mass!). I’m talking about the line where we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESSPASS AGAINST US.”

Immediately after he taught his disciples the Our Father in Matthew 6, Jesus said the following: “If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” (Matthew 6: 14)

Interesting, isn’t it? The only petition of the Our Father that Jesus elaborated on was the one that had to do with forgiveness!

That’s not a coincidence! Jesus knew what we needed to hear!

Heaven opened immediately for St. Stephen (as we heard a few moments ago) because he had no unforgiveness in his heart. None whatsoever. By the grace of God, he let it go (or never let it in in the first place!), so there was nothing blocking his passage into the kingdom.

If there is any unforgiveness in our heart right now toward anyone, today is the day to begin doing something about it! Remember, forgiveness is not an emotion, it’s a decision. It’s also, quite frequently, a process. (That’s especially true if the hurt we’ve experience from the other person is a really deep one—or one that we’ve experienced from them over and over again for many years.)

The important thing is that we’ve begun the process of forgiveness, and are working at it. One place to “work at it” is in prayer—utilizing a tool like the 5 “Forgiveness Steps” I shared in a homily several years ago.

(I think I’ll insert those into the bulletin next week, because I’m sure there are many people in the parish now who were not in the parish back then. And some of you who were here back then might have lost them.)

My prayer is that today’s homily will give each of us some added incentive to work at forgiveness constantly and to never stop—until the day when we each follow St. Stephen into the Lord’s eternal kingdom.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why 10 Days?

(Ascension Thursday 2010: This homily was given on May 13, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 1: 1-14; Luke 24: 46-53.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ascension Thursday 2010]

Why 10 days?

Why did Jesus wait 10 days after his ascension before he sent the Holy Spirit to his apostles and to the other disciples who were gathered together in the Upper Room?

He could have sent them the Spirit immediately after he ascended, while they were still standing there looking up at the sky.

But he didn’t. He let them wait for well over a week.

Now Jesus Christ never acted without a good reason, so there must have been a reason—or a series of reasons—why he chose to conduct himself in this fashion.

So what was it?

Well, the bad news is that we can’t know the answer to that question with absolute certitude!

But we can certainly venture an educated guess or two—which is what I will do very briefly today in this homily. I do this, incidentally, not because I enjoy speculating about things that we can’t know for sure, but rather because I think what the disciples experienced in those 10 days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday relates to what we often experience in our relationship with God today.

For example, one possible reason why Jesus delayed his sending of the Spirit was to teach his disciples the importance of praying with perseverance. Jesus had promised to send them a gift—a gift that would guide them to all truth; a gift that would give them strength and help and healing in their lives. But they needed to pray for that gift perseveringly in the Upper Room, and not give up after a few hours, or even a few days.

We need to do the same thing, if we want to receive all the blessings God has for us in our lives. As most of us know, the Lord has made some blessings conditional here on earth. We won’t get them if we don’t ask—and ask with perseverance, like these pre-Pentecost disciples.

Another possible reason why Jesus delayed his sending of the Spirit was to teach his disciples that God was in control, not them. God would act when he was ready, not before.

We need to learn the same lesson in our lives. A lot of people these days want God to be their personal “puppet”—when they “pull the strings,” so to speak, they expect him to act immediately and do exactly what they want him to do.

But that’s not the way it works—as these disciples found out.

Perhaps Jesus delayed his sending of the Spirit to teach his disciples that they needed to be patient. (I don’t think I need to elaborate on how that relates to us and our lives.)

Maybe he delayed the Pentecost event to teach them the importance of communal prayer: that there’s great power present when believers come together to pray as a body (like we do here at Mass). Remember, the disciples went back to the Upper Room after the Ascension and spent a lot of time there as a group during the next 10 days. The only other place they spent a lot of time was in the Temple (as we heard in today’s Gospel text from Luke 24). But even in the Temple they were praying. As it says there, they were “continually in the Temple praising God”.

Maybe Jesus didn’t send the Spirit right away to teach his followers the importance of making novenas! As I’ve mentioned in other homilies, the first novena ever made was made by Mary and the apostles between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost. It was, in effect, a novena to the Holy Spirit.

Or maybe Jesus delayed the sending of the Spirit to teach us about the importance and power of Mary’s intercession. Our Blessed Mother was one of those in the Upper Room when the Spirit came at Pentecost (as you can see from our Pentecost stained glass window here in church).

Mary prayed, and something great happened for every disciple who was present and for the whole Church.

Those are just some of the possible reasons why Jesus waited before he poured out the Holy Spirit on his very first followers.

You could probably come up with others, if you spent some time reflecting on it.

But the bottom line is, Jesus didn’t delay things indefinitely. He had promised his faithful followers a gift—he had promised that he would “clothe them with power from on high”—and that’s exactly what he eventually did.

Which is the final and in some sense the most important lesson of the day: When Jesus Christ makes a promise, he ALWAYS keeps it!

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Four Things a Good Mother Never Forgets

(Sixth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 9, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Revelation 21: 10-14, 22-23 John 14: 23-29.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday of Easter 2010]

On Mother’s Day last year, a woman in the parish sent me this little anecdote that someone had sent to her. I don’t know if this really happened or not, but the point of the story is certainly a valid one:

A teacher gave her class of second graders a special lesson on magnets one day. She taught them what a magnet is and what a magnet does. The following day she decided to give the students a little quiz on what they had learned. One of the questions she put on the quiz read as follows: “My name has 6 letters. The first one is M. I pick up things. What am I?”

Well, almost half the students got it wrong. Instead of putting ‘magnet’ they answered with the word ‘mother.’

But I think the teacher ultimately gave them all credit for a true answer.

At least, she should have!

Good mothers know a lot about picking up things: toys from the living room floor, dirty clothes from around the hamper, food from the grocery store, her children from school. The list goes on and on.

Good mothers also have good memories—sometimes better than their children would like them to have, but that’s another story!

Along those lines, let me share with you now “Four Things a Good Mother Never Forgets”. These are reflected in the Scripture readings the Holy Spirit has given us this weekend, in particular the second reading and the Gospel.

So here they are . . .

Number 1—the first thing a good mother never forgets: THAT HER CHILDREN ARE NOT REALLY HERS.
A good mother knows that her children ultimately belong to God, not to her or to her husband! Parents “procreate”—that is to say, they co-operate with Almighty God to bring new human beings into the world. But God creates each human soul directly, so each human person belongs to him.

I’m not a big fan of Kahlil Gibran, the pop-philosopher whose writings were very popular in the 1960s, but these words of his to parents contain a great deal of truth:

“Your children are not your children . . . They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts . . . you may house their bodies but not their souls.”

St. John said it even more clearly in his first letter, when he wrote, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

God can dwell within us because we are made in his image and likeness and belong to him.

When a mother forgets this simple truth (that her children are not really hers), she ends up trying to manipulate them into doing her will, which can be disastrous.

This, by the way, is the second thing a good mother never forgets: THAT HER CHILDREN EXIST TO DO GOD'S WILL, NOT HERS.

I thank God from the bottom of my heart that I had a mother who never pressured me into my vocation as a priest. Never! She said to me many times, “I want you to do whatever God wants you to do in your life. If God’s will is for you to be a priest, great—I support you 100%. But if it’s his will that you do something else, then that’s what I want for you as well.”

The worst thing a mother—or father—can do is to impose their will on their child, especially regarding an important decision like the choice of a vocation, or the choice of a spouse—or even the choice of a career.

Those choices should be made by the child—and God!

Which leads us to the third thing a good mother never forgets: THAT THE MOST IMPORTANT RELATIONSHIP HER CHILDREN HAVE IS WITH GOD, NOT HER!

Only God will be there for her child at every moment of every day. Only God knows the right decision for her child to make in every circumstance. As was indicated in today’s Gospel, only God can provide a person with true and lasting peace.

Yesterday we celebrated First Communion at St. Pius for 25 second graders. I wonder how many of them will be in church today with their mothers and fathers. More importantly, I wonder how many of their mothers and fathers will bring them to Mass each and every weekend from now on.

Good Catholic mothers will do that for their children because they know that the relationship their children have with the Lord must be the primary relationship in their lives.

Which brings us to the final thing a good mother never forgets: THAT THE TRUE HOME OF HER CHILDREN IS NOT IN THIS WORLD OR OF THIS WORLD. The true home of her children is the city spoken about in today’s second reading from Revelation 21: the new Jerusalem, or, as we normally call it, heaven!

A good mother teaches her children many things, but the most important lesson she imparts to her children is that the ultimate goal of human life is to live forever with God in his kingdom, and that every decision they make should be made with that goal in view.

Because a good mother knows that if her children ultimately make it into the kingdom of heaven, their lives here on earth will have been successful! But if they miss the kingdom, their earthly lives will have been total failures—even if they made a lot of money and became incredibly famous and powerful while they were here.

So there you have it: four things a good mother never forgets:
  • that her children are not really hers
  • that her children exist to do God’s will
  • that the most important relationship her children have is with God
  • that the true home of her children is not in this world or of this world

Oh yes, and by the way, these are also four things that A GOOD FATHER never forgets.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Is There a Very Thin Line Between Love and Hate?

(Fifth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 2, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 13: 31-35.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Easter 2010]

Here’s a brief excerpt from an article that appeared in the Providence Journal in late March of this year. I’ve changed the names of the two people involved out of respect for their relatives; but the other details remain, just as they were reported by the Journal:

“The medical examiner has determined that the young couple found dead early Wednesday morning in their apartment each died from a gunshot wound to the head, according to the police.

‘The police are calling the death of Philip Jones, 26, and his wife, Melissa, 21, a murder-suicide, saying Jones apparently shot Melissa and [then] turned the gun on himself.”

Incidents like this, unfortunately, are not uncommon. Quite to the contrary, they seem to be occurring with ever-growing frequency in our modern American culture.

We read about them in newspapers all the time.

But this really shouldn’t surprise us. At least I don’t think it should surprise us. We’ve all heard the old adage, “There’s a very thin line between love and hate.”

That’s true—if you have the wrong notion of love in your mind and heart! And I would say that many, many people in our society right now fall into this category.

They do not know what real love is! They do not understand what real love is all about! They make the serious and sometimes fatal mistake of thinking that love is an emotion! And so when their positive emotions toward another person lessen or disappear (as they often do in every relationship), their “love” for that person lessens or disappears. But that’s only half the story. In most cases the strong positive feelings which the person mistakenly identified as love become equally strong negative feelings: anger, frustration—and perhaps even hatred.

When you treat love as an emotion, there really is a very thin line between that kind of love and hatred.

That’s probably the way it was for that young married couple I mentioned a few moments ago.

This is not—I repeat, this is NOT—what Jesus Christ is talking about in today’s Gospel text when he says, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”

That’s because for Jesus, love was not an emotion, it was a decision! It was a decision to desire the good for others; and it was a decision to do whatever was necessary to help others attain the good—especially the ultimate good of eternal life!

This is why he died on that cross! Let’s be clear about it, Jesus did not shed his blood on Mt. Calvary because he had “warm, fuzzy feelings” in his heart for everybody! Rather, it’s because he wanted what was truly good—eternal life—for everybody: even for people like the scribes and Pharisees, for whom he definitely did not have a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings most of the time!

Because Jesus loved people in this deeper, selfless way, he was able to love them even when he felt very strong negative emotions toward them!

He loved the money changers in the Temple, for example—and was willing to die for them—even as he was reprimanding them in anger, and saying to them, “Stop turning my Father’s house into a den of thieves!”

He loved his disciples and desired their eternal salvation, even when he felt incredible frustration toward them because of their lack of faith—a frustration that led him to cry out, “What an unbelieving and perverse lot you are! How long must I remain with you? How long can I endure you?”

He loved Simon Peter with an eternal love, even as he was saying to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You’re thinking the thoughts of men, not the thoughts of God.”

Jesus never sinned against these people (or anyone else, for that matter) because his love for others was not rooted in his emotions! It was rooted in his will, which was perfectly aligned with the will of his heavenly Father.

As I was preparing this homily, the thought occurred to me that those of you who are good parents should understand this message quite easily, since this is precisely how you love your children.

When your children misbehave (on those rare occasions!), I think it’s safe to say that you feel a lot of negative emotions toward them—anger, annoyance, frustration, etc., etc. But you don’t allow those negative emotions to override your ultimate desire that your children grow up to be healthy, happy, well-adjusted people.

You desire the good for your children—their proper development as human beings and followers of Christ—and that desire ultimately guides you in your response to them. So yes, you may have to punish them and punish them severely, but don’t write them off or do them irreparable physical harm (although your emotions might be pushing you in that direction!).

So today let our prayer be: Dear Lord Jesus, teach me the true meaning of love—the kind of love that led you to die on the cross for my salvation! Help me to see through the false ideas about love that are so prevalent in our culture right now, ideas that are often leading people to commit horrible acts of violence and hatred (like the murder-suicide mentioned at the beginning of today’s homily). Help me to realize that when people see love as an emotion, there really is a very thin line between love and hate; but when people understand that love is a decision—and when they make that decision regardless of how they feel—there is an insurmountable distance between love and hate. Thank you Jesus for teaching me that love as an emotion easily leads to violence and hatred, but love as a decision never does. Amen.