Sunday, December 26, 2010

Eating Together As a Family—At Home And In Church—Makes a Big Difference!

(Holy Family 2010 (A): This homily was given on December 26, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr Raymond Suriani. Read Sirach 3: 2-7, 12-14; Colossians 3: 12-17; Matthew 2: 13-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Family 2010]

A few months ago, I came across a very interesting news item in a national newspaper. It was entitled, “The Family That Eats Together,” and it read as follows:

Another reason to gather around the table: Late last year, Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse released “The Importance of Family Dinners V.” “Simply put: Dinner makes a difference,” the survey says.

In terms of substance abuse, “Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week), those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are: twice as likely to use tobacco or marijuana; and more than one and a half times likelier to use alcohol.”

Eating together also impacts academics: “Compared to teens who have five to seven family dinners per week, those who have fewer than three family dinners per week are one and a half times likelier to report getting mostly C’s or lower grades in school,” the survey reported.

And, most important, family togetherness results in family closeness: “Teens who have frequent family dinners . . . are likelier to say they have excellent relationships with their parents.”

This also relates to faith: “Teens who have frequent family dinners are also likelier to attend religious services at least weekly compared to teens who have infrequent family dinners.”

The article then ended with the words, “Bless us, O Lord . . .”

We live in a very fast-paced society; we live in a highly-technological society—a society in which we have the opportunity to communicate with one another more quickly and more effectively than ever before. If you want to get an important message to your spouse or to your child or to your co-worker or to your friend all you have to do is shoot them an email or a text-message or a “tweet”—and it’s there.

And yet, the irony is—generally speaking, we are more isolated from one another now, in the early 21st century, than at any other time in human history! That’s because in the daily lives of many contemporary men and women, the technological “interface” of a piece of electronic equipment has to a great extent replaced the human face of their brothers and sisters.

I think this is one of the biggest reasons why so many people these days have trouble paying attention in school, at work—in church!—and in just about every other setting. They’re so accustomed to the 10 second sound byte or the two line email or text message, that they have trouble entering into a conversation with another person at a deeper level, and really listening.

In the Magnificat prayer booklet, the second reading for today’s Mass—this passage from Colossians 3—is given the title, “Family life in the Lord.” The text, of course, is specifically about life in the Family of God, the Church, but what St. Paul says there also applies to life in our individual families. He writes, “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.”

Those are some of the virtues that need to be practiced in a family, if that family is going to be stable and happy. But the thing is, if you want to be successful in living those virtues in your family, you need to be COMMUNICATING with the other members of your family in a caring, intimate way. That is to say, your communication with them has to go beyond a couple of daily tweets, emails, and text-messages!

This is why eating together makes such a difference! By the way, don’t you find it somewhat amusing—we now need to have a big, formal study done at an Ivy League University to tell us what ordinary people have known for centuries: that family bonds are forged and strengthened in the conversations that take place at dinnertime?

I remember being annoyed at my father many times when I was 8 or 9 and he called me home for dinner after school. I’d be having a great time playing baseball or football in the local field with all of my friends, and all of a sudden I’d hear my father’s voice in the distance: “Raymond, come home! It’s time for supper.”

“But dad, we’ve only got one more inning to go.”

“Get home now!”

“All right.”

Back then, I didn’t appreciate it—I thought my father was just an ogre who was out to ruin my fun.

But he was right. He wanted his family home to eat together, because he knew how important the conversation was at suppertime.

And speaking of conversations, can you imagine the ones that Mary and Joseph had on their way down to Egypt? Today’s gospel doesn’t tell us exactly what they spoke about, I know; but, given the amount of time they spent together—and given the depth of their individual spiritual lives—I’m sure they didn’t just engage in casual conversation about the weather!

Among other things, I’m sure they talked about their hopes and dreams for their newborn child. I’m sure they shared with each other their worries and concerns about how they would raise him, and what they would be able to teach him—given the fact that he was not an ordinary little boy!

And many of their conversations took place, no doubt, during the meals they ate together along the way.

The bottom line is this: the flight into Egypt was an extremely stressful time for Mary and Joseph. They were travelling on rough, dangerous roadways into a foreign country where their ancestors had once lived as slaves. But the flight into Egypt was also a special and sacred time for them: a time for them to bond as a couple; a time for them to prepare to be the best parents they could possibly be.

So obviously a message of this homily is to eat together as a family as often as possible.

But it’s not the only message!

I say that because we are attending a sacred, family meal right now here in church—a meal called “the Mass,” in which God, the Father of the family, feeds us, his adopted children, with his truth, and with the precious Body and Blood of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. So, if the Columbia University study is correct in saying that family meals at home make a positive difference, I think it’s logical to assume that family meals in church also make a positive difference in people’s lives.

I decided to test this idea out by doing a little research online the other day, and during the course of that research I came across the results of several studies by the Family Research Council concerning people who attend religious services frequently. Not surprisingly, these studies yielded the following results:

• Adolescents from intact families who worship frequently are least likely ever to try hard drugs

• Adolescents who worship at least weekly are the least likely to run away from home.

• Parents who live in intact families that worship frequently report the lowest levels of parenting stress

• Children who attend worship at least weekly are more socially developed than those who worship less frequently.

So the complete message of today’s homily is this: Eat together as often as possible at home, but don’t ever, ever skip a meal here in church—for the sake of your family.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

"The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," and the Presence of Jesus in OUR World

(Christmas 2010: This homily was given on December 25, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 1: 18-25.)

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

One night last week I decided to go and see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. That’s the new movie that just came out, based on the C.S. Lewis book of the same title. It’s one of the seven novels that form his famous Chronicles of Narnia series.

The Chronicles, of course, were written for children, but many adults also read and appreciate them—first of all because they’re good stories, and secondly because they have a deeply spiritual—and explicitly Christian—message.

This film is good, incidentally, and I highly recommend it for older children and their parents (I say older children because there’s quite a bit of violence in it). However, I will issue this caveat: Don’t expect the movie to be the book “on film,” because it isn’t. It’s based on the book, that’s true; but the moviemakers have changed a number of things (in typical Hollywood style!): they’ve switched the order of some events; they’ve added some characters and sub-plots that aren’t in the original story; and they’ve left out some of the very important Christian imagery. In short, they’ve made a very good adventure film about good versus evil which is loosely based on C.S. Lewis’ work.

But the book is much, much better! So my advice is: See the movie, and allow that to motivate you to read the book, if you haven’t already read it.

Now there is one exchange that takes place in the novel that the moviemakers did include in the film—and they get an A+ for doing it, because it reveals C.S. Lewis’ primary reason for writing the entire Chronicles of Narnia series.

The scene in question occurs at the very end of the movie. Edmund and Lucy, two of the children who were magically transported from our world to the fantasy world of Narnia, are told that they have to return to their home in mid-20th century England, and that they won’t come back to Narnia again.

The one who tells them this, of course, is Aslan—the Great Lion, who just happens to symbolize Jesus Christ in these stories.

Why did C.S. Lewis make Jesus a lion in his fictitious world? Because the Messiah is called “the Lion of Judah” in the Old Testament.

Christians who know their Bibles pick up on that imagery very quickly and easily.

Let me now read to you this part of the story from the novel itself:

“Please, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon.”

“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”

“Oh, Aslan!!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We [won’t] meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

And his name, the Bible tells us, is Jesus.

When Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, was born on Christmas Day 2,000 years ago, very few people realized that Almighty God was in their midst, wrapped in human flesh. Mary and Joseph knew; so did a few shepherds and some magi from the east.

But that was about it. The rest of the world was totally unaware of what was happening.

Well things haven’t changed much in 2,000 years, have they?

Jesus is still in our midst—he’s still with us in many different ways—but many people in our modern world (and that includes many Christians) are completely unaware of his presence. They’re like Edmund and Lucy before their trips to Narnia. Aslan had already been with them in England (using his proper name, Jesus), but they never realized it.

For example, Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” That means Jesus is with us whenever we gather for worship, and especially when we gather for Mass—where he comes to us Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist.

Do we realize that? Do we even believe that?

If we do, then how could we possibly ever miss Mass on a Sunday or holy day?!!

Jesus is also present in the sacrament of Reconciliation, where he speaks to us, through the priest, those comforting words of forgiveness: “I absolve you from your sins . . .”

How many people are carrying around terrible burdens of guilt—burdens they could easily get rid of—because they don’t know, or believe, that Jesus is really present there in Confession?

Jesus is present in his written word, the Bible—but many Catholics and other Christians don’t realize that. If they did, then they’d dust their Bibles off and actually read them—at least every once in awhile.

Jesus is present in other people—and in us. If we recognize that fact, we will be people of charity, as we remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”

Jesus can even be found in the sufferings of this life—which I think is great news! It’s great to know that I can find my God even when things are not going so well for me. In other words, it’s great to know that I can find my God and experience his help and strength when I need him the most!

Lord Jesus, as we celebrate your birth today, we ask you to open our eyes as you opened the eyes of Edmund and Lucy in the Chronicles of Narnia. Make us more aware of your loving and constant presence: your presence in the Church, in the sacraments, in the Scriptures, in ourselves, in others—and in the many and varied circumstances of this life. And help us to be different people—better people, better disciples—because of that awareness. By knowing you here today for a little, may we know you better when we leave here—and every day hereafter. Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jesus Or You (JOY)

John the Baptist in Prison
(Third Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 11, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10; Matthew 11: 2-11.)

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

Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word meaning “Rejoice!” It’s the first word of the entrance antiphon for the Mass of the Third Sunday of Advent (which, unfortunately, only the people at the 7am Mass hear, because we don’t have music at the 7, and the entrance antiphon takes the place of the opening song when you don’t have music). The antiphon—which is a direct quote from Philippians 4—reads as follows: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.”

This is also the Sunday when we light the third candle of the Advent wreath—the pink one—signifying that Advent is more than half over, and that we should now be filled with joyful expectation, as the feast of our Savior’s birth fast approaches.

Of course, it’s not easy for some people to have joyful expectation in their hearts at this time of year—we all know that; perhaps because a family member or friend died recently—or because the anniversary of a friend or family member’s death occurs during this month. It may also be because they’re out of work, or because they’re experiencing a serious illness. Or it may simply be because the days are getting shorter and shorter at this time of year.

There can be 1,001 reasons for the so-called “holiday blues,” but one thing’s for certain: they’re real, and they affect many of us—perhaps most of us—at one point or another during the month of December.

Well, today let me share with you an insight that will hopefully help you to experience at least a measure of joy during this sacred season, regardless of what you’re dealing with in your life right now.

The insight comes in the form of an acronym. This acronym can serve as a reminder of where our focus needs to be during this time of year—because I believe the joy of this season depends on us having the right focus, the right center.

The acronym, appropriately enough, is the word “JOY” which in this case stands for Jesus-Or-You.

Who is at the center of this season for you? Is it Jesus or is it you? Where are you seeking your joy in this holy season? Is it in Jesus, or is it in yourself?

The tendency we have at this time of year, as fallen human beings, is the tendency to try to find our joy in ourselves and in our circumstances—which works out okay when everything is going smoothly in our lives; however, when things turn sour and get difficult (as they always eventually do), there’s nothing left to hang onto. We’ve made the mistake of trying to find lasting joy in things that do not last, and what we’re left with in the end is emptiness.

That’s what happens when you try to find your joy in you.

But Jesus never changes! As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus Christ is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” He was our Savior; he is our Savior; he will always be our Savior. He loved us unconditionally in the past; he loves us unconditionally in the present, and he will love us unconditionally in the future. He always forgave us in the past when we sincerely and properly repented; he forgives us in the present when we repent, and he will forgive us in the future if we repent.

When we focus on Jesus we focus on things that are unchangeable. So it is possible for me to be joyful in my faith and in my relationship with Jesus and in the hope he gives me of eternal life—even when my circumstances are not so good.

Focusing my mind and heart on Jesus gives me something—or rather, Someone—to hang onto always: Someone who will make my joys more joyful and my sorrows more bearable.

John the Baptist, I think, would attest to this, based on his experience in today’s gospel. Here we have John in prison for telling King Herod the truth about his adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife. And while he was there he began to wonder whether or not his cousin Jesus really was the Messiah. I think that’s because John, like most Jews of the time, expected the Messiah to be more forceful and heavy-handed than Jesus was.

So he began to wonder whether or not he had heard God correctly in the first place and whether or not he had fulfilled his personal mission in this life properly—both of which had to be very depressing thoughts!

So he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him the big question: “Are you the one?—are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

Jesus replied, by saying, in effect, “Go back and remind my cousin that I’m doing all those incredible things that Isaiah the prophet said many years ago that the Messiah would do [in passages like the one we heard today in our first reading]—I’m healing the blind, the sick, the lame, lepers. I’m raising the dead, and I’m preaching the good news to the poor. Blessed—happy—joyful—is the one who takes no offence at me.”

John the Baptist never left that prison cell—until the day he was beheaded by King Herod and carried out. The terrible circumstances he was living in never changed for the better.

But I believe John was different! Once he heard Jesus’ message from the mouths of his disciples, John the Baptist was, I believe, a different man. He rejoiced! He now knew that his Savior had come; he now knew that his Savior was in the process of saving him, and THAT became the source of his joy.

And so he died, in those terrible circumstances—in that horrible prison— a happy man.

Where have you been trying to find your Advent joy so far? Where will you try to find it in the next few weeks? Will it be in Jesus? Or will it be in yourself?

Remember, when it comes to joy in this holy season—and in every other season of the year, for that matter!—it’s either Jesus Or You.

St. John the Baptist, pray for us. Pray that we will follow your example and find our true and lasting joy in the very same place you found it—in Jesus. Amen.

Advent Day of Recollection with Marty Rotella

We were blessed to have Catholic musician and evangelist Marty Rotella with us for a special Advent Day of Recollection.  The day focused on Our Lady of Guadalupe. 
To listen to Marty's inspirational songs and talks, click on the links below:

First Talk

Second Talk

Third Talk

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Why We Love Mary, and Why Some Others Hate Her

(Immaculate Conception 2010: This homily was given on December 8, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Genesis 3: 9-15, 20; Luke 1: 26-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Immaculate Conception 2010]

We gather on this feast of the Immaculate Conception, first of all because it’s a holy day of obligation and we’re obliged as Catholics to go to Mass on holy days; but also (hopefully) because we love Mary, our Blessed Mother, and we want to honor her as the Mother of God and as Jesus’ most faithful disciple.

Of course, it’s important for us to remember that not everyone loves Mary as we do. In fact, even some who say that they believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior do not like our Blessed Mother—at all.

And some people out there just plain hate her.

Now you might ask, “Why?—Why would anyone hate Mary? Why would anyone hate a woman who did so much for the world? Why would anyone hate such a holy person who was filled with the Holy Spirit and every virtue?

Well, the answer is: FOR THE VERY SAME REASONS THAT ALL OF US LOVE HER! Believe it or not, Mary is hated by her enemies for the very same reasons that she is loved by all of us.

First of all, she is hated because of her SINLESSNESS. Now that may sound ironic, but it’s true nonetheless. Most people are disliked because of the evil they do; Mary is disliked by some people precisely because of the evil she did NOT do!

This ties in with today’s feast. Remember what the Immaculate Conception means. The Immaculate Conception does not refer to the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb at the Annunciation (which is what many people think it refers to); rather, it has to do with Mary’s conception in the womb of her Mother, Anne. The glossary of the Catechism defines the Immaculate Conception in this way: “The dogma proclaimed in Christian Tradition and defined in 1854, that from the first moment of her conception Mary—by the singular grace of God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ—was preserved immune from original sin.”

We’ve all heard the saying, “To err is human.” Well, Mary reminds us that, when it comes to sin, to err is NOT HUMAN! We weren’t created by God to sin; we were created to be holy. We were created, in other words, to be like Mary. To sin is not to be human; to sin is to be less than human in our conduct.

Many people try to make excuses for what they do by saying, “But I’m only human”—as if human beings must sin! Well Mary, by her sinlessness, nullifies that excuse—which is why some people do not like her. They don’t want to change their lives, and they like to think they have an excuse for staying exactly as they are.

Mary tells them, “No—being human is not an excuse for committing sin.”

Another reason Mary is hated is because of her PURITY. She was a virgin, and we happen to live in a hedonistic age where virginity is looked upon by some people as a disease! Mary lived by faith, not by her emotions; whereas we live in a culture where the prevailing attitude is, “If it feels good, do it,” and where people like Hugh Hefner are glorified as heroes.

No wonder Mary is not very popular in certain segments of modern American society!

A third reason why our Blessed Mother is hated is because of her OBEDIENCE. The words that Mary spoke to Gabriel in today’s gospel were not an emotional reaction to a heavenly vision—they were words that expressed Mary’s core philosophy of life: “Be it done unto me, Lord, according to your word.” In other words, “Whatever you want me to do, God, I will do; whatever you want me to say, God, I will say; my life is in your hands; my life will be lived by your rules, not mine.”

That was the philosophy Mary lived by in every situation—not just when Gabriel happened to be around. How different that is from the philosophy of a young woman I had a conversation with the other day. She was telling me about a particular sin in her life, and then she said to me, in effect, “I will do what I want to do, and I will say whether it’s good or evil.”

I will do what I want to do, and I will say whether it’s good or evil. That, of course, was not the attitude of Mary, the new Eve; that was the attitude of the original Eve whom we heard about in today’s first reading.

It was also the attitude of her husband, Adam.

That’s the attitude that led to the original sin; that’s the attitude that got the world into the mess it’s currently in.

Needless to say, I don’t think that young woman has a deep love in her heart for our Blessed Mother at the present time.

But she could change—by God’s powerful grace.

And Mary, I’m sure, would agree. God’s grace, after all, did some incredible things in her life.

May it convert this young woman and all those who currently hate our Blessed Mother because of her sinlessness, her purity and her obedience; and may that same grace strengthen our love for Mary every day, and help us to become more like her in all that we say and in all that we do.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Fr. Ray’s Top Ten Reasons to Repent

(Second Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 5, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 3: 1-12.)

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

Comedian David Letterman is well-known for his “Top Ten Lists.” He shares them periodically on his late night television program. Well, today I will offer you my variation on this theme, by sharing with you my Top Ten Reasons to Repent.

I don’t think Letterman’s ever done that one before.

Of course, there is one big difference between his top ten lists and mine: his are meant to move people to laughter (and they usually do!); mine is designed to move people to seek God’s forgiveness for their sins, especially in the sacrament of Reconciliation.

So here they are—Fr Ray’s Top Ten Reasons to Repent:

Reason #10: Because John the Baptist told us to in today’s gospel reading from Matthew 3, and John was—in the words of Jesus Christ—“the greatest man ever born of woman.” I think it’s a sign of wisdom to follow the advice of a person that Jesus thought so highly of!

Reason #9 why it’s good to repent: Because repentance is necessary to receive the Holy Spirit, whose fruits are things like joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control”—all of which we should want in our lives. When the crowds heard Peter preach on Pentecost Sunday they were deeply moved and they said to him, “What must we do?” Peter said, “You must repent”—those were his very first words—“You must repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins; THEN you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2: 38) Repentance is always a precondition for receiving the Spirit and the many good things the Spirit brings into our lives.

Reason #8 why it’s good to repent: Because repentance makes room in our heart for God. As Bishop Sheen used to put it, “If you fill a box with salt, you cannot fill it with pepper.” In other words, to the extent that our heart is filled with sin, to that extent it cannot be filled with God’s grace and love.

Reason #7 why it’s good to repent: Because repentance improves our relationships with other people—by the very fact that it improves us! Do you enjoy being around people who never admit that they’ve done anything wrong? I don’t know about you, but those are the people I try to stay away from! People who will admit when they’re wrong and say they’re sorry—those are the people I enjoy spending time with.

Reason #6 why repentance is good: Because it brings us inner peace—and helps to bring about peace between us and others. I think every priest can tell you stories of men and women who have made good confessions and then breathed a big, audible sigh of relief after they’ve been absolved. They’ve repented in a deep and genuine way, and they experience a burst of peace in their hearts.


And, of course, if you have a situation where two people hurt one another deeply and then both repent individually, there’s a very good chance that they will eventually be reconciled to one another. The chance of reconciliation is much less if only one repents—or if neither does.

Reason #5 why repentance is good: Repentance brings with it self-knowledge. The person who recognizes his faults and admits them knows his true self. The prideful person who never repents doesn’t know his true self (or perhaps he just doesn’t want to know his true self).

Reason #4 to repent: Since we’re all sinners, repentance is the only path to holiness! If we weren’t sinners, it would be a different story—but we are. Therefore it’s only by seeking forgiveness for our sins that we can move spiritually from where we are right now to where God wants us to be.

Reason #3 why repentance is good: It doesn’t cost anything (except a little humility and honesty)—which should be very good news in these tough economic times!

Reason #2 to repent: Because Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world, told us to! In fact, it was the very first command he gave us in his public ministry: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1: 15)

And, finally, the #1 reason to have true, genuine repentance in your heart: Because without it, you can’t possibly get into heaven! No repentance—no forgiveness—no eternal life!

This, believe it or not, is where I will end my homily today. By my standards, I think you’ll agree, it was rather short. Ah, but the real question is: Was it successful?

I wish I could tell you the answer to that question, but, unfortunately, I can’t.

Only you can.

Remember what I said earlier: David Letterman’s top ten lists are meant to move people to laughter; my list here is designed to move people to seek God’s forgiveness for their sins, especially in the sacrament of Reconciliation.

Will that happen?

Only you can decide.

So my personal prayer today is that you will make this homily—that I worked so hard to prepare!—successful by your repentance and by your resolution to make a good Confession sometime in the very near future.