Sunday, January 30, 2011

Manute Bol and the Beatitudes

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 30, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Zephaniah 2: 3; 3: 12-13; 1Corinthians1: 26-31; Matthew 5: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of the Year 2011]

Basketball fans in the congregation this morning will certainly remember a man named Manute Bol. He was born in Africa—in the Sudan (a country that’s been ravaged by violence and civil war for decades), and he played 10 years in the NBA for four different teams.

But, most important of all, Manute Bol was a very devout and a very charitable Christian.

He died tragically of a terrible skin disease last summer at the young age of 47. A week after his passing, Jon Shields, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, wrote a column about him that ran in the Wall Street Journal. Here is some of what he said:

[Often] sports journalists use the term “redemption” to praise the individual performances of NBA superstars. Thus, the Associated Press reported that Kobe Bryant "found redemption" after he won a title in 2009 without the aid of his nemesis and former teammate Shaquille O'Neal.

Manute Bol, who died last week at the age of 47, is one player who never achieved redemption in the eyes of sports journalists. His life embodied an older, Christian conception of redemption that has been badly obscured by its current usage.

Bol, a Christian Sudanese immigrant, believed his life was a gift from God to be used in the service of others. As he put it to Sports Illustrated in 2004: "God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back."

He was not blessed, however, with great athletic gifts. As a center for the Washington Bullets, Bol was more spectacle than superstar. At 7 feet, 7 inches tall and 225 pounds, he was both the tallest and thinnest player in the league. He averaged a mere 2.6 points per game over the course of his career, though he was a successful shot blocker given that he towered over most NBA players.

Bol reportedly gave most of his fortune, estimated at $6 million, to aid Sudanese refugees. As one twitter feed aptly put it: "Most NBA cats go broke on cars, jewelry & groupies. Manute Bol went broke building hospitals."

When his fortune dried up, Bol raised more money for charity by doing what most athletes would find humiliating: He turned himself into a humorous spectacle. Bol was hired, for example, as a horse jockey, hockey player and celebrity boxer. Some Americans simply found amusement in the absurdity of him on a horse or skates. And who could deny the comic potential of Bol boxing William "the Refrigerator" Perry, the 335-pound former defensive lineman of the Chicago Bears?

Bol agreed to be a clown. But he was not willing to be mocked for his own personal gain as so many reality-television stars are. Bol let himself be ridiculed on behalf of suffering strangers in the Sudan; he was a fool for Christ.

During his final years, Bol suffered more than mere mockery in the service of others. While he was doing relief work in the Sudan, he contracted a painful skin disease that ultimately contributed to his death.

Bol's life and death throws into sharp relief the trivialized manner in which sports journalists employ the concept of redemption. In the world of sports media players are redeemed when they overcome some prior "humiliation" by playing well. Redemption then is deeply connected to personal gain and celebrity. It leads to fatter contracts, shoe endorsements, and adoring women.

Yet as Bol reminds us, the Christian understanding of redemption has always involved lowering and humbling oneself. It leads to suffering and even death.

It is of little surprise, then, that the sort of radical Christianity exemplified by Bol is rarely understood by sports journalists. For all its interest in the intimate details of players' lives, the media has long been tone deaf to the way devout Christianity profoundly shapes some of them.

I thought of Manute Bol’s story as I was reflecting on today’s 3 Scripture readings. For example, in the first, from Zephaniah 2 and 3, God promises to preserve a “remnant” of his people. This prophecy was written at a time when most of the nation of Israel had fallen into idolatry and serious sin. But “most of the nation” was not “all of the nation”. Some—a relatively small number—did remain loyal to the truth that had been handed down to them from Moses. They were the faithful remnant of their day.

No matter how bad it gets, God always has his “remnant.”

You might say that Manute Bol was a part of God’s faithful remnant in the modern world of professional sports. Jon Shields, the author of that article I just read from, would certainly agree.

May God help us to be part of his “faithful remnant” too—in our families, in our schools, in our places of employment, in all the settings and circumstances of our lives.

In today’s second reading, from 1 Corinthians 1, St. Paul says, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.”

The “wise” of this world often become absorbed in the things of this world. And where does it get them in the end? Those like Manute Bol, who see the bigger picture, and who always keep in mind the ultimate goal of life, are often considered to be foolish and impractical—but I would say that they’re the ones who are truly wise.

So would St. Paul.

And then we have the Beatitudes of today’s gospel. Think of how some of these relate to Manute Bol’s life of faith and charity:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” (that is to say, “Blessed are those who know they need God”). Manute knew he needed the Lord in his life to fulfill his true mission, his true calling. He couldn’t do it alone or by his own power.

“Blessed are they who mourn.” Manute Bol mourned deeply for the sufferings of his Sudanese brothers and sisters. That mourning was at the root of his incredible charity.

“Blessed are the meek” (in other words, the humble). Manute Bol was deeply humble—to the point that he was willing to look like a complete fool to help those in need.

“Blessed are the merciful.” Mercy was evident in Manute Bol’s words to Sports Illustrated back in 2004: "God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back."

“Blessed are the peacemakers.” I read this week that Manute did whatever he could to help bring peace to the warring factions in his country. That, of course, should come as no surprise.

And finally, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.’ . . . ‘Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.” “Hey, look at that 7-foot-7-inch freak, Manute Bol—pretending to be a horse jockey; trying to play hockey; boxing William ‘the Refrigerator’ Perry!”

I’m sure Manute heard insults like those quite often—perhaps every single day.

Now please do not misunderstand me, I’m not canonizing Manute Bol today in this homily. I’m not declaring him a saint. That’s for God to do, not me. Manute was a human being and a sinner, as we all are. That means we should pray for him and for the repose of his soul—which is what we should do for all our deceased relatives and friends,.

But there’s a lot about his life that was good and worth emulating.

May God help us to do that and to live the Beatitudes faithfully in our own lives, so that we will experience all the rewards that they promise.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Three Easy and Effective Ways to Promote Vocations

(Third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 23, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 4: 12-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday 2011]

I came across this reflection on the priesthood recently:

If a priest preaches more than 10 minutes, they say he’s long-winded. If his homily is short, they say he didn’t prepare it well. If the parish funds are in the black, they say he has business savvy. If he mentions money, they say he’s money-mad. If he visits his parishioners, they say he’s nosy; if he doesn’t, they say he’s a snob. If he has dinners and bazaars, they say he’s bleeding the people; if he doesn’t, they say there’s no life in the parish. If he takes time in the reconciliation room to advise sinners, they say he takes too long. If he doesn’t, they say he doesn’t care. If he celebrates Mass in a quiet voice, they say he’s boring; if he puts emphasis in his words, they say he’s an actor. If he starts Mass on time, they say his watch must be fast; if he starts late, they say he’s holding up the people. If he’s young, they say he’s inexperienced; if he’s old they say he ought to retire.

And you think it’s easy being a priest?!!

Of course, I know that none of those things has ever been said about me!—especially the one about being long-winded!

I wonder if Peter, Andrew, James and John had any idea what they were getting into when Jesus called them away from their fishing business and former way of life to be his apostles, and, eventually, his first priests.

Probably not. But they said yes anyway! And they did it enthusiastically, as do most priests today.

That last point might come as a surprise to many people, but it’s true nonetheless. In spite of the challenges and sacrifices of priestly life—like dealing with the divisions among people that St. Paul had to deal with in Corinth (which we heard about a few moments ago in our second reading)—most priests today are happy in their vocation.

In fact, when Fr. Stephen Rossetti surveyed 834 priests after the scandals of 2002 (a time when priestly morale should have been extremely low), he found that 92% of them either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Overall, I am happy as a priest.” A Los Angeles Times poll of 1,854 priests yielded a similar result: 91% said they were satisfied with the “way [their] life as a priest [was] going,” and 90% said they would do it all over again. If they could turn back the hands of time, they would choose once more to respond to God’s grace and serve the Lord in the priesthood.

That’s because it’s a joy to bring Jesus to people (especially in the sacraments), and to bring people to Jesus!

Now, unfortunately, there are many places (especially in the affluent western world) where the number of vocations is very, very low. Actually, it’s not the number of “vocations” that’s small (since God always calls a sufficient number of shepherds for his people). The problem is that many who are being called are not responding! The Lord is calling, but they are not saying yes.

There are many reasons for this, of course—for this “response crisis” that we’re currently experiencing in the Church; but one of the most important is that many Catholics are simply not doing what they can and should do to promote vocations. And some are actively trying to undermine them—especially when it’s someone in their family!

Personally, I would not want to stand before Almighty God someday to try to justify undermining a vocation to the priesthood, the diaconate, or religious life!

That’s not a good idea.

All that having been said, let me now share with you 3 very easy and effective ways that you can promote vocations, if you so desire.

The first way to promote vocations is to know your Catholic Faith! (And if you don’t know it, learn it!). The truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks for itself, when it’s shared and explained in an intelligent and reasonable way. Young people today are looking for the same things that young people have been looking for throughout history. They’re looking for answers to the most basic questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? What is the goal of life? Is there a God? If there is, does he care at all about me?—and what, if anything, does he expect of me?

If we know our Catholic Faith well, and can answer questions like these for the young people we come into contact with every day (especially those in our families), they will come to see the beauty and truth of the Gospel—and they’ll begin to see that investing your life in promoting the Gospel full-time is a good thing, a very good thing.

We’ve been blessed here in our community with many vocations. I know there are some who think that I’ve put pressure on these young people to choose the priesthood or religious life.

Not at all! All I’ve tried to do is teach them the Gospel in a convincing way and help them meet Jesus. The rest has been between them and the Lord—which is precisely the way it should be with any vocation.

The second way to promote vocations is this: Live your Catholic Faith to the best of your ability. A young person will not invest his life in an ideal that he doesn’t see lived out, at least to some extent. Every priest, deacon and religious brother or sister can tell you stories about committed Catholics who made a deep and lasting impact on their life. Perhaps it was a parent or some other relative; perhaps it was a priest, or a religious, or a co-worker, or a friend—or some combination of the above.

One of the people who made a profound impact on young Karol Wojtyla during his years of discernment for the priesthood (in addition to his parents) was a Polish tailor named Jan Tyranowski. Tyranowski knew the Faith—and the writings of the great spiritual masters like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross; he lived the Faith in a devout way in is personal life, and because of that knowledge and example he helped to form a future Pope, John Paul II.

This brings us to the third way to promote vocations, which, not surprisingly to pray! A vocation, ultimately, is the work of God’s grace, and that grace is poured forth into the heart of a young person through prayer.

On that note, I had a very saintly grandmother who lived in a wheelchair for the last several years of her life. (This was when I was in the seminary.) For a long time she had open wounds on her legs that wouldn’t heal (they didn’t have the good wound care back then that they have now). But during those years I always remember her with her Rosary beads in her hands, fingering them while she quietly prayed.

She had many intentions that she was praying for in those days, but I knew that I—her seminarian grandson—was either at or near the top of the list.

Would I have become a priest without those prayers? I seriously doubt it.

I remember Fr. Marcel Taillon speaking here at St. Pius about vocations many years ago, and during his homily he asked people to pray one Hail Mary every day for vocations.

Those of you who were here back then: Have you done that? Or do you at least pray every once in awhile in some fashion for vocations?

That last question is for everyone.

Know the Faith; Live the Faith; and Pray!—three easy and effective ways to promote vocations. Please notice, these activities are not complicated; they don’t require a lot of special gifts or a lot of specialized training.

All they require is a willing and loving and faith-filled heart.

May that kind of heart reside in each and every one of us.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Our Baptismal Identity

(Baptism of the Lord (A): This homily was given on January 9, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 3: 13-17.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Baptism of the Lord 2011]

A woman who was diagnosed with a serious illness several years ago sent me an email the other day. She said that after she received the bad news, a friend sent her a card with this written on it: “Hope, obey, surrender and trust. Pray like a child in his Father’s arms, and expect miracles.”

“A child in his Father’s arms”—that’s a very good image, a very good metaphor, for baptism! Most people, I think, see baptism exclusively as a formal ritual which removes original sin and makes us members of the Church—which, of course, is true. Baptism does both of those things: it takes away original sin and makes us Catholics.

But it does more than that! It does a lot more than that! For example, baptism also makes us God’s adopted children in Jesus Christ! And so, just as an earthly father holds his child during the baptismal ceremony, so does the Heavenly Father “hold us” in his arms, spiritually speaking, throughout our lives, because we are baptized. We are his; we belong to him because of the sanctifying grace and the sacramental character that come into our soul when water is poured over our forehead and the bishop, priest or deacon says the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

“Hope, obey, surrender and trust. Pray . . . and expect miracles.”

Those words of advice, which that woman who was ill received from her friend several years ago, also express the attitudes we should have toward our Heavenly Father as his adopted children. They’re the attitudes, in other words, which flow from our baptism.

First, hope: Hope has to do with heaven—“As a baptized person I live in the hope, that, as Jesus said, ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’—including one for me!”

That hope helps me to persevere when things get difficult, because I know that, in the end, it will all be worth it.

Obey: “As a baptized person I obey my Father (or at least I try to obey my Father) because I believe that he created me and that he knows what’s best for me.”

Surrender: “As a baptized person I surrender to my Father, because my Father has a good plan for my life, and I know that if I follow that plan I will be happy here on earth (to the extent that I can be happy in this life), and eternally happy with him someday in heaven.”

Trust: “As a baptized person I put my trust in my Father because he’s perfectly honest and truthful and thus worthy of trust.”

Pray: “As a baptized person I pray to my Father because he’s my Dad and he loves me. So I can go to him in the confidence that he will always give me what I need, and sometimes special favors.”

Expect miracles: “As a baptized person I expect great things from my Father, because my Father is all-knowing and all-powerful and can do the miraculous!”

Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. When our Lord was baptized, his identity as the only begotten Son of God the Father was revealed to the world. He knew who he was, but the rest of the world (with the exception of Mary and Joseph and a few others) did not. To most of the people who encountered him on a daily basis, our Lord was just the young and talented son of a Jewish carpenter. But that all changed the moment John the Baptist dunked him in the Jordan River. As we heard a few moments ago, when Jesus came out of the water the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit manifested himself in the form of a dove, and God the Father said in a loud voice, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”

Our baptism is different. Jesus’ baptism revealed his identity to the world, whereas our baptism reveals our identity to us!

This is something that we can easily lose sight of. Because of the difficulties and distractions of this life, we can easily forget who we are. That’s one reason why the Church encourages us to bless ourselves with holy water whenever we enter a church building. That pious act is supposed to remind us that we are baptized children of Almighty God! It’s supposed to remind us, in other words, of our identity. And knowing our identity is important, because identity influences activity: how we think of ourselves influences how we act toward ourselves—and others.

The more we are in touch with our baptismal identity, the more we will act like saints, and do all those things I mentioned earlier: hope, obey, surrender, trust, pray and expect miracles.

On that note, I read something very interesting the other day about King Louis IX of France, who lived way back in the 13th century. Louis was baptized in a chapel in his hometown of Poissy; many years later he was crowned king in the great Cathedral at Rhiems.

But the interesting thing is that he always felt a greater affection and reverence for the chapel where he was baptized than he did for the big cathedral where he was made king. One day he was asked why that was the case. He answered with these words: “In the castle chapel I received the sacrament of baptism, thereby becoming a child of God. In the Cathedral of Rheims, I received the royal crown, whereby I became King of France. I deem divine sonship a greater dignity than earthly kingship. The dignity of kingship I will lose at the time of my death, whereas, as a child of God, I will obtain eternal happiness.”

And so it should come as no surprise that Louis IX of France is now known to the world as Saint Louis—the only French king ever to be canonized by the Church.

He knew his baptismal identity, and he lived his life accordingly.

May God help us to do the same.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Lessons From The Magi

(Epiphany 2011: This homily was given on January 2, 2011 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 2011]

The title of my homily this morning is “Lessons from the Magi.” As I was praying about what I should preach about this weekend, several ideas—several lessons—came to mind, each of which could have been developed into a full homily. But instead of going that route, I decided that I would mention each of them very briefly, in the hope that one or two or more of them will contain a personal message for you—a message the Holy Spirit knows you need to hear today.

So here they are . . .

Lesson 1 courtesy of the Magi: Do not fall for the post-Enlightenment lie which says that religion and science are enemies. The Magi were people of science and religion—and we should be as well. God, after all, is the author of EVERY truth, whether it be in the realm of science or in the realm of faith. If we perceive a contradiction between a truth of religion and a truth of science, then the problem is with us, not God. We’ve misunderstood something. As I said in a letter I wrote to a scientist the other day: “Religion needs science to explain the mechanics of the universe, but science needs religion to explain the meaning of the universe.”

Lesson 2 from the Magi: Life is a rough journey at times, but with perseverance you can reach your ultimate destination. The Magi in all likelihood were from ancient Persia (which is modern-day Iran); thus their journey to Bethlehem was somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 miles, and probably took several months. Can you imagine how much perseverance you need to ride on the back of a camel for that long?!!

Lesson 3 from the Magi: Always give the best that you have to Jesus Christ. Always! The Magi gave 3 precious gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh—the best they had, to the newborn King in Bethlehem. We are to give the Lord our best by giving him our best effort in every situation of life: first of all, in our vocation—as a husband and father, as a wife and mother, as a priest, as a religious--whatever it might be. We’re to give the Lord our best by giving our best effort at work, and at school, and by serving others selflessly in our families, in our church, in our community.

Are you giving Jesus your best effort in all these areas? (Be honest.)

Lesson 4: Never allow evil people to keep you from Jesus Christ. The Magi did not allow King Herod (as evil as he was) to keep them from Jesus, but unfortunately many men and women today do allow people who are evil (or maybe I should say, people that they think are evil) to keep them from the Lord. How often, for example, have you heard somebody say, “I don’t go to church, because those people who go to church every week are a bunch of hypocrites!” (Isn’t it nice to be talked about in such a loving way?)

Look, I don’t care if everyone else in church is an ax murderer—I’m not going to let them keep me from my Savior! I’m not going to allow them to deprive me of the forgiveness and the help and the comfort that Jesus Christ—and only Jesus Christ—can give me!

Lesson 5: Follow the right light! If the Magi had followed another star—any other star in the heavens—they would NOT have met Jesus in Bethlehem. They would have ended up somewhere else. If we want to meet Jesus in heaven someday we need to be guided by the principles of our Catholic faith, not the latest pop culture philosophy. The opening prayer of this Mass said it perfectly: “Father, you revealed your Son to the nations by the guidance of a star. Lead us to your glory in heaven by the light of faith”—the light of our CATHOLIC faith!

Lesson 6: Be open to God’s direction AND to God’s re-direction! Sometimes God wants to re-direct us in our lives. Most of us priests, for example, were not always planning to be priests—but somehow we got “re-directed” (through circumstances or through people or in some other way). The Magi were also open to this grace of “re-direction.” As we heard at the end of today’s gospel, God used a dream to warn them not to go back to King Herod, and so they “departed for their country by another way.”

Lesson 7: Jesus Christ will accept anyone—but they must bend their knee to him. Remember, the Magi were not Jews; they were Gentiles, like most of us. They were, in fact, the very first Gentiles to worship Jesus! Matthew, who wrote for Jewish converts to Christianity, included this story in his gospel to make it clear to his readers that Jesus came to save the whole world, not just the Jews.

Remember this if you think that you’ve done something for which you can’t be forgiven. Jesus will accept anyone, as long as they, like the Magi, bend their knee to him—especially through repentance and confession!

And finally, lesson 8: Make sure you don’t try to be a “Lone Ranger Christian.” Make sure, in other words, that you surround yourself with other believers who will support you on your journey to Jesus in heaven. We all need people in this life who will encourage us to do the right thing and to be faithful to God. If we don’t have that kind of support system in place, it’s extremely easy to get off the narrow road that leads to eternal life. Well, the Magi were in a similar situation. We don’t know how many of them there were, but we know there were at least 2, since the word in Scripture is plural. So think about it: a 1,200 mile journey from Persia, over rough, dangerous roads. If there had been only 1, what are the odds that he would have been able to make that journey successfully all by himself?

I’m sure there were many discouraging moments in that long, hard trip—moments when these men needed to encourage and motivate and even push one another.

We need that same type of support in our lives, if we’re going to make it to heaven.

There really is no such thing as a “Lone Ranger Christian.”

So there you have it: Lessons from the Magi. Which lesson (or lessons) hit home with you? Hopefully at least 1 did! It’s probably different for everybody here, but one thing we do have in common: the need to act on what we’ve heard. It does us no good whatsoever to hear a word—a message—from the Sacred Scriptures, unless we also make every effort to live it. As Jesus once said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

May each of us be so blessed—as the Magi were 2,000 years ago.