Monday, March 28, 2011

Parish Mission 2011

Fr. Tom Hoar from St. Edmund's Retreat  is leading us in our parish mission this year.  To listen to Fr. Tom's inspirational talks, click on the links below:

Talk 1

Talk 2

Talk 3

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The ‘Transfiguration Experience’ of Mike Rogers, Jr.

Michael (on right) and his brother, Fran and his sister, Mary-Kate at their home in Westerly

(Second Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on March 20, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI, by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 17: 1-9.)

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

Mike Rogers, Jr., our Jesuit seminarian who’s currently studying theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, is turning 30 on March 23 of this year—a fact which makes me feel really, really old!

In preparation for this big event, he decided to write 30 separate reflections on his blog—one on each of the 30 days preceding March 23. These are personal “stories of grace,” as he calls them, which recount his experience of God’s presence and love during the first 3 decades of his life.

Well, the one he wrote on February 28 really hit home with me, and it ties in quite well with the Lord’s message to us today in this gospel passage we just heard from Matthew 17. The title of it was, simply, “The Bus Trip,” and it concerned his first trip to the Steubenville High School Youth Conference in Ohio. (This was back in the mid-1990s, before the days of Steubenville East at LaSalette and U.R.I. Back then, all the conferences took place on the campus of Franciscan University itself.)

Michael’s mom, the former Mary Ellen Sposato, is originally from Westerly, and she and her husband Mike, Sr.—both of whom attended Providence College with me back in the 1970s—used to come to St. Pius when they were here in town. They still do. At the time they were living in Wethersfield, Connecticut. And once when they were here for Mass I remember telling them that they should try to get young Michael to come with us to Steubenville that summer.

So they did. But what they didn’t tell me was that for all practical purposes they tricked him into going!

Michael, Jr. wrote on his blog:

It was a beautiful summer day, and my mother told me to pack my bag because the family was going to the house that she shared with her sisters down in Rhode Island for the weekend. That much was true, the family was going to the house in Rhode Island for the weekend, and I would go to the house in Westerly for a couple of minutes and then get back into the car to go to the church. When we arrived at the parking lot of St. Pius X parish I saw a large coach bus. The lot was filled with a bunch of high school kids, some looked excited, others reluctant, and there was one with a surprised look on his face.

That surprised look on my face came from the fact that I really knew very little about what was going on. I knew that the parish that we used to go to during the summers in my mom’s hometown had an active youth group. I knew that they went on a trip to Ohio every year; I had heard that it was fifteen hours, one way, on a bus. I also knew . . . that I wasn’t sure that I wanted much to do with it. My mother shoved into my hands a small box that had my well under-used rosary in it and a bible that had been bought a week before (which still sits on my desk to this day) and I was off.

Fifteen hours there, on a bus. Connecticut seemed endless, Pennsylvania, infinite. Initially, out of boredom, I began talking with a few of the other kids on the bus. It turned out that one, who subsequently became one of my better friends in high school, was someone I had played with as a child. His family lived across the street from my grandparents. Two others whom I befriended had my opinions about the weekend. . . . [Well] at least there were cute girls along for the ride too. (A thought shared by many 15 year old boys on that bus I am sure.) Very quickly I started noticing that the last names were names that I had heard growing up. It turns out that these were all the children of my mom’s friends… and we were all being shipped off together to Ohio.

Now I wish I could tell you that once Michael arrived at the university everything changed and he immediately began to have a great time, but that would be a lie. The truth is, things got a lot worse for him before they got any better. (At least they got worse in his mind.) As he put it on his blog: “We got off the bus, unrolled our sleeping bags on a racquetball court, and took showers after our long bus ride. Then we all went down under the main circus tent and people were singing about, of all things, Jesus! Almost immediately, I began to be afraid. I called my mother later that night to tell her that I had walked into some kind of cult! I asked what I was doing there, and, more importantly, I told her that I needed to come home—quickly!”

Thankfully, Mike Sr. and Mary Ellen did not get into their car and drive 15 hours to Ohio! They encouraged their son to stick it out, and Michael, Jr. did. He even went to confession for the first time in a long time on Saturday afternoon. As he said on his blog, he knew he’d never see the priest again, so he figured, “Why not go?”

But what really changed him—and his entire life—occurred on Saturday night. This was, for Mike Rogers, Jr., a “transfiguration experience”—akin in many ways to the experience that Peter, James and John had on Mt. Tabor 2,000 years ago when Jesus was transfigured before their eyes.

Here’s how Michael described it:

One of my Christology professors at the Gregorian says that all faith begins in an encounter, and he is right, of course. If faith begins with an encounter, then, in a real sense, my faith began that night. I am not sure if I can explain or describe what happened that night under that tent. There is a famous story that one day St. Augustine was walking along the shore taking a break from writing a book on the Trinity, and he saw a young boy using a shell to pour water from the Mediterranean into a little hole that he had dug in the sand. When Augustine asked the young boy what he was doing, the boy responded, “Trying to empty the sea into this hole.” Augustine smiled and told the boy gently that that was impossible. The boy responded, “So is trying to understand the Trinity.” That Saturday night is much like what this story describes. It would be impossible to really say what happened, other than that for the first time in my life I had an encounter with God. There was Eucharistic adoration and singing, but somehow I just became aware that God was alive, real, and wanted to love me, if I would let him. That moment was a turning point in my life, without which I would not be here. I knew in my heart who the living God was, and, at 15, I wanted to follow Him, whatever the cost.

Have you ever had a “transfiguration experience” in your life?—or a series of such experiences?

Michael’s transfiguration experience was a very positive one, but sometimes these experiences can come in the midst of suffering and tragedy. I have known many people who have experienced God’s strength and consolation after they’ve lost a loved one or after they’ve gone through some other serious trial—and that experience has either led them to faith, or strengthened them in faith, or brought them back to the practice of their faith.

A transfiguration experience is any event (good or bad) which has helped us to recognize what Mike Rogers came to recognize that Saturday night at Steubenville: that God is alive, and real, and wants to infuse our life with his love, if we will let him.

It is possible to have a transfiguration experience and not be aware of it until many months or even many years have passed. But once we become aware of one, it’s important that we never forget it, because there will be difficult times in the future when the memory of that transfiguration experience will give us the strength and the encouragement we need to remain faithful.

Jesus gave his disciples a little glimpse of his glory on Mt. Tabor so that they would have something to hang onto when almost everyone else turned against him on Good Friday. I’m sure that when Mike Rogers is having a difficult or frustrating day as a graduate student at the Gregorian University in Rome, his mind sometimes goes back to that moment of grace at Steubenville all those years ago, and through that memory he gets renewed and re-inspired to continue his preparation to serve God in the priesthood.

That’s the power—the awesome power—of a transfiguration experience when it’s recognized—and remembered—by a person of faith.

May God help us to know that same power in our lives.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Word for Lent: Consistency!

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ash Wednesday 2011]

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Learn a Lesson from the Way St. Pius X Church Was Built

(Ninth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on March 6, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 7: 21-27.)

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

A couple of years ago, I was talking to a man from the parish who had helped to build this church back in the mid-1950s. He was a teenager at the time, and he assisted the craftsmen—the stone masons—in their work. And he said what really struck him was how fussy, how particular the men in charge of the project were. They were Italian, and Catholic (members of the Cugini family, I am told), and they wanted only the very best granite to go into this structure. So they would look over every piece of stone that was brought in from the nearby quarries, and when they found any imperfection whatsoever in a particular piece they would tell the truck driver: “Take it back. Get it out of here.”

Well, that was over 50 years ago, and I must say, those men knew exactly what they were doing! We have a very solid structure here at St. Pius, thanks to those who built it. Oh sure, we have the normal maintenance issues that they have everywhere—last year, for example, as most of you know, we had to put on a new roof—but structurally this place is still in excellent condition. In fact, it’s in much better shape than a lot of churches that have been built in the last 10 or 15 years!

There is some truth in that old adage: “They don’t make things the way they used to!”

Well, the message of my homily today is: Learn a lesson from your church; specifically, learn a lesson from the way your church was built!

It was built with a solid foundation, and with excellent materials!

Which means it will probably be around for a good long time—even if a hurricane (of the 1938 variety) hits us at some point in the near future.

If Jesus had given his famous Sermon on the Mount in early twenty-first century Westerly, instead of in mid-first century Galilee, he could have used our church to make the very same point he made in today’s gospel. I’m talking about the final paragraph of the text, where he says, “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been solidly set on rock.”

He could have said, “He will be like those stone masons who built the great St. Pius X Church in Westerly. It has endured many storms for over 50 years; but in spite of all the terrible weather it’s had to deal with, it’s still in great shape!”

Jesus then goes on to say this: “Everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”

Notice that Jesus indicates that the very same “inclement weather” is faced by those who build their lives on his teachings and those who don’t. Suffering, in other words, comes to everybody. It does not discriminate between the greatest saint and the worst sinner.

Some good people get Parkinson’s Disease and some bad people get Parkinson’s Disease. (I won’t tell you which category I fit into; you’ll have to figure that out for yourselves!)

But there is a difference—a very big difference—in how the greatest saint and the worst sinner face the troublesome storms of their lives!

Obviously we should want to be in that group of people whose lives are composed of (to use the imagery of this gospel) a solid foundation, and a solid building on top of the foundation.

A good foundation AND a good building—that should be our goal. To have a good foundation means to know and to believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ, which are also the teachings of his Church! (That last point is one that’s often ignored or forgotten.) Jesus, remember, is the head while the Church is his body. You can’t have one without the other. And so having a good foundation to your life means saying yes in your heart to everything THE CHURCH authoritatively teaches in the Catechism in the name of Jesus Christ—even the tough teachings like the ones on forgiveness and sexual morality!

To have a good building, on the other hand, means to apply these teachings of Jesus and his Church to the circumstances you face in your life each and every day!

It’s possible, unfortunately, for a person to have a great “foundation” to his life, but a bad “building” at the very same time. Did you realize that? Such a person has the right foundation because in his heart he really believes everything the Church teaches; but, in spite of what he believes, he keeps falling into serious sin. Good foundation; bad building.

Others may have a bad foundation, but a nice building (at least on the outside—in the sense that they’re nice people with some good personal qualities). But, at the same time, they live by their own rules. So things might go well for them for a while—as long as the “weather” of life is good. But at some point—as Jesus indicates in this text—the weather will not be so good, and it’s then that these people will have big problems, because they’ve made the fatal mistake of building their lives on the “shifting sand” of lies and half-truths.

And, of course, it’s also possible to have both a bad foundation and a bad building. This is the situation of those men and women who don’t believe the truth, nor do they live it. Well, at least they’re consistent! That’s one positive thing you can say about them.

Those are the 4 possible conditions of the spiritual life: good foundation/bad building; bad foundation/good building; bad foundation/bad building; and good foundation/good building.

As we approach the beginning of Lent, I invite you to give your “building” (i.e., the building of your life) an inspection—an honest inspection. Every year, you know, the insurance man from our Diocese, Greg Carlson, comes to Westerly to give our church a long, thorough inspection, and every year he makes recommendations to us on what we can do to maintain it well and make it better. Thank God, as I indicated earlier, he’s never uncovered any major structural problems, and so his recommendations have always dealt with items of routine maintenance.

But having the inspection is very important! If we didn’t have it, we might miss a minor problem that could become a very big problem somewhere down the road.

St. Paul tells us that our bodies are like buildings—temples, to be exact. He says they are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” And so, just like this church, they need to be inspected from time to time.

So how is your “foundation” doing? Is it solid, or are there some cracks in it—some doubts, some questions, some issues of faith and life that are troubling you?

This Lent could be a time for you to deal with at least some of those cracks through daily Mass, or extra prayer and spiritual reading, or by coming to the parish mission.

And how’s your building itself doing? Is it solid, or is it a little weak? That is to say, are you having trouble living the faith you profess? If you are, perhaps it’s because you’ve let your prayer life slide, or perhaps it’s because you haven’t made a really good confession in a really long time.

Inspect your temple, and then resolve to ACT on what you find (especially during this upcoming Lenten season), so that your life will be as strong and as solid as this beautiful and well-built church is that you’re in right now!