Sunday, June 19, 2011

God: Our True Standard of Fatherhood

(Trinity Sunday 2011 (A): This homily was given on June 19, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Exodus 34: 4b-6, 8-9; John 3: 16-18.)

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

Matthew Kelly, a very popular Catholic author, begins his book, Rediscovering Catholicism, with a little story. I begin my homily today with that story, which has a message for everyone—but especially for the fathers in the congregation on this Father’s Day weekend.

You're driving home from work next Monday after a long day. You tune in your radio. You hear a blurb about a little village in India where some villagers have died suddenly, strangely, of a flu that has never been seen before. It's not influenza, but three or four people are dead, and it's kind of interesting, and they are sending some doctors over there to investigate it. You don't think much about it, but coming home from church on Sunday you hear another radio spot. Only they say it's not three villagers, it's 30,000 villagers in the back hills of this particular area of India, and it's on TV that night. CNN runs a little blurb: people are heading there from the disease center in Atlanta because this disease strain has never been seen before.

By Monday morning when you get up, it's the lead story. It's not just India; it's Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and before you know it, you're hearing this story everywhere, and they have now coined it as "the mystery flu." The President has made some comment that he and his family are praying and hoping that all will go well over there. But everyone is wondering, "How are we going to contain it?"

That's when the President of France makes an announcement that shocks Europe. He is closing their borders. No flights from India, Pakistan, or any of the countries where this thing has been seen. And that's why that night you are watching a little bit of CNN before going to bed. Your jaw hits your chest when a weeping woman is translated in English from a French news program. There's a man lying in a hospital in Paris, dying of the mystery flu. It has come to Europe.

Panic strikes. As best they can tell, after contracting the disease, you have it for a week before you even know it. Then you have four days of unbelievable symptoms. And then you die. Britain closes its borders, but it's too late. South Hampton, Liverpool, North Hampton, and it's Tuesday morning when the President of the United States makes the following announcement: "Due to a national-security risk, all flights to and from Europe and Asia have been canceled. If your loved ones are overseas, I'm sorry. They cannot come back until we find a cure for this thing."

Within four days, our nation has been plunged into an unbelievable fear. People are wondering, "What if it comes to this country?" And preachers on Tuesday are saying it's the scourge of God. It's Wednesday night, and you are at a church prayer meeting when somebody runs in from the parking lot and yells, "Turn on a radio, turn on a radio!" And while everyone in church listens to a little transistor radio with a microphone stuck up to it, the announcement is made. Two women are lying, in a Long Island hospital, dying from the mystery flu. Within hours it seems, the disease envelopes the country.

People are working around the clock, trying to find an antidote. Nothing is working. California, Oregon, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts. It's as though it's just sweeping in from the borders.

And then all of a sudden the news comes out. The code has been broken. A cure can be found. A vaccine can be made. It's going to take the blood of somebody who hasn't been infected, and so, sure enough, all through the Midwest, through all those channels of emergency broadcasting, everyone is asked to do one simple thing: Go to your downtown hospital and have your blood analyzed. That's all we ask of you. When you hear the sirens go off in your neighborhood, please make your way quickly, quietly, and safely to the hospitals.

Sure enough, when you and your family get down there late on that Friday night, there is a long line, and they've got nurses and doctors coming out and pricking fingers and taking blood and putting labels on it. Your spouse and your kids are out there, and they take your blood and say, "Wait here in the parking lot, and if we call your name, you can be dismissed and go home." You stand around, scared, with your neighbors, wondering what on earth is going on, and if this is the end of the world.

Suddenly, a young man comes running out of the hospital screaming. He's yelling a name and waving a clipboard. “What”? He yells it again! And your son tugs on your jacket and says, "Daddy, that's me." Before you know it, they have grabbed your boy. "Wait a minute. Hold on!" And they say, "It's okay, his blood is clean. His blood is pure. We want to make sure he doesn't have the disease. We think he has the right blood type."

Five tense minutes later, out come the doctors and nurses crying and hugging one another-some are even laughing. It's the first time you have seen anybody laugh in a week, and an old doctor walks up to you and says, "Thank you, sir. Your son's blood is perfect. It's clean, it is pure, and we can make the vaccine."

As the word begins to spread all across that parking lot full of folks, people are screaming and praying and laughing and crying. But then the gray-haired doctor pulls you and your wife aside and says, "May we see you for a moment? We didn't realize that the donor would be a minor and we...we need you to sign a consent form."

You begin to sign, and then you see that the box for the number of pints of blood to be taken is empty. "H-h-h-how many pints?" And that is when the old doctor's smile fades, and he says, "We had no idea it would be a little child. We weren't prepared. We need it all!” … “But...but...I don't understand. He's my only son!” .... “We are talking about the whole world here. Please sign. We...we...need to hurry!"

"But can't you give him a transfusion?” “If we had clean blood we would. Please, will you please sign?" In numb silence you do. Then they say, "Would you like to have a moment with him before we begin?"

Could you walk back? Could you walk back to that room where he sits on a table saying, "Daddy? Mommy? What's going on?" Could you take his hands and say, "Son, your mommy and I love you, and we would never, ever let anything happen to you that didn't just have to be! Do you understand that?" And when that old doctor comes back in and says, "I'm sorry, we've got to get started. People all over the world are dying," could you leave? Could you walk out while he is saying, "Dad? Mom? Dad? Why...why have you abandoned me?"

I shared that story with our teenagers at youth group a couple of months ago, and it wasn’t until the very end that many of them said, “Oh, I get it. NOW I get it!”

Do you get it?

If you’re having trouble, look again at the first line of today’s gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

We cannot understand what it meant for God to give his Son, Jesus, in sacrifice for our sins except by analogy—and Matthew Kelly’s analogy in this story is one of the best I’ve ever come across.

But, remember, it’s only an analogy. Believe it or not, the reality of what God did for us is far more radical than what this story conveys!  For example, in this story, the son does not die willingly out of pure love—but Jesus did. Furthermore, in this story, the boy dies for men and women who are his equals. But Jesus died for inferiors—creatures—HIS creatures. It would be like one of us dying to cure all the dogs of the world of some dread disease.

And yet, even that doesn’t capture the essence of it, because, in the hierarchy of being, there’s a much greater distance between us and God than there is between us and dogs.

I hope that doesn’t offend anyone—but even if it does, the fact of the matter is it’s true.

This little story should also help us to understand why God must be the true standard of fatherhood for each of us—and not our earthly father! A father is called to give his best to his family—like God the Father gave his best to us, his adopted children—but no earthly father does that, because every earthly father is imperfect. For example, I had a great dad. I thank God for my dad. I thank God for the 14 years I had him in my life—before he died of cancer at the age of 46.

But my dad was not perfect. He gave my sister and me lots of love, and lots of support, and lots of care. But he didn’t do those things perfectly. I’m sure there were times, for example, when he disciplined us too much; I’m sure there were other times when he didn’t discipline us enough!

God, our heavenly Father, on the other hand, is perfectly just.

My earthly father also taught us right from wrong by his words and by his actions—but not perfectly. He was a sinner, like every earthly dad.

God the Father, on the other hand, is perfect. He never violated any of those Ten Commandments that he gave to Moses on the stone tablets we heard about in today’s first reading.

Some people have a poor image of God because they mistakenly make their earthly fathers, who have failed them in various ways, their standards of fatherhood. That leads them to look up to God and say, “You tell me to call you, ‘Father,’ and to love you with all my heart, but my earthly dad has hurt me and let me down at certain times in my life. Well, if that’s what fathers are like, God, then that must be what YOU are like! So, I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can love you so completely and unconditionally—since you’ll probably hurt me, too.”

The right perspective is to see God as the full expression of what it means to be a father—since he gave us his “all” in giving us his only begotten Son—and to see our earthly fathers as reflecting the heavenly Father’s love to us. So instead of saying, “God the Father must be like my earthly dad”; it’s more proper to say, “My dad is a little bit like God the Father in all the ways he is good and loving to his family.”

On this weekend when we honor our earthly dads, let’s thank the Lord for the ways our earthly fathers have reflected his love to us over the years, however imperfectly. And then let’s ask God our Father, through his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to help our earthly fathers to reflect his love to us even more perfectly and more completely, in the future.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Waiting Well

(Seventh Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on June 5, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI, by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 1: 12-14.)

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

We do it at traffic lights.
We do it at restaurants.
We do it at airports.
We do it at checkout counters.
We do it at sporting events.
We do it at gas stations.

You even do it here at church—especially in the middle of my homilies.
And what, exactly, is “it”?


By the way, I’m not postponing the answer—that IS the answer! “Waiting” is what we do at traffic lights and restaurants and airports and checkout counters and sporting events and gas stations—and just about every place else!

And yes, you even wait here in church, especially during my homilies.

(And sometimes it’s a really long wait, isn’t it?)

Today’s homily is on how to “wait well”. Since we do it so often, it’s important for us to know how to do it well—especially when it comes to matters of great importance: when you’re waiting, for example, for an answer to a specific prayer, or for a physical, emotional or spiritual healing (from cancer or heart disease or some other serious illness); or when you’re waiting for an insight from God as to what you’re supposed to do with your life, or an insight on some other important decision you need to make in the not-too-distant future.

Now it’s important for me to begin by saying that on this particular issue I am definitely a work-in-progress. I am not someone, in other words, who waits well, generally speaking. I’m sure it’s hard for some of you to believe, but—trust me—I am not the most patient guy on the planet! I do not like to wait—for anything!

But, with the help of God, I’m trying to get better.

So these tips on “waiting well” that I’ll share with you this morning are tips that I also need to work at putting into practice in the future.

They’re not just for you; they’re for all of us.

And they come to us, courtesy of our Blessed Mother and the 12 apostles and the others who were with them in the upper room during the time between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday. In this regard, today’s first reading, from Acts 1, follows the first reading we heard a few days ago on Ascension Thursday (you did remember that we had a holy day of obligation this past week, right?). Anyway, in that other reading, St. Luke says this: “[Jesus] presented himself alive to [his apostles] by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to WAIT for ‘the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”

Today’s text picks up where Thursday’s left off. In part it reads as follows: “After Jesus had been taken up to heaven the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying . . . All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”

In short, they went there to wait: to wait on the Lord; to wait for the special gift that Jesus had promised he would send them sometime after his ascension. Now they probably did not understand what (or Who) this gift was; but they did know they were supposed to wait for it. And so they obeyed.

Which brings us to the first tip on how to wait well: Obey! If the apostles and Mary and the others had not followed Jesus’ instructions and remained in Jerusalem after the ascension, they would not have been ready to receive the Spirit when he finally came! By the same token, if we’re waiting for direction or for guidance or for special help from the Lord in our lives, we need to be making every effort to live in obedience to him.

If we’re not—if we’re’ living in disobedience—we probably won’t hear him when he speaks to us, nor will we be open to whatever blessings he wants to give us.

So all our waiting will be in vain.

Something else we learn from this story—another tip on how to wait well—Pray! (Hopefully that doesn’t surprise anyone!) But don’t just pray alone; also get others to pray for you and even with you! When Mary and the apostles and the others were waiting in the upper room, it says (and here I quote): “All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer.” “Devoted” is a pretty strong word; it signifies intensity: THEY WERE REALLY PRAYING!

And might we presume that part of their daily prayer included Mass? I think that’s a reasonable presumption, given the fact that Jesus told the apostles at the Last Supper (in that very same Upper Room): “Do this in memory of me.”

So if you’re waiting for direction or for a special favor from God you might try going to Mass during the week as well as on the weekend.

It can’t hurt!

Notice, too, that when they were waiting they surrounded themselves with believers who gave them support and encouragement. That’s also important to do if we want to wait well. As I wait for a cure or a healing from Parkinson’s Disease, it means so much to get cards and emails and words of support from faithful people in this parish and many other places. For example, when I wrote to my shoulder surgeon in Boston to tell him the diagnosis just after Christmas, he sent back an email that read, “This is a tough time to receive news of this diagnosis but your faith and the many prayers that are being said in your name will make you well.”

Words like those help a lot.

They help you to trust and to persevere in your waiting—which is the last tip I want to focus on today. Remember, there were nine days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday. That’s a relatively long time to be sitting around in a large room waiting for a gift from heaven that you don’t fully understand. I can imagine that some of those who were present got a bit impatient in the midst of all that nervous expectation.

Perhaps even Peter did (he was known, after all, for being impatient at times!). I can imagine Mary saying to him, “Now Peter, calm down. The gift will come. My Son said it would—and my Son always tells the truth. In fact, my Son IS the truth!”

When we’re waiting for direction or for a favor from Lord—and we wait a long time—it’s hard to trust and persevere: it’s hard to trust that God is in control; it’s hard to trust that he will give us what we need, even if it’s not what we want.

And it’s really hard to trust that if he keeps us waiting for something indefinitely, it’s because he wants to give us something better—like greater inner strength and holiness.

There’s a line from an old prayer group song that comes to mind—based on a text from Isaiah 40: “I delight in the Lord with all my mind, with all my heart and my soul. And as I wait upon the Lord I GROW STRONGER every day.”

As I wait upon the Lord I grow stronger.

There is always a blessing that comes from “waiting well” upon the Lord, even if it’s only the blessing—the very important and necessary blessing—of growing stronger in our faith.

And now to those of you who have been waiting patiently throughout this homily—the Lord says, “Rejoice! Your prayers have been answered! Your waiting has come to an end! Fr. Ray is finally finished—at least for today!”

Thursday, June 02, 2011

What We Need to Know, and What We Don’t Need to Know

(Ascension Thursday 2011: This homily was given on June 2, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 1: 1-14)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ascension Thursday 2011]

See if you can follow this . . .

The world is full of people who desperately want to know what they don’t need to know; and, who, at the very same time, don’t know what they should know and what they do need to know!

That’s one reason why more people gossip than read the Bible or the Catechism!

C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, understood this human tendency as well as anyone. That’s why he often has Aslan, the Great Lion, tell the other characters in these 7 stories to—for lack of a better expression—mind their own business! (Aslan, remember, represents Jesus in these novels.) For example, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy, one of the children, asks Aslan whether her cousin Eustace will ever come back again to Narnia. Aslan answers her by saying, “Child, do you really need to know that?” Along the same lines, in one of the other stories, The Horse and His Boy, Aslan says to Shasta, one of the main characters, “I tell no-one any story but his own.”

I mention this today because in our first reading we’re told that just before Jesus ascended into heaven 2,000 years ago the apostles asked him a question about the future of the nation of Israel. Their “inquiring minds” wanted to know. They said, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Apparently, they still had this idea in their heads that the Messiah had come to restore the nation of Israel to the place of prominence that it had under King David many years before.

Obviously they didn’t fully understand that the Messiah’s kingdom extended far beyond the bounds of little, old Palestine—and far beyond the bounds of this mortal life.

Jesus didn’t argue the point directly, but he did tell them, in effect, that this was something that they did not need to know about. He said, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.”

How easy it is for us to be like these apostles! Before the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, they desperately wanted to know things that they did not need to know. This story makes that fact crystal clear. But at the very same time they were completely unaware of some other things that they should have known and needed to know—like where the Messiah’s kingdom was to be found!

The world is full of people who desperately want to know what they don’t need to know; and, who, at the very same time, don’t know what they should know and what they do need to know!

I thought of this a few weeks back when I was having a conversation with a young woman from the parish—a young woman who attends a certain Catholic high school in the Wakefield area (gee, I wonder what Catholic school that is?). She was very upset because her French teacher was in the process of showing the movie, The DaVinci Code, to her class, without providing any explanatory information to the students. In other words, she had them watch this film without telling them about the numerous lies it contains about the Church and about the history of Christianity.

That’s probably because the teacher herself doesn’t know what the lies are!

Not surprisingly, this was causing a lot of confusion among the students in the class, and was even causing some of them to question their Catholic faith!

What those students need to know about their Catholic faith, they don’t know (and, unfortunately, they aren’t being taught!).

And yet, I’ll bet many of them know lot about actor Tom Hanks! I’ll bet some them even know a few things about Ron Howard, the director of the film. I know it’s ancient history, but I’m sure that at least a couple of them know he starred in the old sitcom “Happy Days” and that he played “Opie” on the old “Andy Griffith Show.”

All of which is nice to know, but relatively unimportant when it comes to living this life successfully and getting to heaven when this life is over!

The bottom line is this: Like the apostles in today’s first reading, we all want to know many things—some of which we really don’t need to know, and some of which we can never know on this side of the grave: Why did God allow my loved one to die at such a young age? Why doesn’t everyone believe in God? Why do some evil people seem to suffer so little in this life? Why, Fr. Ray, did God let you get Parkinson’s Disease?

I don’t know the answer to that last question—and I don’t think I ever will while I’m here on this earth. But, to be perfectly frank, I don’t need to know it.

That’s certainly what Aslan would tell me if I lived in the magical world of Narnia.

And yet, in the midst of the frustration that comes with not knowing everything we’d like to know, we CAN still know many things! In fact, the good news is that we can know everything we NEED to know in order to be saved—everything we need to know to get to heaven!

May the Lord help us to know those things, and to focus on those things, and to be faithful to those things, so that we will someday reach our heavenly goal—the goal that Jesus reached on the very first Ascension Thursday.