Sunday, December 25, 2011

Some Important Christmas Reminders from Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow

(Christmas 2011: This homily was given on December 25, 2011 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 2011]

Syndicated writer Susan Stamper Brown began a recent column she wrote with the following words:

Despite the fact that in America, 60 to 70 percent of people identify themselves as “Christian” to one degree or another, Christian-bashing seems to be just about as popular a pastime as watching football these days.  And when a national football player commits the unpardonable sins of being both pro-life and vociferously, pro-Jesus, you end up with pundits who cast ridiculous judgments from on top of their lofty thrones, much like the old Muppet Show characters Statler and Waldorf.

The persecution of Christians has been going on since the days of the Roman Empire; it continues today in many third world countries, brutally, and here in America, more subtly.  Tolerant of most other religions, pre-fall Rome viewed Christianity as a fanatical Jewish sect which was so easy to hate they made a sport of it.  Sure, it’s a stretch to make an absolute correlation between 21st Century America and first Century Rome.  Nonetheless, replace sticks with diatribes and stones with denigrations for similar results.  One kills the body; the other slays the spirit.

If you’re a football fan who’s been following the National Football League this year, you can probably identify, quite easily, the person Susan Stamper Brown is alluding to in these two paragraphs I just read.  It is, of course, Tim Tebow, the second year quarterback of the Denver Broncos.

Now let me begin by saying that, as someone who’s been a Green Bay Packer fan for nearly 50 years, I’ve never had any interest whatoever in promoting the football fortunes of the Denver Broncos—especially since they beat the Packers back in Super Bowl XXXII!

But I must confess that during the last couple of months I’ve found myself sitting in front of a television set several times on Sunday afternoons cheering for Tim Tebow—not so much for who he is on the football field, but rather for who and what he has been off the field, in his personal life.

I’m happy to see someone like him doing so well in his chosen profession (as long as he’s not doing it against the Green Bay Packers).

For the benefit of those who are not football fans: Before the Broncos drafted him in 2010, Tim Tebow played for the University of Florida, where he was part of two national championship teams.  In 2007, he also won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best college football player.  But football has never been the most important reality in his life—as he would be more than happy to tell you.  In fact, he’s often said that football is just a game and that God really doesn’t care who wins and loses.  For Tebow, the person who’s number 1—the person who gives meaning and purpose and direction to his earthly existence—is the person (the divine person) whose birth we’re celebrating today, Jesus Christ.  And it seems that he’s one of the few people in public life these days who does more than talk the talk when it comes to his personal beliefs.  From all external indications, at least, Tim Tebow also makes the effort to “walk the walk”—i.e., the walk of a Christian disciple.  When he was a student at the University of Florida, for example, he used to spend his summers helping the poor and needy in the Philippines, primarily at an orphanage run by members of his family.  He spoke in prisons, led an on campus Bible study, and used his fame to help a number of good, charitable causes.  This line from his family’s web page says it well: “Tim’s faith is the driving force in his life, and he is acutely aware that ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ He keeps a poem in his room that reminds him of an athlete’s accountability to be a role model for the little boys who want to be just like him.”

Oh, and did I mention that he’s also “saving himself” for marriage?   By his own personal example, Tim Tebow is teaching the youth of America that “virgin” is not a dirty word!

What a great public service!

But, as Susan Stamper Brown points out in her little article, all these virtues—because they’re rooted in his Christianity—have brought the man more criticism than acclaim—at least in some segments of our society.  She writes, “Under normal circumstances, Tebow would be praised for his accomplishments, talent and leadership from around the Monday morning water cooler, but in these days of pseudo political correctness (PC), the words ‘normal’ and ‘Christian’ cannot run together in the same sentence.  Those who praise their maker for their talent are not considered talented; they are just creepy.”

She then gives some examples of comments she’s heard: “Maybe he can cure leprosy.” “He’d be a better passer if he’d give in and sleep around town.” “I don’t want to hear about his faith every other sentence.” “Even Jesus is telling Tim he has had enough.”

She ends her piece with the following thought-provoking questions and comment: “What is it about Tebow that brings out such nastiness in so many of us?  Why does the Jesus in Tebow bring out the devil in us?  Why is Tebow such a lightning rod to those who haven’t seen the same light?  Might it be that we can’t sit back to enjoy the game and appreciate Tebow’s talent because Tebow’s goodness makes us uncomfortable with our own not-sogoodness?  If that’s the case, heaven help us.”

I think Susan Stamper Brown has a valid insight there, but I also think it goes a little deeper than that (and here’s where the connection with Christmas comes into the picture).  You see, Tim Tebow and others like him remind us of a central fact of Christianity (a fact that some people would like to ignore or forget): they remind us that Jesus Christ is alive!  He’s not just a figure of past history, who was born on Christmas Day and died 33 years later.  He’s the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who demands our obedience; he’s the way, the truth and the life; he’s the only way to the Father; he’s the risen Savior who wants to save us from our sins AND WHO WILL SAVE US FROM OUR SINS, if we let him!

Tim Tebow and others like him remind us at Christmas that we must never, ever treat Jesus Christ like a lifeless figure in a lifeless crèche!  We must relate to him as a Person—a living Person—a living divine Person—who created us out of love, who came to this earth 2,000 years ago out of that same love, and who invites us to live in a loving relationship with him here on earth, so that we will someday live forever with him in his glorious and eternal kingdom of heaven.

It’s a simple message, isn’t it?  But it’s a message that can qualitatively change our lives for the better—if we believe it and then act upon it.

Have you ever wondered why Tim Tebow is almost always smiling—even when he loses (which is not too often these days)?

It’s because he understands this message better than most people do.  And it’s because he’s ACTED ON IT!

But Fr. Ray, what if he falls?  What if we find out on some dark day in the future that Tim Tebow has committed a terrible, horrific sin?

Well, then he’ll have the opportunity to remind us, by his repentance, that Jesus Christ came to this earth to die on that cross specifically for the forgiveness of our sins, and that there’s more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance.

Please hear that if you’re someone who’s been away from Mass and Confession for a long time.  The Lord is calling you home this Christmas.

But until that dark day comes for Tim Tebow (and I hope it never will), I will pray very hard for him.  I will pray for him to keep on being a good, faithful witness to Jesus Christ and his Christian faith.

And I’ll even root for him on the football field, as long as the team he’s playing is not from Green Bay, Wisconsin!    

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Joy and 'Circumstances'

(Third Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 11, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 61: 1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24.)

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

Most people would probably say that the opposite of joy is sorrow.

But I would say that the opposite of joy—at this time of the year, at least—is not sorrow; rather it’s “circumstances.”

I say that because our sorrow at this time of year, during these 4 weeks of Advent, is usually rooted in circumstances—negative circumstances—challenging circumstances—discouraging and depressing circumstances—either in our own families and personal lives, or somewhere out there in the world.

I’m sure we all can remember bad things that have happened in years past just before Christmas.  When I was a student at Providence College, for example, they had a terrible dorm fire in Aquinas Hall one night in mid-December, which killed ten young women.  I think of that tragic event every year at this time.  It’s one of the negative circumstances I have to deal with annually during Advent.  Getting diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease two days before Christmas last year will be another one I can add to my list from now on—at least until I get cured or healed!

We all have our lists, don’t we?  Perhaps someone you love died this December, or in a December of the past; maybe you lost your job this month—or maybe you lost it this month a year ago and have been unemployed ever since.  Or perhaps it’s just the moral decline and growing secularization of our society that’s getting you discouraged—something that was symbolized so well in our state a couple of weeks ago by our own governor, who, sadly, doesn’t seem to know what a Christmas tree is!

Talk about a depressing circumstance!  

And then we come to Mass on this Third Sunday of Advent and the Church tells us to “Rejoice!”  In our first reading Isaiah says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul!”  In the responsorial psalm we say (or sing), “My soul rejoices in my God.”  And then St. Paul tells us in this text from 1 Thessalonians 5 to “Rejoice ALWAYS”—not just sometimes, not just when things are going well, not just in good circumstances on sunny days in July—but ALWAYS!

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  It’s the Sunday when we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath, signifying that Advent is more than half over and that Christmas is fast approaching.  Gaudete in Latin literally means, “Rejoice!”  It’s an imperative; it’s a command—from Jesus, through his Church.

But it’s a tough command for many of us to obey as much as we might like to, because of those negative circumstances I mentioned earlier.  Now to some extent, these realities are always present in our lives and in our world; however they do seem to have more of a negative impact on us at this time of year.  I think that’s because, with all the festivity and celebration that’s going on around us, it can seem like everyone else is perfectly happy and having a great time.

But that’s an illusion.  As I indicated a few moments ago, everyone has a list of circumstances—circumstances that threaten to undermine their joy.  Even if they don’t seem to have a list, trust me, they do!

So here’s the situation we find ourselves in during this holy season (and to some extent throughout the year): Either our negative circumstances will overcome our joy, or joy will overcome our negative circumstances.

It’s either one or the other.

If circumstances win out in us, we will be miserable; if joy wins, then we’ll be able to rejoice in the way that our Scriptures today tell us to.  We’ll be able to do that in spite of all our problems.

In this regard, I came across something very interesting the other day in a homily by Fr. Roger Landry, who’s a priest from the Diocese of Fall River.  In this talk that I read online, he lists 4 things that can rob us of our joy (4 things, in other words, that can cause negative circumstances to win the victory in us).  See if you can identify with any of these:

The first is self-pity: “Oh woe is me—I have so many problems; I have so many more problems than other people have.  I have more cooking to do than anyone else.  I have more shopping to do than anyone else.  I have more aches and pains than anyone else.  I have to go and listen to Fr. Ray every week at church.  Poor, poor me!”

You know the kind of litany I’m talking about.    

The second is worry.  Worry and joy cannot co-exist, just like self-pity and joy cannot co-exist.  In his homily, Fr. Landry mentioned Pope John XXIII, who, as you might imagine, had an awful lot to worry about as the leader of the Church at the beginning of Vatican II.  But he conquered his worry through prayer—by consciously and consistently putting his own life and the life of the Church into God’s hands.  Fr. Landry wrote, “Pope John XXIII, who had responsibility for the whole Church, used to go in to visit the Lord in his private chapel each night and give the problems back to [God], saying, ’It’s your Church, Lord, I’m going to bed.’”

Sometimes the simplest prayers are the best!

The third thing that can undermine joy happens, Fr. Landry says, “When we place our happiness in something other than God, on acclaim, advancement, promotion, recognition, fame, prestige, power, money, anything.”  And this is exactly what the world encourages us to do at this time of year, is it not?  No wonder so many people are miserable!  The cultural message we get every December is, “Buy this, and you’ll be happy”; “Drink this, eat this, get this game, have this at your party and you’ll have Christmas joy in your heart.”

It’s a lie, but it’s a lie that many people believe—or at least they act like they believe it.

Which brings us to the 4th reality that can ruin joy: complaining.  Chronic complainers are fixated on the negative, and being fixated on the negative makes rejoicing almost impossible.  As Fr. Landry put it, “We lose our joy by complaining.”  He then added, “Some of us would have complained about the menu at the Last Supper.”

I’m sure that’s not true of anyone here in our parish, but apparently it was true of some people in his.

The final point that needs to be made in all this concerns the alternative.  Yes, self-pity, worry, focusing on things other than God and complaining all rob us of joy—that’s true.  But what’s the alternative?  What is it that will deepen our joy in December and in every other month of the year?  What will give us the ability to rejoice always, as St. Paul tells us to in today’s second reading?

The answer is simple, but very hard to put into practice: We need to focus on what we know, by faith, to be true.  In other words, we need to reflect and meditate on what we believe about God and about life—and about ourselves!  This, not surprisingly, is where Isaiah the prophet found his joy.  Notice what he says here.  He says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord (not in things—not in other people—not in the good circumstances of life—IN THE LORD!), in my God is the joy of my soul!”  The psalm refrain (which is a direct quote from Mary in her Magnificat) has the same message: “My soul rejoices in my God.”

Mary and Isaiah understood this principle.

So the bottom line is this: God created you in his image and likeness.  He loves you, perfectly, completely and unconditionally.  He sent his Son into this world 2,000 years ago to save you from your sins and to give you a kingdom that will last forever.  He will never abandon you, and will always provide for your needs.

Those are some of the foundational truths of our Catholic faith.  They were true yesterday; they’re true today; they will always be true. 

That means they will be true in the best circumstances of our lives and in the absolute worst of circumstances of our lives!  So we can always rejoice in them, because they are unchanging!  They’re timeless!  My health may change, my family may change, my friends may change, my job situation may change—but the truth of who God is and what he has done for me will never, ever change.

So that’s where my focus and yours needs to be, in December—and always.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Do You Try to ‘Pull Mary Down’ to Your Level, or Do You Let Mary ‘Pull You Up’ Closer to Hers?

(Immaculate Conception 2011: This homily was given on December 8, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 1: 26-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Immaculate Conception 2011]

On December 1, CTV (a Canadian television network) aired a Christmas special, “A Russell Peters Christmas,” during which there was a little comedy sketch that involved the Holy Family.  Peters, who’s a comedian from Brampton, Ontario, played the role of St. Joseph in the skit.  But guess who was chosen to play the role of Mary, our Blessed Mother.

Pamela Anderson.

(No, I’m not kidding.  I wish I were, but I’m not.)

The woman described by columnist Brent Bozell as “the ridiculously surgically enhanced former Playboy Playmate, home-movie porn specialist and ‘Baywatch’ star’,” was hired to play the role of the all-holy, immaculately-conceived, ever-virgin mother of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Russell Peters and those in charge of CTV should be ashamed of themselves.

But, of course, they aren’t.  If anything, they’re proud of what they’ve done!  In fact, when Peters was questioned about the matter in late November, he was quoted as saying, “We had written the sketch and we didn't know who we were putting in it and we thought hey Pam Anderson is Canadian, we can use more Canadian people in this show. . . . I didn't even think of the other side of Pam Anderson which is so long ago, it's like come on, give the chick a break already.”

Have you noticed how often Mary is blasphemed and ridiculed like this in contemporary western culture?  People love to try to “pull her down” to their level, morally and spiritually.  It happens all the time, but especially right before Christmas and Easter each year.

And have you ever wondered why?  Why would people want to blaspheme and ridicule and tear down someone like Mary, a woman who was—and who is—so good and so loving and so holy?

Well, believe it or not I think the answer to that question is rooted in the feast we’re celebrating today in the Church, the feast of our Lady’s Immaculate Conception.  Let me begin with a little catechetical review: As Catholics we believe that Mary was the holiest human person who ever lived.  (Jesus, remember, is a divine person so he’s in a separate category.)  She was, in the words of the poet William Wordsworth, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”—and that’s primarily because of the truth about her that’s contained in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

Many Catholics think that this dogma concerns the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary.  That, of course, is wrong.  The feast that commemorates Jesus’ conception in the womb of our Blessed Mother is known as the Annunciation, which is celebrated 9 months before Christmas, on March 25.  (If you’re not sure why that is, you should enroll immediately in Biology 101!) 

So why was the story of the Annunciation read as our gospel text today?  It's because Mary’s Immaculate Conception prepared her for that Annunciation event—and for all that would follow in her role as the Mother of the Savior of the world.

The Immaculate Conception, properly speaking, refers to the conception of Mary in the womb of her mother, St. Ann.  It teaches us that, by a special grace of God, given in view of what her Son Jesus would accomplish many years later on the cross, Mary was preserved from original sin.  The preface for this Mass says it perfectly: “For you preserved the most Blessed Virgin Mary from all stain of original sin, so that in her, endowed with the rich fullness of your grace, you might prepare a worthy Mother for your Son.”

Mary was free from original sin—which means that she had sanctifying grace in her soul from the moment of her conception.  Not only that, she never committed even one personal sin—mortal or venial—at any point during her earthly life. 

Mary, therefore, reminds us of the power of God’s saving grace.  She reminds of the great things that God can do in our lives, if we let him.  She reminds us that we can be better people than we now are, with the Lord’s powerful assistance.

For those of us who are really trying to live the Gospel, that’s good news—really good news! 

But what happens, my brothers and sisters, if you’re not interested in being any better than you currently are?  What happens if you’re perfectly content with the lust and anger and greed and other sinful attitudes that are in your heart at the present time?  What happens if you don’t want to change your life in a positive way and become holy like Mary and the rest of the saints?

Well, then you’ll do exactly what comedian Russell Peters did.  You’ll do what all the anti-Mary blasphemers do: You’ll try to pull our Blessed Mother down to your level! You’ll make fun of her; you’ll ridicule her holiness; you’ll have Pamela Anderson portray her in a television sketch!  You’ll do anything and everything you can to try to convince yourself that she’s no better than you are.

You’ll engage, in other words, in the ultimate delusion.

If we love Mary, we will never, ever try to pull her down to our level of imperfection and sin; rather, we will constantly ask her to “pull us up” to her level of holiness!  We will say, “Mary, you show me what a human person can be if they really trust in God and yield to his grace.  You said yes to the Lord at every moment of your life; help me to say yes to him more often in mine.  By the grace of God you never sinned; pray for me that by the same grace of God I will sin less frequently.  Sometimes I get discouraged and think that I can’t be better than I am; sometimes other people tell me that I can’t be better than I am; but you have shown me by your life that I can always be a better, holier, more Christ-like person than I am right now.”

That’s the kind of prayer we will say if we want to be “pulled up” by our Blessed Mother.  Or we could keep it really simple and just say, “Mary, I love you. Please pull me up!  Please pull me up a little higher today.”

She’ll know what we mean.    

Sunday, December 04, 2011

If I Think Something is Right, Does THAT FACT ALONE Make It Right?

Bishop Tobin

(Second Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 3, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 1: 1-8.)

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

Our bishop, Thomas Tobin, wrote a column in the November 10 issue of the Rhode Island Catholic entitled, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell . . . Don’t Sin.”  In it he did nothing surprising: He first of all reiterated the Catholic Church’s timeless teaching on the issue of homosexuality (a teaching which is firmly rooted in Sacred Scripture and the Natural Law).  He also criticized those activists and politicians and others who are trying to force everyone in our society to accept homosexuality and the homosexual lifestyle as normal and moral.  And he challenged individual Catholics to stand up for the truth in the public square, and to do their best to help people they know who experience same sex attraction to follow the path of virtue in their lives.  He said, “If you really love someone you have an obligation to challenge their sinful ways and encourage them to follow a more virtuous path.”

In the final paragraph of the piece, he summed up his message with these words: “Members of the Church, particularly those in positions of authority—bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, and especially parents—have an obligation to understand and present what we believe about the sinful nature of homosexual acts. We have an equally important obligation to foster respect for persons with same sex attraction. We should love them, respect them, pray with them, and welcome them into our churches. But we do them a grave disservice if we do not urge them to embrace a lifestyle marked by the Christian virtues of chastity and purity.”

The following week a letter opposing the Bishop appeared in our diocesan newspaper.  It was written by a man named Henry Miller, who lives in Youngstown, Ohio.  (I’m not sure how he obtained a copy of the Rhode Island Catholic, but he did—perhaps it was the online version.)  Listen now to some of what he said:

“Now, as to whether, as the bishop suggests, we have an ’obligation to challenge their (gays’) sinful ways and encourage them to follow a more virtuous path’ I can’t imagine the bishop has actually thought this advice through.  It suggests that we be adversarial and that could lead to our being punched in the nose.  After all who are we to judge who is living a sinful life and who is not.  Not everyone who is living a homosexual life is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.  This is second grade moral theology which we later learned as adults is called ‘primacy of conscience.’”

I’ll leave aside the remark about being punched in the nose.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s too ridiculous and juvenile to merit a comment.

But what about his other point—which is really the key point of his letter?  I hope and pray that you were horrified by his words here.  Listen again to what he said: “Not everyone who is living a homosexual life is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.”

Say what, Mr. Miller?  I hope you’re not serious—but I’m afraid you are.  Are you telling me, sir, that if I think that something is right, that fact alone makes it right?  Are you saying that the ultimate criterion for a morally good act is whether or not I believe it’s a morally good act?

I certainly hope not, sir, because that means that anything—and I mean ANYTHING (even the worst moral evil)—can be justified.

Let me now illustrate the absurdity of Mr. Miller’s statement by replacing “homosexual activity” with a few other sins:

  • Not everyone who intentionally flies a passenger plane into a skyscraper in New York City is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.
  • Not everyone who rapes is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.
  • Not everyone who steals millions of dollars through a Ponzi Scheme is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.
  • Not everyone who murders innocent people is committing a sin if he (or she) believes he is not.

What Mr. Miller calls the “primacy of conscience” is really the “primacy of the badly-formed conscience.”  He says this is “second grade moral theology.”  Well, if that’s true, then someone should tell Mr. Miller that he needs to go back to kindergarten and start over again with his moral theology lessons!

Of course, the really scary thing is, he’s not alone.  There are many people—and that includes many Christians!—who think this way.

And we wonder why our world is in such a mess?  This is the kind of mentality that tears families and societies and nations apart!

This is also the kind of mentality that keeps many Catholics away from Confession.

Each Advent we encounter John the Baptist, the precursor of the Messiah, who “appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (as we heard a few moments ago in our gospel reading from Mark 1).  That passage goes on to say that people from the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem went to the Jordan River to be baptized by him as they “acknowledged their sins.”  It doesn’t say they acknowledged the things they “felt” were sins, or the things they “believed” were sins—as if they themselves had the power to determine what was right and what was wrong.  It simply says they acknowledged their sins—indicating that there was an objective moral standard they had somehow violated.  They didn’t determine what that standard was, God did.  It was built into the very fabric of reality as God had designed it.

Jesus came into this world to save us from our sins.  His name literally means “Savior.”  But he can only save us from our sins if we acknowledge them, as the people who went to John for baptism did.  And we need to acknowledge them as they truly are, not as we would like them to be.  That’s difficult, for sure—but it’s also liberating; because, when we repent of those sins and receive forgiveness from God for them, we can finally put them behind us—forever!

We encounter John the Baptist every Advent to remind us that there’s no better way to prepare to receive Jesus more completely into our lives at Christmas than through sincere repentance for our sins.  To assist you in that task this Advent I’ve inserted a very good and thorough examination of conscience into this weekend’s bulletin (yet another reason to take your bulletin home with you!).  On that sheet is God’s objective standard concerning right and wrong.  It’s not mine; it’s not yours; it’s not the standard of Mr. Miller, the guy who wrote the letter I read from earlier; it’s not even Bishop Tobin’s personal standard!

It’s the Lord’s—and his alone.  Which means it’s the truth that will set us free!—free from our guilt, free from our sadness, free from the eternal consequences of whatever it is we’ve done.

But it will only do that for us if we have the courage to look at our lives honestly, in light of what’s written on that sheet, and then repent, making a good confession if we need to.

For those who are interested in doing that, I will be in my confessional next Saturday at 3:30, as I am every week; and then, on the following Saturday, Fr. Giudice and I will be here for two hours, for your convenience, from 2:30 until 4:30 pm.