Sunday, January 29, 2012

Confronting Evil, Directly and Indirectly

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on January 29, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 1: 21-28.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday 2012]

It was direct and it was dramatic.


I’m talking about the manner in which Jesus confronted evil in today’s gospel story.  There we were told that, as he entered the synagogue in Capernaum one day, he encountered a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit.  Jesus immediately said to the spirit, “Quiet!  Come out of him!”—and the spirit was compelled to obey (although it’s clear from the details of the story that the spirit did not want to obey!).

Jesus didn’t waste any time.  He faced this evil directly—head on—and he disposed of it in dramatic fashion.

Every day we encounter evil in various forms: lies; vulgarity; immodesty; greed; impurity; anger; unforgiveness—the list goes on and on.  And very often God wants us to confront these manifestations of evil in the very same way that Jesus confronted evil here; that is to say, directly.  (He certainly wants us to do that whenever we find any of these evil realities within ourselves.)  

But I would say that at other times God wants us to deal with evil in a more indirect way.  And we have a precedent for this in Scripture, because this was also the approach that Jesus took on certain occasions.  For example, remember the story of the woman caught in adultery, which we read in John, chapter 8?  The scribes and the Pharisees brought this woman to Jesus; they told him that she had been caught in the act of adultery (so there was no doubt whatsoever about her guilt!), and they reminded him that the Law of Moses stated that such women should be stoned to death.  Then they asked him for his opinion on the matter.

Now Jesus could have confronted them directly about their own sinful motives—their hatred of him and their desire for this woman’s blood.  But he didn’t.  He simply bent down and started writing in the sand.  Then, when they persisted in their questioning, he stood up and said, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone at her.”  Then he went back to writing in the sand (perhaps at that point writing the sins of the scribes and the Pharisees who were questioning him).

And that solved the problem, because, one by one, they all left.

Then Jesus also took the indirect approach with the woman herself.  Instead of reprimanding her directly, he simply said, “I do not condemn you.  You may go—but from now on avoid this sin.”

This indirect approach to dealing with evil has been something that’s been on my mind for the last couple of weeks—ever since I read the book, Unplanned.

Some of you have heard of it, I’m sure.  It’s been on a number of best seller lists for over a year.  Unplanned is the autobiographical story of a woman named Abby Johnson, who was once the director of the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Bryan, Texas.  Abby wanted to help women in crisis situations, and so she volunteered for the organization in 2001, while she was still in college at Texas A&M University.  She started off as a volunteer escort (an escort at an abortion clinic is the person who’s responsible for taking a woman from her car and into the building—while at the same time keeping her from listening to the pro-life volunteers outside the gate who are appealing to the woman not to kill her baby).

Abby, who ended up having two abortions herself, believed the lie that Planned Parenthood really wants to reduce the number of abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies, so when she graduated from college she became more deeply involved in the organization—thinking that this was a way to show compassion and love for women and to reduce the abortion rate at the same time.  Her intentions, at least to some extent, were good.

She rose through the ranks rather quickly and eventually became the local clinic’s director.  Of course, there were some things that bothered her—like the pressure she was receiving from her superiors to do more abortions and more late term abortions so that the clinic would bring in more money.  But what finally opened her eyes to the truth of what she was involved in occurred in late September of 2009, on the day she was asked to hold the ultrasound probe on the abdomen of a woman during an abortion.  She had never done that before, but they were short staffed that particular day and doctor needed her assistance.  And so, for the first time (through the miracle of ultrasound) she was able to see what really happens to a baby in the womb during an abortion procedure.  Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty.  Actually, it was horrific—so much so that when it was over Abby dropped the probe because she was so upset.

She then left the clinic in tears. 

And where did she go?  Where did she go in her anguish and in her distress? 

Well, believe it or not, she went immediately to the nearby office of the Coalition for Life—and to the people of that organization who had been opposing her for years; to the people who had been protesting and praying in front of her clinic!

You might say, “Why did she go to them?  Why did she seek help from these men and women who had been her enemies for so long?”

It’s because they had been nice to her!  It’s because they had prayed for her!  It’s because they had gotten to know her over the years and had treated her with kindness and respect!  Sure, they had had some conflicts with Abby during the 8 years she had been associated with Planned Parenthood, but basically their relationship with her was a good one.

Let me explain that a little further . . .

On the first day that Abby served as a volunteer escort, she noticed two kinds of protesters outside the clinic: those who were confrontational, and those who were prayerful.  And what struck her about the prayerful protesters was that they showed concern not only for the babies who were about to be aborted and their mothers, but also for the workers and volunteers at the clinic!  Well, as time went on, the confrontational protestors became fewer and fewer in number, while the peaceful, prayerful protestors became more and more numerous.  And Abby actually became friendly with some of them.

In her book, Abby said this in the chapter where she wrote about her very first day as a Planned Parenthood volunteer:

In the years to come, though I didn’t have a clue at this point, I would actually come to value some of these pro-lifers as friends.  I would witness a careful and hard-won shift in the techniques, tone, and character of the pro-life advocates outside the Planned Parenthood fence.  By my first shift at the fence in September 2001, the Bryan clinic had been providing abortions for about two years, and the pro-life movement of the area was in its infancy.  Though I didn’t know it then, I’d already met one of the courageous and prayerful leaders who would go on to shape the Coalition for Life: Marilisa.  And one of the young college-age guys praying that day, Shawn Carney, would soon marry Marilisa and assume leadership of the organization.  Together with David Bereit, they would help transform the efforts here in Bryan into a powerfully positive pro-life force whose influence would reach across the country and other continents as well.  These pioneers would replace the shouting with gentle conversation, the waving of ugly signs with prayerful vigils, and the hostility with a peaceful presence.  They would also change my life.  But all of that was yet to come.  (Unplanned, pp. 39-40)

Marilisa, Shawn, David and their pro-life friends confronted the evil of abortion using an indirect approach.  They discerned—rightly—that this was what God wanted them to do outside that Texas clinic.  And because they had taken that indirect approach and had reached out to Abby Johnson in kindness and in love, Abby was confident that she would be accepted, and helped, and forgiven if she went to them in her desperation (the desperation she was experiencing after assisting in that abortion).

And that’s exactly what happened.  The members of the Coalition for Life welcomed her that day with open arms!

The rest, as they say, is history.  If you want to know more about that history, buy the book Unplanned and read it.

I can almost guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

The direct approach or the indirect approach?

When it comes to dealing with a particular evil, the first step is to ask God to help us to see which of those two approaches he wants us to use.

And the next step is to act on the insight God gives us—like those pro-lifers did in Bryan, Texas.

The bad news, my brothers and sisters, is that evil will always be there; it will be around until Jesus comes again at the end of time.  But the good news is that we can do something about it, directly and indirectly, if we choose to.

And we must choose to, because, as Edmund Burke said many years ago, “All that it takes for evil to triumph in the world is for good people to do nothing.”

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Will It Be ‘Forgiveness and Freedom’ or ‘Unforgiveness and the Torturers’?

(Third Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on January 23, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jonah 3: 1-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday 2012]

I heard a story recently about a Catholic school teacher who wanted to teach her students a lesson about forgiveness.  So she asked them to bring two items to class one day: the first was a large, sturdy plastic bag; the second was a sack of potatoes from the local grocery store.  And for every person they could think of whom they refused to forgive, they were instructed to take one potato out of the sack, write the person’s name on it, and then place it in the plastic bag.

Well, unfortunately some students ended up with plastic bags that contained several potatoes.  I say “unfortunately,” because the teacher then told them that they would have to carry their potatoes around with them for a whole week!  She said, “You have to take them everywhere you go, and keep the bag over your shoulder whenever possible.  You have to take them with you when you go to visit your friends, when you do your chores, when you play, and when you eat.  You even have to put them beside you in bed when you sleep.”

Well, as you might imagine, those young people learned a very important lesson about forgiveness—by first learning a very important lesson about the consequences of unforgiveness!

Carrying around a bag of potatoes all week made those students miserable—which is exactly what unforgiveness does to us when we allow it to enter our hearts and take root there.  In addition to being a sin (and potentially a very serious one!), refusing to forgive other people drags us down mentally and emotionally.  As many of you will recall, Jesus made this point in Matthew 18, when he told a parable about a man who was forgiven a huge debt by his master, but who then refused to forgive the debt of a fellow servant, who owed him a much smaller amount of money.  When the master found out what his unforgiving servant had done, the Bible says he “handed him over to the torturers until he paid back what he owed.”  I once heard a preacher mention this text in a sermon, and he commented on it by saying, “Do you know what ‘the torturers’ are?  The torturers are: depression, anxiety, confusion, anger and the like.  These are the things that literally torture us when we refuse to forgive other people in our lives.”

One man who would certainly agree with this is the prophet—or, more properly, the reluctant prophet—Jonah.  We heard a short excerpt from his story in today’s first reading.  Your assignment for the week, by the way, is to open your Bible sometime during the next 7 days and read the rest of the Book of Jonah.  Read it from beginning to end.

“But, Fr. Ray, I don’t have time to do that.”

Oh yes, you do!  The Book of Jonah is one of the shortest books in the entire Bible!  It’s less than 3 pages long in most versions of Sacred Scripture—and that includes the introduction!

So don’t tell me you don’t have time.

The verses we heard this morning occur in the middle of the book.  Here the Lord commands Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and preach a message of repentance.  And Jonah goes—which he did NOT do at the beginning of the book when God called him the first time!  In fact, after the initial call he received Jonah got on the very first ship that he could find that was headed in the OPPOSITE DIRECTION, away from Nineveh!

Why, you ask?

Because Jonah hated the Ninevites, that’s why!  Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, which, at the time, was Israel’s arch-enemy.  Jonah knew the Lord was not only just; he knew the Lord was also forgiving and merciful.  And he had a sneaking suspicion that if he went to the Ninevites and told them to repent—and they did—then God would not allow their city to be destroyed.

But Jonah wanted the place destroyed!  He wanted to see the city of Nineveh go up in flames!  He wanted to see it “fry” like Sodom and Gomorrah had many years earlier!

So he ran away (actually, he sailed away—on a ship that was headed west toward Tarshish).

God said, “Not so fast, Jonah!” and he threw the ship into a terrible storm.  Jonah was tossed overboard in the middle of it and swallowed by a gigantic fish (which is sometimes referred to as a whale).

After spending 3 days and 3 nights inside this whale’s belly, God commanded the creature to spew Jonah up onto the shore—which is where today’s first reading picks up the story.

The Lord said, “Ok Jonah, let’s try this one more time.  Go to the people of Nineveh and tell them that unless they repent within 40 days their entire city will be destroyed.”

Now, to his credit, Jonah did learn his lesson.  He learned that it was probably not a good idea to disobey God a second time!  So, as we heard a few moments ago, he went to Nineveh—albeit begrudgingly—and he delivered the message the Lord told him to deliver.

And, almost immediately, the whole place repented—which, of course, was precisely what Jonah did NOT want to happen!

At that point, he allowed the ‘torturers’—the torturers that Jesus talked about in Matthew 18—to enter his heart full force, in particular anger and depression.

He whined; he pouted; he sulked; he told God that he had a “right” to be angry (I’m not sure where that right came from, but Jonah insisted that he had it).

And it got so bad that he eventually prayed for death!  He said, “I can’t deal with this anymore, Lord, so please take my life.”

He had the choice between forgiveness and freedom on the one hand, and unforgiveness and torture on the other; and, sadly, he chose the latter.

In fact, Jonah was more concerned about a dead plant (which died while he was sulking under it one day) than he was about the thousands of people in Nineveh, all of whom would have died had they not repented.

The Lord said (and here I quote): “[Jonah], you are concerned over [this] plant which cost you no labor and which you did not raise; it came up in one night and in one night it perished.  And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?”

Now that, my brothers and sisters, is where the story ends.  What I just read to you are the final words of the Book of Jonah.

Which leaves inquiring minds like mine to wonder: What happened?  Did Jonah eventually change?  Did he allow God’s words to soften his heart?  Did he finally forgive the Ninevites and free himself from his anger and depression?

Or did he stubbornly cling to his unforgiveness and allow the torturers to continue to kill him, slowly, from the inside out?

We don’t know.  The Holy Spirit, through the inspired author of this book of Scripture, hasn’t told us—which is not a mistake or a coincidence.

The Book of Jonah ends the way it does, I believe, because God doesn’t want us to focus on Jonah’s situation all those centuries ago; he wants each of us to focus on our situation right now!  He wants us to read this short and very entertaining story, and then reflect on how we’re currently responding to the people who hurt us at work or at school or in some other location—or even within our own families.

You see, whether we realize it or not, the choice Jonah faced all those years ago is the same one we face whenever someone offends us now: forgiveness and freedom or unforgiveness and the torturers.

Let’s pray at this Mass that making the right choice—the choice to forgive—will always be a lot easier for us than it was for poor, old Jonah.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Mary, Us—and the Moon

(Mary, the Mother of God, 2012: This homily was given on January 1, 2012, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Mary, the Mother of God 2012]

When you look up into the sky at night and see the moon, do you ever think of Mary, our Blessed Mother?

You should—and so should I.

This is something I became aware of when I was on retreat last month.  The priest who said Mass on the first morning of the retreat (which happened to be the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe) made this comparison, which he told me afterward he had read in a book by Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

That didn’t surprise me; it definitely sounded like something Sheen would say.

And it’s a great analogy, first of all because the moon is not the source of its own light; rather, it reflects light from the sun (sun there is spelled s-u-n). 

Well, Mary does something similar.  As many of us know, some non-Catholic Christians accuse us of “worshipping” the Blessed Mother, as if we think that Mary is equal to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the 3 divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity.

But that’s not true.  As Catholics we don’t worship Mary, we honor her—precisely because she reflected the light of the Son (in this case, Son is spelled capital S-o-n!).

What the moon does in the natural dimension of reality, Mary does in the supernatural dimension—which is why the moon is such a fitting symbol for her and her life.  She was not the source of the light she radiated to other people (please tell that to your Protestant friends!): the source was God, the source was her divine Son, Jesus Christ.  As she said in her Magnificat, “My soul proclaims the greatness OF THE LORD; my spirit finds joy in God, MY SAVIOR.”

But she didn’t just reflect the light of God’s truth and love every once in awhile, or when she happened to feel like it; she did it ALL THE TIME!  That’s why, properly speaking, she’s like the FULL moon.  When the moon is full, the side facing the earth is fully lit up.  No part of it, visible to us, is in darkness.

That’s a perfect symbol for the SINLESS Virgin Mary.

Some of you heard my homily on December 8, the feast of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception.  In that homily, you will recall, I mentioned a recent Christmas special on Canadian television that had in it a comedy sketch which involved the Holy Family.  Now what upset me about this show was the fact that they hired none other than Pamela Anderson, of Playboy and Baywatch fame, to portray Mary in this sketch!

That was blasphemous—because when we think of Mary, our next thought should not be Pamela Anderson!  Ever!  Nor, for that matter, should it be you or I.  When we think of Mary, our next thought after that should always be Jesus Christ, her divine Son, whose love and truth she perfectly reflected during her time here on earth. 

So where do Pamela Anderson and the rest of us come into the picture?  Where do we fit into all this?  Well, it’s really very simple.  To use the image I’m focusing on in this homily: If Mary is like the full moon, then each of us, spiritually speaking, is like the moon in one of its many other “phases.” 

That statement, I suppose, needs a bit of an explanation.

Because the moon orbits around the earth roughly once a month, the amount of light it reflects toward us is constantly changing, depending on where it is in its cycle.  For example, when the earth is directly between the moon and the sun, we have a full moon, because the sun’s light hits the entire surface of the moon that’s visible to us on earth.  But there’s another point in the cycle when the moon is directly between us and the sun, which is called the “new moon” phase.  At that point we don’t see the moon at all from the earth, even on a crystal clear night.  It appears not to be there.  And, of course, in between the full moon and the new moon there are a number of other phases: during the days between the new moon and the full moon the amount of light reflected increases or “waxes”; in the days between the full moon and the next new moon the amount of light reflected decreases or “wanes”.

You didn’t know you were coming to an astronomy class today, did you?

Well, my point here is not to give a science lesson; my point here is to illustrate a spiritual truth.  If a person is in the state of mortal sin, in a certain sense he’s like a “new moon”—in other words, he’s not reflecting the light of Christ at all in his soul!  As the Catechism states in paragraph 1855, mortal sin “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.”

I pray there are no “new moons” here today.  But if there are, remember that the remedy is readily available.  It’s called confession!

A good examination of conscience, followed by a thorough and honest confession, can immediately turn a “new moon,” spiritually speaking, into a “waxing moon”—and that waxing can continue throughout the person’s life, such that he or she reflects more and more of the light of the Son (capital S-o-n) as time goes on.

In the 4th century a young man named Augustine lived like a new moon for many years—he slept around; he lived with a woman to whom he was not married; he even fathered a child out of wedlock.  But eventually the prayers of his saintly mother brought him to conversion, and from that moment until the end of his life, he became a “waxing moon,” so to speak, to the point that we now refer to him as Saint Augustine.

So there’s always hope—even for Pamela Anderson (and I’m serious about that!).

Because we’re sinners, we’ll never be a “full moon” like Mary—until we get to heaven.

But we can be a “waxing moon” from now on, if, by the grace of God, we choose to be.

And we can begin that process by making some spiritual New Year’s resolutions, which I invite you to do today.  Here are just a few suggestions:

  1. Resolve to be faithful to Mass every Sunday and holy day—even when you’re on vacation!  It always amazes me how many Catholics think that it’s ok to take a vacation from Mass when they’re on vacation from work or school!  Well, it’s not ok!  It’s a serious sin that needs to be confessed—before you go back to receiving Holy Communion.
  2. And how about going to Mass once in awhile during the week—when you don’t have to?  Believe it or not we have 75 to 100 people who come here to Mass every single day—at 7am!  And others go to Mass every day at Immaculate or St. Clare’s at 8.  Ask them how beneficial it is, if you don’t believe me.
  3. Another resolution to consider: Examine your conscience every day, and get to confession at least once every month or two.  And do that even if you’re not aware of any serious sins in your life.  A person who’s like a “waxing moon” will be growing in his awareness of even the little sins he commits, and will want to confess those things frequently.  This explains why many of the great saints went to confession on a daily basis (or at least once a week).
  4. Another possible resolution: Read the Bible for at least 5 minutes a day.  (If you say you don’t have 5 minutes, then re-arrange your life because you’re way too busy.  Everyone can find 5 minutes if they try hard enough!)
  5. Another resolution to consider: Pray the Rosary every day.  Many of the canonized saints have hailed the Rosary as a great spiritual weapon against the evil we all have to face in the world.  If you don’t have a lot of extra time, keep the radio off and say the Rosary while you’re driving your car to work or to school or to some other place.  I have the Scriptural Rosary on CD (where a little Scripture verse is read between each Hail Mary).  I use it in my car all the time.  I love it because those Scripture verses help me stay focused. 
  6. Finally, you could resolve to make a Holy Hour at least once a week; or, if you don’t have that large a block of time to spare, resolve to stop into a Catholic Church a couple of times a week to make a brief visit to the Blessed Sacrament.  That’s a great way to bring your intentions to the Lord and to get “re-focused” in the midst of the rat race of life!

Those are just some of the possible resolutions we can make if we want to reflect more of the light of the capital S-o-n in our life.   

Through the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God, may each of us follow through on at least some of these resolutions in the new year of 2012—and every year thereafter.