Sunday, April 29, 2012

The “Jesus Train” And What It Means For The Salvation Of Non-Christians

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on April 30, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 4: 8-12; 1 John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18.)

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

Are you on the “Jesus Train”?

That, believe it or not, is a very important question—because the answer we give to it has eternal repercussions!

Let me put it to you this way: If you’re NOT on the Jesus Train when you leave this earthly life, you don’t go to heaven, simply because you CAN’T go to heaven!

It’s impossible.

The Jesus Train is also an idea that can be very helpful in dealing with an issue that many Christians are confused about.  Simply stated, the issue is this: Can non-Christians be saved?

A teenage girl from our parish asked me that question just a couple of weeks ago.  It was definitely not the first time I had heard it in my 26 years of priestly ministry.

I’m sure that she, like most of us, has friends who aren’t baptized, professed Christians—and she probably cares about them a lot.

So she wants to know if she can have any hope whatsoever of seeing them someday in the Lord’s eternal kingdom.

The problem, of course, stems from the fact that certain passages of the Bible seem to indicate that it’s not possible for those who haven’t been baptized or professed faith in Jesus to be saved.  One of those problem texts is found in today’s first reading.  I’m talking about the line where Peter says to the religious leaders of the Jews: “[Jesus] is the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.  There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are saved.”

And then we have that famous text from John 3, where Jesus makes it clear that the grace of Baptism—sanctifying grace—must be in a person’s soul if that person wants to pass through the “pearly gates” of heaven.  Our Lord says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.”

Concerning those of us who are baptized believers, St. John says in today’s second reading, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.  Yet so we are.”

But what about those who are not baptized believers?  What about those who do not explicitly know the Good Shepherd and follow him as his professed disciples?

Well, there are some Christians (usually Protestants) who say that all these other people go to hell.  They say that if you die without explicitly professing your belief in Jesus Christ and his resurrection, then you will be damned for all eternity.  Period.  End of story.

To make their point they’ll often quote Romans 10:9 where St. Paul says, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Of course, St. Paul doesn’t say that if a person fails to believe and confess faith in Jesus then he or she cannot possibly be saved, but that’s how they interpret the text.

This is one of the reasons we should thank God we’re Catholic!  Our Protestant brothers and sisters who try to interpret the Bible on their own (without the guidance of the Magisterium) can very easily fall into errors like this.

The Catholic Church in her official teaching takes the entire New Testament into consideration, not just a few isolated verses.  And in doing that she makes two very basic points.

The first is that the only way to heaven is through Jesus and his saving grace.  As today’s first reading says, there is no other name under heaven by which a person can be saved.  Remember what Jesus told us in this regard.  He said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.  No one comes to the Father but by me.”

So anyone who is saved is saved by Jesus and through Jesus.

But at the same time the Church also affirms that it’s possible for a person to be saved by Jesus—it’s possible for a person to be united to Jesus in his passion, death and resurrection—even if he doesn’t explicitly know or believe in Jesus.  (This is the second important point of Catholic Church teaching on the matter.)  It’s possible, in other words, to receive the grace of Baptism (sanctifying grace) without explicitly receiving the sacrament in a religious ceremony and professing the Creed.  Now it’s a lot less likely that a person will be saved in this way, namely, without an explicit knowledge of the Lord and a relationship with him that’s nourished by the sacraments.

But it is possible!  And that shouldn’t surprise us because God, as St. Paul says in 2 Timothy 2 “desires all people to be saved.”  He predestines no one to hell.

Here’s where the idea of the “Jesus Train” becomes helpful.  This term “Jesus Train,” incidentally, is not something that’s found in the Bible (I need to make that clear).  But it does help us to understand what the Bible actually teaches about salvation. 

I first came across this idea about 20 years ago in an article by Professor Alan Schreck of the University of Steubenville.  In that article he said, “Imagine the way to heaven to be like a railroad train: You could get to the destination riding in a boxcar or clinging to the sides of the train, or by riding in the first class coach in the front.  Some Christians hold that only those in first class are saved.  These are people who explicitly believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and who make [a] profession of faith [in him and in his resurrection]. . . The Catholic Church has arrived at a different conclusion: Even those in the boxcars and on the sides of the train have a chance of reaching heaven.”

If you know the truth about Jesus and his Church and consciously reject it, then you cannot be saved, no matter who you are.  As Vatican II put it, “They could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” 

But there may be some people in this world who are invincibly ignorant of the need for Christ and his Church, and God will judge them accordingly.  That’s what the Church teaches.  But that’s GOD’S job to do, not ours, because only he knows a person’s heart.

It’s interesting that in Matthew 25, when we read about that famous scene of Jesus judging the nations at the end of the world, the criterion he uses for judgment is charity and not faith: “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, etc.”

So there’s always hope—for everyone.

Does this mean that we don’t need to try to evangelize non-believers and lead them to an explicit faith in Jesus?  No, it doesn’t mean that.  Yes, it’s true: everyone connected to the train will eventually make it to the desired destination.  But it’s obviously much more pleasant to ride in first class than it is to hang on the side of the caboose!  With Christ, in other words, we have a joy and strength in our life that a non-believer does not have.  Furthermore, without Christ, we will never reach our full potential as a human being; something will always be missing from our life.

Also, if a person is hanging on the side of a train, he’ll be much more likely to fall off at some point, compared to the person riding in first class! 

So we must always evangelize!

Let me conclude now with a famous passage from Vatican II that sums it all up:

“Those can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.  Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to his grace.  Whatever goodness or truth is found among them is looked upon by the church as a preparation for the gospel.”

The bottom line is that God wants everyone to be on the “Jesus Train.”  And he wants everyone to STAY on it until it finally arrives at its heavenly destination.

May all of us do our part to help make this beautiful desire of God become a reality—for everybody!

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Two Men Who Died in Steve Scheibner’s Place

Steve Scheibner

(Easter 2012: This homily was given on April 8, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Romans 6: 3-11; John 20: 1-9.)

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

It was Monday afternoon, and American Airlines pilot Steve Scheibner went online and booked himself on an early morning flight to the west coast—a flight that was scheduled to leave the following day. 

Nothing unusual about that: this was standard procedure for pilots at the time (at least at American Airlines).

But later that same Monday another pilot—a man named Tom McGinnis—decided that he wanted to fly the following morning, so he “bumped” Scheibner from the flight, and scheduled himself to be the pilot.

He was well within his rights to do that, since he had seniority over Steve.

So on that beautiful Tuesday morning Steve Scheibner went off to work at his other job (which was with the U.S. Navy), and Tom McGinnis got on the plane: American Airlines, Flight 11, Boston to Los Angeles—September 11, 2001.

Sadly, we all know the rest of the story.

Flight 11 was the first of the two planes that hit the World Trade Center that terrible day.

It’s extremely moving to listen to Steve Scheibner speak about his experience on September 11, and about his life since then.

As a Christian, he definitely understands the sacrifice of Jesus Christ from a uniquely personal perspective, since he knows what it is to have another person suffer and die in his place. 

Because Tom McGinnis suffered and died, Steve Scheibner is alive—physically speaking.  Because Jesus Christ suffered and died and rose from the dead, Steve (and the rest of us) can have a life in the kingdom of God that will never end.  That’s the foundational truth that we celebrate and proclaim on Easter Sunday.  As St. Paul put it in 1 Thessalonians 5: “[Jesus Christ] died for us, that all of us . . . together might live with him.”  (cf. 1Thessalonians 5: 10)

In some sense, Tom McGinnis “sacrificed” his life for Steve Scheibner—and Scheibner knows it!  As Steve once said in an interview: “Words can’t describe that moment of realizing that you should have been someplace . . . I saw [on television] where I should have died, but I didn’t. “

Of course, every analogy falls short in certain respects, and that’s definitely true in this case.  As great as Tom McGinnis’ sacrifice was, it was not equal to Jesus’ sacrifice for you and for me.

The Lord’s sacrifice was different and greater, and it was different and greater in several respects.

First of all, Jesus knowingly sacrificed himself for us.  He predicted his passion a number of times before it actually took place: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men who will put him to death,” he said in Mark, chapter 9, and several other times during his earthly ministry.

Tom McGinnis, on the other hand, had no idea what would happen to him that day on American Airlines, Flight 11, when it took off from Logan Airport.  He couldn’t possibly have known.

Jesus also sacrificed himself willingly, yielding his human will to his heavenly Father’s divine will: “Father, take this cup away from me! But not what I will but what you will.”

I’m sure Tom McGinnis didn’t give up his life willingly on that horrible morning in September of 2001.  Now that’s not to say anything negative about Tom—in those circumstances he shouldn’t have given up his life without a fight!  Rather, it’s to say something positive about Jesus Christ, and about what he did for us on Calvary 2,000 years ago.

Nor did Tom take Steve’s place out of love!  But that’s precisely why Jesus died for us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” 

Jesus died for us knowingly, willingly and lovingly.

And for that we should be most grateful.

Neither Steve Scheibner nor Tom McGinnis deserved to be murdered on September 11, 2001.  In that sense they were like Jesus, who did not deserve the cross—since, as Scripture says, he was a man like us in all things but sin.

But Steve and Tom and all of us do deserve a just punishment for our sins!

In that we are unlike Jesus.

But Jesus was willing to endure the punishment he didn’t deserve on Good Friday, so that we can avoid the just punishment we do deserve in eternity.

Tom took Steve’s place for economic reasons; Jesus took our place for eternal reasons—and out of pure mercy.

I’m sure that every time Steve Scheibner sees news footage of the events at the World Trade Center on 9/11, he remembers the sacrifice Tom McGinnis made for him (how could he NOT think of that?), and I’m sure he thanks God from the bottom of his heart for sparing his life.

Well, if we’re Catholic, this is akin to what we are supposed to experience every time we come to Mass!  Perhaps this explains why many Catholics don’t come to Mass regularly: they don’t know their Faith; they don’t know what’s happening here!

The Mass is the unbloody re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  To “re-present,” in this case means “to make present,” as the Catechism tells us in paragraph 1366.  Jesus does not die again every time Mass is celebrated.  Rather, his once-and-for all sacrifice on Calvary becomes present to us in a real but unbloody way. 

It’s much more “real,” spiritually speaking, than watching old news footage on TV—which means that we should be much more grateful here at Mass in the presence of Christ crucified (and risen) than Steve Scheibner is when he watches  old news footage of the sacrifice of Tom McGinnis for him on 9/11!

But are we?

If we are, we will definitely be at Mass every week from now on.

How could we not be?

Let me bring this homily to a close now with a quote from Steve Scheibner.  He said:

“What I know is that somebody died in my place not once but twice.  That’s where God comes into the whole thing for me.  Tom sat in the seat I was qualified to sit in, and . . . I should have been in that seat.  In fact I’ve sat in the very seat of that airplane that Tom was in; I’ve flown all of the 757s and 767s American Airlines owns.  So I know what it’s like literally to sit [there]; and I still all these years later am qualified to sit in that seat. . . .

“But Tom didn’t die for my sins.  God sent his own Son to die for my sins.  Jesus Christ was the other one who died in my place—and he hung, and he bled, and he suffered on a cross to pay a price for me that I wasn’t qualified to pay.  I couldn’t have hung on the cross; I didn’t have the same qualifications.

“So one guy sat in a seat that I should have sat in; the other hung and bled on a cross.

“One is far more significant than the other.  That’s NOT to trivialize what happened to Tom; [rather] it’s to elevate and glorify what God did for me and for mankind on the cross.”

Most of us have not known—and will never know—what it’s like to have a man like Tom McGinnis die for us.  But Jesus Christ already has (whether we’re aware of that fact or not)!  And he rose again from the dead that we might have eternal life with him.  But Jesus doesn’t force that life upon us; we have to choose it, by living the faith we profess.

In this regard, I think we can all take a valuable lesson from Steve Scheibner.  Twenty years ago—long before the terrorist attacks of September 11, Steve wrote what he calls a “life objective” (sort of a personal mission statement).  He says that since 9/11, this has deeply intensified in him.  It reads as follows: “To seek, trust and glorify God through humble service and continual prayer.  To raise up qualified disciples as quickly as possible, so that one day I might hear God say, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant!’”

It’s my prayer that this very same life objective will either be born in us—or intensify in us—this Easter.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Priest Of God, What Are You In It For?

(Holy Thursday 2012: This homily was given on April 5, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2012]

What are you in it for?

On this holy night, when we commemorate the institution of the priesthood and the Holy Eucharist, that’s a very important question for us to focus on—because it’s the question that every ordained priest must answer, sooner or later.

What are you in it for?

Now the answer should be obvious and relatively easy, right?  A priest should be ‘in it’ for Jesus!  He should be ‘in it’—in the priesthood—for the salvation of souls!  He should be ‘in it’ to serve—to ‘wash the feet’ of others.  He should be ‘in it’ to lead people to heaven, by his sacramental ministry, and by his ministry of preaching the holy word of God!

But not every priest is!

Unfortunately, some priests are ‘in it’ for other reasons.

Many of you will recall the story of Fr. Steven Schier, which I told in a homily I gave on Holy Thursday several years ago.

On October 18, 1985, as he was traveling from Wichita, Kansas to his parish in Fredonia, Fr. Scheier was involved in a terrible car accident: a head-on collision with a pickup truck. 

At the moment of impact he was thrown from his vehicle, the entire right side of his scalp was taken off, and he broke his neck at the second cervical vertebrae (which is commonly referred to as the “hangman’s break”).  Doctors at the hospital gave him only a 15% chance of survival.  However, he recovered in record time and was released in early December.

But what’s most noteworthy about Fr. Scheier’s story is the powerful, near-death experience he had immediately after his accident. 

He says that after he was thrown from his car he found himself standing before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ.  And even though he had been well-liked by his parishioners during his 12 years as a priest, his sentence from Jesus was “hell.”  He says that the Lord took him through his entire life, and showed him (among other things) how he had failed in his priestly service: how he had watered down the truth of the Gospel in his preaching and teaching; how he had neglected his prayer life and the condition of his own soul; how he had failed to deny himself and sacrifice himself for others.

And Fr. Scheier says that all he could say to Jesus was, “Yes.  I know.”  He could offer no excuses, because he was in the presence of truth—the Truth!

And that’s the way it was when he heard the final sentence.  He responded, “Yes, Lord, I know.  I know this is what I deserve.”

It was at that moment that he heard a woman’s voice say, “Son, will you please spare his life and his eternal soul?”  The Lord replied, “Mother, he’s been a priest for 12 years for himself and not for me, let him reap the punishment he deserves.”  “But Son,’ she said, ‘if we give him special graces and strengths . . . then let’s see if he bears fruit; if not, your will be done.”

There was very short pause, after which Jesus reportedly said, “Mother, he’s yours.”

Needless to say, Fr. Steven Scheier has been a very different priest since that event in 1985!

“He’s been a priest for 12 years for himself.  Those last two words say it all.  Fr. Steven Scheier was ‘in it’—he was in the priesthood—for his own self-glorification.

And deep down inside he knew it was true—as we all know the truth deep within ourselves.

Thankfully, he was given the chance to get ‘in it’ for different reasons—the right ones!

Self-glorification is just one possible bad reason to enter the priesthood.

But it’s definitely not the only one!

Some might do it for power (after all, when you become a pastor you do get to be ‘the boss’—or at least you get to think you’re the boss!).  Some might do it for financial gain (no, we priests don’t make lots of money, but our needs are taken care of quite nicely, thank you very much). 

Some might do it for the good education you receive in preparation for priestly ministry.  Some might do it for affirmation, or for fame—or because they want to be bishops someday.

Some might enter the priesthood to try to change it: to refashion it and to refashion the Church according to their own personal ideas and preferences.

After the scandals of 2002, it became clear that a few men have even entered the priesthood over the years for the most despicable of reasons: to have access to children.

One interesting question to ask on Holy Thursday night is: Why did Judas do it?  Why did Judas say yes to the call of Jesus to be his apostle and eventually one of his first priests?

Was it to betray our Lord when the right opportunity finally presented itself?  Was it to undermine Jesus’ work from within (after all, enemies ‘on the inside’ often do far more damage than enemies ‘on the outside’)?  Was it for financial gain?  Was it because he thought Jesus would someday make him important and famous and powerful on earth?

We don’t know for sure.  Perhaps he started off with good intentions.  But regardless of how he began, we know how he ended up.

He ended up ‘in it’ for the worst of reasons!

I think there’s a warning there for every priest.

But it wasn’t only Judas who had to struggle with less-than-noble motives for following Jesus.  How about James and John?  We’re told that at one point during our Lord’s ministry they came up to him and boldly requested ‘the best seats in the house,’ so to speak, in the kingdom of heaven!  They said, “Teacher, see to it that we sit, one at your right and the other at your left, when you come into your glory.”

Was that the real reason why they were ‘in it’?

And then we have the first pope, Peter, who said to Jesus at one point, “We have put everything aside to follow you.  What can we expect from it?”

Was he ‘in it’ only for what he, personally, would get out of it?

Well, thankfully, James, John, Peter, and all the other apostles (with the exception of Judas) ended up being ‘in it’ for the right reasons, for the best of reasons: for Jesus and for the salvation of souls.

But early on it does seem that their motives were somewhat mixed.

This is why, whenever we talk about the priesthood, we need to focus our attention, first and foremost, on Jesus himself.

It is the priesthood of Jesus Christ that we ordained priests share in—and Jesus was the Great High Priest, the Perfect Priest, who was ALWAYS ‘in it’ for the right reasons—from the very beginning!

Think, for example, of how Satan tempted him after his 40 day fast in the desert:

“Jesus, I know you’re ‘in this’ to save the world and those pesky little human creatures that you love.  But I can show you a much better way.  Why don’t you get ‘in it’ for fame (throw yourself down from the temple; you’ll be famous!); why don’t you get ‘in it’ for pleasure (change those stones to bread and satisfy your hunger!); why don’t you get ‘in it’ for power (I can help you run every country on earth; I have the power)?”

Those temptations were all attempts to try to get Jesus to change the mission the Father had given him: the mission to offer himself in sacrifice for the sins of the world.

They were temptations, in other words, against his priesthood!

Jesus resisted.  He always resisted—even in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before he died.

He knew what he was ‘in it’ for, and he never wavered in his commitment.

Not for a second.

Pray, my brothers and sisters, for me and for all priests.  Pray that we will be more like Jesus, the Great—and the Perfect—High Priest.

Pray in a special way for those who are currently ‘in it’ for the wrong reasons.

That’s the best thing you can do for your priests, but it’s also the best thing you can do for yourselves, because when your priests are ‘in it’ for the right reasons—for Jesus and for the salvation of souls—you all benefit.

And you benefit eternally!

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Holy Week: A Time to Move Beyond ‘Iffy’ Love

Henri Nouwen

(Palm Sunday (B): This homily was given on April 1, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Philippians 2: 6-11.)

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

During this season of Lent, I’ve been reading a meditation each day by the late Catholic spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen.  In one of those meditations—one that I read a few weeks ago—Nouwen spoke about the conditional and imperfect love that we all encounter in this sinful and imperfect world—even from very good and sincere people.

Based on what he said in his reflection, you could call this “iffy” love.  He wrote, “The world says: ‘Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy.  I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections.  I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.’”

He continued, “There are endless ‘ifs’ hidden in the world’s love.  These ‘ifs’ enslave me, since it’s impossible to respond adequately to all of them.  The world’s love is and always will be conditional.  As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain ‘hooked’ to the world—trying, failing, and trying again.”

My brothers and sisters, this is one of the primary reasons why so many people in our society right now are frustrated and unhappy—even if they have lots of money and lots of possessions and lots of earthly friends.

They desire perfect love; they desire unconditional love (and they desire these things whether they realize it or not)—but all they have in their lives is a lot of “iffy” love!

St. Augustine, prior to his conversion, was one of these frustrated and sad souls (even in the midst of the Playboy lifestyle he was living).  After he came to Christ and began to build a personal relationship with him, he recognized the reason for his sadness and frustration, and that led him to write those famous words, “O Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

This is why Holy Week is so important for us, both spiritually and emotionally.  Holy Week is a time to move beyond the “iffy” love that often dominates our earthly lives, and it’s a time to focus on, and get in touch with, and be transformed by, the PERFECT AND UNCONDITIONAL LOVE OF jesus christ: the love which led him to that cross, the love which led him to suffer and die for our salvation!

“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.”  (John 3: 16)

What will you do this week in order to accomplish this?  Please think about that today.  What will you do during the next 7 days to focus on, and get in touch with, and be transformed by the perfect and unconditional love of Jesus?  Well, here’s what’s going on at St. Pius.  These are some possible activities you might consider participating in: On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we will have morning Mass, as usual, at 7am.  We will have Eucharistic Adoration all day on Tuesday.  We will have Stations of the Cross at 6:05 on Tuesday after Benediction.  We will have Morning Prayer Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the regular Mass times.  And, most important, we will have the Liturgies of the Triduum on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings: the Mass of the Lord’s Supper will be at 7pm on Thursday, followed by Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the church hall until 11pm.  On Friday we will have the celebration of the Lord’s Passion at 7pm, and Stations of the Cross twice: once outside at noon (weather permitting), and then at 3pm here in church.  And finally, we will have the first Mass of Easter—the Easter Vigil Liturgy—at 8pm on Holy Saturday night.

Let me conclude this brief homily by urging you to plan your Holy Week today!  I can’t emphasize that enough.  Plan your Holy Week activities today.  Don’t wait until the week gets going.  If you wait until the week gets going, you’ll probably get distracted, and other things will get in the way.

Remember, the world says, “I love you, if . . . “

But, with Jesus Christ, there are no “ifs”!

May we all come to understand that truth more completely this Holy Week by making some special time for the Lord.