Sunday, August 19, 2012

In the Eucharist, God Comes to Us in a Meal—Which is Exactly What We Should Expect Him to Do!

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on August 19, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 6: 51-58.)

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

Let me begin my homily by reading to you a short paragraph which was written by Fr. Robert Barron.  (He’s the priest who produced the highly acclaimed, 10-part series entitled, “Catholicism,” which aired on PBS earlier this year.)  Fr. Barron wrote:

In today’s Gospel from the sixth chapter of John, the Lord refers to himself as “the living bread that came down from heaven.”  His hearers react vigorously against this claim: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  We shouldn’t judge Jesus’ audience too harshly, for it would be hard to imagine a saying more theologically objectionable and frankly more disgusting for a first-century Jew.  Throughout the Old Testament, Israelites were warned against the eating of an animal’s flesh with his blood.  Now this rabbi is telling them to eat his own flesh and blood!  One might have expected Jesus, at this point, to offer a metaphorical, spiritualized interpretation to his words. Instead he intensifies the realism of his language: “Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”  The word used in the Greek here for “eat” is not “phagein,” which designates the way human beings consume their food, but rather “trogein,” which designates the manner in which animals eat, something along the lines of “gnawing.”  Jesus is not simply a teacher whose words we savor.  He is an energy, a life-force in whom we participate.  We are not simply his disciples; we are members of his mystical Body.  Consequently, the Eucharist is not simply a symbol.  It is the means by which Christ’s life becomes our own.

As Catholics we believe some incredible things, but none more incredible than this: that the Creator of this vast and complex universe—the powerful, personal Being who knows every molecule of reality better than we know ourselves—this Being who sees with perfect clarity all that was, all that is and all that will be until the end of time—this omniscient and omnipotent God, comes to us within the context of a meal under the appearances of ordinary food and drink!

No wonder the Jews in today’s Gospel were astonished!  What Jesus said to them in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel was astonishing!  It was overwhelming.  It was also true, of course (we know that by faith); but it was definitely not what these men and women expected to hear.

And yet, from another perspective, I would maintain that they SHOULD have expected it!  If there is a God (and there is!), and if this God loves us human beings with a perfect love (and he does!), then we should expect him to come to us in a way that we can receive him.  We should expect him to come to us in a way that respects our human nature—because he created it.

And what is more human—more fundamentally human—than eating?  What is more basic to human life as God designed it than sitting down and sharing a meal with family and friends?

Think of what a meal is when it’s entered into with the right disposition of mind and heart:

First of all, it’s a time of nourishment.  That’s its primary purpose, of course; without food and drink, we die!

But that’s actually just the beginning.  Yes, a meal is an occasion for satisfying a bodily need—but it’s also much more.

A meal is a time of conversation; that is to say, it’s a time for speaking and a time for listening.  (If all we do is speak during a meal, the experience will not be very pleasant, will it?  At least it won’t be very pleasant for everyone else at the table!  Listening is crucial.)

A meal is also a time for reflection and for planning.  How often during a meal do we talk about the past and make plans for the future?  It happens all the time!  It’s a normal part of the experience.

A meal can also be a time for reconciliation and healing.  When people want to renew a friendship after there’s been a conflict between them, they often “break bread together,” do they not?

A meal is also a time to get to know others.  (That’s why when couples are dating they often go out to restaurants to eat.) 

A meal can be a time of teaching and a time of learning.

And for many people it’s when they are most themselves: they sit down, perhaps after a long day, relax, and are able to be attentive and present to those around them at the table.

Think, now, about how all these points relate to the Eucharist:

  • The purpose of the sacrificial meal of the Eucharist is to nourish us spiritually.  As Jesus said in this Gospel, “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”
  • The Eucharist is also an occasion for conversation—not with your neighbor in the pew (that comes after Mass!)—but, rather, with the Lord!  And it’s a time to speak to him and to LISTEN to him!  How many of us make the effort to listen to the Lord after we receive him in the Blessed Sacrament and go back to our pew to pray?  We all should.
  • After we receive the Eucharist we should also reflect and plan (like we do at other meals): we should reflect on what’s been going on in our life and we should try to discern God’s will for the future.
  • Many people don’t realize it, but venial sins can actually be forgiven by a worthy reception of Holy Communion—if a person has true sorrow for those sins in his or her heart.  Mortal sins, of course, need to be brought to the sacrament of Confession, but venial sins can be forgiven through the Blessed Sacrament.  So this meal, like other meals, provides us with an opportunity for reconciliation—in this case, reconciliation with God.
  • The Eucharistic meal also provides us with an opportunity to get to know the Lord in a deeper way, as we open our heart to the graces of the sacrament, and as we reflect after Communion on the word that we heard at Mass.  Hence, like other meals, it’s a time for teaching and learning.
  • And, finally, when we receive the Eucharist we can be ourselves before the Lord.  We don’t have to hide our struggles and concerns and imperfections and fears and burdens.  We can—and should—bring all these things to our God in our post-Communion prayer, in order to receive the help we need to deal with them.

It’s certainly understandable that the Jews in today’s Gospel “went crazy,” so to speak, when Jesus told them that he would give them his Body and Blood for their spiritual nourishment.  Pardon the pun, but that was a very tough one for them to swallow.

But if they knew back then what you all know now after listening to this homily, perhaps at least some of them would have come to see things differently, understanding that this is exactly the way we should expect our God to touch our lives: in a human way; in a way that we can (literally) receive him as finite creatures.

Let me conclude today with one final point that I feel compelled to mention.  To those of you who doubt God’s love for you, remember the powerful message of the Eucharist (which I hopefully have brought out in this homily):  God loves you so much that he’s not only willing to share a meal with you; he loves you so much that he’s willing to make himself the meal!

Think about that the next time you receive him.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Assumption of Mary: It Reminds Us of THE GOAL and It Reminds Us of WHAT IT TAKES TO REACH THE GOAL!

Michael Phelps with one of his many gold medals

(Assumption 2012: This homily was given on August 15, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 1: 39-46.)

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

It was my favorite commercial that debuted during the Olympics.  I’m sure many of you saw it.

It opens with footage of a swimmer’s hands entering the pool at the beginning of a race (the camera angle creates the illusion that you are the swimmer).  Then the swimmer’s voice is heard: “Take a day off?  I don’t even take a morning off.”

Next we see the hands of a gymnast on a high bar, holding on tightly as he swings his body around the bar during a routine.  Then his voice is heard: “I haven’t ordered dessert in two years.”

Next we see the hands of a cyclist on her bike, and we hear her voice in the background: “You know that best-selling book everyone loves?  I haven’t read it.”

Finally, we see a shot of a discus in a man’s hand as he’s spinning his body round and round, preparing himself to throw it, and we hear his voice say, “I haven’t watched TV since last summer.  Hey, I’ve been busy!”

I liked this commercial when I saw it for two reasons: number 1, because it implicitly reminds us of the goal of Olympic competition—a gold medal; and number 2, because it reminds us of the price that the winners have to pay in order to reach their desired goal: the diet, the sacrifice, the discipline, the exercise, the years of intense and exhausting training.

Many athletes today want the glory!  They want to win gold medals.  They want to be Olympic champions.  In fact, I’m sure that lots of young athletes here in the United States and throughout the world watched these Olympic Games during the last few weeks and dreamed as they watched!  They each dreamed of standing exactly where Michael Phelps and all the other gold medalists stood after their victories: on the top of the medal podium listening to their country’s national anthem being played.

But how many of those same athletes are willing to pay the price that Michael Phelps and the other champions paid to get to the top of the podium?

Probably very few.

Many want the glory, but very few are willing to go through what they need to go through to obtain the glory.

So what does all this have to do with the feast that we celebrate in the Church today: the Solemnity of Mary’s Assumption into heaven?

Simple.  This feast is like that Olympic commercial, in the sense that it also reminds us of the goal (in this case, the ultimate goal of human existence—heaven); and it reminds us of what it takes to get there!

In today’s gospel, Mary calls God her “Savior”.  And that’s true.  Mary was saved by her divine Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by being preserved from original sin in that event we call the Immaculate Conception.  Mary, in other words, never lacked sanctifying grace in her soul.  The rest of us do lack this grace when we come into the world, which is why we need baptism; hence St. Peter makes the statement in his first letter that baptism is what “saves” us (1 Peter 3: 21).

And Mary never sinned throughout her entire life; thus, at the end of her time here on earth she was given another unique privilege: she was taken up into heaven soul AND body.

The rest of us who experience salvation will have to wait until the end of the world to have our bodies resurrected and reunited with our souls in the Lord’s eternal Kingdom.  But for Mary it’s already happened!  That’s the meaning of today’s feast. 

And yet Mary’s path to the goal was anything but easy!  It was tough—extremely tough: certainly tougher than anything our Olympic athletes had to deal with on their paths to glory.  She had to deal with poverty; she had to face misunderstanding (she was even misunderstood, for a time, by her saintly husband, Joseph).  She had to flee from a crazy king who wanted to kill her and her family; she was forced to live for awhile as a refugee in a foreign country; she lived for 33 years with the knowledge that someday a painful “sword” would pierce her soul; and one day it did—the day she was forced to watch her only Son die a horrible death.

And yet, through it all, Mary remained God’s lowly and faithful servant, always choosing to do what God wanted her to do, even when it required incredible self-sacrifice on her part.  For example, in today’s gospel it says that Mary stayed with her cousin Elizabeth for about 3 months.


She did that because her cousin Elizabeth needed her!  Remember, Elizabeth was old—very old—and 6 months pregnant with John the Baptist!  Mary knew that, and went to help her cousin get through the final months of what had to be a very difficult pregnancy.

Of course, Mary was also pregnant and probably could have used some help herself.

But our Blessed Mother never thought of herself first.  She was completely selfless.

Like that Olympic commercial, the feast of Mary’s Assumption reminds us of the goal, and it reminds us of the price that must be paid to reach it: the price that Mary paid during her visit to Elizabeth and throughout her entire life: the price of selflessness and self-sacrifice; the price of purity, forgiveness, patience and charity (even toward her enemies)—in a word, the price of holiness.

May the Lord give us a desire—an “Olympic desire”—to pay that price like Mary did, each and every day, so that the prize she won in her life (which is infinitely greater than a gold medal) will someday be ours.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

How To Deal With Discouragement

(Nineteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on August 12, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Kings: 19: 4-8; Ephesians 4: 30-5:2; John 6: 41-51.)

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

How do you deal with discouragement?

That’s a very important question, since most of us get discouraged from time to time—or, at the very least, we’re  often forced to deal with situations that have the potential to get us discouraged.

To which the prophet Elijah would say, “Well, welcome to the club!”

In our first reading this morning, we heard about a very discouraged Elijah, who sat under a broom tree one day and prayed for death.

He was not suicidal—he wouldn’t have done any physical harm to himself (he knew better than that!)—but he was so discouraged as he sat there that he wouldn’t have complained at all if Almighty God had chosen to take him home at that precise moment.

A little background information would be helpful here.  Elijah lived way back in the 9th century, B.C., at a time in the history of Israel when most of the people—including the king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel—had compromised their faith and were living lives of idolatry and sin, worshipping Baal and other false gods.  Elijah did his best to battle this evil and lead his fellow Israelites to repentance and conversion, but it was an uphill fight all the way.  Day in and day out, he met up with all kinds of resistance—especially from the king and queen.

He finally had a direct confrontation with the prophets of Baal—all 450 of them—at Mt. Carmel.  As we are told in 1 Kings 18: "Elijah approached all the people and said, 'How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.'  But the people did not answer him.  So Elijah said to the people, ‘I am the only remaining prophet of the Lord, and there are 450 prophets of Baal.  Give us two young bulls.  Let them choose one, cut it into pieces, and place it on the wood, but start no fire.  I shall prepare the other and place it on the wood, but shall start no fire.  You shall call upon the name of your gods, and I will call upon the name of the Lord.  The God who answers with fire is God.’  All the people answered, ‘We agree!’”

Now unfortunately, for the prophets of Baal, it didn’t go very well that day.  They danced around and engaged in all kinds of weird antics while they begged Baal to send fire from heaven to consume their bull—but nothing happened.  However, when Elijah prayed to God--the one, true God--the Lord sent a fire from heaven that consumed not only Elijah’s bull, but also the one that the false prophets of Baal had prepared.

And that caused the day to get even worse for the false prophets of Baal, because Elijah immediately had them all taken down to a nearby brook and executed!

Well, as you might imagine, Queen Jezebel was not too pleased with all this, and she immediately swore an oath that she would have Elijah killed within 24 hours.

Which is the point in the story where today’s first reading begins.  Elijah, discouraged that most of the people have still not repented, and afraid because Jezebel is trying to kill him, takes off into the desert where he comes upon this broom tree.  And after he sits down under it, he says to God those words we heard a few moments ago: “This is enough, O Lord!  Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

God, thankfully, doesn’t decide to “take” Elijah by allowing him to die (although he does eventually take him to heaven alive on a flaming chariot!). 

But in the meantime he helps Elijah to deal with his discouragement.  And here’s where we can learn some important lessons for our own lives: lessons that we can apply in the midst of the discouraging situations we face.

The first point to be made here is that God provided two types of remedies for Elijah: natural and supernatural. 

First, the natural.  As we heard a few moments ago, shortly after Elijah fell asleep under the broom tree, the Lord sent an angel to him with some food and drink: specifically a hearth cake and water.  And the angel told Elijah to consume this food and drink twice, so that he would have sufficient strength to make the long journey that he needed to make to Mt. Horeb.

The lesson here for us should be clear enough: To battle discouragement in our lives we need to take advantage of all the good, natural remedies at our disposal.  Healthy eating, exercise, sufficient rest, counseling and/or spiritual direction—and sometimes even medication: these are some of the means—the natural means—that God gives us so that we can deal successfully with discouraging situations.

As long as the natural remedies in question are morally good, we should not hesitate to utilize them.

But, if we want to be like Elijah, we won’t stop there—although that is where Elijah “stopped” in today’s first reading.  The text we heard a few moments ago ended with his arrival at Mt. Horeb after a walk of 40 days and 40 nights.

But the story continued.  After Elijah arrived at Mt. Horeb something very important happened to him: He had a powerful encounter with God in prayer.  In a famous scene from the Old Testament, Elijah met God in a “tiny whispering sound.”

This provided Elijah with an added supernatural remedy for his discouragement—which is what we should also seek for parallel situations in our lives.  In this regard, I don’t think it was a coincidence that we heard these words in today’s responsorial psalm: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.  Look to him that you may be radiant with joy, and your faces may not blush with shame.  When the afflicted man called out, the Lord heard, and from all his distress he saved him.”

I’m sure Elijah would say a big “Amen” to that!

It was also not a coincidence that our second reading today was about forgiveness and about getting rid of our sins.  St. Paul said, “All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice.  And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”

Unforgiveness is incredibly destructive.  Any good psychologist or spiritual director will tell you that.  In fact, you could say that what cancer is to the body, unforgiveness is to the soul.  And so it shouldn’t surprise us that unforgiving people are much more likely to experience deep discouragement than forgiving people are.

Actually, any unrepented, serious sin can make discouragement worse—which is why the sacrament of reconciliation is one the most important supernatural remedies we have for the condition!

This means that as baptized, practicing Catholics in 2012, we are actually in a much better position than Elijah was in back in the 9th century, B.C.  Yes, he was able to receive supernatural help to battle his discouragement through prayer—for example, by encountering God on Mt. Horeb in that “tiny whispering sound.”  But we have much more assistance available to us.  We not only have the opportunity to receive supernatural help from God by praying on a daily basis; we also have the opportunity to receive God’s help where Elijah couldn’t, namely, through the sacraments—especially confession and the Eucharist.

Was it a coincidence, therefore, that the Eucharist was the focus of today’s gospel passage from John 6?

I don’t think so!  

That was by design—God’s design!

So the bottom line is this: Many people (including many Catholics) battle their discouragement by using natural means only: with good food, exercise, rest, etc.  But there’s something lacking in that approach.  As I once heard a speaker say, “When you battle a problem [like discouragement] by using natural means only, you get only natural results; but when you tackle that same problem with natural and supernatural means, you get natural and supernatural results.

As we just heard, with the help of God, Elijah the prophet used both in battling his discouragement.

May we always follow his example in battling ours.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

“Futility of Mind”—What is It?

Dan Cathy, President of Chick-fil-A

(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on August 5, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ephesians 4: 17-24.)

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

As Biblical expressions go, it’s a classic (at least I think it is!).

It’s concise and to the point.

It’s clever; it’s clear; it’s unambiguous—and it packs a real punch, to boot!

What are you talking about, Fr. Ray?

I’m talking about the expression St. Paul uses in today’s second reading to describe “the Gentiles.” (By the way, the term “Gentiles” is used here to signify people who do not know and follow the one, true God—today we might describe them as “pagans.”)  He says that these people live “in the futility of their minds.”

What a great expression!  The futility of their minds.  Futility is uselessness.  Our minds were made to know truth. But when our minds reject truth—in this case spiritual and moral truth—they do become, in a very real sense, useless!  They don’t do for us what they’re supposed to do for us.  They don’t guide us toward heaven by advocating a life of virtue; rather, they point us toward “the other place” by advocating a life of vice!

Many people think that a pagan, ungodly lifestyle begins with actions—evil actions; but it doesn’t.  A pagan, ungodly lifestyle begins in the mind.  It begins with how people think about things.

As the old saying goes, “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”

St. Paul understood this as well as anyone.  That’s clear from what he says in Ephesians 4 (which is where today’s second reading is taken from).  Now, it’s true, in that particular chapter of the Bible Paul does eventually speak about evil actions, but first of all he focuses on how people think—because that’s key in the process.  He says (and here I’ve included a few lines that they left out of the Lectionary): “Brothers and sisters: I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; darkened in understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance, because of their hardness of heart.”

Now the interesting thing is, sometimes even people who DO believe in the one true God—and in his Son, Jesus Christ—live in the futility of their minds.  This is not just a problem for unbelievers!  Look at the Israelites in today’s first reading.  After God had worked all those miracles for them to rescue them from slavery in Egypt: the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the annihilation of Pharaoh’s army; after all that, they still didn’t trust him.  And so, they moaned and groaned and grumbled and complained.

In spite of the fact that the Israelites were God's chosen people, they very often lived in the futility of their minds—with darkened understanding—and with hard hearts. 

It seems that every age has at least one major issue where futility of mind abounds; one issue, in other words, where even many believers get confused as to what’s right and what’s wrong.  In the 1960s, for example, it was contraception.  In spite of warnings from Pope Paul VI and others, many Catholic couples bought into the lie that artificial birth control would make their marriages happier and more stable.

That, of course, has definitely NOT happened!  And if you don’t believe me, just read the statistics on divorce.

In the 1970s and 80s, it was abortion.  With their understanding darkened by pro-abortion politicians and journalists, many Catholics and others were not able to see what the science of genetics has since proven beyond a shadow of a doubt: that human life begins at the moment of conception.

Thus we now have millions of wounded women walking around: women who believed the lie that it’s just “a cluster of cells” or a “non-viable product of conception.”  I know, because I’ve dealt with many of them in the confessional, trying to help them find the peace and healing they so desperately want and need.

And now in the new millennium we have yet another major issue where futility of mind is rampant—a new major issue that we can add to the other two (because, unfortunately, contraception and abortion are still around).  The issue surrounds what is commonly called, “the gay lifestyle.” 

Just look at how the president of Chick-fil-A has been called every name in the book in the last two weeks for announcing that his company opposes so-called “gay marriage.”  It’s been amazing to me how all these “open-minded” people who defend free speech to the hilt when it comes to things like pornography, all of a sudden become close-minded censors of the worst kind when a guy wants to voice his support of something like traditional marriage!

I ask you, who are the real bigots in all this?

I had a conversation with a young college student the other day on this issue of the gay lifestyle, which is typical of the conversations I’ve had with many people in recent months.

This young man came to see me because he’s currently struggling with his faith.  He said to me, “Fr. Ray, I’m not sure I want to be Catholic anymore.”

I said, “Why not?”

“Well," he said, "my family all goes to church; and I did too, when I was in high school.  But when I went away to college I became friendly with some people who are gay, and I know that as Catholics we’ re supposed to hate gays.  But I don’t hate these people; I like them.”

I said, “As Catholics, we’re not supposed to hate anybody.  We may not approve of some of the things they do; but even then, as the old saying goes, we’re supposed to ‘love the sinner, and hate the sin’.”

We talked for awhile longer.  I tried to explain the teaching of the Church—that it’s not a sin to experience same-sex attraction; that the sin comes with certain actions that follow from the attraction.  I also reminded him that so-called ‘straight’ people can commit sins that are equally serious if they act on their sexual impulses in the wrong way.  I even said to him, “I know people who experience same-sex attraction—and I don’t hate them.  In fact, I consider some of them to be my friends.  Now if they’re committing a serious sin and I find out about it I certainly don’t approve of it—I don’t approve of anyone’s sin, including my own!  But I definitely don’t hate them—or anyone else for that matter.”

Well, he still had some difficulty getting his mind around this idea of loving the sinner and hating the sin, so I finally said to him, “Let me ask you a question.  Do your parents love you?”

He said, “Of course they do.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Well,’ I said, ‘do your parents approve of everything you do?”

He smiled a little, and said, “No.”

I said, “THEN THEY MUST HATE YOU!  You’re saying to me that Catholics hate gays because they disapprove of some of the things that gay people do.  Well, according to that logic, your parents must hate you, because they sometimes disapprove of some of the things that you do.”

At that point, I think a ‘light bulb’ finally got turned on, and he left with a promise to reflect on what I had said.

I share this story with you today because this young man is not unique.  There are lots of people—both in and out of the Church—who think and reason in precisely this way.

To equate ‘hatred’ with ‘disapproving of another person’s actions’ is not only wrong, it’s not only misguided and unfair, it’s also a perfect example of what St. Paul means when he talks about “futility of mind.”

Dear Lord Jesus, please deliver us from this futility!

And please deliver us from it soon.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Mass at the Beach: August 2, 2012

The Eucharist is at the center of our lives as Catholics. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, it is "the source and summit of the Christian life" (CCC, 1324).

Each year we gather our young people at the beach here in Westerly for a special Mass. It's a great opportunity for them to meet Jesus in word and sacrament--in the midst of his beautiful and awesome creation!

In addition to thanking God for the perfect weather, I also want to express my gratitude to Fran Pucci--and to her children, Jim and Lauren--for hosting this event every year. May our Eucharistic Lord bless them for their hospitality and generosity.

Here are some pictures from this year's event: