Sunday, April 27, 2014

Heaven Is For Real!

Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II

(Second Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on April 27, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Divine Mercy 2014]

Heaven is for real.

That one line ties together everything I want to say in my homily this morning.

Heaven is for real.

Some of you may recognize that as the title of a movie that was released during Holy Week this year—a movie that’s doing incredibly well at the box office so far.  If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend that you do.

It concerns a little boy from rural Nebraska named Colton Burpo, who nearly died after his appendix ruptured back in March of 2003.  He was just about 4-years-old at the time.  Colton had a near-death experience while he was in emergency surgery, and during that near-death experience he claims to have visited heaven.  Now, to be sure, this is all in the realm of private revelation and no one has to believe any of it, but I read the book upon which the movie is based, and in all honesty I can’t find anything in it that directly contradicts Catholic Church teaching.  And that’s somewhat surprising because Colton Burpo is a Baptist and his father, Todd (who wrote the book), is a Baptist minister!

For example, at one point in the book Todd says this: “A lot of our Catholic friends have asked whether Colton saw Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The answer to that is . . . yes.  He saw Mary kneeling before the throne of God and at other times, standing beside Jesus.  ‘She still loves him like a mom,’ Colton said.”

That’s great Catholic theology concerning the Blessed Mother!  We believe as Catholics that Mary prays for us—that she intercedes for us and for our needs to Almighty God (as all the saints in heaven do); and we believe that Mary is the Queen of Heaven and earth, and that she enjoys a special place in her Son’s eternal kingdom.

Well, apparently so does Colton Burpo, based on his experience in March of 2003!

Let me add one footnote here: Not all near-death experiences, in my view, are equal.  Some can probably be explained in purely natural terms.  But even in the case of those which may have a supernatural origin, not all of them are necessarily from God.  At best these experiences are veiled images of the afterlife that are given to people by the Lord; at worst they are deceptions of the devil, who, as the Bible says, can disguise himself as an angel of light.

So a lot of discernment is needed in evaluating these matters.

All that having been said, I think there’s a lot to say in favor of the divine origin of what happened to little Colton Burpo.

As Catholics, of course, our faith in the reality of heaven does not rest on the witness of someone like Colton who had a near-death experience.  WE KNOW THAT “HEAVEN IS FOR REAL” BASED ON THE TESTIMONY—AND THE ACTUAL RESURRECTION—OF JESUS CHRIST!  As St. Peter said in our second reading today: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith.”

But even though our knowledge that heaven is for real ultimately comes from Jesus himself, the Church seeks to strengthen our faith in the existence of heaven by focusing our attention on certain men and women who, we believe, have already arrived there.

These are men and women who lived lives of heroic faith and virtue during their time on earth.  We refer to them as “canonized saints,” and this weekend (as most of us are well aware) the Church adds two new ones to the list: Pope St. John XXIII (who was the pontiff who called the Second Vatican Council), and Pope St. John Paul II (or, as many of us like to call him, Pope St. John Paul the Great!).

These two holy men now join saints like Faustina Kowalska, who was canonized back in 2000.  St. Faustina was the Polish nun who received a number of private revelations from Jesus in the 1930s concerning God’s love and mercy.  Those revelations inspired the painting of this image that we have near the pulpit today, as well as the institution of the feast we’re celebrating in the Church this weekend, the feast of Divine Mercy.

Jesus and saints like John Paul II, John XXIII and Faustina remind us that “heaven is for real,” but they also remind us of the fact that heaven is not automatic.  (Even Colton Burpo would tell you that not everyone who dies goes to heaven.)  In order to get through those “pearly gates” after we die we need to experience God’s mercy while we’re here on this earth.  That’s because we’re all sinners.   It’s providential then—and most appropriate—that in today’s gospel reading we heard how Jesus gave his apostles the power to forgive sins in his name.  Our Lord said to them on Easter Sunday, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Every canonized saint (with the exception of the Blessed Mother) needed forgiveness for whatever sins they committed in their lives.

And we are no different.  We have that same need.

May the fact that “heaven is for real” inspire us and motivate us to seek the Lord’s mercy and pardon as often as we need it—especially in the sacrament of confession.

Let me give the last word in this homily now to St. Faustina, who was once given a vision of heaven and who described it as follows:

Today I was in heaven, in spirit, and I saw its unconceivable beauties and the happiness that awaits us after death.  I saw how all creatures give ceaseless praise and glory to God.  I saw how great is happiness in God, which spreads to all creatures, making them happy; and then all the glory and praise which springs from this happiness returns to its source; and they enter into the depths of God, contemplating the inner life of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, whom they will never comprehend or fathom.  This source of happiness is unchanging in its essence, but it is always new, gushing forth happiness for all creatures.  Now I understand Saint Paul, who said, ‘Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love him.’

Let’s pray at this Mass that we will also come to understand St. Paul someday—experientially—when we, too, arrive in heaven.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

When It Comes To The Resurrection, There Are Only Two Possibilities.

(Easter 2014: This homily was given on April 20, 2014 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 2014]

When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, there are only two possibilities:

·         Either it’s true, or it isn’t.

·         Either it did happen, or it did not happen.

·         Either Jesus fulfilled his promise and rose from the grave, or he did not fulfill his promise and he remained quite dead.

There can be no middle ground here.  If the first possibility is true and he did rise from the grave, then all assertions to the contrary must be false.  And by the same token, if it isn’t true and it didn’t happen and Jesus remained dead and in the grave, then Christianity is a lie and, as St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15, “[our] faith [in Jesus] is worthless.  [We] are still in our sins, and those who have died in Christ are the deadest of the dead.”

But there’s even more at stake here than that (as if that were not enough!).  The question of whether or not Jesus conquered death on Easter Sunday affects EVERYTHING in our human experience—from how we look at ourselves to how we look at life itself.

For example:

·         If Jesus is risen—if he’s alive—if he overcame the power of sin and Satan and eternal death three days after he was crucified, then life always has meaning (even when it may seem to be meaningless).  There’s a purpose, in other words, to all this.  We’re here to decide whether or not we, personally, want to experience the risen life of Jesus Christ for all eternity.  That’s the central issue of life.
On the other hand, if Jesus did not rise from the dead on Easter Sunday, then life has no intrinsic meaning.  There’s nothing ultimately at stake during our lives on this earth, so we might as well just live for the moment and do whatever we feel like doing during the brief time we have here.

·         If Jesus is risen then I also have an objective value as a human person—from the moment of my conception in my mother’s womb.  I have that value because the Son of God came to this earth to redeem me—to redeem all of us—by his passion, death and resurrection; and he would have made that sacrifice even if I had been the only person in history who needed to be redeemed.  This means that, according to Jesus Christ, I’m so special and precious that I’m worth dying for!
On the other hand, if Jesus did not rise from the dead on Easter, then I have no objective value as a human person—even if everyone here on earth thinks that I’m really special and important.

·         If Jesus is risen, then what I believe about God and morality matters; and what I do to other people matters (my family, my friends—and even my enemies); and what I say to other people matters.
If he didn’t rise, then none of that stuff matters at all!

·         If Jesus is risen, then there’s never a reason for me to despair in this life—because Jesus is alive and with me, and he can forgive every one of my sins.
On the other hand, if he didn’t rise from the dead, then despair can sometimes be the logical—and even the acceptable—option.

·         This one follows from the last one: If Jesus is risen, then after I do something wrong, I can avoid some of the temporal consequences for my sins and, most importantly, ALL of the eternal consequences.
If Jesus did not rise from the grave, however, then I’m forced to deal with all the consequences of my actions: the ones here on earth AND the ones in eternity (which are even worse!).

·         If Jesus is risen, then I can have hope in my heart at EVERY funeral—even the funeral of a terrible sinner.
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then I can’t have hope in my heart at ANY funeral—even the funeral of a great saint.  (This would make the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XIII in Rome next Sunday nothing more than a joke—a charade—a meaningless and empty ceremony.)

·         And, finally, if Jesus is risen and alive, then the sacraments mean something.  They have value, in that they are the primary ways that the risen Jesus touches our lives here on this earth.  And so we’d better take them seriously!  If Jesus is risen and alive, for example, then he has the power to change ordinary bread and wine into his true Body and Blood—and we need to receive that Body and Blood worthily (as he said in John 6) in order to have his “life” in us.
On the other hand, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then the seven sacraments are nothing more than empty, powerless rituals, and the smartest people in the world are those who don’t believe in them or take them seriously (like those who habitually miss Sunday Mass without a good reason).

Let me give the last word today to our Holy Father, Pope Francis.  He addressed this issue of the importance of the resurrection in a talk he gave on April 3rd of 2013.  On that occasion he said:

What does the Resurrection mean for our life?  And why is our faith in vain without it?  Our faith is founded on Christ’s death and resurrection, just as a house stands on its foundations: if they give way, the whole house collapses.
Jesus gave himself on the Cross, taking the burden of our sins upon himself and descending into the abyss of death; then in the Resurrection, he triumphed over them, took them away, and opened before us the path to rebirth and to a new life.

A new life or no life—which is it? As Pope Francis makes clear, it all depends on whether the resurrection of Jesus really happened.  That is to say it all depends on whether the message of Easter Sunday is actually true.

Hopefully our attendance here at Mass today is a sign of the fact that we believe it is.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Did Jesus Waste His Time On Good Friday?

The "big crucifix" on the back wall of the sanctuary of St. Pius X Church.

(Good Friday 2014: This homily was given on April 18, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI, by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9.  Also read the Passion Narrative of St. John.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Good Friday 2014]

Did Jesus waste his time on Good Friday?

That may seem like an odd question, but it really isn’t.

Objectively speaking, of course, Jesus did not waste his time on Good Friday or on any other day of his earthly life.  As he said in John 6: 38, “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.”

And that “will” of the Father reached its climactic point on this day a little more than 2,000 years ago when “he gave his life as an offering for sin” (as Isaiah puts it in today’s first reading) so that we might have the hope of being cleansed of our sins and living forever in his kingdom.  As our second reading tells us, “Son though he was, [Jesus] learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect [through the resurrection], he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

The sacrifice of Jesus on Mt. Calvary was sufficient for the forgiveness of any and every sin in human history: from the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, to the final sin that will be committed in this world just before the Second Coming of Christ and the Final Judgment.

That’s the “good news” of Good Friday!

So, objectively speaking, “It is finished!”  Salvation has been won for us!  Jesus accomplished his mission from the Father, and he accomplished it PERFECTLY! 

From that perspective, he definitely did NOT waste his time.

However, subjectively speaking, my brothers and sisters, he might have!  In other words, even though it’s an objective fact that salvation has been made possible for us by the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Savior, if we don’t actually experience that salvation personally—subjectively—then, in a very real sense, you could say that Jesus “wasted his time” for us in going through all the horrors that we just heard about in this gospel!

You could even say he wasted his time if, on a given occasion, we refuse to accept the forgiveness that he’s already given to us.

What brought all this to mind was something that happens every once in a while in the sacrament of Confession.  A person will come in and say, “Father, I committed such-and-such a sin many years ago, and I’ve confessed it before (actually, I’ve confessed it several times).  But it still bothers me.”

The priest will say, “Well, did you commit the sin again?”

“Oh no, Father, I only did it that one time, but I still feel like I’m guilty.”

The priest will then try to help the person to understand that since they’ve confessed the sin with true contrition in their heart and been absolved from it in the sacrament, Jesus has forgiven it—totally and completely!

And so they need to make the effort to forgive themselves for it and let it go.

But some people will insist that they can’t.  At that point I will usually say something to this effect: “Ok, here’s what I want you to do.  When this confession is over I want you to go out into the main part of the church, and kneel down, and look at the big crucifix on the back wall.  And then I want you to spend some time thinking about everything Jesus went through on Holy Thursday and Good Friday: how he was beaten, and kicked, and spat upon, and scourged until his flesh peeled off his body—and finally crucified.  Spend some quality time really thinking about that.  (If you saw The Passion of the Christ, remember everything that you saw in that film.)  And then I want you to look up at Jesus and say to him in your heart, “Lord Jesus, I know that you went through all of that for me.  I know you endured all of those terrible things and went through that living hell so that I could be forgiven for this sin—and for every sin.  But you see, Lord Jesus, even though you did all of that for me—and have forgiven me—the fact of the matter is that I can’t forgive myself.  So I guess, Lord, that you wasted your time.  You wasted your time dying on that cross for me.”

I usually end by saying, “Do you really want to say that to Jesus?  Do you really want to tell him that, as far as you’re concerned, he went through all of that pain and suffering for nothing?”

Sometimes that will help the person—finally—to move beyond their self-loathing and find some peace.

By seeking the Lord’s forgiveness as often as we need it (which is every day!), and by forgiving ourselves after Jesus has already forgiven us, we make the Passion and Death of Jesus personally—subjectively—worthwhile.

So the message tonight from our loving Lord is simple: “Remember all that I did to save your soul.  Thank me from the very bottom of your heart.  And then make sure—make sure above all else—that I did NOT waste my time on that cross suffering and dying for you.”

Outdoor Stations of the Cross 2014

Each year, on Good Friday, we pray the Stations of the Cross at 14 locations between School and Cross Streets here in Westerly. Members of the community take turns carrying a large wooden cross.

It is an opportunity for us to give a public witness to our Catholic faith, and to meditate on the sufferings our Lord and Savior endured for us.

Many thanks to Carol Marzano for providing these great pictures from this year's event!

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Lesson of Lazarus: First We Need to Be Raised Up—AND THEN WE NEED TO BE SET FREE!

The "fifth stained glass window" in St. Pius X Church.

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on April 6, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 11: 1-45.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2014]

For Lazarus to live a full and normal human life again, two things needed to happen to him: the first is obvious; the second, I would say, is not so obvious.  But it was equally necessary.
(And that second thing that needed to happen is illustrated beautifully in the fifth stained glass window in our church on the left side.)

The first thing that needed to happen for Lazarus to live a normal human life again, was that he needed to be brought back from the dead!

That, as I said a few moments ago, is obvious.  The man, after all, had been in the tomb for four days!

But, in and of itself, that was not sufficient.  As essential as it was for Lazarus to be raised up from the grave, that alone was not enough to enable him to live a normal human life again with his family and friends.

the man ALSO NEEDED TO BE SET FREE!  HE NEEDED TO BE SET FREE FROM THOSE BURIAL CLOTHS THAT HAD HIM TIED UP LIKE A MUMMY (as is illustrated so well in our stained glass window).

And Jesus addressed that issue at the very end of the story.  As we heard St. John tell us a few moments ago, “[Jesus] cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’  The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.  So Jesus said to them, ‘Untie him and let him go.’”

“Untie him and let him go.”

He couldn’t untie himself.  He needed help from others.

And, thankfully, he did receive that help and he was able to go home that day with his family.

The raising of Lazarus was a foreshadowing—a prefigurement—of the resurrection of Jesus at Easter.  It’s what theologians call a “type”—as the adults taking our Catechism class would tell you.

But here’s the important difference: When Lazarus was raised from the dead he came back to this mortal existence—which means that he had to experience physical death again—a second time—at some point after the events we heard about in this gospel reading.

But the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a resurrection to an eternal life where there is no physical death.  As St. Paul puts it in Romans 6: 9, “We know that Christ, once raised from the dead, will never die again; death has no more power over him.”

And THAT’S the resurrected life that we look forward to sharing in when our time on this earth is finally over.

But there’s another dimension to this miracle which goes back to what I said at the beginning of my homily, and it’s that dimension that I want to focus on this morning.

I said that for Lazarus to live a full and normal human life again, he first had to be raised from the dead, and then he had to be untied and set free.

And that, spiritually speaking, is exactly what needs to happen to us if we’re going to be the disciples—and saints—that the Lord calls us to be.

Last week I talked about the importance and power of the sacrament of Confession in my homily.  (Actually, since I quoted from Pope Francis so much, I suppose you could say that he preached on that subject last Sunday at St. Pius through me.)

Well you could say that, in a certain sense, what Jesus did for the physical body of Lazarus in today’s gospel, he does for the soul in the sacrament of Confession (especially the soul of a baptized person in the state of mortal sin).  As the Catechism puts it in paragraph 1468: “the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true ‘spiritual resurrection,’ restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God.”

A soul in the state of mortal sin is spiritually dead, as the body of Lazarus was physically dead.  And because of that fact—because a soul in mortal sin lacks sanctifying grace and is dead, spiritually—it needs to be “raised up” before anything else spiritually beneficial can happen to it (just like Lazarus’ body had to be raised up before it could experience anything that was physically beneficial).  For example, it would not have benefitted Lazarus in any way if his two sisters, Martha and Mary, had prepared a great meal for him while he was still in the grave!  Before that meal could benefit Lazarus physically, the man’s body needed to be restored to life.

Common sense, right?

But that’s not all that needed to happen!  Lazarus also (as I said a few moments ago) needed to be untied!  He needed to be “set free” from those burial bands and from that cloth which was wrapped around his face!  Only then could he make the trip home and enjoy that great meal with his family and friends.

Do you know what that means, my brothers and sisters?

It means that Confession alone is not enough!  It is necessary, yes—but it’s not sufficient to make us the disciples and saints that the Lord calls us to be.

For that to happen we also need to be set free!  We need to be set free from the sins we get forgiven for in Confession (and even the ones we get forgiven for outside of Confession).

I’ll give you one example today of what I’m talking about.

It’s no secret that viewing pornography on the internet—and the sin of self-abuse which often follows from that activity—is a growing problem in our society right now.

The sin of self-abuse is a serious sin which needs to be confessed—and, praise God, it very often is.  And I commend those who have the courage to confess it.  (I’m sure this is one of those sins Pope Francis was alluding to in that talk of his that I quoted from last week, when he spoke about the “shame” people sometimes feel after they commit certain sins.)

Well let’s be clear about it: Every time a person confesses that sin in Confession with true sorrow in their heart, God forgives it!  Even if the person commits the sin every single day and then repents in Confession every single day, the Lord will forgive that sin and spiritually raise that man or woman from the dead every single day.

And that’s great!  But ask any serious Catholic who struggles with this problem, “Is that forgiveness of God enough for you?” and they will tell you in no uncertain terms, “No, it isn’t!”

And if you then say, “Well, what else do you want?” they will tell you without any hesitation whatsoever, “I want to be set free!  I want this habitual sin out of my life!  I want to be able to say no to this temptation!  I don’t want this ruining my marriage and my family anymore!”

They want what happened to Lazarus physically to happen to them spiritually.

And it’s interesting, the process of getting “untied” from this addiction and set free from it often does require the assistance of others (just like the help of other people was necessary to free Lazarus from his burial cloths).

Thankfully, there are good groups of people out there who are ready and able to lend the necessary assistance—groups like Covenant Eyes, which is the one I always recommend to people.  Covenant Eyes can be easily accessed on the internet.

Now, you might say, “But, Fr. Ray, I don’t struggle with that particular sin.”

Well, okay, maybe for you the troublesome sin that you commit over and over again and are having trouble getting free from is gossip, or foul language, or impatience, or lying, or laziness, or gluttony or anger—or something else.

We all have certain sins that we struggle with and need to be freed from.  This is one reason why daily prayer and frequent reception of the sacraments—as well as seeking the help of others—is so important.

Jesus gave Lazarus the gift of life and the gift of freedom on the day he raised his body from the dead.

“Untie him and let him go.”

Let’s pray today at this Mass that the Lord will give all of us those same two gifts where we need them the most: in the spiritual dimension of our lives.