Sunday, September 28, 2014

It’s Not About Where You Start, It’s About Where You Finish!

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 28, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 18: 25-28; Matthew 21: 28-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixth Sunday 2014]

It’s not about where you start, it’s about where you finish.

That’s the message that I believe the Lord has for us today in these Scripture readings—and especially in this gospel passage from Matthew 21.

This is a spiritual truth, incidentally, that applies to many areas of life.

For example, why is it that sports movies like “Rocky” and “Rudy” and “Hoosiers” (the basketball film) are so appealing?  Why do people like them so much?

It’s because the main characters all “finish” in a better place than they “start”.

Which, by the way, is what I’m counting on my Green Bay Packers to do this year, because they certainly haven’t started very well!

But that’s another story.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells us a parable about two sons.  The first starts in disobedience, but he ends up finishing in obedience (“A man had two sons.  He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’  He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went.”); the second son, on the other hand, starts off in obedience, but he ends up finishing in disobedience (“The man came to the other son and gave him the same order.  He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go.”).

Jesus told this story to the chief priests and elders of the people to warn them that even though they had started off in faithfulness to God by accepting the truth the Lord had revealed through Moses, they were in danger of eventually finishing in hell, because they were rejecting him—and because they had already rejected his predecessor, John the Baptist!  Whereas many tax collectors, prostitutes and other people who had started off in serious sin (at the beginning of John’s ministry) were now on their way to finishing in the Lord’s eternal and glorious kingdom!

It’s not about where you start, it’s about where you finish.

This is the same message we encounter in today’s first reading from Ezekiel 18, where the prophet says (and here I’m paraphrasing his words): “If a person who starts off living a virtuous life turns away from his virtue and sins seriously—and he remains in that spiritual condition—he will lose his soul.  But if that same person (or anyone else in the state of mortal sin) turns away from that sin—and finishes his life in the state of grace—he will be saved for all eternity!  He shall surely live, he shall not die.”

Now some of you may be thinking, “Thank you, Father Ray, but all of this is quite clear and quite obvious!”

To which I would respond, “Well, it might be clear and obvious to you, but it’s definitely NOT clear and obvious to a lot of other people!”

There are many in our world right now (and even many in the Church!) who believe that everyone (with the possible exception of a few bad guys like Hitler and Stalin) will finish in the kingdom, regardless of what sins they have on their souls when they finish their earthly lives.

According to Jesus, that’s a mistaken idea that can literally have eternal consequences.

But the denial of this truth about starting and finishing can also affect us in other ways.  For example, why do so many people take their own lives these days?  Why do so many despair?

It’s ultimately because they don’t believe they can finish in a better place (emotionally and spiritually) than they’re starting in at the present moment!

So everything appears hopeless—even though it isn’t.

Here’s a lie that’s straight out of the pit of hell: “You can’t possibly finish in a better place than you’re starting in right now.”

Satan whispers that lie into the ears of those who are on the verge of despair.  He whispers it into the ears of women who have had abortions; he whispers it into the ears of all those who have committed serious sins that they regret and are deeply ashamed of.

And the tragedy is that many of the men and women in these situations believe the devil!

That’s why some of them stay away from confession—and stop praying—and give up the practice of their Catholic faith. 

They think, “Well, what’s the use?  I am what I am; I’ve done what I’ve done—and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

I ask you, my brothers and sisters, what would have happened to Saul of Tarsus if he had thought that about himself after Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and made him aware of his sins?

I know one thing for sure: he never would have become Saint Paul!

What would have happened to Augustine, the womanizer and playboy, if he had thought that about himself and his sinful situation?

I’m not exactly sure, but I can guarantee you that he never would have become Saint Augustine!

Like the first son in the story, Saul and Augustine understood that even though they had started in deep sin they could finish somewhere else—somewhere a lot better!

I mention all this today, my brothers and sisters, because, when you stop and think about it, at this precise moment we’re all starting the rest of our lives here on this earth.  As the old saying goes, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

And we’re all starting this journey from different places.  We each have our own set of fears and character flaws—and sins.  Some of us may be starting with mortal sins and some very deep regrets.

Well, unfortunately, we can’t control where we’re starting from—because we can’t change the past.

But by the grace of God we can control where we finish—even if we’re starting from a very bad place!

And the key to doing that is, believe it or not, the virtue of humility.

The last stanza of today’s responsorial psalm (psalm 25) reads: “Good and upright is the Lord; thus he shows sinners the way.  He guides the humble to justice, and teaches the humble his way.”

The first son in this parable finished well because he was humble.  THAT was the reason!

Here we have to read between the lines a little bit.

Why did he change his mind and go into the vineyard to work?

It’s because he was wrong and because he was humble enough to admit that to himself!

At some point after he left his dad, he obviously thought to himself, “You know what?—you were wrong to say what you said to your Father today!  You should go and do what he told you to do.”

That’s humility.

It takes humility to admit you’re wrong.  It takes humility to acknowledge that you’ve sinned.  It takes humility to go before a priest in a confessional and honestly admit to him the evil you’ve done and the good you haven’t done.

Humility is a very powerful virtue—one that we should pray for every day; because it’s the virtue that can take a person from the worst starting point imaginable, to the place where we all want to finish.

Which is great news, my brothers and sisters, because, when all is said and done, where we started from won’t matter at all.

But where we finish will matter—FOREVER!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

You Can Do a Lot of Good With a Cross.

(Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: This homily was given on September 15, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Numbers 21: 4b-9; John 3: 13-17.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Cross 2014]

You can do a lot of good with a cross.

That’s one of the most important lessons we learn from the feast we’re celebrating in the Church this weekend.

Think about it.  We’re here at Mass today because Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, DID SOMETHING GOOD WITH HIS CROSS.

And that’s the ONLY reason we’re here at Mass today!  Without the Cross, without the sacrificial death of Jesus, we would be (as St. Paul would say) “still in our sins.”  Without the Cross, there would be no redemption; without the Cross, there would have been no resurrection; without the Cross, there would be no hope!  This is why Jesus said to us in today’s gospel, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert [that’s a reference to the event we heard about in today’s first reading from Numbers 21], so must the Son of Man be lifted up [that’s a clear reference to the Cross], so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. … For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

It’s all summed up beautifully in the Preface of this Mass (which I’ll read at the altar in a few minutes) where it says, “For you [Father] placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the Cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth and the evil one, who conquered on a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered.”

Because Jesus Christ did something good with his Cross, the world has been reconciled to God the Father.  Because Jesus Christ did something good with his Cross, we can be forgiven of our sins—if we sincerely repent.  Because Jesus Christ did something good with his Cross, we have the hope of living forever in the glorious and eternal kingdom of heaven.

Now the reason I mention all this today is to make the point that what’s true of Jesus Christ is also true of us, his disciples.  Just as Jesus did something good with his Cross, so too we, his disciples, can do good things with our crosses.

And that’s really good news, because we all have them!  There is no one on planet earth right now who is exempt from suffering and trial.  In this fallen world of ours, everyone has a cross to deal with!  In fact, I think it’s safe to say that in this fallen world of ours everyone has multiple crosses to deal with!  The problem is that many people don’t do anything positive with them!  They only passively endure their crosses; they don’t actively and deliberately use them for good, like Jesus did.

And that’s sad, especially since those crosses are going to be there for them, one way or the other.
So how exactly can we imitate Jesus and do good with the crosses we’re currently experiencing?

Well, one of the most important ways we can use them for good is to allow them to make us more empathetic and compassionate toward others who are suffering.

I’ve certainly tried to do that in dealing with Parkinson’s Disease.  Not that I didn’t try to be empathetic and compassionate before I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2010.  But since my diagnosis I know that I’m able to “connect” with suffering people and feel compassion for them at a much deeper level.

And that’s a good thing.

Another way to use our crosses for good is to allow them to make us more effective ministers of the Gospel.  

A woman I know was recently diagnosed with cancer, and is having a very difficult time dealing with it on the spiritual level as well as on the emotional level.  So one of the things I’ve done is to put her in contact with another woman I know who’s going through the same trial, but who’s dealing with it very well because of her deep faith.  This second woman will be able to help the first far more effectively than I ever could, because she’s experiencing the same cross that the first woman is experiencing—and because she’s willing to use her cross to help the other woman.

By the way, this is why I will sometimes will ask faithful parents in this parish who have lost children in the distant past to talk to other parents who have lost children more recently and who are really struggling to cope.  Those parents who have found strength and hope through their faith in dealing with the death of their child can help other grieving parents far better than I can.  But they have to be willing to use their terrible cross for good: by listening to those other parents in their pain, and by sharing with them the faith and hope that they’ve found in Jesus Christ.

Another good thing we can do with our crosses is to allow them to motivate us to re-set our priorities and grow in holiness.  

This is something I saw happen to my father during the final year of his life.  My dad, as many of you know, died of cancer back in 1971.  What you probably don’t know about him is that he tended to be a workaholic for most of his life.  That’s the way he was raised.  He loved my mom, my sister and me and we knew that—but he was almost always on the go.  In fact, he had a very close friend from Pawcatuck that he served with in the Navy named John Sylvia.  Some of you might have known John; he was married to Tina Trumpetto.  Our families were very close, and several times a year we would make the “long trip” from Barrington to Pawcatuck to visit.  (And it was a lot longer back then, because Route 95 wasn’t finished yet.)

Well, years after my father was gone my mom said to me, “Do you know how tough it was at times to get your father to take a break from whatever project he was working on and make that trip to John and Tina’s house?  Do you realize that John had to have something lined up for your dad to do when he was there: something for him to paint or fix or build?  Your father wouldn’t go just to relax; he’d only go if he could do some work for John while he was there.”

Well, thankfully, during his final year on earth, my father’s perspective on things changed for the better.  His cross of cancer motivated him to re-prioritize a lot of things in his life and to make the effort to grow in holiness.  Consequently he finally learned to relax and slow down and enjoy his life and his family.  He was no longer consumed with the insatiable desire to work, and my sister and I were the prime beneficiaries, since he spent a lot more time with us.

And, at the same time, he grew much stronger in his faith!  Prior to his diagnosis my father went to Mass every Sunday and holy day, but during most of the final year of his life he went to Mass every day.

I guess you could say that my dad used his cross to teach himself some of life’s most important lessons—which is something else we can do with ours.

And that’s a great blessing for us—and for the people around us—when it happens.

Two other ways we can use our crosses (and these are the last ones I’ll mention this morning) are as sacrifices that we can offer up in reparation for our sins, and as offered-up sufferings designed to bring blessings into our own lives and into the lives of others.

The Catechism tells us in paragraph 2487: “Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven.”  That’s the concept that stands behind the penance given in Confession.  When the priest gives us absolution in the confessional, we are forgiven for all the sins we’ve confessed and repented of.  We’re forgiven totally and completely!  But that’s not the end of the story.  We still have the obligation to make reparation (to make amends) for those forgiven sins.  And one of the ways to do that is by offering up to the Lord our personal sufferings—our personal crosses—in union with his.

We can also use our crosses by offering our sufferings up as St. Paul indicated that he did in his life.  In Colossians 1 Paul said, “Even now I find my joy in the sufferings I endure for you.  For in my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.”

Remember when the nuns told you to “offer it up”?

Well they were right!  Just as St. Paul understood that the Colossian people were being blessed because he was offering up his sufferings—his crosses—for them (in union with the sufferings of Christ), so too did those nuns understand that our offered-up sufferings today can bring special blessings and graces into our own lives and into the lives of the people we love and pray for.

The truth still applies.

Yes, my brothers and sisters, you can do a lot of good—an awful lot of good—with a cross!

Jesus knew that—and he made the choice to use his Cross to save us and to save the world.

By the help of his powerful grace, may we make the choice to use our crosses—every day—for our own good, and for the good of many other people.  Amen.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Love and Conflict

Jim Caviezel as Bob Ladouceur in "When the Game Stands Tall."

The real Bob Ladouceur.

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 7, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Romans 13: 8-10; Matthew 18: 15-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2014]

“When the Game Stands Tall” is a recently released movie that stars Jim Caviezel.  (He’s the man who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ”; he’s also one of the stars of the current TV series, “Person of Interest”.)

In this film—which is based on a true story—Caviezel plays a high school football coach and theology teacher named Bob Ladouceur.  From 1979 to 2012, Bob Ladouceur was the head coach at De La Salle, a Catholic high school located in Concord, California.  Year in and year out, his teams were ranked among the best in the entire country.  Not surprisingly, several future NFL stars played at De La Salle under Coach Ladouceur—among them Amani Toomer (who played for the New York Giants) and Aaron Taylor (who played for my team, the Green Bay Packers).

But Bob Ladouceur’s most impressive football accomplishment occurred from 1992 to 2004 when he coached his teams to an incredible, unbelievable, ABSOLUTELY ASTOUNDING 151 straight victories—by far the longest winning streak for any football team (high school, college or pro) in history!

The movie begins, ironically enough, as the streak is about to come to an end.  Ladouceur is leading his team from the locker room onto the field for the state championship game (which would end up being the last of his 151 victories), and a reporter comes up to him with a microphone to do a quick interview.  At one point as they’re walking along the reporter says, “So, [Coach] how long do you think you can keep the streak alive?”

That was what the reporter was interested in; that’s what most fans were interested in.

Ladouceur answers by saying, without any hesitation whatsoever, “The streak was never our goal.”

And that’s what’s so interesting about this story.  It’s evident from the very beginning that Bob Ladouceur’s focus was never primarily on winning (although he certainly enjoyed the experience of winning!  Who doesn’t?).  

His primary focus was on teaching his players THE TRUTH—in particular the truth that St. Paul speaks of in today’s second reading from Romans 13 when he says, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence love is the fulfillment of the law.”

This is why, when Jim Caviezel was asked in a recent interview what made Bob Ladouceur’s football program so special at De La Salle, he answered with one word: “Love.”

And here Caviezel was talking about real love—not the flimsy, superficial, emotional version of love that our culture glorifies at the present time, but the real deal.

It becomes clear in the movie that this was is Ladouceur never went on to coach at a higher level, even though he received job offers from Stanford University and other places.

He believed he could have the greatest influence on young men of high school age.  He believed that he could teach them to love one another with the selfless, forgiving, self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ more effectively than he could teach young men of college age or in professional football.

So he sacrificed the big bucks in order to teach teenagers how to love and how to live.  He did that in his theology class; he did it on the football field—and he did it by his own personal example of self-sacrifice.

All of which makes for a really good story: a really good story which also happens to be true!

Needless to say, I highly recommend this movie!  So do many other people, including basketball Hall-of-Famer Jerry West, who said (and here I quote), “I would recommend this movie to all parents who have kids participating in sports—regardless of what level.”

Which includes almost every parent I know.  Very few young people these days do NOT participate in sports.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this text about love from Romans 13 is paired up with this gospel reading from Matthew, chapter 18—because it, too, is about real love (although interestingly enough the word “love” is not found anywhere in the reading).

The gospel is specifically about dealing with interpersonal conflict—something the De La Salle players had to learn to do, especially after they lost a few games!

But that’s to be expected, because in this imperfect world love and conflict are not mutually exclusive realities.  In fact, we sometimes have our deepest conflicts with the people we love the most!

As the old saying goes, “You always hurt the one you love.”

Jesus says here: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” 

That statement, believe it or not, is really challenging our love: our love of neighbor.  

Jesus is actually saying to us here: “When you have a conflict with a brother or sister that’s rooted in their sin, do you LOVE that person enough to go directly to him or her to try to work things out and get reconciled?”

Many do not love in that way, as we all know.  They have a problem with their boss—they get mistreated by him—and they talk to everyone else about it except their boss; they have a problem with their pastor, and they talk to everyone else about it except their pastor; they have a problem with a relative, and they talk about it with all their relatives—except the one they actually have the conflict with!

Jesus goes on to say: “If [you do go to your brother and] he does not listen, take one or two others along with you … If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.”

That’s another statement which challenges our love.  

Jesus is saying to us: “When you have a conflict with another person that’s rooted in their sin, and you try to work it out with them directly but nothing positive happens, do you LOVE them enough to persevere in your efforts at reconciliation by getting appropriate help from other people?”

Or do you throw in the towel and give up?

As Catholic Christians, we’re never supposed to give up; we’re never supposed to “close the door” entirely on a relationship (unless, of course, it’s a sinful relationship!).

Yes, we may have to step back from the relationship for a time and avoid the other person’s company because all our attempts at reconciliation have been rejected—which is basically what Jesus means here when he says that after all these other overtures fail we should treat the person “like a Gentile or a tax collector.” 

But at the same time we must continue to pray and to hope for a positive change—and be open to any future opportunities for reconciliation that might present themselves.

That’s real love.  That’s the kind of real, Christ-centered love that Bob Ladouceur tried to teach to his football players at De La Salle High School for more than thirty years.  And if you listen to what many of his former players say about him and about the positive impact he had on their lives, it seems that to a great extent he succeeded.

Of course the big challenge for all of us—for those former players and for you and for me—is to infuse this kind of love into our lives every day.

If you’re like me and like the rest of the human race, you sometimes succeed and you sometimes fail.

But that’s why we’re here at Mass, is it not?  (Or at least it should be why we’re here!)

We’re not here because we love others perfectly; we’re here (hopefully) because we want to love others more perfectly in the future than we have in the past.

Lord Jesus, help us to do that by the power of your grace each and every day, so that we and all those we are called to love will WIN—not 151 straight football games—but rather the one and only prize that really matters: ETERNAL LIFE WITH YOU!  Amen.