Sunday, November 16, 2014

Brittany Maynard and the Message of the Parable of the Talents

Kara Tippetts

Maggie Karner

Philip Johnson

(Thirty-third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 16, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 25: 14-30.)

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

Question: What’s the difference between Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Brittany Maynard?

Answer: Bishop Sheen promoted the idea that “life is worth living” through a long running television program by the same name (a few of you, I know, are actually old enough to remember that show!).  Brittany Maynard, on the other hand, did her best to promote the idea that life is often NOT worth living!

And she had most of the people in the mainstream media doing their best to help her promote that idea.

Sad, but not surprising.

For those who may not know, Brittany Maynard was the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer, who killed herself on November 1st in Portland, Oregon—with the help of a “compassionate” doctor who gave her the pills she needed to do herself in.

Now because she announced her intention to kill herself so long in advance, she received quite a bit of national media attention, and she very quickly became the “poster-girl” for all those in our country right now who would like to turn the medical profession into a killing profession.  I’m speaking here especially about groups like “Compassion and Choices”—which used to be known as “The Hemlock Society.”

Gee, if what they stood for was so great, why did they feel the need to change their name?

Please keep in mind, my brothers and sisters, that a skunk by any other name still stinks.  How that applies to “Compassion and Choices” should be obvious.

If it’s not obvious to you, please see me after Mass.

As for Brittany, even though we as Catholics do not approve of what she did, we still pray for her.  We pray that she was not fully culpable for her sin of self-murder, and that God will judge her mercifully.  The Catechism tells us that suicide is “contrary to love for the living God” and “gravely contrary to the love of self” and “offends love of neighbor.” (CCC, 2281)  It’s a sin, in other words, against EVERYONE: God, yourself and other people.  But the Catechism also adds this in paragraph 2283: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

And since we are the Church, the body of Christ, that’s what we should do.

Jesus, in this gospel parable about the talents, makes it clear that God expects us to use the gifts he has given us for his glory and for our neighbor’s good.  As we heard a few moments ago, those who used their talents were commended, and then invited to “share [their] master’s joy” (that’s a clear reference to heaven); whereas the man who buried his talent was thrown out into “the darkness” (that’s an equally clear reference to “the other place”).

The message of this parable certainly applies to the individual gifts and talents that each of us has, but first and foremost it applies to the gift of life itself!

Life, after all, is the Lord’s first gift to us, as well as the necessary precondition for every other gift.  For example, you can’t have a talent for singing or teaching or writing—or anything else, for that matter—if you don’t first exist!

And this is exactly what makes something like suicide so wrong: it takes God’s greatest natural gift—life itself—and hurls it back at him.

“I don’t want it, Lord; take it back!”

Thankfully not everyone who wrote about Brittany (and to her) during the days and weeks before her suicide did so in a positive way.  Some were very critical—although they did express a lot of compassion for her and the terrible trial she was going through.

Here are some of the more noteworthy comments that I came across:

This was from a 38-year-old mother of 4 named Kara Tippetts.  She wrote:

Brittany, your life matters, your story matters, and your suffering matters.  Thank you for stepping out from the privacy of your story and sharing it openly.We see you, we see your life, and there are countless lovers of your heart that are praying you would change your mind.Brittany, I love you, and I am sorry you are dying …I think the telling of your story is important.I think it is good for our culture to know what is happening in Oregon.It’s a discussion that needs to be brought out of the quiet corners and brought brightly into the light.  You sharing your story has done that.  It matters, and is unbelievably important.  Thank you. …Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known.In choosing your own death, you are robbing those that love you with such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths. …Brittany, when we trust Jesus to be the carrier, protector, redeemer of our hearts, death is no longer dying.  My heart longs for you to know this truth, this love, this forever living.You have been told a lie.  A horrible lie that your dying will not be beautiful.  That the suffering will be too great. …The doctor that prescribed you that pill you carry with you that will hasten your last breath has walked away from the Hippocratic Oath that says, ‘First, do no harm.’  He or she has walked away from the oath that has protected life and the beautiful dying we are granted.  The doctors agreeing to such medicine are walking away from the beautiful protection of the Hippocratic Oath.

This next comment was written by a 30-year-old man named Philip Johnson:

There is a card on Brittany’s website asking for signatures ‘to support her bravery in this very tough time.’  I agree that her time is tough, but her decision is anything but brave.  I do feel for her and understand her difficult situation, but no diagnosis warrants suicide.  A diagnosis of terminal cancer uproots one’s whole life, and the decision to pursue physician-assisted suicide seeks to grasp at an ounce of control in the midst of turmoil.  It is an understandable temptation to take this course of action, but that is all that it is—a temptation to avoid an important reality of life.  By dying on one’s ‘own terms,’ death seems more comfortable in our culture that is sanitized and tends to avoid any mention of the suffering and death that will eventually come to us all.May Brittany come to understand the love that we all have for her before she takes her own life, and that if she chooses instead to fight this disease, her life and witness would be an incredible example and inspiration to countless others in her situation.

And finally we have this insight from 51-year-old Maggie Karner:

When I was a young mother, my father had a traumatic accident that severed his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the neck down.  The last five months of my father’s life, which he lived as a paraplegic, were filled with utter helplessness.  He wasn’t productive in any meaningful way.  He couldn’t even shave his own face.  Would … [Brittany] Maynard find my dad’s life useless?  I didn’t.  My siblings and I soaked up our father’s presence, realizing that caring for the needy person we loved so dearly showed each of us some unexpected things about ourselves.  As writer Cheryl Magness says, caregivers get a chance to grow in compassion, responsibility, and selflessness as they care for those in need. …I watched Maynard’s six-minute video.  I cried, and my heart broke for her and her family.  I pray she changes her mind and decides to allow others to care for her in her illness.

Now you might respond to those 3 quotes by saying, “Well, Fr. Ray, those are very nice statements from some very nice people (I’m sure); but, quite frankly, it’s easy for them to say those things.  They don’t have terminal cancer.”

Oh yes they do!  Those 3 people I quoted to you just now ALL have cancer, and, barring some kind of miracle, they will all die of the disease.

Perhaps in the very near future.

The first woman, Kara Tippetts, has stage 4 breast cancer which has metastasized throughout her entire body.  The other woman, Maggie Karner, was diagnosed earlier this year with the same form of brain cancer that Brittany Maynard had.  And the 30-year-old young man, Philip Johnson, also has a very severe form of brain cancer.  He’s a Navy war veteran who’s now studying for the priesthood for the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina.  He’ll be ordained a priest in 2016—if he lives that long.

The Lord has given Kara and Maggie and Philip the precious gift of life, and they refuse to throw it away.

God bless them!

May Almighty God have mercy on the souls of those who have thrown it away (like Brittany Maynard); and may his grace help the rest of us NEVER to throw it away, so that, when the end of life finally does come, the Lord will say the same thing to each and every one of us: “Come, share your Master’s joy—forever!”

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Pope Francis and ‘Junk Journalism’

The Holy Father's 'cathedra' in the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

(Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome: This homily was given on November 9, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 47: 1-12; 1 Corinthians 3: 9-17; John 2: 13-22.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: John Lateran 2014]

The Urban Dictionary defines “junk journalism” as “a news story that’s written without adequate research, investigation or information. … Junk journalism is aimed to promote traffic to [a] news site or to get public patronage by fabricating [an] alarming pack of lies to newsreaders.”

That having been said, it’s hard to find a news report on our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in the secular media and press these days that does not qualify as “junk journalism.”

Yes, you can find a good article here and there, if you look long and hard enough; but if you’re trying to find out what the pope REALLY SAID on a given subject—and ALL that the pope really said on a given subject—it may take you awhile, unless you go to a reliable Catholic news source like EWTN or the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights or the National Catholic Register.

For example, the secular media and press have repeated over and over and over again the words the Holy Father spoke during an interview back in 2013: “Who am I to judge?”

And 99.999% of the time when they quote this line of Francis, they try to create the impression that he was breaking with traditional Catholic teaching and condoning homosexual acts.

In doing that they conveniently ignore both the context of the remark, as well as the rest of the statement the pope made.  The Holy Father was speaking specifically in that interview about priests who may experience same sex attraction in their lives, but who are striving to be chaste.

And in that context he said—and here’s the complete sentence: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

He was not condoning sin there!  He was basically saying exactly what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, and what John Paul II and Benedict XVI and every other modern pope has said: that it’s no sin to experience same sex attraction! 

The sin comes with the sexual activity associated with that attraction.  So if a person has the attraction but refrains from the activity, there’s no sin involved.

That’s what the Holy Father was saying.  But you’d never know that from the way the junk journalists report it.

On a similar note, last week there were dozens and dozens of news reports that I came across about pop singer Elton John, who at a recent Aids benefit concert called Pope Francis his “hero”, and who thinks he should be canonized for (as one article put it) “his compassionate drive to accept gay people in the Catholic Church.”

Now I’d like to see the evidence that Benedict XVI and John Paul II and all the popes that preceded them did not accept people with same sex attraction into the Catholic Church.

Perhaps Elton would find this hard to believe, but prior to Francis’ election we parish priests were NOT instructed by the Vatican to throw people out of our parishes who claimed to be gay!

I think what the pop singer mistakenly believes—probably because of all the junk journalism he’s been exposed to in recent months—is that Pope Francis condones things like so-called gay marriage.

Well his opinion of the Holy Father’s “sanctity” would probably change dramatically if he knew that a couple of years ago (when he was still a Cardinal in Argentina) Francis actually called gay marriage “the work of the devil.”

Funny how the junk journalists totally ignore things like that.

I mention all this today because of the feast we’re celebrating in the Church this weekend: the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome.
Rome, you will recall, has 4 major basilicas: St. Peter’s; St. Mary Major; St. Paul Outside the Walls; and St. John Lateran.

If you were a contestant on Jeopardy (as our parishioner Dr. Harwood was a few weeks ago), and Alex Trebek said, “The first major Christian basilica built in Rome, which functions as the pope’s cathedral,” how would you respond after you “buzzed in”? 

Well, put in the form of a Jeopardy question I think 9 out of 10 people would say, “What is St. Peter’s Basilica?”—but they would be wrong.

The correct answer is, “What is the Basilica of St. John Lateran?”

We normally associate the Holy Father with St. Peter’s.  We do that because Peter was the first pope, and because in recent centuries popes have lived in close proximity to St. Peter’s, and have celebrated many important ceremonies there.  But the cathedral of the Holy Father is actually St. John Lateran—which is why today’s feast has so much meaning.

This feast, you see, reminds us of our unity with the Holy Father—our unity with the Holy Father in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Faith!  The word “cathedral” comes from the Latin word “cathedra” which means “chair” or “seat”.  In every cathedral, the bishop has his “seat” or “chair”—which is where he sits during ceremonies.  And it’s from this “chair” that he presides over his flock.

Now, with respect to the pope, that “flock” includes you and me—not just the people of the Diocese of Rome.

So this is a feast day for all of us.  We are united as Catholics in the one, true Faith: the Faith that is guarded and taught and defended by the man who sits on the “cathedra” (the chair) in the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

And it’s precisely that unity that many of our junk journalists want to destroy!

At least that’s how I see it.

And you’d be hard pressed to get me to believe otherwise.

The next time you read an article about Pope Francis in a secular newspaper or magazine or online; the next time you see a news report about him on network television, notice the verbal “picture” they paint of this man.  They portray him as being at odds with his fellow bishops; they portray him as being almost totally different from every previous pope; they imply that he’s breaking with traditional Church teaching on whatever matter they happen to be talking about; they say or imply that he’s doing his very best to pull the old, narrow-minded Catholic Church out of the Dark Ages and into the modern world!

And, in the process, they are creating an atmosphere of discord and disunity among God’s people: “Do you like Francis or not?”  “Are you a liberal Catholic or a conservative Catholic?”  “Do you approve of the way the pope is changing everything in the Church?”

These are the kinds of things people are talking about—thanks, in large part, to the confusion caused by junk journalists: junk journalists who are definitely doing the work of the devil!

Remember Satan’s philosophy has always been (and will always be) “Divide and conquer.”
He knows he can’t destroy the Church.  But he knows he can hamper her mission to some extent by causing division and discord among God’s people.

And he’s working overtime these days to do that!


It’s because he knows very well the truths that are contained in these Scripture readings we just heard.  For example, Satan knows that the Church is like that temple that the prophet Ezekiel saw in this vision we heard about in our first reading.  In fact, I would say that the Church is the ultimate fulfillment of this vision.  Here Ezekiel sees water that flows from the temple and brings life to everything it comes in contact with: “Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, and there shall be abundant fish, for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh.  Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade nor their fruit fail.”

Well, spiritually, that’s exactly what happens through the Church, is it not?  Through the preaching and teaching and sacramental life of the Church, God’s saving grace flows out and gives life—eternal life—to people!

Now what’s really interesting is that a different temple is mentioned in each of these readings.  In the Ezekiel text the temple is the temple in Jerusalem which prefigures the Church today; in the gospel Jesus calls his body a temple; and in the second reading St. Paul says we are the Lord’s temples.

Very confusing.

No, not really.  I think the message is pretty simple and clear.  The Lord is reminding us today that the grace of salvation comes from the temple (the temple of Jesus’ body, sacrificed for us on the Cross), through the temple (the temple we call the Church) to the temple (the temple that each of us is).

Salvation is from the temple (Jesus), through the temple (the Church), to the temple (us).

Satan tried to destroy the temple of Jesus’ physical body and he failed.  Now he’s trying, with the help of junk journalists and others, to cause division in that middle temple, the Church, so that he can destroy the third temple (you and me) forever.

Don’t let it happen!  That, I believe, is what the Lord is saying to us today:  Don’t let it happen!  Love the Church; love the Holy Father; stay united with him and with one another—and tune out the junk journalists of the world!

Sunday, November 02, 2014

A Reflection on Purgatory

(All Souls’ Day 2014: This homily was given on November 2, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 3: 1-9; 2 Maccabees 12; 1 Corinthians 3; Romans 6: 3-9; John 6: 37-40.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: All Souls 2014]

The adults who come to our Catechism class prepare at home beforehand by first reading a short section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (usually about 10 pages), and then answering some questions on that section—questions that have been prepared by yours truly.

Well, in Lesson 19 (which we studied last year), I gave them this question:

Joe Partly-Catholic [he makes an appearance every once in a while in these lessons] says to you, “I just booked a Mass for my deceased mother.”  A few minutes later the subject of purgatory comes up, and Joe says, “Purgatory?  There is no such place.  It’s either heaven or hell—period.” 
How would you respond to Joe?

Think about that for a moment.

What would you say—what should you say—to this man who claims to be a Catholic disciple of Jesus Christ?

Well, I’ll tell you what I would say to him.  I’d say, “Then why, Joe, are you having a Mass offered for your deceased mother?  If, as you claim, there is no purgatory, then it's absolutely useless to pray for the dead!  Our prayers can’t help people who are in hell, since they’re damned for all eternity; and our prayers aren’t needed by people in heaven, since they've already entered God's eternal Kingdom!  If you REALLY believe that purgatory doesn't exist, then you shouldn't have Masses offered for ANY of your deceased relatives and friends.  Furthermore, why give a monetary offering (like you just did) for something that has absolutely no value at all?!”

Obviously, I’d respond that way in the hope that Joe would see the contradiction between his belief and his action, and then change his belief.

Because his mom might need the prayers!

The Feast of All Souls which we celebrate in the Church this weekend is rooted in the belief that many people—probably most people—who die in the state of grace are not quite ready for heaven.  Yes, they leave this life with sanctifying grace in their souls—which is absolutely necessary for salvation. 

Sanctifying grace, you will recall, is the grace that Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the dead to give us.  Sanctifying grace: don’t leave earth without it!  We first receive this grace at Baptism—although we can lose it during the course of our earthly lives through mortal sin.  But the good news is that it can always be restored—until our dying breath.  It doesn’t have to be gone forever.  Ordinarily, that restoration happens through the sacrament of Confession.

So these people die in a condition of friendship with God—which means they WILL eventually end up in the Lord’s eternal kingdom.  (As St. Paul said in our second reading from Romans 6, “If we have died with Christ … we shall also live with him.”)  But they’re not quite ready for heaven when they take their final breath.  Perhaps they still have some venial sins that they haven’t completely repented of; or some sinful attachments that they haven’t completely let go of; or some sins that they haven’t made sufficient amends for.

This is where purgatory comes into the picture. 

The Bible says in Revelation 21 that “nothing impure will enter [the kingdom of heaven].”
NOTHING impure!  This means that no soul with any sin on it—mortal or venial; no soul that has a sinful attachment (even a very, very small one!) can enter the glorious and eternal—AND PERFECT—kingdom of God!

So how are the souls of people who die in the state of grace (but who still have some of these minor imperfections) purified and made ready for the Beatific Vision?

That question is answered in paragraph 1030 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church where we read: “All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

That’s purgatory!

Now it’s interesting, the word “purgatory” itself is not found anywhere in the Bible.  Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters are fond of pointing that fact out to us.  Of course, the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible either—yet every mainline Protestant believes in the Blessed Trinity.

But even though the word purgatory isn’t in the Bible, the truth about purgatory—and about the need for certain souls to be purified before they can get into heaven—IS in the Sacred Scriptures; just as the truth that there are three divine Persons in the one true God is there in the Scriptures (although the word Trinity isn’t).

For example, in 2 Maccabees 12 we hear about the ancient Jewish practice of praying for the dead.  The Biblical writer calls it an “excellent and noble act”—which obviously means he approved of it.

Well, as I made clear to Joe Partly-Catholic in my response to him, the only reason—the only possible reason—to pray for the dead is if purgatory exists!  Prayers for people in hell are useless, and prayers for people in heaven are unnecessary.

And then there’s the classic “purgatory text” in 1 Corinthians 3, where St. Paul speaks about judgment and salvation.  In that passage he indicates that some people will be saved, but only after they pass through “fire” (that’s the term he uses), which is why one of the traditional images for purgatory has always been fire.

But it’s not the same fire that people will experience who go to hell.  We need to be clear about that.  The fire in hell is a fire which destroys; the fire in purgatory is a fire which purifies.

That’s a huge difference!

In chapter 12 of the Letter to the Hebrews, the sacred author says that our God is a “consuming fire.”  In other words, in his presence all impurities—all imperfections—all sins—are burned away.

And that’s a good thing!

We see this same idea in today’s first reading from Wisdom 3, where the Biblical writer says this about “the souls of the just” who die. … He says, “As gold in the furnace, he [God] proved them.”

Gold isn’t put into a furnace to destroy it; it’s put into a furnace and subjected to intense heat in order to cleanse it and make it shine more gloriously.

And so it is with human souls.

Here’s where our Masses and prayers and sacrifices figure into the equation.  All of these can help souls in purgatory pass through the “fire” of purification more quickly.

This is why it disturbs me when I find out that certain people are not praying for their deceased relatives and friends because they’re convinced that these relatives and friends are already in the kingdom.

Yes, they might be—that’s true.  But the only way we can know with certitude that they’re in heaven is if they’re canonized.  If they’re not canonized, we don’t know; and so we should continue to pray for them—especially by having Masses said for the repose of their souls.

Because that’s what THEY want us to do if they’re currently in purgatory!  The last thing souls in purgatory want is for people on earth to stop praying for them—because without our prayers their purification will take longer.

But, Fr. Ray, suppose the person I pray for and have Masses said for IS already in the kingdom?

Well, in that case I’m sure that God, in his infinite wisdom, will give the grace to another needy soul.  No doubt there are plenty of them who need the assistance.

Jesus says to us in this gospel, “This is the will of the one who sent me: that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.”

Jesus wants us all in his kingdom someday, even if we’re not quite ready for heaven at our death and have to make a stopover in purgatory first.

Monsignor Struck used to say that when he died, all he wanted was to get in the “back door” of purgatory.  That’s because Monsignor knew that everyone who enters purgatory—even by slipping through a crack in the back door (so to speak)—eventually goes out the "front door".

And that front door leads directly to the “pearly gates”—with NO stops!  

Today we pray for all those in purgatory right now, that they will get to that front door quickly.  Then, as saints, their powerful prayers will help all of us while we’re here on earth, and also when we are in purgatory—if we end up needing that final purification when we leave this life.