Sunday, January 18, 2015

“I am a Catholic, but …” or “But, I’m a Catholic ...”

Governor Mario Cuomo

(Second Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on January 18, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 1: 35-42.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of the Year]

John the Apostle never forgot where he was when he first encountered Jesus Christ.  He also remembered what he was doing, whom he was with—and even what time of the day it was (4 o’clock in the afternoon).

Obviously, it was an encounter that made a very powerful—and lasting—impression on him!

Today’s gospel reading tells the story.  John the Baptist is standing with two of his disciples near the Jordan River.  One of those disciples is specifically identified as Simon Peter’s brother Andrew, but the other disciple is not identified.  This has led many scholars and saints to theorize that this other disciple was St. John himself, since John is never mentioned by name in his gospel.  He’s either referred to as “the beloved disciple” or “the other disciple” or “the disciple Jesus loved.”

And so St. John could easily have divided his life into two parts: the first part would have included everything that happened BEFORE this encounter with Jesus near the Jordan River; the second would have included this meeting with our Lord and everything that happened AFTERWARD—until the day John died.

When Jesus comes into your life, my brothers and sisters, he changes EVERYTHING!  That’s my point here.  He changes the way you think; he changes the way you act; he changes how you look at life; he changes how you relate to other people; he changes how you deal with your problems; he even changes how you deal with your enemies! 

John the son of Zebedee’s life was never, ever the same after Jesus Christ entered it.  Neither was Andrew’s—or Simon’s.  In fact, as a sign of just how different Simon’s life would be from then on, Jesus gave the man a brand new name.  On the day he met him!  Our Lord said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas”—which, the gospel writer tells us, is translated Peter.

Given the powerful and overwhelming impact that Jesus had on these Apostles, can you imagine any one of them (with the exception of Judas) ever taking a public stand against something that Jesus taught?  After the Sermon on the Mount, for example, can you imagine Peter or James or Thomas saying to other people, “Well, that was a really great talk—except for the part about loving your enemies.  Yes, I’m a follower of Jesus, but I just can’t agree with that part of his message.”? 

Or after the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, can you imagine one of the Apostles saying what some of Jesus’ less-committed disciples were saying: “This sort of talk is hard to endure!  How can anyone take it seriously?”?

I can’t imagine those things happening, my brothers and sisters, because these men had allowed Jesus to touch their lives to such an extent that they trusted his words totally—even when they didn’t fully understand them.

Oh how things have changed in the last 2,000 years!

Now it’s become a sign of intelligence and open-mindedness and compassion for people to say things like, “Oh yes, I’m a Catholic; oh yes, I’m a Christian; oh yes, I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ, but I disagree with this-or-that teaching of Jesus that comes to me through his Church.”

That’s a line which often used about abortion and a host of other contemporary moral issues.

Speaking of abortion, this coming week we once again observe the sad and tragic anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973, which effectively legalized the practice in our country.  Now this point we need to be clear about something: abortion is not a religious issue!  As one author recently put it, “the humanity of the unborn is a matter of embryology, not faith.”  But because the Catholic Church believes that all innocent human life is to be respected and protected, she has a very definite and clear position on this issue—as do other pro-lifers (some of whom, incidentally, are atheists!).

No, you don’t even have to believe in God to be pro-life.  You just have to know basic biology and be intellectually honest.

But the sad reality is that for the last 42 years many Catholics—and especially many Catholics in public life—have denied the basic truths of biology and have been intellectually dishonest on this issue.  And one of the people who contributed in a big way to this problem was the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, who passed away earlier this month. 

Governor Cuomo made it “cool” and fashionable—as well as politically advantageous—for a politician to say, “I am a Catholic, but …”

Remember the speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame back in 1984?  (Some of us are old enough to remember that.)  It was entitled, “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.”  In it, Cuomo said that he personally believed that the life of a pre-born child should be protected “even if five of nine Justices of the Supreme Court disagree with me,” but then he made it clear that he wouldn’t try to do anything to make abortion illegal again because to do so would mean that he was imposing his own Catholic beliefs on others.

His argument was illogical, but a lot of people bought it.  In fact, many are still buying it—and not just on the abortion issue!

Think, for example, of the big controversy in our state two years ago over so-called “gay marriage”.  By their votes in the state legislature Senator Algiere and many other Catholic politicians on both sides of the aisle each said, in effect, “I am a Catholic, but …”—“I am a Catholic, but I don’t accept the truth about marriage that’s been recognized in every culture for centuries, and which my Church upholds”; “I am a Catholic, but I won’t impose my personal view of marriage on anyone else in the state of Rhode Island.”

Once again, the logic is faulty; but, once again, many people bought it.

The difference between the Apostles of Jesus in today’s gospel and many modern-day followers of our Lord is to be found in where they put the “but” in the sentence.  That’s so important!  As I just made clear, many modern-day followers of Jesus put the “but” at the end of the sentence (or the phrase)—and that’s where they make their mistake.  They say, “I am a Catholic, but …”; “I am a Christian, but …”; “I am a follower of Jesus, but …”

The Apostles, on the other hand, put the “but” at the beginning of the sentence.  As I said earlier in my homily, once they met Jesus, everything in their lives changed.  And so if anyone had tried to convince them afterward that abortion was okay, or that some other sin was okay, their response would have been, “But, I’m a Christian …”; “But, I’m a follower of Jesus Christ …”; “But, I’m a disciple of the King of kings and the Lord of lords—and so I don’t condone sin of any kind (including my own!).”

“I am a Catholic, but …” or “But, I’m a Catholic ...”

 Which of those do you say?