Sunday, April 26, 2015

Which Jesus is Your Shepherd?

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on April 26, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 4: 8-12; 1 John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2015]

Every Christian will say, “Jesus is my shepherd.”

And that’s good; every Christian should say that!

But that assertion still leaves one very important question unanswered: WHICH JESUS is the person talking about?  Of all the Jesuses that are out there—of all the Jesuses that they could possibly be following in this life—which one ARE they actually following?  Which Jesus is truly their personal shepherd?

Now you might be thinking to yourself, “But Fr. Ray I thought there was only one Jesus—the one who called himself “the Good Shepherd” in the gospel text we just heard from John, chapter 10.”

Well, yes, that’s true.  There is only one Jesus who is, in fact, the Good Shepherd.  There is, in other words, only one REAL Jesus.

But there are a lot of other Jesuses out there that people follow these days—false Jesuses; counterfeit Jesuses—and the sad reality is that many of them have a larger following than the real one does!

I’ll give you some examples.

First we have what I would call the ‘feel good Jesus’.  The only thing this Jesus does is give people a warm and fuzzy feeling on the inside.  He doesn’t challenge them; he doesn’t criticize them; he doesn’t ask them to change in any way.  He’s like a drug they take when they want to feel good about themselves and about the way they’re currently living.  I suppose another way to describe this Jesus is the ‘happy pill Jesus’.

And then we have the ‘non-judgmental Jesus’ (who might be classified as the ‘first cousin’ of the feel good Jesus!).  This is the Jesus that the mainstream media actually accused Pope Francis of following after he made that statement, “Who am I to judge?” in an interview he gave early on in his pontificate.

Of course, they took his statement completely out of context!

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 in certain activities of a sexual nature which are associated with the attraction. 

Of course, the fact of the matter is that heterosexual men and women can also commit serious sins of a sexual nature in their lives.

That fact is often left out of the discussion—especially when the discussion takes place in the mainstream media.

By the way, I should add that if most of the people in the mainstream media would approve of the Jesus you are currently following as your shepherd, you can be certain that you’re following the wrong one.

The real Good Shepherd didn’t condemn people, but he did convict people of their sin—often—as the scribes and Pharisees would certainly attest!  Our Lord judged their actions and convicted them of their sins lots of times! 

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites …!”

Remember when he said that to them?

And speaking of condemning other people, there are actually some Christians who follow a false Jesus who, sad to say, is most accurately described as the ‘hateful Jesus’.  Ever hear of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas?  This church has made national news a number of times over the years because its members often picket public events holding up signs and banners that say things like, “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates gay people” (although their signs usually refer to gay people with a much more vulgar term—which I won’t mention). 

Yet another false Jesus.

And then there’s what I would call the ‘irrelevant Jesus’.  This is the Jesus who has nothing to say about current moral or social issues.  He lives in the church building, comes out for an hour on Sunday morning (or Saturday night) to be with his people; then he gets locked up and is silent for the rest of the week.

This is the false Jesus who is followed by all those Catholic politicians who are fond of saying, “I am a Catholic, but …” It’s also the Jesus who is followed by those people who criticize their priests for speaking from the pulpit about abortion or physician-assisted suicide or some other contemporary issue, and who thus accuse them of being too “political”.

Lest we forget, the real Jesus—the real Good Shepherd—talked about moral issues all the time!  He even talked about the moral obligation to pay your taxes (which hopefully everyone here did as of the 15th of this month!—unless, of course, you got an extension).

And finally, there’s the very popular ‘modern-love Jesus’ who is shepherding lots and lots of people in the Western world right now.  This is the false Jesus who teaches people to use others for pleasure, and that everything is acceptable as long as it happens between two consenting adults.  I don’t know whether or not Hugh Hefner claims to be a Christian, but if he did make that claim then I would say this is definitely the false Jesus he follows, the false Jesus who functions as his personal shepherd.

The real Jesus Christ—the real, genuine Good Shepherd—is the one that the Church has preached and that true Catholics have followed for 2,000 years.  Yes, it’s true, he sometimes he does give us a warm and fuzzy feeling on the inside (and that’s always nice when it happens!), but at other times he makes us feel uncomfortable by challenging us to be better disciples.  The real Good Shepherd won’t condemn us during our earthly life—just like he didn’t condemn the woman in John 8 who’d been caught in adultery.  But he WILL convict us of our sins, just like he convicted her of her sin!  Remember his parting words to her were, “Nor do I condemn you.  You may go, but from now on avoid this sin.”

The real Good Shepherd never hates—soldiers, gays or anyone else!  He’s ALWAYS relevant; and he teaches us about true love, not the modern-Hugh Hefner version of it.  And he expresses the essence of that love in today’s gospel passage when he says, “I will lay down my life for my sheep.”  Or, as he said later in John, chapter 15: “Greater love no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

Let me close now by stating what should be obvious: It’s very easy to follow one of those counterfeit good shepherds that I just spoke about in this homily; it’s very hard to follow the real one!

But it’s worth making the effort to do so—it’s worth ALL the effort!—because, as St. Peter reminds us in today’s first reading, only the REAL GOOD SHEPHERD can save us.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Miracles of Divine Mercy

(Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Year B): This homily was given on April 12, 2015, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 20: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Divine Mercy Sunday 2015]

Today is the Second Sunday of Easter—a day which has been known as “Divine Mercy Sunday” since 2000, the year that Pope John Paul II officially put the feast on the Church’s liturgical calendar.

Most of us are familiar with the origin of the Divine Mercy devotion, but for the few who might not be: In 1931, a young Polish nun, Sr. Faustina Kowalska, saw a vision of Jesus with two rays of light coming out of his heart.  Jesus told her to have a painting produced depicting the vision, and to have it signed, “Jesus, I trust in you!”

A replica of that image is here next to the pulpit this morning.  Normally we keep it next to the tabernacle.

Over the next 7 years, the Lord gave Faustina a number of private revelations concerning his merciful love.  These she recorded in a diary, as Jesus had instructed her to do.  Fr. George Kosicki—who was an authority on the Divine Mercy devotion—once said that through these revelations, “Jesus taught the young nun that his mercy is unlimited and available even to the greatest sinners.  He revealed special ways for people to respond to his mercy in their lives, and he gave her several promises for those who would trust his mercy and show mercy to others.”

Then, on April 30, 2000, Sr. Faustina became Saint Faustina when she was canonized by Pope John Paul II in Rome.  Looking back on it now, it was one saint canonizing another saint.

How appropriate!

On that note, during this past week I read a couple of online articles about the two miracles which led to Faustina being recognized as a saint.  Remember, strictly speaking, the Church doesn’t “make” saints.  Jesus is the one who “makes” a person a saint.  What the Church does is officially recognize the fact that this has already happened.  And as evidence that a certain person is actually there in the kingdom of heaven, the Church requires that two miracles be attributed to the person’s heavenly intercession.  Some Christians don’t believe that the saints in heaven pray for us here on earth.  Well, those people need to read the Book of Revelation, chapters 5, 6 and 8.  In those chapters we see angels, martyrs, and men who are called “elders” (in other words, we see angels and saints) praying for those of us here on earth—which is precisely what the Catholic Church teaches that they do!

And by the way, the Church is very tough about what she will accept as an official miracle.  For a miracle to be officially recognized, it has to be verified by a number of doctors, and they all have to agree that there’s no possible natural explanation for what’s occurred.  For example, in Lourdes (where the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858) there have been about 7,000 cases of unexplained cures, but only 69 of those have been officially recognized by the Church as “miraculous”.

In the case of Faustina, the first accepted miracle involved a woman from Massachusetts named Maureen Digan; the second involved a priest from Maryland, Fr. Ron Pytel.

Here’s how the miracles were described on the Divine Mercy web site:

Before the age of 15, Maureen Digan enjoyed a normal healthy life. Then she was struck down with a very serious, slowly progressive but terminal disease called lymphedema. This is a disease that does not respond to medication and does not go into remission. Within the next ten years Maureen had fifty operations and had lengthy confinements in the hospital of up to a year at a time. 

Friends and relations suggested she should pray and put her trust in God. But Maureen could not understand why God had allowed her to get this disease in the first place, and had lost her faith completely. Eventually her deteriorating condition would require the amputation of one leg.

One evening while Maureen was in the hospital her husband Bob watched a film on Divine Mercy and there he became convinced of the healing powers of intercession by Sr. Faustina. Bob persuaded Maureen and the doctors that she should go to the tomb of Sr. Faustina in Poland. Together with her husband, son, and Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC … they traveled to St. Faustina's tomb at the Shrine of The Divine Mercy outside Krakow, Poland. They arrived in Poland on March 23, 1981 and Maureen went to confession for the first time since she was a young girl.

At the tomb Maureen remembers saying "Okay, Faustina I came a long way, now do something." Innerly she heard Sr. Faustina say: "If you ask for my help, I will give it to you." Suddenly she thought she was losing her mind. All the pain seemed to drain out of her body and her swollen leg, which was due to be amputated shortly, went back to its normal size. When she returned to the USA she was examined by five independent doctors who came to the conclusion that she was completely healed. They had no medical explanation for the sudden healing of this incurable disease.

And regarding the second miracle:

On Oct. 5, 1995, the Feast Day of St. Faustina (who was then a blessed), Fr. Ron Pytel and some friends gathered for prayer at Holy Rosary Church, which is also the Baltimore archdiocesan Shrine of The Divine Mercy. After a time of prayer for the healing of his [severely damaged] heart through Sr. Faustina's intercession, Fr. Ron venerated a relic of St. Faustina and collapsed. He felt paralyzed, but was completely at peace. A subsequent visit to his cardiologist showed that his heart had been healed. 

Although he was healed through St. Faustina's intercession, Fr. Ron is quick to point out that Jesus healed him. "I know in my heart that Faustina put in a word with Jesus, and His Heart touched mine. It's as simple as that," he explained.

After almost three years of examining Fr. Ron and his medical records, doctors and theologians from the Congregation for the Cause of Saints concluded an exhaustive investigation of the healing. And on Dec. 20, 1999, Pope John Paul II ordered publication of the fact of the healing as a miracle through Sr. Faustina's intercession, leading to her canonization on Mercy Sunday, April 30, in St. Peter's Square.

So today is a day to ask St. Faustina to pray in a special way for us: for the needs of the Church, for the needs of the world—and for our own personal needs.

Because miracles do happen!

But today we also need to remember that the greatest miracles of all are not the kind which led to St. Faustina’s canonization—as important and as spectacular as those were.

The greatest miracles of all are the ones to which Jesus points us in this gospel text we just heard from John, chapter 20.  The story begins on Easter Sunday in the Upper Room.  There Jesus appears to his apostles for the very first time after he’s been raised from the dead.  And what’s the first thing he does?  What’s the very first thing he does for them after his resurrection? 

He gives them power!  He gives them power to work miracles!  He gives them power to work the greatest and most important miracles of all.  He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

This is why we have a sacrament called “Penance” (also called “Reconciliation” or “Confession”).  It was all Jesus’ idea—on Easter Sunday!

As the Scriptures remind us, only God can forgive sins.  But God gave the power to human beings—specifically his priests—to be his instruments in bringing forgiveness to his people whenever they sin after Baptism.

Now it really shouldn’t surprise us that God uses human beings in this way, because Baptism is the first sacrament we receive which brings us the Lord’s forgiveness (it says that in Acts 2 and 22), and we’re always baptized by another person—another person whom God uses instrumentally at that moment to take our sins away.

So if I asked you, “What was the greatest and most important miracle that Maureen Digan experienced when she went to Poland back in 1981?” I hope you would not say, “Her healing from her physical illness”—because that would be wrong!

The greatest and most important miracle she experienced occurred when she went to confession for the first time since she was a young girl and had all her sins taken away!  That’s because, sooner or later, her body will break down and die—not of the disease she was cured of, but certainly of something else.  Maybe just because of old age.  But the sanctifying grace that she received into her soul when the priest absolved her in that confessional in Poland can last forever!

So the bottom line is this (and I’ll close with this thought):

Not everyone will experience a Divine Mercy miracle in their life like the ones Maureen Digan and Fr. Ron Pytel experienced in theirs. 

But everyone, without exception, can experience the most important Divine Mercy miracle of all: forgiveness.

And it’s great that everyone, without exception, can experience this miracle of forgiveness because everyone, without exception, needs to.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Jesus, True Manhood—and the Catholic Priesthood

(Holy Thursday 2015: This homily was given on April 2, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2015]

William Kilpatrick is a former psychology professor from Boston College.  In 2012 he wrote a book, published by Ignatius Press, entitled, Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West.

It’s an excellent book, and I highly recommend it.  But it’s also very disturbing and very unsettling.  A major part of his thesis is that Islam in its purest form is a huge threat to Western civilization as we know it, and to many of the freedoms that we hold dear. And yet, it’s a religion that’s growing in popularity in Europe and even here in the United States, especially among young men—many of whom are attracted to it because of its emphasis on war and aggression and fighting for a cause.  As Kilpatrick says:

War has a kind of mystical significance for men because it brings together all the elements that are important for establishing their masculinity: initiation, struggle, self-sacrifice, self-transcendence, love of comrades, and brotherhood.  The need for these is hardwired into men.  [He rightly notes that this is why guys tend to love to play sports.] For this reason, the jihad doesn’t have a recruitment problem: Islam has been highly successful in appealing to basic masculine psychology.  Not coincidentally, the progenitor of the current jihadist groups is called the Muslim Brotherhood.  (Christianity, Islam and Atheism, p. 166)

Now the reason I mention all of this tonight is because one of the major factors contributing to this phenomenon of young men (even young Christian men) going over to Islam is what William Kilpatrick calls “the feminization of Christianity”.  And it’s not only among those who are pushing for things like a female Catholic priesthood (which, of course, is never going to happen)!  In using that expression—“the feminization of Christianity”—Kilpatrick is rightly noting that there’s a general perception out there in Western culture that Christianity is a religion for women, and that real men don’t love and follow Jesus, because Jesus Christ was (for lack of a better term) a wimp!  And real men don’t love and follow wimps!

Now that perception is wrong on many levels (I don’t think the money-changers in the Temple, for example, would have said that Jesus was a wimp!); but nevertheless the perception is very common today.  Listen once again to Kilpatrick’s words:

Of the men who do go to church, a good many are there because of their wives.  Many men, especially young single men, stay away from church because they consider it unmanly.  They feel that religion, and particularly Christianity, is somehow feminine and that men who are attracted to religion are somewhat effeminate.  A study conducted by Lewis M. Terman and Catherine Cox Miles in the mid-1930s showed that clergy and seminarians tended to score low on a masculinity scale, whereas men who scored high showed little or no interest in religion.  One can only imagine how Christian clergy would score on the scale today.  (Christianity, Islam and Atheism, p. 167)

St. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy (who was a young priest) gave a pretty good description of what a Christian man—and especially an ordained priest—should be like.  Needless to say, St. Paul’s version of manhood is a lot different than the oppressive version promoted by radical Islam—but it’s also different from the “wimpy” version of manhood advocated today by many mainline Christians (and even by many Catholics).  St. Paul says, “Man of God that you are … seek after integrity, faith, love, steadfastness, and a gentle spirit.  Fight the good fight of faith.  Take firm hold on the everlasting life to which you were called when, in the presence of many witnesses, you made your noble profession of faith. … I charge you to keep God’s command without blame or reproach until our Lord Jesus Christ shall appear.”

True manhood, according to St. Paul, is marked by things like faith, integrity, consistency, commitment, and sacrificial love.  It’s not the machoism of the world—which is what you find, unfortunately, in the distorted idea of masculinity embraced by many Muslim men: men who treat women like their own private property and their own personal playthings.  That’s why practices like female genital mutilation are so common in Islamic countries.

Nor is it the “milquetoast version” of manhood that you find all too often in Christianity these days.

All of this should help us to realize why sharing our faith with others, and why supporting traditional marriage, and why fostering vocations—good, solid vocations—to the priesthood are so important for all of us to do.  If we don’t do those things and promote the type of manhood that St. Paul talks about in 1st Timothy, then another type of manhood—specifically the one promoted by Islam—will no doubt fill the vacuum.

And that will be disastrous for the Western world—and especially for women in the Western world.

Our ultimate and primary model for true manhood, of course, is Jesus himself.  During Holy Week we reflect on all that he did to save us.  Think of how committed Jesus was to carrying out the mission his heavenly Father gave him.  Think of what a pillar of strength he was in the face of intense violence and suffering.  He was all those things St. Paul mentions in 1st Timothy—and more.  He even washed the feet of the men who would either abandon him or deny him or betray him within a few short hours.

And he gave those men his own Body and Blood to consume for their spiritual nourishment.

You want to talk about integrity?  You want to talk about commitment?  You want to talk about sacrificial love?  You want to talk about being a real man?

Then talk about Jesus!  Not about Buddha, or Confucius, or Muhammad—or anyone else.

True manhood—true and perfect manhood—is found in Jesus Christ.

And it’s reflected, to a greater or lesser extent, in all good fathers—natural and spiritual.

On the third Sunday of June every year we pray primarily for all of you natural fathers.  Today, on this Holy Thursday night—when we commemorate the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist at the Last Supper—we pray for all spiritual fathers (all bishops and priests), that they will be true Godly men—the kind of Godly men that St. Paul and St. Timothy would be proud of; the kind of Godly men who will give their lives to promote the truth that will preserve Western culture; the kind of Godly men who will attract other Godly men to give their lives in service to the Lord as priests; the kind of Godly men who will live and talk and act like Jesus Christ—and help to save the world.