Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fr. Josh Barrow's Sunday Homily

One of our diocese's newly ordained priests, Fr. Josh Barrow, celebrated the 10:30AM Mass here at St. Pius this morning.  To listen to Fr. Josh's excellent homily, click here: Sunday Homily]

Sunday, September 20, 2015

How to Properly Understand the Gospel of Jesus—and the Teaching of Pope Francis

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 20, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 9: 30-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2015]

To understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to take into consideration everything that our Lord and Savior said during his earthly life and ministry. 

And that means EVERYTHING!  We can’t just focus our attention on some of the things that Jesus said—namely, the “easy” things that appeal to us spiritually and emotionally.  Sayings like: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest”; “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you”; “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. … Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”

Those are beautiful, uplifting, consoling words of our Savior—and they’re all true!  But taken in isolation, verses like these give us an incomplete picture of who Jesus was (and is!), and they provide us with only a partial understanding of his gospel message.  And that can actually lead us to believe things that are not true.  That partial understanding can lead us to believe that Jesus advocated and supported things—like human sin—that he most definitely DID NOT ADVOCATE OR SUPPORT!

To get the complete picture—and the FULL gospel message—we have to bring his two types of sayings together.  We have to bring together these uplifting, consoling words of Jesus in Sacred Scripture and the tough, challenging words that our Lord spoke when he lived on this earth among us.

We heard some of those challenging words in today’s gospel reading from Mark, chapter 9.  There Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

In the world’s eyes greatness comes with having other people serve you.  (Just ask Donald Trump about that!)  In the eyes of God, the opposite is true—according to Jesus.  Greatness comes by serving God and neighbor selflessly, patiently and self-sacrificially.

And that is easier said than done.  I know that by personal experience—and so do you.

Our Lord said many other things during his earthly life that were equally as challenging (perhaps even more so). 

These are often referred to as his “hard sayings”.  Consider the following examples:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”; “Forgive as you have been forgiven”; “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven”; “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill’ … but I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment”; “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

When you have a chance, do a web search for “hard sayings of Jesus”.  Believe it or not, you’ll get over a million hits!  (I know, because I did it the other day.) 

You’ll get that many hits because there are many sayings of Jesus that fit into that category.

I mention this in my homily this morning for a reason.  It’s because our Holy Father, Pope Francis, will be arriving here in the United States in a few short days, and I want to make the point that what applies to Jesus also applies to his Vicar here on earth.  I said at the beginning of my homily that if we really want to understand the teaching of Jesus, we need to take into consideration everything that he said.  And by the same token, if we want to understand the teaching of Pope Francis, we need to take into consideration everything that he says in his talks and in his writings—not just the 10-second sound bites of information that we typically get on the cable news networks and in the newspapers (both of which often quote Francis completely out of context!).

They try, for example, to portray him as being “soft” on Church teaching when it comes to matters like abortion and same-sex marriage.  Well, in order to set the record straight, here are a few quotes of our Holy Father on contemporary issues that, in all likelihood, you haven’t heard before.

But he said them!

About abortion he said:

“A pregnant woman isn't carrying a toothbrush in her belly, or a tumor…We are in the presence of a human being.”

“It is God who gives life. Let us respect and love human life, especially vulnerable life in a mother's womb.”

“The right to life is the first human right. Abortion is killing someone that cannot defend him or herself.”

Doesn’t sound very “soft” to me!

About Catholics who disagree with the Church and openly oppose her official teachings, Francis has said:

“Those with alternative teachings and doctrines [have] a partial belonging to the Church. [They] have one foot outside the Church. They rent the Church.”

In support of traditional marriage the Holy Father has stated:

“Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child's development and emotional maturity.”

And about so-called “gay marriage” he’s been even more forceful.  Listen to these three statements:

“Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God's plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a 'move' of the Father of Lies [the Devil] who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

“At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother, and children.”

“At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God's law engraved in our hearts.”

But because the Holy Father is a true Catholic on moral matters (a “son of the Church” as he calls himself) he is careful to distinguish between the person who experiences same-sex attraction, and the activity and lifestyle associated with the attraction.  Thus he once said:

You have to distinguish between the fact of a person being gay, and the fact of a lobby. The problem isn't the orientation. The problem is making a lobby.”

All of these quotes I just shared are to a great extent summed up in these words of Francis on what he refers to as “false compassion”:

“The dominant thinking sometimes suggests a 'false compassion' … which believes that it is: helpful to women to promote abortion; an act of dignity to obtain euthanasia; a scientific breakthrough to 'produce' a child and to consider it to be a right rather than a gift to welcome; or to use human lives as guinea pigs presumably to save others. Instead, the compassion of the Gospel is that which accompanies in times of need, that is, the compassion of the Good Samaritan, who 'sees,' 'has compassion,' approaches and provides concrete help.”

Because of the tendency of the mainstream media to ignore many of the clear doctrinal statements of our Holy Father and to focus almost entirely on what he says about things like the environment and immigration, I highly recommend that during his upcoming visit you make every effort to listen to his talks and addresses IN THEIR ENTIRETY—or to read them online IN THEIR ENTIRETY.  Don’t rely on ABC, NBC, CBS—or even Fox News—to give you a complete and accurate rendering of the Holy Father’s message with their 10-second sound bites of information.  The fact is these reporters almost always pick the papal quotes they like—the quotes that support their own personal viewpoints—while completely ignoring the ones they find challenging.  And, as I indicated earlier, that is a prescription for disaster, because it can lead us to believe things that aren’t true.  You know I’m convinced that if some modern day reporters and journalists had lived back in first century Palestine they would have accused Jesus of supporting stealing because in Matthew 24 our Lord compared his Second Coming to a thief breaking into a house in the middle of the night!

By taking one line of the gospels out of its proper context, you can easily turn our Lord and Savior into something he was not—such as, in this case, an advocate of thievery.

Well, the same kind of thing can happen when a Pope gets misquoted, or only partly-quoted.

Unfortunately that will probably happen a lot in the next several days. 

It’s my prayer that most Americans will ignore the tainted reporting and actually listen to what Francis says (EVERYTHING he says!), because I believe that the Holy Father has many things—many very important things—that the Lord wants him to say to all of us and to our leaders.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Polling Data and ‘the Truth’

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 13, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 8: 27-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2015]

A couple of weeks ago The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights released the results of a poll that the organization recently sponsored.  Dr. Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League who also has his doctorate in sociology, had the study done because he knows that when Pope Francis visits the United States in a few short days the news media will do their best to put their own “spin” on the condition of the Church in our country.  That means, of course, that in all likelihood they will put almost their entire focus on those Catholics who disagree with Church teaching and want it to change.  And the implication will be that the vast majority of Catholic men and women—at least the vast majority of “intelligent and enlightened” Catholic men and women—have this attitude.

Well, Dr. Donohue wanted a more accurate picture of where Catholics are at in the United States right now, so he commissioned an accredited polling company to survey 1,000 Catholics nationwide.

Some of the results, as reported by Donohue on his website, are as follows:

  • ·         Roughly 68% say their commitment towards their faith has not been altered in any significant way in the recent past.  Those who are the most educated tended to feel the most excited about or committed to their Catholic faith; those who rarely attend Mass were the least excited.
  • ·         95% of Catholics say their faith plays a significant role in their everyday lives.  When it comes to the impact that their faith has on their political decisions, 69% reported that their Catholicism matters.  Nearly half of Catholics, 48%, believe that if more people practiced the teachings of the Catholic Church, our society would be better off.  Those who attend Mass more than once a week, 72%, are the most likely to agree with this proposition.
  • ·         When asked to identify themselves as either pro-life or pro-choice, 50% said they were pro-life and 38% said they were pro-choice.  But it appears that even among those who say they are pro-choice, few are zealots.  For example …only 5% said that abortion should be allowed for any reason and at any time.
  • ·         When it comes to marriage, 58% believe it should be between a man and a woman; 38% do not agree.  Those from the Northeast are the most liberal on this issue; frequent church-goers are the most conservative.

Toward the end of his analysis Dr. Donohue writes:

“[The] data indicate that 6-in-10 Catholics want the Church to stay true to its principles; only 35% want it to conform to modern culture.  Again, this suggests that many of those who might differ with the Church on women priests, or some other issue, also prefer a Church that doesn’t change with the winds of the dominant culture.”

An interesting survey.  There’s definitely some important information in it—especially for those who are charged with the religious education of our young people: parents, priests, CCD teachers, religious education directors, etc.  The poll clearly shows that there are certain issues on which all too many Catholics have received extremely poor instruction and formation.

That needs to change.

But it would be a mistake for us—a mistake for any one of us—to base our faith on the results of a poll (even a poll like this one by the Catholic League, which yielded some relatively positive results).

And that’s because polls are an expression of human opinion, and the opinions of human beings are sometimes wrong!  In fact in some cases the shared opinion of the vast majority of human beings on a particular issue is wrong!

Case in point: the issue of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

In today’s gospel story from Mark 8, Jesus asks his disciples for some “polling data”—about himself.  Of course, he doesn’t frame the issue in quite that way (George Gallup and others like him weren’t around in first century Palestine).  But the question Jesus asks is definitely one that modern-day pollsters might ask about a popular but very mysterious person: Who is he?  Who, in your estimation, is this mysterious individual?  What is his true identity?

The disciples give Jesus three answers.

   1.   John the Baptist.  This is what people like Herod Antipas believed.  Scripture tells us that when he heard about some of the signs and wonders that Jesus was performing after John had died, Herod exclaimed, “John, whose head I had cut off, has been raised up!”
   2.    Elijah, the prophet.  Elijah, remember, did not leave this life in the usual manner: he was taken up to heaven on a flaming chariot!  And the Jews always believed he would return to earth when the Messiah was about to come.  As God said in the Book of the prophet, Malachi: “Now I am sending you Elijah the prophet, before the Day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day; he will turn the hearts of fathers to their sons and the hearts of sons to their fathers.”    
   3.   Another prophet.  Someone, in other words, like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the other great prophets of Israel’s past.

Three answers—which were probably the top three that would have surfaced if a modern-day scientific poll had been conducted in Palestine in 32 or 33A.D.

And they were all WRONG!  Jesus was not a resurrected John the Baptist; he was not Elijah back here on earth; and he was much, much more than a prophet like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel (as important as those guys were!).

And please notice that even Peter, who DOES get it right when he correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah (“the Christ”), only gets it half right!  That’s because he didn’t understand that the mission of the true Messiah—who was both God and man—was to reconcile the human race to the heavenly Father by his passion and death.  Peter, like most Jews of his day, expected the Messiah to be a great military leader who would lead his people to victory in battle and restore the nation of Israel to its former greatness.  And so when Jesus began to speak to him and to the other disciples about his upcoming suffering and death, Peter lost it.  He freaked out!  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

He probably also had difficulty believing what he was hearing when Jesus called him “Satan”!  But at that moment, Peter was trying to dissuade Jesus from doing the Father’s will and fulfilling his messianic mission—which is exactly what Satan wanted Peter to do in that situation.

And that’s why Jesus gave him the name.

So if a poll had been taken in the first century concerning the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, only 1 person that we know of would have answered the key polling question correctly; and if a follow-up question had been asked about the kind of Messiah that Jesus was, even Peter would have gotten it wrong!

So much for the ability of polls to access the truth.

And yet how many people—how many Catholics—do shape their beliefs on various issues these days based on the results of the latest national survey?!  How many Catholics, for example, are now saying that so-called “gay marriage” is okay simply because recent polls indicate that the majority of Americans are now saying it’s okay?

If what the majority thinks on a particular subject automatically becomes “the truth”—then there is no truth (at least no objective truth).

Building your life on polling data is like building your house on shifting sand (which is not a good idea, as some of our friends in Misquamicut found out during Superstorm Sandy a few years ago).

We are to build our lives—our viewpoints—our beliefs on the rock-solid foundation of Jesus Christ and the Church he established.

Which is the Church that most of us (perhaps all of us) are BLESSED to belong to.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

God’s Blessings: Yes, They Sometimes DO Come through ‘Raindrops’

Martin and Laura

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 6, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 35: 4-7; Mark 7: 31-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2015]

Laura Story is a 37-year-old singer and songwriter.  If you listen to Christian radio stations like K-Love, you hear her music quite often.  In 2006, her husband Martin was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor.  The couple had been married only a year at the time.  Thankfully doctors were able to remove the tumor, but there were complications that resulted from the treatment they gave him, and to this day Martin suffers from vision and memory problems caused by those complications.

Laura’s faith, not surprisingly, has really been put to the test through this experience.  Early on her attitude was, “Why didn’t you just fix it, God?  You’re all-powerful and all-loving …just fix it!”

I think that’s a prayer that most people of faith have said—at least once or twice.

But God didn’t “just fix it” for Laura and Martin.  At least not totally.

And he still hasn’t.

Yet Laura has been able to perceive the Lord at work in the midst of it all.  And that perception of God’s presence motivated her to write a song—a song that went to number 1 on the Billboard Christian chart and won a Grammy in 2011.  It’s entitled “Blessings,” and here are some of the words:

 We pray for blessings; we pray for peace; comfort for family; protection while we sleep. We pray for healing, for prosperity; we pray for your mighty hand to ease our suffering.  And all the while, you hear each spoken need; yet love is way too much to give us lesser things.  
'Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops? What if your healing comes through tears? What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you're near? What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?  
We pray for wisdom, your voice to hear; We cry in anger when we cannot feel you near. We doubt your goodness; we doubt your love--as if every promise from your word is not enough. And all the while, you hear each desperate plea, and long that we'd have faith to believe.  
'Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops? What if your healing comes through tears? What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you're near? What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?  
What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy? What if trials of this life--the rain, the storms, the hardest nights--are your mercies in disguise?

I mention this at Mass this morning because in today’s gospel reading Jesus works an incredible miracle: he heals a deaf man.  He takes the man away from the crowd, touches his ears, touches his tongue, gives a command that his ears be opened—and the man is set free from his infirmity.  Immediately!  This, of course, is the kind of thing we read about over and over again in the four gospels.  Jesus performed many signs and wonders like this during his 3-year earthly ministry, in fulfillment of the messianic prophecy of Isaiah that we heard in today’s first reading:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.

As Catholic Christians we worship a God who can do—and who sometimes does do—the miraculous!  I can attest to that: I’ve seen a number of extraordinary occurrences take place during my (almost) 30 years as a priest.

But, more often than not, God, in his infinite wisdom, does not choose to act in miraculous ways (at least by our standards of evaluating such matters).  In other words, most of the time, our experience in this life parallels Laura and Martin’s experience in dealing with Martin’s brain tumor.  We ask; we seek; we pray—but the Lord does not do precisely what we ask him to do, in precisely the way that we ask him to do it.

So even though it’s very important that we believe in the power of God to actually work miracles and do extraordinary things in this life, it’s just as important—maybe even more important—to pray for the ability to see God at work in those instances when he chooses not to perform a miracle or act in an extraordinary way.

In other words, we need to pray for the grace to recognize the blessings that the Lord gives us through the raindrops—and the tears—and the sleepless nights: blessings like a deeper faith (which is often a byproduct of suffering); blessings like a greater trust in God (which often comes in these situations as we’re forced to rely on the Lord and not on ourselves); blessings like a more grateful heart (when we suffer—and especially when we suffer a loss of some kind—we tend to become more thankful for what we still have); blessings like a healthier set of priorities (trials often motivate us to re-prioritize our lives so that we begin to focus more on the things that are most important: faith, family, friendships, etc.); blessings like a forgiving heart and a desire for reconciliation with others.  How often have you seen estranged family members, for example, come together and reconcile in a time of crisis?  It happens all the time.

Sometimes when we’re in the midst of a trial it’s hard to find God, and hard to see blessings like these that are coming to us in the midst of it. 

Laura Story knows that as well as anyone.  And yet, as she makes clear in her song, it’s possible for us to learn to recognize these blessings clearly—these “mercies in disguise” as she calls them.

So I’ll give the final word in my homily today to her.  When she was asked in an interview a couple of years ago about the message of her song, “Blessings”—the message she wanted people to internalize through her words—Laura responded by saying this:

Life is filled with things you don’t expect, but the Bible tells us to respond by trusting God and continuing to worship him. Martin hasn’t received complete healing, and that can be hard when we view God as all-powerful and all-loving. But here we are now saying, “Yes, this is how faith works. God has proven to be faithful.” 
We have been truly blessed out of a circumstance that at first didn’t seem like much of a blessing at all. God is love. He tells us so repeatedly in the Bible. Yet sometimes it doesn't feel like he loves us. What if we pray for our loved ones to make it through, but they pass away before we even say goodbye? What if we pray for our children to grow up healthy but instead we watch them suffer a life-threatening illness? What if we pray for that little extra money to make ends meet, but we end up losing our home?
It's devastating when we don't see God's answers to our prayers. "We cry in anger when we cannot feel you near” [as the song says]. [But] what if the very thing that is best for us isn't the same as what we're praying for? All the while, God hears each spoken need. He loves us way too much to give us lesser things. God is watching over [us] always, directing every moment we experience. So if he isn't answering our prayers how we think he should, does that mean he isn't answering? Or could it be something else? Could it possibly be that he's really blessing us?
Heavenly Father, today we pray for blessings.  We pray first for the blessings of the miracles we desire: for ourselves, for our loved ones, for Laura Story’s husband Martin, for all your people.

But if we cannot have the blessings of those miracles (at least at the present moment), then please give us the blessings we need to deal successfully with our trials, the blessings we need to grow in our faith, the blessings we need to become better, stronger disciples of your Son, Jesus Christ.  We ask this through the same Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

(To download "Blessings" from iTunes, follow this link: Blessings)