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.