Sunday, October 18, 2015

How Do You Define ‘Greatness’?

(Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 18, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 10: 35-45.)

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

It’s one of life’s most important questions.  It’s right up there with questions like:

Who am I? 
Why am I here?
What’s the meaning of life? 
Is there life after death?

The question I’m referring to is: How do you define ‘greatness’?

Now when you first hear it you might think to yourself, “What’s so important about that?  What difference does a person’s definition of greatness make on his life and on the world?  Knowing who you are as a person—and why you’re here on earth—and the meaning of life—and whether or not there’s life after death: those issues sound a lot more important than your understanding of what it means to be ‘great’.”

Well, from one perspective, that’s true—those other issues do have a certain priority.  But from another perspective your ideas about greatness are just as important, because those ideas have a direct influence on how you see yourself and on how you look at life—life here on this earth and life in the hereafter.

It’s clear from today’s gospel reading that James and John had a very worldly idea of greatness.  Eventually, of course, their viewpoint would change on the matter, but remember this story takes place at a very early point in their spiritual development.  There was still a lot for them to learn.  In fact, if you had asked these two apostles to give you a definition of the word ‘greatness’ on the day they had this encounter with Jesus, no doubt they would have defined it in terms of prestige, power and authority.  That’s clear from the fact that in this scene they boldly ask Jesus for the proverbial ‘front seats in heaven’: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…. Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”

And the other ten were clearly no different from James and John, because the passage tells us that when they heard about this request they “became indignant” at their fellow apostles.  They became indignant because they wanted those seats for themselves!

Jesus then shares his understanding of ‘greatness’ with these twelve men, telling them, in effect, that in God’s eyes (which are the only eyes that will matter on Judgment Day!) greatness is measured by how selflessly, and sincerely, and completely you serve the Lord and your neighbor, and that the ultimate act of service—and hence the ultimate act of greatness!—is to give your life for another human person.

“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.  For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

How do you define ‘greatness’?

Obviously most of the world sees greatness the way James and John saw it: in terms of prestige, power and authority.  And this is demonstrated every day by the priorities people set and by the things they actively pursue in their lives.  This, incidentally, is why God and the things of God—like attendance at Sunday Mass—take second place very often to worldly pursuits, like sports.  How many parents rarely take their children to Mass, but would never allow them to miss one of their athletic events or practices?

For those parents, greatness comes with being a famous and talented athlete, not a selfless servant of God and neighbor.

This illustrates the point I made a few minutes ago: How you define greatness has a direct influence on how you see yourself and how you look at your own life—and at the lives of your children.

In preparing this homily, I tried to think of two people who exemplify these two very different understandings of greatness, and the two individuals who came to mind almost immediately were Donald Trump and Pope Francis.

Many have called our current Holy Father “great”—and I agree with them.  He is.  But he’s definitely not great according to the definition of the world—the definition that stood behind James and John’s request in today’s gospel.  Think about Francis for a moment:

·         His primary description of himself is that he’s a sinner.
·         His constant request is that people pray for him.
·         He goes from place to place in a Fiat.
·         He insists on paying his own hotel bills.
·         He lives in a humble residence.
·         He has no problem kissing the feet of prisoners and those on the fringes of society.
·         He’d rather eat with homeless people than with the rich and powerful.

Describe such a person to some average men and women on the street (without revealing the identity of the person you are describing) and see how many of them respond by saying, “Wow, what a great man!”

In all likelihood, not too many will.

Then describe Donald Trump to them (again, without revealing his name) and see what kind of response you get.  I guarantee you that, if they are being honest, most will be much more willing to call Trump “great”—even if they would never, ever vote for him in an election.

I think the real problem here is that many people confuse success (specifically WORLDLY success) with greatness.  But they’re not the same.  As Blessed Mother Teresa used to say, “God has not called us to be successful, he’s called us to be faithful.”  (Substitute the word “great” for “faithful” in that statement, and it would pretty much mean the same thing.)

Donald Trump is successful—extremely successful!—but in and of itself that doesn’t make him great (in the true and Christian sense of the term).  Pope Francis, on the other hand, is great by Christian standards, but highly unsuccessful by the standards of people like Donald Trump.

The bottom line is this:

Some people in this life are successful; some people in this life are great; and some are successful AND great!

Yes, it is possible to be both—one does not automatically exclude the other.  It’s not easy to be both, for sure, though it is possible.

But if you are forced in your life to choose one or the other, then choose to be great!—just make sure you embrace the right definition of greatness.

And if you’re wondering what that definition is, look to Pope Francis, not to Donald Trump.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Importance of Allowing ‘Dr. Jesus’ to Finish the ‘Operation’

(Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 11, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Hebrews 4: 12-13; Mark 10: 17-30.)

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

Doctors call it “accidental awareness during general anesthesia” (AAGA for short).  It’s the experience—the very unpleasant experience—of waking up during an operation.  In AAGA episodes patients are put under general anesthesia and the surgeries are started—but before the procedures are completed the patients become conscious again.  They become aware of what’s going on around them and of what’s being done to them.

Thankfully, this phenomenon only happens once in every 19,000 surgeries.

But here’s a warning: If at some point in the future you happen to be that 1 person in 19,000, do not—I repeat, do not—try to get up and leave the operating room immediately after you wake up!  Now you might be tempted to try to do that in the midst of the anxiety of the moment (“Get me out of here!”), but with the procedure only partly finished you’d be in no condition to go on with your life and function normally.

In fact, you’d probably die in the attempt.

“But Fr. Ray, that could never happen!  No one could get up in the middle of a major operation and leave the operating room—even if they wanted to!”

True.  Physically speaking it would never happen and could never happen.  But I mention it today because, spiritually speaking, it happens all the time!  In the spiritual order, many people do in fact leave the physician—the divine Physician—after he’s begun the “surgery” that will cure them, but before he finishes the operation.

Case in point: the rich young man in today’s gospel story.

But first a word about our second reading from Hebrews 4.  There the sacred author compares the word of God to a “two-edged sword”—a cutting instrument like a surgeon’s scalpel—that separates one body part from another (“joints and marrow”), and which, in the process, reveals physical diseases and conditions that need to be dealt with and, hopefully, cured.

His point is that when we hear God’s word proclaimed in Scripture or in a homily or in some other fashion, it will “cut us” at times—if we’re really listening!  In other words, it will reveal to us the attitudes and the sins that we need to deal with in order to become the people the Lord wants us to be and knows that we can be.

And that’s good!  Even though it hurts, it’s good.  When a surgeon cuts you open to repair your heart or remove a cancerous tumor you can be absolutely sure of one thing: it’s gonna hurt (at least after the anesthesia wears off!).  But that’s the first step—the necessary first step—in the process of getting better.

Which brings us, finally, to the rich young man in this gospel.  Jesus, the divine Physician, “cuts” him with his word by challenging him to come to terms with—and to let go of—his materialism and his selfishness.  And notice that it’s done in love!  When God convicts us of a certain sin it doesn’t “feel” like a very loving act, but it is!  And so it was for this young man.  He certainly wasn’t feeling a lot of love after Jesus said to him, “You are lacking in one thing.  Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Jesus, of course, didn’t have to say that to him.  He could have just given the young man credit for keeping the Ten Commandments so well in his youth, patted him on the back, and allowed him to go on his merry way.

But Jesus loved the boy too much to do that!  As the text says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  Our Lord loved the rich young man just as he was—but too much to let him stay that way.  And so Jesus used the “scalpel of his word” to make a very deep incision into the young man’s soul, by telling him that he needed to sell his stuff, give to the poor and then become a full-time disciple.

Our Lord knew that that was the only way for him to be healed of the materialism and selfishness that were destroying him from the inside out, like a cancerous tumor.

You might say that at that decisive moment the rich young man was on the “spiritual operating table”—fully conscious—as Jesus the divine Physician made his incision.

Then he got up and left.

The cut was made, his spiritual sickness was clearly revealed—but before he could be cured, he left.  He left right in the middle of the “surgery”.

And the Bible says he went away sad—which will probably come as a big surprise to every materialistic person who reads or hears this story, because for the rich young man nothing had changed!  Ostensibly, everything in his life was exactly the same.  He still had all his money (Jesus hadn’t asked him for a donation for his ministry); he still had all his “stuff”; he still had everything that he thought would make him happy in his life.

But he wasn’t happy.

I think this rich young man sensed that, in making the decision he made, he would be missing out on something—something really big and really important.  Now the interesting question is: What exactly was that big and important thing that he would be missing out on (besides the opportunity to get rid of his sins of materialism and selfishness)?

Well, notice the instruction that Jesus gives him at the very end of their encounter.  Our Lord says to him, “Come, follow me.”

That, you will recall, was the same thing that he had said to the Twelve when he called them to be his Apostles.  Which leads me to wonder: Was this man destined to be Judas’ replacement?  Was that ultimately God’s will for him?  Remember, after Judas hanged himself someone had to be chosen to replace him.  An “office”—an apostolic office—needed to be filled, and a man named Matthias was eventually chosen to fill it.  Well, perhaps this young man would have been the one picked had he been around, since he had been originally called to follow our Lord in the very same way that Peter and John and the other Apostles had been called.

We don’t know for sure whether or not that would have happened, but it could have—if he hadn’t walked away.

The lesson of all this, then, is very simple: When Dr. Jesus “cuts” you with his word, stay on the operating table—so that a healing can occur in your soul!  Learn from the mistake the rich young man made.  When the word reminds you of your materialism or your selfishness or of some other sin that you need to repent of and confess AND WHICH YOU’D MUCH RATHER IGNORE, don’t ignore it!  Repent in your heart, and then take it to confession—where Dr. Jesus can finish the surgery, and make you well.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Marriage: Preserve It, Protect It—and Defend It!

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 4, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 2: 18-24; Mark 10: 2-16.)

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

Before a newly-elected President can begin to exercise his office, he has to swear an oath—an oath in which he promises to do all in his power to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States.

And why is that?

Well, very simply, it’s because the Constitution is at the foundation of our life as a nation.  The structure of our government, the responsibilities of the various branches of government—and all of our civil laws—are supposed to be rooted in the guidelines given in that document.  Some of us, of course, would argue that many of our current laws are NOT rooted in the Constitution—but they’re supposed to be.

Which brings us to today’s first reading and gospel, both of which are about marriage.  In today’s first reading we hear about the creation of Eve, whom Adam immediately recognized as his equal (that’s the meaning of the phrase “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”).  He also affirmed her uniqueness and her complementarity to him.

Thus it’s clear from Sacred Scripture that Adam and Eve were equal, but different—and because of their physical difference they were able to engage in the marital act through which new life could come into the world.  As the author of Genesis put it: “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.”

This one-flesh union, incidentally, is only possible between a man and a woman (just in case anyone is unclear about that!).

And then we have Jesus in today’s gospel giving the Pharisees a lesson on the permanence of marriage.  They appeal to the Law of Moses to try to justify divorce, but Jesus tells them that God only tolerated divorce among the Israelites for a time because of their hardness of heart.  Then our Lord brings them back to the time of Adam and Eve and to God’s original—and perpetual—intention for marriage, which was for it to be a permanent bond.  He then concludes with those famous words: “Therefore what God has joined, no human being must separate.”

It’s no secret that the institution of marriage has suffered greatly in recent decades.  But that really shouldn’t surprise us, because the priesthood has also suffered greatly during the same period of time.  I remember a professor of mine at Providence College making a statement once that really struck me.  He said, “There’s always a parallel between marriage and the priesthood.  In the last 2,000 years of Christian history, whenever you come upon a time when the institution of marriage was strong, the priesthood was also strong; and by the same token, when you come upon a period of history when the institution of marriage was weak (as is the case today), you’ll also find that the priesthood was weak.”

That made a lot of sense to me, because both marriage and the priesthood are rooted in permanent, lifelong commitments.

So what can we do to help to improve the situation with respect to marriage?  Can we do anything at all—besides pray—to help things get better?  Or is the situation hopeless?

Well, here’s where the parallel with the presidential oath of office comes into the equation.  I said at the beginning of my homily that when a President is sworn in on Inauguration Day, he promises to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States; and I said he does that because the Constitution is at the very foundation of our life as a nation.

Well, marriage and family life (as our Holy Father reminded us last week during the Festival of Families) are at the foundation of every good and stable society.  As the Catechism says, “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.”  (CCC, 1603)

And so I would say that what the President pledges to do with respect to the Constitution, we need to pledge to do with respect to marriage: we need to do all that we can to preserve it, protect it—and defend it!

First of all, we need to do our best to PRESERVE it—and that applies not only to marriage as an institution, but also to our own marriage if we happen to be married. 

Those who are “in the know” tell me that marriage is work; they tell me that marriage isn’t easy; they tell me that marriage requires effort, and a willingness to compromise, and a willingness to forgive—and a host of other virtues.

And I believe those people.  They know—by experience—what they’re talking about!

Thus it should come as no surprise that in our society right now the pressures to give up and to “jump ship” when things get difficult in marriage are intense.  Now to be sure, some marital situations are intolerable—and dangerous—and that can make the separation of the spouses legitimate and even necessary (as the Catechism tells us in paragraph 1649); but in other cases reconciliation is possible—with the help of great programs like Retrouvaille, which I’ve spoken about in previous homilies.

And we need to support people as much as possible in making those efforts.

Marriages that can be saved, should be saved.  At this point I should mention the fact that we are blessed to have many couples in our community who have been married for a long time: for 40 or 50 or 60—or even 70!—years.  These are couples who can and who should inspire all of us—but especially those who are in difficult marriages at the present time.

These couples show us that lifelong commitments are still possible in this crazy world of ours.  Not easy—but possible (with a lot of work, and a lot of prayer, and a lot of patience, and a lot of forgiveness!).

Secondly, we need to PROTECT marriage.  We need to protect it, first of all, from those who want to change it into something less than a lifelong commitment (which is precisely what some people in our society right now are desperately trying to do!).  They want to have marriages that are like Major League Baseball contracts: you “sign up” for a few years, and then you become (for lack of a better term) a “free agent.”

So it’s more than just protecting marriage from those who want to change it into something other than the union of one man and one woman (although we need to protect marriage from that error as well!).  We also need to guard against those who want to destroy its permanence—and those who want to say that openness to having children in marriage is something that’s optional.

Not every married couple will be blessed with children, but every married couple must be open to the possibility that God will choose to bless them with children.

Now all of this means that we need to be ready, willing and able to DEFEND marriage whenever the “Pharisees” of our day attack it or try to undermine it in some fashion.  I ask you this morning, how would you answer the following questions: What is marriage?  Why is marriage important?  Why is it in the best interest of a society to protect and promote marriage as the union of one man and one woman?  How do children benefit from being raised in a home with a father and a mother who are married to one another?  What’s the difference between a divorce and an annulment?

If you don’t know how you’d respond to those questions, then the Lord’s message to you today is very clear: “You need to do some homework and learn how to respond important questions like these in a clear and reasonable way!”

Because if marriage is at the foundation of a stable society (and it is), then our society will not improve unless the institution of marriage improves.

And marriage will only improve if we do our best—our very best—to PRESERVE it, and PROTECT it—and DEFEND it.

Like Jesus did.