Friday, March 25, 2016

The Connection between Love and Suffering

Anna Beam (Kylie Rogers) and her mother Christy (Jennifer Garner) in 'Miracles from Heaven'

(Good Friday 2016: This homily was given on March 25, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI, by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12; also read the Passion Narrative of St. John.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Good Friday 2016]

The cross of Jesus Christ reminds us that there is often a very close connection in this life between love and suffering.  Our Lord, of course, made that clear during the Last Supper when he said those famous words, “Greater love no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

Laying down one’s life obviously involves some suffering—in most cases a great deal of suffering!

St. Bernadette—to whom the Blessed Mother appeared in Lourdes, France, in 1858—said something similar once.  She said, “Why must we suffer?  Because here below pure love cannot exist without suffering.”

Jennifer Garner witnesses to this truth in a very powerful way in the new movie, “Miracles from Heaven”—a film that I highly recommend.  I saw the other day it over in Stonington.  Garner plays Christy Beam, a young mother of 3 from Texas, whose 10-year-old daughter Anna is diagnosed with a rare and incurable digestive disease—a disease that puts her in constant pain and threatens to take her life.  I won’t be a spoiler here and reveal all the details of the story, but I will say that one of the things that becomes crystal clear in the movie (which is based on real events) is how much Christy Beam loves her daughter, and how much she is suffering with her daughter.  You can literally “feel” this woman’s emotional pain as you watch the film and see her frantically trying to get Anna the help she needs.  She suffers much, because she loves much.

To the extent that we love another human person, we suffer when they do.  We also suffer when they reject us or betray us or attack us in some way.

This, incidentally, is one reason why the sufferings that Jesus endured during his passion were far greater than any sufferings we may endure during our lives.  Christy Beam suffered a lot, because she loved her daughter a lot—but she didn’t love her daughter perfectly.  None of us loves in that way on this side of the grave—because we’re all sinners who are prone to selfishness.

But Jesus DID love us with a perfect love!  He loved EVERYONE with a perfect love!  Which means that when he was rejected by the scribes and Pharisees, and betrayed by Judas, and abandoned by his friends, and attacked by the Romans, his suffering was far, far greater than ours would be in similar circumstances.

He suffered the most, because he loved the most.

If we understand this connection between suffering and love, my brothers and sisters, we can gain a new and far better perspective on the crosses we’re forced to deal with every day.

Let’s be honest, most people see their crosses in purely negative terms.  They see their trials and sufferings as liabilities, and as liabilities only.  Saints, on the other hand, also see their crosses in a positive way: as OPPORTUNITIES—as opportunities to love.  And isn’t that precisely how the Blessed Trinity looked at the cross of Jesus?  To God, the cross of Christ was not only the instrument chosen to bring salvation to the world.  To God the cross was also an opportunity: an opportunity for him to demonstrate his PERFECT LOVE to his imperfect creatures.

I mentioned St. Bernadette at the beginning of my homily; I’ll mention her again now at the end. 

Bernadette, I believe, had this positive perspective on her sufferings, which were many.  She grew up in poverty; she had a number of physical ailments; the civil authorities mistreated her; her parish priest didn’t believe her at first when she told him she had seen the Blessed Mother; she even suffered later on in the convent after she became a religious sister.  And yet, she still managed to be grateful to God in the midst of it all.

To a great extent, that’s because she looked at her sufferings in the right way!  It’s because she knew that all her crosses, as bad as they were, were only temporary, and that if she could love others in the midst of those trials, she would someday experience an eternal reward—the reward Mary had promised Bernadette in one of her apparitions.

This all can be seen clearly in something the saint wrote before she died, a writing that’s come to be known as Bernadette’s “testament of gratitude”.  It reads as follows:

§  “For the poverty in which my mother and father lived, for the fact that everything failed for us, for the collapse of the mill, for the fact that I had to look after the children whom I was feeding too much and for the dirty noses of the children, for the fact that I had to guard the sheep, for the constant tiredness, thank you, my God!”
§  “Thank you, my God, for the prosecutor and the police commissioner, for the policemen, and for the harsh words of Father Peyramale!”
§  “For the days in which you came, Mary, for the ones in which you did not come, I will never be able to thank you…only in Paradise.”
§  “For the slaps in the face, for the ridicule, the insults, for those who thought I was crazy, those who suspect me of lying, those who suspected me of wanting to gain something from it, thank you, my Lady.”
§  “For my spelling, which I never learned, for the memory that I never had, for my ignorance and for my stupidity, thank you.”
§  “For the fact that my mother died so far away, for the pain I felt when my father, instead of hugging his little Bernadette, called me, “Sister Marie-Bernard”, I thank you, Jesus.”
§  “I thank you for the heart you gave me, so delicate and sensitive, which you filled with bitterness.”
§  “For the fact that Mother Josephine proclaimed that I was good for nothing, thank you. For the sarcasm of the Mother Superior: her harsh voice, her injustices, her irony and for the bread of humiliation, thank you.”
§  “Thank you that I was the privileged one when it came to be reprimanded, so that my sisters said, ‘How lucky it is not to be Bernadette.’”
§  “Thank you that I was the Bernadette threatened with imprisonment because she had seen you, Holy Virgin.”
§  “Thank you that I was that Bernadette who was so frail and worthless that when people saw her, they said to themselves, ‘That must be her,’ the Bernadette that people looked at as if she were an unusual animal.”
§  “For this miserable body that you gave me, for this illness that burns like fire and smoke, for my decaying bones, for my perspiration and fever, for my dull and acute pain, thank you, my God.”
§  “And for this soul which you have given me, for the desert of inner dryness, for your nights and your flashes of lightening, for your silence and your thunders, for everything. For you—when you were present and when you were not—thank you, Jesus.”

Those are the words of a very strong—and a very loving—woman of God.

St. Bernadette, pray for us on this Good Friday, that we will come to see our sufferings as you saw yours—as opportunities to love—and someday experience the reward of that love with you and all the saints in God’s eternal kingdom.  Amen.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Holy Thursday

Fr. Jordan Turano preached an excellent homily tonight at the Mass of the Lord's Supper.  I suppose you could call it, "the Knucklehead Homily".  To listen, click here: Holy Thursday

And here's the homily he gave on Easter Sunday: Easter

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Make Time For Jesus This Holy Week

(Palm Sunday 2016 (C): This homily was given on March 20, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Palm Sunday 2016]

You could say that Jesus Christ “made time for us” during the first Holy Week 2,000 years ago.  He did that in order to save us from our sins.  He made time for us in order to make heaven possible for every human person who has lived, for every human person who is living, and for every human person who will live on planet earth until the end of the world.

Because Jesus did what he did during that first Holy Week—because he made time for us and endured all those sufferings we just heard about in St. Luke’s account of the passion—we have hope: a hope that extends beyond time!  We have the hope of an eternity full of joy and happiness and peace.

Which brings us to the key question for this Holy Week: Will WE “make time” for him?  Will we make time—some time—some quality time—for Jesus Christ during the next 7 days?

Or will it be “business as usual?”  Will we allow other things—other unnecessary, distracting things—to keep us from reflecting on and getting in touch with the sacrificial love of our Lord and Savior?

Now I know that for some people there will be an added challenge this year in trying to stay spiritually-focused from now until Easter Sunday: March Madness!  Because Easter is so early this year, Holy Week comes right in the middle of the very popular NCAA basketball tournament.

That could prove to be a very big distraction for some Christians—especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday.

Now please don’t misunderstand—I’m not saying that if you’re a basketball fan you shouldn’t watch any tournament games from now until Easter.  (I will probably watch a few of them myself!)  But I am challenging you to keep things in perspective, and to keep your priorities in order.

That, by the way, will be a challenge for everyone—even the non-basketball fans among us, since we all have distractions of one kind or another to deal with in our lives.

And so my message to you today in this brief homily is simple: Be sure that you make at least as much time for Jesus Christ during the next 7 days as you do for basketball games—and other unnecessary amusements!

Let me now go over very quickly the opportunities you will have to “make time for the Lord” here at St. Pius during the next 7 days:

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week we will have morning Mass, as usual, at 7am.  We will have Eucharistic Adoration all day on Tuesday.  We will have Stations of the Cross at 6:05 on Tuesday, after Benediction.  We will have Morning Prayer Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the regular Mass times.  And, most important, we will have the Liturgies of the Triduum on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings: the Mass of the Lord’s Supper will be at 7pm on Thursday, followed by Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the church hall until 11pm.  On Friday we will have the celebration of the Lord’s Passion at 7pm, and Stations of the Cross twice: once outside at noon (weather permitting), and then at 3pm here in church.  And finally, we will have the first Mass of Easter—the Easter Vigil Liturgy—at 7:30pm on Holy Saturday night.  Masses on Easter Sunday will be at the normal Sunday times: 7, 8:30 and 10:30am.

My prayer at this Mass is that on Easter Sunday morning each of us will be able to look back at this week and say, “Yes, Lord, I did it.  Yes, Lord, I put you first.  Yes, Lord, I avoided the distractions. Yes, Lord, I made some quality time for you during the last 7 days of my life, and it was, without a doubt, time very well spent.”

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Difference between ‘Convicting’ and ‘Condemning’

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (C):  This homily was given on March 13, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2016]

One is good; the other is bad.
One is temporary; the other is final.
One can lead to life; the other does lead to death.

I’m talking here about conviction versus condemnation.  Those are two words that people often use interchangeably in casual conversation, but theologically they mean very different things.

To convict someone is to make them aware of a sin in their life; to condemn someone is to set yourself up in judgment of that person and to say, in effect, that they’re going to hell.

To convict someone of their sin, in a loving way, is a good thing.  It’s what St. Paul is getting at in Colossians 3:16 when he tells us to “admonish one another.”

All of us need to be convicted at times, because we’re sinners.  That’s why I said at the very beginning that it’s good to be convicted!  Notice I didn’t say that it’s pleasant to be convicted!  I didn’t say that it’s pleasant because that would be a lie—and my mother taught me never to lie.

The fact is—getting convicted is normally a very unpleasant experience.  No one, after all, likes to be told they are wrong!  Nobody likes to be told that they need to change. 

But sometimes even the best among us are wrong, and sometimes even the best among us do need to change.

Now the good news is, if we respond to the unpleasant experience of being convicted by repenting of our sin and by making the effort to change our life for the better, then the unpleasantness will only be temporary (as I indicated earlier).   And it will lead us one step closer to the life—the eternal life—and the eternal happiness—that God has waiting for us in his heavenly kingdom.

That’s conviction: it’s good; it’s temporary; and it can lead to life.

The sad and tragic thing, of course, is when people get convicted, but feel like they’re being condemned.  They misinterpret the experience.  For example, when a man who’s been unfaithful to his wife hears a homily in which the priest condemns the sin of adultery, he can feel like he’s being condemned along with the sin—even though he’s only being convicted.  The same can happen to a post-abortive woman who hears a talk condemning abortion; or to a tax cheat who hears a homily condemning thievery.

In cases like these, men and women are being convicted of a sin they’ve committed; they’re NOT being condemned (even though it might seem to them that they are)!

One man who understood the difference between conviction and condemnation was the great St. Augustine, who lived back in the 4th century.  As most of us know, Augustine lived a very hedonistic lifestyle for most of his first 31 years on planet earth—which kept his saintly mother on her knees most of the time, praying for his conversion.  Well eventually his sinful habits took their toll on him (as sinful habits always do!), and he ended up confused and on the verge of despair.  Then one day when he was in the city of Milan with a friend, trying to make sense of his life, he heard a child off in the distance singing a song that he had never heard before.  One of the lines in the song really struck him: “Pick it up and read it.  Pick it up and read it.”  He thought that maybe God was trying to speak to him at that moment, and so he found a copy of the Bible and picked it up, making the decision to read the very first passage his eyes fell upon.  That turned out to be the text from Romans 13 where St. Paul says, “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy.  Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”

That was the moment when his mother Monica’s prayers were finally answered.  That was the moment of his conversion to Christianity.  And that was the event that put him on the road to becoming Saint Augustine!

But all of that never would have happened if Augustine had interpreted this event in the wrong way.  Augustine realized that God, through these 2 verses of the Bible, was convicting him not condemning him!  If he had thought God was condemning him he would have thrown in the towel and given up hope.  But he knew better.  He knew that the Lord was convicting him of his past sins—his many past sins!—and inviting him to repent.

And he did.  Thank God!

Which brings us, at last, to the gospel story we just heard from John 8—this story of the woman caught in adultery.  The scribes and the Pharisees, unfortunately, responded to the woman with condemnation.  In their minds she was a hopeless sinner who needed to be disposed of.

And they were ready to do that by stoning her to death—until Jesus began writing on the ground.

Now the mystery of the story is: What was he writing?  What exactly was our Lord scribbling there in the dirt?

Sadly, we don’t know for sure.  But one theory is that he was writing the sins of the people in the crowd, the sins of the people who were getting ready to stone the woman.  And if that was the case, he obviously worked his way from the “top down”, because the text says they left one by one “beginning with the elders.”

Obviously Jesus convicted them.  He convicted them all!

But he also convicted the woman!

Recognizing the bad attitude—the condemnatory attitude—of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said to the woman after they all had left, “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “No one, sir.”  Jesus responded, “Nor do I condemn you.”  [One of the reasons, by the way, why Jesus did not condemn her is that the condemnation of people is NOT for this life.  Condemnation, strictly speaking, only comes after death: it comes after death for those who die in the state of mortal sin.  Now it’s true that you can condemn someone in your heart in this life—which is what the scribes and the Pharisees did with respect to this woman—but true condemnation only comes for people after they take their final breath, not before.]

The last line of the story ties everything together.  Jesus says to the woman, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

Obviously our Lord had read her heart (he could do that, since he was God!) and he knew she was sorry.  But that did not lead him to excuse her adultery!  Not at all!  Quite to the contrary, he explicitly called what she had done a “sin”.  And yet, at the very same time and in the very same instant, he extended to her his mercy and forgiveness.

I find it very interesting (and rather ironic) that the “religious” scribes and Pharisees responded to the experience of being convicted by closing their hearts and walking away—with their sins still on their souls; while this supposedly evil woman responded to her conviction by opening her heart and staying with Jesus—and having her sin taken away!

Which means that it’s her example—and not theirs—that God wants us to follow.

Let me conclude now by saying that we should all pray at this Mass for the grace to remember.  We should pray for the grace to remember this gospel story every time the Lord convicts us of an unrepented sin in the future: a sin that we’ve either ignored or denied or tried to rationalize away in the past. 

Because if we do always remember this gospel story, and then respond to our conviction like this woman responded to hers, then we will also be forgiven, and, most important of all, we will never be condemned.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

For the Prodigal Son, THE CONTRAST Made the Difference

No, I don't live in Nashville, but it does say 43 degrees!

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (C):  This homily was given on March 6, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2016]

It was the contrast that made the difference.

For the prodigal son, it was the contrast—the very sharp contrast—that made the difference.

And that’s the way it is so very often for us today.

This thought came to me two Wednesdays ago (the Wednesday of school vacation week), after I had walked the beach for about an hour.  It was a great day to be outside: the sun was shining, the wind was light.  For a day in mid-February in was very comfortable.  In fact, I was sweating a little bit by the time I got back in my car to leave.  I thought to myself, “Wow, it must be at least 60 degrees out there!”

Then I turned the key to start the engine, and I took a look at the gauge on my dashboard—the gauge that measures the outside temperature.  It read 43 degrees.  My first thought was, “Gee, it must be broken”, but then I checked my cellphone, and that gave me the very same reading.

So why did 43 degrees feel like 60?

It felt that way because only a few days earlier it had been minus 8 degrees here in Westerly!  The contrast made the difference!  The contrast between minus 8 degrees and 43 degrees made 43 degrees feel like spring!

Which brings us to the prodigal son.  We just heard his story, which is certainly one of the best-known and most-loved stories in all of the Bible.  (I’m sure many of you know it so well that you could recite a good bit of it from memory, if you had to.)  The story is about forgiveness and mercy and God’s faithful love.  That last point reminds me of what St. Paul said in 2 Timothy 2: “Even if we are unfaithful [like the prodigal son was], he [God] remains faithful [faithful in his love for us] for he cannot deny himself.”

That’s a truth we should all thank God for, because it means that no one, strictly speaking, is hopeless!  If they have breath in them, there is hope for them.

As we look at the prodigal son’s story today, I think the important question for us to ask is:  What was the turning point?  What, in other words, brought this boy to the point of conversion—to the point where he finally said, “I want out of this; I want to go home!”

The answer to that question is: When he recognized the contrast.  He made the decision to go home to his dad when he finally recognized the contrast—the very sharp contrast—between his past and his present; between his life with his father, and his life without his father; between what he had back home with his dad before he left, and what he now had with Porky Pig and his friends in the local pigpen, rolling around in the mud.  He even became acutely aware of the contrast between the lives of his father’s servants back home and his miserable life in the present moment.

In fact, this was the thought that finally motivated him to start his journey back.  As we heard Jesus say few moments ago, “Coming to his senses [the boy] thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.  I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.’  So he got up and went back to his father.”

For the prodigal son in the pigpen, even the trials and difficulties in the life of a servant were much better than what he was currently dealing with.

This is why it’s not the worst thing in the world when, like the prodigal son, people experience suffering because of serious sins they’ve committed but haven’t repented of.  Sometimes that suffering can lead those people to an awareness of the contrast: the contrast between their present condition and their condition prior to committing those sins—and that can motivate them to repent like this boy did and make a good confession.

This is also why it’s so important for young people to get rooted in their faith early on.  It’s no secret that a lot of young people in their late teens and early twenties drift away from the Church and from the practice of their Catholic faith.  Those young people will experience trials and crises in their lives (as we all do), they’ll have to deal with questions about the purpose and meaning of life (as we all do).  When they experience those trials and those crises and those questions, they will know that there’s somewhere to go to deal with them—if they were rooted in their faith early on.  They will recognize the contrast between their present spiritual and emotional condition and their former spiritual and emotional condition, and maybe—just maybe—they’ll say to themselves, “You know, I once found joy and meaning and peace in my Catholic faith; maybe I ought to give it a try again.  Maybe I ought to get to confession.”  But if they were never rooted in their faith, or if their commitment to the Lord and his Church was very superficial, the likelihood that they will return to their spiritual home is much less.

This is why, incidentally, I have that youth group for teenagers every Thursday night; this is why I take young people to the Steubenville East Youth Conference every summer, and Youth Explosion every fall.  I do these things because I want our teens to be so rooted in their faith during their high school years that they’ll always come home, even if they do drift away for a time in college and as young adults.

But they’ve got to know there’s a home to come back to!  That’s key!  So encourage your children to get involved in spiritual activities here at St. Pius NOW.  Think about it, my brothers and sisters, if the prodigal son had not experienced love and happiness and peace in his father’s house in the early days of his youth, he would never have experienced the contrast; hence he would not have known that there was a place he could go back to where he could find love, happiness and peace again.

And he probably would have died in despair.

But he didn’t.  He responded to his experience of the contrast by doing exactly what he should have done.  He responded to his experience of the contrast by repenting and returning to his father.  And he found what he was looking for.  May all Catholics—young and not-so-young—follow his example by repenting and returning to the heavenly Father in the sacrament of Reconciliation whenever they need to.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Parish Mission 2016

Fr. Dean Perri led us in our parish Lenten mission this year.  He spoke on the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell).  To hear Fr. Perri's inspiring talks, click on the links below.

Sunday Homily: Death and Judgment

Monday Talk: Hell

Tuesday Talk: Purgatory

Wednesday Talk: Heaven