Sunday, June 26, 2016

Putting Our Hands to the Plow

Elijah being taken to heaven in a flaming chariot.

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on June 26, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Kings 19: 16-21; Galatians 5: 1; Luke 9: 51-62.)

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

As many of you know, this is my last weekend as pastor of St. Pius X Parish.  At this time next week, Fr. Mike Najim will officially be your fearless leader, and I will be officially retired from my administrative duties.  It’s been a blessing and a privilege to have been your pastor for the last 17 years, and to be here at St. Pius for the last 27 years (almost 28!). 

And now I get to spend some retirement years here as well—which means I’m triply blessed!

It always amazes me (although it shouldn’t), on those occasions when I need to speak about a certain subject in a homily on a particular weekend, and the readings tie in with that subject matter almost perfectly.

As if God knew—which, of course, he did!

For example, take a look at that first reading from 1 Kings 19.  Here we have Elijah, the great prophet of Israel who lived in the 9th century, BC, being instructed by God to appoint Elisha as his successor.  Not long after this Elijah was taken up into heaven, miraculously, in a flaming chariot, and Elisha took over.

Well something very similar will happen here in the next few days—on July 1st to be exact—when Fr. Najim becomes the 7th pastor of St. Pius X Parish (although I do not expect to be swept up to heaven in a flaming chariot anytime soon!).

Although you never know!  

But don’t count on it.

Now the great thing about Elisha was this: He built on the prophetic foundation that Elijah had left him.  He didn’t undermine what Elijah had done.  He continued Elijah’s work, calling the people of Israel—and their leaders—to reject idolatry and to love and serve the one, true God—the God who had freed them from slavery in Egypt and had given them the Promised Land for their home.

From my many conversations with Fr. Najim in the last few weeks, I know he has a similar attitude.  He has a tremendous appreciation for the great things that have happened here at St. Pius in recent decades (which is not surprising, since he was part of it all as an altar boy and as a member of our youth group in the 1990s), and his intention is to build on the solid spiritual foundation that we have here.  In fact, that’s the expression he’s often used: “I want to build on the foundation that’s already in place”.

My prayer for him is that God will bless him with a “double portion” of the Spirit to enable him to do that and to do it well.  Which is precisely what Elisha asked for just prior to Elijah being taken up to heaven in that flaming chariot.  Elijah said to him, “Request whatever I might do for you, before I am taken from you.”  And Elisha responded, “May I receive a double portion of your spirit.”*

Thus I don’t think it was a coincidence that today’s second reading was focused on the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul talks there about living in the Spirit, being guided by the Spirit, and serving others in the power of the Spirit.

I pray that Fr. Najim will do all those things, and that he will help the rest of us to follow his good example.

So we welcome him this week to St. Pius, unlike the Samaritans in today’s gospel who refused to welcome Jesus into their community—and we pledge to him our prayers and our obedient support.  On that note, some people have said to me in recent weeks, “Fr. Ray, I’ll bet it’s going to be hard for you to let go of your authority in the parish and not be the one in charge anymore.”

These people have forgotten something.  Yes, I’ve been the pastor now for 17 years, but for the 10 years prior to that I was not the one in charge.  I served as the assistant pastor here from 1988-1998 under Fr. Besse first and then later under Fr. Larry.

So I’ve had a lot of practice living and working and serving at St. Pius while someone else was in charge of the administration.

I don’t think it will be all that difficult to assume that type of secondary role again.

The blessing of this for me is that I will now have the opportunity to do my priestly work 100% of the time (or at least as much as my health—which is still pretty good—permits).  I will no longer have to worry about things like leaky roofs, capital campaigns, dealing with contractors and signing checks (except my own, of course!).

And that’s a “win” for me.  But it’s also a win for you because there will now be two priests here to minister to your spiritual needs.

And it’s certainly a win for Fr. Najim, since he gets to serve as pastor for the first time in a town—and in a parish—that he loves.

And so, to use the image found at the end of today’s gospel, we all now must “put our hands to the plow” and move forward with the Lord to receive all the blessings he has in store for us.

Let me close now with a quote from Bishop Fulton Sheen that I came across this past week.  The message here is certainly for me on a personal level (given the fact that I’m dealing with Parkinson’s disease), but I believe it also has an application to all of you.  Sheen wrote, “We need have no undue fear for our health if we work hard for the kingdom of God; God will take care of our health if we take care of his cause.  In any case, it is better to burn out than to rust out.”

That having been said, I look forward to “burning out” with all of you in the future—even if I never take a trip to heaven in a flaming chariot.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Three Lessons on Fatherhood from St. Peter

(Twelfth Sunday of the Year (C):  This homily was given on June 19, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 9: 18-24.)

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

It was very appropriate—as well as providential—that Simon Peter was the apostle mentioned in our gospel reading today.  Peter was, as we all know, the very first pope.  The word “pope” comes from the Greek word for father—“pappas”—and today we celebrate Father’s Day.

Every priest is a father (spiritually speaking, of course), and the pope—the successor of St. Peter—is what you might call the “father of all fathers”.  That is to say, he’s the earthly spiritual father of the universal family of God known as “the Church,” which includes both clergy and laity. 

So today, on this Father’s Day we look to the original “father of all fathers”—St. Peter himself—for some important and challenging lessons on fatherhood.  These are lessons, by the way, that apply both to natural fathers and to spiritual fathers.

The first lesson is this:  Fathers are called to exercise strong leadership in their families when it comes to matters of faith.  Or, to put it another way, contrary to popular opinion, Christianity is not “for women only”!  Having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that’s nourished by the word of God and the sacraments of the Church is not just for mothers!  It’s also for dads.  As Pope John Paul II said in one of his encyclicals, “The place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance.”  (Familiaris Consortio, 25)  This means, dads, that your children need to be led by you (and not just by your wife) in the practice of their Catholic faith.  For example, you need to lead them to Mass every Sunday and holy day; you need to make sure they get to confession regularly (and after they go, you should go yourself!); you need to lead them in prayer before meals; you need to answer at least some of their questions on issues of faith and morals; you need to teach them, by word and example, to be charitable and forgiving—and to pray every day.  In this regard, I came across something recently that John Paul II once said about his father and the powerful influence his dad had on his faith life during the years of his youth.  John Paul said, “Seeing [my father] on his knees had a decisive effect on my early years.  My father was the person who explained to me the mystery of God, [and] his example was in a way my first seminary.”

We learn this lesson about fathers being faith-leaders in their families from Peter in today’s gospel scene.  Notice what happened there.  Jesus asked his disciples the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  And who was it who immediately stepped forward to answer the question?  Quite simply, it was the one who should have stepped forward!  It was the “pappas”, the father, the leader of the apostolic group of Jesus’ followers.  It was Peter: “You are the Christ of God.”
Now some of the other apostles might have believed the same thing, or at least they might have suspected that Jesus was the Christ—the Messiah—the anointed one of God—but only Peter actually had the courage and the conviction to say it.  He led the way for the others.

He was a good father—a good spiritual father—at least at that moment.  But he wasn’t a perfect dad—which brings us to the second lesson we learn from him: Every earthly dad is imperfect.  Every earthly father is a sinner in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  The fact is, even the best earthly fathers will fail from time to time.  But when the best do fall, they don’t stay fallen for very long.  With a humble and contrite heart they repent, seek forgiveness, and persevere in their vocation.

On that note, if you were paying attention to this gospel when it was read a few moments ago, something probably struck you.  You were struck by the fact that part of the story was left out!  This is the story of Peter’s profession of faith as recorded by St. Luke.  St. Matthew and St. Mark also write about this event from Jesus’ life, but they go on to say that afterward, as Jesus began to talk to his disciples about his upcoming passion and death, Peter objected.  Peter said, “No way, Jesus.  You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God!  May that never happen to you!”  Our Lord then responded by saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.  You’re thinking the way human beings think, not the way God thinks.”

This was not the first time Peter had failed in his spiritual fatherhood—nor would it be the last time.  And yet, he never left the Lord!  He always persevered.  You see this consistently in the gospels: every time Peter fell, he repented, he got up, and he moved forward with Jesus.

That’s what every good Christian father does.

The third and final lesson from Peter on fatherhood that I want to mention today is this one: A good father lays down his life for his wife and for his children.  Here the standard of love is Jesus and his cross: “Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

Our first pope, as most of us know, died a martyr’s death.  He was crucified—upside down—by the emperor Nero, probably near the obelisk that now stands in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.  His bones are entombed below the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The first pope, the first “father of all fathers,” literally laid down his life for his spiritual sons and daughters.  Earthly fathers, whether they be spiritual or natural, are called to the same kind of self-sacrifice in their lives.  And it involves more than the willingness to physically die for your loved ones—as necessary and as important as that is.  It involves “dying to yourself” every day in the ordinary events of life.  This is something that Fr. Roger Landry makes clear in a booklet he wrote for the men who belong to the Knights of Columbus.  There he says this:

This laying down of one’s life does not mean only the willingness to make the “supreme sacrifice” for another, but the willingness to die to oneself so that the other may more fully live.  In marriage preparation, I often ask would-be grooms whether they love their fiancĂ©e enough to take a bullet for her.  Never has one said no.  Then I ask whether his answer would be the same if the “bullet” took one of the following forms: being abstinent before marriage; giving up smoking if she asks; being on time if he is habitually late; cleaning up after himself better; patiently telling her what happened that day at work if she requests it; learning the faith better to help pass it on to her more completely; or making the time and the priority to pray with her.  Those are the types of grenades on which many men refuse to dive! But these gifts of oneself are so much more valuable than almost any material gift one could give, and they are a far greater sign of real love than any ring could symbolize.

A lot of what Fr. Landry says there applies to men in their relationships with their children just as much as it applies to men in their relationships with their wives.  Laying down one’s life in “ordinary” ways like these is what good fathers do for their sons and daughters—and wives.

St. Peter, father of all fathers, pray for us fathers on this Father’s Day.  Pray that we will be like you in the exercise of this great and precious gift that God has given to us.  Pray that we will be faith-filled, humble, self-sacrificing leaders of those whom the Lord has seen fit to place in our care.  And may our leadership of our children someday bring us—and them—to the house of our eternal Father, who lives and reigns forever and ever.  Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Power of a Forgiven Sinner

(Eleventh Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on June 12, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Galatians 2:16-21; Luke 7:36-8:3.)

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

My homily today is entitled, “The Power of a Forgiven Sinner.”  Here I’m using the word “power” in a positive sense.  Normally, of course. when people use the words “power” and “sin” in the same sentence, they do it in order to say something negative about power: “His sin was rooted in his desire for more power”; “He misused his power and committed a sin against his neighbor.”  But when I speak here of the power of a forgiven sinner, I’m using the word in its positive sense: as the power to do good; as the power to have a positive influence on other people; as the power to bring good out of evil.

That’s the kind of power a sinner has—if (and when) he or she repents!

In today’s gospel, for example, a sinful woman crashes a dinner party at Simon the Pharisee’s house, and honors Jesus through her acts of repentance: she kisses his feet, washes them with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with ointment.

Now the question I have is this: How many people have been changed in a positive way by this woman in the last 2,000 years?  How many sinners—big sinners—have read this woman’s story in the Bible and been moved to repentance?  How many of them have said to themselves, “Well, I guess there is hope for me after all!  If Jesus Christ can forgive this woman for her horrific sins, he must be able to forgive me for mine.”

I’m sure many have.

That’s the power of a forgiven sinner.

It’s the same power that St. Paul had after his conversion experience.  In today’s second reading from Galatians 2, Paul sounds rather saintly as he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.”

Well that’s very nice, but, as we all know, Paul wasn’t always so holy!  Prior to getting flattened by Jesus—literally!—on the road to Damascus, Paul was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance.”  That’s how he describes himself in his First Letter to Timothy.  And yet, in that same passage from 1 Timothy 1, he says the following:

You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Of these I myself am the worst.  But on that very account I was dealt with mercifully, so that in me, as an extreme case, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, and that I might become an example to those who would later have faith in him and gain everlasting life.

Paul was not happy that he had sinned so grievously as a young Pharisee by persecuting Jesus and the Church.  But Paul also understood that because he had sincerely repented of those sins and been forgiven by Jesus, he now had a certain power in his life: the power to be an example of conversion “to those who would later have faith in [Christ]”.  In other words, to all of us.

The power of a forgiven sinner.

The reason I’m preaching on this subject today is because of a conversation I had during the pilgrimage I led to Spain and Portugal a couple of months ago.  A woman who was on the trip with us said to me one day, “Fr. Ray, I hope that at some point during this Year of Mercy you reach out to women who have had abortions.  They need to know that God still loves them and that his mercy is available to them.”

I said, “That’s a good idea.  I’ll do that when the Holy Spirit gives me the right set of readings to make the point.

Well, the Spirit has certainly done that this weekend.  I’ve already mentioned the gospel and second reading, but even the first reading points us to the mercy of God—the forgiving grace of God which is available to even the worst of sinners.

In this reading the prophet Nathan confronts King David about two serious sins that he had recently committed and had, up to that point, ignored: adultery and murder. 

Most of us know the story.  David had committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, and in the process she had become pregnant with his child.  Instead of admitting his sin and turning away from it (which is what he should have done!), David tried to manipulate the situation to make it appear that Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, was actually the father of the child.  Then, when his little plot failed, David decided to get rid of the problem by getting rid of Uriah, and so he arranged to have Uriah killed in battle.  In effect, that made David guilty of both adultery and murder—a fact that Nathan makes clear to him in today’s first reading.

Thankfully, David responded to Nathan’s rebuke with repentance, and his repentance was immediate.  He said, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  God’s forgiveness, it should be noted, was also immediate.  Nathan said to the king, “The Lord, for his part, has forgiven your sin.  You shall not die.”

At that moment—at the moment he opened his heart to God’s mercy and received the Lord’s forgiveness for the terrible things he had done—King David received a new POWER in his life: the power to inspire sincere and deep repentance in other people.  And he’s done that now for many centuries—especially through Psalm 51, which he wrote after he was reconciled to the Lord.  That’s the psalm that begins with the words, “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness; in your compassion blot out my offence.  O wash me more and more from my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin.”

If you have had an abortion, and have received the Lord’s forgiveness for that sin in the sacrament of Reconciliation, then the good news is that you now have a similar power in your life—a power that God wants you to use for good.  It’s a power that I don’t have; it’s a power that the pope doesn’t have.  You have the power to speak to other women from experience—to other women who are being tempted to make the same mistake that you made.  You can warn them and influence them in a way that I can’t.  You can tell them there’s a better choice they can make—and chances are, they’ll listen to you, because of what you’ve been through.

And hopefully, in the process, you will help to save a life—or two, or three, or more!

St. John Paul II said it beautifully in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, when he wrote this:

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and His mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.

“The power of a forgiven sinner” is a power that God wants all of us to have—and it’s a power that God wants all of us to USE, regardless of what our sins are.

Like King David, St. Paul and the woman in today’s gospel story, may each and every one of us give God what he wants.