Sunday, August 14, 2016

How to Help Jesus ‘Light a Fire on the Earth’

Katie Ledecky (top) and Simone Biles

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 14, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read; Hebrews 12: 1-4; Luke 12: 49-53.)

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

How would you describe "a devout Catholic”?  What personal qualities, in your opinion, does a devout Catholic possess?

I don’t know how you would answer those questions, my brothers and sisters, but I can tell you with almost absolute certitude how most of the people in the mainstream media would answer them.

To most of the men and women who report the news in this country in 2016, “devout Catholics” have the following qualities:

1.    They say they’re Catholic.  And they have baptismal certificates to prove it—maybe even First Communion and Confirmation certificates as well!  Although many of them would have trouble getting sponsor certificates for themselves, since they don’t go to Mass every Sunday and holyday.

2.    They are devoted followers of Pope Francis (well, not the real Francis in Rome, but rather the imaginary Pope Francis that people in the liberal media have created: the Francis who “parrots” their liberal views).

3.    They are pro-Planned Parenthood and pro-abortion (although such “devout Catholics” will usually not call themselves those things.  They’ll insist that they are simply “pro-woman” and “pro-choice”—always refusing to identify what the choice is that they are for.)

4.    They are for saving the environment (which is a very good thing).  Unfortunately, however, they’re not normally as interested in saving the lives of unborn babies.

5.    They are against people (especially their fellow Christians) who want to follow their consciences when their consciences are telling them to obey a God-given law which contradicts a civil law.  But if the consciences of those people are telling them to disobey God in some way, these “devout Catholics” are all for that.

6.    They are for freedom—if you’re talking about the freedom to violate one of the Ten Commandments, especially the sixth (which has to do with sexual morality).  But amazingly, these same “devout” believers will turn against freedom when the subject is religion (more specifically, when the subject is Christianity).

7.    They describe themselves as “non-judgmental”—although they judge their fellow Christians all the time.

8.    They call themselves “open-minded”—although their minds are closed to the truth about many things.

9.    They claim to love everybody—although many of their fellow Catholics don’t feel a lot of love from them.

Please keep all this in mind the next time you hear somebody called “a devout Catholic”—or better yet “a Pope Francis Catholic”—by a reporter in the secular media.  Nine out of every ten times, this is the kind of person the reporter is talking about.

Which is why I often say that for the majority of the men and women in the media today the only “good” Catholic is a bad Catholic!

When Jesus said, “I have come to light a fire on the earth” this is not what he meant.  When Jesus said, “I have come to light a fire on the earth” this is not the kind of discipleship he was talking about (although he certainly foresaw it!  He foresaw the fact that many of his professed followers would be lukewarm and half-hearted—because right after he made this statement about coming to light a fire on earth he added, “How I wish it were already blazing!”)

Is it blazing in us?  Is it blazing in us?

How convinced are we that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the cure for what ails the world?  (That’s another way to ask the same question.)

If we are truly convinced that Jesus Christ is the answer to what’s wrong with the world, then we will be passionate about living our faith in a radical way—like the REAL Pope Francis tells us to—even if some people don’t appreciate our efforts.  And you can be absolutely certain that there are some men and women out there who will not appreciate our efforts—at all!  Jesus says as much in this gospel reading, indicating that we shouldn’t even be surprised if the opposition comes from members of our own families.

The image that came to mind this week as I prayed about this was the image of a furnace.  That’s the kind of “fire” the Lord wants to find burning inside of us: the kind of fire that you find inside a furnace.  In most homes, as you know, the furnace is located down in the basement.  That means very few people who come into the house actually see it—and yet, the effects of the furnace are felt throughout the entire building.

Well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be with our Catholic faith.  We’re not supposed to be boisterous about it; we’re not supposed to ram it down other people’s throats.  Rather, it’s supposed to “burn” in the hidden recesses of our soul, and then effect everything in our life.  And I mean EVERYTHING!  As the light and heat from a furnace will make an entire house warm, so too the truth and love of the Gospel are supposed to guide everything in our life—everything from how we treat other people to our political views.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews obviously believed this when he wrote the words we heard in our second reading today.  There he said, “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”  That’s just another way of saying, “Let Jesus—and the love and truth of his Gospel—guide and influence every aspect of your life.”

This is the challenge that faces all of us as professed disciples of Jesus Christ: the challenge to be devout Catholics in the TRUE SENSE of that term, by striving every day to be obedient to the teachings of Jesus and his Church. 

On that note, I read a great article online this past week about two athletes who’ve made big headlines in recent days because of their gold medal performances at the Olympic Games in Rio: gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Katie Ledecky.

The article (which, not surprisingly, came from a Catholic news source) focused on the fact that both of these young women are practicing Catholics who are quite open about the important role that faith plays in their lives.  Lidecky was quoted as saying, “My Catholic faith is very important to me.  It always has been and it always will be.  It is part of who I am and I feel comfortable practicing my faith.  It helps me put things in perspective.”

She also mentioned that she says a Hail Mary before every race, while Simone Biles talked about her devotion to St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes.

Well, all I can say after watching these two women perform in the last seven days is that the Blessed Mother and St. Sebastian did a really good job praying for them!  Their performances were nothing short of spectacular!

My prayer is that they will continue to keep Jesus and their Catholicism at the center of their lives in the future—in the midst of all the fame and all the public acclaim that they’re sure to experience after the Olympics are over and they come back home to the United States.

If they can do that—if they can continue to live as devout Catholics (devout not in the eyes of the mainstream media, but rather devout in the eyes of God)—then they will be able to have a positive influence on others (especially on young athletes), and in their own way they will help Jesus to “light a fire on the earth”—a fire of faith, a fire of hope, a fire of love.

Which is the same kind of influence that Jesus wants to have on other people in this world through you and through me.

And he will, if we let him.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Battle between Faith and Fear

(Nineteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 7, 2016, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Hebrews 11.)

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

The other day I came across the following poem.  It’s entitled, “The Battle,” and it goes like this:

Faith and fear,
Soldiers ever obedient and loyal,
Locked in raging combat,
Across the heart’s hidden battlefield.
Each seeks the advantage required
To control the fickle mind,
Burdened as it is with the wretched curse,
Of one man’s failed stand;
But graced now and forever,
By another’s blood-stained Royal Road.
At stake in this crimson-colored clash
Of generals supreme,
Is dominion over all that matters—
In time,
But not in time alone.
Thus the volleys will go on,
The combat unabated,
Until the war’s wearied host at last surrenders—
In happiness or horror—
To his conqueror eternal.

Most people would say that the opposite of faith is unbelief—and from one perspective they’d be right.  It is.  To have faith in God you obviously need to believe that he exists.  So if you lack faith, you lack belief in a Supreme Being.  But from another perspective you could say that the opposite of faith is fear.  Here I’m not talking about the good and healthy fear we have in our lives: the fear that leads us to avoid evil things that can hurt us; rather, I’m talking about the kind of fear that can lead us into sin and undermine our relationship with God.  This is the fear, for example, of not being loved and accepted by other people—which is a fear that can lead us to compromise our morals, to do things that we otherwise would not do.  I ask you, how many young women have had sex with their boyfriends because they thought that if they didn’t, their boyfriends would leave them?

That’s fear at work.

This bad fear is also the fear of not having enough (which can lead us to steal or cheat on our taxes).  It’s the fear of losing what we already do have (which can lead us to become greedy and materialistic).  It’s the fear of not being appreciated (which can lead us to put other people down so that we can look good to our peers).  It’s the fear of being lonely and of losing friends (which can lead us to form unhealthy friendships).  It’s the fear of being taken advantage of (which can lead us to take advantage of others “before they take advantage of us”—sort of a “do unto others before they do unto you” mentality).  It’s the fear of not getting something we think we deserve (which can lead to envy).

And on and on the list goes!

These are the fears that are at the root of most of the sins people commit in their lives—even people of faith (although very often those fears are not clearly recognized, even by people who believe).  Which is why that poem says that faith and fear are “locked in raging combat across the heart’s hidden battlefield.”

Whether we are aware of it or not, my brothers and sisters, this is the core battle of life!  Faith and fear do battle in our hearts at every moment of every day, each seeking (as the poem says) “the advantage required to control our fickle mind(s)” burdened as they are “with the wretched curse of one man’s failed stand”—in other words with the residual effects of the sin of Adam: original sin.  You see, even after original sin is removed in the sacrament of Baptism, a certain inclination to sin remains in us.  We call this inclination—this weakness—“concupiscence”.  This is why at one moment we can be very strong and very faithful, and in the very next moment extremely weak and completely unfaithful.

But we do have a power—in Jesus Christ—to overcome all these ungodly fears and to live our lives in faithfulness and love.  And that’s good news!  As the poem puts it, we’ve been “graced now and forever by another’s (that is to say, by Jesus’s) blood-stained Royal Road” (in other words, by his passion, death—and subsequent resurrection).  As Jesus says in today’s gospel, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.”

I mention all this today specifically because of our second reading, which is taken from the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Hebrews 11 begins with a brief definition of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Then it goes on to mention a number of Old Testament saints, beginning with Abraham.  Think, for a moment, of the fears Abraham had to deal with during his life.  This passage says that when the Lord called him, Abraham left his homeland “not knowing where he was to go”.  Can you imagine doing that?  It’s one thing to leave your home willingly, so that you can travel to a destination of your choice.  It’s quite another to leave your home and your past life and not have a clue as to where you’re going to end up!  So Abraham certainly had to face the fear of the unknown.  And even though the Bible says he left his homeland with all his possessions, he must have been concerned about thieves stealing those things somewhere along the way (remember there were no police to call for protection back then when you travelled; he couldn’t dial 911 on his cellphone!)—which means he had to deal with one of the fears I mentioned earlier: the fear of losing what you have.  And if you’re battling the fear of losing what you have, you’re probably also dealing with the fear of not having enough—of not having enough for your own needs and the needs of the people you’re responsible for.

Those were just some of the fears Abraham had to face during his life—and especially during his travels.  But, more often than not, this man allowed his faith to conquer his fear, which is why St. Paul refers to Abraham in Romans 4 as “our father”—our father in faith.

The other Old Testament saints mentioned in Hebrews 11 also lived in faith most of the time.  Although they all had their moments when fear won out.  Take David, for example—he’s mentioned in verse 32 of this chapter.  Faith conquered fear in David on the day he went up against Goliath with a slingshot and a few little stones.  But fear conquered faith in him on the day that he committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, and on the day that he had her husband, Uriah, murdered on the battlefield.  It was the fear of not having something that he thought he deserved (in this case, the fear of not having someONE that he thought he deserved!).

What are the fears that you are battling in your life right now?  We all have them.  Some of them—specifically the ones that keep us away from harmful people and harmful things—are good fears.  I’m not talking about those!  I’m talking about the fears I mentioned at the beginning: the ones that can lead us into sin.

I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on that question: What are the fears I’m battling in my life right now?  Because if we can come to recognize the fears that are troubling us, we might be able to get at the roots of the sins in our lives—and get rid of them for good.

Remember, there’s a lot at stake here.  Recall the last part of the poem:

“At stake in this crimson-colored clash of generals supreme (in other words, this continuous battle in our hearts between faith and fear),
Is dominion over all that matters—
In time,
But not in time alone.
Thus the volleys will go on,
The combat unabated,
Until the war’s wearied host (that’s you and me—that’s each of us) at last surrenders—
In happiness or horror—
To his conqueror eternal.

You see, in the end, my brothers and sisters, either faith will win the ultimate victory in us, or fear will win out.  One of those two “generals” will be our personal “conqueror”—and the consequences of that conqueror’s victory will be eternal.

So, make sure that FAITH wins the ultimate victory in your life.  Make sure that faith is your eternal conqueror.  I certainly want faith to be mine!  That’s why I pray a lot, and receive the Eucharist often, and go to confession frequently, and read Scripture daily—and even write some things about faith from time to time.

Like the poem you just heard about in this homily.