Sunday, October 30, 2016

Zacchaeus and His ‘Holy Curiosity’

(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 30, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 19: 1-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-first Sunday 2016]

They say that “curiosity” killed the cat.  Well, that may be true, but the fact is it saved Zacchaeus!

That’s clear from this gospel story we just heard from Luke 19.  The text indicates that, on the day Jesus came to Jericho, a lot of people—including Zacchaeus—were there to welcome him.  (Jesus’ reputation as a teacher, healer and exorcist obviously preceded him.)

But because Zacchaeus was what you might call “vertically-challenged” (i.e., short), he wasn’t able to see Jesus, as our Lord was passing by.  And I’m sure he didn’t dare open his mouth and ask the people in the crowd if they would let him move to the front—because he was afraid, among other things, of being punched in the face!  You see, Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector (which was bad enough, because it means that he worked for the Roman government, and got rich by overcharging his fellow Jews); but he was also the “chief” tax collector (which means, quite frankly, that he was probably the most hated man in town!).

Climbing a sycamore tree might have been a little dangerous, that’s true; but, for Zacchaeus—the chief tax collector of Jericho—trying to get permission to move to the front of the crowd that day would have been far more dangerous.

Now the text says that he climbed the tree because he (and here I quote) “was seeking to see who Jesus was.”  In other words, Zacchaeus was CURIOUS!  He had probably heard a number of stories about our Lord’s teachings, exorcisms and miracles, and he wondered, “Who is this man?”  “What’s he like?” “Is he really from God?” “Will he do something special for me?”

Zacchaeus had what I would call a “holy curiosity”.  There is, of course, an unholy type of curiosity that leads people to do things like gossip and access pornography on the internet.  But there’s also a good, holy kind of curiosity that seeks to know the truth: the truth about God; the truth about ourselves; the truth about life; the truth about eternity.  And it’s that kind of curiosity that Zacchaeus had.

By the way, when I was preparing this homily I decided to google the expression “holy curiosity” to see if anyone else had used it before, and, amazingly, I got all these hits about Albert Einstein!  That I did not expect!  But apparently one of Einstein’s famous quotes was, “The important thing is to never stop questioning.  Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Very good advice—from one of the smartest people ever to walk on planet earth.  Because of his “holy curiosity” Zacchaeus met Jesus, spent the day with Jesus—and had his life changed by Jesus!  He received forgiveness for his many sins and the grace of salvation.

And to make clear that he was a changed man, he resolved to make amends to all the people he had ripped off by paying them back four times over—which was much more than he was obligated to do.

Holy curiosity leads to great blessings from the Lord.  Zacchaeus would attest to that, I’m sure, as would St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who lived back in the 16th century.  Prior to his conversion and spiritual awakening, Ignatius was a soldier in the Spanish army.  He was also rather worldly.  But then he was seriously injured by a cannonball in the Battle of Pamplona in 1521 against the French, and during his long recovery he asked for some books to read on knighthood and chivalry.  He really enjoyed reading those types of books.  However the only ones available where he was convalescing were books about Jesus and the saints.  So he read them.  And as he did, something got stirred up inside of him: HOLY CURIOSITY.  He began to reflect on what it would be like to live a life totally committed to Jesus Christ—a life of radical discipleship like St. Dominic and St. Francis.  Thoughts would come to him such as, “Suppose I were to rival this saint in fasting, that one in endurance, that other in pilgrimages.”

Well, the good news is, he eventually found out!  His holy curiosity led him to renounce the world and follow Christ completely—and become a saint himself.  It also led him to start a men’s religious order that would eventually become the largest in the Church: the Jesuits (which, of course, is the order Pope Francis belongs to, as well as our parishioner Fr. Mike Rogers).

Holy curiosity is something that needs to be cultivated in each of us—not just in great religious leaders like St. Ignatius Loyola.  This came home to me a couple of weeks ago in our youth group.  Fr. Najim led the teenagers that night in a reflection on heaven (a subject that’s been on his mind a lot since his mother passed away several weeks ago).  He started off by rightly noting the fact that many Christians today have a pretty boring view of what heaven will be like—for example, some think that we’ll all be floating around on clouds for all eternity playing harps.  (Now I’m sure musicians like Margaret Day would find that exciting, but the rest of us not so much.) 

Then he asked the teens to share their ideas about heaven—some of which were very interesting.  He also, of course, talked about what the Bible says about eternal life.  We even examined the testimony of a man who had a near death experience and claims to have had a brief glimpse of the Lord’s eternal kingdom.

Now the reason I mention this youth group in today’s homily is because, as this discussion about heaven went on, I could sense a holy curiosity about God’s kingdom growing in the hearts of everyone present—including the adults who were there.  Consequently, I think everyone left that night with at least a little more enthusiasm for living the Gospel in the future, because it became clear to us that heaven is a place we really want to go to.

Just not in the near future!  None of us wants to rush it!

Holy curiosity is something that needs to be cultivated—from a young age.  Before I end my homily, I want to mention the fact that it makes my Italian blood boil at First Communion time every year when I encounter parents who don’t understand this—and who don’t care to understand this.  They jump through all the hoops (so to speak) to get their children prepared for the sacrament, but then—after the First Communion liturgy—they stop bringing their children to Mass on a regular basis.  

What a major league error!

In this messed up world of ours, those children are going to need a strong, personal relationship with Jesus Christ—a relationship that’s nourished by the sacraments.  But they need to start building that relationship NOW, not in 20 or 30 years!  And the thing is, most of them are open to it!  Most 7-year-olds that I’ve dealt with over the years (and there have been a lot of them!) have had an almost innate holy curiosity!  It’s like it’s natural to them at that age.  When I go, for example, into the second grade class at St. Pius X School to teach religion, those 7-year-olds always have questions.  Always!  They want to know about everything.  They have a holy curiosity—but in all too many cases their parents are doing next to nothing to satisfy it.

That’s a tragedy—and a sin.

Dear Lord, we thank you for this gift of holy curiosity: the gift which inspired Zacchaeus to climb that sycamore tree 2,000 years ago, and led to his conversion and salvation; the gift that motivated a young soldier named Ignatius to dream about being a saint, and then become one.  Help us to cultivate this important gift within ourselves, and, to the extent we can, within the members of our families, so that we too will be saved—and become saints.  Amen.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Helping Young People Deal with ‘Mrs. Culture’

(Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 16, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-ninth Sunday 2016]

Mrs. Culture is a schoolteacher.  Her classes are very popular—especially with the boys!  That’s probably because she normally wears outfits that would make Kim Kardashian blush (and that takes some doing!).

She’s also known for telling lies in her class---or at least half-truths (which pretty much amount to the same thing).

She’s also really vulgar and swears a lot (sometimes 3 or 4 times in a single sentence).

She encourages her students to break the rules—and publicly ridicules the ones who don’t.  That’s because she loves to break the rules herself—and to openly ridicule the principal.

She’s also verbally abusive to almost everyone, and physically abusive to students whenever she can get away with it.

So, parents (and future parents)—would you like this woman to be your child’s teacher?

Well, I’ve got news for you: this woman ALREADY IS your child’s teacher!!!

In some sense, she’s everyone’s teacher—or at least she tries to be.

They say, “What’s in a name?”

Well, in this case, EVERYTHING’S in the name!

You see, the woman referred to here as “Mrs. Culture” is actually a personification of the culture in which we are currently living: the culture that our young people are being forced to grow up in!

Think of all the things I told you about her.  I said first of all that she dresses provocatively.  That’s a reminder that we live in a highly sexualized society right now where pretty much anything goes when it comes to sex, and where impure images and ideas are planted into the minds of young people on a daily basis (especially via the internet).

I said that she tells lies and half-truths to her students.  It reminds me of what a Westerly High School student named Mike Najim used to say to his fellow teenagers 25 years ago: “We are the most lied to generation ever.”

He was right, of course—at the time.

But since then it’s only gotten worse!  Nowadays it goes beyond the lies that young people have heard for decades about abortion and other moral issues.  It includes those, for sure, but it goes much further.  Think, for example, of the political atmosphere in our country right now.  (You probably don’t want to, but force yourself to do that for a moment.)  One day of the week two politicians are calling each other the most vile names imaginable—each saying the other isn’t fit for office (or for life on planet earth!); the next day they’re hugging like two long-lost friends. 

Well, which is it?  Where’s the truth?

I hope you realize, my brothers and sisters, that that kind of hypocrisy sends an implicit message to young people.  Implicit, but clear.  It says to them, “If you want to be successful in America today, just lie.  Fake it!  Do what you have to do; say what you have to say.  Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant.”

I said earlier that Mrs. Culture is also really vulgar and swears a lot.  If you have any doubts that our culture has become more vulgar and crude in recent years, just compare the 2016 presidential debates to the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960—or to almost any previous presidential debate.  There’s a big difference!

Or, better yet, watch an action film on cable TV!  I started watching one the other night and I had to turn it off after ten minutes.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  There were four-letter words being used in ways that I’d never heard them used before—and I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms over the years.

Or just watch a reality show and notice how the participants interact with one another.  Vulgarities normally abound!

And then there’s the violence and rebelliousness that young people are exposed to these days: violence in movies, city riots on live TV, attacks on police officers and the like?

I need to mention those things too, because, as you will recall, the last two qualities of Mrs. Culture that I spoke of were her rebellious attitude toward authority, and her verbal and physical abuse of her students.

This, sad to say, is the cultural atmosphere that our young people are breathing in every single day.

Can we do anything about it?  Can we do anything to improve the “air quality,” at least for the young people in our care—especially our children and grandchildren (if we have them)?

The answer, happily, is yes.  It is possible to negate—at least to some extent—the negative influence of Mrs. Culture on our youth.  We can do that by having a positive influence on them, in imitation of Eunice and Lois.

And who, Fr. Ray, are Eunice and Lois?

Glad you asked!

To answer that question we need to go to today’s second reading from 2 Timothy 3.  There St. Paul says to Timothy, the young priest:
Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
Sounds like Timothy was doing pretty well, doesn’t it?  Sounds like Timothy was successfully dealing with Mrs. Culture in his life.  Oh yes, I should mention at this point that Mrs. Culture was also around in the first century.  Lest we forget, the culture of the Roman Empire back then was not what you would call “holy” and “loving” and “virtuous”.  In many respects it was as decadent as ours is, and in certain respects it was even worse than ours is!

But Timothy was handling it well, no doubt because he was doing what Paul told him to do in that text: he was remaining faithful to the truth that he had learned from his teachers.  Now the interesting thing is, St. Paul doesn’t name those teachers explicitly in this passage, but he does allude to them.  He says, “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it …”

To find out who Timothy’s teachers were, we need to go back to chapter 1 of the letter.  There St. Paul says, “I yearn to see you again [Timothy], recalling your tears, so that I may be filled with joy, as I recall your sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and that I am confident lives also in you.”

So there’s the answer!  It was Lois and Eunice!  They taught Timothy the truth; they taught him to love the Scriptures and to take the word of God seriously; they taught him to recognize and resist the teaching of Mrs. Culture.

We need to do the same for the “Timothys” in our lives.

Practically speaking, that means a couple of things …

First of all, it means that we need to be able to dialogue with our young people about what they’re being taught in school.  And when I say “school” I don’t just mean the brick building where they go five days a week from September to June!  I mean “the school of life”—which includes what goes on in that brick building, but also what goes on outside of it—in all those places where Mrs. Culture is doing her teaching.

In other words, we need to be able to talk intelligently with our youth about what’s going on in the world, and about what’s going on in their personal lives.  And we need to “shine the light of the Gospel” on those issues—which means that we also need to know what we believe as Catholics and why we believe what we believe.

It says in that second reading that Timothy knew the Scriptures from his infancy.  That was not a coincidence!  He understood the Scriptures because of his teachers, Lois and Eunice.  They taught him the truth of God’s word. 

We need to follow their example.

Now if you need some assistance in this regard, and your child happens to be in high school, encourage him or her to come to our Thursday night youth group.  This is one of the reasons Fr. Najim and I have that gathering every week: to help teens get solid answers to their questions and problems, and to limit the influence that Mrs. Culture has on their lives.

We don’t have pizza parties with our youth (at least not usually); rather, we help them to get a handle—and a healthy perspective—on their lives.

A perspective rooted in the truth of God’s word.

And then, of course, we need to pray (as today’s gospel reading enjoins us to do).  We need to pray for our young people every single day!  We need to pray that they will learn to do what Timothy learned to do: tune out Mrs. Culture and tune in to God and his truth, so that someday each of them will become what Timothy already is: a saint!

Sunday, October 09, 2016

The Importance of Working Hard at Being Grateful

Anna Pullano

(Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 9, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 17: 11-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-eighth Sunday 2016]

Last summer we attended our oldest daughter’s high school graduation.  It was a lovely celebration honoring the class of 2013, except, for us, there was no graduate.  I did not have a camera at the ready or flowers to give or anyone to meet for photo sessions afterward.  The classmate who was tragically killed in a car accident several months before was remembered and honored and greatly missed by her entire class. The classmate that would have, should have walked across the stage to accept her diploma was our girl, Anna.  The whole graduation ceremony and the remembrances of Anna were all very moving, and I tried desperately to keep back the tears.
Those are the words of a woman from Syracuse, New York named Karen Pullano.  Karen and her husband Bill, who’s a dentist, have several children, but in recent years two of them have died in tragic ways: Anna, in the car accident mentioned in that quote, and Mikey, their four-year old son, who died after a nine month battle with cancer.

I read Karen’s story in a Catholic magazine several months ago, and, when I did, two things struck me about this woman: 1) the depth of her pain—and 2) the depth of her gratitude.

Those are two realities—pain and gratitude—that we don’t normally associate with one another.  But, praise God, they can coexist.

But it requires work to make them coexist!  It requires a conscious, deliberate, focused effort to be grateful in the midst of great suffering. 

Actually, this is true even in good circumstances.  Even when God gives us great blessings in our lives, gratitude doesn’t come automatically.  In today’s gospel story, for example, only one of the healed lepers made the effort to go back to Jesus and say thank you for his healing.  Nine apparently couldn’t be bothered.  But the one who did return—the Samaritan—received an extra gift that the others did not receive (a gift that was even more important than his cure from leprosy).  He received salvation!  Jesus said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”

Sometimes when you make the effort to thank God for the blessings he’s given you, he gives you even more blessings, as was the case for this healed leper.

Of course, it requires a lot more work and effort to be grateful when something bad happens in your life—like the death of a child in a car accident or when you’re diagnosed with a terrible disease.

Yet even at those moments—by the grace of God—gratitude is still possible.  The key is to call to mind all the things you still have to be grateful for in life.

This is a lesson we learn from Karen Pullano.  In that article of hers that I quoted from at the beginning of my homily, she makes it very clear that since these tragedies have happened she’s had to battle a lot of angry, negative thoughts, and consciously work to replace them with thoughts of gratitude: thoughts of gratitude which are rooted in faith.  Listen to her words:
The graduation ceremony was especially difficult because it was a celebration of earthly achievement and necessarily included a large degree of looking forward to the next big venture in the lives of these young adults.  We have no earthly thing left to look forward to for Anna.  All our hopes and dreams for our daughter have been fulfilled and for that I am so thankful, but in bearing the day-to-day grief and loss that is ours, it is so necessary to ‘take captive every thought’ and banish the what-ifs and what-should-have-beens.  They are no longer reality and can serve no purpose, but still the thoughts come, and it takes work to focus on what is before us and what is above us. 
Being at the graduation forced us to focus on what was behind us already.  It was hard work to banish the bitter and angry thoughts and sense of total loss and unfairness and replace it with the sure and true knowledge that Anna did graduate.  She has already moved on in the ultimate way.  She has collected the scholarship—a full ride!  It took work to remind myself of all the reasons I am thankful.  It took work to recall the tremendous grace God gives me every single day.  I reminded myself that never do we hear of Mary being angry or speaking out in any way as she followed her Son to His crucifixion.  She accepted and abided.  She trusted and surrendered.
Toward the end of the article, she gets more specific about some of the things she’s grateful for in the midst of her suffering.  She says, for example:
 ·         “I am thankful for the strong and faithful man God has put beside me.”  (Referring there to her husband, Bill.)
·         “I am thankful that even as I begged and pleaded with God for my girl to be ok, that he gave me the grace and the strength to surrender to his will and his plan for her.”
·         “I am thankful that in my weakest moments I have found strength by the power of Christ living in me.”
·         “I am thankful for the will and the grace to choose truth over the lie, to choose love over anger.”
·         “I am thankful that the agony of the garden and the pain of the cross can never win and Life awaits us all.”

Karen Pullano has worked hard at being grateful—and it’s made a big difference in the quality of her life since her two tragic losses.  We need to do the same thing—especially if we’re dealing with a major difficulty or trial in our life right now.

On a personal note, this is something I’ve done quite often in my ongoing battle with my Parkinson’s Disease.  That’s because this disease has so many negatives attached to it.   It really does affect almost every aspect of your life.  Simple things that you never thought twice about all of a sudden become major issues for you: buttoning your shirt; tying your shoes; putting on a sweater; getting vested for Mass; typing on your computer; turning a page in a book; cutting a piece of meat on your dinner plate; getting out of a chair that’s relatively low to the ground.

Everyday activities like these that I always took for granted are now major concerns for me.  And even though I’m basically doing pretty well dealing with everything, there are moments when I need to step back and say, “Okay Lord, in the midst of all these negatives, in the midst of all these things that I get frustrated with and upset about, help me to see all that I have to be grateful for.  Help me to recognize your many blessings in my life—and to be thankful for them.”

And he does help me.

I encourage you to do the same thing, even if you’re not going through a difficult time right now, but especially if you are.  Sit down in a quiet spot someday soon (maybe even here in church) and ask the Lord to help you to get in touch with the many blessings he’s given to you in your life. 

And write them down!  If you do this correctly, you’ll be surprised how many blessings you come up with.  In fact, you’re sure to think of some later on that you’ll want to add to your list.  Keep adding them!  Then put the list somewhere where you’ll have easy access to it (maybe in your Bible or in a prayer book), and look at it every once in a while.  It will become a useful tool that will help you to “work” on your gratitude—especially in the difficult moments and periods of your life.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

How to Help Those Struggling with Same-Sex Attraction

Fr. Frank Francese

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 2, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 2 Timothy 1: 6-8, 13-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-seventh Sunday 2016]

When I looked at today’s second reading—this text from 2 Timothy 1—in preparation for this Mass, the first person who came to mind was Fr. Frank Francese.  As many of you know, Fr. Frank grew up in St. Pius X Parish and now serves as pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Providence.  I thought of him especially when I read this line: “Bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.”

If you’re a reader of the Providence Journal, you know what I’m referring to here.  This past Monday Fr. Frank was a part of the lead article on page 1 (which was actually more of an editorial than an article).  On the Projo web site it was entitled, “Outcry at Providence church over firing of gay music director.”  Fr. Frank, you see, relieved the music director, Michael Templeton, of his duties at St. Mary’s recently, because Mr. Templeton entered into a so-called “marriage” last year with another man. 

Please note: Mr. Templeton was not dismissed because he experiences same-sex attraction.  There’s no sin in that.  He was dismissed because he engaged in a public act that violated the teaching of Christ and caused a public scandal.  As Bishop Tobin put it, “Any person who holds a ministerial position in the Church, as an employee or a volunteer, is expected to live in a way that is fully consistent with the teachings and faith of the Church.  If an individual deliberately and knowingly enters into a relationship or engages in activity that contradicts the core teachings of the Church, that individual leaves the Church no choice but to respond.”

Fr. Frank did what he should have done.  And, knowing him as I do, I’m sure he did it in a very kind and respectful way.  He’s that type of person: loving, gentle, patient. But, of course, if you don’t know him and read the Journal article the other day you probably think he’s just the opposite: unwelcoming, uncaring, authoritarian, and not compassionate at all. 

And journalists wonder why their profession is one of the least respected in our country right now?

Those of us who have suffered because of their lies would be happy to tell them why most people feel that way about them.

The bottom line is that the editors of the Providence Journal—and those who think like they do—want the Catholic Church to change her teaching on homosexual activity and just about every other moral issue.  In other words, they want the Church to say that sin is no longer sin.

Well, it ain’t gonna happen!  The Catholic Church will never approve of homosexual activity—just like the Church will never approve of adultery, or sex before marriage that involves a “straight couple”.

The Church will never say these things are okay because the Church does not have the power to make them okay!  Listen again to what St. Paul says to Timothy in this text.  He says, “Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.”

Guard this rich trust.  The “rich trust” is the deposit of faith—the Gospel—the full Truth of Jesus Christ.  Paul was saying to Timothy (who was a young priest), “Tim, remember that you have no power to change the message.  None whatsoever!  Your job as a leader in the Church is to guard it, and live it, and teach it, and pass it on by the power of the Holy Spirit that dwells in you.”

That’s actually every Catholic’s job: to evangelize others in the true Gospel of Jesus Christ—not in their own personal version of it.

And, lest we forget, the Gospel is Good News.  It starts with a recognition of the “bad news” of sin, true enough, but it ends with the “good news” of God’s forgiveness and mercy.  And this is how we can really help those who experience same-sex attraction and then act on it: We can encourage them to seek the forgiveness and mercy of God.  We can encourage them to get rid of their sin, not cling to it.  We can encourage them, first and foremost, to make a good confession.

And if they come to me for the sacrament of Reconciliation (as many in that situation have over the years), they can be assured of the fact that I will not condemn them.  Quite oppositely, if they confess a sin that’s rooted in same-sex attraction, I will begin by commending them!  I will say, “God bless you for having the courage to bring that sin to Jesus in this sacrament.  Now you need to understand something: You need to understand that, when I give you absolution in a few moments, your sin will be taken away and will never come between you and God again.  Never!  You’ll be washed clean by the blood of Jesus Christ and make a fresh start with the Lord.  So thank God today—and praise God today—for his incredible mercy.  And never be afraid to come to the Lord in this sacrament—even if you fall into this sin again.  As Pope Francis has reminded us, God never gets tired of forgiving us, but we sometimes get tired of asking him for forgiveness.  Make sure you never get tired of asking.”

That’s the kind of thing that I would say to a homosexual person who came to me in sincere repentance in the sacrament of Reconciliation.  And you know what, my brothers and sisters?  That’s the kind of thing that ALL good priests would say in the confessional in similar circumstances—including my good friend, Fr. Frank Francese.