Sunday, March 26, 2017

’Making Judgments’ versus ‘Judging Souls’

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on March 26, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Samuel 16: 1-13; John 9:1-41.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2017]

“Making judgments” versus “Judging souls”.

That’s a distinction—a very important distinction—that Dr. Edward Sri makes in his book, Who am I to Judge?

The problem is, not enough other people in the world today are making this distinction.  Consequently, in 2017, if you dare to point out that somebody’s action is wrong or sinful, in most instances you’ll immediately be accused of “judging” that person!  And if Christians are the ones doing the accusing, they’ll usually follow up their accusation with a quote from Jesus, who once said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

You might even be accused of hating the person in question, simply because you’ve pointed out their sin and expressed your disapproval of what they’ve done.

Dr. Sri would say that this kind of verbal exchange happens so often these days because so many modern men and women have confused “Making judgments” with “Judging souls.” 

Judging souls is what we’re forbidden to do.  That’s what Jesus meant—that’s what Jesus was getting at—when he said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

To judge another person’s soul is to pretend to know where they stand in their relationship with God.  It’s to imply that you know whether they are in the state of grace or in the state of mortal sin—hence whether they would go to heaven or hell if they died at this moment. 

But we can never know those things as human beings—because we’re not God!  As today’s first reading reminds us, only the Lord sees into the heart.  Even if another person has done something that’s objectively seriously sinful, we can’t know whether or not they’re fully culpable for that sin before God.  As Dr. Sri says in his book, “A soul’s status before God is something between that person and God alone.  Various factors in people’s lives may impair their free choices in such a way that limits their culpability or moral guilt. As Pope Francis explains, ‘Each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without.’”

Making judgments, on the other hand, is a totally different story.  Making judgments is something we do all the time.  We do it about moral matters and pretty much everything else in life!  Whether you realize it or not, you’re even making judgments right now, during this homily.  You’re making a judgment as to whether it’s good, or bad—or worse!  You’re making judgments as to whether or not you like it, whether or not it’s too long, whether or not it’s boring, and whether or not you agree with what I’m saying.

And that’s normal.  That’s human.  That’s to be expected.

At this point I should let you know that if you do make the judgment that my homily this morning is lousy, too long, incredibly boring—and that you agree with none of it—I promise you that I will not interpret that to mean that you hate me.

And yet, as Dr. Sri points out in his book, that’s the logic that many people today follow—people who confuse “making judgments” with “judging souls”.  They think you hate them, if you make a judgment that a behavior they’ve engaged in is wrong or sinful.

Don’t believe me?

Just tell your friends at work or in school that homosexual actions are sinful, and see what kind of response you get.  In all likelihood, at least some of them will accuse you of hating gay people and “judging them”.  Now in reality you may not have a hateful bone in your entire body.  But that doesn’t matter.  You’ve made a judgment that something they’ve done is wrong, so you hate them.  Period.

That’s the logic.

A couple of years ago I was talking with a college student about this very issue, and I was trying to help him understand that you can vehemently disagree with someone’s behavior without hating the person. 

And I was getting nowhere. 

Finally I said to him, “Let me ask you a question.  Do your parents love you?”

He said, “Of course they do.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Well," I said, "do your parents approve of everything you do?”

He smiled a little, and said, “No.”

I said, “Then they must hate you!  You’re saying to me that Catholics hate gays 
because they disapprove of some of the things that gay people do.  Well, according to that logic, your parents must hate you, because they sometimes disapprove of some of the things that you do.”

I think that finally opened his eyes to the truth—at least to some extent.

I mention all this today because our readings this morning present us with an example of someone making a judgment, as well as an example of a group of people judging a soul.

In today’s first reading the prophet Samuel makes a judgment.  Unfortunately it ends up being the wrong judgment, but it’s a judgment nonetheless.  One day God tells Samuel to go to the house of Jesse of Bethlehem in order to anoint one of his sons as the next king of Israel.

So Samuel goes.  When he gets there, he immediately meets Eliab, one of Jesse’s eight sons.  Now we’re not told much about this particular boy in the text, but I think it’s pretty safe to assume that he was, physically speaking, a very impressive character—because when Samuel sees him the first thing he does is MAKE A JUDGMENT!  He makes the judgment that this must be the one the Lord has chosen.  He was probably saying to himself, “This has to be the guy.  He even looks like a king!”

Of course, as so often happens, the Lord chooses the least likely candidate for the job—in this case, David.

We see the appearance; the Lord sees into the heart.

Which brings us to today’s gospel story about the healing of a man who had been blind from birth.  Here we encounter an example of a group of people judging a soul.

In the minds of first century Jews, there was a direct connection between sin and suffering.  Consequently, if you were suffering with an infirmity like blindness (as this man was), it meant that either you—or someone very close to you—must be guilty of committing a serious sin—or a number of serious sins.  Now it’s clear from the story that even the Apostles believed this at the time, because when they saw the blind man the first thing they asked Jesus was, “Whose sin caused this man’s blindness?  Was it his own sin, or was it the sin of his parents?”

They made a judgment, and, as was the case with Samuel, the judgment was wrong.  Jesus said to them, “Neither he nor his parents sinned …”

But the Pharisees took it one step further—which was the real problem.  They not only made the erroneous judgment that this man was blind because he had done something seriously sinful, they also—from all external indications—judged the man’s soul.  They pretended to know where the guy stood in his relationship with God—something which was impossible to know (as I indicated earlier).  This attitude of judgment came through most clearly in the last thing the Pharisees said to the healed man before they tossed him out of the synagogue.  They said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?”  In other words, “You’re obviously someone that God doesn’t love—since he caused you to be born blind.  As far as we’re concerned, you’re on your way to hell.  So who are you to be giving us lectures?  We’re the chosen ones.  We’re the enlightened ones.  We’re the ones God loves!”

Making judgments/Judging someone’s soul

The first is okay to do—even when you’re making a judgment about one of my homilies.

The second is never okay to do—even when the person in question is considered to be a terrible sinner.

Two principles to remember, and, even more importantly, two principles to try to live by.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Abraham—and Immigration

(Second Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on March 12, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 12: 1-4.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Lent 2017]

Abraham was an immigrant.

That’s something to keep in mind in the midst of the controversy surrounding immigration that we're seeing in our country right now.

Abraham—our father in faith, our great spiritual ancestor—was an immigrant.

That’s clear from what we read in the Book of Genesis, beginning with the passage we heard today in our first reading, where Abraham is commanded by God to leave his native place—which was the city of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia.  God says to him, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.”

That land, of course, was the land of Canaan—a land “flowing with milk and honey”—also known to us as the Promised Land.

And it’s clear that, when he finally did make it to this land that God would someday give to his descendants, Abraham understood that he was, at that point, a foreigner.  For example, in Genesis 23, after his wife Sarah dies, Abraham goes to the Hittites and says to them, “Although I am a resident alien among you, sell me from your holdings a burial place, that I may bury my deceased wife.”

As Catholics, we are all spiritual descendants of a great and courageous immigrant of the ancient world—the patriarch Abraham.  In addition to that, most of us (if not all of us) are the natural descendants of immigrants from other countries in the modern world. 

Some of us might even be immigrants ourselves.

Because of that—because this issue of immigration is one which has touched us all in some way—I thought it would be good idea this morning to briefly review with you what the Catholic Church teaches on the subject.

That’s important for us to know.

Now let me be clear about something before I get into this: My purpose in my homily today is not to propose concrete solutions to the current problems involving legal and illegal immigrants in our country.  Quite frankly, I’m a priest and that’s not my role.  Hashing out those particulars is the job of the legislative and executive branches of our government.  And it’s not easy!

This is one reason why we constantly pray for our civil leaders in our Sunday prayers of the faithful; and it’s why we should remember our president, our governor, and our state and national legislators in our personal prayers every day!  Wisdom is needed to find the right answers to the many questions surrounding immigration and the securing of our borders—and wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

So our leaders need the Spirit’s help—whether they realize it or not!

But even though I won’t offer any specific solutions this morning, what I will do is share with you briefly the Church’s official moral teaching on how to deal with immigrants from other countries.  That, after all, is my role as a priest!  I do it because even here in our own state there’s been a lot of confusion lately about where Catholics should stand on these kinds of issues. 

No doubt one of the reasons for all the confusion is that the Church in her teaching doesn’t propose specific laws (nor should she!).  Rather, she merely sets forth the moral principles that should guide a given society in making its laws.  This means that good people can embrace the same guiding principles, and yet disagree on some of the particulars of a given law.  We’ll see some examples of that in a moment.

Now whenever we have a question on what the Church actually teaches on a specific subject, the first place we should look is the Catechism.  With that in mind listen to what the Catechism says in paragraph 2241:
The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.  Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. 
Political authorities for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption.  Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.
The first point made there is that prosperous nations have a moral obligation before God to welcome at least some foreigners into their countries.  Well I think it’s safe to say that we are one of the more economically blessed nations on the face of the earth right now, so clearly this message applies to us.  Of course, it’s interesting, the Catechism immediately qualifies this principle by saying that we are obliged to welcome foreigners to the extent we are able to.  There, obviously, is one issue that good people can and will disagree on: Where do we draw the line in terms of numbers?  How many immigrants are too many?

Now the corollary to this first principle is that nations also have the right—as well as the duty—to secure their own borders!  Please hear this: The idea of people sneaking over national boundary lines whenever they feel like it is not a Catholic idea!  It’s not something the Catholic Church supports!  As the Catechism says, “Political authorities . . . may make the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions”—like passing through a border checkpoint, and having the proper government documentation!

Does this mean that a wall is needed on our southern border with Mexico?  No, it doesn’t necessarily mean that. Here’s yet another example of an issue that good Catholics can disagree on.

Border security, however, is not negotiable!  In some form, that IS necessary according to Catholic teaching!

The Catechism goes on to say that those who are welcomed into another country should receive respect, appropriate help and legal protection.  That idea, along with every other principle of Catholic moral teaching, is rooted in the notion that every human being has a fundamental, God-given dignity—since every human being is made in the Lord’s image.

But notice that it’s not a one way street!  Immigrants are to be respected and helped and protected, yes—but according to Church teaching they also have duties and responsibilities to the citizens of the country that’s been good enough to take them in!  Among these are the responsibility to obey the country’s laws (including, I dare say, its immigration laws and its anti-terrorism laws) and “to assist in carrying civic burdens” (that includes paying taxes like the rest of us).  So it’s obviously a good idea to vet those who are seeking permanent residence in our country, to weed out potential criminals and terrorists and others who have no intention of fulfilling their duties and responsibilities as immigrants.

Our government has the obligation to do that for the safety of our citizens, and for the sake of the good people who want to come to the United States for a better life.

So there you have it, the basics of Catholic Church teaching on a very complicated—and a very controversial—subject.  Because of the complexities and strong emotions surrounding this issue right now, I think it would be good to close today with a prayer to our Blessed Mother—who is called “the seat of wisdom”: that our civil leaders will be given the wisdom to find a way to keep our citizens safe and, at the same time, welcome the “Abrahams” of our world into this “land flowing with milk and honey” that we’re all blessed to live in: the United States of America.

And so we pray: Hail Mary …

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Ash Wednesday 2017

This homily was given on March 1, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  It is available in audio form only.
To listen to it, click here: Ash Wednesday 2017
Here is my poem ...


Forty days of interruption
To lives grown comfortable:
Lives built on shifting sand,
Instead of solid rock.

It’s a journey through the desert,
To confront both self and sin,
And renew a sacred friendship,
Or raise it from the grave.

It’s a time for introspection,
For charity and prayer:
Look in, look out, look up—
To forge love’s holy bond.

It requires perseverance,
And sincerity of heart,
To stay the course and not give up,
When that temptation comes.

For those who make this journey,
And let the season bear its fruit;
These forty days will always be
A most blessed interruption.

                          Fr. Ray Suriani