Sunday, April 23, 2017

Where do you draw the ‘Mercy Line’?

Are these men beyond the 'Mercy Line'?

(Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Year A): This homily was given on April 23, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 2: 42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Peter 1: 3-9; John 20: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Divine Mercy Sunday 2017]

Where do you draw the line—the “mercy line”?

The mercy line marks the point beyond which, in your view, mercy should NOT be offered to a person:  If you do such-and-such a thing—if you cross this particular line in your behavior—you should not be offered any mercy by God.  None whatsoever!  Justice—yes; vengeance—perhaps; but mercy—no.

Where do you, personally, draw the “mercy line”?  One way to answer that question is to identify some of the people who, from your perspective, have actually crossed the line.

No doubt many men and women nowadays would have at least a few world leaders on their list: people like the communist dictator of North Korea, who reportedly has had his half-brother and hundreds of other people murdered in recent years to secure his power; and the current President of Syria, who used chemical weapons on his own citizens recently—including young children.

Or how about the guy from Cleveland who took a video of himself killing a 74-year-old man on the street the other day, and then posted the video of the murder on Facebook?

Would he be on the bad side of your “mercy line”?

Today, of course, is the Second Sunday of Easter, which means it’s “Divine Mercy Sunday”.  It’s officially been such since Pope John Paul II put this feast on the Church’s liturgical calendar in the year 2,000—although it was celebrated unofficially even before that.  Actually, you could say that we celebrate and focus on divine mercy every single day in the Catholic Church, since the primary reason that Jesus Christ came to this earth 2,000 years ago—and suffered, and died, and rose again from the dead—was to bring us the mercy and forgiveness of God! 

This was a core part of “the teaching of the apostles” that the early Christians were devoted to, as we heard they were in today’s first reading from Acts 2.  It’s summarized beautifully in our second reading from 1 Peter 1, where our first pope says:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hopethrough the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith.
And this mercy of God—which “endures forever” (as our responsorial psalm today reminds us)—was extended by Jesus to Thomas in this famous gospel story from John 20.  Thomas had refused to believe in the resurrection of Jesus after the other apostles told him they had seen our Lord on Easter Sunday night.  But Jesus gave Thomas a second chance a week later.  In his tremendous mercy, our Lord gave Thomas the opportunity to repent, and believe—and change!  Please note: Jesus didn’t have to give him that opportunity; he didn’t “owe it” to Thomas (if he had owed it to him, it would have been an act of justice to give him a second chance).  It’s precisely because Jesus did not owe Thomas anything that his act became an act of mercy.

The Lord did not draw a “mercy line” with Thomas when Thomas doubted his resurrection.  Nor does he draw a “mercy line” with us when we sin.  That’s good news.  Of course, the corollary to all this is that if God doesn’t draw a mercy line with you or with me, then neither does he draw that line with anyone else—including people like the totalitarian leaders of North Korea and Syria, and the Cleveland Facebook murderer.

Mercy is available to us, as long as we have breath within us.  The key is to reach out for it and to receive it like Thomas did—which is something that we Catholics do in a powerful way whenever we go to confession.

And then we have to show mercy to others—which is the hard part, as you are all well aware.  But it’s also absolutely necessary, if we want to go to heaven someday!  Remember, in the Lord’s Prayer we tell God that we want him to have mercy on us just like we have mercy on others: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  I hope you realize, if we’re not willing to make at least an attempt to forgive other people, then every time we pray the Our Father we’re actually telling Almighty God not to forgive us!

And that’s not a very good idea!

In this regard, I was so impressed when I read some of the comments made by the children of Robert Godwin the other day.  (Godwin is the 74-year-old man who was killed by the Facebook murderer.)   In an interview with CNN his daughter Tonya said, “Each one of us forgives the killer, the murderer.  We just want him to know that God loves him, we love him.  Yes, we’re hurt, but we have to forgive him because the Bible says if we don’t then the heavenly Father won’t forgive us.”  Another daughter said, “I honestly can say right now I hold no animosity towards this man because I know he is a sick individual….I promise you I could not do that [forgive] if I did not know God, if I didn’t know him as my God and Savior.  I could not forgive that man.  And I feel no animosity against him at all.  I actually feel sadness in my heart for this man.”  Finally, his son, Robert, Jr. said, “One thing I do want to say is I forgive him, because we are all sinners.  Steve, I forgive you man.  I’m not happy with what you did, but I forgive you.”

Those are three extraordinary responses to an extraordinarily evil act.  I share them with you today because I think they show us that extending mercy to another person is possible, even in the most horrific of circumstances.  Yes, it’s difficult—extremely difficult—but it’s still possible by the grace of God.

I’ll end now with the question I began with: Where do you draw the “mercy line”?

The Lord never draws one—even for the most evil person on the planet—on this side of the grave.  Robert Godwin’s children, amazingly, haven’t drawn one with respect to the man who brutally murdered their father.

If we have drawn mercy lines for some of the people in our lives (which is very easy to do!), then I would say that we need to pray very hard at this Mass for the grace we need to erase them.

Friday, April 14, 2017

God Has Redeemed Us 'from Head to Toe'

(Good Friday 2017: This homily was given on April 14, 2017 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 2017]

“From head to toe” God loves us.  That’s the powerful message of the cross of Jesus Christ.  We often say that Jesus died to save our souls—and that’s right, he did die to save our souls.

But not our souls only!  Our Lord poured out his blood on Calvary 2,000 years ago to redeem our bodies as well, since our bodies also suffer from the consequences of sin—especially in physical death.

And our bodies are destined to be raised up—resurrected—at the end of human history.

The bottom line is that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, has redeemed us in the totality of our personhood: soul AND body.  Or, to put it another way, he’s redeemed each of us literally from the top of our head to the tips of our toes.

And this is visibly attested to by the wounds he suffered on Good Friday.  You know, God could have chosen to redeem us and bring us forgiveness in some other way.  As St. Augustine once said, “Other possible means were not lacking on God’s part, because all things are equally subject to his power” (On the Trinity 8:10).  And, as St. Thomas Aquinas put it, “It was possible for God to deliver mankind otherwise than by the passion of Christ, because nothing shall be impossible for God (cf. Luke 1:37).”

But it was fitting that the Lord redeemed us as he did.  First of all, it was fitting because with our wounded human nature we can all tend to doubt the love of God at times—and the cross of Jesus makes the love of God crystal clear: “Greater love than this nobody has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

And, secondly, it was fitting that Jesus redeemed us in this way because the wounds he suffered on Good Friday 2,000 years ago point us to the sins that we need to be forgiven for and redeemed from today, in 2017.

His head, for example, was crowned with thorns, for our sins of mind and speech: for the angry thoughts, the violent thoughts, the lustful thoughts, the selfish and greedy thoughts—and for the words that come out of our mouths because of those thoughts.

In a sense you could say that all these sins of thought and word can be forgiven, because of that wound.

His hands were pierced with nails, for all the sins we’ve committed with our hands.  There’s an old saying, “Sow a thought, reap an action.”  Jesus’ head was crowned with thorns for our bad thoughts, and his hands were wounded for the sinful actions that proceed from those thoughts.

The skin of his back was literally torn to shreds in the scourging they gave him before the crucifixion.  Because of those wounds we can be forgiven for the times when we’ve turned our backs on God, and on members of our families, and on other people in need.

His heart was pierced with a lance, to bring us forgiveness for the times that we haven’t loved God with all our heart; for the times we’ve put other things—and other people—before the Lord; for the times we’ve missed Mass without a good reason; for the days we’ve said we were “too busy” to pray.

And, finally, his feet were nailed to the cross for the times we’ve failed to avoid the near occasion of sin in our lives: for the times that our feet have taken us into—and not away from—situations where we knew we’d be tempted to do things that we shouldn’t do.

So today, above all else, is a day to be grateful—extremely grateful.  It’s a day to thank God for choosing to redeem us in such a powerful and meaningful way.  That gratitude, of course, if it’s real, will ultimately lead us to repentance—and to the sacrament of Penance—to receive the mercy that Jesus was wounded in these ways to give us.

Hopefully we all do that on a regular basis.

I’ll conclude now with a poem I wrote during Lent this year.  It summarizes, I would say, the message I just shared with you in this homily.  It’s entitled, appropriately enough, “From Head to Toe,” and it goes like this:

A halo not of light divine
But of thorns to pierce his head—
For all my sins of thought and word
Which I too little dread.

Hands that healed the sick and lame
And calmed the raging sea—
Nailed for the times my selfish hands
Have served well only me.

His back is torn to shreds with whips,
Leaving a bloody mess—
For the times I’ve turned my back on him
And my neighbor in distress.

His heart filled with a precious love
Which the world cannot contain—
Pierced with a lance because my heart
Is to its passions chained.

His feet which walked on water,
Now to a cross are firmly bound,
For the many times my feet have gone
Where sin I often found.

From head to toe his body
Hanging there on Calvary,
Proclaims the saving message that
God gave his all for me.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Making Holy Week ‘Holy’ for Ourselves

Outdoor Stations, Good Friday 2006

(Palm Sunday 2017 (A): This homily was given on April 9, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.)

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

I won’t give a regular homily this morning (because of the length of the Passion narrative we just heard), but I will ask you to reflect seriously on one very important question:

What will you do to make this Holy Week “holy” for yourself? 

In Hebrew the word for holy literally means “to be set apart”.  And that’s a great definition, because when we say that somebody is “holy,” we’re really saying that they’re different—that they’re “set apart,” in a certain sense, from other people.  We’re saying that they’re more faithful, more loving, more virtuous, and more obedient to God than the average person is.

And that includes the average believing person.

Well, we call this week “Holy Week” for a similar reason.  We call this week “holy” because it’s supposed to be different; because it’s supposed to be “set apart” from the other 51 weeks of the year.

That means for us Christians it’s not supposed to be business as usual for the next 7 days!  This, after all, was the week that our salvation was won for us.  This was the week when God demonstrated in the most powerful way possible how much he loves us.  This was the week that made it possible for us to receive forgiveness for our sins, regardless of how numerous and bad they might be.  This was the week that made heaven possible for us and for every human person.

The more we can break away from our daily routines and consciously enter into the Holy Week experience—in other words, the more we make Holy Week “holy” for ourselves—the more we give God the opportunity to transform our minds and hearts by the power of his saving grace.

So here are a few suggestions on how to do that.  Here’s the Holy Week schedule at St. Pius:

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday 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.  Confessions will be heard during our Wednesday Holy Hour, from 5-6pm.  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.  (Please note: There will be no 5pm Mass next Saturday.)  Masses on Easter Sunday will be at the normal Sunday times: 7, 8:30 and 10:30am.

What will I do to make this Holy Week “holy” for me? 

Make sure you answer that question today for yourself, and adjust your schedule accordingly.  It will be worth it, because when we do in fact make Holy Week holy for ourselves, we give Almighty God the opportunity to make us holy for himself—or at least to make us a little bit holier than we are right now.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

A Spiritual Insight from the Rolling Stones: Don’t Try to Get on Earth What You Can Only Get in Heaven!

The Rolling Stones in 1964.

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on April 2, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 27: 12-14; John 11: 1-45.)

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

I can’t get no satisfaction.

If you were around back in 1965 and listened to your AM radio on a regular basis (like I did), then you know what that is: it’s a line from an old Rolling Stones’ song that made it to Number 1 that year.

I can’t get no satisfaction, I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no—oh no, no, no …

(Just be thankful I didn’t try to sing that!  I spared you all an extra Lenten penance!)

Now there are very few times when I will look to the Rolling Stones for a spiritual insight—but this is one of those rare occasions.  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are definitely not my philosophers of choice, but I believe they’re onto something here.

Because the fact of the matter is, I “can’t get no satisfaction” in this life, and neither can you.  Here I mean perfect satisfaction, perfect fulfillment, perfect happiness—which I think was what Jagger and Richards were getting at when they wrote those lyrics.  Of course, in one way or another, many of us do try—and try—and try—and try to attain perfect satisfaction during our time on this earth, but we always end up falling short of the goal.

And we always will—on this side of the grave.

The perfect will come only when the words of today’s first reading are fulfilled for us: when the Lord “opens our grave,” so to speak, and gives us eternal life in the resurrection.

That’s reality.  That’s the truth.  The problem comes when we, consciously or unconsciously, fail to accept this truth and conduct our lives as if we can find perfect satisfaction here.  That’s a problem not only because it can lead us into serious sin, but also because it can lead us to experience incredible frustration—the kind of frustration that we can almost “feel” in the lyrics of that song: “I try, and I try, and I try, and I try—but I can’t get it!”

This kind of unrealistic perspective on things can also blind us to the many blessings the Lord has given to us—and is giving to us—in our life.  Let me give you an example of what I mean.  I visited a 77-year-old woman in the nursing home recently.  She was there, not as a permanent resident but rather for some physical rehabilitation.  And she was understandably down when I saw her.  She’d much rather be home—and healthy—and have her independence back. 

We’d all feel the same way, I’m sure, in similar circumstances.

But as we talked that day, I discerned that this woman also had some unrealistic expectations—unrealistic expectations about the level of satisfaction she’ll be able to attain during her remaining years on earth.  And I discerned that those unrealistic expectations were affecting her emotionally—and even spiritually—in a negative way.  So I said to her at one point:

It’s very clear to me that you have a desire for perfect health and perfect happiness—and that’s good!  God put that desire in you; it’s really the desire for heaven.  But you can’t expect that kind of perfection here.  Here on this earth we’re never going to be perfectly satisfied—and we’ll only get frustrated if we think we can be.  You told me that you were diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer 25 years ago—a cancer that very few people beat.  But you did.  You told me that more recently you were diagnosed with another form of cancer, but that you’ve responded very well to the treatments they’ve given you.  Praise God!  You have a lot to be grateful for.  But that’s still not enough, is it?  You’re not perfectly satisfied.  That’s because we don’t just want some health, we want perfect health. 
You just showed me some really nice pictures of your great-grandchildren.  What a blessing!  You know, my mother died 24 days before her first grandchild was born—so I know what a great gift it is to see grandchildren born into this world.  And here you’ve been blessed to see your great-grandchildren.  But that’s not enough, is it?  It’s never enough.  Even if you were blessed to see your great-great-great-great-great grandchildren born into this world, that would NOT completely satisfy you—nor should it. 
This world wasn’t made to completely satisfy us!  Only heaven can do that.

I mention all this today because of this gospel story we just heard: the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Of all the miracles that Jesus performed during his 3-year earthly ministry, this one was certainly the most extraordinary, the most spectacular.  Yes, he had raised others from the dead prior to this (like the daughter of Jairus, and the son of the widow of Nain), but in this case the guy had been dead for four days!

And yet, as incredible as this miracle was, it did not completely satisfy.  It did not bring complete satisfaction to Martha, or to Mary—or even to Lazarus.

That’s because this resurrection was only temporary!  Yes, Lazarus was raised from the dead—yes, he walked out of his tomb at the command of Jesus after being in the grave for the better part of a week.  But, lest we forget, Jesus brought Lazarus back to THIS life—this earthly life—this imperfect life—this temporal, mortal existence.

Consequently, Lazarus knew that he would eventually have to die again!  He knew that even as he was walking (or maybe I should say, “shuffling”) out of the tomb.  Martha knew it, too—as did Mary and everyone else who was there that day.

So, as happy as they all must have been, they were definitely not perfectly satisfied!

But now they are!  At least Martha and Mary and Lazarus are!

They’re perfectly satisfied because they’re now sharing fully in the resurrection of Jesus Christ—the resurrection to eternal life that was prefigured and foreshadowed in this miracle of the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

So the bottom line is this (and I’ll conclude with this thought):  Don’t try to get on earth what you can only get in heaven.
That’s the Lord’s message to us today at this Mass: Do not try to get here on earth what you can only get in heaven. 

If we keep in mind the fact that perfect satisfaction is for heaven only, chances are we’ll keep things in perspective here on earth, and we’ll make the effort to stay on the narrow road that leads to God’s eternal kingdom.

If, on the other hand, we try to find our ultimate satisfaction here in this life, in all likelihood we will find ourselves “singing along,” so to speak, with the Rolling Stones.

And that, in this case at least, is not a happy song to sing.