Sunday, July 30, 2017

How ALL Things Work for Good for Those Who Love God

(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 30, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Romans 8: 28-30.)

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

“Brothers and sisters: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

St. Paul tells us that in today’s second reading from Romans 8.

But, how can this be true?  Realistically, how is this possible, given all the evil that’s present in the world?

  • ·         How, for example, can experiencing hatred work for someone’s good?  (In other words, how can anything good come out of something as evil as hatred?)
  • ·         How can experiencing envy work for someone’s good?
  • ·         How can being lied about, or being in prison, or being a slave, or being torn away from your father, or almost being murdered by people in your own family: how can any of these things work for a person’s good—even if the person loves Almighty God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength?

For the answer to those questions, my brothers and sisters, we need to go to Joseph.  No, not Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, but rather Joseph, the Patriarch—one of the twelve sons of Jacob—whose story is told to us in the Old Testament Book of Genesis.

I say that we need to go to Joseph because he experienced every single one of those evils I just mentioned: hatred, envy, slavery, prison, etc.

Most of us, I’m sure, know at least the basic outline of his story, but for the benefit of the few who might not …

Joseph was the eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons: the child of his father’s “old age,” as the Bible puts it.  But, even though he was number eleven on the birthday list of the sons of Jacob, Joseph was number one in his father’s heart.  And Jacob made that abundantly clear to everyone, especially when he gave Joseph a special tunic to wear.  (Some of you may remember the musical that was named for that event: “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”)

Joseph’s older brothers hated and envied him for the relationship he had with his dad—so much so that they actually hatched a plot to kill their brother, throw his dead body into a cistern, and then tell his dad that he had been eaten by wild animals.  Thankfully they thought better of that plan, and decided instead to sell Joseph to some Ishmaelites who happened to be passing by one day on their way down to Egypt.

There Joseph became the slave of Pharaoh’s chief steward, a man named Potiphar, whose wife thought that Joseph was kinda cute.  So she tried to seduce him—several times!  (See what interesting stories you can find in the Bible!  Yet another reason to read the Scriptures!)

Anyhow, when she failed to have her way with Joseph, Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of sexually assaulting her, and had him thrown into jail—where he remained until the day he was asked to interpret a dream for Pharaoh.  The dream, according to Joseph, predicted seven years of bountiful harvests which would be followed by seven years of famine.  Pharaoh accepted the interpretation, and proceeded to make Joseph the number two man in the entire nation of Egypt!  He then put him in charge of stockpiling food for the next seven years, so that there would be enough food to last for the seven lean years.

And Joseph did it.  He did it so well, in fact, that people from outside of Egypt came to him to get food during those seven lean years, since the famine wasn’t just affecting the Egyptians.

Well guess who showed up one day looking to buy some grain.  That’s right: his ten older brothers.  They didn’t recognize him, but he sure recognized them!  It was the perfect chance for some “payback”; it was the perfect opportunity for Joseph to finally get his revenge—to get revenge for all those things I mentioned at the beginning of my homily: the hatred, the envy, the attempted murder, the slavery, the prison, the lying, the separation from the father he loved so deeply and who so deeply loved him.

But that’s not what Joseph did.  Yes, he did put his brothers to the test a couple of times, but in the end he forgave them and revealed himself to them.  And when he did reveal his identity, he said something that makes it clear that he believed this truth which St. Paul expressed so beautifully in Romans 8:28: that ALL THINGS work together for good, for those who love God.  Listen to these words from Genesis 45:

“Come closer to me,” Joseph told his brothers. When they had done so, he said: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.  But now do not be distressed, and do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here.  It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.  The famine has been in the land for two years now, and for five more years cultivation will yield no harvest.  God, therefore, sent me on ahead of you to ensure for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.  So it was not really you but God who had me come here; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”
“It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.”  Joseph could see beyond all the evil he had experienced to the good that God had brought out of that evil.  Now please do not misunderstand.  He wasn’t happy about the evil—he wasn’t thrilled that he hadn’t seen his dad in years or that he had been a prisoner and a slave—but he was able to see how even those injustices and sufferings and trials had worked together for his good—and not only for his good, but also for the good of many other people, both in and out of Egypt.

“We know that ALL things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Notice it does not say there that everything that happens to God-loving people is good—because it’s not true.  Joseph (and many others) have shown us that sometimes very bad things happen to godly people.  But by God’s grace even those bad things can work for a godly person’s ultimate benefit, and for the ultimate benefit of many others.

This even applies, believe it or not, to our sins—if we repent of them, confess them and turn away from them.

St. Paul has shown us that.  After his conversion he used his forgiven sins for good, by talking about them when he was trying to encourage other people to seek God’s mercy—especially those who might have thought that they were beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness.  In First Timothy 1, for example, he wrote:
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, that he has made me his servant and judged me faithful.  I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance; but because I did not know what I was doing in my unbelief, I have been treated mercifully, and the grace of our Lord has been granted me in overflowing measure, along with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.  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 be an example to those who would later have faith in him.
“That I might be an example …”  That was Paul’s way of saying, “If God can forgive me for all I did in my past life, he can forgive anybody—including you.”

“For those who love God ALL things work for good.”

This is a truth, my brothers and sisters, that many of us don’t reflect on often enough—so I invite you to do that sometime during this coming week.  When you have fifteen or twenty minutes of time (and we all do), sit down in a quiet place (maybe a church or a room at home) and reflect on the significant events of your life (the good ones, the bad ones—even the painful ones), and ask the Lord to help you to see how all these experiences have worked for your good, and for the good of those with whom you share your life.

And when God does help you to see those good things—those gifts—those blessings—please do remember to thank him. 

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Loss of Childhood Innocence and What We Can Do About It

(Fourteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 9, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 11: 25-30.)

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

Life is Beautiful is an Academy Award winning movie that was released back in 1997.  Pope John Paul II saw it at the time in a private screening, and it quickly became one of his favorite films.  The story itself is set in Italy, just before and during the Second World War. 

About halfway through the film, the main character, a Jewish Italian waiter named Guido, and his young son, Joshua, are taken away to a concentration camp.  The remainder of the movie deals with Guido’s many attempts (some of which are quite funny) to shield his son from the horrible reality of the situation they're in.  For example, when they’re on their way to the camp, Guido tells Joshua that his dad once took him on a “trip” like this, and that if he stays quiet, and doesn’t cry and obeys all the rules, he will win points.  And when he accumulates 1,000 points, he will win the first prize: a real tank that he can ride on.  Little Joshua believes what his father tells him; consequently for the remainder of the movie he thinks he’s a participant in a game rather than a prisoner in a death camp.

It’s a great story!  It’s a great story of a man who loves his son so much that he wants to protect the boy’s innocence—at almost any cost.  Guido doesn’t want his precious child to be wounded and corrupted by the evil that’s literally all around him, and so he does whatever he can to shield him from it.

We need more men and women today who have this same protective attitude toward young people, many of whom are having their innocence stolen from them at a very young age: through what they’re exposed to on television, on the internet, in movies, in popular music, in school, through their friends—and, sad to say, even sometimes by what they’re exposed to in their own families!  As Judie Brown, the president of the American Life League, put it in an article I read recently:
On a daily basis, we see the innocence of children eroded. Television, Internet articles, and social media combine to allow children to enter a world of sexualization [and, I would add, a world of violence] at an earlier age – and adults and parents just seem to accept this. Indeed, even some embrace it and welcome it into their schools and their homes. When will we realize the damage we are doing? When will we say enough is enough?
 She goes on in that article to talk about an America’s Got Talent program that she and her husband had recently watched—a program in which a 12-year-old boy proceeded to come on stage, tell dirty jokes, and then get a standing ovation from many of those in attendance.  She writes:
What's wrong with this picture? A 12-year-old child shocking only some and sending an audience of hundreds to its feet is perhaps a tiny peek into the culture we live in today.
Unfortunately, because our culture is what it is at the present time, it’s nearly impossible to completely preserve a child’s innocence—unless, of course, you lock that child up for the first 18 years of his or her life (which, incidentally, I am not advocating!).  My point here is that even the best parents and teachers and priests and friends can’t shield a young person from every negative influence that’s out there right now.

Although we can do some things to limit what children are exposed to (like restricting their internet access).

And we MUST do these things if we really love our young people--because their relationship with Almighty God hangs in the balance (both their relationship with him here on this earth, AND their relationship with him in eternity)!  You see, Jesus makes a connection in the Bible between childlike innocence and openness to God.  For example, in today’s gospel text from Matthew 11 our Lord says,
I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,for although you have hidden these thingsfrom the wise and the learnedyou have revealed them to little ones.Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
Then later, in chapter 18 of Matthew, Jesus says these famous words:
Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
According to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, innocence and openness are closely connected in the spiritual realm—which is precisely why these assaults on the innocence of children are so prevalent today!  They’re not coincidental.  They’re part of Satan’s strategy: his 21st century strategy against the human race.  The devil knows that the more innocent a person is—that is to say, the less influenced and corrupted a person is by evil—the more open that person will be to God’s transforming grace.  So he’s desperately trying to destroy innocence in as many people as possible as early on as possible, in order to gain a foothold in their lives.

Because he knows that if he can gain a foothold—and keep it—he can eventually take their souls.

Which is always his ultimate goal.

So what about those who have completely lost their innocence in this way—is there any hope for them?  And how about the rest of us who’ve been negatively affected by the day-to-day evil we’ve encountered in our lives?  Is there any hope for us to be more open to God?

Thankfully the answer to both those questions is yes!

Here’s where the beauty and power of the sacrament of Reconciliation come into the picture.

Confession, unfortunately, cannot restore every aspect of childhood innocence.  That’s the bad news.  You can’t go back in time and start all over again. 

But the good news is that confession can restore the most important aspect of childhood innocence, namely, SANCTIFYING GRACE: that’s the grace that makes us pleasing to God; it’s the grace that makes us open to God; and, most important of all, it’s the grace that makes us ready for heaven!

So if you’ve lost your innocence to any extent whatsoever, make sure you get to confession SOON—and have your innocence restored, to the extent that it can be restored in this life.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Respect, Courtesy and Hospitality

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 2, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I.,  Read 2 Kings 4: 8-11, 14-16a; Matthew 10: 37-42.)

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

In a book I was reading this past week, I came across the following little story:

During the second month of nursing school, a professor gave the students a quiz. One of them was a conscientious student who had breezed through the questions, until she read the last one, “What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?” Surely, this was some kind of joke. Everyone knew that the cleaning woman was tall, dark-haired, and in her 50s, but they did not know her name. The student handed in her paper, leaving the last question blank. Just before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward the grade. “Absolutely,” said the professor. “In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello.” The conscientious student later commented, “I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy.”

Respect.  Courtesy.  Hospitality.  The professor in that story understood and believed in all of those things.  So, of course, did Jesus, who spoke to us in today’s gospel about the importance of showing hospitality and respect toward prophets, the righteous and all those who call themselves his disciples.  He says that those who do so will be rewarded for their efforts (if not here on this earth, then most certainly in eternity).  But Jesus, as we know, didn’t limit charity to believers only.  In the mind of our Savior, every human person is to be loved and respected: “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”

Even in the Old Testament we see the importance of respect, courtesy and hospitality.  We see it in stories like the one we heard in today’s first reading from 2 Kings 4: this story of Elisha the prophet and the childless Shunammite woman, who showed Elisha hospitality by welcoming him into her home whenever he happened to be traveling in the area.  God rewarded her for her efforts by blessing her with a son.  The promise Elisha made to her at the end of this story was, indeed, fulfilled.

Which brings us, finally, to our modern world and to our current cultural situation here in the United States of America.  If you look up the words respect, courtesy and hospitality in a modern dictionary of the English language you will certainly find them there.  And they will be properly defined.  (At least in most dictionaries they will be!)

The problem is that very few people seem to believe in these things nowadays.  The sad reality is that to a growing number of men and women in this country right now respect, courtesy and hospitality have become words on a piece of paper—and nothing more.  Nowhere has this been more evident in recent months than in the worlds of entertainment and politics.  And it’s not just the uncharitable tweeting that’s been taking place back and forth to and from the White House! …
  • ·         Comedienne Kathy Griffin has a photo taken of herself holding a fake, severed head of Donald Trump, and she thinks it’s funny!  
  • ·         Madonna talks about wanting to blow up the White House!
  • ·         A crazy man shoots a congressman on a baseball field because he doesn’t agree with the congressman’s political views
  • ·         College students riot because they don’t like the person who’s been invited to speak at their school

All this, my brothers and sisters, is not only disrespect and a lack of courtesy and hospitality—it’s insanity!

And the scary thing is, this insanity is fast becoming mainstream—which means it’s beginning to manifest itself not only in Hollywood and Washington.  This disrespect and craziness is beginning to manifest itself more and more frequently in our schools, at athletic events, in social gatherings, in workplaces—and in families.

Which means we need to address it PRONTO—before it destroys us as a nation.

“But what can I do, Fr. Ray?  I’m just one person.”

Actually, each of us can do a lot!  No, as individuals we don’t have the power to transform our entire society in a positive way.  But we each can do our personal part to help make it happen.

For example, here are some simple, everyday activities that we can engage in on a regular basis: actions that will help to promote respect and courtesy and hospitality toward other people (this, by the way, is not an exhaustive list—these are just a few suggestions):
  • ·         Stop your car when people are trying to cross the street in a designated crosswalk (that’s courtesy—plus it’s the law!)
  • ·         Allow someone to go ahead of you in traffic every once in a while—or in the church parking lot
  • ·         Refuse to use ethnic or racial slurs—ever!
  • ·         Say “please”—and “thank you”
  • ·         Write thank you notes to people who give you special gifts
  • ·         Pay more attention to the people you’re with and less attention to your cell phone
  • ·         Turn your cell phone off in church—even if the organist doesn’t ask you to do so
  • ·         Don’t text when you drive
  • ·         Try to be on time for things (including Mass!)
  • ·         Speak about people in authority respectfully, even if you don’t like the things they say and do (young people, that includes your parents!)
  • ·         When you disagree with someone, stick to the issues and avoid arguments directed against the person himself or herself
  • ·         When you see somebody new at church, say hello
  • ·         When you’re in a social setting where you notice someone being left out of the conversation, try to find a way to include them in it
  • ·         Support the right to life of every human person, from natural conception to natural death
  • ·         Oppose euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide
  • ·         Support immigration (that is to say, legal immigration!)

These are all simple but important things that we can do in our lives right now to counter the disrespect, discourtesy and lack of hospitality that are infecting our American culture at the present time.

May God grant us the grace—and the determination—to put these suggestions into practice, to the extent that we can.

Oh yes, one more thing before I close: the people who clean the church each week are named Tom and Sylvia—just in case someone asks you that question on a test in the near future.