Sunday, October 29, 2017

Love God (Not Your Neighbor) With ALL Your Heart

Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as Juliet in the 1968 film.

(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 29, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 22: 34-40.)

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

See if you can figure out where these two quotes come from.  I’ll give you a hint: They’re found in the same well-known story:

“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

“Good night, good night!  Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.”

If, perchance, you don’t’ recognize those two lines, maybe this third one will help: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

That clarifies the matter, I’m sure.

Those, of course, are three short quotes from William Shakespeare’s classic play, Romeo and Juliet.  The play tells the story of “star-crossed lovers” (as Shakespeare calls them) who come from feuding families, but who still manage to fall in love and secretly marry.  Then, to escape from her oppressive parents, who want her to marry someone else, Juliet devises a plan to fake her own death and go off with Romeo.  She does this with the help of the Friar who had married them secretly. 

Most of us know the rest of the story.

Friar Laurence gives Juliet a special potion which makes her appear to be dead.  She’s then put into the family crypt, which is where Friar Laurence and Romeo are supposed to meet her after she wakes up, so that she and Romeo can go away without anyone pursuing them, and live happily ever after.

Unfortunately, however, Romeo never gets the message that’s sent to him explaining the details of the plan.  So when he’s told that Juliet has “died,” he thinks she’s really gone.  He decides at that point that life isn’t worth living without her, so he buys some poison, drinks it, and dies next to her in the crypt.  Juliet then wakes up, realizes what Romeo has done, and decides that she can’t live without him either, so she takes her own life by stabbing herself in the chest with Romeo’s dagger.    

A tragic ending, for sure—although the tragedy did finally stop the feud between the two families.

Too bad they waited so long to reconcile.

Now it’s very clear from the way the story is written: Romeo loved Juliet.  He loved her with all his heart and soul and mind and strength.  And, by the same token, Juliet loved Romeo with all her heart and soul and mind and strength.

AND THAT WAS PRECISELY THEIR PROBLEM!  That’s precisely what was wrong in their relationship!  Which is why in the last line of the play Shakespeare wrote these words: “For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Notice that in today’s gospel Jesus makes a distinction—a very clear and a very important distinction—between the way we’re supposed to love God and the way we’re supposed to love other human beings.  They’re not the same!  He says we’re to love God (and only God!) with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.  We’re NOT supposed to love our neighbor in that way.  And this is true even if the “neighbor” in question happens to be our husband or wife or parent or child or brother or sister or best friend!

According to Jesus, we’re supposed to love our neighbor as we love ourself.  Which is an awful lot, by the way.  To love is to “desire the good” for someone, and most of us “desire the best” for ourselves in this life.  Jesus is simply saying that we need to have that same desire for everyone else on this earth—including our enemies.

Mixing up these two commandments, like Romeo and Juliet did, is a big mistake.  It’s a big mistake because other human beings, even if they are very good, are weak and imperfect sinners: weak and imperfect sinners who will most certainly disappoint us, and hurt us, and at times maybe even abandon us.

And, of course, they will all eventually die.

Only God is always there for us; only God can be counted on never to abandon us, or hurt us, or fail us—or die.  This is why our relationship with him (a relationship that’s nourished by daily prayer and the sacraments) needs to be our number one priority in this life.  You’ve heard me say that before; you’ve also heard Fr. Najim say that many times since he became the pastor of St. Pius last year.

And here’s the very interesting irony: When we do grow in our knowledge and love of God; when we do make the effort every day to love the Lord (and only the Lord!) with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, we love other people more, not less!  Love of God doesn’t negate the love of neighbor, it actually increases our love for our neighbor.

As I was preparing this homily the person who came to mind in this regard was St. Maximilian Kolbe—the priest who sacrificed his life to save a condemned prisoner in the concentration camp at Auschwitz during the second World War. 

I’m sure most of us have heard the story before.

It happened near the end of July in 1941, when someone from St. Maximilian’s cellblock escaped from the camp.  As soon as he found out about it, the Nazi commandant decided that 10 other prisoners would be chosen at random and executed, in retaliation for the one who had gotten away.

One of those chosen was Francis Gajowniczek, a married man who had a young family. When he was picked he fell to his knees and begged to be spared—for the sake of his wife and children.  It was then that St. Maximilian stepped forward and volunteered to take his place.

And he did.

Now, if you know anything at all about St. Maximilian Kolbe, you know that he loved Almighty God a lot more than he loved any human being on this earth—including the members of his own family.  But it was precisely that intense love for God that motivated him to demonstrate his love for another human being—a person whom he didn’t even know!—in the most radical way possible: by laying down his life for the man.

“Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

My brothers and sisters, our world today is in desperate need of fewer Romeos and Juliets, and of many more Maximilian Kolbes.  May we be among that number, by living these two great commandments as they are written, as Jesus gave them to us: loving God—and only God—with ALL our heart and soul and mind and strength.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

How to Minimize the Influence of ’Professor’ Hefner

The 'Professor'

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 8, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Philippians 4: 6-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-seventh Sunday 2017]

He only had a Bachelor of Arts degree from a university in Illinois, but he was a professor—of sorts.  In fact, you could say that he’s been the most influential professor in the United States of America in the last 50 years.  His students numbered in the millions when he was actively teaching, and that number continues to grow, even though he’s now dead—since his philosophy continues to influence (some would say “infect”) many individuals and institutions in our society.  It’s even infected some people in the Church since the 1960s—leading to those clergy sex-abuse scandals of the early 2000s.  He’s been called “a hero,” “an innovator,” “a cultural pioneer” and “an advocate for free speech, civil rights—and, of course, sexual license”.  But most of all, in my view at least, he was (and in some sense still is) a teacher, a professor. 

His name (in case you’re still wondering) is Hugh Hefner.

I call him a professor for a reason.  It’s because of what professors do.  Simply put, they “mold minds.”  That’s their job.  They train their students to think in a certain way.  Engineering professors, for example, train their students to think like engineers; law school professors train their students to think like lawyers; med school professors train their students to think like doctors.

Well the fact of the matter is that for the last 5 or 6 decades no one has influenced the thinking of more Americans than Mr. Hugh Hefner has!

That’s sad; that’s tragic—but I also believe it’s true.

So, apparently, does “Theology of the Body” expert Christopher West.  In an article he wrote a few days after Hefner’s death, West said this:
To understand the mind of Hugh Hefner is, in a way, to understand the mind of our culture. Hugh Hefner was one of the most successful “evangelists” of the modern era. His “gospel” has gone out across the globe and has had an enormous impact on the way we think about ourselves and the world. And those who call themselves Christians have been far from immune from this false gospel. I would venture to say that if the average believer in the western world spilled the contents of his or her mind on a table, thoughts and ideas about the body and sex would look a lot more like the vision Hugh Hefner promoted than, say, the “great mystery” of sexual love unfolded by John Paul II.

Hefner was one of the most vocal and active leaders in the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s—a revolution that has resulted in a sky-high divorce rate, more marital infidelity than ever before, broken families, the objectification of women, an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS—and even an increased rate of cancer (since the birth control pill is a group 1 carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization, which means that it’s “a known and probable cancer-causing agent to humans”).

Thank you so much, Professor Hefner!

This makes St. Paul’s message to us in today’s second reading all the more important—and all the more urgent.  There, in that text from Philippians 4, the apostle says this:
Finally, brothers and sisters,whatever is true, whatever is honorable,whatever is just, whatever is pure,whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,if there is any excellenceand if there is anything worthy of praise,think about these things.

Think about these things.

St. Paul rightly understood that if you “sow a thought” you will “reap an action”—as the old saying goes.  If you sow and cultivate angry thoughts, for example, your actions will reflect those thoughts, sooner or later.  By the same token, if you sow and cultivate prideful or envious or lustful thoughts, certain actions will naturally follow from those.  Every action begins with a thought.

So it should be obvious: If the majority of your thoughts are shaped by somebody like Mr. Hugh Hefner, sooner or later you’ll begin to act like him (at least to some extent).

The best way to prevent this from happening, of course, is to minimize Hefner’s influence on your thoughts and on your life.  In other words, the key is to stay out of this professor’s classroom as much as possible.

I say “as much as possible” because, unless you’re a Carthusian monk and live the life of a hermit, it’s almost impossible to stay out of Hefner’s classroom completely in 2017.  That’s because the Playboy philosophy of life has influenced almost everything in modern American culture: what young people are taught in schools (public schools, and, sad to say, even some Catholic schools); what we hear on the radio; what we see on television and in movies; what we read in novels and magazines; fashion; even sports (you can’t watch a football game these days without seeing scantily clad women in the stands or in the commercials).

Because our culture is so highly sexualized, most of us are not able to stay out of Hefner’s classroom completely.  But we can certainly MINIMIZE the amount of time we spend there—if we choose to!  And here I’m not just talking about avoiding pornography (although that’s definitely part of it). 

I’m also talking about making good choices concerning what we read, and listen to, and watch, and wear.  And I’m talking about making the decision to sit in “Jesus’ classroom” every day—especially by reading Scripture and other spiritual books and publications: reading materials that will nourish our faith and not undermine it, reading materials that will fill our minds with truth, not lies.

Because there’s a lot at stake in all this!  St. Paul told the Philippians to think thoughts that were honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious and worthy of praise because he knew that those thoughts would lead the Philippians to certain actions, and those actions would ultimately have eternal consequences.

As the old saying goes (part of which I quoted a few minutes ago):
Sow a thought, reap an action;Sow an action, reap a habit;Sow a habit, reap a character;Sow a character, reap a destiny.
Lord Jesus, help us to say no to the mind-molding efforts of Hugh Hefner, which we still have to deal with each and every day even though he’s dead.  And, at the same time, give us the grace and determination to sow the right thoughts in our minds each and every day, so that we will reap a destiny—an eternal destiny—with you.  Amen.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Importance of Avoiding ‘Cheap Talk’

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 1, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 21: 28-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixth Sunday 2017]

Talk is cheap.

Many of us (probably most of us) have heard that saying before.  I don’t know its origin, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it was first used many years ago after someone read the gospel passage we just heard—this text from Matthew 21.

Because this is certainly one of the messages we get from the parable Jesus tells us here about the man with two sons.  When the man told his first son to go and work in his vineyard, the boy responded negatively.  He said, “Forget it, Daddy-O, I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

But afterward he had second thoughts, and went.

Then the man asked his other son, who said, “Right away, Pops, anything for you.”

But he never went. 

His talk was cheap—very cheap.  In fact, his word was basically worth nothing.

And you can’t get any “cheaper” than that.

Which brings me to the controversy that’s going on right now in the National Football League, concerning players who are kneeling or sitting for the National Anthem at the beginning of games—ostensibly to protest the oppression that some African-Americans feel in this country from whites, and the mistreatment of some blacks by certain members of the law enforcement community.

Now I’m not sure where you stand on this issue.  There’s no official “Catholic position” on it; it’s one of those matters that good Catholics are free to disagree on.

Personally, I think it’s disrespectful.  But that’s just my opinion.  I’m always careful in my homily to distinguish between official Church teaching and my own personal views.  Personally, I think there are better ways to address this problem.  You might disagree, and that’s certainly your prerogative.

But, regardless of what side of the issue each of us falls on, there’s one question we should ALL have for these professional football players:

What are you DOING about it?  What are you doing, PERSONALLY, to improve race relations in this country?  What are you doing to make the relationship between black young people and the police better in the city where you are blessed to play professional football? 

You see, these players—by taking a knee or sitting down or not coming out on the field for the National Anthem—are actually speaking.  They’re speaking, they’re making a statement—a clear and definite statement of protest—with their bodies.

But, as we learn from this gospel parable, TALK IS CHEAP—even when it’s that type of talk!

It means nothing, unless it’s followed by action.

And the thing is, these players are in a great position to take action and make a positive impact in the area of race relations, since their popularity usually crosses racial and ethnic lines.  For example, Patriot fans don’t like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski because they’re white; they don’t like Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty because they’re black.

They like those guys because they’re New England Patriots!

It doesn’t matter what the color of their skin is!

(Not to most people, anyway.)

These great athletes can make a difference—a very positive difference—if they choose to act in constructive ways off the football field and in their local communities.

Maybe Angela Tafone from our parish could help them.  Maybe Angela could meet with every team in the National Football League in the near future and explain to them the importance of action: the importance doing what you’re able to do to help other people in this life.

I thought of this after I received an email from Angela earlier this week.  She’s now a freshman at Rivier University in Nashua, New Hampshire.  Here’s what she wrote:

Hi, Father.
College is going well; you are in my daily prayers.  I joined the campus ministry club on campus.  A couple of Saturdays ago, we did a service day at the Ann Marie house, which is a home for families in poverty.  I got to play with the children, which was a great experience for me, being able to help others and help those families.  Afterwards, I felt rewarded that I had done the right thing, by putting a smile on the kids’ faces and being a good Christian—especially this one girl I was playing with.  She was happy even though she doesn't have a home.  Afterwards, I felt grateful that I helped these families by just making them happy and that we were there to help. I wanted to share my experience with you.  Figured you would like to hear this.  I'll be back in Westerly for Columbus Day weekend.

When it comes to Christian charity, young Angela Tafone is avoiding “cheap talk.”  In other words, she’s putting the words she speaks with her mouth about loving her neighbor as herself into action.  Consequently she’s making a positive difference in the lives of people in need in Nashua, New Hampshire.

God bless her!

May the Lord give us the grace to do that for the people he puts in our lives, and may he give those protesting NFL players the knowledge and desire they need to act in ways that will bring blacks and whites together in this country, and not tear them apart.