Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Importance of Communication in Family Life

A still from the XFINITY commercial.

(Holy Family 2017 (B): This homily was given on December 31, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 15: 1-6; 21: 1-3; Hebrews 11: 8-19; Luke 2: 22-40.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Family 2017]

“Ah, dinner—throughout history the one meal when we come together, break bread, share our day, and connect as a family.”  That’s the opening line of an XFINITY commercial that I’m sure many of you have seen in recent weeks.  It’s rather amusing.  It begins with shots of four families from the distant past sitting around their dinner tables, talking with one another and obviously enjoying each other’s company.  Then the scene shifts to a modern-day dinner table, with a dad and his two children sitting there in total silence.  That’s because dad and sis are totally focused on their smartphones and junior is doing something on his tablet.

Well, in comes mom, who sees what’s going on—and what’s not going on!—and she proceeds to pull out her smartphone and use the appropriate app to cut off the WiFi!  That, of course, gets everybody’s attention very quickly!  The daughter says, “Hey!”  Mom responds, “I paused it.” She then sits down and says, “So how is everyone?”

And that’s how the commercial ends.

I’m sure at least some of you can identify with that scene.  Perhaps to a certain extent all of us can.  It’s one of the ironies of the modern world, isn’t it?  The technology we have, that was supposed to make communication with other people better, has, in many cases, actually resulted in less face-to-face communication between living persons.  I mean, why go and visit somebody if you can just text or tweet or email them?  And that type of convenience—which on the one hand is a great blessing—has also caused many people to experience greater isolation and loneliness in their lives.   

And one of the casualties of all this is the nuclear family.  That’s why I like that XFINITY commercial so much!  The scene in that commercial is the scene in many American homes these days.  It may not always happen at the dinner table, but in one way or another everyone in the family can easily be drawn into their own little “techie-world”—shutting out everyone else (and everything else) in the process!

In the commercial, mom saves the day!  (Mom’s often do.)  Dad, unfortunately, dropped the ball.  He should have been the one engaging his children in conversation first, while mom was finishing the cooking, but he was too busy playing around with his favorite app on his cellphone.  He was as disconnected as his kids were.  Thanks be to God, mom hit the “pause button” and made sure that everyone got re-connected.

I mention this today because this weekend we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph—who remind us, like that commercial does, that communication is key in family life.  And here I mean not only communication with each other, but also communication with God.

On that note, can you imagine what a dinner at the home of the Holy Family was like?  One thing’s for sure: they never forgot to say grace!  But, aside from that, can you imagine what they talked about during their meal together?  I’m reasonably certain that, like most of us, they talked about the things they had experienced during the course of the day.  Joseph probably talked about whatever he was working on with Jesus in his carpentry shop.  Mary in all likelihood talked about whatever project she was working on in the house.  They probably talked about current events in Palestine and in the Roman Empire.  And, because the Lord was at the center of each of their lives, I’m absolutely positive that they spoke quite often about their faith, including the events we heard about in today’s Scripture readings: about Abraham—and the promises God had made to him—and how God had fulfilled those promises in the past—and how God was continuing to fulfill those promises in the present moment.  I’m sure Mary and Joseph talked to their Son about the day they brought him into the Temple when he was an infant, and what Simeon and Anna had said, and what that meant for all of them in the future.

Communication is key in family life.  It always has been.  In fact, as you will recall, when Jesus was 12 his parents unknowingly left him behind in Jerusalem and lost him for 3 days.  That distressing event happened, sadly, because of a miscommunication.  Mary and Joseph “didn’t get the memo”, so to speak.  And even when Jesus tried to explain to them why he had stayed behind, they didn’t understand.  In Luke 2: 49 Jesus says to his mother and foster father, “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Then, in verse 50, St. Luke writes, “But they did not understand what he said to them.”

Even Jesus, Mary and Joseph had to work at their communication with one another.  They were not exempt from the challenge.  Actually, the challenge was probably even greater for Joseph and our Blessed Mother, because they had to try to communicate effectively with a child who also happened to be God.

And we think we have it tough?

Let me conclude now with a few suggestions for you parents on how to improve communication in your family.  There are many good suggestions you can also find online (some at good Catholic websites); these are a few more that I came up with the other day:
  1. Follow the mom’s example in that commercial and designate special times (for instance, during meals) when all the members of your family will disconnect from their technological gizmos so that they can be fully present to one another.  If you have to, download an app so you can turn off the WiFi—like that mother did.
  2. Take your children to Mass.  But, in addition to that, pray with your children at home—starting when they’re very young and more open to spiritual things—and ask them beforehand what (and whom) they want to pray for.  This is something that could easily be done at the dinner table just before grace.  Every family member could mention one person or situation they want to pray for that day.  This is definitely a great way to open up dialogue with your children during the meal, but it also has an added benefit: it helps you to keep tabs on what’s going on in your children’s lives.  And that’s always a good thing!  For example, if something bad happened to one of your son’s friends on a particular day at school, your son will probably want to pray for that friend at dinner that evening.  Then, of course, you can ask him to fill in the details during the meal and tell you “the rest of the story” (as Paul Harvey would say).
  3. From a very young age, encourage your children to ask you questions—about anything, but especially about moral and spiritual issues.  Because if you don’t give them answers to their questions and concerns about these important matters, the world will!  And, if you’re a good Catholic, you probably won’t like the answers the world gives them—at all!
  4.  Finally, if you want better communication in your family, don’t lie!  (This one applies to both parents and children.)  Lying destroys communication, because the basis of all genuine communication is truthfulness.  If you and I, for example, are going to communicate effectively, I need to be confident about the fact that you’re telling me things that are true, and you need to have that same confidence about me.  If we can’t trust one another’s words, our communication is over before it starts!I tell teenagers, “You want to ruin your relationship with your parents?  Lie to them—and then keep on lying to them.  After a while, they won’t believe a thing that you say to them—even when you’re telling them the truth.  And it will take a long time for you to win back their trust, so that you can communicate with them effectively again.  So don’t lie.  It’s not worth it.”
Let me end my homily now with a prayer to the Holy Family that was written by Pope Francis.  I say it today for all the families represented here at Mass this morning:

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, 
in you we contemplate 
the splendor of true love; 
to you we turn with trust. 

Holy Family of Nazareth, 
grant that our families too 
may be places of communion and prayer, 
authentic schools of the Gospel 
and small domestic churches. 

Holy Family of Nazareth, 
may [our] families never again experience 
violence, rejection and division; 
may all who have been hurt or scandalized 
find ready comfort and healing. 

Holy Family of Nazareth, 
make us once more mindful 
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, 
and its beauty in God’s plan. 

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, 
graciously hear our prayer. 


Monday, December 25, 2017

Will it be Christmas Day or ‘Commerce Day’?

(Christmas 2017: This homily was given on December 25, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 1: 18-25.)

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

Was Mac Davis a prophet?

Mac Davis is an actor and a singer and a songwriter (many of us know that), but is he also a prophet?  Or, more precisely, was he a prophet back in 1978, on the day in December of that year when his Christmas special aired on network television?  Some of you might remember it. The program was called, “A Mac Davis Special: A Christmas Odyssey—2010”—and it was about the growing commercialization of Christmas.  The story was set in 2010 (which, in 1978 seemed like a long time in the future), and it concerned a married couple (played by Mac and actress Bernadette Peters) who were trying to deal with the fact that December 25 wasn't celebrated as Christmas anymore.  Christmas had been eliminated from the calendar, and it had been replaced with a winter celebration that they called “Commerce Day”—which was (not surprisingly) all about spending money, making money and accumulating lots and lots of stuff.

Consequently, December 25 was no longer about “giving”, it was about “getting”; it wasn’t about saving your soul, it was about saving a buck!

I remember seeing this program when it aired in 1978, and thinking to myself, “This show had a pretty good message.  I’ll have to be sure to catch it when it’s on again next year.”

But it wasn’t on the following year, or the year after that—or any year since!  And personally, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  I think it’s disappeared because, for a lot of people who watched it in ‘78, the message hit close to home—really close to home.  It was a comedy that made a very serious point about the dangers of materialism, and an equally serious point about the real meaning of Christmas.

I thought of this old Mac Davis Christmas special last week, when I heard the results of a recent poll taken by the Pew Research Center.  According to this poll, although 90% of Americans and 95% of Christians claim to celebrate Christmas, the role of religion in their celebrations is noticeably declining.  And that’s a bad trend—a very bad trend!  In 2013, for example, 51% of Americans said they observe Christmas as primarily a religious (rather than a cultural) holiday, but this year only 46% said it.  And the percentages are worse for millennials.  They’re much less likely than other adults to say that they celebrate Christmas in a religious way. 

And so it should come as no surprise that, according to this poll, fewer people nowadays believe in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story as it’s found in the Bible.  For example, in 2014 73% of those surveyed said they believed in the virgin birth of Jesus; this year only 66% said they did.  In 2014 81% said they believed that the baby Jesus was laid in a manger, but this year only 75% said they did.

Changing Christmas Day to Commerce Day seemed pretty far-fetched in 1978.  It no longer seems that way in 2017.  With the secularization of our culture that we’ve seen in recent years—and which is clearly evident in this poll—I can actually envision something like this happening in our country in the relatively near future.  That’s why I posed that question at the beginning of my homily: Was Mac Davis a prophet in his 1978 Christmas show?  Was he predicting something that will eventually take place?

I certainly hope not!

Here we see how important it is that we as Catholics keep our focus—our spiritual focus—during this holy season.  We have to remind ourselves constantly of the primary reason why Jesus Christ came into this world 2,000 years ago.  And no, it wasn’t to help us save money at Macy’s!  He came to save us from the eternal consequences of our sins!  As the angel said to Joseph, “You must name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

His name means “Savior”—and that’s what he was.

And still is!

The famous English writer G.K. Chesterton was once asked why he became a Catholic at the age of 48.  He responded by saying, “To get rid of my sins.”

That was a very good answer.

Perhaps the reason why many people today ignore the religious dimension—and the religious roots—of Christmas is that many people today either ignore their sins, deny their sins—or try to rationalize them away.

They don’t see the need to have a Christ-centered Christmas because they don’t see the need for Jesus Christ—period!

Even though they have that need.

And so do we.

Which is really what makes Christmas so special.  John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Insert your name in place of “the world” in that verse, modify it slightly, and it still will be true: “For God so loved Fr. Ray, that he sent his only Son, so that if Fr. Ray believes in him he should not perish but have eternal life.”

I don’t know about you, but I want eternal life with Jesus Christ a lot more than I want a big screen TV from Walmart!

Jesus came to make that life possible for all of us.  He said, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

But we need his forgiveness constantly in our lives in order to attain that abundant life, simply because we sin constantly.  That’s why we Catholics should thank God for the gift of confession.  This was the sacrament that enabled Chesterton “to get rid of” his sins!  Bishop Sheen used to say that when a priest raises his hand to absolve someone in confession the blood of Christ is dripping from his fingers (spiritually speaking, of course!).  One drop of that precious blood can heal any sin and every sin.  It’s a shame when people stay away from the sacrament because of pride or fear.  They miss out on the greatest gift God has given to us and to the world since the fall of Adam and Eve.

It’s always great to meet someone who does appreciate the blessing of a good confession—and then experiences it in a powerful way.  A while back a man came into the confessional, confessed some “heavy-duty” sins that had been weighing him down for a long time; and then, before I gave him absolution, he said, “You know, Father, this was really tough, but when I leave here I know I’m gonna be flying.”  (He meant that, too, in the spiritual sense!)

And he did.

The next day I happened to run into him in town, and I said, “Are you still flying?”

He smiled and said, “Yes, I am!”

He understood the gift.

I’ll close this Christmas Day with a little meditation that I think summarizes the message of this homily pretty well.  I’m sure some of you have heard it before.  It begins:

If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent a Savior.

My brothers and sisters, if enough people come to believe that in the near future, we won’t ever have to worry about Christmas Day becoming Commerce Day (or anything else, for that matter).  And, happily, Mac Davis will be forever known to the world as a great actor and singer and songwriter—but not as a great prophet.

Merry Christmas. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Three of the Best Choices You Can Possibly Make in this Life

(Third Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 17, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 61: 1-11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; Luke 1: 46-55.)

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

This morning I’ll share with you three of the best choices you can possibly make in this life—courtesy of St. Paul.  They’re found in the first line of today’s second reading from 1 Thessalonians 5, where Paul says: “Rejoice always.  Pray without ceasing.  In all circumstances, give thanks.”

Rejoice—pray—give thanks.

And just to drive home the idea that these three choices—these three decisions—are extremely important for us to make, Paul adds the line, “For this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus”.

That’s a pretty bold statement, is it not?

To say that you know the will of God for another human person (or for a given group of people) is a very “gutsy” thing to do.  You had better know what you’re talking about!

Which, of course, St. Paul did.  He knew exactly what he was talking about!  He knew that Almighty God wants each of us to live a meaningful, holy, happy life (to the extent that happiness is possible here on this earth)—but St. Paul also knew that living that kind of life was impossible without rejoicing, prayer and gratitude.

So let’s look at each of them briefly, so we understand what Paul is telling us in this text—and what Paul is not telling us.  He begins by saying, “Rejoice always”.  Not sometimes; not every once in a while; not just on sunny days in June or July—but ALWAYS!

Here we see the difference between “feeling joy” and “rejoicing”.  Feeling joy is something emotional.  Specifically, it’s an emotional response to something that pleases us.  Children, for example, will see their presents under the tree on Christmas morning and they will feel joy.  That will happen quite naturally.  And if they’ve been particularly good during the previous 12 months, they will feel a lot of joy!

Rejoicing is different—very different.  Biblically speaking, rejoicing is not an emotion or an emotional response to something that we find attractive or pleasing.  Rejoicing in the Bible is an act of the will.  It’s a choice.  It’s a decision.  It’s a choice and decision to praise and glorify God regardless of what we happen to be dealing with at the present time in our life.

And it’s a decision which is made on the basis of things that we know to be true.

I don’t always “feel joy.”  Neither, I suspect, do you, and neither does anybody else.  But even when I’m not feeling joy I can still make the conscious and deliberate decision to rejoice, based on what I know, by faith, to be true.

I know by faith, for example, that God created me in his image and likeness.  I know that he loves me perfectly, completely and unconditionally.  I know he sent his Son into this world 2,000 years ago to save me from my sins and to give me a kingdom that will last forever.  I know that he will never abandon me, and will always provide for my needs.  I know he will always forgive me no matter how many times or how badly I sin, if I go to him in true repentance—especially in the confessional.

Those are some of the foundational truths of our Catholic faith.  They were true yesterday; they’re true today; they will always be true. 

They’re true when we’re feeling joy, and they’re true when we’re not feeling joy. So we can always rejoice in them, because they are unchanging!  They’re timeless!  My health may change, my family may change, my friends may change, my job situation may change—but the truth of who God is and what he has done for me will never, ever change.

Notice what Isaiah says in today’s first reading.  He says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord.”  Not in the things of this world; not in the good circumstances that I happen to be experiencing in my life right now, but “in the Lord.”  Mary says the same thing in today’s responsorial psalm (which really isn’t a psalm; it’s part of her Magnificat).  Mary says there, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

So you want to know why so many people find it difficult to rejoice at this time of year?

It’s because they’re attempting to rejoice in something or in someone other than God!  They’re attempting to rejoice in the people and the things and the changing circumstances of this world!

Mary and Isaiah—and St. Paul—knew better than to try to do that.

Now hopefully we do as well.

After he tells us to rejoice always, Paul then tells us to make the choice to “pray without ceasing.”

What is that all about?  Is St. Paul telling us that we should be saying “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” at every moment of every day?

No, he isn’t.  He didn’t do that himself!

Prayer has been defined as “raising your heart and mind to God.”  Well, that’s something we can choose to do throughout the day—even when we’re not at Mass or saying formal prayers like the Rosary.  Perhaps you’ve never thought of this before, but the fact of the matter is: to the extent that we make the Lord the reference point for what we say and do in our daily life—to that extent we’re raising our heart and mind to him!  For example, if we’re constantly trying to discern and carry out the will of God during the course of the day, we’re actually maintaining a prayerful spirit even if we’re not at Mass here in church, or saying formal prayers, or making a holy hour.

In that sense, it is possible to pray “without ceasing.”

Which brings us to the third choice St. Paul tells us to make.  He says, “In all circumstances, give thanks.”

In my Thanksgiving Day homily this year I spoke about Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who’s spent the better part of his professional career researching the subject of gratitude (what it is; why it’s important; how to cultivate it in our lives, etc.).  His work is so well-respected that some people have gone so far as to call him “the world’s leading scientific expert” on the subject.

Well, after studying more than 1,000 people of various ages (from 8 to 80), Dr. Emmons has reached the conclusion that giving thanks is beneficial to us in many different ways.  He puts the benefits he’s discovered into three separate categories: physical, psychological and social.  He says that, physically speaking, people who cultivate gratitude in their lives …
  • ·         Have stronger immune systems
  • ·         Are less bothered by aches and pains
  • ·         Tend to have lower blood pressure
  • ·         Exercise more and take better care of their health
  • ·         Sleep longer and feel more refreshed when they wake up

Psychologically they …
  • ·         Have higher levels of positive emotions
  • ·         Are more alert, alive and awake
  • ·         Experience more joy and pleasure
  • ·         Have more optimism and happiness

Socially they …
  • ·         Are more helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • ·         Are more forgiving
  • ·         Are more outgoing
  • ·         Feel less lonely and isolated

So I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that Dr. Emmons suggests that we spend some time giving thanks each and every day of our life, without exception.

St. Paul, I think, would highly approve!—although he probably would add that gratitude also has spiritual benefits, in addition to the ones mentioned by Dr. Emmons.

“Rejoice always.  Pray without ceasing.  In all circumstances, give thanks.”

Three of the best choices we can possibly make in our lives.

May the Lord help us to make those choices every day—and reap the benefits.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Dan Mattson and the Transformative Power of a Good Confession

Dan Mattson and his book

(Second Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 10, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8.)

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

Daniel Mattson is a 47-year-old man who has experienced same-sex attraction in varying degrees since he was 6-years-old.  He was baptized a Catholic, but during his youth his family left the Catholic Church and joined an evangelical Protestant community.  Not surprisingly, Dan eventually abandoned Christianity altogether.  In his autobiography, which I’m currently reading, he talks very candidly about how, over a number of years, he came to reject God, identify himself as gay, and adopt the gay lifestyle.  Clearly, he was looking for love and happiness in his life—and that was great.  Everyone does that!  However, because of his woundedness (a woundedness rooted in his past experiences), he was looking for that love and happiness in all the wrong places.  As he said in his book:
In my life, the seeds of my same-sex attraction are all clear to me: seeds sown with my neighbor when I was a boy, seeds of teasing and alienation from other boys, seeds of envy stemming from doubts about my body, seeds from gruff men and a father who sometimes intimidated and scared me, and seeds from rejection from women, as well as a mother who had an unhealthy and controlling attachment to me because of her own wounds.
Throw a large dose of pornography into the mix, and you have the formula for producing a very misguided and mixed-up young man.

That was Dan Mattson.

What led him back to God—and ultimately back to the Catholic Church—interestingly enough, was his experience of suffering: his experience of suffering after a couple of broken relationships (one with a man, the other with a woman).

In an attempt to help Dan deal with his pain, his Catholic godparents invited him to attend the national conference of Courage, which was being held that year on the campus of Villanova University.  Courage is a Catholic organization that provides pastoral care and support to men and women who experience same-sex attraction, but who have made the choice to live chaste lives by following the teachings of the Catholic Church.

His participation in that conference—and specifically in the opening Mass—is what changed his life.  As he said in his book, “Before the Mass began, I wasn’t a practicing Catholic.  But somewhere during the hour-long Mass, I decided to be reconciled with the Church.”

Of course, that meant he had to go to confession, which he did.  Listen now, to his description of that experience and what it meant to him:
I saw a priest who was free and walked up to him nervously. “Father,” I said, “I haven’t been to confession in over 30 years. I’m not sure what to do.”He guided me through the process with fatherly love and compassion. I told him everything. Everything, from the very beginning—all my moments of shame, all of my moments of addiction, all the furtive search for happiness in the dead ends of sexual pleasure. I poured out a lifetime of sin and sorrow in one liberating moment of emancipation and release.And then he raised his hand above my head and said the most glorious words anyone has ever said to me [the words of absolution].I had never felt so free, so liberated in all my life. These weren’t empty words; I experienced joy—abundant, ebullient, and overpowering joy—as he said those words. The words of the priests have power, given to them from Christ while he was still among us, after he was raised from the dead, a power unimaginable: the power to forgive sins. …As I left the priest to go back to my pew I knew truly that all of my sins had been forgiven, through the grace of Christ and power of the priest to forgive sins. I knew this just as surely as the Roman centurion who, on the day of Christ’s last breath on the Cross, as St. Matthew tells us, said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” I knew that here, at last, my sins had been forgiven.I went to bed with joy and peace in my heart, looking forward to the next day when I would finally be able to partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
I tell you this story today for a reason.  Notice who’s back with us this morning: John the Baptist—John the Baptist, with his message of repentance.

John makes an appearance every Advent and every Lent in at least one of our Sunday gospel passages.  It doesn’t matter which cycle of readings we’re in—cycle A, cycle B or cycle C—John is always there preparing the way for Jesus.  That, of course, was his role in salvation history, as prophesied by Isaiah in today’s first reading, and reiterated by St. Mark in this gospel.

John was sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make straight his paths.”

That means, quite simply, that if you want the Lord to have a “straight path” into your heart, if you want Jesus to be more fully present in your life, you need to heed the words of John the Baptist and repent of your sins.

There’s no other way.

That’s what Dan Mattson came to understand at that Mass during the Courage conference.

It’s also what St. Peter believed when he wrote today’s second reading.  It’s what moved him in that text to urge us to take advantage of God’s patience and to turn away from our sins now!  He wrote, “[The Lord] is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”  Later on he added, “Be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”

As eager as Dan Mattson was at that conference!

I also told Dan’s story today because it says something important to us about confession.  Confession is the normal way for Catholics to have their serious sins forgiven after Baptism.  It’s a great gift from God, through which we can respond to the call of John the Baptist to turn away from our sins.

And yet we can so easily neglect the gift or take it for granted, can’t we?  That’s the thought that came to me as I read Dan’s story the other day. 

Here’s a guy—Dan Mattson—who did not take the gift for granted!  Here’s a guy who had his life transformed because (unlike many Catholics today) he made an honest—and thorough—confession of his sins in the sacrament.  He didn’t make excuses for what he had done; he didn’t hold anything back; he didn’t rationalize his sins away; he didn’t fail to confess something that he knew deep down inside he needed to confess.

He put it all out there!  He brought every serious sin he could possibly remember to Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior, through the priest—and Jesus took all those sins away, giving Dan a joy and a peace in his heart that he had never known before. 

John the Baptist would love it!  John the Baptist would highly approve.  John the Baptist would be greatly pleased.

Which brings us, at last, to the really important question of the day: Would he—would John the Baptist—be just as pleased with us when we go to confession?

Friday, December 08, 2017

Being Immaculate: An Experience for Mary, an Expectation for Us

(Immaculate Conception 2017: This homily was given on December 8, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 1: 26-38.)

[For the audio versioon of this homily, click here: Immaculate Conception 2017]

If you look up the word “immaculate” in the dictionary, you’ll find definitions like these:
  • 1.    Having no stain or blemish.
  • 2.    Pure.
  • 3.    Undefiled.
  • 4.    Having or containing no flaw or error.
  • 5.    Spotlessly clean.
  • 6.    Correct or perfect in every way.

For our Blessed Mother Mary, being immaculate was an experience; for you and for me, being immaculate is an expectation.

And that’s the difference between Mary and us in a nutshell.

Her “immaculateness” began to be experienced at the moment she was conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Ann—which is the event we commemorate on this feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Remember, the Immaculate Conception does NOT refer to the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary—which is what many people mistakenly believe.  The event that led to Jesus’ virginal conception is called “the Annunciation.”

The Immaculate Conception prepared Mary for the Annunciation and for everything that came afterward, but the Immaculate Conception itself refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother.  Here’s how Pope Pius IX defined the dogma: “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin.”

But Mary’s immaculateness didn’t stop there.  It continued throughout her life and into eternity!  She said yes to God at every moment of her life and consequently never sinned.  She was, as the angel Gabriel said, “Full of grace.”  And so, all those definitions of “immaculate” that I listed a few minutes ago apply to her entire life, spiritually speaking: she had no stain or blemish (on her soul); she was pure, and undefiled, and without flaw, and spotless—and morally perfect!

Now this is something we can understand intellectually—that Mary was born without original sin and was free from sin throughout her entire life.  But that’s as far as we can go, because we don’t have an experience of “immaculateness” in our earthly lives that’s comparable to Mary’s. 

The closest we come to it is at the moment of our baptism, when original sin is taken away and we receive the gift of sanctifying grace into our soul.  But even then—even after we’re baptized—we still have to deal with concupiscence, which remains in us even after original sin is taken away.  Mary never had to deal with concupiscence because she never contracted original sin in the first place.

Concupiscence is the inclination to sin—the inclination to sin that we all experience every day.  It’s what St. John was alluding to when he wrote about “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”  It’s what St. Paul was getting at when he spoke of “the flesh” rebelling against “the spirit”.

Concupiscence is what got Matt Lauer and Al Franken and Harvey Weinstein into trouble recently.  Concupiscence is what makes it so easy for us to lie, and cheat. and steal, and swear and hold grudges—and make excuses for our sins.

This is why I said at the beginning of my homily that for our Blessed Mother Mary being immaculate was an experience (it was a spiritual condition she lived in), but for us it’s something different.  For us, being immaculate is an expectation (that is to say, it’s something we look forward to in faith!).

We won’t be immaculate in the sense that Mary was immaculate until we get to heaven and are finally purified of every sin and of every sinful desire.  In a sense, that’s the bad news.  But the good news is we can grow closer to that goal right now in this life, if we make our relationship with Jesus our top priority and repent of our sins often (yet another reason to go to confession on a regular basis).

The “collect”—the opening prayer—of today’s Mass said it perfectly.  It made reference both to Mary’s experience of being immaculate and our expectation of being made so.  We heard these words a few moments ago:
O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son, grant [that] … through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence.
So today let our simple prayer be, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, that our expectation of becoming immaculate like you will someday be fulfilled.  Amen.”

Sunday, December 03, 2017

’Watching Lessons’ from a ‘Watching Dog’

Summer at the front window: "He's back!"

(First Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 3, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 13: 33-37.)

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

What does Jesus mean when he tells us to “watch”—as he does in today’s gospel text from Mark 13?

What kind of “watching” is he talking about here?  Is it the kind of watching we do at a football game?  Or at a movie?  Or when we turn on the television set?

The answer, of course, is no.

Jesus is talking here about something a lot deeper: something which involves our eyes, for sure—but not only our eyes.  For Jesus, “watching” involves everything about us: all our thoughts, and words, and actions.  It involves our entire personhood.

To “watch” in the sense that Jesus uses the term in this Scripture passage means “to prepare yourself for a personal encounter—a personal encounter with the living God that will definitely happen, although you don’t know when.”

In speaking to us here about his second coming at the end of the world, Jesus says, “Watch, therefore: you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at the cockcrow, or in the morning.  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.  What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

In other words, Jesus is saying, “Prepare yourself!  Prepare yourself for the ultimate encounter with me that every human being will have, either at the end of time (if you live that long), or at the moment of your physical death (if you don’t happen to survive until the end of time).  And do everything possible to remain in that state of preparedness—always!”

This past Monday we had a funeral Mass here at St. Pius for a 51-year-old man who died suddenly and tragically at work.  I’m sure many of you know the story.  When that man woke up on the morning of November 20, 2017, he didn’t know that the “Lord of the house” was coming for him that day.

But the Lord did come.

You never know.

That’s why “watching”—that’s why being prepared to meet the Lord whenever he does choose to come—is so important.

Let me share with you now a few insights on how to be a good “watcher” courtesy of one of the very best “watchers” I know: the pastor’s dog!  Yes, you heard me correctly: one of the best “watchers” I know is Fr. Najim’s golden doodle, whose name is Summer.  So you might want to entitle this homily: “Watching Lessons from a Watching Dog”—although in Summer’s case she doesn’t watch for Jesus, she watches for her master (who’s at the center of her universe, as Jesus is supposed to be at the center of ours).

Her watching, first of all, is constant—as Jesus said ours is supposed to be.  When Fr. Najim is not around, Summer is always waiting (and usually looking) for him to return.  In fact, when he comes over to church for Mass in the morning, she’ll very often take a seat on the couch in his office and stare out the front widow—totally motionless—waiting for him to come out the front door of the church and back to the rectory.  And she’ll stay there for the entire Mass!  I’ve tried on several occasions to coax her away from the window—to no avail.  She’ll just turn her head to look at me, and then turn right back to window.

Wouldn’t it be great if we “watched” for the Lord in our lives with that same kind of devotion? 

For Summer, Fr. Najim is number 1, no doubt about it.  She likes me—and the rectory staff—and the children at the school—and pretty much everybody else.  But, in her eyes there is no one like her master!  For her, he’s in another category entirely—just like the Lord is supposed to be in his own category for us!  Jesus said we’re to love God (and only God) with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.  He’s to be first in our lives.  And yet, how often do other people and other things (like sports) take first place?

If we want to be a good “watcher”, we have to follow Summer’s example and put our master—our heavenly Master—where he belongs on our priority list. 

And we have to be attentive to him and his word—as Summer is attentive to Fr. Najim and his word.  I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that in a room full of people, Fr. Najim is the one she will acknowledge first and listen to!  Yes, she’ll eventually make the rounds to try to get everyone in the place to pet her and give her some affection, but when her master is present, he gets her attention before anyone else does.

And that’s the way it should be!  Just as when Jesus is present with us here at Mass (in word and in sacrament), he deserves our attention—our full and undivided attention!  And yet, how often are we thinking about other things when we’re here (what we’re going to do after Mass; what we did before Mass; how much more Christmas shopping we have to do; what we’re going to have for lunch)?

Summer doesn’t get distracted in the presence of her master; we need to pray not to get distracted in the presence of ours.

Now this is not to say that the relationship Summer has with her master is perfect.  It’s far from it.  Without getting into all the colorful details, let me simply say that there have been times when Fr. Najim’s golden doodle has needed to “repent” (as much as dogs can) for something she did when her master wasn’t looking!  On more than one occasion I’ve seen her walking around the rectory with her tail between her legs.

But, thankfully, her master has always forgiven her for her transgressions.

Our divine Master will also forgive us for ours, if we repent—as hopefully we all will during this season of Advent, by receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation.

Remember: to “watch” means to prepare yourself for a personal encounter with the living God at the end of your life or at the end of time—whichever comes first.  Well, since we’re all sinners, being forgiven for your sins is essential to that preparation process.  It’s not optional!

It can’t be.

Which brings us to the biggest difference between Summer and us with respect to “watching”—and I’ll conclude with this thought:

The “watching” Summer does in her life is done by nature, by instinct.  Her daily vigil at the window; her devotion to Fr. Najim; her attentiveness to his words; her “repentance” for her “sins”—these are all instinctual responses.  And that’s fine, because she’s a dog.

But for you and for me, watching is a decision—a personal decision—a personal decision, rooted in grace, for which we are responsible before God.

May the Lord help us, therefore, to make that decision, today and every day.