Thursday, March 29, 2018

Peter’s ‘Rough Start’ in the Priesthood, and what that means for Priests Today

Peter denies Jesus

(Holy Thursday 2018: This homily was given on March 29, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 12: 1-14; Psalm 116: 12-18; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2018]

Peter’s priesthood had a rough start.  After Jesus gave the apostles the power to consecrate the Eucharist at the Last Supper (when he said to them, “Do this in remembrance of me”), Peter almost immediately got into a verbal dispute with Jesus (we heard about that a few moments ago in this gospel text from John 13).  A little later that same night he was reprimanded by our Lord, fell asleep on the job, denied his Savior three times and ran away in fear.

Not exactly what I would call “a promising ministry”.

This is why you need to pray for your priests.  Every day!  You see, we priests have been given a great gift—a great power.  We have the power to call upon Almighty God, and have Almighty God respond!  We call upon the Lord to become present to us at Mass, and that’s exactly what he does!  God the Son responds by becoming present to us—Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity!  We say, “I absolve you from your sins,” and the worst of sins committed by the worst of sinners are immediately taken away.  We have been given the power to act “in persona Christi” (in the person of Jesus Christ himself!) when we celebrate the sacraments. 

And yet, we retain our humanity—warts and all!  Consequently, if we’re not careful, and vigilant, and prayerful, and disciplined, we can become just like Simon Peter on Holy Thursday night, and give in to our weaknesses.  And, believe me, we all have them. 

The Catechism puts it this way:
This presence of Christ in the minister [here meaning the priest] is not to be understood as if the latter were preserved from all human weaknesses, the spirit of domination, error, even sin. The power of the Holy Spirit does not guarantee all acts of ministers in the same way. While this guarantee extends to the sacraments, so that even the minister's sin cannot impede the fruit of grace, in many other acts the minister leaves human traces that are not always signs of fidelity to the Gospel and consequently can harm the apostolic fruitfulness of the Church.
I’ll give you one example tonight of this phenomenon, one example of how easily we priests can give in to our weaknesses.  Recently, a big controversy erupted at my alma mater, Providence College.  It involves a 22-year old senior Resident Advisor named Michael Smalanskas (I think I’ll just call him “Michael S” from now on—that last name is a real tongue-twister!).  Michael’s “sin”—his horrible, reprehensible, politically-incorrect sin—was to post a bulletin board in his dorm upholding traditional marriage.  On the top of the board it says “Marriage: The Way God Intended It”.  Then at the bottom it says, “One Man” on one side, and “One Woman” on the other.  There are a couple of good quotes on it, one of which is, “Marriage should be reinforced, not redefined.”  Another is from Pope Francis, who said, “We must reaffirm the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.”  There’s even a quote from Jesus in the Gospel of Mark: “And the two shall become one flesh …”

There’s no attack on anyone, no name-calling, no hateful, vulgar language—just a basic affirmation of the truth: the truth that the Catholic Church has taught for 20 centuries, and which, until a few years ago, almost everyone (including atheists) believed.

Now, given the fact that Providence College is a Catholic school run by the Dominican Fathers, there should be no problem with a student publicly supporting traditional marriage in this way—right?


Michael S has been threatened, and harassed, and publicly vilified on campus by some of his fellow students since he did this.  A few weeks ago, someone even put a cartoon of him being sodomized on the wall of the bathroom of his dormitory.  In one article I read he was quoted as saying, “I couldn’t even go brush my teeth for several nights without facing a mob in my hallway.”

Of course, the president of PC, Fr. Shanley, and the many other priest-professors there at my alma mater immediately came to the defense of Michael S.  Right?  And, like good professors, they used this incident as an opportunity to educate their students, and clarify what the Catholic Church really teaches about those who experience same-sex attraction:
  • ·         that they’re children of God, made in his image;
  • ·         that they are loved with an eternal love, just as they are;
  • ·         that they’re redeemed by the blood of Christ;
  • ·         that they’re called to holiness, and, ultimately, to eternal life with God in heaven;
  • ·         and that they deserve the same respect that every human being deserves. 

These priests went on to tell their students that it’s no sin to experience same-sex attraction, but it is sinful to engage in sexual activity—of any kind—outside of marriage (which, of course, can only be between one man and one woman).

This is what Fr. Shanley and the majority of priest-professors at PC did for their students in response to this controversy on campus: they defended traditional marriage, and helped their students to understand the “what” and the “why” of Church teaching on this issue.



That’s what they should have done, but didn’t do. 

Instead far too many of them have been either silent or weak in their responses. For example, in the letter he wrote to the PC community last week, Fr. Shanley said, “It belongs to a Catholic college to consider the views of those who disagree with the Church’s teaching in the spirit of the disputed question.”

Yes, that’s right.  For a comprehensive education, it’s important for you to consider opposing views (like Thomas Aquinas did in his Summa Theologica)—but first you need to be grounded in the truth, like Thomas Aquinas was grounded in the truth!

But many of these young students aren’t!  They don’t understand the truth about marriage, so they see the teaching of the Church as just one opinion among many other opinions.  Thus they have no problem rejecting it.

As I said at the beginning, we priests need prayers—lots of prayers, because it’s very easy for us to be like Peter on Holy Thursday night and give in to our human weaknesses (as I’ve hopefully made clear in this homily).

And I’m not just pointing the finger at Fr. Shanley and the Dominicans at PC here; I’m also pointing the finger at myself.  I’m as weak as anyone else, and I know there have been times when I’ve allowed my weaknesses, and not my faith, to guide me in my ministry.

Of course, I do find hope—for myself, for the priests at PC, and for all priests—in the fact that Peter’s priesthood didn’t end on day 1!  Yes, he began in weakness and sin on Holy Thursday night in Jerusalem, but he ended in strength and virtue and holiness many years later in Rome.  A rough start, but a strong finish. And, in between, Peter learned to “live strong” in his priesthood, by the power of God’s grace.    

So, please, pray for your priests!  Pray for them to become strong in their faith, and to live strong in their faith, and to finish strong in their faith, so that they can help you (and all the people of God) do the same thing.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Is Jesus Worth It?

(Palm Sunday 2018 (B): This homily was given on March 25, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 50: 4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2: 6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Palm Sunday 2018]

Of the four gospel accounts of the Passion, St. Mark’s (the one we just heard) is the shortest—which, of course, means that my homily can be much longer today.

Just kidding.

Today I’ll focus on just one, simple question.  It’s a question that every Christian faces during Holy Week each year: Is Jesus Christ worth it?  To me, is Jesus Christ worth it?

We definitely know how the woman who anointed Jesus at the house of Simon the leper 2000 years ago would have answered that question.  It’s clear from the gospel reading we just heard.  As we were told a few moments ago, this woman came into Simon’s house with an alabaster jar filled with perfumed oil.  She then broke the jar (which itself cost more than “a few bucks”) and poured the oil on Jesus’ head.  To which some of those who were present responded, “Why this waste?”

“Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?  It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages!”

“Three hundred days’ wages”—do you realize how much that is?  Three hundred days is the better part of a year.  To put this in modern terms, it would be like somebody who makes $60,000 a year today spending $50,000 of it on one bottle of perfume—and then using ALL of that perfume on one person.

Be clear about it, my brothers and sisters, this perfumed oil was a lot more expensive than “Chanel No. 5”!

Obviously this woman thought that Jesus was worth a lot—that Jesus was worth everything—that Jesus was worth everything she had to give!  Probably that’s because Jesus had already done something special for her.  Perhaps at some point during his 3-year ministry Jesus had healed her of an illness, or forgiven her sins, or delivered her from the power of Satan, or taught her the truths that were now guiding her life.

Or all of the above!

We don’t know for sure, but it must have been something along those lines.

Which brings us to consider ourselves as we begin this Holy Week.

Recall the question I posed a few moments ago: Is Jesus Christ worth it?  It’s the question every Christian faces on Palm Sunday: To me, personally, is Jesus Christ worth it?

Is he worth the extra time I will need to take, and the extra effort I will need to make, to enter into the spirit of this most important week of the Church’s liturgical year?  Is Jesus worth putting aside my worldly concerns—especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday—to participate in the sacred liturgies that are designed to deepen my relationship with him?  Is he worth my making time for extra personal prayer and Scripture reading during the next seven days?

Hopefully, we will answer like that woman did—with a resounding yes!

“Yes, Jesus, you are worth it!  In fact, you’re more than worth it!  You loved me into existence, you suffered for me, you died for me, you saved me, you gave me the hope of living forever with you in eternal bliss.  You are worth my love, my time, my talent, my treasure, my attention—and everything else I have to give.”

For those of you who would answer in that fashion, here’s the schedule of Holy Week events here 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.

I hope and pray that you’ll make the effort to be at some of these events (at least) during the next seven days.  Jesus, after all, is definitely worth it.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

What Will We Learn from our National Suffering?

Peggy Noonan

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 18, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 51: 3-15; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12: 20-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2018]

What do all these people—John, Jane, Joe, Jim and Judy—have in common?
  • ·         John’s mother is diagnosed with cancer in April, and dies a year later.  He blames God and stops going to church.
  • ·         Jane asks God for something in prayer and doesn’t get it.  She gets angry, and proceeds to take out her anger on her husband, her children, and anyone else who happens to cross her path.
  • ·         Joe is sexually and emotionally abused by his parents, so he decides to shoot them.
  • ·         Jim has a big argument with his wife.  To forget his troubles he goes to the local casino and spends his entire paycheck after work.
  • ·         Judy feels rejected by her family, and her friends, and the other students at her school—and so she begins to live a very promiscuous lifestyle.

What do all these people have in common—aside from the fact that their names all begin with the letter J?

The answer is: They all learned DISOBEDIENCE from what they suffered.

Each of them suffered in a different way and for a different reason, but they all responded negatively—and sinfully—to what they experienced.

Jesus, not surprisingly, was different, as today’s second reading reminds us.  There the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us (and here I quote): “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered [he didn’t learn disobedience like John, Jane, Joe, Jim and Judy did; Jesus learned obedience]; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

This means that every time Jesus faced disappointment—or rejection—or opposition—or betrayal—or hatred in his earthly life, he said to his heavenly Father, “Thy will be done.”  He didn’t just do that in the Garden of Gethsemane on Holy Thursday night; he did it, in his heart, in every situation of his life.  And in that way—by obeying his Father in every difficult circumstance he faced—he learned obedience in his human nature.

In other words, he learned obedience by being obedient!  Which, when you think about it, is the opposite of the way we often learn to obey.  Because we’re weak and sinful human beings, we often learn obedience only after we suffer the consequences of our disobedience.  For example, how often have you done something wrong, suffered the consequences, and then said, “Well, that sure taught me a lesson!”?

That’s called learning obedience “the hard way”; that’s learning obedience by suffering the consequences of not obeying.

Of course, that’s much better than not learning obedience at all—or allowing the suffering to lead us to more disobedience (which is what sometimes happens, unfortunately).

This brings me to an excellent op-ed piece by Peggy Noonan that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago (just a few days after the Parkland, Florida school shootings).  The title of her article is, “The Parkland Massacre and the Air We Breathe.”  Her basic thesis is that every country in the world, including ours, creates a social and moral “atmosphere” in which people live and work and recreate and raise families.  Well in her view, sad to say, the social and moral atmosphere in America right now is toxic, especially to young people.

I agree with her.

She asks the question, “What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?”

She then answers the question by saying,
We have been swept by social, technological and cultural revolution.  The family blew up—divorce, unwed childbearing.  Fatherless sons.  Fatherless daughters, too.  Poor children with no one to love them.  The internet flourished.  Porn proliferated.  Drugs, legal and illegal.  Violent videogames, in which nameless people are eliminated and spattered all over the screen.… The abortion regime settled in, with its fierce, endless yet somehow casual talk about the right to end a life.  An increasingly violent entertainment culture—low, hypersexualized, full of anomie and weirdness, allergic to meaning and depth.  The old longing for integration gave way to a culture of accusation—you are a supremacist, a misogynist, you are guilty of privilege and defined by your color and class, we don’t let your sort speak here.

She then makes note of how all this evil “in the atmosphere” has affected young people.  She writes,
[I]t does not feel accidental that America is experiencing what appears to be a mental-health crisis, especially among the young. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported as many as 20% of children 3 to 17 have, in any given year, a mental or emotional illness. There is research indicating depression among teenagers is worsening. National Public Radio recently quoted a 2005 report asserting the percentage of prison inmates with serious mental illness rose from less than 1% in 1880 to 21% in 2005…. In the society we have created the past 40 years, you know we are not making fewer emotionally ill young people, but more.
She then singles out abortion specifically—and the recent failure of the U.S. Senate to pass a bill that would have banned most abortions after 20 weeks (shame on them!).  She mentions abortion as one those evils that has greatly poisoned the atmosphere for our young people, and contributed to their mental confusion and disregard for human life.  She says they see and read news reports about things like this Senate vote, and they think to themselves, “If the baby we don’t let live is unimportant, then I guess I am unimportant.  And you’re unimportant too.”

This, my brothers and sisters, is the corporate, national suffering we’re experiencing in our country at the present time, the latest example of which is the Parkland school shooting.  Peggy Noonan’s article explains it well.

Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, learned obedience from what he suffered.  Will we, as a nation, learn obedience from this national suffering we’re currently experiencing?  Will the trials that we’re presently going through bring a significant number of our citizens back to God and his truth?  Or will those trials lead to more disobedience and more rebellion?

I and many others are convinced that the future of the United States (and in some sense the future of the entire world) rests on how we, as a nation, answer those questions.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

The Ten Commandments and the Natural Law—18 Years Later

Moses with the Ten Commandments on the Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC.

(Third Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 3, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19: 8-11; 1 Corinthians 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Lent 2018]

What am I?  (Try to answer that question for yourself as you listen to this …)

Chances are you’ve never even heard of me, but I’ve been around since the dawn of creation.  I first dwelt in Adam and Eve, and since then I’ve been engraved in the soul of each human person—although not everyone has followed my dictates.  Amazingly, nearly everybody believed in me until a few hundred years ago.  The Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle certainly did; so did Cicero, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Thomas Jefferson even began the Declaration of Independence by making a reference to some of my truths.  So, as you can see, it’s not only Christians who have followed my precepts over the years.  Pagans, Deists, and many others of various cultures and religious backgrounds have recognized my existence and wisely given me a hearing.  And I’ve responded by giving them guidance, order, and peace.  But please take note: nowadays, if you wish to be considered politically correct, you’d be well advised either to ridicule me, or to ignore me completely.  Learn from the experience of Clarence Thomas.  In 1991, he was nominated by President George Bush to serve on your Supreme Court.  Earlier in his legal career, Judge Thomas had publicly expressed great esteem for me.  A fatal mistake, according to some of your liberal senators.  They attacked him viciously for this during his senate confirmation hearings, and he was nearly rejected.  Believe it or not, I was almost as troublesome for him as Anita Hill!  And yet, my friends, if you and your culture want to survive, you had better start listening to me, because I’m your only hope!  Without me, you each become your own ruler, and that’s the formula for anarchy and disaster.  You’re already seeing the consequences of leaving me out of your lives.  Why do you think there’s so much violence in your society?  Why are your young people senselessly killing one another with growing frequency?  It’s because they’ve been taught to reject me!  It’s because they’re consciously ignoring one of my most important precepts!

So—what am I?

I’m the “natural law.” 

The natural law is the law of God which a person can discern by human reason alone, apart from any special revelation from the Lord.  Until a few hundred years ago, almost everyone believed in it (at least implicitly), but now very few do.  Thomas Jefferson was referring to this law when he wrote the now famous line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”—in other words, “These truths should be clear to anyone who is thinking properly: the truth that all people are created equal, and that they have certain rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  These truths are not known because they’ve been revealed by a particular religion.  They are, in a certain sense, written on the heart of every human person.  Thus, even pagans who are using their faculty of reason properly will admit that these things are true.  They will also tell you that killing and stealing and coveting your neighbor’s wife are wrong.” 

This should help us to understand why the Founding Fathers of our country—who believed in the separation of Church and state—had no problem with teaching the Ten Commandments in public schools and displaying them in public places.  They rightly understood that the Ten Commandments did not promote the establishment of any particular religion; they were simply the expression of some of the primary tenets of the natural law!  This, by the way, is precisely what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us in paragraph 1955: “The natural law states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life. . . . Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue [i.e., the Ten Commandments].”

This means that it would have been possible to figure out the Ten Commandments, even if God had never formally given them to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  Let me now demonstrate this to you, by showing the rational basis of the Decalogue.  The first commandment, as we heard a few moments ago in that text from Exodus 20, is this: “I, the Lord, am your God . . . You shall not have other gods besides me.”  The existence of God (the fact upon which this commandment is based) can be discerned by reason alone.  You don’t need the Bible, or any special revelation from the Lord to figure out that he exists.  Just by looking around at the world, people over the centuries have come to the reasonable conclusion that there’s a Supreme Intelligence behind it all.  In this regard, the writer of the Book of Wisdom said that God’s creation is like a great work of art, and that only a foolish person would fail to see a great Artist behind it.  Listen to Wisdom 13:1—“For all men were by nature foolish, who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan.”  St. Paul said something very similar in Romans 1:20—“Since the creation of the world, invisible realities, God’s eternal power and divinity, have become visible, recognized through the things he made.”

So God’s existence can be established by reason alone.  And once his existence is recognized, my brothers and sisters, certain things reasonably follow: he should be worshipped, and all false gods must be rejected (commandment #1).  His name should be honored and not used rashly in oaths or spoken as a curse word (commandment #2).  If God exists, and he is the source of all we have and are, then it’s reasonable to set aside one day a week to praise, worship and thank him in a special way (commandment #3).  If God is our ultimate authority, he is to be respected as such, and so are all those human beings who share in his authority [e.g., parents, clergy, civil officials, teachers and employers] (commandment #4).  If God is the creator of every human person, then it is wrong to rob an innocent human being of the life which God gave him as a gift (commandment #5).  It’s also wrong to take things from others which don’t belong to you (commandment #7) or to misrepresent the truth (commandment #8).  If God has designed the sexual act to be an expression of total self-giving and for the continuation of the human race (two facts which can be discerned by reason alone), then it’s wrong for such activity to take place outside of a permanent, exclusive, lifelong marital relationship (commandment #6).  Consequently, it’s also wrong to want to sever a marital relationship to satisfy your own disordered sexual desires (commandment #9).  And since stealing from others is wrong, so is cultivating the desire to have what doesn’t belong to you (commandment #10).

You know what the sad irony is, my brothers and sisters?  What I just said to you about the rational basis of the Decalogue would make more sense to some ancient, pagan philosophers than it would to many contemporary Christians!  That’s how far our culture has distanced itself from the natural law.  One of the obvious challenges we will face in the new millennium is the challenge to bring this idea back, and to help others understand it properly.  Because without an acceptance of the natural law, we have no common basis of morality; consequently, the culture of death will continue to grow in our midst.  Incidents like the tragedy at Columbine High School will happen with ever-greater frequency. 

Now before I close today I’ll share with you a little secret.  The homily you just heard—this homily on the natural law and the Ten Commandments that I just preached to you—was not prepared by me during this past week.  I prepared this homily and I gave this homily from this very pulpit 18 YEARS AGO—in the year 2000!  When I came across it on my computer a few weeks ago—just a few days after the Parkland, Florida school shooting—I said, “My goodness!  How I wish I had been wrong!  How I wish I had been wrong about the terrible consequences that come from rejecting the natural law and the Ten Commandments.”

But I wasn’t wrong.

And the sad reality is that our culture, morally speaking, has decayed even further in the last 18 years!  Think about it: things like gay marriage, and the normalization of homosexuality and transgenderism—those things weren’t even on the radar screen back in the year 2000.

Can our culture be saved from total collapse at this point?  Of course it can.  But it ain’t gonna happen with a magic wand!  For our culture to be saved, people like us need to believe in the Ten Commandments, and live the Ten Commandments, and teach others the Ten Commandments—and the natural law.  We need to bring back the truth.

If enough people do that, then the good news is that 18 years from now (if I’m still around) I’ll be able to give another homily on the natural law and the Ten Commandments with a much happier ending.