Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Desire to ‘Fit in’

John the Baptist

(Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist 2018: This homily was given on June 24, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 49: 1-6; Psalm 39: 1-15; Acts 13: 22-26; Luke 1: 57-66, 80.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Birth of John the Baptist 2018]

“The desire to fit in is the root of almost all wrongdoing.”  That’s the title of a very interesting online article that I came across recently.  The author of the piece is a philosophy professor from the College of William and Mary named Christopher Freiman.

Freiman begins his article by pointing out the fact that many of the greatest philosophers and thinkers over the centuries have taken the position that “wrongdoing tends to be motivated by self-interest” and that “an immoral person is one who’s ready to defy law and convention to get what they want.” 

While he doesn’t deny that this is true in many cases, Freiman says that from his perspective very often the opposite is true.  He writes, “Immorality is frequently motivated by a readiness to conform to law and convention in opposition to our own values.  In these cases, it’s not that we care too little about others; it’s that we care too much.  More specifically, we care too much about how we stack up in the eyes of others. … We ‘go along to get along’ in defiance of what we really value or believe because we don’t want any trouble.”

  • ·    Someone tells a dirty or bigoted joke at work.  You really don’t think it’s funny, but everyone else seems to, so you find yourself laughing along with them.  You want to fit in.
  • ·       You’re in school one day and a controversial subject comes up (abortion, homosexual activity, transgenderism—something along those lines), and even though you believe that it’s wrong, you find yourself supporting it because the majority of the other students in the class are supporting it.  You want to fit in.
  • ·       You’re a teenager, and you start abusing alcohol because all your friends are abusing alcohol.  You want to fit in.
  • ·        You’re with a group of people who are trashing somebody they don’t like, and you find yourself nodding your head in agreement—even though you have nothing against the person they’re talking about.  You want to fit in.

“The desire to fit in is the root of almost all wrongdoing.”

This is a desire, my brothers and sisters, that we have to try to be aware of in ourselves, because under certain circumstances it can affect all of us by leading us into temptation (as I hopefully made clear by the four examples I just shared with you).

Now, to be sure, this “desire to fit in” can also be a good thing at times: specifically, when we desire to “fit in” with the saints and with those who are practicing virtue.  As the old song puts it, “O Lord I long to be in that number when the saints go marching in.”

That’s a good desire.

But all too often the desire to fit in is of this other kind, this bad kind. 

In its extreme form, of course, it can be incredibly destructive.  This is what we see in gangs today—like MS-13: young men, who desperately want to fit in, will rape and kill and do almost anything to be initiated into the group.  This is what we saw during the Second World War in Nazi Germany: seemingly ordinary people who were willing to do horrific things to Jews and others—so that they could fit in with the evil people who were in power.

The desire to fit in was at the root of much of the evil that was done during the Holocaust.

I mention all this today because this weekend we celebrate a feast in honor of St. John the Baptist.  One of the reasons why John the Baptist is a saint, one of the reasons why Jesus called him “the greatest man ever born of woman,” is that, when it came to evil, he had no desire to “fit in.”  Ever.

He didn’t have the desire to fit in, for example, with the materialists of his day.  The Bible tells us that John wore a garment of camel’s hair (which doesn’t sound very fashionable—or comfortable!—to me).  And he lived out in the desert on a diet of grasshoppers and wild honey.  (The wild honey I could deal with; the grasshoppers—I don’t think so!)

Obviously, John was not concerned with getting rich and living a lavish lifestyle.

Nor did John have the desire to fit in with the hedonists of his day—like King Herod, who committed adultery with a woman who was already married to his brother Philip.  John confronted him directly about that.  He told Herod, “It’s not right for you to live with your brother’s wife!” 

Nor did John have the desire fit in with the politically-correct crowd in first century Palestine (yes, politically-correct people were even around back then!).  John was clear, blunt and to the point—with Herod, and even with the religious leaders of the Jews, when some of them came to him to be baptized.  He recognized their pride and their hypocrisy, and so he called them a “brood of vipers”—right there, at the Jordan River, to their faces, in front of everyone!

This, I would say, makes John the Baptist a patron saint for all those who are tempted to compromise their moral principles and do evil.  Which means he’s a patron saint for all of us—because all of us are in that position at various moments of our lives.  And so, whenever you, personally, have this experience—whenever you are tempted to do something wrong in order to fit in with a group of people (your friends, your co-workers, the men and women you socialize with)—ask John the Baptist to pray for you that you may overcome the temptation and do the right thing—as he did the right thing so often in his life.

Let me close now with a prayer to John that I came across during this past week.  I think this ties in well with the message of this homily:

O Martyr invincible, who, for the honor of God and the salvation of souls, did with firmness and constancy withstand the impiety of Herod even at the cost of your own life, and did rebuke him openly for his wicked and dissolute life; by your prayers obtain for us a heart brave and generous, in order that we may overcome all human respect and openly profess our faith in loyal obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ, our divine Master. Amen.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The ‘Sowing’ Father

(Eleventh Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on June 17, 2018 at St. Clare’s Church, Misquamicut, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 17: 22-24; Psalm 92; 2 Corinthians 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34.)

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

What’s grown depends on what’s sown.

That’s a truth that all farmers and gardeners understand based on their experiences of farming and gardening.  When a farmer plants a field of corn, for example, he doesn’t expect to reap a harvest of tomatoes (at least not in that particular field).  When a gardener plants some geranium seeds in the flowerbed in front of her house, she doesn’t expect petunias to grow there.

“Fr. Ray, this is common sense.”

Yes, it is—at least when it comes to corn and tomatoes and geraniums and petunias and other plants that are grown from seeds.  But the thing is, this principle (What’s grown depends on what’s sown) applies to other areas of life besides farming and gardening. 

And in many of those other areas of life, sad to say, the truth is not so obvious to a lot of people.  Either they’re unable—or unwilling—to see the connection between certain ideas that are “sown” into the minds of modern men and women, and the actions that result from (or you might say “grow from”) those ideas.  Jesus understood the connection better than anyone, which is why he used the analogy of seeds in this gospel text we just heard from Mark 4.

This connection between the ideas that are sown in a person’s mind and the actions that flow from those ideas was made in a powerful way back in the 1980s, in an anti-drug public service ad that appeared on television.  I’m sure some of you remember it: 

The ad begins with the shot of a teenage boy in his bedroom.  The boy is reclining on his bed, with headphones on, happily listening to his stereo.  His father then barges into the room, obviously angry, with a box in his hand—a box that has various types of drug paraphernalia in it.  Dad turns off the stereo and says to the boy, “This yours?”  He replies, “No.”  His dad says, “Your mother said she found it in your closet.”  The boy suddenly gets really nervous, and starts to stumble over his words as he desperately tries to maintain his innocence.  Dad, of course, isn’t buying any of it.  Finally the father says, angrily, “Answer me!  Who taught you to do this stuff?”  His son shouts out, “YOU, ALRIGHT?  I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU!”

The ad ends with the announcer saying, “Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.”

That’s a perfect example of a father who sowed “bad seed” into the heart and mind of his son.  He did it not so much by his words, but by his actions.  And then he acted surprised when he encountered bad fruit in his son’s life.

He should not have been surprised.  That’s exactly what he should have expected.

And speaking of fathers, I think it’s providential that we have this gospel reading about seeds and their growth on Father’s Day weekend.  I say it’s providential because we’ve got a real cultural problem right now, and fathers (along with mothers) have an indispensable role to play in helping to solve it.

Think of some of the ideas that have been “sown” into the minds of young people during the last half century or so.  Ideas such as:

  • ·         It’s your body and you should be able to do whatever you want with it.
  • ·         Self-indulgence and having lots of stuff leads to happiness.
  • ·         You should be able to decide for yourself what’s right and what’s wrong.
  • ·         When it comes to sex, almost anything goes.
  • ·         Freedom means doing what you want to do, not what you ought to do. 
  • ·         Feelings matter more than facts.  So do what you feel like doing.
  • ·         There are no moral absolutes; everything is relative.

Do those ideas sound familiar?  They should.  Those are some of the seeds—the really BAD seeds—the seeds of destruction—that have been “planted” in the minds of Americans (young and old) on a daily basis for at least the last 50 years—especially in our schools, in our universities, in the arts, and in the mainstream media.

And now we’re reaping the tragic harvest.  The gun violence we’ve seen in schools in recent years is just one example of the bad fruit that’s come from all this.

There’s an old saying: “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”

The destiny (the eternal destiny) of our young people ultimately will be rooted in the way they think. And the way they think will, to a great extent, be determined by the seeds (the ideas) that get planted in them—especially by their parents. 

That’s one reason why the Church teaches that parents are to be the primary religious educators of their children.  And today moms and dads really need to take that job seriously, because if they don’t—if they don’t sow good seeds into the minds of their children—the world will be more than happy to sow the bad seeds I mentioned a few moments ago.  And lots of others as well.

On this Father’s Day I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the Lord for the good seeds my dad sowed into my mind—especially during the final year of his life.  He died of cancer back in 1971 when I was fourteen years old.  His last year was difficult; he suffered a lot.  But as tough as that last year was, it was also a time of great blessing.  During his final months, my dad and I did what we had rarely done before: we had some great father-son talks—about all kinds of issues.  I remember one of the things he often spoke about was the importance of getting a good education—which I did. 

That little mustard seed of advice that I took to heart has borne a lot of good fruit in my life.  And he taught me by his actions.  During most of his final year he wasn’t able to work, so he began to go to daily Mass.  And he continued for as long as he was physically able to do so.  That planted another good seed in my mind.  His going to daily Mass taught me that when you experience a suffering like cancer in your life you shouldn’t turn away from God, you should turn toward him.

That little lesson has come in handy many times over the years—and especially since December 23, 2010 (the day I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease).

As I said at the beginning of my homily: What’s grown depends on what’s sown.

With that truth in mind, I want to end this morning by offering a special prayer for all the fathers here present.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, you have called all fathers to be sowers in this life: sowers of truth, sowers of goodness, sowers of love.  On this Father’s Day we ask you to give these fathers the grace they need to be the best of sowers.  By their words—and even more importantly by their deeds—may they help their children to get on (and to stay on) the road that will bring them someday into your eternal and glorious kingdom.  This we ask through the same Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

What is ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit’?

(Tenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on June 10, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 3:9-15; Psalm 130:1-8; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35.)

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

On Friday, June 1, I was part of a “Grill the Priest” event at SS. John and Paul Church in Coventry.  Perhaps some of you have been to one of these before; they’ve become quite common in recent years.  At this particular event, there were about a hundred people present.  It began with a dinner and some social time—after which “the grilling” occurred!  Five of us priests took our seats at a table in the front part of the hall, and people proceeded to “grill” us with questions for the next two hours.  They were allowed to ask us about anything concerning the Faith and our personal lives, and we had to answer on the spot—which was sometimes easy, and sometimes not-so-easy, depending on the question.

Well, one of the subjects we were asked about that night is found in the gospel reading we just heard.  A middle-aged woman came to the microphone at one point and said, “Fathers, what is the sin against the Holy Spirit?  Jesus says in the Bible that this is a sin that can’t be forgiven.  But what exactly is it?  I want to know, so that I can make sure I never commit it!”

It was a good question, and the five of us did our best to answer it—which is also what I want to do today in this homily, since the question is a really common one.  It was not the first time that I had heard it, and I’m sure it wasn’t the first time the other priests had heard it.

To understand what the “blasphemy (or sin) against the Holy Spirit” refers to, we need to understand the context in which Jesus used the expression in Mark, chapter 3.  He was addressing a comment made by the scribes, who saw him expelling demons and working miracles, and who called that the work of Satan: “By the prince of devils he casts out devils.”

They saw something which was good (healings and exorcisms), and they called it “evil”.  Earlier in this same chapter 3 of Mark, the Pharisees and the Herodians made the decision that Jesus needed to die after our Lord healed a man with a withered hand.  These men thought that killing the Son of God (something incredibly evil) would actually be a good thing.

The bottom line here is that the enemies of Jesus (the scribes, the Pharisees and the Herodians) called what’s good “evil” and what’s evil “good.”

That idea is at the root of the sin against the Holy Spirit.

Now this is something that should really scare us, because this idea that what’s good is evil and that what’s evil is good is an idea that’s rampant in our culture right now.  It’s literally everywhere!  For example, there are many people today who believe that the evil of abortion is a good thing and should be upheld in our civil laws.  There are people today who believe that fornication is a good thing; that’s why they see no problem with living together before marriage.  There are people who think that pornography is a good thing, that physician-assisted suicide is a good thing, that gay marriage is a good thing.

And on and on the list goes.

Now here’s the problem.  We human beings almost always pursue what we think is good for us—even if it’s not.  Well, if we make the mistake of thinking that committing a certain serious (mortal) sin is good for us—and then we commit that sin—and then we persist in the belief that the sin is good for us and hence never repent of it, we will have that sin on our soul when we go before the Lord at the end of our life. 

Which is not a good idea if you want to go to heaven.

This is the sin, the blasphemy, against the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit wants to bring us God’s forgiveness for what we’ve done—for the serious sin that we’ve committed—but we say to him, “Forget it.  I don’t want it, and I don’t need it!”

This is also called “final impenitence”.

So the sin against the Holy Spirit is not unforgiveable because of God; it’s unforgiveable because of us!  It’s unforgiveable because, by our hardness of heart, we have made it unforgiveable!  God can—and God will—forgive any sin and every sin that we commit in our lives.  That’s the good news.  But he will not do that without our cooperation—and that cooperation is called “repentance”.

St. John Paul II said it perfectly in one of his encyclicals (“Dominum et vivificantem,” 46) when he wrote:
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then, is the sin committed by the person who claims to have a “right” to persist in evil—in any sin at all—and who thus rejects Redemption.  One closes oneself up in sin, thus making impossible one’s conversion, and consequently the remission of sins, which one considers not essential or not important for one’s life.
This is one reason why making a good, honest, daily examination of conscience and going to confession regularly are so important for us in our lives as Catholic Christians.  If we do those things faithfully, with the right disposition of mind and heart, then the sin against the Holy Spirit (this “unforgiveable sin”) is one sin that we will never, ever be in danger of committing.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Before You Come Forward, Don’t Forget To Look Backward

(Corpus Christi 2018: This homily was given on June 3, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 24: 3-8; Psalm 116: 12-18; Hebrews 11: 9-15; Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Corpus Christi 2018]

Before you come forward, don’t forget to look backward.

That’s the thought that came to me as I was reflecting on what I should preach about on this Corpus Christi Sunday.

Before you come forward, don’t forget to look backward.

St. Paul said something similar in his First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11, verse 28, when he wrote: “A man should examine himself first; only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”

In other words, before you come forward to receive the Holy Eucharist—which is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Savior of the world (and not a symbol!)—don’t forget to look backward into your life.  Look backward to determine if, at that moment, you’re in the proper spiritual state—and are properly disposed to receive worthily.  Because the one thing you don’t want to do as a Catholic Christian is to receive the Eucharist unworthily.  As St. Paul says in that same chapter 11 of First Corinthians: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the Body and Blood of the Lord.”

Now that’s certainly a sin that can be forgiven.  God will forgive every sin we repent of (and, when necessary, bring to the sacrament of reconciliation).  But it’s no small matter.  Receiving unworthily is a sin that’s very serious.  There is, after all, nothing more precious and holy on earth than the Body and Blood of the One who died on the cross and rose from the dead for our salvation.

What I want to share with you now are three situations you might find yourself in when you do “look backward” at Mass.  If you find yourself in one of these situations, you should definitely not “come forward” to receive—at least at that particular Liturgy.  Come up with your hands over your chest in this fashion and receive a blessing instead.  But fear not, even if one of these applies to you, there are still some positive steps you can take to “move forward”.  And if you move forward enough, you’ll eventually be able to come forward and receive communion with a clear conscience.

So here they are.

Situation #1: Mortal sin—which includes things like hatred, adultery, blasphemy, fornication, masturbation, contraception—and missing a Sunday or a holy day Mass without a good reason.  As it says in paragraph 1415 of the Catechism, “Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace.  Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance.”

Which, of course, is precisely the way to “move forward” if you suddenly realize that you’re in this situation.  Today’s second reading from Hebrews 9 says that Jesus “entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”  He shed his precious blood so that we could receive forgiveness—for anything and for everything!  But we have to reach out for it, which is what we do in the sacrament of reconciliation. 

On that note, we have confessions here every Wednesday afternoon at 5, and every Saturday afternoon at 3:30—or at some other time by appointment.

So go to confession if you need to!  What have you got to lose—except your sins?

Situation #2 that might prevent you from coming forward: You’re not Catholic.  In 1 Corinthians 10: 17, St. Paul says this: "Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf."  When we share Eucharist with others we are making a public statement that we are one in faith with them.  That's what Paul is telling us in this text.  But, unfortunately, we are not one in faith with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters.  Yes, we share some elements of belief in common with Protestant Christians, that's true; but not enough such that we can come together and partake of "the one loaf."

If you are not Catholic and you’re here at Mass this morning, I certainly welcome you.  I’m glad that you’re here with us to pray to our common Lord and Savior.  I invite you, too, to come forward for a blessing at communion time.  But I also encourage you to learn more about the Catholic Faith and to consider becoming Catholic.  That’s the best way you can “move forward.”  Deacon Fran and his wife Donna will be starting their RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes again this fall.  Think about signing up for those classes.  Signing up doesn’t mean you will become Catholic (although I hope you will!).  It will simply give you the opportunity to learn more about the Church, so that you can make an informed decision as to whether or not you want to enter it. 

And if you do enter it, the good news is that you’ll then be able to join us at the altar, because you will be one in faith with us and with the Church.

Which brings us, finally, to the third situation that might prevent you from coming forward for the Eucharist: Your marriage is not valid in the eyes of the Church.  Some people might think this teaching has changed recently, but it hasn’t.  You see, marriage, from the Catholic perspective, is not a contract; it’s a sacrament that forms a covenantal bond between a man and a woman.  The fact that it’s a sacrament means that Jesus and his Body, the Church, must be part of the union.  And even in marriages where a Catholic marries an unbaptized person (which are not, strictly speaking, sacramental), the Lord needs to be involved, because, as the Catechism says, “God himself is the author of marriage.” (CCC 1603)  What I often tell people is this: “If you’re a Catholic, you’re a member of the spiritual family known as ‘the Church’.  For your marriage to be valid, you need your spiritual family’s blessing.  And this blessing is what you should want, just like you want the blessing—the approval—of your parents and siblings and other members of your biological family when you get married.”

So, if this is your situation right now, how do you “move forward”?

My recommendation would be to talk to a priest or deacon.  He can help you to determine what you need to do, and then help you begin the process.  If you and your spouse in the civil union were never married before, you simply need to have your marriage “convalidated”—which basically involves some preparation, some paperwork, and then a brief ceremony in which you take your vows in front of a priest and two witnesses.

If there are previous marriages, the process may be more involved—but that’s what the priest or deacon can help you determine.

In the meantime, come up for a blessing at Mass like the others—and also make a spiritual communion. 

Actually a spiritual communion is something we all can do, when, for some reason, we’re not able to receive the Blessed Sacrament.  Even non-Catholics can do it.  It basically involves asking Jesus to come into your heart and to give you the spiritual benefits of the Eucharist.  There’s no official prayer or formula for this; you can use your own words—although many people use the spiritual communion prayer of St. Alphonsus Liguori as a model.  It reads as follows:    
My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the Blessed Sacrament. I love you above all things and I desire you with all my heart. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, I ask you to come spiritually into my heart. I embrace you as if you were already in my heart and unite myself to you completely. Please do not let me ever be separated from you.
I think that’s the one they use on EWTN during their televised daily Mass, for the benefit of the shut-ins watching at home who aren’t able to receive communion that day.

Before you come forward, don’t forget to look backward.

That, I believe, is the Lord’s simple and direct message to us on this Corpus Christi Sunday.

It’s my prayer today that we will all learn to put this message into practice, so that whenever we do come forward to receive the Eucharist at Mass we will do so worthily, and thus be open to the many graces that Jesus wants to give us in and through the sacrament of his Body and Blood.