Sunday, July 29, 2018

Pope Paul VI’s ‘John 6 Moment’

Blessed Paul VI

(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 29, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 2 Kings 4: 42-44; Psalm 145: 10-18; Ephesians 4: 1-6; John 6: 1-15.)

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

He went from almost becoming a king, to almost being completely abandoned.  I’m talking here about Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior—specifically the Jesus we read about in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of St. John.  Today we heard the opening lines of that chapter, which tell the famous story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.  We will hear excerpts from the rest of John 6 in our gospel readings for the next 4 Sundays.  (It’s a really long chapter!)  In these opening lines that we heard a few moments ago, we were told that Jesus fed 5,000 people near the Sea of Galilee.  He fed them with bodily food.  He worked an incredible miracle, and gave them all a meal of fish and bread.

And they liked it so much that they wanted to make him their king (probably so that they could get a few more free meals!).  Jesus, of course, didn’t come down from heaven to be an earthly ruler of an earthly kingdom, so before they could crown him he slipped away and hid himself on a nearby mountain.

But Jesus saw this same crowd again the following day; this time on the opposite shore of the Sea of Galilee.  And there he began to speak to them about another food that he intended to give them in the very near future: a spiritual food that would bring them eternal life, namely, the Holy Eucharist. 

Which caused most of the men and women in the crowd to (for lack of a better expression) “freak out”—especially when Jesus began to say things like, “My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink”; and “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world”; and “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you do not have life within you”; and, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”

The truth about the Holy Eucharist was too much for most of these people to handle, and so the majority of them walked away after Jesus gave this teaching—even some who had been following our Lord for quite a while.  The text says, “As a result of this [teaching], many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

Thankfully, the twelve Apostles did remain faithful to our Lord, even though at the time they didn’t fully understand the message Jesus had given.  When Jesus asked the Twelve if they were going to leave too, Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

But most of the other followers of our Lord did not continue in their discipleship.  They “threw in the towel” as his followers—perhaps forever (although we can hope and pray that at least some of them eventually returned).

Which brings us to Pope Paul VI.  Blessed Paul VI, who will be canonized a saint later this year, understood what Jesus went through in John, chapter 6, in a way that most of us (thankfully) never will.  Pope Paul had what I would call his “John 6 moment” fifty years ago this past week, when he published an encyclical entitled “Humanae vitae” (which in Latin means, “Of Human Life”).  In that document, which is mostly about the beauty and dignity of marriage, the Holy Father did what many people were convinced he would not dare to do in the midst of the sexual revolution: he reaffirmed the traditional Christian teaching condemning the use of artificial contraception—even within marriage.  Now notice that I call it “the traditional Christian teaching” as opposed to “the traditional Catholic teaching.”  I do that because, prior to 1930, most (if not all) mainline Protestants believed the very same thing that Catholics believed: that contraception is immoral.

Many Protestants (and many Catholics!) today are not aware of that fact—but it’s true.  This was a universal Christian belief.

Then at their Lambeth Conference of 1930, the bishops of the Anglican Church caved in to social pressure.  They decided that contraception could be morally acceptable in some limited circumstances.  Well, shortly thereafter “some circumstances” turned into “all circumstances”—and every other mainline Protestant church followed suit.

Which is where we’re at today.  What ALL Christians believed about contraception for over 19 centuries, only the Catholic Church still believes and still teaches today—thanks, in large part, to the courage of Paul VI.

But he suffered for it—from July 25, 1968 (the day he published Humanae vitae) until August 6, 1978 (the day he died).  Like Jesus in John 6, Pope Paul had to deal with opposition from people in his own flock—especially the intellectuals, who wasted no time in stirring up an internal rebellion in the Church—a rebellion that’s had a negative effect on Catholic life in the United States for the last 5 decades.  Within a week of the encyclical’s publication, more than 600 theology professors from around the country signed a “statement of dissent” objecting to what the Pope said in the document.  And it’s gone on from there, such that now only 20% of Catholics accept the traditional Christian teaching.

Which is one of the reasons why the divorce rate among Catholics right now is pretty much the same as the divorce rate in the rest of society.  Catholic couples who practice Natural Family Planning, on the other hand—who do follow Church teaching—have an almost non-existent divorce rate.

A coincidence?

Not according to Blessed Paul VI.  The Holy Father warned the Church and the world that when you separate the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act through artificial contraception, certain consequences—though unintended—naturally follow.  He accurately predicted in Humanae vitae that an acceptance of birth control would lead to an increase in sexual promiscuity and marital infidelity; that men would begin to treat women more and more as objects to be used for their own selfish pleasure; and that people would be pressured and even forced at times by civil governments to limit the size of their families.

Pope Paul VI was laughed at and ridiculed when he said these things in 1968, as I’m sure Jesus was laughed at and ridiculed when he gave that teaching on the Eucharist 2,000 years ago.  But the Holy Father was right!  He was right on every count.

What was supposed to empower women and strengthen marriages has had the exact opposite effect in the last fifty years.  The widespread use of contraception (even by practicing Catholics) has resulted in the further objectification of women, an increase in adultery, more broken marriages and families, a greater number of sexually-transmitted diseases (some of which are life-threatening), and a divorce rate that is sky high.

So, contrary to what you’ll normally hear (especially in the secular media), soon-to-be St. Paul VI was a man ahead of his time.  He was a humble, courageous and steadfast prophet of God, who spoke the truth about married love and the transmission of life to a world that desperately needed to hear it.

And still does.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

My Three ‘Go-to Verses’

(Fourteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 8, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 2: 2-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10; Mark 6: 1-6.)

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

You could call them my “go-to verses”: three verses of the New Testament that I call to mind quite often—especially in the midst of trial and difficulty and temptation.  These verses give me strength, and hope—and perspective (which is always a help when you’re dealing with a challenging and difficult situation in your life).

In doing this I’m taking the advice St. Paul gave to Christians in Ephesians 6 when he said, “In all circumstances hold faith up before you as your shield; it will help you extinguish the fiery darts of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, the word of God.”

For St. Paul the word of God was, among other things, a weapon: a weapon that we should use to battle all those things that Satan will use to try to destroy us: fear, anger, doubt, confusion, lust, greed, etc.  Of course, to use this weapon effectively, you have to first of all know what the word of God says (which means you have to be reading your Bible), you then have to believe what you read in the word, and finally you have to cling to the truth that you find in the word.

We have a great example of this, not surprisingly, in Jesus himself.  As we all know, our Lord prepared for his three-year ministry by fasting for forty days and forty nights in the Judean desert.  When he finally finished that fast he had to have been tired, physically weak—and extremely hungry.  Satan was well aware of this, and tried to take advantage of the situation by tempting Jesus: by tempting him to say no to the mission the Father had given him to die on the cross and save the human race.

Notice how Jesus resisted the three temptations that Satan threw at him.  He did it by the power of the word; he successfully resisted the temptations of the devil by quoting Scripture to him.

  • ·         Satan said, “Command that these stones become loaves of bread.”  Jesus said, “One does not by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”  (That’s Deuteronomy 8:3.)
  • ·         Then the devil took him to the top of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. [The angels will catch you.]”—to which Jesus responded “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”  (That’s Deuteronomy 6:16.)
  • ·    Finally the devil tried to get Jesus to worship him by bribing our Lord with earthly power.  By then Jesus had had enough!  He said, “Get away, Satan!  It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God; him alone shall you serve.’”    (That’s Deuteronomy 6:13.)

Here we have Jesus using the word of God like a sword to repel the attacks of the evil one.  I suppose you could say that these verses of Scripture were three of our Lord’s “go-to” Bible verses.

But it really doesn’t matter what you call them; the point to remember is that they worked!  Here Jesus, I believe, is giving us an example to imitate, an example that St. Paul obviously followed in his own life, as that text from Ephesians 6 that I read to you earlier indicates.

I mention this today because one of my three “go-to verses” is found in today’s second reading.  It’s 2 Corinthians 12:9, and it reads, “My grace is always sufficient for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection.”  Here St. Paul is talking about his “thorn in the flesh”—which was some kind of trial or suffering that God allowed him to experience, at least from time to time.  The word in Greek that Paul uses there is “skolop”.  It’s usually translated as “thorn,” but many Scripture scholars will tell you that the word is more accurately translated as “stake”.

So what was this “thorn” or “stake” in the flesh that troubled St. Paul so much?

Well, we don’t know for sure.  Some say it was the persecutions Paul often experienced when he preached the Gospel; others say it was a temptation to pride or lust or some other sin; still others say that it was a physical ailment of some kind, perhaps something that had to do with his eyes.  They say that because in Galatians 4:15 Paul wrote, “Indeed, I can testify to you that, if it had been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

Whatever it was, it must have been pretty bad, since Paul prayed hard (and more than once) for God to take it away.

But the Lord didn’t take it away.  He didn’t remove the stake.  For some reason (probably Paul’s growth in holiness) the Lord allowed it to continue—as he allows us to experience certain ongoing trials in our lives (which are supposed to help US grow in holiness!).

And yet, even though God didn’t take the thorn away, he promised Paul that he would always be there to give him the strength, the power and the help he needed to deal successfully with it. 

“In your weakness, Paul, my power reaches its perfection.”

When I face a trial or difficulty in my life, I imagine Jesus saying those same words to me: “My grace is always sufficient for you, Fr. Ray, for in your weakness my power within you reaches its perfection.”

2 Corinthians 12:9—it’s a great “go-to verse”.

My other two “go-to verses” are 1 John 4:4 and Philippians 4:13.  1 John 4:4 reads, “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”  Now, when I call that verse to mind I always personalize it for myself: “Greater is he who is in me [namely, Jesus] than he who is in the world [the devil].”  That verse gives me a special strength and confidence in dealing with the evil I encounter in the world—and in dealing with temptation.  It reminds me that the power of God is always greater than the power of evil; it’s also greater than the power of the temptation to do evil (which can sometimes feel very strong, as we all know).

And lastly there’s Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”  That verse reminds me that I need to trust in Jesus and rely on him in every aspect of my life, especially in challenging situations; in other words, in those circumstances when I begin to doubt my ability to do what I need to do.  Now I’m sure that St. Paul wrote these words based on his own personal experience of sharing the Gospel.  As we all well aware, St. Paul was not always “affirmed” in his apostolic ministry!  As he said in one of his letters, he was stoned once, beaten with rods three times, and scourged with forty lashes five times—among other things.  I’m sure that there were moments in the midst of all those trials when he wondered if he would have the strength to continue the mission God had given him.

But the strength came, and in the process the Lord taught him this lesson—which he shared with the Philippians 2,000 years ago and which he shares with us today: “I, Paul, can do all things—not by my own willpower and strength; rather I can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens me with his saving grace.”

I need to think that same thought about myself quite often—especially when the task at hand seems too great for me, and I wonder, “How am I going to do this?”

These are my three “go-to verses” (2 Corinthians 12:9; 1 John 4:4; and Philippians 4:13).

What are yours?  If you don’t have them—if you don’t have any “go-to verses” at the present time—my suggestion is that you read your Bible (especially the New Testament) and allow God to give you some. And he will!  You’ll be reading along and all of a sudden a verse will jump out at you and you’ll say, “That’s it!  That’s one of them.  That’s something I need to remember and be reminded of—especially in difficult situations.”

Then memorize the verse—and begin to use it.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

The ‘Mystery’ of Death

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 1, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 1: 13-15; 2: 23-24; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8: 7-15; Mark 5: 21-43.)

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

Death is a mystery.  Now the good news is it’s a mystery that every single one of us will someday solve; the bad news is we won’t be around to tell anybody about it!

Actually when I use the word “mystery” here I’m using it in its theological sense.  Theologically speaking, a mystery is a truth that we can know something about (whatever God has revealed to us), but which we cannot understand completely with our finite human minds.

And that’s the way it is with death.  There are certain things, thankfully, that God has made clear to us about the end of our lives on this earth.  He’s done that through his written word and through his Church.

But there’s a lot about death and its aftermath that we don’t know—a lot that remains hidden from our mortal eyes.  As I indicated a few moments ago, there’s only one way to find out that information—and I presume most of us are not too anxious to have that “enlightening experience” anytime in the near future!

So today I’ll focus on what we do know.  My homily will be about some of those aspects of the mystery of death that we do understand—some of the aspects that God has revealed to us already.  I’ll also deal with some erroneous ideas about death that I’ve encountered in certain Catholics and others during my 32 years of priestly ministry.

The first point to be made in this regard is that, although some people blame God for the existence of death, he’s not the source of it.  He’s made that clear to us.  As today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom puts it, “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.  For he fashioned all things that they might have being. … God formed man to be imperishable.”

Death became part of the human experience only after Adam and Eve made the free choice to sin, in response to a temptation by the devil.  God didn’t do it; it’s not his fault! As the writer of Wisdom puts it, “But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world.” 

So if we’re going to blame anybody, we ought to blame Satan.

God is “the Lord and giver of life”, not the dealer of death!  It’s precisely because he’s the Lord and giver of life that he sent his Son to die on that cross 2,000 years ago.  Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

Jesus also said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.”

When Jesus refers to dying in that last verse, of course, he doesn’t mean physical death; he means “spiritual death,” “the death of the soul,”—what the Bible sometimes calls “the second death.”  Physical death is unavoidable.  (It’s one of the residual effects of original sin.)  The second death, on the other hand, IS avoidable by the “sanctifying grace” that has its source in the cross and resurrection of Jesus: the grace that comes to us for the first time in the sacrament of Baptism, and is preserved in us by a life of faith and charity.

If, perchance, we ever lose this grace by committing a mortal sin somewhere along the way, the good news is that it can be restored.  The ordinary way for sanctifying grace to be restored is in and through the sacrament of Reconciliation.

The condition of our soul at the time of death determines what happens to us afterward.  In death, our soul is separated from our body (that’s what death is: the separation of body and soul).  Our soul is then judged by God, and according to how it’s judged it goes to one of three places: heaven, hell or purgatory.  Those who go to purgatory are assured of their salvation.  They’re on their way to heaven—and they know it.  But they also know they’re not quite ready for heaven, since the Bible says that nothing impure can enter the kingdom of God.  You can’t even have one little sinful attitude in your soul and get through the pearly gates. (Rev. 21:27).  Besides that, you also need to attain a certain level of holiness to enter.  That’s why the Letter to the Hebrews tell us to “strive for that holiness without which no one can see the Lord.”  (Hebrews 12:14)

Some non-Catholics don’t believe in purgatory because they mistakenly think that the Catholic Church teaches that purgatory is a “second chance”—but that’s wrong.  Those who die without sanctifying grace in their souls go to hell.  There are no second chances for them.  Souls in purgatory are in the state of grace, but need to be “cleaned up a bit” before they can enter the eternal wedding banquet.

Of course, the real tragedy is when Catholics reject the teaching on purgatory.  And some do.  I hope those Catholics never have Masses offered for their deceased relatives and friends; because, if they do, they’ll be contradicting themselves!  The only reason to have a Mass offered for a deceased person (the only reason to pray for the dead at all) is if purgatory exists!  If purgatory does not exist, then there’s only heaven and hell.  But souls in heaven don’t need our prayers to get into the kingdom, since they’ve already arrived; and souls in hell can’t be helped by our prayers, since hell is eternal.  Once you’re in, there’s no way to get out.

When we have Masses said for the deceased (or pray other prayers for them) we are doing something that presumes the existence of purgatory.  I pray for my deceased relatives and friends every day.  Since none of them is a canonized saint, I presume they all need some purification on their way to the kingdom.

But, Fr. Ray, what if they’ve already been fully purified and are now in heaven?    

Well, then the grace will go to help other souls who need it.  No prayer for the dead is ever a wasted prayer.

What I’ve said so far concerns our souls.  But what about our bodies?  Every human person, after all, has both a soul and a body.  This, incidentally, is why when someone dies it’s wrong to say that they’re now “an angel in heaven”—unless we’re speaking metaphorically.  That’s because angels are pure spirits.  They have no bodies (although when they’ve appeared to people over the centuries God has sometimes allowed them to assume a human form).

Now since we do have bodies as human beings, we are, in a very real sense, incomplete without them.

Which is our initial situation after death.  As I said earlier, when we die our bodies and our souls are separated from one another.  Under normal circumstances, our bodies then decay and decompose.  But, happily, that’s not the end of the story.  As Catholics we believe that our bodies will be raised up in an immortal, glorified state at the Final Judgment at the end of the world.  At that time our souls will be reunited with our bodies—our risen bodies—and everyone will end up (body and soul) in either heaven or hell. 

Purgatory will cease to exist when everyone who needs to pass through it has done so.

This is why we show respect for the body of a person even after that person has died.  Their lifeless physical body is still important, because it’s a foreshadowing of the risen body they will have for all eternity.  Therefore, it should be interred in some fashion (e.g., in a grave or in a mausoleum)—even after cremation.  It does not show proper respect for Uncle Joe’s cremated body to scatter his ashes to the four winds at Westerly Town Beach because that’s where he liked to hang out every summer!  Nor does it show proper respect for mom’s body to keep her ashes on the mantel above the fireplace in your living room!

Hopefully we’re all clear about that.

I was trying to find a way to conclude this homily on the mystery of death, and lo and behold I came across a little story that a parishioner emailed to me 15 years ago.  Let me read it to you now.  It will end things on a positive note. 
A sick man turned to his doctor, as he was preparing to leave the examination room and said, “Doctor, I’m afraid to die.  Tell me what lies on the other side.” 
Very quietly the doctor said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?  You, a Christian man, don’t know what’s on the other side?" 
The doctor was holding the handle of the door—on the other side of which came a sound of scratching and whining.  As he opened the door, a dog sprang into the room and leaped on him with an eager show of gladness.  (Sounds like Fr. Najim’s dog!)  Turning to the patient, the doctor said, “Did you notice my dog?  He’s never been in this room before.  He didn’t know what was inside.  He knew nothing except that his master was here, and when the door opened he sprang in without fear.  I know little of what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing … 
I know that my Master is there, and that is enough.”
May it also be enough for us.