Sunday, July 28, 2019

If God Knows What We Need Before We Ask Him, Then Why Do We Have To Ask Him For Things?

(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on July 28, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 18: 20-32; Psalm 138:1-8; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11: 1-13.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventeenth Sunday 2019]

Tom and Joanne, both 60 years of age, were celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary, when suddenly an angel from heaven appeared to them.  The angel congratulated them and said, “God is so pleased with the two of you, that he’s given me permission to grant each of you one wish.”Joanne said, “O that’s wonderful.  I wish that Tom and I had tickets for a romantic cruise that would take us all the way around the world.”The angel said, “So be it”—and he handed Joanne two first class cruise tickets.“And what about you, Tom?”Tom replied, “I wish that my wife was 30 years younger than I am.”The angel said, “So be it”—and Tom immediately became 90-years-old!
You might call that “a prayer of petition gone bad!”

There’s an old saying (and there is a lot of truth in it): Be careful what you ask for!

But this does raise an interesting question: Why do we need to ask at all?  We say that we believe in a God who knows everything.  Well, if that’s true—if Almighty God knows everything that we need before we ask him (as Jesus says he does in Matthew 6:8)—then why do we have to ask at all?  Why doesn’t the Lord just give us everything we need instantaneously and simplify the process?

Have you ever wondered about those things?

Probably most people have (at least most believers have) at some point in their lives.

This morning I share with you four reasons why: four reasons why God wants us to ask.  Now please don’t misunderstand: these are not the only reasons there are.  I’m sure that some of you could think of others, if you spent some quality time reflecting on the matter, as I did when I prepared this homily.  These are simply the ones that I would focus on, if someone came up to me and said, “Fr. Ray, why does God want me to pray prayers of petition, if he already knows all my needs?”

The first reason is this: Prayers of petition make us aware of our need for God.  They make us aware of the fact that we are not self-sufficient: that we need God’s grace in every situation of our lives.  The constant temptation we face in this life, of course, is to think just the opposite.  (This is one reason, by the way, why most Catholics don’t come to Mass every Sunday.  They don’t think they need it!)  And I’m convinced that this temptation to think that we don’t need God would increase a hundredfold, if we received everything from the Lord without asking.  The gifts would be from God, yes that’s true—but we probably wouldn’t recognize that fact.  So the bottom line is this:  God doesn’t need to be told what we need, but we need to know that we need him—and asking helps us to have that knowledge, that awareness.

Reason number 2 why God wants us to ask: Asking helps us to grow in faith.  Asking helps us to grow in our relationship with God.   In today’s first reading, Abraham intercedes for the people of Sodom.  He starts off by asking the Lord to spare the city if there are 50 innocent people living in it.  God says he will.  And that affirmative response from the Lord increases Abraham’s faith—so much so that he then asks, “Well, what if there are only 45 righteous people in the city?  Would you be willing to spare it for their sakes?”  God says yes again.  This increases Abraham’s faith even more, leading him eventually to the point of asking God to spare Sodom if there are only 10 good people left in the place.  Unfortunately, as we all know, there weren’t.  Remember, this is the city from which we get the modern English word “sodomy”—but the point here is that Abraham’s trust and confidence in the Lord grew much stronger through his verbal exchange with God, through this experience of asking the Lord again and again and again.

Those of you who are parents: When your children need something (when they really need something) and they come to you and they ask and you give it to them—your relationship with them grows stronger, does it not?  Their trust in you—their confidence in you—increases. 

Well, the same is true of our relationship with God.

Which brings us to reason number 3 why God wants us to ask: Because our God is a Father, not a tyrant!  A tyrant imposes things on others.  God doesn’t impose things—even good things—on anybody!  Like a loving Father, he simply offers them to us.  He gives them to us if we want them—and if we ask for them.  That’s why Jesus encourages us in today’s gospel to ask, to seek and to knock—and to do so persistently and perseveringly!

Finally, God wants us to ask him for things in prayer because we are his co-workers!  This is an idea that St. Paul, St. John the apostle and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI would all understand very well.  In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul calls himself God’s “co-worker”; and in his third letter St. John talks about us being “co-workers of the truth.”  That last expression also happens to be the biblical phrase that Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict) took as his episcopal motto.

We are called God’s co-workers because we are to have an active role in fulfilling the Lord’s plan of salvation for the human race.  God could have made us robots in a mechanical universe and worked out everything by himself; but he chose to create us as free human beings in a moral universe—a universe where we would have to freely and consciously choose the good and embrace it.  So if we believe that prayers of petition bring good things—blessings—into our lives and the lives of others (and we should), then those prayers are part and parcel of this partnership we have with God!  When we pray, in other words, we are acting as his “co-workers” in bringing his help and saving grace into the world.

So there you have it, four reasons why God wants us to ask: to make us aware of our need for him; to help us grow in faith; because he’s a Father, not a tyrant; and because we are his co-workers in this world.

Dear Lord, may these four reasons be reason enough—reason enough for us to take prayer and its power seriously, each and every day of our lives.  Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Importance of Living a Balanced Life

(Sixteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on July 21, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 18:1-10; Psalm 15:2-5; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10: 38-42.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixteenth Sunday 2019]

One day back in the 5th century, a man came to visit Abba Silvanus and the other Christian hermits who were living at the time near Mt. Sinai.  When the man arrived, he happened to notice some of the hermits working in the fields, and he said to Abba Silvanus, “Why are these men working so hard for the food that perishes? Remember what Jesus said to Martha: ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.’  These men are acting just like she did.  Mary, on the other hand, chose the good part—she didn’t worry at all about earthly food.  She sat at the feet of Jesus and drank in his words.”

Abba Silvanus called one of the other hermits over and he said, “Our friend here has come to visit us, and he needs a place to stay.  So give him a good spiritual book, and put him in a nice room.” 

Well, for the first few hours, the man enjoyed the peace and quiet, but after a while he began to get hungry.  He kept looking out the window, expecting someone to come and call him for lunch and dinner, but nobody ever came.  Finally, as it was getting dark, he left the room and went to see Abba Silvanus.

“Abba,” he said, “didn’t you and the brothers eat today?”

He said, “Of course we did.  And I must tell you—the food was quite good!”

“But I didn’t eat.  Why didn’t you or one of the brothers come to call me for the meals?”

Abba Silvanus said, “Why would we want to disturb you?  Obviously you are a deeply spiritual person who doesn’t need this kind of food.  On the other hand, the rest of us here are earthly, so we must eat.  That’s why we pray AND work.  Indeed, you—like Mary—have chosen the good part.”

Needless to say, the man immediately repented of his pride and arrogance—and then I presume he got to eat some of the leftovers!

In trying to understand the story of Martha and Mary, it would be wrong for us to set these women in opposition to one another!  That’s the mistake this man made!  Jesus said that Mary had chosen the “better” part—not the only part, not the only necessary part!

Jesus wants us to have a certain BALANCE in our lives!  This man’s mistake was that he embraced the spiritual but totally neglected the physical.  The tendency of our age, of course, is to do the opposite: to embrace the physical and neglect the spiritual.

St. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 that we are tri-dimensional: body, soul and spirit.  Consequently, if we’re going to live the balanced life Jesus wants us to live, we need to care for and develop all 3 dimensions of our person, not just one.

This morning I’d like you to think about your own life for a few moments.  How “balanced” are you right now?  How balanced is your life?

I wrote down several points to help us in this reflection.  Here they are:

1.    If you’re too busy to get to Mass every single Sunday and Holy Day, then your life is out of balance.  If you are chronically late for Mass and/or leave early, your life is out of balance. 
2.    If you don’t have time to give God at least 15 minutes a day in personal prayer, then your life is out of balance. 
3.    If you come to the end of the day and can’t think of at least 1 charitable, selfless deed you’ve performed since you got up in the morning, then your life is definitely out of balance.
4.    (This one is related to the last one)—If you are preoccupied with what you want to do, and with what others can and should do for you, then your life is out of balance.
5.    If you don’t have time to pay a special visit to the Blessed Sacrament and make a Holy Hour at least once a week, then your life is out of balance.
6.    If you don’t have time to get to Confession at least every month or so, your life is out of balance.
7.    If you are ever bored, then your life is out of balance.  (For those who want to do God’s will and win the world for Christ, there’s plenty to learn and plenty to do.)
8.    If you don’t make the effort to learn something new about your Catholic faith every week, then your life is out of balance.  (If something is really important to us, we will certainly want to learn as much as we can about it.)
9.    In your life, if prayer is not a priority over recreation, then your life is out of balance.  (In 1 Timothy 4:8 St. Paul says, “While physical training is to some extent valuable, the discipline of religion is incalculably more so, with its promise of life here and hereafter.”)
10. And finally, if you spend so much time in church or in prayer that you neglect your earthly responsibilities (especially the responsibilities you have to your family), then your life is out of balance.  (In a sense, that’s the error of the man who went to see Abba Silvanus.)
So what’s the message for the day?  Simple: Balance your life!  Be a good steward of every dimension of your person: your body, your soul, and your spirit.

And in the process, remember: it’s not either/or, it’s both/and: it’s not either Martha or Mary, it’s BOTH MARTHA AND MARY.  It’s contemplation and charity; it’s prayer AND action!

O Lord, help us to achieve this very difficult but very important balance in our lives, because it’s the balance that will help us to become saints!

Sunday, July 07, 2019

The Mission of the 72 in Luke 10; the Mission of the Laity in the Church Today

(Fourteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on July 7, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 66:10-14c; Psalm 66:1-20; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10: 1-12, 17-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourteenth Sunday 2019]

What do you do to serve the Lord?

I think many lay Catholics would answer that question by telling you what they do in and around the church—“I’m a lector”; “I’m an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion”; “I’m an altar server”; “I’m a cantor”; “I sing in the choir”; “I’m on the parish finance council”.

Now please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say—all these acts of service are good!  Lay people have essential roles to play in the liturgical and financial life of this and of every other parish.  But these roles are only secondary!  Even though they’re very important, they are not at the core of a lay person’s vocation in the Church.

In paragraph 898 of the Catechism, it says this (quoting one of the documents of Vatican II): “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will.”

Very simply, this means that if you’re a lay Catholic (and most of you are), then you are to live in the world, but you are not to be “of” the world; and you are to take your Catholic faith with you wherever you go.  THAT’S YOUR PRIMARY CALLING!  Your faith, in other words, is to guide your personal life, your marital life (even in its private dimensions), your family life, your recreational life—and yes, even your life at work and/or at school.

When I was a deacon at St. Philip’s Church in Greenville back in 1985, there was a lector at the parish who was involved in local politics.  Eventually he became a big political figure at the state level; if I mentioned his name, many of you I’m sure would recognize it immediately.  But this man was also pro-choice when it came to the issue of abortion.  Thankfully, he eventually was told he could no longer serve as a lector.  I mention him today because he’s a great example of a lay person who was “doing something for God” at Sunday Mass, but who was not doing for God what he really SHOULD have been doing for God out there in the world!  He was fulfilling a lay person’s “secondary role” very well—he was an excellent reader!—but he was failing miserably in fulfilling the primary role of a Catholic lay person in modern society. 

His problem, of course, was that he had “compartmentalized” his faith—as many Catholics today do!  In the words of St. John Paul II—words that he wrote in his famous document on the laity, Christifideles Laici—this man had engaged in the “unwarranted separation of [his] faith from [his] life.”  (CL, 2)

I was reminded of the vocation of lay people as I reflected on today’s Gospel reading from Luke, chapter 10.  In this story, Jesus sent out 72 disciples on a special mission—a mission that was a little bit different from the one he had given to his 12 apostles.  Jesus told these 72 to go ahead of him to every town he intended to visit, to prepare the way for his arrival.  They weren’t supposed to lead services in synagogues; they were supposed to share their faith with people in a less formal manner, to prepare them to receive Jesus and his message.  That, of course, is exactly what you are supposed to do as Catholic lay people: by your words, actions and example—in the midst of your everyday activities—you are called to prepare others to receive Jesus and his message. 

I remember speaking to a woman on the phone one day who wanted to register for the parish and have her daughter baptized.  That was wonderful.  But during the course of our conversation she indicated that she hadn’t practiced her faith in many years, and she had no intention of practicing her faith in the future.  Her idea was to have her daughter baptized, and then let her daughter decide what she wanted to be when she was old enough.  This woman obviously did not understand her role as a Catholic lay person!  As a mother, she was called to teach the faith to her child; she was called to be an example of faith and charity to her child—to prepare the way for Jesus to become the Lord of her child’s life! 

Jesus wants to visit your children and become the Lord of their lives—so he sends you ahead of him to prepare the way (like he sent the 72!).  Jesus wants to visit your workplace and change the lives of your co-workers, and so he sends you ahead of him to prepare the way.  Jesus wants to visit your school and change the lives of your fellow students, and so he sends you ahead of him to prepare the way.

Will everyone accept the message of faith and love that you offer?  Of course not!  Some—even perhaps in your family—will reject the truth of the Gospel, regardless of how lovingly and respectfully you present it to them!  Jesus made that fact clear to the 72. 

But the difficulty of the task doesn’t make it any less of an obligation!

Many of you know that, over the years, I’ve had a few things to say publicly about the big social and moral issues of our day (like abortion and gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research).  I haven’t been too shy about putting my “two cents” into the discussion (usually in our local newspaper),  But for the most part I’ve left the job of defending the truth in the hands of some very competent and faith-filled lay people from our community—because first and foremost that’s their role, not mine!  It’s the kind of thing they’re supposed to be doing as Catholic lay persons!

My role as a priest is to form them in the faith, so that they can transform our culture with the spiritual and moral message of the Gospel!  Jesus, believe it or not, wants to visit and transform this hedonistic, materialistic culture of ours; he wants to change it from a culture of death into a culture of life!  But he needs committed lay people to prepare the way for him to do that, like the 72 prepared the way for his visits 2,000 years ago!

St. Luke tells us that when these 72 came back from the mission Jesus had given them, they had good news to report.  Yes, they had faced difficulty and opposition, but because of their efforts many people were healed and many lives were changed for the better.

Your mission as a lay person in 2019 is like the mission of the 72 in many respects, but it’s different in this one sense: their mission lasted only for a brief period of time; yours—like mine—lasts a lifetime.  When our missions are finally finished—on Judgment Day—we also will be asked to give a report to Jesus of what we’ve done in his service.  Let’s pray that when that moment comes we, like the 72, will be able to tell Jesus lots of good news!