Sunday, August 18, 2019

So Great a Cloud of Witnesses!

St. John Neumann

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (c): This homily was given on August 18, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 38:4-10; Psalm 40:2-18; Hebrews 12: 1-4; Luke 12: 49-53.)

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

In the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, the author mentions Abraham, Sarah, and several other Old Testament saints.  He then begins chapter 12 with the words we heard in today’s second reading: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .” 

So great a cloud of witnesses.  All the saints, Old Testament and New, are present in that unseen cloud.  They are praying for us, and cheering us on, so that we will do what it says in that text: so that we will repent of our sins and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus; so that we will persevere in faith even in the midst of our trials and sufferings; so that we will be open to the many graces and blessings the Lord wishes to give us in our lives.

I was reminded of all this in a powerful way one night a number of years ago, as I watched a most fascinating story on the Learning Channel.  (By the way, please keep that in mind.  This story that I’m about to tell you was on the Learning Channel—not EWTN!)  I tuned in to the program after it had already started, but I quickly realized that what I was seeing in front of me on the television screen was the reenactment of a real event, something that supposedly happened about 25 years ago in the city of Philadelphia.   

It all began with a little boy lying in a hospital bed in a coma.  In the room with him were his doctor, his parents, and a priest.  The priest reached into his pocket at one point and gave the parents a holy card with St. John Neumann’s picture on it.  (John Neumann was the Bishop of Philadelphia in the middle of the 19th century.  He was canonized by the Church in 1977.  Some people confuse him with John Henry Newman, who will be canonized on October 13th of this year.  But they are two different people.) 

In addition the holy card, the priest also gave the boy’s parents a medal with Neumann’s picture on it.  I should mention at this point that, when all of this happened, the mother was a person of faith, but the father was not.  In fact, when the priest gave them the card and the medal, the father said angrily, “What good will these do my son?” 

After a few seconds, though, he apologized to the priest and took the two gifts. 

Well, a few days later the doctor gave the parents the bad news they had dreaded: their son only had a few hours or a few days to live.  The parents were devastated, of course, and they decided that they would take shifts and stay with their son around the clock until he died.  They didn’t want him to be left alone, and they certainly didn’t want him to die alone. 

At one point during one of her visits, the mother woke up from a deep sleep, and she saw a little boy standing next to her son’s bed.  He had a cap on his head and a ball in his hand.  He was looking at her son and smiling.  The boy never spoke to her, but he motioned to the mother with his arm, indicating that he wanted her to follow him.  So she did.  He led her out of the room and down the hall to the entrance of another room.  But before the mother had the chance to go inside, the doctor came along and began talking with her.  When she turned back to look for the boy he was gone.

She didn’t think much of the occurrence—until it happened again.  The boy led her to the very same room, but this time, just before she entered it, her husband came running up and told her that their son was dying.  They ran back into his room—joining the doctor and the priest—and they watched as their son stopped breathing, and all the machines monitoring the boy’s vital signs went to zero. 

Not surprisingly, the parents began to cry; the doctor and the priest looked at each other with tears in their eyes.  But then—all of a sudden—the boy started breathing again, and the numbers on the machines went back to normal!

Shortly thereafter he opened his eyes, smiled at his mother, and got up—like he had just awakened from an afternoon nap!  The doctor, of course, was flabbergasted and had no medical explanation for the event. 

Later, when the boy was talking with his parents, he said, “Mommy, you have to meet my new friend. His name is Johnny.  We’ve been playing together and having so much fun.”  The mother thought the boy must have been dreaming when he was in the coma. 

At that point the father gave the holy card back to the priest and said, “Thank you, Father.  Thank you so much.”  The mother then noticed that there was a second picture on the back of the card.  She said, “Father, may I see that?”  When she looked at it, she gasped!  She said, “Father, whose picture is this?”  The priest replied, “Oh, that’s a picture of St. John Neumann when he was a little boy.” 

The woman said, “That’s the child I’ve been seeing next to my son’s bed!”  The son then caught a glimpse of the card and said, “Mommy, that’s my new friend Johnny that I was telling you about!” 

The woman suddenly remembered that the boy had twice tried to lead her into another hospital room.  So she immediately got up and went to the room with her husband and son.  There she was astonished to find her father, whom she had not seen in many years.  Apparently he had done something decades earlier which had deeply offended her, and he had had no contact with her since.  Now he was dying of cancer.  He said to her, “I’ve been praying that somehow I would get to see you before I died, so that I could ask you to forgive me for what I did.”

And so the story ended with a beautiful moment of reconciliation between father and daughter.

“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .”

As that story illustrates so beautifully, St. John Neumann is in that cloud.  So is our Blessed Mother.  So are Abraham and Sarah.  So are all those people who have left this life and gone to heaven.  Needless to say, it’s a very BIG cloud!  As believers, we should look to that cloud often, and we should look to that cloud with confidence, saying, “All you holy men and women, all you saints of God, pray for us—that we will love God and others as you did, that we will be open to God’s many gifts as you were, that we will live in faith and persevere in faith as you did, so that someday we will join you—all of you—forever—in that glorious cloud of heaven.  Amen.”

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Solemnity of the Assumption and the Dignity of Motherhood

(Solemnity of the Assumption 2019: This homily was given on August 15, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Revelation 11:19a; 12: 1-10; Luke 1: 39-56.)

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

As we honor the Blessed Mother on this Solemnity of her Assumption, we are reminded in a special way of the importance and dignity of motherhood.

At the end of her earthly life, Mary’s body did not decompose in any tomb.  The Catholic Church authoritatively teaches that at the end of her life, Mary was assumed—body and soul—into heaven.  That’s the dogma that stands behind today’s feast.

Mary was given this special privilege because of her great holiness, but we must always remember that her holiness was inseparable from her motherhood.  She didn’t live a perfectly sinless and holy life in a vacuum somewhere; she lived a perfectly sinless and holy life as a wife and as a mother.  Recall how Mary was portrayed in our first reading today from Revelation 12: she was portrayed as the mother of the Savior: the Son “destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod.”

And in today’s Gospel we hear her beautiful words in the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior . . . “ 

What was Mary talking about there?  In what was she rejoicing?

she was rejoicing in Her motherhood!  In the presence of her cousin Elizabeth, she was rejoicing at the news God had just given her through the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation.

Our world today does not have a deep appreciation for motherhood.  Want some proof of that assertion?  Talk to a woman who’s had several children!  Ask her how some of her friends and family members reacted to the news of her later pregnancies:  “What?  Again?  Another one?  Are you crazy?”

Those of you who are mothers with several children, please hear me this morning: You don’t have to apologize to anybody!  Our culture needs to apologize to you!

The truth is, we live in a world right now where many people are trying to come up with clever new ways to kill human life in its earliest stages: new kinds of chemical contraceptives, new ways to perform abortions, new ways to tamper with frozen human embryos (embryos, by the way, which should never be “created” in petri dishes to begin with!)

This is why the world hates mothers who generously give life: they prick consciences!  Those who embrace the culture of selfishness and death are deeply troubled by those who witness powerfully to the culture of life in their own families—and by the size of their families.

May Mary, our Blessed Mother, intercede in a special way today for all those women who generously give life.  May they achieve holiness in the same way that Mary did—in and through their motherhood.  And may their children be holy as well, so that, with them, they will someday rejoice forever in God’s kingdom—as Mary now rejoices eternally with her divine Son.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Vanity: Satan’s Favorite Sin

(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 4, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Please Read Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23; Psalm 90:3-27; Colossians 3: 1-11; Luke 12: 13-21.)

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

In the movie “The Devil’s Advocate,” Al Pacino plays a devious and highly-persuasive Satan, who sets out to destroy a young, ambitious lawyer.  He tries to capitalize on the lawyer’s pride, and even though he fails to achieve his ultimate goal during the film, it’s clear at the end that he hasn’t given up!  He begins a brand new attack, disguising himself as a news reporter who’s looking for an interview.  His strategy (which isn’t immediately obvious to the lawyer or the audience) is to make the lawyer famous, and then use his fame to destroy him.  At first the lawyer says “no” to the interview, but as the film concludes he gives in, and promises to talk to the reporter in the near future; then he walks away.  At that point the reporter turns to the camera, his face changes to reveal his true identity, and he says to the audience, “Vanity, it’s my favorite sin.”

How true!

Vanity (which is a form of pride) is Satan’s favorite sin, because it lies at the root and foundation of every other sin.

When pride creeps into something good, it immediately corrupts it.

Consider the rich man in the parable Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel text from Luke 12: Was it wrong for this person to think about providing for his future?  Certainly not!  It was reasonable and prudent.  It would have been fine for him to have an IRA or a 401k.  But, unfortunately, this was his only concern in life!  As Jesus indicates in the final line of the story, the man was not at all interested in growing rich in what matters to God; his sole concern was his own personal comfort and well-being!  He—and not the Lord—was at the center of his universe.  That’s pride!  If he were alive today, this man would no doubt be a big supporter of research which involves the destruction of human embryos, because that research might help him live longer.  In all likelihood he would also support Planned Parenthood’s practice of selling fetal body parts to the companies that do this research.  He wouldn’t care in the least that innocent human beings were being killed in the process.  If he were a modern businessman, he would cheat his employees out of a just wage—and cut corners whenever possible—to line his own pockets with more money.

Here we see how something good—namely, a desire to provide reasonably for one’s future—gets corrupted by vanity!

Consequently, we need to take seriously the advice St. Paul gives us in today’s second reading from Colossians 3, when he says, “Put to death . . . the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.”  Pride is one of those “earthly things” that we must “kill” before it puts us to death spiritually (and perhaps even physically!).  I like the final scene of “The Devil’s Advocate” because it reminds us that Satan is always on the offensive in these matters: we may kill pride successfully in one situation, but Satan will always try to resurrect it in another—as he did in the life of that lawyer.  So the “killing” must go on continually!  (This, by the way, is the only time you’ll ever hear me promote “killing” in a homily!) 

And how do you put pride and those other sins to death in your life?  There really is only one way: through humility! The truly humble person will admit his sin whenever he needs to, and bring it to Confession as soon as possible!  He won’t hide it, or deny it, or rationalize it away (that’s what proud people do!).  And, in humility, he will realize that he needs God’s grace to resist temptation and avoid sin in the future; consequently—in humility—he will seek the Lord’s grace through prayer, frequent reception of the Eucharist, and through acts of penance, fasting and self-denial.

Satan says, “Vanity, it’s my favorite sin.”

The response of every Catholic Christian should be, “Humility, it’s my favorite virtue: because through it I receive forgiveness—and the grace I need to put vanity and pride to death in my life.”