Sunday, October 27, 2019

Prayer That Presumes Too Much; Prayer That Presumes Too Little

"Oh God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity ..."

(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 27, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Sirach 35:12-18; Psalm 34:2-23; 2 Timothy 4:6-18; Luke 18:9-14.)

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

Prayer that presumes too much.

Prayer that presumes too little.

Both are common—and both are wrong!

The Pharisee in today’s Gospel parable from Luke 18 presumed too much when he said, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”

For example, he presumed that because he did “religious things” he was thereby pleasing to the Lord.  That was a rash presumption on his part!  You can perform religious actions from the time you get up until the time you go to bed and still be in the state of mortal sin; you can fast and pay tithes—as this man did—for all the wrong reasons. 

And since he gave no indication in his prayer that he was aware of his own need for forgiveness, this Pharisee may have presumed that God would automatically forgive him of his sins, since he was such a great Pharisee and performed all these wonderful, holy actions! 

To presume that God will forgive us whether or not we repent and confess our sins is perhaps the most dangerous presumption of all.  And it’s one that’s clearly condemned in Scripture.  As Sirach 5:5 says, “Of forgiveness be not overconfident, adding sin upon sin.”

This Pharisee also presumed to know those who were with God and those who were against God.  He thought he could clearly distinguish one group from the other.  In his mind, of course, he was in the good group, and all those “greedy, dishonest and adulterous” folks—like the tax collector—were in the other.  If we presume that we can clearly distinguish who is with God and who isn’t—who is in the state of grace and who isn’t—we are presuming to know the “heart” of another person, and that is impossible!  Only God knows the heart, which is why Jesus tells us in Luke 6:37 not to “judge.”  Judging, by the way, in this sense has nothing to do with calling sin “sin”: that we should do; that we must do!  But we can never know with absolute certitude how culpable another person is for the sins they commit.  The tone of his prayer indicates that this Pharisee thought he knew the “culpability level” of other people—and that was a prideful presumption on his part; that was an act of “judging.”

Here’s a challenging question: Has this type of presumption been present in any of your prayers since September 11, 2001?  Have you presumed to know the “culpability level” of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist friends, some of whom unfortunately are still around today?  Hopefully not.  We know that what terrorists do is evil; we know that what they do is to be condemned in the strongest terms; and we know that IF they’re fully culpable for their terrorist activities they’re in grave danger of losing their immortal souls.  But that’s as far as we can go in terms of our knowledge—and our prayers should humbly reflect that fact.  If they don’t, then we are no better than the Pharisee of this parable.

The prayer of the Pharisee is a prayer that presumes too much, and it’s wrong.  But equally wrong is the prayer that presumes too little.

The person who prays but thinks, “God really doesn’t love me”; the person who prays but says to himself, “What I’ve done is so horrible that God couldn’t possibly forgive me”; the person who prays but doesn’t believe God can change him for the better or supply his needs; the person who prays but doesn’t believe that God can work miracles; the person who prays but doesn’t think that God can heal his marriage or family; the person who prays but doesn’t think that God can help him to forgive others—these are all people who are presuming too little when they pray!  Because the fact is, God does love us; he does forgive; he can change us and supply our needs; he does work miracles; he does heal relationships, and he does have the power to help us forgive (after all, God the Son even forgave his own murderers!). 

Which brings us to a man who did presume all these things when he prayed: the tax collector in today’s Gospel parable.  His prayer, though extremely short, says and implies a lot: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  This man knew his unworthiness, but he also believed strongly in God’s love and mercy: that’s clear from the words of the prayer.  He knew God could forgive him; he was convinced that God wanted to forgive him; and he believed God would forgive him if he turned to the Lord with a repentant heart.  And God did!  As Jesus said, this man—who presumed what he should have presumed—“went home justified”, while the Pharisee—who had presumed too much—did not.

The example to be followed here, my brothers and sisters, should be obvious.

Oh Lord, help us to be like this tax collector—always—whenever we come to you in prayer.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

How to Pray Better

(Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 20, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 17:8-13; Psalm 121:1-8; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-ninth Sunday 2019]

The apostles said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  In response, he taught them the “Our Father.”

If we’re serious about our faith, we will often say something similar to Jesus.  We will say, “Lord, teach me to pray better; teach me to pray more effectively; teach me to pray as you want me to pray.”

And this is certainly something Jesus wants to do for us: he wants to help us pray better, since he knows how important and how powerful prayer is!  In today’s Gospel text St. Luke says this: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.”  Obviously, Jesus knew his disciples would be tempted at times to get casual about their prayer or to neglect it entirely, and he wanted to motivate them to resist those temptations!  So he told them this parable about a poor widow seeking justice.  His message to them was, “Look, if this dishonest, despicable judge will honor the persistent requests of this widow, how much more will your loving, compassionate Father respond to the sincere and persistent prayers of his beloved children?  So pray—and pray with confidence and with perseverance; in good times and in bad; when you feel like it and even when you don’t feel like it.”

One footnote here: Notice that Jesus does not say or imply that God will always respond to our prayers in precisely the way we want him to; he merely assures us that God will respond—and ultimately that response will be according to his perfect and holy will.

Of course, God has many different ways of actually answering our prayers.  Sometimes he answers them through events; sometimes he answers them through other human beings.  Believe it or not—he can even answer prayers through me.  (I know that may seem astonishing to some people, but remember that for God all things are possible.)  So, if you’ve ever uttered that prayer I mentioned at the very beginning, “Lord teach me to pray better,” perhaps God will answer that request this morning through yours truly!

As I prepared for this homily, I asked the Lord to give me some insights on this very subject, and—as he always does—he answered my prayer.  So here are some simple, practical points on praying more effectively. 

To pray better:

1.   Praise and thank first; ask second.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of prayer as “the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit.”  A good relationship does not begin with the words, “Give me . . . “.  Prayer that begins with petition is usually superficial prayer.  And here’s a corollary to this suggestion: When you do offer up your petitions and ask God for things, pray for others as well as for yourself.  We know that’s what God wants us to do because in the ‘Our Father’ (which is our model prayer) we never use the pronoun “I”; it’s always “us” and “our”.  
2.    To pray better, pray to a Person.  We don’t pray to a “force” or an impersonal power floating out there in the cosmos somewhere.  New Agers do that.  We pray to a personal God who loves us just as we are, but too much to let us stay that way (as Scott Hahn would put it).  In this regard, it may be helpful to imagine Jesus standing before you when you pray—especially when you do so in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.  (Because when you pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus IS right there in front of you!)
3.    Here’s another suggestion: To pray better, focus on quality and not on quantity.  When I was growing up, I remember my pastor saying, “It’s better to say one ‘Our Father’ slowly and with real devotion, than to say a hundred at warp speed.  Quality is more important than quantity.”
4.    This follows from number 3: Think about what you’re saying!  Don’t pray like a parrot, pray like a prophet!  Parrots just say words without thinking; prophets reflect on what they’re saying.
5.    But don’t say too much!  To pray well, practice listening.  This, admittedly, is very difficult—but well worth the effort.  And here’s a great way to begin practicing: before Mass, slowly read over the Scripture passages for the day.  Look for a word or phrase that strikes you and touches your mind and heart.  Then spend some time pondering that word or phrase, and ask the Lord to help you to see how it applies to your life.  At times you’ll be surprised at how many ideas flood your mind.  That’s one way to practice “listening to God.” (Of course, to do this kind of practicing, you’ve obviously got to get here early!)
6.    This idea stands behind the suggestion to practice listening: If you want to pray better, always expect Someone to speak to you when you pray. (Someone there has a capital “S”.)  You can only listen to a message if someone says something you can hear!  Perhaps one reason why many of us find prayer boring is that we don’t really expect to “hear” the Lord speak to us in his Word or in our heart when we pray to him!  Consequently, we keep our “spiritual ears” closed!
7.    Another suggestion: Don’t judge the effectiveness of your prayer by how you feel.  Think about Moses in today’s first reading: he stood there for hours in prayer with his hands raised up in the air, while Joshua and the Israelites fought the Amalekites.  After a while, he definitely felt exhausted!  In fact, he was so tired that Aaron and Hur had to support his hands!  But his prayer was extremely effective, in spite of the fatigue he felt in his body.
8.    Here’s a crucial point about praying well: Never think that you can “change God” when you pray: that can’t possibly happen, so it will only make you frustrated!  Prayer doesn’t change God, but it will change us if we allow it to, opening us up to the many blessings the Lord already wants to give us.
9.    This one I’ve saved for now for obvious reasons (because it's so difficult!): To pray effectively, pray like Jesus (i.e., pray even for your enemies, and make every effort to forgive them!) Remember the prayer Jesus offered on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  1 Peter 3: 7 indicates that if we pray with love in our hearts, nothing will prevent our prayers from being answered.  But our love must be universal, because the love of Christ was universal. 
10. And finally, if you have trouble putting into practice any or all of the suggestions I just mentioned, don’t give up—EVER!  If it’s any consolation, I’ve had trouble with all of them at one time or another in my life, and quite frankly I still have difficulty with some of them!  But why would I want to give up?  The prize—even on this side of the grave—is well worth the price!  And so, as Monsignor Struck would put it: “Pray, pray, pray.”
And be sure to do it every day—without exception.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

“GUARD the Deposit of Faith!”—St. Paul's Command to Timothy and to All Priests

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 6, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4; Psalm 95:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-seventh Sunday 2019]

It happened many years ago, but I remember the encounter as if it occurred yesterday.  I happened to be in Warwick one afternoon, and I ran into a married couple that I knew from the northern part of the state.  During the course of our conversation the wife said to me, “Fr. Ray, please keep us in your prayers.  My husband and I have been trying to have children for nine years.  Tomorrow I'm undergoing “in vitro-fertilization” for the FOURTH time.  Please pray that it works so that we can finally have a child.”

Well, immediately, I was put on the spot.  That's because the Catholic Church, in the name of Jesus Christ (not in its own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ) teaches that in vitro fertilization is immoral.  The desire to overcome infertility is, of course, a good desire.  But, as St. Paul teaches in his letter to the Romans, we may never use an evil means to attain a good end.  IVF is an evil means.  Why?  Not because technology is involved.  The Church is not against technology as such.  In fact Jesus, through his Church, teaches that some medical methods of treating infertility are quite acceptable.  But any method which REPLACES the marital act is immoral.  And, unfortunately, IVF does that: children are conceived—not through the loving union of two parents—but rather in a petri dish.  And there are other immoral dimensions to this procedure. For example, the method that's normally used to obtain sperm is immoral, as is the common practice of destroying some of the eggs that are fertilized.  Lest we forget, to destroy a fertilized human egg is to destroy a human being made in the image and likeness of God.

Well, as gently as I could, I tried to explain all of this to the woman and her husband.  And, not surprisingly, they were devastated.  The wife finally said, “Fr. Ray, do you hate us now for having done this 3 times?  Will you think less of us when you see us in the future?”  I said, “Of course not.  You're wonderful people.  And besides, in the past you didn't realize this was wrong—as many other Catholics don't realize that it's wrong.”

Then she added this comment, which I will never, ever forget: “But Father Ray, our PRIEST told us it was okay.  We went to see him before we did any of this, and he said that as long as they intended to put all the fertilized eggs back, it would be fine.”

At that, my blood pressure went through the roof!  I was livid!  Not at the couple, but at the priest, who should have known better!  You see, instead of telling these two people the truth, instead of being courageous and giving them the right message, he told them what he thought they wanted to hear—probably because he didn't want to offend them.  And what was the end result of his “compassionate act?”  Well first of all, he put me in a terribly awkward position; and secondly, he made it much worse for this good, sincere couple.  In trying to be a “nice guy,” he ultimately caused them to experience more pain when they finally learned the truth—the truth that he should have told them in the first place!

Why do I mention this incident today?  Number one, because this is an issue which many Catholics are unclear about (in fact, someone in the parish asked me about this exact topic just a few days ago); and number two because our second reading for this Mass is addressed to Timothy, who was one of the very first leaders in the Church.  St. Paul wrote two letters to Timothy, in which he tells the young priest how to be a true shepherd in the family of God.  But nowhere in either of the letters does Paul say: “Tim, be a nice guy.  Don’t ever offend anybody.  Tell people exactly what they want to hear.  Give them an easy message.”  Rather, Paul encouraged him to speak the TRUTH in love, even if it hurt—even if it was offensive to some.  For example, in the text we just heard he says (and here I’m using the old New American Bible translation), “[Timothy], take as a model of sound teaching what you have heard me say, in faith and love in Christ Jesus.”  Now Timothy must have heard Paul say many difficult things, because Paul did that on a regular basis. That's clear from his many New Testament letters.  He was not a wimp.  He was not afraid to confront the pressing social and cultural issues of his day. And make no mistake about it: Paul suffered for being so honest and truthful.  That's why he also tells Timothy, “Never be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but with the strength which comes from God bear your share of the hardships which the gospel entails.”  In other words, “Tim, if you intend to be a good priest, get ready to be opposed by some people when you speak the full truth of the gospel.  It's happened to me; it will certainly happen to you.  Don't think you'll somehow be exempt from the experience.  But don't be afraid either.  God will give you the strength you need to deal with it.” 

Then, a few verses later, Paul gives him this most important instruction: “Guard the rich deposit of faith with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.”  The key word there is the word “guard.”  Notice that Paul DOESN'T say “change the deposit of faith if you feel like it;” he doesn't say “water down the deposit of faith if it challenges you too much.”  He tells Timothy to "guard it."  That's because neither Paul, nor Timothy, nor Peter, nor anyone else had the power to change it.  The same is true today.  Now this is something that many modern Catholics (and others) don't seem to understand.  They want the Church to change her teaching on the priesthood, and on certain aspects of sexual morality.  The Church does not have the power or the authority to do such a thing!  It never did, and it never will!  All the Church can do is what Paul says here.  All it can do is GUARD and PROMOTE the deposit of faith (which is the full gospel of Jesus Christ).

I am confident that Timothy followed Paul's instruction.  Which means that if he had been a priest today, and a married couple had come to him seeking guidance on how to deal with their infertility, Timothy would not have given them the wrong advice in order to be a nice guy. He would have gently, patiently (and courageously) explained to them the clear teaching of the Church on the matter.  And he would have helped them to explore morally acceptable options to deal with their difficult situation—like NaPro technology, which treats infertility with natural methods that are based on good science.

I ask you today to pray that we will have more leaders of this type in God's family.  And it's certainly in your interest as lay people to do this: because good priests like Timothy not only save their own souls, they also take many lay people with them to heaven.  Bad priests, on the other hand, do exactly the opposite. 

And we’ve had far too many of them in the Church in recent decades, as we are all painfully aware.

St. Paul and St. Timothy, pray for us—and pray especially today for our leaders: for all bishops, priests and deacons in the Church. Pray that they will speak the truth in love to their people ALWAYS—as you both did.  Amen.