Sunday, January 26, 2020

Getting—and Staying—On Track

A beggar on the streets of Rome.

(Third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 26, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Psalm 27:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; Matthew 4: 12-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday 2020]

The following is a true story about Pope St. John Paul II.  Some of you, I’m sure, have heard it before.

A priest from the Archdiocese of New York was visiting Rome.  As he was walking into a church to pray, he noticed a beggar sitting at the front door—not an unusual sight in Rome.  But something about this particular beggar bothered him.  He didn’t figure it out until he began to pray: he suddenly realized that he knew the man from his days in the seminary.

He immediately went back outside and said to him, “Excuse me, do I know you?”  Sure enough, the beggar had been in the seminary with him many years earlier.  He had been ordained a priest, but had [in his words] “crashed and burned” in his vocation.

The priest from New York was understandably shaken up when he left the beggar a few minutes later.

That afternoon he was at the Vatican, and had the opportunity to meet the pope and speak with him.  He said to him, “Please, Holy Father, pray for this particular man.  I went to seminary with him, and he’s now a beggar on the streets of Rome.  Please pray for him, because he’s lost.”

The Holy Father instructed the priest to go back to the beggar.

He found him—once again—in front of the church, and he said to him, “I have an invitation for the two of us to have dinner with the pope tonight.”  The beggar said, “No, I can’t.”  The priest responded, “You’d better, because I’m not going to have dinner with the pope any other way.” 

So the priest took the beggar to his room, where he provided him with a razor, a much-needed shower, and some clean clothes.

Then they went to dinner.  About an hour into the meal, the Holy Father asked the priest from New York to leave the room.  He then said to the beggar, “Would you hear my Confession?”  The beggar said, “I’m not a priest anymore.”  The pope replied, “Once a priest, always a priest.”  The beggar said, “But I’m not in good standing with the Church.”  The pope shot back, “I’m the pope.  I’m the bishop of Rome.  I can re-instate you now.” 

The beggar agreed, and Pope John Paul II proceeded to confess his sins.

The beggar-priest barely got the words of absolution out of his mouth before he dropped to his knees and tearfully asked, “Holy Father, will you please hear my Confession?”  He confessed, and was restored to good graces with our Lord and the Church.

The Holy Father then invited the New York priest back into the room, and he asked him at what church he had found the beggar.  The priest told him.  The pope then said to the beggar-priest, “For your first assignment, I want you to go to the pastor there and report for duty, because you’ll be an associate at that parish with a special outreach to the beggars in that area.”

And that’s what he did.  He was restored to God’s grace, and continued his priestly ministry among the poor of Rome.

Life is full of ups and downs, twists and turns, pleasant highways and bumpy roads.  And because of the many trials and temptations we face, it’s relatively easy to get off-track—even when it comes to your vocation. 

Something got this priest off-track.  We’re not sure what it was, but obviously something caused him to “crash and burn,” as he put it.  Husbands and wives sometimes get off-track in their relationships with one another, or in their relationships with their children; young people easily get off-track in their relationships with their parents; teens sometimes get “off track” by getting into drugs or alcohol or violence or sexually promiscuous behavior. 

To be “on-track” is to be doing God’s will in your life; to be “off-track” is to be doing your own.

The 4 men we heard about in today’s Gospel story—Peter, Andrew, James and John—got on-track with Jesus by saying “yes” to the Lord’s call.  They left their fishing business—and their old way of life—and began to follow Christ as his apostles.  And, for the most part, they stayed on-track, although they had many temptations to get off-track.  One of the biggest occurred at the end of John 6.  Jesus had just given a magnificent sermon on the Holy Eucharist.  He told the crowds that he intended to give them his flesh and blood to be their spiritual food and drink.  They responded by “freaking out”—to use the colloquial expression.  And the Bible tells us that many of our Lord’s disciples left him at that moment—people who had been following him for a long time.  They walked away, saying, “This sort of talk is hard to endure.  Who can take it seriously?”  Jesus then turned to his apostles (realizing that they were facing the same temptation), and he said, “Do you want to leave me too?”  Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of everlasting life.”  That kept them all on-track, at least for the time being.

From these apostles I would say we can learn 3 lessons for our own lives: we can learn how to get on-track, how to stay on-track, and what to do if we get off-track for whatever reason.

To get on-track—in other words, to discern what God wants you to do in this life—you must develop a personal relationship with Jesus, as they did.  (I don’t presume that every Catholic has a personal relationship with Jesus; although every Catholic should—as Fr. Najim has reminded us all many times.)  In today’s Gospel, we hear how the apostles were called by our Lord and how they immediately dropped everything to follow him.  That may seem a bit far-fetched, until you realize that this was probably not the first time these men had encountered Jesus.  If you read John’s Gospel, it seems they had already met our Lord at least once.  So a personal relationship with Jesus had already begun for these men, such that when he called them in today’s story, they responded without hesitation.  Based on their previous encounter, they understood that Jesus was anointed of God and worthy of their trust and obedience. 

We encounter Jesus in many ways, but most of all through prayer and the sacraments.  Consequently, if we want to be like these apostles by getting and staying on track, then prayer and the sacraments—especially the Eucharist and Confession—need to be at the center of our lives.

I think it’s safe to say that from this moment when they left their fishing business until the end of their lives, Peter, Andrew, James and John didn’t make any major decision without consulting Jesus—that’s how deep their personal relationships with Jesus were!  How do you make important decisions in your life?  How do you decide the right thing to do?  Do you make an effort to consult Jesus?  Do you take it to prayer and get spiritual direction when necessary?  Or do you do what “feels” right?  Or what the majority tells you to do?  If you think you’re called to marriage, for example, have you asked Jesus to bring the right person into your life—the person he knows you should marry?  I hope you have, because if you haven’t it’s highly likely you’ll get somebody else! 

And here’s something else we learn from the apostles about staying on-track: get the right friends!  The apostles had each other; the beggar priest in Rome had his old classmate from the seminary who cared enough about him to speak to the pope about his situation, and he had the pope himself who reached out to him in his need.  Whom do you have?  What are your friends like?  Friends can either get you off-track and keep you there, or they can help get you on-track and motivate you to stay there.  St. Paul once said, “Bad company corrupts good morals.”  If that’s true (and it is), then the opposite is also true: Good company inspires good morals. 

And what do you do if and when you get off-track?—if and when you get de-railed? 

You do what the apostles did on Easter after their Holy Week “derailment”—you go back to Jesus!  You don’t listen to Satan by giving up hope and staying away!  Peter, for example, who had denied Jesus 3 times, professed his love for Jesus 3 times when the Lord appeared to him at the Sea of Galilee.  The Lord is not likely to appear to us in that same fashion, but he doesn’t have to!  He is just as present to us in the sacrament of Confession, where he absolves us through the priest who acts in his person.  Sin de-rails us, but Confession re-rails us.  When the de-railed beggar-priest went to Confession to the Holy Father, he was immediately put back on-track.  And so it can be for us.

The bottom line is this: It’s Jesus who gets us on-track; it’s Jesus working through prayer, the sacraments, and good friends who keeps us on track; and it’s Jesus in the sacrament of Reconciliation who puts us back on-track.

So regardless of whether you’re on or off track at the present time, the answer is the same: Jesus.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Do Your Job!

(Second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 19, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 49:3-6; Psalm 40:2-10; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday 2020]

“Starting at tight end for the New England Patriots: John the Baptist.”

I’m not sure that would have worked.  I’m not sure that John the Baptist could have replaced Rob Gronkowski at tight end for the Patriots this past season—or anyone else on the team for that matter.  After all, John probably wasn’t a really big guy to begin with.  The Bible says that he lived on a diet of “locusts and wild honey”.  That’s not the kind of diet that’s going to pack on the muscle—the kind of muscle you need if you want to play tight end in the National Football League.

But regardless of whether or not John the Baptist (if he had lived in our time) could have actually played for the Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick, one thing’s for certain: John the Baptist and Bill Belichick—at least on one very important matter—would be in total agreement.

Let me explain. 

As many of you know, Coach Belichick is famous for one command that he constantly gives to his team.  Coach Belichick is famous for telling his players, “Do your job.”  Do—your—job!  In other words, “Don’t worry about the other 10 Patriot players who are on the field with you for a particular play.  Worry about yourself!  Worry about yourself and what YOU’RE supposed to do on that play—even if it’s only a very small job.  If every player does that—if every player does his own personal job on the play—the play will be successful.”

John the Baptist had a similar attitude—not about football, but about life: about the history of salvation and his role in it.  For example, when John was asked by some Jewish priests and Levites if he was the Messiah, he said very directly and very clearly, “I’m not the Messiah.”  John knew that that was not his role in God’s salvific plan.  That wasn’t his “job.”  John understood that he was only the “voice”: the voice that was to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of their Messiah; the voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare a way for the Lord, make straight his paths.”  He was the best man, not the bridegroom; and he understood that he needed to fade more and more into the background as the bridegroom—his cousin Jesus—took center stage. 

“He must increase; I must decrease,” John said.  Or, as he put it in today’s gospel reading, “The reason why I came baptizing with water was that he [i.e., the true Messiah] might be made known to Israel.”

You see, in effect, God told John the Baptist exactly what Coach Bill Belichick tells his players: “Do your job!”

And John did!  He knew his role; he accepted his role and he made the most of it (which is one of the reasons Jesus called him “the greatest man ever born of woman”).  And this was at the root of John’s humility.  He didn’t try to be or pretend to be someone he was not.  He knew who he was, he knew what God expected of him—and he acted accordingly.

Do I know my job?  That’s the question that each of us needs to reflect on today.  Do you know your job?  And, by the way, when I use the term “job” here I’m not talking about the place you go to from 9 to 5, Monday thru Friday (although that’s part of it); I’m talking about your vocation in this world and how you’re being called to live that vocation in the situation, in the setting, in the circumstances that you find yourself in at the present time.  For example, today’s second reading from the first chapter of 1 Corinthians begins with these words: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God … to the church of God that is in Corinth.”

Now there’s a guy who knew his vocation (his vocation was to be an apostle); and he knew how the Lord was calling him to live his vocation at that moment (he was called at that moment to live it by writing to the Corinthians and instructing them on how to be more faithful to Jesus).  And Paul did his job!  He did it extremely well.  We know that because we have his two magnificent letters to the Corinthians preserved for us in the Bible.

For most people, the “job”—the vocation—that God gives them involves marriage and the raising of children (which means it’s extremely important!).  If that applies to you, then the question you need to ask every day is, “Lord, how do you want me to live my vocation as a spouse and a parent; how do you want me to ‘do my job’ today?”  I can tell you with absolute certainty: on Sundays and holy days God will always tell you to do your job as a parent by taking your children to Mass; he’ll tell you to do your job by teaching your children (by your words and actions) that their relationship with Jesus Christ is more important than basketball, or football, or gymnastics, or making money—or anything else in this world; he’ll tell you every day to do your job by praying for your children; he’ll tell you every day to do your job by making the effort to live your life according to the commandments so that you can be a good moral example for your children.

And on and on it goes.

Can you imagine what kind of world it would be if every Catholic parent did his or her “job” as well as St. John the Baptist and St. Paul did theirs?

Can you imagine what kind of Church it would be if every Catholic priest did his “job” as well as St. John the Baptist and St. Paul did theirs?

It would be a very different Church, wouldn’t it?  There would certainly be no scandals to deal with. Praise God!

Well, unfortunately we can’t change the whole Church on our own; we can’t change the whole world on our own.  But we can change the part of the Church and the part of the world that we live in!  We have that power!  We can do that first of all by discovering what our job is, and then by doing it well.  By doing it, in other words, in a way that would please Coach Bill Belichick—and, even more importantly, by doing it in a way that will please Almighty God.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

The Dangers of Astrology

(Epiphany 2020: This homily was given on January 5, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-13; Ephesians 3:2-6; Matthew 2: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Epiphany 2020]

Fr. Paul Desmarais is the pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Carolina, Rhode Island.  He’s also widely recognized as an authority on the occult.  He’s given talks on the subject all over the country; he’s even worked at times with local police and law enforcement officials when they’ve had to deal with crimes in which occult practices were involved.

Fr. Desmarais came here to St. Pius a few years ago to give a talk to our confirmation students and their families on this very important subject, and during that talk he mentioned the fact that many young people today are being drawn into the occult (sometimes with the support of their parents) by things like psychic readings and Ouija boards and tarot cards and horoscopes and séances at sleepovers.  (And, I might add, by popular TV shows like “Long Island Medium”).  Fr. Desmarais warned our young people and the adults who were there that night that these kinds of activities can easily open the door to demonic forces: demonic forces which are beyond our ability to control with our limited strength and human resources.

He then shared several stories of young men and women he’s helped over the years who did open the door—and who lived to regret it.

Now one occult practice that’s opening the door to evil for many people today—young and not so young—is astrology, which is the one I want to focus on this morning in my homily.  Now I realize that calling astrology “an occult practice” is something that bothers some people.  That’s because they don’t think of it in that way.  They’ll say to me, “Fr. Ray, you’ve got to be kidding!  What’s wrong with astrology?  What’s wrong with reading my daily horoscope?  It’s not like I’m having a seance or playing with a Ouija board.  I just read my horoscope to get a little thought for the day.  I really don’t take it very seriously.”  Well, if we want a little thought for the day, we should read a verse from the Book of Proverbs every morning.  The author of the Book of Proverbs is Almighty God, the author of astrology is not. 

Now some might respond by saying, “But Fr. Ray, what about that star the Magi saw?  That star led them to Christ. And besides, these so-called Magi were astrologers themselves.” 

Well, it’s true.  The Magi were more than likely astrologers.  But we need to understand: the term “astrology” back then had a much wider meaning than it does today.  Back then astrology also referred to the legitimate study of the heavens that we would now call astronomy.  We also need to remember that the Magi were pagans; they didn’t know God’s revealed truth to the extent that we know it today.  So they had an excuse for believing some false ideas.  We don’t.  And furthermore, there is a difference—a very big difference—between God giving an occasional sign in the heavens, AND LOOKING TO THE HEAVENS AS YOUR GOD, which is in effect what people do in modern astrology.  We know that at various points in history God has given special signs in the sky: the rainbow that Noah saw after the flood, the star that the Magi followed, the eclipse on Good Friday, and more recently the miracle of the sun at Fatima.  But recognizing these as signs from God is very different from looking to the stars to guide your life, which is what modern astrology is all about.  I once read about an English astrologer who said that the sun is god and the planets are angels, and therefore we should reverence and worship them all. 

That idea, my brothers and sisters, is in direct conflict with the truth of Sacred Scripture.  

The dangers of getting caught up in astrology really became clear to me just a few years after I was ordained a priest.  As some of you will recall, when I was first ordained I was sent to a parish in North Kingstown, St. Francis de Sales.  There I got to know a young woman named Joanna.  Joanna was (and is) a very intelligent person and a very talented musician.  In fact she played guitar and sang every week at Sunday Mass.  But at the time (in the late 1980s) Joanna was also heavily involved in astrology.  She even got to the point where she was doing astrological charts for people—supposedly telling them what the stars revealed about their personalities and about their futures.  I remember talking to Joanna back then, along with my mother and several other people in the parish, and we all told her in no uncertain terms that she was making a big mistake.  We told her she was opening herself up to evil forces—to demonic spirits—even though she didn’t realize it.  When Joanna herself tells this story she says that her first reaction to us was to think to herself, “Oh, these poor souls.  Fr. Ray, his mom, Noel, Barbara, Dorothea they’re really nice people, but so unenlightened.  Someday they won’t be so ignorant.  Someday they’ll understand.”

Well, two or three years passed.  I got moved to beautiful Westerly, and one night the phone rang.  It was Joanna—in a veritable panic.  She said, “Fr. Ray, something’s wrong with me and I don’t know what to do.  I have this fear that I can’t get rid of.  I think I’m going crazy.  This has never happened to me before in my life.  And please don’t misunderstand.  This is not a normal fear.  It’s a different kind of fear.  It’s a PARALYZING spirit of fear.”  I said, “Well, Joanna, quite frankly I’m not at all surprised.  Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later, because the fact is you’ve been trying to serve two masters—Jesus and Satan—and you can’t do that; you can’t serve both.  You’ve opened the door to this spirit through your involvement in astrology; I have no doubt about that.  Now Jesus can free you from it, no problem—he’s infinitely more powerful than Satan is.  But you have to do your part.  In Jesus’ name you’ve got to renounce astrology, and you’ve got to repent of all your past involvement in this evil practice.  That will allow the Lord to come in and straighten things out.” 

Well, praise God, Joanna did it, and she eventually found God’s peace again.  But that incident really made it clear to me: this is very dangerous stuff which must be avoided at all costs.  And our loving God warns us about this over and over again in his word.  As we are told, for example, in Deuteronomy, chapter 4, “When you look up to the heavens and behold the sun or the moon or any star among the heavenly hosts, do not be led astray into adoring them and serving them.”

Joanna learned from her terrible experience of fear what the Magi learned from their joyful experience of following the star of Bethlehem: that Jesus Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords and the true light of the world—and that we need to submit our lives to him in order to find true and lasting happiness.

On this feast of the Epiphany, may we all learn that very same lesson, and live our lives accordingly.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Some Important Lessons That Mary Taught Jesus

Mary teaching Jesus

(Mary, the Mother of God 2020: This homily was given on January 1, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 67:2-8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Mary, the Mother of God 2020]

Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior was a divine Person, but he had a human as well as a divine nature.  As Scripture puts it he was “a man like us in all things but sin.”  As God, therefore, Jesus knew all things.  But as man, he did not.  Which means that Jesus, in his human nature, needed to be taught.  He needed to be educated.  He needed to learn the basic, fundamental truths of human existence.  Fortunately our Lord had excellent teachers—the very best of teachers—who did a fantastic job.  Those teachers were, of course, Mary and Joseph, his mother and his foster father.  And we know they did a great job because of what St. Luke says at the end of his infancy narrative.  He writes, “Jesus progressed steadily in wisdom and age and grace before God and men.” 

Since this is her feast day, in preparing for this homily I reflected specifically on Mary and her influence on Jesus during his formative years.  And I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great to know the specifics?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know exactly what the Blessed Mother taught her Son during those early years of his life—the years between the finding in the Temple and the beginning of his ministry?  Now my first thought was, “That’s impossible.  Since the Bible is silent about our Lord’s life between the ages of 12 and 30, there’s no way we can ever know what Mary taught him.”  But then I took a look at Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat, in chapter 1 of the Gospel of Luke, and I said, “Wait a minute—this is it—it’s all here!  This must be what the Blessed Mother taught her Son.  These were her most precious beliefs: these ideas she shared with her cousin Elizabeth at the Visitation.  So they must be the principles—the beliefs—that she shared over and over again with her Son.” 

All that having been said, let’s look briefly at what these beliefs are, because I think in doing so we will all be challenged.  Parents, as I go through these ask yourselves, “Are these some of the lessons that I’m trying to instill in my children?  And those who are not parents, ask yourselves, “Are these the lessons that I’m trying to share with my friends, with my co-workers, with my fellow students, with the people God has placed in my life?”  If we want to help our children and other people become more like Jesus Christ, then it seems to me we should be following Mary’s example and sharing these truths with them as often as possible. 

Mary says in the first line of the Magnificat, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit finds joy in God my savior.”  Lesson # 1 from Mary to Jesus concerned the meaning of life: “Jesus, my Son, the meaning of life is to know, to love and to serve God.  That’s what’s most important.  That’s where you’ll find your joy, that’s where you’ll find your peace.”

Mary continues, “For [God] has looked with favor on his lowly servant.  From this day all generations will call me blessed.  The almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.”  Lesson # 2 from Mary to Jesus concerned what God had done for her personally.  Mary had a deep awareness of how the Lord had worked in her life and she wasn’t afraid to talk about it.  She wasn’t afraid to witness to her faith, as so many Catholics and other Christians are today.  And that boldness in sharing her personal testimony made her teaching much more effective.  You see, she didn’t just say, “Jesus, read this book of the Bible and learn about God.”  Mary said, “Son, read this book of the Bible, and then I’ll tell you how the God you read about there has touched my life.”  Personal testimonies like that are very powerful.  I remember teaching a Confirmation class here a number of years ago, and I asked some our older teenagers who had gone to the Steubenville youth conference and who came to youth group regularly to come that night and share their personal stories with the Confirmation students—their stories about how God had changed their lives.  Well, you could have heard a pin drop in that hall during those talks.  (Imagine, fifty or so teenagers actually paying attention to people giving talks about God and faith!)  But it was not coincidental.  They were paying attention because some of their peers were saying to them, “Look, God is real, and this is how I’ve personally experienced him.”  That’s the power of personal testimony.  As Catholics we need to use that power more often—like Mary did.

Mary then says, “God has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.”  Lesson # 3 from Mary to Jesus: “Son, God is merciful, and God is consistent.  He doesn’t change his mind from one minute to the next.”

She goes on, “God has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.”  Lesson # 4 from Mary to our Lord: “Son, God is just—completely just. So never, ever seek revenge.  Because in the end, God will balance the scales perfectly.”

“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.”  Lesson # 5:  “Jesus, don’t ever become hungry for power.  It will ultimately destroy you.”  That’s a lesson our Lord would later apply in his famous encounter with Satan.  Remember?  The devil in effect said to him, “Jesus, I’ll give you control over every kingdom in this world—I’ll give you all that power.  Just fall down and worship me.”  Our Lord answered, “Away with you, Satan, Scripture says, ‘You shall do homage to the Lord your God; him alone shall you adore.’”  Thank you, Mary, for instilling that idea in your Son as a young boy.

Mary goes on, “God has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.  Lesson # 6 from Mary to her Son:  “Don’t be materialistic.  Don’t set your hopes on the things of this world, because sooner or later they will all pass away.”

And finally, “God has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.”  The final lesson from Mary to Jesus: “Son, God loves us and hears us when we call out to him.  And he will always give us what we need.  So Jesus, when youre tempted to think that the Father won’t provide, think back, and remember what he did for Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob and all the rest.  Think of them, and know that he will do the same for you.”  That’s a lesson that Jesus definitely needed to remember on Good Friday, when he hung on that cross, dying for our sins. 

And he did remember.  Thank you again, Blessed Mother.

I suppose the only remaining question to be asked is the question: How?  How did Mary do it?  How did she accumulate all this wisdom to share with her Son?  Well, to get that answer all we have to do is look at today’s gospel text.  There, in that passage from Luke, chapter 2, we are told, “Mary treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart.”  Mary prayed.  She prayed a lot.  She meditated on her life, on all of her experiences, in light of God’s word.  Our Blessed Mother constantly went to the Lord for the wisdom she needed to be a good teacher, a good witness, and a good mother.  I think there’s a very important lesson there for all of us.  May we take that lesson to heart, and put it into practice in the new year—and beyond.