Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Lent: A Time to Deal with Your Foundation

(Ash Wednesday 2020: This homily was given on February 26, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Joel 2: 12-18; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5: 20-6: 2; Matthew 6: 1-18.)

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

Many of you will recall that for several years here at St. Pius I gave you a theme-word on Ash Wednesday to guide you during the season of Lent.  One year the word was “perseverance,” another year it was “consistency,” another year it was “cross,” and one year, it was “foundation”.

Well, I’d like to propose that last one again, as the theme-word for this Lent—especially since in this season we’re beginning our “Dynamic Parish” experience here at St. Pius.

Lent is a time to deal with your foundation—your spiritual foundation.  It’s a time to put your foundation in place if it isn’t already there; and if it is already there it’s a time to examine it, and strengthen it and repair it, if necessary.

The foundation of a truly dynamic, Catholic, Christian life—according to Matthew Kelly, the author of the Dynamic Parish program is four-fold: It consists of prayer, study, generosity and evangelization.

This means that by the end of this Lent, you should have a regular routine of prayer, a habit of study, and a habit of charitable giving in place—and you should have made at least some effort to bring a family member or friend closer to Christ and his Church.

Prayer includes getting to Mass EVERY SUNDAY AND HOLY DAY—that’s a given.  In fact, if you receive ashes today and have no intention of coming to Mass regularly in the future, you are wasting your time!!!  These ashes are an empty sign for you.

But if you haven’t been coming to Mass every week and DO intend to start—beginning this Sunday—then these ashes are a MOST MEANINGFUL SIGN FOR YOU!

Prayer also includes confession (which is a prayer for forgiveness)—a prayer which always works provided we are truly sorry.

Prayer also includes having a regular, daily routine of prayer (and maybe making a holy hour at least once a week or so).  As Matthew Kelly puts it, “Dynamic Catholics have a daily commitment to prayer.”

Next, there’s study.  One reason many people leave the Catholic Church is that they don’t know what the Church teaches and why the Church teaches what she teaches—and so they are easily swayed by evangelical Protestants or Jehovah’s Witnesses who DO know what they believe!

So—when was the last time you read a book or watched a television program or listened to a talk that helped you grow in your knowledge and love of Jesus Christ and his Church?

Matthew Kelly says, “On average Dynamic Catholics spend fourteen minutes each day learning more about the faith. They see themselves as students of Jesus and his Church, and proactively make an effort to allow his teachings to form them.”

Kelly’s third quality of a Dynamic Catholic is GENEROSITY—which includes more than just donating money to good causes.  It also includes giving our precious time to others, and sharing our talents with our brothers and sisters in the community.  We tend to think of Lent as a time to “give things up”, but it’s also a time for us to “take things on”—to give more of ourselves in service to others.

And finally, evangelization.  One of the things every practicing Catholic should do during the season of Lent is to try to bring a friend or relative to Christ—or back to the Church and to the practice of their faith. 

One way you could do that is by inviting them to our parish mission, which will begin a week from this coming Sunday.  Matthew Kelly puts it this way: “Having seen how a vibrant spiritual life has transformed them and every aspect of their lives, highly engaged Catholics want others to experience the joy that flows from having a dynamic relationship with God.”

So there it is: the foundation of a dynamic Catholic, Christian life: prayer, study, generosity and evangelization.

If that foundation is not present in our life right now, then our task for the next 40 days is to get it there.

If it is already present then we need to examine it during the next 40 days—to see where it can be strengthened (and where it might need to be repaired).  In other words, we need to do our best to improve and grow in these 4 areas of our faith life, because what’s at stake in all this is our destiny—our ETERNAL DESTINY—and the eternal destiny of many of the people we love the most in this life.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Turning the Other Cheek

(Seventh Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 23, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Psalm 103:1-13; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48.) 

{For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventh Sunday 2020]

“But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.  When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.”

Those are some of the most troubling and confusing words in all of Sacred Scripture.  People read them and respond with surprise and sometimes even with shock.  They’ll say, “Lord Jesus, what are you talking about?  Are you saying that I should never defend myself in any situation?  Are you saying that I’m supposed to go through life like a ‘doormat’—allowing people to insult me and take advantage of me and walk all over me?”

Those are very good questions.  I’ll try to answer them today in this homily with the help of St. Thomas Aquinas, who is arguably the greatest theologian in the history of the Church.

Aquinas makes reference to this troublesome verse from Matthew 5 in his commentary on the Gospel of John—when he’s discussing the appearance of Jesus before Annas, the high priest.  The story is found in John, chapter 18.  Let me refresh your memory now by reading you that brief section of Scripture:

[This event happened on Holy Thursday night, after the Last Supper.]
[Annas] the high priest questioned Jesus, first about his disciples, then about his teaching.  Jesus answered by saying: “I have spoken publicly to any who would listen.  I always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews come together.  There was nothing secret about anything I said.  Why do you question me?  Question those who heard me when I spoke.  It should be obvious that they will know what I said.”  At this reply, one of the guards who was standing nearby gave Jesus a sharp blow on the face.  “Is that the way to answer the high priest?”  Jesus replied, “If I said anything wrong produce the evidence, but if I spoke the truth why hit me?”

In this case, as Aquinas notes, our Lord defended himself.  Physically speaking, he did not offer that guard his other cheek for him to slap.

At other times during his passion, however, Jesus did suffer in silence, without defending himself verbally or in any other way.  When, for example, the Roman soldiers struck him repeatedly on the head with a reed, Jesus said nothing.  When the chief priests and elders made false charges against him—attacking him verbally—our Lord “made no answer” according to Matthew 27: 12.

So it seems that sometimes Jesus did defend himself, and at other times he very quietly and very patiently endured physical and verbal abuse without defending himself in any way.  And, of course, in both cases—both when he defended himself and when he didn’t—he harbored no hatred or bitterness whatsoever toward his attackers.

Aquinas makes the point that, as disciples of Christ, we need to try to follow Jesus’ example here—as we should in every situation of life.  Along with other great theologians like St. Augustine, Aquinas says that if we want to know how to follow a particular command that’s given to us in the Bible (like the command to turn the other cheek), we need to look and see how Jesus followed that command in his own life, and how the great saints of the Church were faithful to it in theirs.  So the very fact that Jesus sometimes defended himself means that his command to “turn the other cheek” doesn’t apply literally to every situation and circumstance of life.

Yet in all situations we must avoid hatred and vindictiveness, as Jesus always avoided hatred and vindictiveness.

Here’s how St. Thomas Aquinas put it:
Sacred Scripture should be understood according to the way Christ and other holy persons followed it.  Now, Christ did not turn his other cheek here [in that story from John’s Gospel that I read to you a few moments ago]; and Paul did not do so either.  Accordingly, we should not think that Christ has commanded us to actually turn our physical cheek to one who has struck the other. We should understand it to mean that we should be ready to do this if it turned out to be necessary to do so. That is, our attitude should be such that we would not be inwardly stirred up against the one striking us, but be ready or disposed to endure the same or even more.  This is how our Lord observed it, for he offered his body to be killed.  So, our Lord's defense is useful for our instruction. (Commentary on the Gospel of John, Lecture 4)
On the personal level, this teaching of Thomas Aquinas brings to mind almost immediately the big “gay marriage controversy” that took place in our state and town several years ago—when our state legislature was debating the bill that eventually legalized the practice here in Rhode Island.

Remember that?

As many of you will recall, I was falsely accused in the press and media at the time of “lobbying from the pulpit in violation of the Church’s tax exempt status.” (That’s a direct quote from the Westerly Sun.)

All because I urged my parishioners to exercise their constitutional right of free speech by letting Senator Dennis Algiere know where they stood on the issue! 

I didn’t even tell people which side of the issue they should take—although I obviously thought that most would voice their support for traditional marriage.

And hopefully most still would.

For doing this I was attacked in the Sun, in the Providence Journal (by columnist Bob Kerr), on the Buddy Cianci Show—and probably in a number living rooms and barrooms in southern New England.

But, with the exception of some things I said from this pulpit, I remained relatively silent about the situation—until the Sun needlessly resurrected the whole controversy in late June of that year.  At that point I decided that the Lord wanted me to be silent no more and to (as the old saying goes) “set the record straight.”

So I wrote a letter to the Sun about what I actually did say when I had urged parishioners to contact Senator Algiere.  (The Sun’s writers had gotten the details almost totally wrong in their initial reporting.)  I also accused them of “yellow journalism” and of trying to undermine my credibility as a religious leader in this community.  I suppose nowadays I would accuse them of publishing “fake news”!

And what was their response?

Well, as some of you will remember, they actually gave my letter special status by making it the guest editorial on the day it was published!

Go figure.

I believe there was a time to be silent in this situation—and bear the “slap on the cheek” for the sake of Christ and his Gospel; but I also believe there was a time to speak out and defend not only myself, but also the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and, to some extent, many of you (because those of you who made calls to Senator Algiere were implicated indirectly in all this).

Now, in both cases—both when I was silent and when I spoke out—I tried to act (as Thomas Aquinas would say) without being “inwardly stirred against the ones striking me.”  And so I had to pray for the grace to love my enemies—because, as is the case with most people, my first inclination is not to love my enemies!

I’m being totally honest here.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me this (afternoon) morning, I’m not saying that I always do this perfectly in my life.  Jesus was always silent when he should have been silent and he always defended himself when he should have defended himself.

That’s because he was (and is) God.

But I’m not God, and neither are you!  We can easily get it wrong—and we sometimes do.

We have to be humble enough to admit that.

This is yet another reason why we need to pray every day—especially when we’re faced with one of these situations.

And our prayer needs to go something like this:
Dear Lord, help me to know.  Help me to know your perfect and holy will.  Help me to recognize those moments when you want me to defend myself, and those moments when you want me to endure the “slap on the cheek” for your sake.  My emotions will always tell me to retaliate when I’m offended in any way, but you call me to live by faith and not by my emotions. 
Enable me to know your will in this situation I’m presently facing.  But, regardless of whether you’re calling me to defend myself right now or to be silent, help me to do so with love in my heart—the kind of love you always had in your heart, even for your enemies.  Amen. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Consequences of Moral Mediocrity

(Sixth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 16, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37.)

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

John stood before the assembly of students on the first day of school and he said, "Good morning, boys and girls, I'm your new principal.  Welcome to Mediocre Middle School.  During the upcoming year we will be implementing a brand new philosophy here; it's called the "Just Get By" philosophy.  From now on, we will no longer challenge you to use your God-given abilities and do your best.  In fact, it won't matter to us whether you get an A-plus or a D-minus in any particular course.  The only thing we ask is that you avoid getting 'F's'.  If you can simply avoid failure in each subject, that will be acceptable to your teachers and to those of us in the school administration."  (Wouldn't some of you young people like to go to that school?)

The other day Jane attended the first meeting for the new local basketball team.  The coach said to her and the other girls, "Ladies, I have some good news for you.  During the upcoming season we will not be having any practices or scrimmages.  You can spend your time doing something else.  You won't have to spend hours learning plays or any new skills.  As long as you can dribble the ball without tripping over yourself, and shoot the ball so that it ends up somewhere in the near vicinity of the basket—that's all we care about.  Our aim is not to win, or to teach you new skills, or to help you to learn how to work together as a team.  All we want to do is survive the season."

Bill recently bought a new company.  During his first day as owner, he gathered together all of his employees in the corporate meeting room and he said, "Friends, from now on your one job requirement will be to show up for work every day.  You don't need to do anything while you’re here, unless you feel like it.  All I will ask is that you take up space here for 8 hours.  Then you can go home."

Now you might say, "Fr. Ray, what are you getting at?  Those are 3 ridiculous stories.  In the real world those things would never happen!" 

Correct!  And that's precisely why I shared them with you today!  You see, each of those anecdotes provides us with a clear example of mediocrity and minimalism: John the principal told his students that he was satisfied if they did the bare minimum in their studies; Jane's coach told her that she was happy with a mediocre effort and performance on the basketball court; Bill told his workers that all he wanted them to do was show up for work: "Do the bare minimum—just come through the door and take up space—and I'll be happy and pay you a full salary." 

Well, I think we all know that in the real world this kind of mediocrity and minimalism is not acceptable either in school or in sports or in the workplace.  Then why, I ask you, has it become acceptable for many people in the area of personal morality?  Sad to say, but when it comes to moral matters, many people today have become minimalists.  Their attitude is not, "What must I do to be perfect?  What must I do to be the best that I can be?"  Rather, their attitude is, "What's the bare minimum that I have to do to get into heaven?"  Or, to phrase the question another way: "How much can I get away with here on earth and still avoid going to hell?"

Jesus, in today's Gospel text from the Sermon on the Mount, gives us an implicit but very clear warning against this type of minimalistic attitude.  In effect he says to us, "Look, not only must you try to avoid mortal sins in your life; you must also try to avoid the venially sinful attitudes that lead to mortal sins."  For example, he says, "You have heard the commandment imposed on your forefathers, 'You shall not commit murder; every murderer will be liable to judgment.'  [But] what I say to you is: everyone who grows angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; any man who uses abusive language toward his brother shall be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and if he holds him in contempt he risks the fires of Gehenna."  Murder and deep hatred are the mortal sins that Jesus mentions here.  But at the root of those sins is anger.  So initially—yes—the anger we have in our heart may only be a venial sin.  But if we don't make the effort to face it, deal with it, repent of it and let it go, then Jesus indicates that it can grow to the point where it becomes mortally sinful. 

This is why we must not be minimalists when it comes to matters of morality.  If we don't take our venial sins seriously and try to uproot them from our lives, then they can easily dispose us to more serious sins.

Our Lord makes the same point here with regard to impure thoughts.  He says, "You have heard the commandment, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  [But] what I say to you is: anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts."  Does that mean that every impure thought that pops into a person's mind uninvited is mortally sinful?  No, it doesn't.  But Jesus is warning us, "Look, if you don't make the effort to dismiss an impure thought when it comes into your mind—if you entertain the thought and say to yourself, 'Let me see how far I can go with this without falling into serious sin'—then chances are you will fall into serious sin.  And that serious sin will come the moment you have a firm intention to commit the lustful act."  The bottom line: when it comes to sins of lust and anger, the message of Jesus is: "Don't be a minimalist.  Don't simply try to avoid the big sins or you may fall into them." 

The proper Christian attitude concerning moral matters was expressed by our Lord in one line from this same Sermon on the Mount.  He said, "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."  "But Fr. Ray, we're weak and sinful human beings; it's not possible for us to be perfect."  Here I think we can all take a lesson from two great football coaches—one named Lombardi, the other named Belichick.  Jerry Kramer, and other ex-Packers have often said, "Coach Lombardi demanded perfection from us.  He made us strive for absolute perfection on that football field.  Of course, he knew (and we knew) that we could never attain that goal.  But because he made us strive for that ideal, we all became better football players than we ever thought we could be."

You can be sure that Bill Belichick has the same message for his football players before every game and even before every practice.  Actually the message is implicit in what he says to his players all the time: “Do your job!”

Let me summarize it for you in this way:

In moral matters, if our goal is mediocrity, mortal sin may be the result.  But, if perfection is our goal, we will probably become better people, better disciples of Jesus Christ, better Catholics than we ever thought we could be.  May it be that way for all of us.