Sunday, April 26, 2020

‘Hope’ and ‘Hopes’

On the road to Emmaus

(Third Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on April 26, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 2:14, 22-33; Psalm 16:1-11; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35.)

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

“Hope” and “hopes”.  On paper, those two words are almost exactly the same; in fact, only one little letter distinguishes them.  But, theologically speaking, those two words—hope and hopes—mean very different things. 

For example:

  • It’s possible for a person to have many hopes, but no hope—at the same time!  Most atheists and agnostics probably fall into this category.  Genuine hope is impossible for them, but they can certainly have as many hopes as the rest of us.
  • It’s also possible for a person to have a lot of hope, and at the same time very few—if any—hopes.  When my mother was on her deathbed back in 1990, she certainly fit into this category—as have many faithful believers over the years.
  • You can have lots of hopes, and still despair; but if you have the virtue of hope planted firmly in your heart, you will never despair, even if all your hopes are dashed in a single instant!

Are you confused yet?

No need to be, because the difference is really quite simple.  “Hopes” refer to our aspirations: they’re the desires we hold in our hearts; and they concern the things that we need—or want—in this life:

“I hope to get accepted at the college I’ve always wanted to attend.”

“I hope to get married and have a family someday.”

“I hope this pandemic will end soon and I’ll be able to lead a normal life again.”

“I hope Fr. Ray doesn’t preach too long today.  I have things to do around the house.”

Those are just a few examples of some common “hopes”.  You could all give me many others, I’m sure.  The possibilities are almost endless.

But that’s not what we mean when we speak of the theological virtue of hope!  Hopes relate to the things of this world; the virtue of hope, on the other hand, points us toward heaven, the ultimate goal of human existence!  Hope, in this sense, is rooted in faith.  In fact, your hope is really only as strong as your faith is.  The Catechism sums it up beautifully when it says: “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.”  (CCC, 1817)

In today’s Gospel story from Luke 24, two disciples meet the risen Jesus as they’re walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus on Easter Sunday—although they initially don’t recognize our Lord.  These disciples are clearly upset, and confused—and very depressed!  In fact at one point St. Luke explicitly says, “They stopped, looking downcast.”

Then our Lord begins to question them about the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.  In the course of their response, they say to him, sadly, “We were hoping that [this Jesus] would be the one to redeem Israel.”

“We were hoping”. 

Clearly these men had a hope with regard to Jesus.  But the real question is, did they have the theological virtue of hope in their hearts?

I would say No they did not—at least not at this point.  And that’s one reason why they were so depressed!

You see, most Jews in the first century expected the Messiah to be a great earthly ruler like King David, a ruler who would get rid of the Romans and restore the nation of Israel to its former greatness.  Well apparently that’s also what these two disciples thought.  They were looking to be redeemed from Roman domination, not from sin and eternal death!  And so one of their “hopes” for Jesus was that he would become a popular revolutionary leader: a leader who would bring the Jewish people together and lead a successful revolt against the evil Roman Empire.

Well, obviously, that misguided hope was totally and utterly destroyed when our Lord was nailed to the cross on Good Friday.

No wonder they were so upset!

But, thankfully, Jesus made sure that this false hope was replaced in these two disciples by something much greater and much more important, namely the Christian virtue of hope. 

Jesus starts off by helping these men to understand that true redemption—redemption from sin—has in fact taken place through the Messiah’s suffering and death—and that this death was actually the Messiah’s path to eternal life.  He says to them at one point, “Oh how foolish you are!  How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and so enter his glory?”

And when they finally recognize him at table and realize that he’s alive, they begin to understand that his resurrection means something wonderful FOR THEM—PERSONALLY—and for all the other faithful followers of Jesus, present and future.

And that’s when they begin to have hope—true Christian hope—as well as the joy that comes from that hope.

The things I said at the beginning of my homily should now make perfect sense to you.  I said that it’s possible for a person to have many hopes, but no hope—at the same time!  In other words, a person can have many earthly aspirations and goals, but if his ultimate focus is not on Jesus Christ and the kingdom of heaven, then his life will be without the hope that comes from faith in Jesus. 

I also said that it’s possible for a person to have a lot of hope, and at the same time very few—if any—hopes.  When my mother was on her deathbed in 1990 she knew she was dying and she accepted that fact, so she didn’t have any more earthly aspirations and desires.  But she did have HOPE—the hope of living forever with Jesus, whom she always called her “best friend.”

In preparing this homily I also thought of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine.  Way back in the 4th century Monica prayed very hard for her son to give up his wild ways and become a Christian.  Finally, after many years, he did.  Listen, now, to how Augustine described a conversation he had with his mother shortly before she died:
The day was now approaching when my mother Monica would depart from this life . . . The two of us, all alone, were enjoying a very pleasant conversation, forgetting the past and pushing on to what is ahead.  We were asking one another in the presence of the Truth—for you are the Truth—what it would be like to share the eternal life enjoyed by the saints, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, which has not even entered into the heart of man.  We desired with all our hearts to drink from the streams of your heavenly fountain, the fountain of life.That was the substance of our talk, though not the exact words.  But you know O Lord, that in the course of our conversation that day, the world and its pleasures lost all their attraction for us.  My mother said: “Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure.  I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further HOPES in this world.  I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died.  God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect, for I know that you have even renounced earthly happiness to be his servant.  So what am I doing here?”
At the end of her life, St. Monica apparently had NO HOPES whatsoever—but she had a superabundance of HOPE!

You can have lots of hopes, and still despair (as I said at the beginning); but if you have the virtue of hope planted firmly in your heart—like St. Monica and my mother both did—then you will never despair, even if all your hopes are in the past, or even if all your hopes are dashed in a single instant.

Having hopes is good; having hopes is very good; but having hope is much, much better.

Dear Lord, through the power of the Holy Spirit, fill us with hope—now and always.  Amen.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Appreciating the Gift of the Eucharist

Bishop Athanasius Schneider

(Holy Thursday 2020: This homily was given on April 9, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 12: 1-14; Psalm 116: 12-18; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15.)

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

Athanasius Schneider is a 59-year-old bishop who was born—and who spent the first decade of his life—in Kyrgystan (which, at the time, was part of the old Soviet Union).  He and his family were devout Catholics.  However, because of the atheistic Soviet government, the Schneiders had to practice their faith secretly.  Like many Christians who’ve been forced to live under Communist, totalitarian regimes, the Schneiders risked their lives in being faithful to Jesus and his gospel. So did their priests.  Masses were celebrated in secret, usually in people’s homes.  The priest would come to the family’s house, hear their confessions, celebrate the Eucharist, and then quickly leave.  As Bishop Schneider put it in his new book, Christus Vincit: “We confessed, we assisted at Holy Mass, and then the priest had to flee.”  He had to flee, of course, so that the Soviet authorities wouldn’t catch him doing something forbidden by the government.

When a journalist asked Bishop Schneider how often a priest would come to say Mass in his family’s home in those days, he responded with these words (these really struck me the other day when I read them, especially given what’s going on in the world right now): “It depended.  Sometimes [a priest would come] every six months, sometimes once a year.  It always depended on the priests.  They were sometimes in prison, sometimes under house arrest, so it was a very hard time.  But this was, for me, one of the deepest experiences in my life.  Sunday worship in the family and the Spiritual Communions.  There were some years when we went without Holy Communion.”

Can you imagine that?  A full year without the Eucharist!

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any one of you that Bishop Athanasius Schneider has, at the present time, a deep, profound appreciation and love for the Blessed Sacrament!  He knows what a great gift the Eucharist is!  When you are deprived of something good for a long time, you tend to appreciate it all the more!  He mentions “Spiritual Communions” there—which he and his family made when the priest wasn’t there for Sunday Mass (and, unfortunately, that was most of the time).  But that was not a substitute for actually receiving Jesus—Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity—in the Holy Eucharist.

That’s what the Schneiders wanted—and that’s why they and their priests literally risked their lives to receive the Blessed Sacrament at holy Mass.

On this and every Holy Thursday we commemorate the anniversary of the institution of the Holy Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper.  We also celebrate the anniversary of the institution of the ministerial priesthood.  When Jesus said to his apostles, “Do this in memory of me,” he implicitly gave them the power to fulfill that command.  It was, in effect, the moment of their ordination.

I think it’s been very easy for us in the Westerly area to take the Eucharist for granted in the past, since we’ve never been deprived of the sacrament here, like the Schneiders were in the old Soviet Union.  Masses are normally available every day of the week in several of our local churches—and there are still a sufficient number of priests around.  

But the coronavirus has changed all that for a time—which, from one perspective at least, is not a bad thing.  Our God is so powerful that he can bring good out evil—and one of the good things he’s brought out of this evil pandemic is a greater appreciation for the Blessed Sacrament and the Mass, as well as a greater appreciation for the priesthood—because without the priesthood we wouldn’t have the Blessed Sacrament.  Remember—no priest, no Eucharist!

They say, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” and “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  Hopefully that’s been your experience since public Masses began to be cancelled a few weeks ago in the Diocese of Providence and the Diocese of Norwich.  Hopefully you are feeling like the Schneiders felt in between the clandestine Masses they had in their home once or twice a year.  Hopefully you have a growing desire to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord—and a desire to make sure you’re properly prepared to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.  That, of course, may involve making a good confession sometime soon—before our churches open up again.  I don’t think it was a coincidence that, before the Schneider’s priest celebrated Mass for them, he always heard their confessions.  The Schneiders understood how precious the Eucharist is, and how they needed to make sure they received worthily, in the state of grace.

Let me give the final word today to Bishop Schneider.  In response to a question about the Eucharist, Bishop Schneider says this in his book:
Love desires to be close to the beloved.  There is no way to be closer to us, there is no more humble, fragile, vulnerable, and defenseless way than the Eucharist.  It can only be an invention and a maximum expression of divine Love towards us.Through the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus Christ says to us, “I love you.  Not only do I want to be close to you, I want to enter into you through the Eucharist, into your body, into your soul, in the most profound way possible.  I want to be united to your soul by my divinity, to visit you, to even enter into your body, and to sanctify you, to dwell in you.”  The Incarnate God not only dwelt among us on earth.  He is now dwelling on our altars at the moment of consecration in the Mass and He is dwelling in the tabernacle.  He descends always onto the altar.  It was St. Therese of the Child Jesus who said, “Jesus does not descend to live and dwell in the golden chalice, in the tabernacle, but He wants to dwell in our souls.”  This is the Eucharist.  This is love.

Let’s pray today that all properly-disposed Catholics will be able to receive this “gift of love” once again—very soon.                                       

Sunday, April 05, 2020

It’s a Unique Holy Week—and also an Opportunity

(Palm Sunday 2020 (A): This homily was given on April 5, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.)

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

Holy Week will be a unique experience for all of us this year, that’s for sure.  I think it’s accurate to say that it’s both upsetting and disappointing that we won’t be able to gather in church this week as a community of faith to celebrate the most important liturgies of the Church’s liturgical year.

But rather than focusing on the negative and what we can’t do, I think the Lord wants us to focus this morning on the positive and what we can do—what we can do to make to make this upcoming Holy Week “holy” in spite of the restrictions we have to live with.

Many of you are out of work or out of school this week.  That means you’ll have a lot more free time in the next 7 days than you usually do.  How about giving some of that time to the Lord? 

  •          We’ll be live-streaming Masses on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as the Liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.  You can watch these when they happen—or any time thereafter (on YouTube or Facebook).  
  •          The church will be open for private visitation throughout the week.  How about stopping in for a brief visit each day (or at least every other day)? 
  •          How about getting your family together at some point to watch “The Passion of the Christ,” or Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”—or some other faith-based movie? 
  •          How about praying the Rosary every day (either with us via YouTube or Facebook—or on your own)?
  •          How about opening your Bible and reading one of the Passion narratives in the gospels?  Today we heard Matthew’s version of the Passion; on Good Friday we’ll hear John’s version (which we always do on Good Friday).  But that leaves Mark and Luke.  How about also reading either Mark’s or Luke’s account sometime in the next 7 days?  Or better yet, why not read them both?

Many of you have been participating in the “Best Lent Ever” program from Dynamic Catholic.  You’ve been doing that since Ash Wednesday.  And hopefully it has been a good Lent for you.  (You’ve certainly had the opportunity to experience the Cross of Christ in a unique way in the last few weeks!  The whole world has had that opportunity!)

My message here is to make this Holy Week just as special and just as spiritually meaningful.  It may not be your best Holy Week ever (since you won’t be able to be in church and receive the Eucharist), but it will still be an opportunity to grow in your relationship with Jesus and deepen your Catholic faith.

My prayer today is that we will all take advantage of this opportunity—this opportunity that the Lord, in his love and mercy, is giving us this year.