Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Many Works of the Holy Spirit

(Pentecost 2020 (A): This homily was given on May 31, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31,34; Romans 8:22-27; 1 Corinthians 12:3-13; John 20:19-23.)

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

The Holy Spirit—the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity who descended upon Mary and the apostles at the very first Pentecost—does not have a body.  He’s a pure spirit, and pure spirits by definition are just that—purely spiritual beings. 

And yet, as Catholics, we say we believe that the Holy Spirit is still present with us.  But how exactly do we know that?

Think about it: When the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity came into this world it was easy to recognize his presence among us, since he had a human body!  People could see Jesus with their eyes; they could reach out to him and take hold of his hand or touch his face (believe it or not, people used to be able to do that kind of thing!  Yes, people could actually reach out and touch one another!). 

My point here is that people were able to experience Jesus in a direct manner with their senses because he had a body.

But the Holy Spirit doesn’t!  He has no physical attributes.  So how do we know he’s around?  How do we know he’s here on earth with us?

The answer is: By his works.

We know the Holy Spirit by his works, by what he does in us and in the world.

Now some works of the Spirit are relatively easy to recognize.  For example, have you ever known someone who’s had a radical conversion to Jesus Christ, and then remained strong in their faith?  Hopefully you have!  That type of deep and lasting conversion is definitely a work of the Holy Spirit.  And it’s easy to see.  It’s clearly evident.

In 1 Corinthians 12 (our second reading today) it says, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” 

That, of course, doesn’t simply refer to the act of speaking the words!  As we all know, even a parrot can be trained to say, “Jesus is Lord.”  This text refers to a human being who says those words and truly means them!  When a person of faith affirms the Lordship of Jesus Christ, it’s a work of the Spirit dwelling within him—a work which is easily recognized.

I remember when “The Passion of the Christ” came out back in 2004, there were news reports that a number of criminals around the country saw the film and turned themselves in to the police afterward!

Since one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of our sins, I would say that the repentance of those criminals was the result of the Spirit working in their consciences, moving them to take responsibility for their evil actions.

These are just some of the works of the Spirit which are fairly easy to see and comprehend.

However, other works of the Spirit are not so easily recognized, specifically because they’re taken for granted. 

It’s the Holy Spirit, for example, who enables us to pray from the heart.  St. Paul says in Romans 8, “The Spirit . . . helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be expressed in speech.” 

The grace of sincere prayer—which has its source in the Holy Spirit—is something we can easily take for granted, is it not?  We normally don’t think twice about it.  But it is a work of the Spirit nonetheless! I’m sure a lot of sincere prayer has been offered up since this pandemic began several weeks ago.  I know for a fact that many of our parishioners have been doing that.

And how about the sacraments?  It’s the Holy Spirit who makes us children of God in Baptism; it’s the Spirit who gives a priest the power to forgive sins in the confessional.  No Spirit, no forgiveness!  As Jesus said to the apostles in John 20 (today’s Gospel), “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”  It’s by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Eucharist is consecrated at Mass.  During every Eucharistic prayer there is a special moment known as the “epiclesis.”  It’s when the priest calls down the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine, so that they will be changed at the consecration into the Body and Blood of Christ.  (This is also the moment when the altar server rings the bell for the first time—if the server is paying attention and not asleep!)

These are all sacramental works of the Holy Spirit which are very familiar to us—so much so that we can easily take them for granted.

There are also some works of the Holy Spirit that are hard to recognize except in hindsight.  Forty years ago, for instance, the experts were saying that Soviet Communism was here to stay.  But it wasn’t.  And it all collapsed without a devastating nuclear war or some other terrible military conflict.  In hindsight, I—and many others—believe it happened that way by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The relatively peaceful collapse of the Soviet bloc was due to 70-plus years of persistent prayer and redemptive suffering, as inspired by the Spirit. 

Have you ever gone through a personal trial and wondered where God was?  Many people have had that experience—some of them, I’m sure, in recent weeks. 

But so often, after they’ve passed through the difficulty, these men and women will look back on the situation and say, “I know God was with me.  He gave me what I needed.  Even though I wasn’t aware of his presence when I was in the middle of the storm, I now see that his grace got me through that difficult time.” 

That’s the work of the Spirit being recognized in hindsight.

Recognizing the presence of the Holy Spirit can be difficult at times—but it is never impossible.  On that note, I read a great article this past week about Rebecca Maslow, a 28-year–old nurse who works in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Not surprisingly, in recent weeks, Rebecca’s been giving nursing care to many coronavirus patients, some of whom have died.  She said in the article that she constantly prays to the Holy Spirit to guide her in her ministry to the sick—and especially to the dying.  Here’s a brief excerpt from the article:

One of the most powerful movements of the Holy Spirit [Rebecca] experienced was while caring for a man dying of respiratory failure. While in the room with him the day he died in early April, a doctor who had been seeing him told Maslow that the man was a Christian. This inspired Maslow to action as she walked over to his bedside.Like other patients, the man was dying alone, and Maslow wanted to offer him tangible comfort. She had been with him throughout the morning and even had prayed silently over him. Now, knowing he was a Christian, she offered something more….
"I just sat next to him and held his hand," she said. "And, I leaned in really close to his ear so he could hear me. And, I told him that I had heard that he was a Christian, that I was, too, and that I was going to pray over him. So, I traced the cross on his forehead. After that, I was able to just stay by his bed and hold his hand. I was not busy at all that day, which is very odd."She called it "such a blessing" to be with him for an hour and a half. She said he looked "calm and comfortable" after she prayed over him. He died a little while later, with Maslow still holding his hand.

The Holy Spirit often works like that: in extraordinary ways that can appear to be very ordinary.

Why do I share these thoughts with you today concerning the works of the Spirit—aside from the fact that it’s Pentecost Sunday?

It’s because the Holy Spirit tends to be the “forgotten” Person of the Blessed Trinity!  Because he’s a pure spirit, because he doesn’t have a body, most Christians don’t speak about him very often, and some may never even give him a passing thought!  And yet (as I hope I’ve made clear in my homily) this same wonderful—but ignored—Holy Spirit is at hard work every single day in the Church, in the world, and in our personal lives.

And so, may our common prayer on this Pentecost Sunday be: “Thank you, Holy Spirit.  Thank you for working so powerfully in the Church, in the world, and in my life.  Make me more aware of your presence in the future, so that I will be more open—and more responsive—to your many works.  This I ask through Christ, our Lord.  Amen.”

Thursday, May 21, 2020

How Dealing with COVID-19 Can Help Us to Understand the Ascension of Jesus

(Ascension Thursday 2020: This homily was given on May 21, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 1:1-14; Psalm 47:2-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20.)

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

There have been many changes in our lives in the last 8 weeks or so.  I know I don’t need to remind you of that.  Some of the changes, thankfully, have been good.  Some people, for example, have reached out to their elderly neighbors and friends for the first time—in order to give them the special help they’ve needed in this crisis.  Some of you volunteered to help the sick and elderly in our parish.  Many of our so-called “first responders” have risked their own health and sometimes their own lives to take care of those with the coronavirus.  Changes like these are positive.

But an awful lot of the changes we’ve experienced have not been good—or pleasant.  For example, we’ve all had to find different ways to communicate with family and friends.  We’re not able to be physically with some of them—and when we do get together we’re not able to touch them by giving them a hug or even a handshake.  Many of us have had to change the way we eat and the way we socialize.  I don’t know about you, but Fr. Najim and I haven’t been very happy about that.  Both of us enjoy going out to eat.

The young people among us have had to deal with changes in their education experience: everything online; no sports; “virtual” graduation ceremonies. 

There have even been changes in our experience of Mass.  Watching it on YouTube or Facebook is nice when you have no alternative—but we certainly don’t want this to be a permanent change.  And obviously, the ability of people to receive the Holy Eucharist has been taken away.  That’s the biggest reason we want to get back to church as soon as possible.  Although I will say that one of the good things that has come from this last change (the stopping of Masses in church) is that many Catholics are appreciating the Holy Eucharist more than they ever have in the past!  Before the lockdown they took the Blessed Sacrament for granted—but not anymore. 

Praise God for that!

Now why do I say all this today?  Why do I mention all these unpleasant changes that we’ve experienced in the last 8 weeks or so?  What’s the point?

Well, I assure you, the point is not to make you more depressed!  I would never intentionally do that—especially if you’re one of the millions of people who’ve lost their jobs in this mess.

I mention all these unpleasant changes, because, believe it or not, they’re some of the very same changes the Apostles had to deal with after the Ascension of Jesus into heaven 2,000 years ago—which means that our experience in the last 8 weeks can actually help us to better understand the feast we’re celebrating in the Church today.

For these 11 Apostles, the Ascension had to be a bittersweet event.  Yes, Jesus had completed the mission he had been given: the mission to redeem the human race and reconcile the world to the heavenly Father.  He had completed the mission perfectly.  Now he ascended into heaven to take his seat at the Father’s right hand in his kingdom.

The Apostles would have been happy about that.

But Jesus, in addition to being the Apostles’ Savior was also their teacher, their guide, their leader—their friend.  And yes, he would still be with them (he said in today’s gospel that he would always be with them)—but in a very different way than he had been with them during the previous 3 years.

And they had to deal with that absence!

I mentioned earlier that during the coronavirus lockdown we’ve all had to find different ways to communicate with our family and friends.  Well, the Apostles faced that same challenge with respect to Jesus after his Ascension.  Because Jesus was no longer walking around on planet earth with his human body, his family and friends could no longer touch his hand or arm or give him a hug.  Those loving gestures were no longer possible.  They had to find a new way to convey their love to the Lord.

Nor could they eat with him—something they had done every day for the previous 3 years.  Like us in dealing with this virus, the Apostles had to change their eating habits. 

As for education, whenever the Apostles had a question that was troubling them during our Lord’s ministry, all they needed to do was walk up to him and ask him (“Lord, where can we get enough food to feed all these people?”  “Lord, why couldn’t we cast out that demon?” “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of everlasting life!)  But they couldn’t ask Jesus in the same way anymore.

Even Mass changed for them.  Jesus said the first Mass himself—at the Last Supper, where he took bread and wine and changed them into his Body and Blood.

Well, from now on, if the Apostles wanted to receive the Eucharist, they would have to consecrate it themselves.  Jesus, of course, had given the power to do that in his name at the Last Supper.  But they had to utilize that power if they wanted to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood in the future.  They had to be the Lord’s instruments.

So, how did they deal with all this?  What did the 11 Apostles do to deal with all the changes they experienced after the Ascension of Jesus?

Well, one of the things we know they did was make a novena—the very first novena in Christian history!  As most of us know, a novena is 9 days of prayer for a special intention.  Well the Bible tells us that for the 9 days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, the Apostles were gathered in prayer with Mary and some other disciples in the Upper Room, no doubt asking Jesus to send the special “gift” that he had promised to send them (the gift, of course, was the Holy Spirit).  And so, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they eventually dealt successfully with the radical changes that came into their lives after the Ascension. The Spirit was the difference.

That same Holy Spirit will help us to deal with the changes that have come to us in this coronavirus pandemic—and all the other changes we face in our lives.  That having been said, I invite you to make a novena to the Holy Spirit this year, beginning today.  I found a beautiful novena prayer online recently and I urge you to say it every day until Pentecost Sunday.  I’ll ask Fr. Najim to send it to you via Flocknotes.  I’ll conclude by saying it in my own name, and in the name of everyone watching this Mass who wants to participate in the novena (so we’ll all have the first day covered!).

Let us pray.
Holy Spirit, third Person of the Blessed Trinity, Spirit of truth, love and holiness, proceeding from the Father and the Son, and equal to Them in all things, I adore You and love You with all my heart. Dearest Holy Spirit, confiding in your deep, personal love for me, I am making this novena for the following request, if it should be Your holy Will to grant it: (mention your request). Teach me, Divine Spirit, to know and seek my last end; grant me the holy fear of God; grant me true contrition and patience. Do not let me fall into sin. Give me an increase of faith, hope, and charity, and bring forth in my soul all the virtues proper to my state of life. Make me a faithful disciple of Jesus and an obedient child of the Church. Give me efficacious grace sufficient to keep the commandments and to receive the sacraments worthily. Give me the four Cardinal Virtues, Your Seven Gifts, Your Twelve Fruits. Raise me to perfection in the state of life to which You have called me and lead me through a happy death to everlasting life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Sacraments that are Only Valid; Sacraments that are Valid and Fruitful

(Sixth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on May 17, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; Psalm 66:1-20; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21.) 

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

Religiously speaking, what do Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin have in common with St. John Paul II, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Pius X?

You may be tempted to say, “Nothing,” but that would be incorrect.

Believe it or not, religiously speaking the three scoundrels in the first group share at least one thing in common with the three holy men in the second group: Baptism!  Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were all born again of water and the Holy Spirit as infants!  They were all set free from original sin; they all received sanctifying grace into their souls, and they all became members of God’s family, the Church.  Of course, in one way or another they all repudiated the Faith later in life, but that’s another story.  Their later wickedness doesn’t negate their baptisms; it doesn’t change the fact that they once received the same sacramental graces that St. John Paul II, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Pius X received on the days they were baptized.

Which brings up the obvious question: How is it possible for an Adolph Hitler and a John Paul II to experience God’s grace in the same way through Baptism, and then become exact opposites in their earthly lives?

The only way to answer that question is to make reference to a very important distinction of sacramental theology:  it’s the distinction between a sacrament that’s valid, and a sacrament that’s valid and fruitful. 

For a sacrament to be valid, you need the proper minister (for Baptism—in ordinary circumstances—that means a bishop, priest or deacon); you need the proper matter and form (in Baptism, that means water, and the words of the Trinitarian formula: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”); and the one administering the sacrament must have the right intention (in Baptism, that means the intention to do what the Church does when she baptizes).  If all those prerequisites are satisfied, then the person in question—be it Adolph Hitler or Francis of Assisi—truly receives the sacrament.

But obviously that’s not supposed to be the end of the story!  Jesus has given us the seven sacraments for a specific purpose: so that they will bear fruit—good fruit—in our earthly lives, and thus assist us on our pilgrim journey to Heaven.  But whether or not this happens depends largely on us: we decide whether the sacrament we receive will be only valid, or valid and fruitful.  We do that by either rejecting the grace given in the sacrament, or cooperating with it.  This, of course, explains the difference between the three scoundrels and the three holy men I mentioned a few moments ago: the three holy men nurtured their baptismal grace and it bore good fruit in their lives; the three scoundrels did not.

This important truth about the sacraments is illustrated right in our midst (and in every Catholic church) each and every Sunday.  For example, one man receives the Eucharist at a Sunday Mass, walks right out of church, swears at people in the parking lot, and yells at his wife and kids when he gets home for no good reason.  Another man at the same Mass receives, goes back to his pew and sincerely prays that he can put into practice the Gospel message he’s heard that day.  Then he goes out and puts forth his best effort in that regard. 

Did both men receive a valid sacrament?  You bet.  But only one allowed it to bear good fruit in his life.

I thought of all this in preparation for this homily, because our three Scripture readings this weekend deal (either explicitly or implicitly) with the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. 

In today’s Gospel text from John 15 Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [i.e., the Holy Spirit] to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.  But you know him because he remains with you and will be in you.”  The Spirit is given to us first at Baptism; then another outpouring of the Spirit is given to us at Confirmation.  In today’s first reading from Acts 8 we’re told that the apostles went to Samaria, and there they found some new Christians.  Nothing strange about that.  But what was unusual was the fact that these new Christians had only been baptized!  For some reason, they hadn’t received the second outpouring of the Spirit which comes at Confirmation.  And so the apostles immediately laid hands on them to confirm them and remedy the situation. 

The second reading from 1 Peter 3 fits into this by giving us an important insight as to why this second outpouring is necessary.  Ask most young people why they want to receive the sacrament of Confirmation, and they’ll usually tell you one of two things.  Either they’ll say, “Because I want to get married someday in the Church”—which, by the way, is a horrible reason to want to be confirmed.  And besides, canon law does not say you must be confirmed to be married in the Church; it indicates that you should be confirmed.  Let me warn you, teenagers: if that’s the only reason you’re being confirmed (so that you can be married in the Church someday), then this sacrament will probably not bear much fruit in your life.  It will be valid, but that’s about it. 

The second reason young people will commonly give for wanting to be confirmed is this one: “I want to be an adult in the Church.”  To which I always want to respond, “What does that mean?”  If you’re over 18 and you’re a baptized Catholic, then you’re an adult in the Church!—whether you are confirmed or not!

The purpose of this second sacramental outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation is WITNESS!  That’s what Peter is talking about in today’s second reading.  When Jesus told his apostles that he would send them the Holy Spirit he said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you, and [then] you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Confirmation is given to make us bold, strong, loving, committed Catholics who aren’t afraid to be different; who aren’t afraid to stand up for the truth and be counted.”

“But Fr. Ray, that’s hard.”

Yes!!!! And that’s precisely the point!  If it weren’t hard we wouldn’t need this sacrament!  Listen now to what Peter says in that second reading: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.  Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear. . . . for it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.”

That’s the kind of witness we are called to give through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Why is this so important?  Well, aside from our own salvation being at stake, if we fail to allow our baptism to bear good fruit in our life, we will cause harm to others—even to those we love.  Take the three scoundrels I mentioned at the beginning of my homily.  They clearly squandered the grace that God had graciously given to them at their baptisms.  It bore almost no good fruit in their lives, and millions—literally millions—of innocent people suffered because of it.

You know the history.

By the way, the same thing is true today of baptized civil leaders who reject the grace of their baptisms by supporting evils like abortion.  Think of that fact relative to the suffering that’s going on in the world and in our country right now.  Thankfully our current president is pro-life—but not all our civil leaders are.

How many people have suffered because of that?

Life, my brothers and sisters, is all about choices.  Among the most important choices we make, are the ones that concern the sacraments we receive.  Will I, or will I not, allow my baptism, my confirmation—and the Holy Eucharist—to bear good fruit in my life?  Will these sacraments be only valid for me, or will they be valid and fruitful? 

Dear Lord, may we always choose the second option in our lives.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

“Oh Lord, give me patience!”

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (A):  This homily was given on May 3, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 23:1-6; 1 Peter 2: 20-25; John 10:1-10.)

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

“Oh Lord, give me patience.”  Besides the Our Father, that just might be the world's most frequently uttered prayer.  “O Lord, give me patience—PLEASE give me patience!”  How often have you said those words?  If you're like me, quite often!
Now traditionally Job is held up to us as a model of this elusive virtue.  People commonly speak of “the patience of Job.”  St. James talks about Job's “perseverance” in chapter 5 of his letter.  (James 5:11)  But if you read Job’s story carefully in the Old Testament, you see that his patience, although it was great, was far from perfect.  Which is quite understandable.  After all, he lost his children, his property and his health in less than 24 hours!  All he had left were Mrs. Job, who kept telling him to curse God and die, and three so-called friends, who kept telling him how bad he was!  I call that a nag and three windbags!  No wonder he got a little testy after a while!

Actually it's Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior who is our model of perfect patience.  St. Peter tells us as much in today's second reading, which is taken from the second chapter of his first letter.  (Peter, of course, would have known a lot about the patience of Jesus, because the Lord was very patient with him on many occasions.)  Peter writes:
If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.  He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.  When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.

St. Thomas Aquinas once said that great patience is demonstrated in two ways: when a person suffers great evils patiently, or when he suffers something that he could avoid but chooses not to.  This leads St. Thomas to conclude that the patience of Jesus on the Cross was the greatest patience ever shown.  Because on the Cross Jesus willingly took upon himself the greatest of evils—the sin of the entire human race!—even though he could have avoided doing so.  As he said to Peter in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before he was crucified: “Do you not suppose that I can call on my Father to provide at a moment's notice more than twelve legions of angels?”  (Matthew 26:53)  In other words, "Peter, don't you realize that I could easily get out of this if I really wanted to?"

Because Jesus is God, he's not only our great model of patience; he's also the source of the patience that we need in our lives.  I would say that most Christians intuitively recognize that fact, which is why they utter that prayer so often: “O Lord—O Jesus—give me patience!”  But here's the amazing irony of it all: everyone wants more patience, but nobody wants to find out if they actually have it!  Everyone prays for more of it, but no one really wants to find out if their prayer is ever answered!  That's because there's only one way to find out if you have more patience now than you did yesterday; there's only one way to find out if God answers your prayer for the gift by giving you more of it: it's got to be tested!  I suppose you could say that patience is like knowledge and strength.  How do you determine if you have more knowledge at the end of a course than you did on the first day of class?  You take a test.  How do you know if you're physically stronger today than you were a week ago?  If you work out in the gym, there's only one way to find that out: you test your strength.  You put more weight on the bar and you try to lift it.  And so it is with patience.  We can pray for more patience 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year—we will never know if we actually have more of it, unless it somehow gets tested.  And of course, no one in their right mind wants to have their patience put to the test!  That's why I said that everyone prays for the virtue, but no one really wants to find out if their prayer is answered. 

Perhaps, on a practical level, we should approach the matter in a different way.  Perhaps, when we pray for more patience, we shouldn't wait for the test to come.  Maybe we should simply trust that God has answered our prayer the moment we've said it.  Scripture would certainly support us in doing this, because, as Jesus himself tells us in Matthew 21:22, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith you will receive.”  So, when we say, “O Lord, give me patience,” we should trust that we have it; we should believe that God has been true to his word and given us the gift.   And this little practice carries with it a definite bonus.  You see, if we trust God in this way, we will probably be much more confident and optimistic whenever our patience does get tested.  Because instead of getting upset at the test and wondering when God will finally give us what we're asking him for, we will look upon the test as an opportunity—an opportunity to put into practice the gift of patience that the Lord has already given us.   

Easier said than done?  Perhaps.  But why not give it a try?  After all, what have we got to lose?  Except our impatience!