Sunday, June 28, 2020

Respect, Courtesy and Hospitality


(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on June 28, 2020 at Watch Hill Chapel, Watch Hill, R.I.  Read 2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a; Psalm 89:2-19; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 10:37-42.) 

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

In a book I was reading recently, I came across the following little story:

During the second month of nursing school, a professor gave the students a quiz. One of them was a conscientious student who had breezed through the questions, until she read the last one, “What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?” Surely, this was some kind of joke. Everyone knew that the cleaning woman was tall, dark-haired, and in her 50s, but they did not know her name. The student handed in her paper, leaving the last question blank. Just before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward the grade. “Absolutely,” said the professor. “In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello.” The conscientious student later commented, “I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy.”

Respect.  Courtesy.  Hospitality.  The professor in that story understood and believed in all of those things.  So, of course, did Jesus, who spoke to us in today’s gospel about the importance of showing hospitality and respect toward prophets, the righteous and all those who call themselves his disciples.  He says that those who do so will be rewarded for their efforts (if not here on this earth, then most certainly in eternity).  But Jesus, as we know, didn’t limit charity to believers only.  In the mind of our Savior, every human person is to be loved and respected: “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”

Even in the Old Testament we see the importance of respect, courtesy and hospitality.  We see it in stories like the one we heard in today’s first reading from 2 Kings 4: this story of Elisha the prophet and the childless Shunammite woman, who showed Elisha hospitality by welcoming him into her home whenever he happened to be traveling in the area.  God rewarded her for her efforts by blessing her with a son.  The promise Elisha made to her at the end of this story was, indeed, fulfilled.

Which brings us, finally, to our modern world and to our current cultural situation here in the United States of America.  If you look up the words respect, courtesy and hospitality in a modern dictionary of the English language you will certainly find them there.  And they will be properly defined.  (At least in most dictionaries they will be!)

The problem is that very few people seem to believe in these things nowadays.  The sad reality is that to a growing number of men and women in this country right now respect, courtesy and hospitality have become words on a piece of paper—and nothing more.  And isn’t this precisely what we’ve been seeing on our city streets in recent weeks?

·       A policeman needlessly stomping on another human being’s throat
·         People rioting in the streets and attacking anyone who disagrees with them
·         People destroying the property and the businesses of law abiding citizens
·         People looting many of those businesses (some of which, incidentally, are owned by African Americans—the very men and women these looters claim to support!)

All this, my brothers and sisters, is not only disrespect and a lack of courtesy and hospitality—it’s insanity!

And the scary thing is, this insanity is fast becoming mainstream. This kind of disrespect and craziness is beginning to manifest itself more and more frequently in our schools, at athletic events, in social gatherings, in workplaces—and in families.

Which means we need to address it PRONTO—before it destroys us as a nation.

“But what can I do, Fr. Ray?  I’m just one person.”

Actually, each of us can do a lot!  No, as individuals we don’t have the power to transform our entire society in a positive way.  But we each can do our personal part to help make it happen.

For example, here are some simple, everyday activities that we can engage in on a regular basis: actions that will help to promote respect and courtesy and hospitality toward other people (this, by the way, is not an exhaustive list—these are just a few suggestions):
  •  Stop your car when people are trying to cross the street in a designated crosswalk (that’s courtesy—plus it’s the law!)
  • Allow someone to go ahead of you in traffic every once in a while—or in the church parking lot
  • Refuse to use ethnic or racial slurs—ever!
  • Say “please”—and “thank you”
  •  Write thank you notes to people who give you special gifts
  •  Pay more attention to the people you’re with and less attention to your cell phone
  •  Turn your cell phone off in church—even if the organist doesn’t ask you to do so
  • Don’t text when you drive
  • Try to be on time for things (including Mass!)
  • Speak about people in authority respectfully, even if you don’t like the things they say and do (young people, that includes your parents!)
  • When you disagree with someone, stick to the issues and avoid arguments directed against the person himself or herself
  • When you see somebody new at church, say hello
  • When you’re in a social setting where you notice someone being left out of the conversation, try to find a way to include them in it
  • Support the right to life of every human person, from natural conception to natural death
  • Oppose euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide
  • Support immigration (that is to say, legal immigration!)
  • Choose to be “colorblind” when it comes to race.  In other words, treat everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve.  Physically speaking, as we all know, colorblindness is a condition—a medical condition that some of us may, unfortunately, have.  But in the area of personal morality, colorblindness is a choice: a good choice; the right choice.  So make it.
  •  Make every effort to live your life by the “Golden Rule” (which, of course, was given to us by Jesus himself): “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Those are all simple but very important things that we can do in our lives right now to counter the disrespect, discourtesy and lack of hospitality that are literally infecting our American culture at the present time.

It’s even worse than the coronavirus!

May God grant us the grace—and the determination—to put suggestions like these into practice, to help our nation get rid of the infection.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Jesus’ Words—‘This is my body’—and How Those Words Apply to Us

(Corpus Christi 2020 (A): This homily was given on June 14, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16; Psalm 147:12-20; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; John 6:51-58.)

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

In one of his newsletters, Fr. Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, wrote the following:
Did you ever realize that the same four words that were used by the Lord Jesus to save the world are also used by some to promote abortion?  “This is my body.”  The same simple words are spoken from opposite ends of the universe, with meanings that are directly contrary to each other.
That’s a very perceptive insight—but it doesn’t just apply to abortion.  Think, for example, of the terrorists of 9/11—or the terrorists who’ve blown themselves up in other locations of the world, and who’ve taken a lot of innocent people with them.  This has been their attitude, has it not?  They say, “This is my body, and if I want to use it to fly a passenger plane into a skyscraper in New York City, I’ll do that.”  “This is my body, and if I make the choice to blow it up (and kill some of my enemies in the process) that’s my business.”

Or how about those who want to end their lives because of a serious illness, or old age, or just because they’re tired of this earthly existence?  These people also say, “This is my body.”  They say, “This is my body, and I’ll kill it if I want to—or I’ll call some progressive ‘doctor’ to help me do it.” 

Or how about those who engage in pre-marital sex, or extra-marital sex, or homosexual activity?  How about those who use artificial contraception?  When these sins are pointed out to people who are committing them, what do they often say?  They say, “Hey, this is my body, and I’ll do whatever I want with it.  Who are you to impose your morality on me?” 

Or how about those who live selfish, materialistic lives—who don’t care at all about the poor and the less fortunate?  They also say, “This is my body.”  They say, “This is my body—and my number one priority.  My biggest concern in life is to take care of myself and my personal needs.  Let those others worry about themselves.” 

Sadly we’ve also seen this evil, self-centered attitude rear its ugly head a number of times in our nation just in the past couple of weeks—especially in the riots that have taken place in the wake of George Floyd’s death.  There have been peaceful protests around the country, of course, and those have been fine.  They’re an expression of the freedom of speech that we enjoy as Americans.  But some of these events, as we all know, have ended up being riots, not protests.  That’s because some of the participants have accepted the idea that they can legitimately do whatever they want to do with their bodies!  “It’s my body, and if I want to use it to burn police cars, and destroy businesses, and break windows and loot stores, I will do that.”

These rioters should know better!  They have no excuse.  They should know better because this is precisely the evil attitude that they’re supposedly so upset about!  You see, this was the attitude—the mindset—that the police officer, Derek Chauvin, had when his knee was firmly planted on George Floyd’s neck: “This is my body, Mr. Floyd, and if I want to use it to asphyxiate you and beat you and maybe even kill you, then I will do that.”

And he did.  What a disgrace!  Thank God most of our law enforcement personnel are not like that.

All of these examples should make it clear, my brothers and sisters: we are living right now in what I would call an “anti-eucharistic society”.  You see, when Jesus said those words at the Last Supper—“This is my body”—he was speaking in a spirit of self-giving love and selfless obedience: “This is my body, which is given for you.” 

In all those examples I gave a few moments ago, people are saying “This is my body,” not in selfless obedience, but rather in selfish disobedience!  In other words they’re saying the very same sentence that Jesus said, but with an anti-eucharistic attitude—in a vain attempt to justify their disobedience to the Lord.  In today’s gospel text from John, chapter 6, Jesus says, “The bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world…. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”  Our Lord offered his Body—his life—on the cross, not for himself, but so that you and I might receive forgiveness for our sins and live forever! 

And he gives us his Body and Blood in the Blessed Sacrament to sustain us on our journey to his eternal kingdom.  This means that, if we want to receive the Eucharist fruitfully and worthily, we need to come to Holy Communion with the very same attitude in our hearts that Jesus had in his.  At the consecration of the Mass the priest repeats the words of Jesus: “This is my body, which is given for you.”  When communion time comes and we walk up the aisle to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord, our attitude is supposed to be, “Jesus, yes, I believe this is your body.  But now, Lord, I bring to you my body.  This is my body and I give it to you, Jesus.  And I ask you to fill me with your presence today through this Eucharist, so that I will live, not in selfish disobedience, but so that I will live as you lived Lord—in selfless and in loving obedience to the heavenly Father.”  My brothers and sisters, if every Catholic received the Eucharist with that disposition of heart every single Sunday and holy day, we would soon change the world.  May the change begin today—and may it start with us. 

Sunday, June 07, 2020

God: Our True Standard of Fatherhood

(Trinity Sunday 2020 (A): This homily was given on June 07, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 34: 4b-6, 8-9; John 3: 16-18.)

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

The story I’m about to read to you I shared in a homily I gave on Trinity Sunday of 2011.  It’s from the very beginning of Matthew Kelly’s book, Rediscovering Catholicism.  I’m going to read it again to you today—for reasons that I think should become pretty obvious pretty quickly.
You're driving home from work next Monday after a long day. You tune in your radio. You hear a blurb about a little village in India where some villagers have died suddenly, strangely, of a flu that has never been seen before. It's not influenza, but three or four people are dead, and it's kind of interesting, and they are sending some doctors over there to investigate it. You don't think much about it, but coming home from church on Sunday you hear another radio spot. Only they say it's not three villagers, it's 30,000 villagers in the back hills of this particular area of India, and it's on TV that night. CNN runs a little blurb: people are heading there from the disease center in Atlanta because this disease strain has never been seen before.

By Monday morning when you get up, it's the lead story. It's not just India; it's Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and before you know it, you're hearing this story everywhere, and they have now coined it as "the mystery flu." The President has made some comment that he and his family are praying and hoping that all will go well over there. But everyone is wondering, "How are we going to contain it?"

That's when the President of France makes an announcement that shocks Europe. He is closing their borders. No flights from India, Pakistan, or any of the countries where this thing has been seen. And that's why that night you are watching a little bit of CNN before going to bed. Your jaw hits your chest when a weeping woman is translated in English from a French news program. There's a man lying in a hospital in Paris, dying of the mystery flu. It has come to Europe.

Panic strikes. As best they can tell, after contracting the disease, you have it for a week before you even know it. Then you have four days of unbelievable symptoms. And then you die. Britain closes its borders, but it's too late. South Hampton, Liverpool, North Hampton, and it's Tuesday morning when the President of the United States makes the following announcement: "Due to a national-security risk, all flights to and from Europe and Asia have been canceled. If your loved ones are overseas, I'm sorry. They cannot come back until we find a cure for this thing."

[Can you believe this was written a decade ago?  So much of it sounds like what we’ve been experiencing for the last two and a half months!  The story continues …]

Within four days, our nation has been plunged into an unbelievable fear. People are wondering, "What if it comes to this country?" And preachers on Tuesday are saying it's the scourge of God. It's Wednesday night, and you are at a church prayer meeting when somebody runs in from the parking lot and yells, "Turn on a radio, turn on a radio!" And while everyone in church listens to a little transistor radio with a microphone stuck up to it, the announcement is made. Two women are lying, in a Long Island hospital, dying from the mystery flu. Within hours it seems, the disease envelopes the country.

People are working around the clock, trying to find an antidote. Nothing is working. California, Oregon, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts. It's as though it's just sweeping in from the borders.

And then all of a sudden the news comes out. The code has been broken. A cure can be found. A vaccine can be made. It's going to take the blood of somebody who hasn't been infected, and so, sure enough, all through the Midwest, through all those channels of emergency broadcasting, everyone is asked to do one simple thing: Go to your downtown hospital and have your blood analyzed. That's all we ask of you. When you hear the sirens go off in your neighborhood, please make your way quickly, quietly, and safely to the hospitals.

Sure enough, when you and your family get down there late on that Friday night, there is a long line, and they've got nurses and doctors coming out and pricking fingers and taking blood and putting labels on it. Your spouse and your kids are out there, and they take your blood and say, "Wait here in the parking lot, and if we call your name, you can be dismissed and go home." You stand around, scared, with your neighbors, wondering what on earth is going on, and if this is the end of the world.

Suddenly, a young man comes running out of the hospital screaming. He's yelling a name and waving a clipboard. “What”? He yells it again! And your son tugs on your jacket and says, "Daddy, that's me." Before you know it, they have grabbed your boy. "Wait a minute. Hold on!" And they say, "It's okay, his blood is clean. His blood is pure. We want to make sure he doesn't have the disease. We think he has the right blood type."

Five tense minutes later, out come the doctors and nurses crying and hugging one another-some are even laughing. It's the first time you have seen anybody laugh in a week, and an old doctor walks up to you and says, "Thank you, sir. Your son's blood is perfect. It's clean, it is pure, and we can make the vaccine."

As the word begins to spread all across that parking lot full of folks, people are screaming and praying and laughing and crying. But then the gray-haired doctor pulls you and your wife aside and says, "May we see you for a moment? We didn't realize that the donor would be a minor and we...we need you to sign a consent form."

You begin to sign, and then you see that the box for the number of pints of blood to be taken is empty. "H-h-h-how many pints?" And that is when the old doctor's smile fades, and he says, "We had no idea it would be a little child. We weren't prepared. We need it all!” … “But...but...I don't understand. He's my only son!” .... “We are talking about the whole world here. Please sign. We...we...need to hurry!"    "But can't you give him a transfusion?” “If we had clean blood we would. Please, will you please sign?" In numb silence you do. Then they say, "Would you like to have a moment with him before we begin?"

Could you walk back? Could you walk back to that room where he sits on a table saying, "Daddy? Mommy? What's going on?" Could you take his hands and say, "Son, your mommy and I love you, and we would never, ever let anything happen to you that didn't just have to be! Do you understand that?" And when that old doctor comes back in and says, "I'm sorry, we've got to get started. People all over the world are dying," could you leave? Could you walk out while he is saying, "Dad? Mom? Dad? Why...why have you abandoned me?"
I shared that story with our teenagers at youth group one Thursday night back in 2011, and it wasn’t until the very end that many of them said, “Oh, I get it.  NOW I get it!”

Do you get it?

If you’re having trouble, look again at the first line of today’s gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

We cannot understand what it meant for God to give his Son, Jesus, in sacrifice for our sins except by analogy—and Matthew Kelly’s analogy in this story is one of the best I’ve ever come across.

But, remember, it’s only an analogy.  Believe it or not, the reality of what God did for us is far more radical than what this story conveys!  For example, in this story, the son does not die willingly out of pure love—but Jesus did. 

Furthermore, in this story, the boy dies for men and women who are his equals.  But Jesus died for inferiors—creatures—HIS creatures.  It would be like one of us dying to cure all the dogs of the world of some dread disease.

And yet, even that doesn’t capture the essence of it, because, in the hierarchy of being, there’s a much greater distance between us and God than there is between us and dogs.

I hope that doesn’t offend anyone—but even if it does, the fact of the matter is it’s true.

This little story should also help us to understand why God must be the true standard of fatherhood for each of us—and not our earthly father!  A father is called to give his best to his family—like God the Father gave his best to us, his adopted children—but no earthly father does that, because every earthly father is imperfect.  For example, I had a great dad.  I thank God for my dad.  I thank God for the 14 years I had him in my life—before he died of cancer at the age of 46.

But my dad was not perfect.  He gave my sister and me lots of love, and lots of support, and lots of care.  But he didn’t do those things perfectly.  I’m sure there were times, for example, when he disciplined us too much; I’m sure there were other times when he didn’t discipline us enough!

God, our heavenly Father, on the other hand, is perfectly just.

My earthly father also taught us right from wrong by his words and by his actions—but not perfectly.  He was a sinner, like every earthly dad.

God the Father, on the other hand, is perfect.  He never violated any of those Ten Commandments that he gave to Moses on the stone tablets we heard about in today’s first reading.

Some people have a poor image of God because they mistakenly make their earthly fathers, who have failed them in various ways, their standard of fatherhood.  That leads them to look up to God and say, “You tell me to call you, ‘Father,’ and to love you with all my heart, but my earthly dad has hurt me and let me down at certain times in my life.  Well, if that’s what fathers are like, God, then that must be what YOU are like!  So, I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can love you so completely and unconditionally—since you’ll probably hurt me, too.”

The right perspective is to see God as the full expression of what it means to be a father—since he gave us his “all” in giving us his only begotten Son—and to see our earthly fathers as reflecting the heavenly Father’s love to us.  So instead of saying, “God the Father must be like my earthly dad”; it’s more proper to say, “My dad is a little bit like God the Father in all the ways he is good and loving to his family.”

And so, as we prepare to celebrate Father’s Day in a few weeks, let’s thank the Lord for the ways our earthly fathers have reflected his love to us over the years, however imperfectly.  And then let’s ask God our Father, through his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to help our earthly fathers to reflect his love to us even more perfectly and more completely, in the future—if we’re blessed to still have them with us.