Sunday, August 30, 2020

Sometimes it’s wrong to try to shield people from suffering

(Twenty-second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 30, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63:2-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-second Sunday 2020]

One day a man was walking through the woods and he came upon a butterfly cocoon.  He watched it for a long time as the creature inside struggled to force its way through the very small opening at the bottom.  Well at one point it appeared that the butterfly had gotten stuck on its little journey, so the man decided to come to its rescue and offer a helping hand.  He took a pair of scissors and widened the hole of the cocoon ever so slightly.  The butterfly, of course, came out quite easily—but, much to the man’s surprise, it didn’t fly.  All it could do was crawl on the ground, since its wings were too small and its body swollen and much too heavy.  And sadly, that’s how this particular butterfly spent the remainder of its very brief earthly life.

What that man didn’t realize was that the butterfly needed to struggle.  In fact, EVERY butterfly needs to undergo this kind of difficult, challenging experience!  As I learned in preparation for this homily, by squirming and struggling to get out of its cocoon, a butterfly forces fluid out of its body and into its wings, a process which makes its body lighter and its wings stronger.  Thus, when it does finally manage to get out, it’s able to fly on its own.

UNLESS SOMEONE INTERFERES WITH THE PROCESS, LIKE THIS MAN DID!  He perceived that this butterfly was suffering in some way, and he tried to shield the creature from the experience.  But—as he very quickly found out—that was the wrong thing to do!

In our relationships with other people—especially our loved ones—we all have this very same tendency, do we not?  We want to shield them from suffering.  We want to protect them from trial and from pain.  Now in some cases, of course, that’s exactly what we should try to do.  But at other times it’s wrong to try to shield our loved ones in this way—as Simon Peter found out in today’s Gospel story from Matthew 16.  After Jesus tells him and the other apostles that he will soon suffer and die a horrible death, Peter says, “God forbid, Lord!  No such thing shall ever happen to you.”  Jesus then snaps back at Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. . . . You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”  In other words, “Peter, you are trying to shield me from a suffering which I must experience—for your good, for your sake, for your salvation.  If I don’t die, you won’t live with me forever in my kingdom!”

As much as we might hate to admit it, some sufferings are necessary, and for our own good—and it’s wrong for others to keep us from passing through them!  Imagine, for example, a young mother who is diagnosed with breast cancer.  The doctors have told her that she needs radical surgery and extensive chemotherapy or she will die.  The operation and the follow-up treatment will almost certainly cause her terrible suffering.  But it would be wrong for you or for me to try to shield her from that pain by foolishly trying to convince her to fight the disease on her own.  She needs to experience this suffering, and she needs to pass through it, in order to get well.  Without the suffering, there will be no healing for her (unless she’s blessed with a miracle).

Most of the young people here will be back in school within a few days, if they aren’t already.  (Hopefully most will be back physically, but all will be back at least virtually.)  Now some of you young people may hate school with a passion.  (I hope you don’t, but some of you might.)  For you, sitting in a classroom (either physical or virtual), reading books, and doing 3 hours of homework every night may be a suffering like no other.  But it would be wrong for your parents to shield you from that suffering by allowing you to stay in your room all day playing video games!  You need to pass through this suffering (which really isn’t that bad) for your own good.

After one of my parents’ friends from Barrington passed away a number of years ago, his family sent me a prayer-card from his funeral.  On the back of the card was a little meditation (supposedly recording the words of the deceased). The meditation had this line in it: “I’d like the tears of those who grieve, to dry before the sun of happy memories that I leave when life is done.”  In other words, “I want their sadness at my death to pass quickly.”  Here’s yet another suffering we often try to shield people from: the suffering from grief caused by the death of a loved one.  That’s wrong!  People need to grieve—and for much longer than a few short hours!  It’s psychologically unhealthy to short-circuit the grief process; any good psychologist will tell you that.

This, I would say, was one of the worst effects of the pandemic lockdown.  People were not able to grieve properly; they were not able to grieve in a healthy way; they were not able to grieve as they needed to grieve.  First or all, they couldn’t experience support and consolation from family and friends at the wake, because wakes were not allowed (in some places they still aren’t!). And, even more importantly, they couldn’t experience the Lord’s consolation and strength that comes through the Eucharist and the Mass, because public Masses were not allowed.  People were forced to deal with their loss in almost total isolation.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

That’s why, if something like this ever happens again, churches should demand to be designated as providing an “essential service.”

Because they do! 

The bottom line is this, my brothers and sisters: Our response to the suffering of others should include compassion, encouragement, prayer, and active assistance.  But we must always beware, lest we make the same mistake Peter made in today’s Gospel, and try to shield someone from a suffering which they need to experience.

And here’s one closing, sobering thought: In heaven, there will probably be many people who will look back on their earthly lives and say that their worst sufferings were actually their greatest blessings—because passing through those sufferings brought them to conversion.  And their conversion happily brought them to God’s eternal kingdom.   

Sunday, August 23, 2020

’Pick-a-Pope’: It’s the game EVERYBODY plays!


(Twenty-first Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 23, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 138:1-8; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-first Sunday 2020]]

“Pick-a-Pope”: It’s the game EVERYBODY plays! 

Every once in a while, someone (usually a non-Catholic) will say to us, “Do you believe in the pope?”

Now there’s a very subtle presumption behind that question, and we need to be aware of it.  The presumption is that if you don’t accept the authority of the Holy Father in Rome (currently Pope Francis), then you don’t believe in a pope.  But that’s not true!  It’s my contention that EVERYONE has a pope!  Presbyterians have a pope; Anglicans have a pope; Baptists have a pope; people who call themselves “non-denominational” have a pope; Muslims, Buddhists and even atheists have a pope!

That’s because everyone has an authority who guides them, who defines the meaning of human existence for them, and who teaches them right from wrong.  So the real question is not, “Do you believe in the pope?”  The real question is, “Which pope do you believe in?”

In this regard, there are a number of possibilities.  For example, there’s what I would call the “Feel-Good Pope.”  Those who follow him live almost exclusively by their emotions.  If it feels good, then in their estimation it must be okay.  Or how about the “Gallup Pope?”  He’s named after the famous poll-taker.  Those who follow him form their views and attitudes based on what the majority says.  Thus if 85% of Catholics polled say they think artificial contraception is morally acceptable, those who follow the Gallup Pope immediately add their names to the 85%. 

A very popular pope among young people today is what I would call the “Peer Pope.”  He lives, and acts, and speaks through their friends.  Whatever these friends say, is considered to be the truth.

Or how about the “Pop Pope?”  (Try saying that one quickly 10 times!)  Those who follow the Pop Pope are those who are unduly influenced by the ideas of contemporary “pop” culture—ideas which come through the music they hear, through the media, the press, the Hollywood crowd, sports heroes and self-help gurus.  Of course, most of all, followers of the Pop Pope are influenced these days by the ideas they encounter on social media.

Because everyone knows, if it’s on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook it’s got to be true.  Right?

Now those are just some of the possibilities.  Believe it or not, other possible popes even include some Protestant evangelists and theologians.  Think, for example, of how many people followed the late Billy Graham as if he had been designated the authoritative interpreter of God’s Word!  These people would have denied that they believed in a pope; and yet, they listened to Graham as if he was God’s appointed mouthpiece here on earth.  Consequently they obeyed him as good Catholics will obey the Holy Father.

Even those who have no religious affiliation whatsoever have a pope—in the sense that they have a person or group of people to whom they look for guidance and direction.  For example, many of the people rioting in our cities this summer—as well as the women who founded the organization “Black Lives Matter”—have the same pope.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him; his name is Karl Marx.  The liberal media doesn’t tell you this stuff, my brothers and sisters, but it’s true.  Many of these rioters are professed Marxists, who literally want to destroy American culture as we know it and create some kind of socialist utopia—with themselves in charge, of course.

It’s scary what’s going on out there these days!

Everybody has a pope, whether they’re conscious of it or not.  That’s why I began my homily by saying, “Pick-a-Pope: It’s the game EVERYBODY plays!”

So, which pope do you pick?

Personally, I want to pick the pope that Jesus Christ picked.  Because that’s the right pope!  In today’s Gospel text from Matthew 16, we see Jesus making his choice.  He says to Peter, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build by Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  Here Jesus gives papal authority to Peter—the authority of “spiritual fatherhood” in his Church.  And then Jesus indicates that this authority is to be passed on to others in the future when he says, “I give you [Peter] the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”  In Isaiah 22 (the text we heard in our first reading today) the “keys” symbolized dynastic authority—authority which would be passed on from one person to another.  The authority Eliakim received in the kingdom of David was the authority of an established office.  And so it is with the papacy.  Peter’s authority didn’t die when he did.  It was passed on to Linus, then to Cletus and Clement . . . and finally to Pope Francis. 

So you see, contrary to what some non-Catholics would have us believe, the Church didn’t “invent” the Catholic papacy—Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior did!

And so, for me, the game is easy.  The pope I pick is the same one Jesus picked.  My prayer today is that the Pick-a-Pope game will be just as easy for all of you.  


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Do I allow the circumstances of life to bring out the worst in me, or do I allow Jesus Christ to bring out the best in me?


Thankfully, this is NOT the parking lot at St. Pius, St. Mary's or St. James!

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 16, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  It was also given at St. Mary’s Church in Carolina and St. James Chapel in Charlestown on the same weekend.  Isaiah 56:1-7; Psalm 67:2-8; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Read Matthew 15:21-28.)

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


Do I allow the circumstances of life to bring out the worst in me, or do I allow Jesus Christ to bring out the best in me? 

That’s the question I believe the Lord would want each of us to reflect on this morning. 

Do I allow the circumstances of my life (especially the negative and difficult circumstances of my life)—do I allow them to bring out the worst in me, or do I allow Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior to bring out the best in me?

That’s a question, my brothers and sisters, that we all face every single day of our lives!  In fact, it’s a question that we face many times each day.

Some of you, for example, might face it right there in the church parking lot after Mass, if another person cuts you off as you’re trying to exit (not that such a thing would ever happen here, but I’ve heard it has in some places!).  If you let Jesus bring out the best in you at that moment, you’ll give the perpetrator a little wave with your hand and maybe even a little smile; if, on the other hand, you let the circumstances bring out the worst in you, you’ll give the person a different gesture with your hand.

(That’s all I’ll say about that!)

All of us have faced this question countless times since mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic began.  Most of you, I’m sure, spent a couple of months at home with your families at the beginning of this crisis, which, on the one hand was very nice (people don’t often spend enough time with their families these days); on the other hand, I’m sure it was also a big challenge!  An almost total lockdown: no work for many adults; schools closed; no extracurricular activities for the kids; churches closed; no large gatherings permitted—just the same routine every day, with the same people, in the same house.  That can get a little stressful after a while!  People—even people who love each other deeply—can begin to get on each other’s nerves.  In situations like this, it’s very easy to let the stressful circumstances bring out the worst in us.  That, incidentally, is why there are so many articles about this issue on the internet right now.  The other day I googled the words “family dynamics during COVID” and I got 412,000,000 hits!

Obviously it’s an important subject to an awful lot of people in our country at the present time!

Now, why do I mention all this today?  Well, it’s because of the Canaanite woman in this gospel who seeks a healing from Jesus for her possessed daughter.

This woman is a great role model for all of us, because in her encounter with our Lord she never—ever—ever allowed negative circumstances to bring out the worst in her!

And she easily could have!

First of all, Jesus ignores her.  He acts as if she isn’t even there.  Then she hears the apostles talking negatively about her: “Jesus, get rid of this woman.  She’s a big annoyance and she’s driving us crazy!”  Then Jesus tells her that his mission is not to Gentiles like her, but only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (which certainly didn’t make her feel very special).  And finally—last but not least—he likens her to a “dog”!  Now biblical scholars tell us that Jesus was only testing the woman; they tell us that he probably had a smile on his face when he said this, and that these kinds of verbal exchanges were very common in those days.

But given the woman’s distress over her daughter’s condition, it would have been very easy for her to have responded to Jesus by saying, “Hey, mister, who do you think you are?  I’m not in the mood to kid around.  My daughter needs help!  And who are you calling a dog?  Forget it, Jesus, I’ll try to get some help from someone else.”

But that’s not what she did!  Through it all—throughout her entire encounter with our Lord—this incredible Canaanite woman continued to look to Jesus.  She continued to believe that he would respond positively and give her what she needed.  She even bowed down at one point to worship him!

Instead of allowing all these circumstances—all these negative, difficult circumstances—to bring out the worst in her, she allowed Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior to bring out the very best in her.  And Jesus affirmed her in that: “Oh woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Let’s pray that the grace of God that we receive at this Mass—especially in and through the Holy Eucharist—will help us to respond to the negative and difficult and stressful circumstances of our lives in the very same way.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress . . . or Covid-19?

Jerry Sittser

(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 2, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 55:1-3; Psalm 145:8-18; Romans 8:35-39; Matthew 14:13-21.)

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

In his book, They Shall Be Comforted, Fr. Joseph Nolan, who taught theology at Boston College for many years, writes about a man named Jerry Sittser, who lost his wife, mother and daughter in a horrible car accident.

I thought of Jerry as I prepared for this homily, because I think he's someone who has come to understand deeply the words of St. Paul in today's second reading from Romans 8: “What will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or the sword?  No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.”

Not surprisingly, after he lost these three people who were so close to him, Jerry received many letters of condolence and support from concerned friends and loved ones.  Often these letters contained the idea that what happened to him was grossly unfair and horribly unjust.  Jerry struggled with this idea for some time, but he finally came to this conclusion:

Over time I began to be bothered by the assumption that I had a right to complete fairness.  Granted, I did not deserve to lose three members of my family.  But then again, I am not sure I deserved to have them in the first place. . . . Perhaps I did not deserve their deaths; but I did not deserve their presence in my life, either.  On the face of it, living in a perfectly fair world appeals to me.  But deeper reflection makes me wonder.  In such a world I might never experience tragedy; but neither would I experience grace, especially the grace God gave me in the form of three wonderful people whom I lost. . . . So, God spare us a lifetime of fairness!  To live in a world with grace is better by far than to live in a world with absolute fairness.  A fair world might make things nice for us, but only as nice as we are.  We might get what we deserve, but I wonder how much that is and whether or not we would really be satisfied.  A world with grace will give us more than we deserve.  It will give us life, even in our suffering.

This is what St. Paul is telling us when he says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  The only thing that separates us from Christ and his love is mortal sin.  And, praise God, that doesn’t have to be a permanent separation!  That can be dealt with very quickly and very effectively in the sacrament of Reconciliation—if we have the good sense to go to confession when we need to go and have the opportunity.  (Here at St. Pius, of course, we have the opportunity every Wednesday afternoon at 5pm and every Saturday afternoon at 3:30pm—or anytime by appointment.) 

But other than that—other than when we’re in the state of mortal sin—every situation we face in this life is an occasion where God's grace can bring forth good fruit.  Jerry Sittser, in the midst of his pain, has experienced this truth personally.  Through Christ he has conquered, by allowing the Lord's grace to sustain him—and enlighten him—in his hour of need. 

He’s experienced a true victory here—a spiritual victory over the confusion and the anger and the despair that would threaten any one of us, if we lost three loved ones in such a sudden and tragic way.

Applying this now to ourselves and to our common experience since mid-March.  Here’s an interesting question: If St. Paul were physically present in our world today, would he add one more item to his list in verse 35?  Would he say, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or the sword—or Covid-19?”

He might.  He certainly could.  The coronavirus would definitely be a valid addition to his question!

Sadly, I’m sure there are many Christians in the world right now who have turned away from the Lord since this pandemic began: people who have allowed their anguish and their distress to either weaken or destroy their faith.

And that’s a tragedy.

But others, thanks be to God, have responded in exactly the opposite way.  They haven’t allowed this terrible virus to separate them from Christ and his love, rather they’ve used this situation as an opportunity to grow in their relationship with the Lord, and in their relationships with other people—especially, in many cases, the members of their own families.

And many have rearranged their priorities as well—something that Pope Francis suggested in an address he gave on March 27, at the very beginning of the crisis.  Addressing God at one point in his talk, the pope said that “it is not the time of your judgment, [Lord], but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others."

Those who have followed that advice since late March, and who’ve drawn closer to the Lord and others, have experienced victory in their lives—the same victory St. Paul talks about in this text: victory over anguish and distress and anger and fear—and all those forces that threaten to drag us down as human beings (even when we’re not in a crisis!).  And they’ve experienced this victory even if they’ve had the virus and died from it.  Yes, the virus defeated them physically, but it could not—and did not—defeat them spiritually.

And since our souls and not our mortal bodies will live on forever, in the end the spiritual victories we win in our lives will be the ones that will matter the most.