Sunday, September 26, 2021

How To Keep From Getting A Millstone-Necktie

Good for grinding, but bad for neckties!

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 24, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Numbers 11:25-29; Psalm 19:8-14; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-48.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixth Sunday 2021]

Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

Thus the title of this homily is, “How to keep from getting a millstone-necktie”! 

Jesus explicitly says here that leading others into sin is the underlying problem: it’s the reason a person deserves to take a dip in the ocean with a millstone tied firmly around his neck.  So, obviously, that’s where our focus needs to be this morning: on the ways we can lead others (consciously or unconsciously) into sin.

One way, certainly, that this can be done is through our actions.  We can cause other people to sin by setting them a bad example, or by bringing them into situations where we know they will be severely tempted to do what’s wrong (like teenagers who take their friends to parties where their friends will be tempted to drink and engage in other immoral activities).

But another way we can lead people into sin is through our WORDS: by the things we say to them; by the instruction and advice we give them.

And that’s the point I challenge you to reflect on today:  What kinds of things do you say to others?  In other words, what type of advice and counsel do you give on a daily basis to your children, to other members of your family, to your co-workers, and to your friends?

Are you telling these people the right things—the good things they need to hear: things that will lead them closer to Christ and his kingdom?

Or are you telling them things that will lead them in the opposite direction and get you a millstone-necktie?

Consider some of the “pearls” of advice that are frequently given in our culture these days—sometimes by intelligent, well-meaning people.  When they say these lines, they think they’re helping others, but they aren’t.  They’re actually harming them by encouraging them—or by giving them permission—to sin!

For example: 

  • “All religions are pretty much the same.  They all basically teach the same things.”  Has someone ever told you that before?  This very common saying can easily lead someone into sin because it gives the person permission to shop around for a religion that he or she finds appealing.  And since we all like to follow the path of least resistance, religions that “appeal” are usually those that condone immoral behavior!  They’re religions that reject moral codes like the 10 Commandments.
  • “Everybody’s doing it, so don’t be too concerned.”  That type of advice can make a person complacent in a sin they’ve already committed; or it can make a person more likely to commit a sin that they’ve been able to avoid so far.
  • “It’s your body, and you should be able to do whatever you want with it.”  As we all know, since the 1960s that line has been used to justify everything from abortion to contraception to physician-assisted suicide—and now to transgenderism.  Consequently, in the last 50 or 60 years it has obtained millstone-neckties for many people here in our country and around the world.
  • “You don’t need to go to Mass every week; sometimes you’ve got other things to do that are more important.”  Believe it not, many children have come to me in Confession over the years, and they have told me that their parents use that line on them all the time—sometimes almost every weekend!  Another common saying with a similar message is this one: “You don’t need to go to Confession; you don’t do anything wrong.  Besides, you’re not as bad as so-and-so.”
  • “The Church is old fashioned.”  Variations of this saying are: “The Church needs to get with the times,” or “The Church needs to change and update her moral teaching”.  I think it should be pretty obvious as to how those lines could lead another person into sin: if what the Church teaches is out of date, then obviously you can tune out the Church and live by your own rules.
  • “Even though it’s bad, you can handle it.  It won’t affect you.”  This is the line that “assures” people that they can view pornography, or abuse alcohol or drugs and then stop whenever they want to.  But, as people who are involved with 12-step programs will tell you, that’s not the way it usually works.
  • “Worry about your own needs; let others take care of themselves.”  Jesus says in Matthew 25, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers or sisters, you do to me.”  Our Lord makes it clear in that chapter that we will be judged at the end of our lives by our charity, as well as by our faith.  The problem is, if you follow the advice of those who tell you to worry only about your own needs, you won’t be very charitable.  And that sin—if it’s serious enough—will have eternal ramifications.   

The title of this homily, as I mentioned earlier, is “How to keep from getting a millstone-necktie”.  At this point, it should be clear: To keep from getting a necktie of stone, we must not lead others into sin either by our actions OR BY OUR WORDS!  And we must be very careful about the latter, because words are very powerful.  By our words we can point others to heaven, and by our words we have the potential to point others in the opposite direction. 

“But, Father Ray, I’ve said some of those lines you mentioned a few moments ago.  I’ve said them to my friends and relatives and co-workers.  I thought I was helping them.  I’ve also said other things to people that have encouraged them to do what’s wrong.”

Well, that is a problem—a very big problem—according to what Jesus says in this passage from Mark 9.

But fortunately it has a very simple solution.  The solution is twofold.  Step 1 involves a conversation.  The conversation I’m referring to needs to begin in this way: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned”; and it needs to include this line: “I ask God’s forgiveness today because I have said and done things that have led my brothers and sisters into temptation and also into sin.”

Step 2 comes afterward; it comes after absolution is given.  And it’s just as important as step 1.  It involves going out and trying to undo the damage we’ve caused (to the extent that we can).  That means we must admit we were wrong and correct the things we’ve said.  I know that’s difficult to do, and it’s certainly humbling—but in the end it’s extremely rewarding.  It’s rewarding because it helps us to get rid of our millstone-necktie for good; and it’s rewarding because it puts us—and those we love—squarely on the road to heaven, which I’ve been told is a place where everyone has beautiful white robes, and no one wears neckties! 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

A Divided Mind is a Terrible Thing


(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 12, 202 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.
  Read Isaiah 50:5-9a; Psalm 116:1-9; James  2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35.)

[For the audio version of this file, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2021]


They say that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.  But in today’s gospel story Peter shows us that a divided mind is simply a terrible thing!

Peter had a divided mind at Caesarea Philippi 2,000 years ago.  That was his problem.  There Jesus asked him point blank—in front of all the other apostles, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter’s answer was clear and Holy Spirit inspired: “You are the Christ.”  Today we listened to St. Mark’s account of the story.  St. Matthew in his version includes Jesus’ response to this profession of faith by Peter.  Our Lord said, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah.  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”  On this point, Peter was definitely thinking “the thoughts of God.”  But, sad to say, it didn’t take him very long to begin thinking other thoughts—specifically “the thoughts of men.”  And it’s here that we encounter the division within his mind.  Of course, looking at it all from our perspective 2000 years after the fact, we can be tempted to say, “How could Peter have been so blind to the truth about Jesus?  How could he have made this monumental blunder?”  The answer is: Very easily! 

After Peter had made his profession of faith, St. Mark tells us, “[Jesus] began to teach [him and the other apostles] that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.”  Now that may make perfect sense to us, but it didn’t make any sense to Peter—and for good reason!  Almost all the Jews of the day expected the Messiah to be a great warrior-king, who would conquer the Romans and restore the nation of Israel to its former political and economic greatness.  They didn’t expect a suffering Messiah who would die and rise from the dead to reconcile the entire world to God—even though that type of Messiah had been prophesied in passages like the one we heard in today’s first reading from Isaiah 50.  In fact, if you had taken a poll in first century Palestine on this issue, nearly 100% would have said they expected a warrior-king Messiah, not a suffering God-man Messiah.  And, of course, they would have been wrong!  (It just goes to show what most polls are worth!)

Given that background, I think Peter’s reaction is quite understandable.  After all, he was just following the majority, expert opinion of his day.  And so, when Jesus began to speak about his passion and death Peter predictably responded, “Not you Jesus!  Never!  You’re the Messiah we’ve been waiting for; you’re the anointed one of God—that can’t happen to you!”  To that Jesus retorted, “Get behind me, Satan.  You’re thinking the thoughts of men, not the thoughts of God.”

A divided mind is a terrible thing.  Just ask Peter! 

But you know what, my brothers and sisters?  Our minds also can and do become divided at times.  Even in very holy people, the thoughts of men constantly do battle with the thoughts of God.  And every time we let the thoughts of men win the day, we are led into sin.  Now let’s be clear about it: the thoughts of men in the year 2021 don’t all have to do with the identity of the Messiah.  Some do involve religion, but they also extend into every other area of life.  Let me share with you today a few examples of the more common thoughts of men which pervade our modern culture.  As I read these to you ask yourself: Have I ever believed any of these things?  Do I believe any of these things?


1.    Some human lives are worth more than others.  Another way to say that is that some human lives MATTER more than others.  (That’s the thought of men which stands behind every crime against innocent human life.  It’s the thought of men that stands behind a lot of the violence we’ve seen in our major cities in the last year and a half.  It’s the thought of men that stands behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  It’s also the thought of men that Hitler believed.)

2.    It’s my body, and I’ll do whatever I want with it.

3.    The moral character of our leaders doesn’t matter; what’s important is the economy—or their position on climate change. 

4.    Certain actions like lying, cheating and stealing are only bad if a person gets caught.

5.    Tolerance is a virtue.  (Can you imagine someone saying that to Jesus?  “Hey Jesus, stop criticizing the sins of the Pharisees!  Live and let live, man.  Don’t you know that tolerance is a virtue?”  And you think Peter got reprimanded?  I would love to have heard Jesus’ response to that one!)

6.    My sin is between God and me—period.

7.    Whatever it is, it’s okay as long as it happens between consenting adults, and nobody gets hurt.

8.    Animals and human beings are of equal value.

9.    Reality is whatever I say it is.  If I want to be a boy on Monday, a girl on Tuesday and some combination thereof on Thursday through Sunday that’s my business and you have nothing to say about it.


It took me about two minutes to think of those thoughts of men.  That’s because there are so many of them to choose from.  They’re literally everywhere; we’re bombarded with them many, many times each day!

So, what can we do?  Are we doomed to have these thoughts of men ruin our lives here on earth, and destroy our chances at eternal life?  OF COURSE NOT!  Jesus has won the victory over every evil thought, word and deed.  But we must allow that victory to be made manifest in us.  And how do we do that?  The answer is in Romans 12, verse 2.  There St. Paul writes, “Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”  To think the thoughts of God—in other words the thoughts God wants us to think on any and every issue—we need to allow the Lord to work on our minds, to form them and to change them whenever they need to be changed.  This means we’ve got to spend time with Jesus each day in prayer; we’ve got to read his word and let its message soak in; we’ve got to read good spiritual writings which convey to us God’s truth, and we’ve got to receive the sacraments of Eucharist and Penance worthily and frequently.  Getting our minds renewed requires effort on our part.  It’s not a magical phenomenon. 

I’ll conclude today with this observation.  St. Peter has two letters attributed to him in the New Testament.  Read the first one sometime soon.  There you’ll find something which might surprise you after hearing today’s gospel story. I say that because there you’ll find a beautiful, profound teaching on the sufferings of Christ, and on the positive value of our sufferings.  Now remember, this was written by the same Peter who got all upset at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus mentioned the Cross.  So, what happened to him between that event and the time he wrote this letter?  Very simply, during the intervening years, he allowed the grace of God to work on his mind and change it, so that the thoughts of God concerning the Cross eventually became the thoughts of Peter.  At Caesarea Philippi, his divided mind had been a terrible thing; but now the division in his mind had been healed, and that was a wonderful thing!  May we allow the grace of God to touch our minds in the very same way. 


Sunday, September 05, 2021

The Sin of Partiality and How to Deal with It


Dick and Tom Smothers

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 5, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 146:6-10; James 2: 1-5; Mark 7:31-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2021]

“Mom always liked you best!”

If you watched television in the late 1960s, you probably remember that line from the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  At some point in almost every show, Tom Smothers would say those words to his younger brother, Dick.

“Mom always liked you best!”

And it almost always got a laugh.

But real-life favoritism—as St. James indicates in our second reading today—is anything but funny!

Just ask some of our Olympic athletes from 40 or 50 years ago.  They know this, unfortunately, by their own experience.  Now it’s true, in every Olympics a few athletes will complain about the scores given to them by the judges in their respective events.  But nothing in the recent past compares with the scoring injustices that took place 4 or 5 decades ago—when communism was alive and well in Eastern Europe!

Remember those days?  You’d have an American athlete, for example, perform a great gymnastics’ routine, and the U.S. judge would give him a 9.8 out of 10; the French judge would give a 9.7; the Canadian judge a 9.5; but the judges from the Soviet Union and the other Soviet bloc countries would give scores in the 7s!

Now, to be fair, it sometimes worked the other way around as well: great performances by Soviet athletes were sometimes purposely under-scored by U.S. judges (and judges from other free, western nations).

Which only serves to illustrate how difficult it is for human beings to be impartial!  Unfortunately, the problem of showing partiality was not unique to the mother of Tom and Dick Smothers and to judges at the Olympic Games during the Cold War years.  The temptation to show partiality is a temptation that every human being faces—constantly!

The words of St. James in today’s second reading are a challenge to us in this regard: they challenge us to acknowledge this temptation and deal with it!  Listen again to his words:  “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Sit here, please,’ while you say to the poor one, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?”

Now speaking of distinctions, I think we need to make an important one at this point between partiality and preference.  Every human being has certain preferences in life with respect to other people—and there’s nothing wrong with that.  We all have certain people in our lives whom we prefer more than others; people we are closer to; people with whom we have special relationships.  There’s nothing wrong with having such preferences; it’s a normal part of life on planet earth.  The problem comes, however, when others suffer specifically because of these preferences!

That’s partiality!  For example, in the situation that St. James describes in this text, the problem was NOT that the rich man was treated so nicely; the problem was that the poor man was treated badly precisely because the rich man was treated so nicely!

Because we are weak human beings who are tainted by the effects of original sin, it’s very hard for us to be impartial at every moment of every day, in every circumstance of life.  In fact, I would say that only God is perfectly impartial; we, on the other hand, can be very easily influenced (whether we choose to admit it or not) by things like money and power and fame and social status, etc.

St. Peter came to understand God’s perfect impartiality during the controversy in the early Church over whether or not Gentile men could become Christians without first being circumcised.  And so he said in Acts 10: “I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality.  Rather, the man of any nation who fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”

St. Paul came to the same conclusion, and so he wrote in Romans 2:11: “With God there is no favoritism.”

For the Lord, impartiality is the norm; for us, sad to say, it’s often the exception, not the rule.

Which means that for us it always needs to be a goal!  It needs to be a goal that we strive to attain each and every day—if we’re really serious about living our Catholic Christian faith.

And one of the keys to reaching the goal of impartiality (or at least coming close to it) is to try to see other people as God sees them.

Why is God totally impartial?

It’s because he sees each of us—all of us—from the same perspective and through the very same “lens.”   It doesn’t matter if we’re rich or poor, powerful or weak, famous or infamous: when the Lord looks at a human being—any human being, beginning at the moment of conception—he sees someone created in his image and likeness; he sees someone that his Son, Jesus Christ suffered and died for; he sees someone that he loves with a perfect and eternal love.

Our tendency is to have a much less positive perspective on people—and especially on those who aggravate us, or cheat us, or mistreat us; or who aren’t very important in the eyes of the world, or who aren’t very smart or well-dressed or clean; or who lack some other personal quality that we place a high value on.

We tend to see these people in a negative light, which, of course, leads us to show partiality to others whom we find more appealing.

Obviously, therefore, overcoming the sin of partiality is not easy!  It takes prayer, and practice—and a lot of effort.  It involves training ourselves to look at every person we meet and think, “This is a person created in the image and likeness of Almighty God; this is a person Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior suffered and died for; this is someone whom the Creator of the universe loves with a perfect and eternal love.”

If Mrs. Smothers had had those thoughts when she looked at her two sons, Tom and Dick, she certainly wouldn’t have liked her son, Dick, best (presuming that she really did favor Dick over Tom).  If Olympic judges 40 or 50 years ago had had those thoughts when they evaluated athletes from other countries, they certainly would have been fairer in their scoring.  And if the Christian mentioned in this passage from St. James’ letter had had those thoughts when he looked at the poor man who came into his church that day, I’m sure he would have treated that poor man with a lot more dignity and respect.

“Dear Lord, help each and every one us to succeed where these others failed.  Help us to see everyone—even our worst enemy—as you see them, and thereby avoid the sin of showing partiality.”