Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Difference between Christian Hope and Human Optimism


(First Sunday of Advent (C): This homily was given on November 28, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:4-14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-36.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Advent 2021]

Today’s homily is all about hope.  

With this in mind, I will now describe three people to you.  Based solely on the details given in these brief biographical notes, which one of these men can be said to possess the theological virtue of hope? 

·         John always looks on the bright side.  In fact, he’s constantly singing that song, “Always look on the bright side of life . . . “  If you presented him with a partly-filled glass of water, he would definitely tell you it was half-full, not half-empty.  Sadly, last month John lost his job, his mother died, he lost thousands of dollars trading stocks, and he found out he has terminal cancer.  But he still maintains his upbeat, positive attitude.  He’s absolutely convinced that things will get much, much better in the very near future.

  • Jim is quite wealthy, but he dearly loves to gamble.  On Monday, Wednesday and Friday he goes to the local casino for several hours; on the other days of the week he goes to the dog track; and, in between, he buys lottery tickets by the hundreds.  But he loses big bucks every single day without fail.  And yet, he continues on, undaunted.  When he wakes up each morning the first sentence out of his mouth is, “Today will be my lucky day!”
  • Joe is a New Ager who believes that it’s essential to harness the “positive energy force of the cosmos” for personal growth and self-actualization.  With the help of Reiki, channeling, crystals, and positive thinking, he’s convinced that he’s attaining a higher consciousness and evolving into a more perfect human life form.  And he looks forward to being reincarnated several times in the new millennium, so that he can get rid of all his bad karma and finally attain the spiritual enlightenment of the great “ascended masters” of the universe.

So—based solely on these details, which of these men possesses the theological virtue of hope?

The correct answer is: None of them does!  

John who always looks on the bright side of life is a perennial optimist; Jim the rich gambler is a delusional addict who needs to face that fact and get himself to a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting as soon as possible; and Joe the New Ager is a gnostic idealist who mistakenly thinks he can create his own heaven on earth!  But none of them possesses the theological gift of hope!

Perhaps many of you chose John out of the three.  That’s understandable, because in our culture the word “hope” is often used to signify optimism.  You’re called a “hopeful person” if have an upbeat, positive attitude about your own life and the future.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking optimism.  Personally, I usually prefer optimists to pessimists; most of us probably do.  But Christian hope and human optimism are not the same thing, and we need to be clear about that.  In fact, you can be a terrible pessimist, and, at the same time, be a person of deep, profound, confident, Christian hope!  Now I’m sure it would be more pleasant for your relatives and friends if you had a slightly more positive attitude as you went through life, but the fact that you may be a pessimist does not prevent you from having hope.  Actually, that’s an added reason for you to seek the gift of hope: it will keep you from despair in the midst of your horrible pessimism!

Listen, now, to how the Catechism defines hope in paragraph 1817:

Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.  [As the Letter to the Hebrews says,] “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”  [And as St. Paul said to Titus], “The Holy Spirit . . . he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”

Christian hope is focused ultimately on heaven.  Those who possess the gift of hope know that God has a kingdom prepared for them; they know that Jesus Christ died to give them this kingdom; they know that Jesus will give them everything they need to get to the kingdom; and they know they will get there, if they put their trust in Jesus Christ every day and are faithful to his Gospel message.  As it says in the glossary of the Catechism, hope is “the theological virtue by which we desire and expect from God both eternal life and the grace we need to obtain it.”

If a pessimist is filled with the gift of hope, the pessimist can still smile, because he knows that even if nothing goes right for him for the rest of his earthly life, the kingdom of God still awaits him.  His eyes are on the kingdom, and his faith is in Jesus Christ who paid the price for him to get there.  So, deep down inside, he has peace—peace in the midst of his pessimism!

Why do I speak of this today, on the First Sunday of Advent?  Specifically because of the foreboding tone of the Gospel text we just heard a few moments ago.  Here, once again, Jesus speaks about the end of the world, and he does so in typically unsettling terms: “Nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming on the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. . . . Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”

From a purely human perspective, that’s not exactly the most uplifting Gospel text there is!  I can think of many others which are much more comforting and appealing!

To have peace whenever you’re confronted with a passage like this, you will need more than an optimistic attitude—you will need hope in your heart!  Because a passage like this has a very tough message which attacks optimism!  In fact, a passage like this annihilates purely human optimism!  For example, I can imagine John, the perennial optimist I mentioned at the beginning of my homily—I can imagine happy-go-lucky John reading this text, getting in touch with its message, and then calling the suicide hotline of the Samaritans!

But if John had the virtue of hope in his heart, he would respond quite differently.  He would read these words, and realize that this passage was all about the ultimate fulfillment of his hope!  He would understand that it’s about the final consummation of history, when his hope of attaining eternal life—body and soul in Jesus Christ—will finally be realized.  And so he would have peace in his heart, in spite of the unsettling details that Jesus gives him here about the last days.

The theological gifts of faith, hope and love were first planted within us at Baptism.  That’s something else the Catechism teaches us.

But we need to pray that those gifts will grow ever stronger within us.  And so, when you receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ today and go back to your pew to pray, say, “Lord Jesus Christ, fill my heart with hope: the virtue of hope which is rooted in the truths of my Catholic faith; the virtue of hope that will sustain me always on my pilgrim journey to your kingdom.”

And then, if you tend to be a bit pessimistic now and again, you might also ask the Lord to give you a more optimistic attitude.  It’s not the most important thing to pray for, but I think your relatives and friends would be very, very happy if you did!


Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Relativism of Pontius Pilate; the Relativism of Our World Today


(Christ the King (B): This homily was given on November 21, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Daniel 7:13-14; Psalm 93:1-5; Revelation 1:5-8; John 18:33-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Christ the King 2021]

Imagine that Pontius Pilate had been interviewed by a newspaper reporter on Good Friday—right after he condemned Jesus to death (presuming, for a moment, that they had newspapers back then—which of course, they didn’t—you have to use your imagination here).

If the reporter had asked him, “Why?  Why did you do it, Pilate?  Why did you condemn Jesus of Nazareth to death, even though you knew that he was innocent of the charges they brought against him?” how do you think Pilate would have responded?

I’ll tell you what I believe he would have said.  I think he would have said something like this to that reporter: 

Oh yes, I know that Jesus of Nazareth was innocent.  I have no doubt about that.  The chief priests and religious leaders of the Jews came to me and accused Jesus of being a political revolutionary and a threat to Caesar, but I could tell right away that this man was no threat.  He had no political aspirations whatsoever!  He was a little delusional, yes: he spoke about having a kingdom in some other world.  But there’s no crime in being delusional.  Now in most cases like this, I would let the accused go free immediately—but Jesus’ case was different.  In this particular situation, given the circumstances, I think it was right to do what I did.  Sure, I killed an innocent man—I know that; but there are times when killing the innocent can be the right course of action.  Think about it.  The people were ready to riot in the streets.  If that had happened, I would have ordered my soldiers to get the crowd under control, and probably a number of people would have died in the process—or at the very least many would have been injured.  So my act of condemning Jesus to death, as regrettable as it was, probably saved many lives.  And not only that, because I gave the crowd what they wanted, they now have much more respect for me, and for my office, and for my authority as procurator.  Even though I’m a Roman—a foreigner, a Gentile—the Jews will probably think of me in a much more positive way in the future.  These are all good things that have come about because of the death of one innocent man named Jesus.  So it was well worth it.

Pontius Pilate, my brothers and sisters, was what we would call “a moral relativist.”  A moral relativist is somebody who believes that, as the old saying goes, “everything is relative.”  In other words, there’s nothing that’s always right; there’s nothing that’s always wrong; there’s no such thing as objective moral truth. 

That’s precisely the way Pilate thought, which is why, when Jesus said to him, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” he responded by saying, “Truth?  What is that?”

For the relativist, right and wrong are determined by circumstances—or feelings—or personal preference—or some other subjective criterion.  For the relativist, what’s right for one person might not be right for somebody else.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was very vocal in his condemnation of moral relativism during his pontificate—as all the recent popes have been.  Even while he was still a Cardinal, Benedict called relativism “the greatest problem of our time.”  And he was not exaggerating!  Then, in 2005, just after he became pope, he said, “Relativism, which recognize[s] nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires.”

And that, my brothers and sisters, is a prescription for conflict and disaster—in families and everywhere else in society—because it means that each person thinks that he or she should be able to live by his or her own rules.

Can you imagine a family where everyone lived by their own rules?

Can you imagine a country where everyone lived by their own rules?

Well, you might not have to imagine it in the near future, because that kind of country—that kind of world—is fast becoming a reality.

And it will become a reality unless we do something to stop it.

I hope it’s not news to anyone that our civil government is currently being run, to a great extent, by moral relativists: moral relativists of both parties, and of no party affiliation (the so-called “independents”).  Some of them will call themselves Catholic or Christian, but the policies and laws they support indicate an inner allegiance to relativism, not to Jesus Christ.  You know the people I’m talking about: the ones who say, “Oh yes, I am personally opposed to that, but I can’t impose my morality on anyone else”; or they say, “I am a Catholic, I am a good Catholic, I’m a devout Catholic, but . . . “

Believe me, Pontius Pilate would be extremely proud of these politicians, because those are precisely the kinds of things that he would say: “Yes, I am personally opposed to the death of Jesus of Nazareth, but I can’t impose my belief on this angry crowd in front of me”; “Yes, I am the Roman procurator who is supposed to make sure that justice is done, but in this case I think it’s okay to dispense with justice.” 

A relativistic world is a very dangerous world—because, since there are no universal moral laws, evil people will very often go unpunished (sometimes they will even be rewarded), and good people will often be condemned.

Just like Jesus.

By the way, as far as I’m concerned, moral relativism can very easily be refuted with one simple question.  If you ever encounter a relativist who says to you, “There’s nothing that’s always right; there’s nothing that’s always wrong; there’s no such thing as objective moral truth; it’s all relative,” say to that person, “Okay, then answer me one simple question: When would it be morally permissible to rape a child?  You’ve just told me that there are no moral absolutes, and that everything depends on circumstances.  Well, alright, under what circumstances would that behavior be morally acceptable?”

Unless you’re having a conversation with a mentally deranged individual, this should help the other person to see that there is at least one universal moral norm.

And, of course, if there’s one universal moral norm, why can’t there be others?

Chris Stefanick, who speaks to teenagers all over the country, has written a great little booklet entitled, “Absolute Relativism: The New Dictatorship and What to Do About It.”  In it he lists 8 bad effects of relativistic thinking.  I’ll conclude my homily today by sharing these with you: 

1.    Relativism robs us of a sense of meaning.  [That should be obvious.  If there’s no right and wrong, then it doesn’t matter what we do here on earth.  Thus there can be no ultimate consequences to our good and evil behavior.  So life is essentially meaningless.]

2.    Relativism leaves us with no criterion for moral decision-making but personal taste.

3.    Relativism deprives children of formation.  [You can’t teach your children right from wrong if there is nothing that’s objectively right and nothing that’s objectively wrong.  You can teach them your opinion, but that’s about it.]

4.    Relativism separates us from one another.  [As I said earlier, if we each do our own thing, we will be in constant conflict with one another.]

5.    Relativism undermines the right to life.  [The example of Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus shows us that.  As a relativist, Pilate had no problem robbing an innocent man of his right to life.  None whatsoever.]

6.    Relativism makes it easy for those in authority to manipulate others.  [Remember the HHS mandate?  The Little Sisters of the Poor sure do!  That was government coercion at its worst!]

7.    Relativism puts the freedom of speech under attack.  [If those in power decide that you should not be allowed to voice your opinion, that will be the law and there will be no arguing against it.  Just ask the folks at Twitter about that.]

8.    And, finally, relativism destroys faith.  [That, also, should be obvious.  After all, if nothing about God is objectively true, then the whole basis of our religious practice goes right out the window!]

So my message to you today is very simple: Learn to recognize relativism, and learn to resist it—to actively resist it!

And teach your children and grandchildren and siblings and friends and co-workers to do the same thing, for their own sakes, and also for the survival of our country.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

The Truth About Reincarnation

(Thirty-second Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on November 7, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146:7-10; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:41-44.)

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

“Heaven Can Wait” is a 1978 film starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.  (I’m sure some of you remember it.)  The story centers around a Los Angeles Rams quarterback named Joe Pendelton (played by Beatty), who is taken out of his body before he’s supposed to die.  He’s taken by an overanxious angel who’s on his first assignment.  Now, unfortunately, by the time this mistake is discovered, Joe’s body on earth has already been cremated.  So they have to find another body for Joe’s soul to inhabit.  The body they decide on is that of a millionaire industrialist named Leo Farnsworth.  Farnsworth has just been drugged and murdered by his unfaithful wife and her lover—both of whom are really surprised to see Leo walking around after they think they’ve done him in!  Some of the film’s best and funniest moments come as the two adulterers try to make sense of it all.

I won’t play the spoiler today by telling you the rest of the story, in case at some point you want to see the film.  I mention it today because of the theme of the movie, which, of course, is reincarnation.  Reincarnation is actually a common theme in many Hollywood films.  In fact, in preparing this homily I googled “reincarnation movies” and I got lots and lots of hits.  I couldn’t believe how many hits I got.  This is obviously a subject that’s of interest to many people.

As Catholics, we don’t believe in reincarnation (or at least we’re not supposed to believe in it).  As we are told in today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 9: “Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment, so also Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.”

People die once.  Not twice.  Not over and over again.

Once.  When it comes to this earthly life, there are no “do overs”.

The Church teaches that, after death, we are judged in what’s called our “particular judgment”.  This is also what that text from Hebrews teaches.  Our soul, which was separated from our body at the moment of death, then goes either to heaven or hell or purgatory.  (Souls in purgatory, of course, go to heaven when they’re fully purified.  We pray for those souls in a special way during this month of November—although we should certainly pray for the holy souls in purgatory all year long.)

Then, at the end of time, our souls will be reunited with our bodies (our resurrected bodies), and we will go either to heaven or to hell for all eternity.  Once all the souls in purgatory have been purified, purgatory will cease to exist.

That’s the teaching of the Catholic Church on what happens after death.  As Jesus died once, so we die once.  And we should thank God for that!  We should thank God that we only get one chance in this life!  We should thank God that reincarnation is not true!

Because if it were true, then we would be living right now in a meaningless universe with a God who’s nothing short of a tyrant!

Many people don’t think about this, but they should.  Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about.

If reincarnation is true, then our God is not a loving Lord.  Quite oppositely, if reincarnation is true then our God is a cruel and heartless tyrant.  I say that because every creature on this earth that God has created suffers in some way.  This means that when your present life of suffering is finally over you’re going to be reincarnated into another creature that will also suffer—and perhaps suffer more intensely.  And this will go on and on infinitely.  There will be no terminal point for your pain! There will be no opportunity to come to a place where there is no suffering.   

If reincarnation is true, there is also nothing at stake in this earthly life.  Consequently, it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do in your present existence as a human being —because when it’s over you might come back as a horse or a frog, and horses and frogs are not morally responsible for their actions.

So obviously, if reincarnation is true, there’s no ultimate goal in this life.  We just experience an endless succession of separate existences here on this earth—existences that have no real purpose. 

If reincarnation is true, then what’s also true is that you will probably never see the people you love again once you and they leave this life.  I mean, what are the odds that you and all those you love will be reincarnated into the same family, or the same town, or the same country—or into the same species for that matter?  You might come back as a human being, but your spouse might come back as a zebra and your children as chickens.  Who knows?

Ultimately, my brothers and sisters, if reincarnation is true, then the sad and tragic reality is that suicide becomes an option for you—a very reasonable option.  Think about it.  If you believe in reincarnation, and are unhappy with your life right now, why not end it and get on to the next one?  Maybe you’ll be born into a better situation in your next life.  If not, you can kill yourself again—and again and again—until you get it right.

These are some the sad and tragic effects of believing the lie of reincarnation.  Many people—including many Christians—are not aware of these things.  As I’ve hopefully made clear in this homily, reincarnation may provide a good theme for an entertaining Hollywood movie like “Heaven Can Wait,” but in the real world reincarnation would be disastrous—for everyone.

So, you see, it’s actually a great blessing that today’s second reading from Hebrews 9 is true—it’s a great blessing that we die only once, and that we’re judged by God immediately thereafter—as long as we’re in the state of grace when that decisive moment comes.  That’s key.

Then the next body we inhabit after we die won’t be the body of an animal or of some other human person; rather it will be our own body, raised from the dead by Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, and made immortal.  And it’s in that resurrected body that we will spend eternity with him—and with the Father and the Holy Spirit—in the glorious and eternal kingdom of Heaven.

The kingdom Jesus died and rose from the dead to give us.