Saturday, November 22, 2014

I am the king's good servant but

John Adams knew what was right, and he did it. 
Forgive the bolt out of the blue, but yes, I am talking about the patriot, Founding Father, and second President of the United States, John Adams of Boston.  All of these titles make it seem rather a “no-brainer” to approve and applaud him and his actions.  In retrospect it is easy to accord him accolades and approval, because he was on the winning side, the right side – our side; we approve.
Tonight, for no reason I can identify, rather than read during my soup dinner, I watched a video on my iPad.  I never do this – can’t remember the last time I did it.  Not wanting to waste my time too badly, I chose to watch the respectable miniseries “John Adams.”
In the first episode, in the wake of the Boston Massacre, John Adams represents in court the accused British soldiers.  Now Adams is no Tory, and he sympathizes with the colonists in their subjugation by colonial rule.   But even for these odious enforcers of oppression, he risks his reputation and his family’s safety to see that justice be done.  It is all very stirring.  The irony is that Adam’s principled stand on behalf of the hated British actually increases his standing as a man of integrity, adding to his credibility as one who would speak against the injustice that afflicts the colonists, which brings him to a leading role in the fledgling Continental Congress.
That’s history, as they say.  Why should you endure a recap of my midweek dinner entertainment?  Because, I dare say, Our Lord Jesus Christ is King of the Universe.   And if this be true, then what John Adams did was neither rash nor foolish, but prudent and good. 
You see, everything John Adams valued and desired was being threatened by those same troops.  Almost every person whose opinion he valued hated those troops.  The troops were cooperating in a mechanism of oppression and injustice.  The result of those troops’ action was clearly evil.  Had he chosen the path that the circumstances, that politics, indicated, he would have declined the case.  To us now the result seems to have been fore-ordained, but it was not.  Adams was more free than any political system could make him, because he knew the truth.
What he did then is right and good not because of what public opinion then thought, expected or approved; nor because of the comprehensive result of his combined actions.  No, it was right and good because it was right and good.  Because what is right and good is clearly identifiable to our human mind, he was not only capable of identifying it, but obliged to follow it.   And so are we.
Thus it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.  Unless you and I ground our decisions upon a truth of this caliber, then we are following merely short-term goals.  Politics throw up on the shores of our awareness myriad considerations and demands, but none of them stand this test.
By all that is holy, good, and true, I despise politics, but acknowledge it to be a reality of our fallen state.  Nonetheless, I also acknowledge with awe that John Adams knew what was right and did it.  I am grateful because it reveals, even through the distorting lens of an HBO miniseries, that I, too, am capable of acting in the same way for the same reasons.   
No longer crowned kings like George III, but to this day potentates and pretenders jockey for our loyalty, and lay down conditions for our continued acceptance in suitable society.  But our liberty, which we must defend in every instance, is grounded in our acknowledgement not of our own sovereignty, but of Him who is our source and summit.  He has made us capable of knowing Him, and of serving Him by our own discernment and decision.  We are rebels and revolutionaries, but not political; we are free, because Our Lord Jesus Christ is King of the Universe.  
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Fifteen minutes or eternity

We’re famous!  Everybody in town knows our faces. 
First the front page of the Metro section of the Washington Post had a big photo of Cristina Stumpo and a few of her friends in their Halloween costumes practicing their “monster walk.”  That made it easy for me to recognize her when she came trick-or-treating to my door that evening.
Then this week, on the same front of the Metro section, there were Allison and Libby Sippel and Bridgie Boyle cavorting picturesquely with the fallen autumn leaves.  I know them!
Then the Catholic Standard came and I saw a bunch of faces I recognized – our 13- and 14-year old girls, who had just won the soccer championship in their division.  Their coach, Michael Keehan, observed that they had all gone to Mass together before the game, and that might have contributed to their victory. 
All that publicity in the space of a few weeks was great.  It is somehow reassuring to see people we know show up in the media, because so often we see there people who do not seem to have anything in common with us.  Just like the joke that nothing really happens until someone uploads the video to YouTube, somehow seeing some of our own pictured in the paper can reassure us that we do, in fact, exist.
The media, both ‘old-style’ (television, radio, and print) and ‘new’ (internet and social media) are pumping out images, both visual and descriptive, at a rate and volume that we could not have imagined just twenty years ago.  Our lives, and our minds, are flooded with them. 
The purpose of many of these images is to make us want to resemble them.  Advertising obviously has this purpose, but less obviously, so do many of the other opinion- and behavior-shaping messages that fill all forms of media.  We see someone presented as beautiful, and want our clothes to look like hers; or someone presented as responsible or conscientious, and want our choices and actions to resemble his.  This is coming at us every day, and I would be hard pressed to say how it could be possible for anyone to remain completely unaffected by it.
But if we look closer, how many of those images really do resemble us?  When was the last time you saw someone on a television show or in a movie go to church, or set aside time for prayer?  Oh, sure, whenever the movie involves demons or the devil, you can bet that a priest is going to show up (for good or ill), but the normal practice by normal people of Christian faith is completely unrepresented.
One network television show has in every episode the family dinner table, where the family prays before eating.  This exception nearly proves the rule, as it has been a lightning rod of controversy as various groups and individuals have protested that such things should not be “forced” on viewers, whose “rights” it tramples.  Their logic eludes me.  Whose rights are “protected” by pretending that people of faith, especially our faith, do not exist, and believe, and practice that faith in the midst of the society we inhabit?
The absence of the Christian and Catholic practice from the images and stories that shape behavior in our country is having an effect, as more and more folks shape their lives to imitate even that part of what they see.  But look at the people you see here; we know the rest of the story.  We may not be famous, but we exist, and we strive to be faithful.  And everybody in town knows our faces.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Then and now

One of the great delights of being Pastor is that I get to go into the school and visit the classrooms, and with the gracious indulgence of the teachers, take time with the students for my endeavors.  This week I visited sixth-grade religion, where they were talking about Melchizedek.  That was actually a great deal of fun, because it gave me a chance to talk about sacrifices of the sort that have been made irrelevant by the single saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  This change has made the priesthood of the new covenant a much less messy, much less smelly affair.  They hadn’t thought of that. 
I also visited our eighth graders because I wanted to check on their knowledge of history.  I have expounded already to you about my fascination with anniversaries, and yes I am still keeping the centenary of World War I, and still trying to learn what that history can reveal about our world and how we got here. 
I mentioned other current anniversaries – the bicentennial of the burning of Washington by the British in the War of 1812, and the subsequent Battle of Baltimore.  O say can you see?  I also pointed out how one hundred and fifty years ago the Civil War was heading into its final stages.  I also alluded to more personal landmarks just fifty years ago. 
But what was really in my mind was a much more recent event, but seems to be more obscured by the mists of time than any of these others.  And the pivotal anniversary for that is this very Sunday, November ninth.
You see, twenty-five years ago the largest threat to the well-being of the world collapsed under the weight of its own implausibility: Soviet communism crumbled in Russia and its European satellites.  And twenty-five years ago this Sunday, the Berlin Wall came down.
Talk of the Cold War these days, whatever little there is, tends to dismiss any serious consideration of threat, conflict, or enemy.  Couched in the relativism of our current conversations, any mention it receives usually accuses our nation and our allies of using it as an excuse for bad behavior.  Completely overlooked are the scope and the seriousness of the evil that we were fighting, and how success against that evil was by no means a foregone conclusion.
Being not quite fourteen years old yet, our kids have no idea that barbed wire, mine fields, guard towers, guns and dogs were used to keep citizens from fleeing their own country.  They don’t know that families were ripped apart, not least by using children like them to inform on the prohibited thoughts, words, and actions of their own parents.  They have no idea of the material privation that was the result of the comprehensively controlled command economy.  They can’t imagine the fear of arrest or loss of privilege that kept people repeating slogans that were obviously false.
One of the great indicators of someone’s true nature is the identity of his enemies.  And Communism chose from the beginning to work with every effort to undermine and even destroy the Catholic Church.   That is actually quite the endorsement, because there has never been a more effective opponent of tyranny, oppression, and abuse than the Church.  And there was no more effective example of this than the favorite son of the suffering church of Poland, Pope Saint John Paul II.
All of this had an enormous effect on the lives of millions of people around the globe, and still does today.  But the lesson will be lost on us unless we keep not only the anniversary, but the hard won awareness of the necessity of choosing of good over evil, and truth over lies.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The veil that veils all peoples

I wear black, because that is the mark of simplicity the Church has long assigned to her ministers.  It can be hot in the sun, and it shows certain kinds of dirt very easily, but it is also rumored to be slimming (though I feel unslimmed) and lends itself to being unnoticed, especially when walking into a dark church, which I just did.  The choir is practicing Fauré's Requiem, and I just finished praying Vespers.
Gabriel Fauré was serving as music director in a Paris church when he composed this setting of the Requiem Mass for use at parish funerals, for which he had three singers, not even a whole choir.  He obviously believed that each funeral, no matter how small or simple, was worthy of the prayer of the Church offered beautifully and well.  The power and beauty of the texts of the Requiem Mass have for centuries inspired composers, notably Mozart, Vittoria, and Berlioz.  As I sit here and listen to the plaintive pleas for deliverance that Fauré rendered, I am reminded of the universal fear of not only death but annihilation.  His rendition of the Angelic hymn -- Holy! Holy! Holy!, revealed by prophets and apostles granted visions of heaven -- is notable for its lack of pomp, or even majesty; depicting instead a tenderness that can be grounded only in intimacy and mercy. 
Our choir is augmented for this work, with several alumni returned from retirement or new pursuits.  See if you recognize anybody who was with you in the pews last week!  Our music director, John Henderson, does not seem to be intimidated by a work often chosen for concerts in the grand venues of world capitals like our own Kennedy Center.  Perhaps he knows that the Lord Jesus, present only feet away in the tabernacle, will provide both the grace to give glory, and reward for that glory, and more abundantly than any world concert artist could ever anticipate or enjoy.
To have the opportunity to experience this music in its intended setting - a parish church praying for her beloved dead - is a great gift and opportunity.  The prayer will fortify the music, and the music will focus and refine the prayer.
To sit here and listen to these prayers, beautifully rendered in music, sung by our brothers and sisters in faith, is to marvel at the gift we have in our divine worship.  Spelled out in poetry passing beautiful are our fear of death and annihilation; grief and loss; hope for deliverance; and ultimately faith in redemption.  What a rich gift!
All Souls Day is when the whole Church unites in remembering and praying for her faithful departed.  Tinged with the sadness of loss, we are buoyed by a confidence in the mercy of our Redeemer, who in vanquishing death by His Resurrection, has given power over death even to us.  We are not defenseless, nor are we helpless.  We know that our Redeemer lives, and we know how to call upon His name.  Fauré marvelously captured both the sadness of separation, and the hope of redemption that bring us before the Lord on this day.
Sure, it is handy for sneaking around on rainy October nights, but it is rare that my trademark black is the color you see when I preside over our Eucharistic feast.  But on this day that we make our communal plea on behalf of our beloved who have gone before, we acknowledge that where we are, there is still something desperately wrong.  God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. (Wisdom 1:13)  But this is our lot until that blessed day when He is all in all.  The Body of Christ groans in death until the fulfillment of the Resurrection in each and every one of us.  That is where you and I stand, even while our beloved departed be robed in white at the Banquet of the Lamb.  That is why today, in my liturgical vestments, I wear black.

Monsignor Smith