Saturday, March 18, 2017

How to Dad*

Though it receives less recognition in this country than elsewhere, Saint Joseph’s Day is important enough to be celebrated on the days of Lent, liturgically with a Gloria and Creed, and socially with all sorts of good treats.  It not important enough to trump a Sunday of Lent, but important enough that it then gets moved to another day.   So this year, because March 19 falls on a Sunday, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph will be observed on Monday, March 20.  His day is always a welcome respite from the rigors of Lent.
Before being named Patron of the Universal Church, Saint Joseph was long beloved as the Patron Saint of Italy.  Even if you are not Italian, you use some of their treats to celebrate the day.  Consider a Saint Joseph’s cake, which actually more resembles a cream-filled doughnut when the Neapolitans make it.  They call theirs zeppone.   The Romans call theirs, which have no cream, beignet.  At the North American College, we would receive platters of them for dessert on the big day, instead of the de rigeur fruit.  
At a church downtown, while admiring a handsome, German-made stained glass window of Saint Joseph with the youth Jesus, I began to realize what an example of masculine and paternal virtue he is.  How great our need for him here and now, when our popular culture mocks and deconstructs masculine virtue, subverting it into some vicious caricature of itself.  You know; the unenlightened, bumbling fool on any given television show is most likely the dad.*
Joseph must have taught Jesus how to be a man, as any father should for his son.  Think about that:  he taught God how to be a man.   And he knew at the time that he was doing it.  What a responsibility that was!   This is why he is patron of all fathers, and in a particular way, of foster fathers and adoptive fathers.
People often assert that we know little of Joseph, and find nothing in Scripture that he said.  I think that we know rather a lot more than that, and hear his words all the time. 
You know how all sons reflect habits and characteristics of their fathers.  Many of the characteristics of Joseph, who is so hidden in the shadows of Scripture, would be revealed in words and actions of his foster Son.  Maybe more than once, someone (your mom?) told you that “you sound just like your father;” why not in Jesus’ case, too?   For Him, of course, it would never have been an unwelcome comment to hear.  I find it hard to shake the conviction that some turns of phrase we know from Jesus’ lips, He often heard from his foster father.  Picture him at the dinner table, about to say something important or instructional to his wife Mary and young Jesus: “Amen, amen, I say to you….”
Speaking of Mary, Joseph’s chaste love and respect for his wife is doubtless revealed in Jesus’ own attention to and care for His Mother.  Likely, that is also reflected in Jesus’ warm regard for the women who played such a role in His public ministry.   No one can tell me that was “just the cultural norm in those days.”
Saint Joseph is also the patron of a happy death – that’s a good one to know.  There is plenty in him to celebrate.  Shortly after the inauguration of his pontificate four years ago today, Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, added to the three newer Eucharistic Prayers the invocation of Saint Joseph by name.
Take this opportunity to congratulate any Josephs or Josephines of your acquaintance, or at a minimum, pray for them.  Keep in your prayers as well all fathers, especially foster fathers, that Saint Joseph help them fulfill their paternal vocation to a constant sacrifice of love. 
Monsignor Smith

*For an enjoyable rebuttal of this pernicious fiction, watch this cereal advertisement from a few years back: How to Dad

Saturday, March 11, 2017


Run as if your life depended on it.  It’s a charge full of urgency, something we’d hear in a movie or television drama.  But it’s a concept that we can understand; save your life by doing something for all your might.
But so many things present themselves to us as urgent every day – even routinely, in a uniquely modern paradox.  But honest evaluation will reveal that it’s rare, if ever, that we confront a “clear and present danger” to our very lives, much less do we have to adjust to a persistent one.  We don’t have to walk home each night through woods inhabited by bandits or bears that frequently claim the lives of our neighbors.   The Black Plague isn’t moving from house to house.  The Secret Police do not knock in the night to “disappear” people.  So we grow complacent.
It is precisely this complacency that is the threat; and we must flee, because death itself is the penalty.  Although habitual selfishness and indifference don’t leave a mangled corpse every few days, that disguises but does not change the reality that they are a real threat to our very lives.
This brings to mind the words of Saint Peter Chrysologus, one of the Church Fathers, bishop of Ravenna (Italy) in the early fifth century.  I read it every year in the Divine Office during the third week of Lent, and am always struck by its candor and directness.  
            There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures.  They are prayer, fasting and mercy.  Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives.  Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.
            Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting.  Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated.  If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing.  So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others.  If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.
            Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy.  Fasting dries up when mercy dries up.  Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth.  However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.
            When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn.  Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself.  You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.
These are powerful words that remind us that our Lenten practices are no empty ritual or cultural artifact, but a spiritual practice of vital importance to our health and survival.   Yes: survival.   The sin that settles in and abides will slowly strangle us even while we live in this world, and snuff out the life that endures forever in heaven that Christ has poured into us.  Yes, we can lose that great gift; yes, eternal death can, with our complicity, claim us.
This is the annual wake-up call that Lent delivers to the clear and present danger that can insinuate itself into any home, or neighborhood, or soul.  This is the also the defense that Lent provides to rescue us, again with our cooperation.  Fast, pray, and give alms -- as if your life depended on it. 

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 04, 2017

What's it all about?

What is that all about?
It is a question one parishioner told me she encountered as she went about her routine on Ash Wednesday.  Polite, cautious even, the question was directed at the smudge of black on her forehead – her ashes.
Hard as it is to believe that this annual ritual should be unfamiliar to anyone, we may be startled to find someone who approaches us with that simple question, especially when the question is from someone who is so completely unfamiliar with Christianity that he does not recognize the mark of ashes, and so curious about it that he will risk humiliation to ask a personal question like that of a total stranger? 
What you have before you at that moment, right there in McDonalds or CVS or the line at the bank, is someone who does not know Jesus, who wants to know about Him, and about your relationship with Him.  Are you Always … ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, as Saint Peter admonishes us?  (1 Pt 3:15)
Can you tell them how Jesus is the source of your life and your hope for life eternal?  Can you tell them that only Jesus sacrifices His life for our sins and shortcomings, so that we are freed from them, in this life and the life that continues forever?  Can you tell them why Jesus gives you hope?  Can you tell them what life is like without fear?  Can you tell them that Jesus is God and He wants them, too, to Be not afraid?  
Can you tell them that Jesus makes His life and forgiveness and glory available to everyone in all times through His Church, where He is worshipped in spirit and in truth?  Can you tell them that by joining yourself to this Church in practicing penance and mortification, you are joining yourself in your own body to Christ’s sacrifice, and therefore uniting your body also to His glorious, risen body?  
If you can’t tell them, can you invite them?  Can you give them something that will help them understand?  Can you get to know them better, to expand your opportunity to teach them?
For such a simple question, that is a lot of answer.  But imagine how much they do not know if they are asking that question.  Imagine how hungry they must be to know the One who knows them better than they know themselves.  Imagine how lonely a place this world must be if they do not know that.  Imagine how much you have to give them!
In calling us to share in His salvation, Jesus also gives us a share in the Church’s mission of bringing that salvation to every human being ever.  This Lent, whatever your penances and practices, whatever you are “giving up”, pause each time and ask yourself:  how do I explain this to someone who asks me what I am doing? 
To be able to answer that question in confidence is one goal of Lent.  So keep that goal in sight as we move through the desert with Jesus this year, always ready to answer anyone who asks, What is that all about?
Because it is ALL about Jesus. 

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Time to change

Just one human life can change the world, as I reflected here last week.  Those lives that fulfilled that potential, and who “used that power for good,” as a movie script might say, are worth celebrating.   
This is a quite literally a revolutionary notion; it fueled the American Revolution.  But rarely do such civil revolutions result in the desired opportunity, since they are not often founded on the personal revolution required for human beings to raise their own lives to the level of virtue of which they are capable.  The Founding Fathers never ceased to call both the children of their families and the citizens of the nation they founded to put aside selfishness and strive for virtue.
The foundation of this hope and this vision is precisely the one life that saves the world, Jesus of Nazareth.  The tiny infant we so recently greeted, we will soon see executed by religious and political processes he did not seek to overturn.  Our liturgy moves straight through his death to his resurrection and ascension, as may and as must we all.  This is the full potential of human life in Christ. 
We are daily bombarded by commentary and commercials that assail us with what we need to change about other people, and what we need to purchase in order for our lives to change.  Both lines of thought lead us away from the change that is genuinely possible and uniquely necessary: the change of ourselves.
This week we begin the season of Lent, the time the Church sets aside for all her members to change, whatever their state in life, their age, their responsibility, or their achievement.  This is the necessary step that cannot be omitted on the path to changing the world for the good: changing the one life that we have control over – our own.
In other words, forget chocolate and forget beer.  Go big or go home – which exhortation actually works well for Lent, when many folks settle for giving up something little, to which they return comfortably when the season ends.  So don’t just change your diet, change your lives!  Or as the prophet Joel tells it, Rend you hearts, not your garments.  (Joel 2:13)
The Prophet continues:  Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.  So by going back – back to our Creator, back to our Father – we move ahead.  To make progress toward what is truly new, we return to our source and find there, in Him, our goal.  By this we change, with our desire and our cooperation, and by the powerful work of grace in our lives because of our intimacy with Jesus the Lord.  Changing our souls, we begin to change the world.
On our parish letterhead and over the arch that leads to the doors in our church, my predecessor Father William Thompson printed the statement from our patroness Saint Bernadette Soubirous:  I must become a saint; my Jesus expects it.  Through the sacraments of the Church, God makes this possible; through the Constitution of the United States, our nation frees us to achieve it.  Any change in the world, any change for good, is brought about by what we do with our one human life.  Go ahead and do it!  Do it now; you have the power.

Monsignor Smith