Saturday, August 19, 2017

Authentic Witness

Last week in the context of his discerning the will of God through a conscious and considered practice of prayer, I mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the biography I have been reading.  Several people inquired afterward for clarification about him and the book, so let me share with you now something that may be helpful.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 to a German protestant family of great social, cultural, and academic distinction, one of eight children, including a twin sister.  He lost one older brother killed in World War I.  Even among such precocious siblings, he stood out for his musical and intellectual abilities.  While it may seem like a logical progression to us, it was shocking to his family when his studies in theology led him seek a career not as a professor and scholar, but rather as a pastor. 


Having completed his doctoral studies while still too young to become a pastor (as I said, he was gifted), he worked with a German Lutheran community abroad in Spain, and spent a year in New York at Union Theological Seminary.  That gave him an experience of religious life in the United States, notably mainstream Protestant liberalism (using that term in the specific theological sense) and the black Christian communities.
Meanwhile, Germany went through the crushing poverties and shame that the victors of World War I placed upon it, leading to economic and social near-collapse, from which arose Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.  Not only Dietrich but his entire family discerned from the first moment not only the threat that Nazism presented, but also the authentic evil that underlay their program and propaganda.  Dietrich, however, as a significant figure in the German national protestant church, was faced with specific challenges and questions of what to say and do.
Without going into too much detail, let me just tell you that he resisted that evil at every level and in every way at his disposal.  Most of that would seem trifling “inside baseball” in questions of theology and pastoral practice, but in fact was of monumental consequence.  Bonhoeffer discerned that if he conceded to the bullies on these small points of speech and practice, what is commonly called “going along to get along,” he would have no solid ground on which to stand when the so-called “big questions” came around.  He worked actively against the Nazis and Hitler constantly from the beginning until the end.
For years I have heard of him as a theologian, especially in the context of his book whose title is usually rendered in English as The Cost of Discipleship.  But the book I have been reading is a recent biography by Eric Metaxas: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  Long interested in the history of the period, including especially within Germany, I find myself binding together many threads of which I had been partially informed with what I am learning about Bonhoeffer. 
Also, I recognize at many turns the theological, practical, and ecclesial resources that Bonhoeffer either lacked completely or had to try to invent himself that would have been more readily at his disposal in the Catholic Church and her tradition.  The extraordinary ability and inspiration of this great Christian shines forth all the more in this context.
While encouraging you to learn more about him, I share with you a solitary quotation in which he explains one of the key concepts he introduced: “cheap grace.” 
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
It is no less pertinent to us today than it was when Dietrich Bonhoeffer first articulated it.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Intersection of heaven and earth


Though I had driven by the place a hundred times and not seen it, this time it caught my attention.  A five-by-three-foot sign facing oncoming traffic, permanently emplaced at the front corner of a residential yard, in a raised bed of flowers, stones and other memorabilia. On it was a large photograph of a young boy and some text, clearly as a memorial of some sort.
You have seen them as you drive, I am sure.  A small white wooden cross along the interstate, perhaps at a perilous curve, where some unfortunate lost her life in a crash.  Or maybe flowers and teddy bears stuck into the cyclone fence overlooking the scene of a fatal rail accident.  They make me sad.
But my sadness is not simply for the lost lives, but also for the confusion of the bereaved evident in their attempts to memorialize the place their loved one died, or to draw the attention of passersby to the sad event.  There is a confusion about where we are able to connect with someone who has died, a confusion about what we are able to treat with the reverence and respect that our love wishes to offer.  Just as a hint, I’ll tell you this: the accident scene is not it.
We who are Christians revere and respect the body of the faithful departed; not only our beloved dead, but of all who died in Christ.  We retrieve them with care and clean them and prepare them, then gather around them to pour out our love for them, which continues even after their earthly lives have ended.  We bear them carefully to their place of rest.  That place is what we mark with a memorial of their identities, so that not only we but all who pass may be near to them and pray for them by name.
(We are) always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:10)
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen. (The Apostle’s Creed)
The risen and ascended Jesus has united our flesh to his own by the bath of rebirth and the sealing with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and because “you are what you eat,” by feeding us His own body and blood.  Already, eternal life is in us.  When death claims us from this world, the flesh of the deceased goes down into death, where Jesus has already led in His flesh, but bears within it already the life that will raise it on the last day.  Did you know that the word “cemetery” is unique to Christianity, and rooted in the Greek that means the same thing as “dormitory” – a place to sleep?  Their flesh will be raised.  Thus, our most immediate link to the eternity in which we desire our loved one to dwell is the very body of our dead loved one.
The Apostles and Evangelists testify not only the resurrection of Jesus in his body, but also to his glorious Ascension into heaven – in the body.  Lest we think that that was a privilege or prerogative unique to the divine Son, we also have the testimony of the earliest believers to the marvelous revelation of what our flesh is for in what became of the immaculate flesh of the Mother of that same Son.
This we profess and celebrate as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  You will have no trouble finding the time of a Mass you can attend on this Holy Day, August 15, Tuesday of this week.  Because this is what we respect and revere, it is our “obligation” to keep the day holy.
In this great consummation of God’s gracious love for Mary, we see his what He has in His mind for us, as well; what our bodies are truly and finally for: eternity, glory, and intimate communion with God.  Direct your attention to this reality in your own body, and in the bodies of your beloved dead – and not just a drive-by, either.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Deep bench

For three years now, we have enjoyed the person and the work of John Henderson, our music director. The choir members, the office staff, the school staff, the clergy, parishioners and visitors all speak warmly and well of him. He is a delight to have around. But (you knew this was coming) he is leaving us. John has decided to pursue a degree at the University of Texas, of all places, which effectively rules out commuting to Saint Bernadette. Heaven knows we tried to talk him out of it. He’ll be leaving for Austin in the middle of the month. 
 
The music program here is remarkable and a distinction for our parish. It is the fruit of over a decade of work and development, not only by me and the musicians, but all of us as we grow in our understanding of and participation in music that is sacred, and liturgy that is authentic and worshipful. John has contributed greatly to that development, not least by his initiation of our Youth Choir. What we do and how we do it is talked about in other parishes, other dioceses, and other states.  

Providentially, that communication made possible a connection that led to Chris Mueller accepting my invitation to be our new music director. He has long experience in chant and polyphony in parish worship, as well as choir leadership and sacred music planning in other contexts that give him a profile well above the parochial. Last month, he planned and led the music for the Convocation Of Catholic Leaders: The Joy Of The Gospel In America, a four-day mega-meeting in Orlando, organized by the USCCB for 3,500 participants from every diocese in the United States. He is a composer as well as a director, and rumor has it, plays a mean jazz piano.
 
Chris will be moving with his wife, Costanza, and their three kids to our neighborhood from Connecticut, which is an indication of how serious both he and I are about the music we raise up to God here at Saint Bernadette. He knows Father Markey from Connecticut, and has been in the working in the metropolitan area of New York for a long time. But really, deep down, he’s a southerner from Nashville, Tennessee. This cheers my heart, especially as I prepare to welcome yet another Long Islander and possible Mets fan, Fr. Jason Grisafi, into the rectory. So I am counting on Chris to be a cultural bulwark in that regard as well.

Next weekend, 12 – 13 August, will be John’s last at our organ bench. Chris will be around to “shadow” him through a weekend’s liturgies, then take the reins for the Holy Day on 15 August.
 
Please take the opportunity over the weekend or any time in coming days to express what I know to be your appreciation and affection for John. Even if you have to hunt him down and corner him, feel free to let him know how and why you will miss him, and wish him well as he sets out on his next challenge. Please prepare to welcome Chris and his family, and prepare yourselves to be drawn even more deeply into the divine worship of the Living God.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 15, 2017

What's in your response?

Shortly before he died in 1990, one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy, set himself to reflecting on his answer to the question, “Why are you a Catholic?”  Among the reasons he is a favorite are, in no particular order, his being from Birmingham, fascinated by language and what it indicates about human nature, a convert to Catholicism, best friends with Shelby Foote, piercingly critical of the postmodern therapeutic mindset, ironic, self-deprecating, and funny.  In the heat of summer, when it feels like we are in the South that Percy called home, here are some passages from his answer to that question:
When it is asked just so, straight out, just so: “Why are you a Catholic?”  I usually reply, “What else is there?”  I justify this smart-mouthed answer when I sense that the question is, as it usually is, a smart-mouthed question. In my experience, the question is usually asked by two or three sorts of people.  One knows quite well what is meant by all three.
One sort is perhaps a family acquaintance or friend of a friend or long-ago schoolmate or distant kin, most likely a Presbyterian lady. There is a certain type of Southern Presbyterian lady, especially Georgian, who doesn’t mince words.
What she means is: how in the world can you, a Southerner like me, one of us, of a certain class and background which encompasses the stark chastity of a Presbyterian church or the understated elegance of an Episcopal church (but not a Baptist or Methodist church), a Southern Christian gentleman, that is to say—how can you become one of them, meaning that odd-looking baroque building down the street (the wrong end of the street) with those statues (Jesus pointing to his heart which has apparently been exposed by open-heart surgery)—meaning those Irish, Germans, Poles, Italians, Cajuns, Hispanics, Syrians, and God knows who else—though God knows they’re fine people and I love them all—but I mean there’s a difference between a simple encounter with God in a plain place with one’s own kind without all that business of red candles and beads and priest in a box—I mean, how can you?...
The following statements I take to be commonplaces. Technically speaking, they are for my purposes axioms. If they are not perceived as such, as self-evident, there is no use arguing about them, let alone the conclusions which follow from them.  Here they are:
The old modern age has ended. We live in a post-modern as well as a post-Christian age which as yet has no name.  It is post-Christian in the sense that people no longer understand themselves, as they understood themselves for some fifteen hundred years, as ensouled creatures under God, born to trouble and whose salvation depends upon the entrance of God into history as Jesus Christ.
It is post-modern because the Age of Enlightenment with its vision of man as a rational creature, naturally good and part of the cosmos which itself is understandable by natural science—this age has also ended. It ended with the catastrophes of the twentieth century.
The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a loss of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which, in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia…
Judaism is offensive because it claims that God entered into a covenant with a single tribe, with it and no other. Christianity is doubly offensive because it claims not only this but also that God became one man, he and no other.  One cannot imagine any statement more offensive to the present-day scientific set of mind…
It is for this reason that the present age is better than Christendom. In the old Christendom, everyone was a Christian and hardly anyone thought twice about it. But in the present age, the survivor of theory and consumption becomes a wayfarer in the desert, like St. Anthony, which is to say: open to signs.
I do not feel obliged to set forth the particular religious reasons for my choosing among the Jewish-Christian religions. There are times when it is better not to name God. One reason is that most of the denizens of the present age are too intoxicated by the theories and goods of the age to be aware of the catastrophe already upon us.
If you like these excerpts, you can find the whole article online, or better yet in the book that collects his essays, Signposts in a Strange Land.   But it could also fill an afternoon of summer leisure simply to sit down with a pen, or keyboard, and try to answer for yourself the question, “Why are you a Catholic?” 

Monsignor Smith