Saturday, July 14, 2018

Questions He Wanted to Answer

In order to enjoy a little lassitude in the summer swelter, I am letting one of my favorite authors share with you, through an interviewer, some of his insights into the Faith we share.
Monsignor Smith
Walker Percy was one of the most notable Southern writers of his lifetime (along with Flannery O’Connor, of course) who was able to speak about faith without actually speaking about faith.  The following is an interview from “Questions They Never Asked Me,” which appears in Conversations with Walker Percy:
Q: What kind of Catholic are you?
A. Bad.
Q: No. I mean are you liberal or conservative?
A: I no longer know what those words mean.
Q: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?A: I don’t know what that means, either. Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?
Q: Yes.
A: Yes.
Q: How is such a belief possible in this day and age?
A: What else is there?
Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A: That’s what I mean.
Q: To say nothing of Judaism and Protestantism.
A: Well, I would include them along with the Catholic Church in the whole peculiar Jewish-Christian thing.
Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?
A: Yes.
Q: Why?
A: It’s not good enough.
Q: Why not?
A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.”  That won’t do.  A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight.  Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God.  In fact I demand it.  I refuse to settle for anything less.  I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Q: Grabbed aholt?
A: A Louisiana expression.
Q: But isn’t the Catholic Church in a mess these days, badly split, its liturgy barbarized, vocations declining?
A: Sure. That’s a sign of its divine origins, that it survives these periodic disasters.
To be continued….next week.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Don't stop: On drinking from the fire hose

While last week I responded to the patriotic urge to reflect on our nation, this week I want to plunge deeper into the depth and breadth of our Catholic treasury and share with you a reflection from one of the great Fathers of the Church, perhaps the greatest from the Syriac tradition.  Ephrem, customarily called “the Syrian,” reminds us of the life of Christian faith that thrived in that part of the world before its military conquest by the forces of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula.  
I subtitle this reflection “On drinking from a firehose,” because he works the “spring of life” metaphor to explain to us why we need to keep returning to the Word of God revealed in Scripture and Tradition even after we drunk deeply.  Whenever one of your family – or even you! – wonder why we must return again and again to the same passages of Scripture and the same prayers and antiphons, let this help you find the answer.  Who among us does not always again find something hitherto unnoticed?   So it was in the fourth century and so it is for us in the twenty-first.  Enjoy!
Monsignor Smith
Lord, who can comprehend even one of your words. We lose more of it than we grasp, like those who drink from a living spring.  For God’s word offers different facets according to the capacity of the listener, and the Lord has portrayed his message in many colors, so that whoever gazes upon it can see in it what suits him.  Within it he has buried manifold treasures, so that each of us might grow rich in seeking them out.
The word of God is a tree of life that offers us blessed fruit from each of its branches.  It is like that rock which was struck open in the wilderness, from which all were offered spiritual drink. As the Apostle says: They ate spiritual food and they drank spiritual drink.
And so whenever anyone discovers some part of the treasure, he should not think that he has exhausted God’s word. Instead he should feel that this is all that he was able to find of the wealth contained in it.  Nor should he say that the word is weak and sterile or look down on it simply because this portion was all that he happened to find.  But precisely because he could not capture it all he should give thanks for its riches.
Be glad then that you are overwhelmed, and do not be saddened because he has overcome you. A thirsty man is happy when he is drinking, and he is not depressed because he cannot exhaust the spring. So let this spring quench your thirst, and not your thirst the spring.  For from it you can satisfy your thirst without exhausting the spring, then when you thirst again you can drink from it once more; but if when your thirst is sated the spring is also dried up, then your victory would turn to your own harm.
Be thankful then for what you have received, and do not be saddened at all that such an abundance still remains.What you have received and attained is your present share, while what is left will be your heritage. For what you could not take at one time because of your weakness, you will be able to grasp at another if you only persevere. So do not foolishly try to drain in one draught what cannot be consumed all at once, and do not cease out of faintheartedness from what you will be able to absorb as time goes on.  

From a commentary on the Diatesseron by Saint Ephrem, deacon+373

Saturday, June 30, 2018

What constitutes us

Everybody needs a break now and then, so while I go visit our friend Fr. Nick at his parish on Long Island this week, let me help you prepare for our national holiday with my column from three years ago:
The concept of “American exceptionalism” has almost as many definitions as there are commentators on it.  I have long been fascinated by the term, whether its first best use was by Alexis de Tocqueville or Josef Stalin, both of whom are candidates for credit.  Some would assert that the only exceptional aspect of our country is that it is ours, which is thus the same thing that makes any country exceptional.  While I could not endorse any particular theory, it seems sufficiently commonsense to acknowledge that there is something authentically exceptional about our nation.
My first candidate for the ground of exceptionality would be our form of government, the Constitution, and that this form of government is the first and defining characteristic of the country. Ethnicity, culture, and geography all contributed to our nation’s earliest self-understanding and establishment, but did not even then, much less do they now, define what makes the United States of America, the United States of America. 
Lest anyone think that the USA was simply the first of a historical generation of nations to be born of revolution and coalesce by constitution, one need examine the suggested “other examples.”  The French staged a revolution with the express intention of emulating what they saw in our society, but “Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality” quickly descended into tyranny and bloodshed by committee.  We are all aware of how the Russian and other so-called “revolutions” played out, pursued as they were in the names of ideologies that led to domination by ideologues. Many Latin American nations claim their own “George Washingtons” who nonetheless failed to manifest not only his executive virtues, but also and especially his virtuous relinquishing of executive power.  Anybody familiar with the European Union’s huge phonebook-size assemblage of regulations knows it is a “Constitution” in name alone.
I think what lies at the root of the current mocking of American exceptionalism is a rejection of the possibility that anything can be an exception.  There is a desire to subordinate the character of USA to a rule, and by that rule to take away any privilege or responsibility that would belong to a truly exceptional nation.  
Both privilege and responsibility are eliminated by the tyranny of false equality, which refuses to admit not only any exception, but also the possibility of authentic difference.  The reality of difference is manifest in the differences between and among human beings and all the creatures of the earth. Good and evil, true and false, reality and fiction, beauty and disorder are truly and clearly different.  The only way to deny or suppress these differences is to erect a false equality through authority and power.  That authority and power is necessarily in opposition to the author of all these differences, our Creator. 
My willingness to accept that the United States is exceptional among nations is rooted in my belief that among human beings there are lives that are exceptional.  That belief is founded on my acquaintance with the perfectly exceptional man who is God, Jesus Christ.  His immaculately conceived mother, the Virgin Mary, is not only an exception to the rule of original sin, but also a model of and invitation to acceptance of the privilege and responsibility that comes with freedom from the rule, with being an exception.
The inherent difference among human lives is reflected in the differences of the societies they erect.  The true differences between good and evil, true and false, between God and everything else, undergird a world where every human soul is called to be exceptional in a way that he or she is uniquely capable of being.  This is the foundational freedom that can be suppressed but not eliminated, as it inheres in our very souls.  Better than anywhere else or in any other time, this is the freedom that has until now been both provided and protected in our exceptional nation’s exceptional Constitution.
God bless America, and God bless you.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Tend your garden

Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. (John 15:2-3)
Our modern distance from the agrarian world in which Jesus walked and taught and found the subject matter for his parables can sometimes leave us lacking for understanding.  The best example perhaps is the familiar depiction of the lovely lady in a snow-white gown, ostensibly the Blessed Mother, holding in her arms a snow-white lamb, ostensibly the Lamb of God.  Anyone who has even encountered a lamb or any other baby animal would know that no garment that held it would remain snow white for long!
But we are not so far removed from all that imagery, because this week we have some pruned some branches.  In order to prepare for work that will be done to the church next month, we had to make way for the scaffolding along the exterior walls.  My first thought was simply to cut back the holly trees that grew there, and in fact that is what we did to the two that grow by the entrance to the Saint Joseph transept.
But the hollies along the west side of the church are different; they are Nellie Stevens hollies that have grown in both root and branch to the point of being an obstacle to pedestrians and even a threat to the integrity of the building.  We have cut them back several times, but as the Lord reminds us, that only makes them grow back bigger, and faster.  This week we cut them down, leaving that side of the church quite bare.  New plantings will be placed alongside the church this fall once the scaffolding has been removed. But in the meantime, we have a chance to admire how large and very well-built our handsome church truly is.  Perhaps that will motivate even more folks to participate in the Capital Campaign to bring it “up to snuff” for the next sixty years.
This also brought our attention to the holly trees on either side of the old entrance to the school.  These were Nellie Stevens as well, and to give you a clue as to how they grow, when they were planted there were six of them, three on either side.  Over the years, first one pair, then another was removed until only one stood on either side.  Each of those kept growing and taking over the sidewalk and the front of the building.  Each time we pruned them – an expensive proposition on trees that size – they simply came back bigger and faster.   So, it was time for them to go.
This one photo shows before and after the holly tree removal in front of the school,
though "before" is on the right, and "after" is on the left.
Now they are both gone; new plants to arrive soon.
Now we can see the entire fa├žade of our handsome original school building, and its cornerstone: A.D. 1946!  I think it is the best-looking school building in the Archdiocese, at least among those still being used as schools.  In short order, new plantings will go in that will enhance it, not shroud it.
Jesus elsewhere mentions a tree that does not bear fruit, and must be cut down.   When this happens in the gardens most familiar to us, it comes as a shock to our system.  It reminds us that these plants have a purpose they must fulfill or cease to enjoy their privileged position.  
So too must we do the necessary pruning in our lives, trimming off any growth that is not fruitful; that is, cutting away sinful inclinations that grow up in us, however “natural” they may seem.  This is an understanding we dare not avoid even if our lives be anything but agrarian.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Nowhere

There is nowhere else I would rather be, and no better way to spend a Sunday!  Let me right now thank everybody who participated in the celebration of my anniversary of ordination last week.  It wasn’t crazy or over the top; it was just a great chance to celebrate the 11:00 Mass (on the last weekend before the choir starts summer vacation) and to visit in the Stricker Room with so many people.  It is, as most of you have figured out, my favorite thing to do, and my favorite place to do it.
Thanks to the people who worked so hard to make it beautiful, and everybody who brought treats to eat; and especially to the Holy Name guys, the Religious Ed families, the Well-Read Women, the Tuesday Club, and the Sodality for all their efforts and contributions; and to Margaret McDermott, Jasmine Kuzner, Mary Phillips, and Jackie Nguyen who pulled it all together; and the Rectory Staff especially for just showing up and admitting they know me.   Thanks for all you said, the notes you wrote, and the time you spent; thanks especially to everybody who came even though it wasn’t “your” Mass time.
In a nice bit of symmetry, Sunday this weekend marks the completion of the first DAY of priesthood for the three newest priests of the Archdiocese: Father Oscar Astigarraga, Father Andrew Clyne, and Father Kevin Fields.  Their assignments will be revealed soon, which are still closely-held secrets as I write this. Keep them in your prayers, please, as they begin the wild and wonderful ride that is following in Christ’s priestly footsteps.
More news is that we are receiving a new Auxiliary Bishop. Our Holy Father Pope Francis announced last Friday that Msgr. Michael Fisher, Vicar for Clergy in our Archdiocese for the past twelve years, has been called to the Order of Bishops.  We had been “down one” since Bishop Barry Knestout was appointed to lead the Diocese of Richmond over the winter.  
Bishop-elect Fisher is a delightful man we priests know well, like, and respect, because for so long he has been taking care of us, our assignments, and our concerns.  We are delighted at the news, and glad that once again our local church will have three auxiliary bishops to help with the heavy workload that surrounds our Cardinal Archbishop. 
There are two things about his ordination to the episcopate that are worthy of your attention.  First is that it is really really soon – Friday 29 June, at 2:00 in the afternoon.  That is an unusually short time for him and us to get ready!  Second, his consecration will occur at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Because this church is three or four times the size of our Cathedral, where such events usually occur, and only twenty minutes from here, and has abundant parking, it is a perfect opportunity for you to attend, possibly your first ever episcopal consecration.  Y’all come!
Speaking of celebrations you should attend, work is underway to have a send-off reception to Father Gallaugher before he moves on to his new assignment.  He will move officially on 5 July, but will begin to “fade away” even before that.  Plan to come on Sunday 24 June to the 11:00 Mass, and to the MSR afterward, to wish him well.  
There is much to celebrate these days, with the last day of school, the Stanley Cup, and the eternal saving presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the sacramental ministries of the Church.  Where else would you rather be?
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Grading Up

The Capital Campaign has all of us excited about what can happen when people provide for the beauty of the church.  A few weeks ago, when I shared our encouraging progress on that path, I mentioned a project that would occur this summer as a result of a gracious bequest.  I neglected to mention something that was coming much sooner and in fact has now happened.
Because of the care and generous gift of a donor who prefers to remain anonymous, this week we installed a beautiful new tabernacle that enriches and enhances our church and our worship. 
The old tabernacle was showing signs of age and was fairly plain in the first place.  It was of a suitable size and style for our church, and suitably protected the Most Blessed Sacrament from sacrilege, but it was quite simply beat up.  
This tabernacle was not the original of the church, but rather a replica of that first one.  Why, you may ask, did we need a replica?  Well, the original tabernacle was on the main altar until liturgical directives after the Second Vatican Council removed it, at which time it was placed on the Lady Altar. Apparently after this move it was not fixed to its new altar, because at some point it was stolen.  The whole tabernacle and its contents, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and the ciborium that held Him, were taken and never recovered.
I believe this was sometime in the mid-1970’s, because (then) Msgr. Foley oversaw its replacement.  An exact replica was obtained, and it was securely bolted down to the marble pedestal that he had designed to raise the tabernacle to a height at which it could be seen throughout the church, and there it remained, solid and secure until we removed it this week.  
On that same pedestal as the tabernacle rested, he placed the statue of the Blessed Mother.  Now, the statue originally had stood on a small wall-mounted pedestal identical to the ones that hold our statues of Saint Joseph and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But I am not sure that her pedestal survived the fire and the installation of the mosaic.
The original Lady Altar when our church was consecrated in 1958.
What fire, you may ask, and what mosaic?  Well, in the late 1960s a sacristy fire (hot charcoal in the trash can, I think) caused smoke damage in the choir of the church.  It was during the repairs of this that the gold and blue mosaic on the apse wall was installed, along with the marble wainscoting that surrounds the choir.  The Blessed Mother statue was obviously cleaned up too, but her pedestal and the little gothic-spired canopy above her have disappeared.  So, she wound up on the same pedestal as the tabernacle, her lower third obscured by it, as if Jesus were sitting at or even on her feet.
So, while the marble contractor was here to remove the old tabernacle and secure the new one, we added a new pedestal for Mary, so that now she stands almost two feet higher.  I think she is now at about the height at which she stood originally.   The elegant rendering is more prominent and more visible than she was behind the tabernacle, but her gesture even more strongly defers to Her Divine Son’s presence in the reserved Holy Eucharist. This is consonant with what Bishop Foley once told me was his intention, that she be seen as Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
The new tabernacle really is not new at all, but rather is about as old as our church building, which is why it is in such a suitable style. It comes from a church in Philadelphia; what that suffering local church can no longer use can be for us a great blessing.
I suggest that you take the time to inspect the new tabernacle more closely when you have the chance; the details are remarkable.  And while you are there before the Blessed Sacrament, offer a prayer of thanks for artisans who make beautiful things to reveal the glory of God, and for parishioners who make sacrifices so that beauty be at the center of our worship. 
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, June 02, 2018

For the good of those who love God

It was a delight last weekend to see everyone respond to Father Gallaugher’s announcement of his new assignment.  Many people went out of their way to speak to him at the doors – I even saw people from the St. Joseph transept make the long trip over.  A number said nice things about him to me too, how they would miss him.  That must be gratifying and encouraging for him.
To summarize for you who were away last weekend – and a whole lot of people were away – Cardinal Wuerl has assigned Father Gallaugher to the Archdiocese of Washington's Department of Special Needs Ministries, where he will serve as chaplain at St Francis Deaf Catholic Church and in Catholic campus ministry at Gallaudet University.  His office and the church are in the recently-rededicated Pope Francis Center, in the former convent at Saint Mary Church, Landover Hills.  He will reside in the rectory of Saint Mary and assist with Mass in that parish as well.  
Folks also brought me a question, whether spoken or unspoken: so, who will take his place around here?  Will we get anyone?  I did not address that last weekend because I did not want to distract from all that Father-Gallaugher-time, but now I can let you know what the plan is.
Father Emanuel Magro has been assigned to be Parochial Vicar here beginning 5 July, which is also the date Father Gallaugher will move to his new place. 
Father Magro is from Malta, and a priest of his home diocese of Gozo.  He has lived in the United States a lot during the last twenty-five years, at first teaching and studying here, and then most recently as a professor at the Catholic University of America.  While focused on academics, Father Magro has also enjoyed U.S. parish life, most recently residing and helping out at Saint Patrick Church, Norbeck.   
He is retiring from the faculty of CUA with a desire to return to parish ministry and has been given permission by his home bishop in Malta and Cardinal Wuerl to serve in the Archdiocese of Washington, being assigned by the latter to Saint Bernadette.   
And so again we get ready for a change.  You have five weeks to be nice to Father Gallaugher before his departure, which I heartily recommend; it will give him more reasons to pine for the glories of Saint Bernadette once he moves on.  Undaunted, he is excited about his new assignment.
And I am sure you join me in looking forward to welcoming Father Magro, and that you will do so with your usual grace and generosity.  This parish is known well and widely throughout the presbyterate of the Archdiocese for being very good to her priests.
The anticipation is growing also in the rectory, where Father Grisafi is excited that he will no longer be the new guy, and I am pleased that I will no longer be the old guy.  Father Magro has no idea what he is in for, but is optimistic, if possibly cautiously so.  Everybody has a smile about his lips.  Sounds like a win-win-win-win-win, doesn’t it?
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28) 
Monsignor Smith