Saturday, September 22, 2018

How to make it shine

Let’s have something to celebrate in the midst of all the mayhem, shall we?  The restoration and protection of our stained-glass windows was completed this week.  They look fantastic. 
First of all, let us acknowledge that we have these great windows in the first place because the people who built our parish, the parishioners who were here when the church went up in 1958, made the sacrifice to obtain them.  They built the church in 1958, and within three years, by 1961, twenty-two windows had been paid for and installed.  You know that the people who lived here did not have excess wealth, but they considered the beautification of their church to be a priority.
Last year, I received a bequest left to Saint Bernadette by Raymond and Margaret Watson.  They were parishioners for years, living in Hillandale; Ray died in 2007, and Margaret followed him in 2016 (at the age of 99!)  I remember them both well; gracious people who were regularly at Mass.  They loved this parish, and provided for her in their will.
Their executor, Steven Hill, came to me last summer with the check for $218,220.31.  We talked a bit about possible uses for the money, but there were no strings attached.  We left it undecided.  After six months had passed, and our Capital Campaign for the improvement of the church was so successful and so many had pledged, it struck me that we could use a high-impact project to reveal how much beauty we have in our church while we waited for the promised donations to come in to fund the work of the campaign. Looking out my office window, I saw the gray, blank Lexan covers over our windows and realized what it should be.
It started way back in February, talking about it with our Finance Council and taking proposals from various contractors. The work concluded just this week.  Lamb Studios of New Jersey worked for six and a half weeks, taking forty panels back to their studio for repair or replacement.  Campbell Gibbons abated the asbestos in the glazing in about four weeks. 
The entire project cost $196,100, clearly more than we could have afforded without this bequest.  That would have taken one-fifth of the resources from our capital campaign.  But because of the love of this one couple for their parish and ours, generations of parishioners and visitors can enjoy these windows.  Last Sunday I offered the 11:00 Sunday Mass for the intentions of Raymond and Margaret Watson; I invite you to pray for them as well, in gratitude for their gracious care for us and our spiritual home.
Please remember Saint Bernadette in your will, too.  But know that you needn’t wait that long; by your participation in the Capital Campaign, or by a specified donation like we received for our tabernacle this summer, your offering for the beauty of the church where we worship can help give glory to God in Four Corners, and lead souls to the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Faith the God has given us in Christ made present in His Church.  That will be worth celebrating at any time, under any circumstances, and for generations to come.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Taking it up

Some might tell you that there has never been a harder time to be a priest.   While I have to admit my head is spinning and my frustration level high, I am not sure I can agree with that.  Let me share some experiences with you that have happened over recent weeks as all the weirdness and invective has swirled around the Church.
As you know, I was away two weekends in a row in late August; for the first, I flew to Birmingham for family events.  As usual, I traveled in my clerics, though not without some trepidation about what reactions I might get.  Because neither the trip south or the return north went smoothly, I spent hours upon hours in airports, clearly identifiable as a priest.  I received nothing but positive nods, smiles, and greetings; even openess.  As I sat in the Birmingham Airport composing my letter to you, I noted the following: 
Just now as I sat here in the airport, a woman walking by did a double take, stopped and walked back, looked around the wall to make sure she had indeed seen a priest sitting under a Panama hat, smiled and waved.  Just that; then she went on her way.
I just had another woman walk up to me where I sat typing and say, Father?  I just wanted to let you know I’m glad you’re here and we’re gonna get through this and it’s gonna be alright.  
And that was in Birmingham, Alabama, where almost nobody is Catholic. Even with all that was in the news, people who encountered a priest at a random point in their day assumed he was one of the good guys.  It was a very humbling trip for me.
Even in Washington, also hardly a Catholic bastion, and a place where everybody is up on every scandal – I joined a college buddy at Nats Park this weekend, as the crisis only got wilder.   As I moved through the crowds, I was baffled by how folks yielded to me, smiled or nodded at me, or even greeted me.  Then I remembered – I had worn my clerics under my Nats jacket. 
In 248 AD, the Deacon Saint Lawrence taught the Roman magistrate who would sentence him to be roasted on a gridiron before a raging mob that the Church’s true treasure is the poor, the lame, the disgusting, and the ones who depend upon her to live.  Their vulnerability is her vulnerability, but also one of her likenesses to Christ.  Her weakness is her dependence upon human beings, flawed mortals, not only to be her needy members, but also especially to be her provident ministers.
The Church’s strength is her weakness, and vice versa.   Only the Church has a structure of authority that bears such responsibility and makes such a silhouette in the crosshairs.  Her responsibility is authentic because her authority is authentic.
Priests are the Church’s strength, and her weakness.  Being one has been a very humbling trip for me. 
Thank you for your care and support.  Amidst all the confusion, anger, frustration, disappointment, and everything else you have shared with me, you have simultaneously emphasized your concern for me.  I am not worthy!  But you know that, and you encourage me anyway.  Thanks, and thanks be to God.
Somehow, I think it might turn out to be that there has never been a better time to be a priest.  
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Jeremiah 3:1-15

Some folks sharing their thoughts about what the Church needs.
When the pitchforks and torches come out, the cry now is for Resignation!  Stirred by media voices more accustomed to working their will on our political system these past fifty years, and constrained by an imagination with only corporate or military models, the vocabulary of the vox populi is reduced to that single word, Resignation.
And yet, while Christ’s Church has elements in common with both corporate and military organizations, and clearly has as many political realities as she does human ones, these three models fail to describe the Bride of Christ, much less define her.  
Just as calls for Change! and Reform! often overlook the reality that the Church is a divine institution, with her governance designed and defined by Christ Jesus, and therefore not to be modified; so too Resignation, especially at the clamor of a mob, does not suit the situation of ecclesial persons or solve the problems of failure or even malfeasance in ecclesial relationships.  
Two weeks ago, I wryly shared to my periodic urge to cope with failure and frustration by chucking it all to drive a truck.  This was absurd because the so-called solution of Resignation does not fit pastors of the Church, for whom it would be to abandon not only one’s responsibility but also one’s identity.  One does not Resign from being Dad!  Whatever the reason – personal failure, repeated rejection, or catastrophic sin – trying simply to “move on” ignores the reality of the relationship that will continue to exist, though deeply damaged.   Similarly, ejecting Dad cannot erase the relationship even for the ones who are wounded by him.  
So we who are wounded by our own fathers cannot howl for their Resignation without attempting to resign our own identities as sons and daughters. It was eminently suitable for Theodore McCarrick to relinquish his cardinalitial status – an honor, a distinction – but we must acknowledge that he has been our father and has failed us, indeed abused us.  He forfeited not only governing authority, but also all moral authority.  This is disguised by the fact that his mistreatment of his family, this local church, came to light only after another had taken his seat as paterfamilias.  
Now that our current Dad, Cardinal Wuerl, stands accused of having failed to do enough in his previous diocese, Pittsburgh, and having failed to act appropriately here, some are calling for him to Resign! as well.  Indeed, it is suggested that even our Holy Father, Pope Francis, should be obliged to Resign!  for his failures.  This, I fear, is neither helpful nor hopeful.
All the dirty laundry that has tumbled out of the Church in the past two weeks should be enough to make even the ecclesiastical naïf aware that Our Holy Mother the Church is not one huge, monolithic machine of the well-oiled variety, even (especially?) at her highest levels of governance, where one supposes to find a Pope who is informed of all things, decides all things, and directs all things, surrounded by eager collaborators, all of whom hear him, salute, and obey.  Hardly! 
No, her threadbare administrative structure leaves room not only for mistakes, missed opportunities, and misunderstandings, not to mention mulligans, but also for malice.   Mistakes are not the same as malfeasance, miscommunications are not lies, neglect is not disobedience, and human weakness is not present evil.  But can you tell which is which – on penalty of your immortal soul?
We have received some strong indications of where malfeasance and disobedience truly have run amok, and where human weakness and miscommunication have abetted it.  But how can we confirm our suspicions, or allay our fears?
The path to familial reconciliation and reunion is not Resignation, but Repentance.   This is Christ’s own remedy to heal the wounds in His Body, the Church; it is His universal prescription.  And this is how it could be proposed to our damaged Dads:
A Dad, a shepherd, who sees this evil at work in his family, his church, can and must stand forth with contrition for his failures, and acknowledgement of his sins that have brought that evil into the life of his family.  Where he plainly acknowledges mistakes, he will no longer stand accused of malfeasance.  When he lays out his role in the miscommunication, he will not be called a liar.  And when he acknowledges the cost of his human weakness, he will no longer be thought evil.  By confessing sins that he has committed, he can make it clear to himself and all the family which is the evil that he did not do.  An unrepentant Dad is a destructive Dad, and the family will best find unity in stopping the destruction.  A disappointing Dad is still able to be Dad, and with the help of the other family members once again be able to lead the family forward.  
Unlike Resignation, this great work of Repentance can and will bear fruit in Christ’s body the Church, because it can be offered with expectation of forgiveness.  To prepare oneself to forgive is now the work of each family member.  The best preparation to forgive is to Repent! oneself, searching with brutal honesty one’s own conscience for every fault.  This nurtures the complementary intercourse among souls that reflects and makes present the divine economy, the actual work of saving the world.  The Church possesses everything she needs to heal herself and our wounded world.  But before we can convince the world that it needs the saving mercy of God in Christ, we must allow ourselves visibly to depend upon it.
Some say the biggest threat to mankind is climate change; Jesus says it is sin.  Some say immigrants require our full attention; Jesus tells me I myself am just passing through this world on my way to my true home.  Taking this to heart, I do not despair before the sin and abuse even of those entrusted with leadership in the Church; and I will not turn from the Way even when episcopal infidelity has left every one to his own way.  The same Providence that has shown us this squalor in our highest halls will also guide the footsteps of all who respond in faith.  
With neither pitchfork nor torch in hand, I hope, and pray, and call not for Resignation, but for Repentance on the part of fathers who still this day bear the responsibility for the well-being of their children in Christ. Admit your infidelities, whether they seem to you insignificant or damning, lest your children think you guilty of worse ones.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.(Matthew 16:25) You will help change this age of anguish into a moment of abundant grace, poured out upon the whole Church, and fortifying us all for the work to which our Father calls us.  You will be part of the great healing and purification that will be celebrated for generations to come.  For God will heal and purify His people, with or without your cooperation. 
When every true shepherd sheepishly has sought forgiveness, the silent ones will be revealed to be wolves in shepherds’ clothing.  And by their bad fruit shall we know them, whether they Resign, or not; and our family, the household of God, will unite to stop the destruction.  This Communion in the faithful love of Christ, who knows the merciful love of God and one another, will remain one in following the voice of the One who calls us to fidelity; and He will give us shepherds.  
Monsignor Smith
Prayer for the Church
Let Your continual pity cleanse and defend Your Church, we beseech You, O Lord; and because she cannot continue in safety without You, govern her evermore by Your help. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  
(XV Sunday after Pentecost, Roman Missal, 1962).

Saturday, September 01, 2018

A shoe fits

There you have it.
Just when I thought I had all that I needed to talk to you about what’s going on in the Church, everything changes, again.
Last weekend, while I was at dinner, my supposedly silenced phone began to shake and buzz as I was inundated with texts from friends all over the country. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó (vee-gah-NOH), from 2011 until 2016 the Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador of the Pope) to the United States, had released his Testimony.  Like some teenager avoiding eye contact with his family, I sat there glued to my phone reading it as the dinner conversation rattled on without me. I was stunned.
I hope you all have read it too; if not, you can easily find all eleven pages of it online.  Read the actual document, not simply someone’s analysis of it.  It is clearly the work of a man who is deeply disturbed by what he has seen at the highest levels of the Church, and more deeply frustrated by the perduring corruption that he has encountered there, especially in the matter of misuse of power tangled up with sexual sin.
While I am not close to Abp. Viganó, I have had dinner with him.  He is a serious and sober man, a faithful and humble man, and I have no reason to suspect his motives for this unprecedented action, though I know he has suffered for striving to do what is right. In fact, I am grateful to him for speaking.
In his text, there are at least two categories of assertions he makes. The first category is the concrete facts; these are marked by names, dates, and circumstances, personal experiences of which documentary records exist.  There is no reason not to take these assertions seriously.
There is also a second category, less concrete, that you might call impressions.  These are less compelling, but by no means necessarily false.  
There might even be a third category, which I would call speculation. It would be informed and insightful speculation, but speculation nonetheless.   These assertions tend to be personal in nature, sometimes attributing motives, and without evidence given for them.  I think they weaken the significance of the concrete facts he gives.
There are places where his testimony directly contradicts the testimony of other prominent people.  In some cases, only one person can be telling the truth.  However, as you read along, and acquire a sense how a diplomat and churchman of his caliber communicates, you realize there is room for ambiguity or misunderstanding.  In those cases, Viganó’s honest recollection might authentically differ with the honest recollection of the other party.  Not every disagreement is a “lie.”  And as ever, it is important to read with some charity.
Even limiting ourselves to the concrete facts, we will find that his painful narrative fits smoothly into the gaps in our knowledge of what has happened over the past fifteen years, and plausibly gives a reason for many situations that were previously inexplicable.  
Having read it several times, and realizing the impact it is already having on the disposition within the Church toward the root cause of our current grievous trouble, I am filled with hope.  To receive this Testimony in the spirit it was intended, of filial devotion to the Church and selfless desire for her liberation from all who are harming her and us, is to see fulfilled the promise that Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.(Luke 12:3).  And for those of you who were wondering how we could ever find a way forward that would lead into the light, there you have it.
Monsignor Smith

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Quo vadis?

I could be a truck driver.
There’s a shortage, you know, so someone would probably hire me.  I like solo, cross-country driving; already in my varied career I have driven a dump truck, a garbage truck, and a fire truck. I’ve never managed a ‘big rig,” but I am a quick study.  So I think I could be a truck driver.
Besides, nobody ever thinks very much about truck drivers; they’re not controversial.  Except when a truck is in their way on the highway, nobody talks very much about truck drivers.  That would be nice.
So, yeah, when that starts to sound good to me, it’s been a tough week. 
No matter how much time you have spent on it, it’s probably not as much as I have.  Reading the articles, hearing to the reports, listening to reactions, and enduring pronouncements has filled large swaths of my summer schedule these last two months, and that’s not even counting the time my brain has ground away at the ramifications and realities of this new eruption of the moral and sexual sepsis in Christ’s Church.
And no matter how much time I have spent on it, processing the information, absorbing the anger, and separating helpful from hurtful amidst all the recommendations and resolutions made in response, clearly it has not been enough to undo one evil act by one of my brother priests, or to salve one wounded soul shattered by abuse.
I read one article in the local paper criticizing a pastor for, among many things, having nothing in the bulletin responding to the crisis.  Well of course not; our bulletin for last weekend were already printed when the Grand Jury report was published last week; I would imagine her parish’s was too. It’s a small thing, but a good example of how willingly people have cast aside reason, not to mention charity, in tarring with brush of their rage all whom they see as deficient or defective.
I apologize; it was in this environment that I was away from the parish last weekend, not to avoid contact with you or anybody else, but rather to seek it, albeit elsewhere: I was in Birmingham for long-planned family events.  And in a truly rare turn of events, this weekend I am away again, this time for a wedding in Newark, New Jersey.  Of courseI was back at work here during the weekdays between the two trips; school starts on Wednesday and there are a million things to do.  
While helplessly and seemingly endlessly stuck at airports (not a bad metaphor for the whole groundhog-day sexual-abuse replay, now that I think of it), I began writing to you.  You won’t be surprised to know that I have more thoughts, and more text, than I can put in a bulletin page.   What of that can be saved, I will present in coming days.  In the meantime, I have already heard quite a lot from people, and I understand.  I will continue to listen to what you have to say.  And I am dressed identifiably as a priest everywhere I go, too, so I hear a lot from other people as well.  Some of what I have heard may surprise you; some of it may even cheer you.  We could all use that.
But one of the best things I have heard said is that the Catholic faithful want to DO something; something that will purify and restore the Church; something that will make a difference for future sons and daughters; something that will be good and holy and life-giving, like the Church is supposed to be. 
I am working on just that, and I will share it with you soon.  And no, it does NOT involve driving a truck.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Rolling with the punches

Just when you get used to having somebody around, he leaves. It seems to be the lot of the diocesan priest.  
After his first year living with us here for what we expected to be a five-year course of study at Catholic University, Father Grisafi was looking like somebody we would be glad to have around.  He was good company in the rectory, willing to help with anything around the parish, and was beginning to know parishioners well enough to be engaged in the life of the parish.  He could always be counted on for a good linguistic observation, too, with all his Latin and Hebrew and Greek.  
But then everything changed.  You who were at Mass last weekend heard him announce that he will be leaving us at the end of this month to return to parish work in his own diocese of Rockville Centre.  Many of you said, how could this be, as you were just getting used to having him around!
Well, he had been in conversation with his bishop for a while, and after a meeting last week in which they discussed what they had discerned, his bishop agreed to bring him back to the diocese and is currently arranging for a parish assignment there.  He assures me it is not that he was tired of living with me!   You may suspect Father Magro, who has been here only six week, was the “straw that broke the camel’s back;” but no, he assures us that is not it either.  It surely was not the Good People of the Parish, whom he enjoyed greatly.
Sometimes a parish priest just gotta go be a parish priest. I understand.  But it sure throws a wrench in my works!  It is unlikely I will find another student priest to move in for the new semester, which begins in one week.  I will poke around; send out feelers; welcome inquiries (hint hint – if you know anybody).   Maybe somebody is already studying but has an unsatisfactory living arrangement.   We shall see.
It will have an impact on you, as all duties will have to be divided between Fr. Magro and me.  That will narrow the palette, so to speak, of the program here.  It will be harder for us to plan travel, without someone to cover for us while we are away.  
But foremost we will miss his company in the rectory!  It is an odd thing how we parish priests do not simply work together, but live together, and when our work changes, so does our living arrangement.  That means someone new in, and someone familiar out, every so often, and sometimes quite abruptly.  It is almost as if you never know whom you will find at your breakfast table.
So, we are a bit destabilized here in the Holy House of Soubirous, but we shall push on.  Keep us all in your prayers.  Pray that we find a new resident, and that Father Grisafi find deep satisfaction in his new assignment.  
Speaking of destabilization, I am gratified by your response to events within the Church, local and universal.  I am confident I shall have further grist for this mill in future columns, but I am glad so many of you are willing and able to talk with me about it, venting your frustration (a mild word for it) and offering your concern for us.  Heck, by the time you read this, we may have already had another wild week.  Stay close to the Lord. 
If you look to continue that conversation with me this weekend, I admit I will not be on the property.  I will be in Birmingham, Alabama for my nephew’s Eagle Scout ceremony, and celebrating my father’s 80thbirthday.  Call it a busman’s holiday, but I will be celebrating Sunday Mass at the parish in which I grew up, Our Lady of Sorrows in Homewood.  It is only fitting; the Gospel for this Sunday is the basis for one of the few homilies I remember from my youth clearly to this day.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. (John 6:56)  Thank God I have gotten used to having Himaround!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, August 11, 2018


Anticipation is agony.
Decades ago there was a very funny commercial for Heinz ketchup that used the song “Anticipation” while showing the agonizing wait for the red goo to come out of the bottle.  It worked because it resonated with experience; everybody hates to wait.
In early February, I began making calls to stained glass companies about restoring our windows.  After four visits and four estimates; the testing for, confirmation of, and bids to remove the asbestos; after choosing the contractors and compiling the necessary documentation; after submitting it to the Archdiocese through the pre-consultors meeting, the consultors meeting, and the office of the General Counsel; after the approved contracts were allowed to sit on a desk for a month; after scheduling a time when both contractors would be available to work; finally, this week, scaffolding went up, workers appeared, and things started to change.  Now I cannot wait to see one completed window!  I cannot wait for you to see what a difference this will make!   Daily I go to examine the progress; anticipation is agony.
Last August 16, a year ago this week, I first met with Tom Moran to discuss a capital campaign for the beautification of the church.  After requesting the required permission from the Archdiocese, we began meeting with parishioners in September, had receptions in October, and spoke to all the Masses in November.  The response was amazing, and by early January you had pledged over a million dollars to make it happen.  Already we have half that in an account accruing interest.  For months already, people have asked eagerly when the work is starting; anticipation is agony.
In 1992, I entered formation for the Holy Priesthood of Jesus Christ.  In my first seminary, I found faculty and students who laughed at the “old” beliefs of the Church; who mocked devotion and authentic liturgy; who disregarded Christian moral teaching; who reveled in camp and gossip and innuendo; and a dominant homosexual culture (too large to call a subculture) that devoured many it desired and destroyed the vocations of many who dared to challenge it.  
But at the same time and in the same place, I found others who desired to live and serve the fullness of the Faith, who rejected the corrosive attitudes and behaviors so clearly of a piece with the horrible abuse by priests of young people, the very first examples of which had recently come to light.   We were not in a position to correct or to change the faculty or students senior to us; we were able only to resist them, and to resolve never, ever, to cooperate in that evil.  
It was not exactly the same, not as bad even, at my next seminary; but the same dynamic, if on a different scale and a different schedule, was at work there, and around the Church in the U.S.  Now, there are more of us; priests for ten, or twenty, or in some places even thirty years.  We have not by revolution or rebellion seized the Church; but in the slow passage of time and responsibility, where she has given any of us the gift of governance, there is authentically zero tolerance for this poison.
The Sexual Revolution that rocked the Christian West in the late 1960’s found its advocates even in the Church.  The exaltation of the sexual appetite overrode the yearning for holiness in the presentations of serious scholars and the pitches of striving hucksters.  Everything old was cast aside for the titillation of everything new, and a Church who had left her windows open admitted more than just “smoke from the fires of Hell” (as said Blessed Pope Paul VI).
It takes days if not weeks for a professional cleaning service to clean a home that even the smallest fire has tainted with smoke.  The stink of that evil vapor that penetrated the Church at every level still emerges to shock and disgust us, even when the events themselves are decades old.  
Last week I said of our stained-glass, “It is hard to say just yet how long the project will take; we will know better after the first few windows have been completed.”   The exact same is true of the work of walking this deep corruption out of the divine institution that is the Holy Church.   We have accomplished much in recent decades, but we still uncover things that require added effort.

We are not helpless; but just like our window project, we cannot skip a step to speed the process.  Each priest, every Catholic should heed the advice found in the ancient Letter attributed to the Apostle Barnabas:  When evil days are upon us and the worker of malice gains power, we must attend to our own souls and seek to know the ways of the Lord.  In those times, reverential fear and perseverance will sustain our faith, and we will find need of forbearance and self-restraint as well.  The power to fight evil is in the Lord and His commands, and he has entrusted both to us.  This is an enormous project, but it is also long underway.  And we know how it ends!

How long, O Lord?!  Anticipation is agony.
Monsignor Smith