Saturday, October 18, 2014

Prepared as a bride to meet her husband

What is that?  That …that …enormous …thing over the altar, filled with lights and colored glass, holding up the suspended crucifix.  That, my friends, is a baldachin.  That’s the first thing you have to explain to a first-time visitor to our humble parish church.   It is also known as a baldacchino, from the Italian; or ciborium, from the Latin.  That latter is the same word we use for the vessel that holds the consecrated hosts; the common element being the lid, or cover.

Some call it a “canopy,” and that is no bad guess, although that invokes a tent or some other cover made of cloth.  The most famous baldachin in the world – the one designed by Bernini that stands above the Papal altar in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican – fashions bronze to look like fabric, silk flaps swaying gently in the breeze, with tassels hanging from the tips. 

Aside from simply designating the altar area as the most important in the church, which it is; and beyond drawing eyes and attention to what happens beneath it, which it does, the baldachin does in fact refer directly and unambiguously to another canopy. 
In many pre-modern and pre-urban societies, not only was the wedding itself a social event celebrated by the entire population of the village or town, but that celebration and that involvement continued up to and including the fulfillment of the marriage promises.  So, just as before the wedding, the preparation of the bride and the groom was a communal effort, so after the wedding, the banquet (a much stronger – and longer! – event than a mere reception) and beyond.  For there was also prepared a nuptial chamber, to which the couple, after sufficient partying had been enjoyed, would be led.  Inside was prepared the wedding bed, decorated and designated by the best of everything available and over it, a canopy.  Under that canopy would be sealed and consummated the nuptial union that the couple had promised one another in the marriage ceremony.
In the lectionary for weekday Mass, we just began reading Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.  In its fifth chapter, Paul reflects that the sacrifices husbands and wives offer one another are in fact a great mystery, a sacramentum, both manifesting and making present the very relationship between Christ Jesus and His spouse, the Church: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church.  (Ep 5:31-32)
How does this happen?  How does Christ, the ever-faithful Bridegroom, offer His flesh to His bride, and how does She receive it, and offer Her body to be His?  How else but in the Holy Eucharist?  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.  (Jn 6:56)  Ergo, the nuptial imagery surrounding and identifying our Holy Altar.
Nobody who knows and understands the faith of the Church would confuse believing Catholics with prudes or puritans.  How could that be possible when our most sacred space is centered on a direct reference to the marital act?  For our faith does not lead us away from the flesh; on the contrary, it leads us to the life-giving flesh of our Lord.
Just last week we switched our bulletin cover to the photo of this most distinctive feature of our church.  The baldachin is at the center of our church, because the Eucharistic feast is the center of our life-giving communion in the Body of Christ, and because marriage is the center of the communion in the flesh between man and wife that brings life into the world, and into the communion with God in Christ.  So that is what that is.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Nostalgia or Tradition?

If I do not read, I have nothing to say.  That may seem like some ancient cliché, but it is a fact of my life.  I have to speak all the time – not just talk; not just converse; but speak – principally  preach, but also teach, instruct, and exhort in various formats.  Because I am responsible for putting to you the way, and the truth, and the life, constantly I am on a quest for new ways to allow Him to reveal Himself.  Obviously, I read Scripture – again and again and again, each and every time finding something new and remarkable.  But I also read many other things.  I must speak; therefore I read.
Poking around the Internet, I found a remarkable article by a professor of theology named Leroy Huizenga.  Because it was based on the work of Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite authors (Southern, Catholic, died about three weeks before I was born), I read it with some eagerness, and found this:
Those of us who value tradition are often accused of nostalgia, of seeking greener pastures in the irrecoverable past.
Nostalgia is a sin, a mild form of sloth, and engaging in it enervates discipleship and devotion. But tradition is different; tradition is not the dead faith of the living but rather the living faith of the dead, as (Jaroslav) Pelikan said. To live within and out of tradition is not to daydream about days gone by most of us never experienced anyway, but rather to ride the crest of the wave of God’s redemptive story as we live out our own stories within its broader plot.
We have no other time than the present in which to live; all of us were called for such a time as this, this time, here, now, Today, as long as it is called Today, wherever and whenever we are. But we do not stand alone; we stand locked in arms not only with our sisters and brothers today in time and space but also in spirit with those gone before — St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Hildegard — indeed, the entire company of all the angels and saints, the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant.
Where is this encounter to be found? Where meet heaven and earth, past and present, I and Thou? In the liturgy, in the Mass, borne forth by tradition and bearing tradition forth, in which together we encounter Christ our God in the Eucharist, the sacrament of all unity, the source and summit of Christian life. Here, the Church teaches, is the highest form of prayer, upon which daily prayer, devotion, and discipleship draw, and thus here, the crest of tradition, is whence we draw wisdom and courage for meeting the challenges of our present age.
Nostalgia is a sin. Tradition is not nostalgia.
Earlier this very day, I had dropped an email note to a friend of mine, exhorting him to enjoy an evening of nostalgia tonight, before he leaves town.  Suddenly I find myself recalculating, as your car’s GPS says.  Apparently, I need to reconsider my idea of a harmless and even happy pastime.
For a parish with as marvelous a past as we have here at Saint Bernadette, days and years filled with fun and glory, nostalgia is a popular pastime.  Many good and holy happenings have taken place here, changing and shaping lives in a good and even glorious way.  For folks here who struggle with something different from what they have experienced in the past, nostalgia for things remembered is often mistaken for tradition, and becomes an excuse to reject the challenge and opportunity of today. 
I have no doubt, and admitted above, that I can be lured onto the destructive rocks by the siren song of nostalgia.  I will have to apply this distinction more carefully now before I present happy memories as a guide or lesson.  But I invite you to engage with me in the same critical self-evaluation, all because of something I read, without which I would have nothing to say.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Three things this week -- or is it one?

Thank you all for your response to our collection for the beset Christians in the Middle East last weekend.  The total received over the weekend was $3,965.13, and I am sure more will come in over coming weeks.  You are quite generous; this outpouring is toward the higher end for a second collection here.  This is more remarkable because it was not scheduled, but “special,” situational, and the third second collection during September. 
Please, please do not forget to follow up with your prayers and attention.  Do not neglect to attend to the travails of these people!  I did notice a few extra folks who made the sacrifice of time for them at Adoration this past Sunday.  Do not underestimate the value of your prayers.
If you want to continue your material support, allow me to commend to you the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (  They have been on the ground in the Holy Land and surrounding nations for decades, and are integrated with the local churches, who are the best at identifying authentic needs and providing long-term help.  They also have full oversight of the Church, and therefore meet all standards of transparency and accountability.
I have been supporting CNEWA as one of my personal charitable endeavors for as long as I have had a paycheck. I think this started because of my seminary trip to the Holy Land and Jordan, when I saw just how great the disadvantage our Baptismal brothers and sisters there face even when they are not being persecuted, much less martyred for their faith.  This is the ancient home of the Church, and the geographic and cultural ground of our Faith; it is worthy of our support and attention. 
It seems I haven’t preached to you in ages, since we are enjoying the efforts of our weekend seminarian Deacon Steve Graeve.  It is good for me to get a break, but also to be preached to, a rare luxury in my life.  As he explores all the elements of homiletic style and technique, he does not fail to bring insights that I had not considered before.  It also frees my meditation from weekly compartmentalization into homilies on specific Sunday scriptures, and allows me to reflect on whatever the Spirit reveals.
In the context of all that our Christian brothers and sisters are facing, I am drawn to the mystery of the Holy Trinity that is the heart of God’s self-revelation, and our faith.  Every year on Trinity Sunday I acknowledge it to be the most daunting subject to preach, but now world events lead me to the conclusion that it is the most vital aspect of our faith to explore.  You will hear more from me on this subject soon enough, but I invite you to join me in preparatory meditation. 
What is the greatest gift of the God who is in Himself Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  Is it love?  Is it intelligibility?  Is it freedom?  What is the most marvelous sign on earth of this heavenly Communion?  Is it the unity of the Body of Christ that is made of many members?   Is it the unity of the Sacred Scripture that is the fruit of many authors?  Is it the dynamic of the life-giving unity of Holy Matrimony, in which multiple souls are bound into the basic unit of society, of culture, and the Church?  Join me in reflecting on this.
I look forward to seeing you all on the field this weekend at the Fall Festival.  A lot of people have put in a great deal of work so that we can all have fun.  Right now the prediction is for it to be chilly, but sunny.  Make a prayer for the weather to reflect the glory of the Lord, and the radiance of our love for one another, rather than be a reminder of our Baptism.  There is never a shortage of worthy intentions for our prayers, and never anything less than abundance of care in the Providence of God who responds to them.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Checking and balancing

Delfina is after me again.  She just left a stack of checks on my desk to sign so that we can pay bills this week.   This morning it was a bank form so I could approve adding the new treasurer to the signature card of a parish organization’s account.  There was also a question about someone’s annual leave.
Delfina (Castro) is our business manager here.  Of course, since we have an administrative staff of four (including the volunteer) she does a lot more than any single job description can describe.  For example, she does a great job arranging flowers.
Honestly, Delfina is not always after me.   Most days, people are after her.  At some point a teacher will come by to deal with a withholding or insurance issue, but usually it is the phone – vendors and such.  Then there are the folks who take responsibility for all the groups in the parish who make things happen.  First and foremost among these is, of course, the CYO, but the Tuesday Club and the Home School Association are in a dead heat for close second.  Add to that Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the school Gala, the Fall Festival, a new account for our Haiti mission, and the upcoming youth pilgrimage or a class field trip, and pretty soon you have a crowd. 
One of the coolest things about the entire process she oversees is the incredibly precise tracking of donations.  Now there are plenty of folks here who throw whatever cash they have loose on their persons into the collection baskets, but that is neither a complicated nor a large sum to track. 
But the minute someone hands in a check, or an envelope, with an identifiable name on it, and (or) a designation for the donation, every detail gets recorded.  We have folks who give large checks with detailed lists of what amounts(s) should be taken from them for an array of purposes.  We get hand-written names on those “welcome” envelopes, or “memo” lines on checks that explain what the donation is for.  We have second collections and special collections, bequests and sacramental offerings, donations for repairs to the rectory, memorial gifts and offerings for altar flowers on a particular weekend, and anonymous help with a specific family’s tuition bill. 
Every gift goes precisely to its designated use, and nowhere else, down to the last penny.  And at the end of every January, every donor gets a detailed report suitable for presentation to the IRS.  If people only knew how much work goes into that incredibly conscientious stewardship of their offerings to God!   But in a way, that’s the easy part, and definitely the joyful part.
The Archdiocese demands a lot of her time too, as she deals with Human Resources and the Controller’s office and all the technical systems associated with them.
And speaking of systems – hoo-boy have we had a couple of years!  In its serene wisdom, our Archdiocese a few years back introduced a sweeping new program of technology to manage data for accounting, personnel, payroll, and school data.  You will be shocked – shocked I tell you! (unless you regularly read Dilbert in the comics) -- to learn that this massive rollout did not go smoothly.  The technical people had a lot of harsh things to say about Delfina, whose fault they said it all obviously was.  Now, however, suddenly the Archdiocese is announcing that the new systems do not work as intended and maybe we shouldn’t all be using them after all. 
So after two years of being, shall we say, not in a position to control some portion of the information and technology that we need to manage the material aspect of this huge parish organization, Delfina and I finally have recovered (mostly) from the impact of mandated and problematic technological changes.
Delfina is after me again – thank goodness!
Monsignor Smith