Saturday, August 01, 2015

Not My Own Work

A few months ago, David Barringer, longtime parishioner and bulletin-reader, wrote me to share his experience of writing a newsletter column, sympathizing with me over the challenges of finding and addressing topics regularly.  I found this example of his writing for the national Saint Vincent de Paul Society to be worth sharing, not least because it gives me a week off.  Enjoy!  
Monsignor Smith
How many of us are guilty by association?
One person’s “special interest group” seeking attention from Congress is another person’s “my voice in Washington.”  Last week I attended the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) annual American Associations Day on Capitol Hill.  ASAE represents more than 10,000 tax-exempt organizations representing individuals, business and trade groups and even membership societies such as our Society.  Associations are some of the leading adult-education providers in the country.  They set standards for industry groups so that government doesn’t need to step in. And they represent their members.  Or do they?
That’s the challenge facing each of us. We may think we are simply saving a few bucks on insurance when we join a group such as AARP, but does this mean we subscribe to the “values” AARP then takes to the Hill? When we register for a National Rifle Association course, buy a map from AAA, or even just join a neighborhood homeowner association, how much of our beliefs and opinions get transferred with the membership?  Not to pick on the groups above, because all associations do this to some level, but when they say they represent us, do they really?  Or have we inadvertently sold our values in order to save a few dollars or to take part in a desired activity?
In these days of suspected Internet hacking, personal data insecurity and identity theft, isn’t it ironic that we might just give this stuff away when we sign on a dotted line?  We scream when our name is on a mailing list, but when we ordered that online purchase or applied for a new driver license, you can be assured that our name and address ended up somewhere else.  Someone is counting you in their numbers.  And how do you think you got called for jury duty?
As a member of the Society of St. Vincent DePaul, I hope you know exactly what we stand for and against. We have position papers that reflect the views of the Catholic Church and the USCCB on matters of life, wages other sensitive topics.  We are transparent, and consistent, in our beliefs. Your Society membership not so much defines your beliefs as it reinforces them for a faithful Catholic.
Would it shock you that Progressive life insurance was created in part to help the owner fund very progressive causes? Or that the national Girl Scouts organization supports abortion choices?  According to some allegations on the Internet, your purchases of car insurance or Thin Mints may help fund things in direct conflict with your values.
As Americans we have a Constitutional right to assemble, meaning that we can join voluntary groups to represent our views before Congress and local government.  I fear though that out of convenience and perhaps some laziness, we might at times allow groups to speak for us inappropriately.  Our voice counts, and so do our dollars. Our choices, actively or passively, grant others license to speak for us.  This gives us even greater buying power in a sense, but only if we are vigilant activists in our choices.
Take a few minutes to check out your membership cards and receipts and find out who your memberships and purchases say you really are.  So, what’s in your wallet?  Or more so, who is in your wallet?

Yours in Christ,     Dave Barringer

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Unforgettable

There are many homilies that I remember.  From when I was discerning my vocation and participating at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, there are several from Cardinal Hickey, and a few from Father Brainerd.  From my days in seminary, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly from the faculty – all of them good for a chuckle from my classmates.  From my time as a priest secretary in Rome, these two from Cardinal Ratzinger: his address to Pope Saint John Paul II upon the twenty-fifth anniversary of his pontificate, and his “dictatorship of relativism” talk from the Mass of the Holy Spirit before the 2005 Conclave that elected him to the Chair of Peter. 
But from much before that, I cannot point to very many homilies that have staying power, with one exception.  When I was a kid in Birmingham, going to Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows, we occasionally had the pleasure of a guest priest.  He was the abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Cullman, about forty minutes north of us.  Though I really did not know what a Benedictine monk was, I knew we called him Abbot Hilary, and I was always pleased when he came.  I liked his preaching and his manner of celebrating Mass, both of which he did with particular care and delight. 
This weekend we interrupt our year-long reading of the Gospel of Mark for a five-week detour into the Gospel of John.  We begin with the feeding of the multitude, picking up neatly from where Mark left us last week, but leading us where Mark did not choose to go: with Jesus to Capernaum, and the square in front of the synagogue there.  The throng that has been fed once seeks to be fed again, and Jesus responds by teaching them how, and what, He will feed them.
It requires five Sundays to move through a single chapter, John Chapter Six, a Scriptural citation that should come easily to every Catholic, and every Christian for that matter.  It is the Eucharistic Discourse that John gives us in order to understand this mystery that is at the heart of the relationship and life that Jesus offers us.  The other Evangelists explain the Eucharist in the presentation of the Last Supper, where John focuses on the mandatum, the washing of the feet.  But there is no room to believe that he did not emphasize the Eucharist, and this chapter makes that clear.
What Jesus proposed in that square to that crowd was scandalous and repellent then, but to us has become so familiar that it might lose its meaning.  As Jesus directs the hungry crowd to hunger instead for what he will give them, we have a chance to hear the same invitation in our own circumstance.  In anger and disgust, many reject his offer and walk away, then and now.  He concludes with the poignant question, Do you also want to leave?  We hear Peter’s answer, but He stands waiting for ours.
The homily I remember from my youth is Abbot Hilary’s on the final portion of John Chapter Six, when Jesus poses to his listeners, and to us, this choice of how to respond to His offered Body and Blood.   The response that I chose led me to be in a position to propose the same choice to you.  Over these five weeks, you may or may not hear, much less ever recall, my preaching on this vital element in our Faith.  But do not let the words of the Holy Gospel reach your ears in vain, for it is what Jesus says to the multitude at Capernaum that should be one of the homilies that you remember.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Joy of Not Knowing

It pleases me to be able to exhort you to welcome our new Parochial Vicar, Fr. Daniel Gallaugher.  He moved in during the week, a few moments earlier than mandated by the Archdiocesan appointment, and proceeded to throw himself into the work at hand by offering the 6:30 Mass on his first day in residence.
This is the “flip-side” of the process we went through in May, when Fathers McDonell and McCabe set out from us, one of them not having known that he would move so soon, the other still not knowing to where he was moving.  Their going forth from us was our loss, and we had no idea of the needs and goals that led those responsible for deciding when and where they would go.
Now arrives Fr. Gallaugher, and his arrival is our gain.  That much we can easily agree without yet knowing precisely what it is we shall gain.  I shall ask him to write for you a biographical sketch for next week, so I will not now go into details that he shall better convey.  We know that simply having another priest dedicated to the spiritual health and growth of our parish and parishioners will be a good thing.  But what is it in particular that he will bring? 
Conversely we can be confident that his being here with us will be good for him.  This parish is recognized for treating very well the priests who are assigned here and who live here. 
By “treating well,” however, I do not mean showering with gifts and privileges, asking very little in the way of effort, or applauding every deed and utterance.  That might seem to be good treatment by some standard, but not by ours.  No, by this I mean that the members of this church respect and understand the Holy Priesthood, and ask for the energetic exercise of precisely that office and the divine gifts associated with it.  In other words, you ask your priests, to be your priests, all the while recognizing that every priest is different, and at a different stage in his vocational growth and development.  This is why our rectory is almost constantly chosen to host a seminarian still in formation.  I have told you before that you are good teachers of priests.
So just what it is that Fr. Gallaugher will learn while he is here, just what growth in wisdom and holiness he will enjoy because of his relationship with you and all that will happen here during his time, we do not know any more than he does.
Nonetheless, we can be just as confident that learning and growth will occur in us because of his presence and ministry, without knowing what shape that learning and growth will take. 
This is part of the great delight and anticipation that accompanies Fr. Gallaugher, for it is the Holy Spirit at work in the Church that has brought him here to us.  It balances the sadness and gratitude that marked the sending forth of Frs. McDonell and McCabe when obedience spirited them from out of our midst.
As if this were not sufficient cause for rejoicing, I will share with you that this week I learned that another priest, this one assigned to study at Catholic University, hopes to live here this year.  There are still several practical steps between now and his arrival, so I will leave the details for later, and commend to your prayers all (us) priests whom God sends to bring you closer to Himself. 

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 04, 2015

An Exceptional Fourth to You

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 27, 2015

Are you being served?

One of the projects Mary Ellen Barringer has been working out in her time coordinating the Religious Education program is reshaping the service requirement for young people preparing for Confirmation.    This has raised my awareness of the number of “service requirements” that people face, in their schools and in their other associations.  I even read yesterday that somebody had been convicted of a crime and sentenced to 80 hours of community service. 
At the same time, to distribute the workload more evenly among parents, our school requires that each family earn a certain amount of “tier credit” for service there.  The result seems to have been a diminishing willingness to volunteer or just help out, unless tier credit is both offered for the work, and needed by the worker. 
It has become a commonplace understanding that we live in a service economy, which means that what is bought and sold is more likely to be an action than a thing.  Our society has grown proficient at identifying, marketing, and putting prices on services that people will pay for.  This has become a source of innovation and economic strength.
It does not mean that our economy encourages service.  Folks have confused the type of service that characterizes our economy (doing a useful activity for a price) with the type of service that characterizes our human nature (doing something for the good of another, rather than one’s own good).  True service is accomplished at a cost to the one who serves.  This cost cannot be repaid or reimbursed.  It can be recognized, and responded to with gratitude. 
This has also resulted in a loss of understanding of and appreciation for the service that cannot be marketed, and which is in fact priceless.  In a healthy human economy, the response to service freely offered is … service.  For example, those who have fought our wars are (or should be) cared for in their injury or age.
To His bewildered Apostles, Jesus explained the divine economy: I came not to be served, but to serve.  His is the supreme and perfect work of service, which results in liberation from selfishness (sin) and its wages (death). To recognize service of this order, the proper response is not recompense, but reverence.  This is the currency not of the service economy, but the economy of salvation.
As human beings in the image and likeness of God, we are free to serve.  When we freely offer ourselves in the service of another, we participate in the life of Jesus, and give life to the world.  But as our economy has become more effective at setting a value and a price on service of every sort, and as our country has become more affluent in this “service economy,” it seems increasingly rare to find people willing to dedicate themselves to careers or relationships of service.  
Because our parish and most of our families enjoy this increase in affluence, we need to ask: are we teaching our children the proper attitude toward service?  For example, is it our hope that there will be enough people of their generation who will be willing to serve them, or are we hoping that they themselves will serve?   Yes, it would be a sacrifice for them.  But we have seen that this is precisely what God wanted for His Son!
The Son of the living God is at work in our midst in all who cooperate with Him in serving their brothers and sisters.  If we resolve to render due worship to Him, and gratitude and praise to those who offer service to us and for us, then not only will our children be more eager to offer themselves in service, but we too will become true servants, in Christ Jesus.  And more than any service project or even career of service, this is what will change – indeed, it is what will save – the world.

Monsignor Smith