Saturday, May 19, 2018

XX Marks the Spot

This is my 606thbulletin letter as Pastor of Saint Bernadette.
Why am I thinking about numbers? Because this week will mark the twentieth anniversary of my priestly ordination, and while it doesn’t seem like nearly as long a time as it sounds, there is some evidence that may be a sizeable slice of history. 
Since my ordination, I have served under three Popes, being in the historically strange position of having two at the same timesince before my fifteenth anniversary.  I am blessed to have been with both Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI very often, and in many circumstances, some of them quite intimate.  Pope Francis and I did spend some time together once, but he was still Cardinal Bergoglio then.  
I have also had three Archbishops, receiving my third before I finished my eighth year as a priest, when Cardinal Wuerl took over as Archbishop.  Because I have had the privilege to know well not only him and Cardinal McCarrick before him, but also Cardinal Hickey and Cardinal Baum, that stretches my intimacy with the excellent Archbishops of Washington back to 1973. 
The recent death of Bishop Foley similarly left me reflective about history.  He was the second Pastor of Saint Bernadette; I am the sixth, and the only one now living. I will finish my twelfth year as Pastor here right around Independence Day.  Only Msgr. Stricker, at 27 years, was Pastor longer.  
I have always enjoyed history and biography, and it has unfailingly helped me understand and deal with everything current or new.   I cannot help but notice a loss not only of the experience of these people and actions that have shaped our day, but a lack of interest in what is past.  It is a loss indeed, and one I strive to stanch and even remedy.
When I arrived here, people spoke intimately and often not only of recent pastors, but also of Msgr. Stricker (1948-1975) and “Msgr.” Foley (1975-1983).  The stories they told me helped me understand the parish, its history and culture, and filled me with admiration for the priests and people who founded and built it. That living connection within the parish has faded.  A lot of those folks have moved on over the intervening time, and the people who have arrived since do not recall even my immediate predecessor, Fr. Thompson (1997-2006). 
Similarly, among the priests of Washington, fewer and fewer can speak with any familiarity of Cardinal Hickey (1980-2000) much less Cardinal Baum (1973-1980) or the historical giant Cardinal O’Boyle (1948-1973).  This shocks me, despite its manifest logic, and I find myself having to explain to these younger brethren how these lives that to them are merely names made enormous impacts on the local church, and therefore their young priestly lives and all that they now have and enjoy. 
Stricker and O’Boyle, Foley and Baum; all these names represent lives of fidelity and grace, gifts of great impact enduring into our own time.  Popes have biographers, and saints leave devoted disciples; but these more ordinary workers in the vineyard fade too soon into the distance.  As you may wish your daughters could have known your grandmother, or your sons could have camped with your dad, so I would want to bridge the gap of time and experience to bring together the future of this community with the lives that breathed life into it.
The co-eternal Son of God leapt down from His celestial throne one winter night, and entered history, our history.  Leaving the eternal Now for the constrictions of Time, He made Time itself the condition of our encounter with Him, and made even the time that separates us from him, these two thousand years, serve also as a bridge that brings us into contact with Him.  What unites us now to God is history, and the people who are in it with us.
The priesthood I received reaches back to Cardinal Hickey and John Paul II, but also hand over hand all the way to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, so many moons ago.  Each of the human hands that passed the gift was different and indispensable, and I should be glad to know each one of them, that I might kiss it.  For I handed on to you what I also first received,says Saint Paul (1 Cor 15) and its precious value is indispensably identified by the faithful handing on.  
Twenty years as a priest is pretty good, and my twelve years as pastor have been great.  But my mom and dad will be celebrating their 55thanniversary this September, so clearly, I still have room to go.  The days and years we all mark connect our future to our past and give us the best part of what we will give to those to come.  To mark the time is to find our place in history, and to look at history is to be made grateful.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Moving the ball toward the goal

In the midst of what I happily call “May-hem,” the frenzy that comes each year at this time, I have been receiving a number of inquiries lately regarding the progress of our Capital Campaign.  Many have been along the lines of, when does the work start?
So I chuckle.  There is work already going on, really there is; but mainly that is the work of people fulfilling their pledges!  And that is good work indeed.  Let me share with you what we reviewed with the Finance Council this week:
Total Pledged to date: $1,040,242(in 225 pledges)
Total Contributed to date: $478,085.57(from 253 families contributing)
These donations are invested with the Knights of Columbus in a fund conceived for precisely this sort of campaign, to maintain safely every contribution but also to obtain some growth. 
This, as you probably recognize, is a marvelous and most encouraging accomplishment.  Our announced goal for the Campaign was $600,000 - $800,000, and we have already received donations over three-quarters of the minimum goal. 
But as we discussed, the scope of the project would depend on the success of the Campaign.    Because we received such a strong commitment in pledges, we are planning to accomplish more with it.  And as we also detailed in the presentation of the Campaign, the work we intend to do, particularly the improvements to the church, obtains a certain efficiencyby being done all together. 
For that reason, we do not intend to start piecemeal the projects as funds are received.  This means it will be a while before you see being done any of the work we announced as our goal for this Campaign.  
HOWEVER.  Fear not! You need not wait without any consolation or encouragement.  You will see work done on our church, and all of it will relate to the work of our Campaign. First, we recently received the diagnosis that the built-in gutters need to have the lining replaced.  This lining, at its seams and its joints to the downspouts, is what we have been repairingfor the past several years to stop the leaks around the perimeter of the church building.  It will be a large outlay, for which we are now seeking additional bids; but completely replacing this lining will secure the interior for the work we are about to do. Look for roofers sometime this summer!
ALSO, last year we received a sizeable bequest, and in order to maximize the impact of this most gracious gift, we will be doing work this summer on a project we could not have otherwise undertaken.  It will have immediate and immense impact on the church inside and out.  It will effect our decisions for the work we do with the Campaign, but first and foremost it will beautify our church in a stunning way that should encourage us all to keep up the necessary work of stewardship and giving.  Watch for scaffolding in July!
So with that tantalizing information, I bid you all keep fulfilling your pledges to the Capital Campaign, or, if you haven’t pledged yet, there’s no time like the present!  Meanwhile, be good to your mothers this weekend, not that you aren’t always; and enjoy the many joys of spring at full throttle, and more than a little May-hem.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, May 05, 2018


Forty years ago, in the churn of the wake of Vatican II, theologian Avery Dulles, later a Cardinal, published Models of the Church, a book considering the various aspects and emphases of the Church’s identity.  The ones he proposed and explored were, (1) Institution, (2) Mystical Communion, (3) Sacrament, (4) Herald, and (5) Servant.  More recently, some commentators and Pope Francis himself have referred to the Church as “a field hospital,” which was not one of Cardinal Dulles’ models, but has garnered some enthusiasm.

That strikes me as dramatic, maybe a bit too much so, especially compared to what fills my day.  Heaven knows we have our crises around here, and more often than you’d think people admit that they’re a “total wreck.”  But still, the pleas of the wounded; bleeding, dying, and triage are not what I usually run into in this ecclesial outpost.  Besides, a “field hospital” presumes the availability of a fully equipped, permanent medical center, to which we can send more serious patients (who have a good chance of survival) once we have assessed their needs and given them basic care.  I can’t say that’s available!  Besides, we have been here at Four Corners for seventy years; that’s a bit much to expect of a tent!
Reflecting on this the other day, as I am wont to do, I thought there might be other ways to describe your parish church.  Located handily by the intersection of two major arteries, and just off the Beltway, our operation might perhaps be understood as something resembling a “convenience store.”
Just look at our customer base: we have our regulars, both from the local neighborhood and those who pass us on their way from home to work; we get a regular flow of one-time visitors; and no shortage of folks who are “just passing through.”
And look at the management, and staff.  Somewhere in between “family owned and operated” and a franchise of a global operation, the “owner-operator” is highly invested, almost always on the property; sleeping “above the store,” as it were.  The staff is not specialized, but must be functional in the full range of activities, from cleaning and maintenance to customer relations, and security.  Whoever is on duty often winds up doing two or more wildly different things at the same time.
You might not realize this, but the diocesan clergy are the lowest form of the Church’s vocational hierarchy; the jacks-of-all-trades, the ones who aren’t specialized, flashy or focused, nor highly trained.  Our principal characteristic is that we are local– attached and assigned to a place, and expected to adapt to and meet whatever needs and customs the people of that place have.  See, we are the guys behind the counter at the corner “store.”  What’ll it be today?  

We try to keep the place clean and well lit.  Our stock is predictable; in fact, we offer the exact same products you’ll find at any of our outlets across the country and around the world.   We have an array of goods and services you may need; basic medicines, stuff for your home, and even items for minor repairs. There’s fuel if you need it, and of course, most obviously: food for the journey.
While we do lock the doors when it gets dark, we’re usually around if you need us, pretty much 24/7.   The light is on for you!  We’re here to provide what you need for daily life, and the journey you’re making.  It’s clearly more than 7Eleven; but then again, Oh thank heaven!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Not new -- but used?

As readily as it comes to our lips, the expression, “new and improved” has not been around very long, as such things go.  Associating newness with improvement has been an idea in human minds for rather longer, but only since people stopped associating predictability with safety and began to weary of the same old same old.  
Not exempt from such inclinations myself in regard to things like shoes, which when new entice me by being so spiff and shiny, I forget how stiff and ill-fitting they are on feet that were so happy in the old ones.  This tendency leaves me hoist on a cruel petard when it comes to the content of so much of my work, as weekly and even daily I seek something new to say, while having only of that which is unchanged and unchanging of which to speak.
I share with many teachers and preachers the restless search for something new to say, to get attention; not for myself, but for Him whom I preach.  This search, this temptation to avoid what has already been said can lead any of us away from what truly needs to be said, which is the unchanging content of God’s perfect self-revelation in Jesus Christ.   
It is so common to want something new, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.(Heb. 13:8)  That can strike some folks as, well, tedious. But though the offer God extends to us is always same as He has extended before and will ever after, it is this:  Behold, I make all things new!(Rev. 21:5)  
That juxtaposition of sameness with newness is simultaneously the obstacle to and the answer for our deepest human craving.  While God and all He encompasses remain unchanging, the result of an authentic encounter with Him is the hoped-for change for the one who encounters. 
God’s truth, God’s Word, God’s salvation: always the same.  Our life, our world, all creation: transformed by God’s grace.  
Coming next weekend with the relentlessness of advancing spring (okay, maybe that’s not the most apt metaphor this chilly year!) is the First Holy Communion Mass of our beloved young brothers and sisters.  To receive the Lord Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar is something truly new and exciting for these children.  But the Sacrament is as old and unchanged as the Paschal Mystery itself: Our Lord’s passion, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven.  
The holy body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ these children will receive is no different from what you or I or Pope Francis or Saint Peter himself already many times received.  But once they receive Him, they will be changed.  They will be united in their fleshwith the Christ Jesus Himself, in His own body, in which He suffered, died, and rose from the dead, and rejoices already in the intimacy of the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Now that’ssomething new!
But the very next day, when they still can wear their marvelous clothes that echo wedding garments and reveal their participation in the mystic union of the divine Bridegroom with His spotless Bride, they will receive…the very same Savior.  Nothing new, no improvement.  Will their enthusiasm, their devotion even already begin to wane?  
Not if they know, not if we remind them that the sameness of God is what makes newness happen in them.  How can we remind them of that?  How can we teach the undying newness that is to be found in the everlasting unchanging One?  How can I find a new way to express to you the same old necessity for the never-changing remedy?  What will make this message new, and improved?
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Sticking the Landing

We will be praying for Bishop David Foley in the intercessions again this week, but in a different place, now among the faithful departed.
Bishop Foley, third Bishop of Birmingham in Alabama, second Pastor of Saint Bernadette in Silver Spring, died on Tuesday evening 17 April, with the Holy Name of Jesus, and a smile, on his lips.
This sneaked up on me, even caught me off guard, even though we all knew he was in his final illness and did not have long to live.  It was sooner than I expected because I had talked to him only days earlier; just Friday evening, he had called me.
Just back to the rectory from the first Friday Night on the Field (“Munchkinball” is my affectionate name for it) and settled down in front of the Nats game, I was shocked when shortly before ten my phone signaled that the good Bishop was on the line.
You may recall the column I wrote for Easter was about him; well, he had received and read it and was calling to thank me.  Despite the hour, he sounded full of energy, and was in an awfully good humor for somebody whose best recent development was that they had stopped giving him the pain medication that made him constantly sleepy. He cheerily recounted that he was paralyzed from the waist down and completely dependent upon the help of others for even the most basic activities, but that he had no pain and at least he could enjoy the letters, calls, and company that came to him, and pray.  
He was pleased to hear the news I had for him about parishioners here whom he remembered, several of whom had spoken to me about him when they read about him in the bulletin.  It was a delightful chat with someone who admitted that “the doctors said I had two months to live and that was five weeks ago.”  
Saint Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death, and I invite you all to join me in opening the conversation with him now about preparing for our own, if you have not done so already.  The foster-father of our Lord died with Jesus and Mary at his side, and it sure seems as if Bishop Foley had the same arrangement.
He was ten weeks in to his eighty-ninth year, and though the doctors had predicted a little bit more, he couldn’t have been more ready for his earthly end to come.  What an example, and I couldn’t be more grateful that he took the time to make that call and share it all with me.  He reminds me, and all of us, what is at the heart of our life in Christ: 
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)
Bishop Foley knew that the Lord would not let him down, but he knew just as well that he was not yet, not ever perfect enough to stroll straight into the everlasting perfection of heaven.   Not exempting ourselves from our responsibility to help him along this final leg of his journey home; and reminding ourselves at the same time of our gratitude that he still takes so seriously the responsibility he accepted in 1974 to pray for us; we, the people of Saint Bernadette, will be praying for Bishop Foley again this week.    
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Come here often?

Every week, I meet somebody new. 
You’ve seen me at the doors after Mass; you know where I stand, and the frenzy all around as folks leave the church.  Sometimes, somebody wants to talk to me; sometimes, I start the conversation.  Sometimes, we resume a conversation from last week or last month.  Sometimes we can only make eye contact or wave as the crowd presses on.
And always, kids get priority.  If a small person wants to talk to me or shake my hand or show me her drawing or play in my cape, the grown-ups usually have to yield.  I think most of you realize this; at least I hope so!  Trust me, I’ll get back to you - but two-year-olds’ attention is a fleeting thing, and I need to respond.
On the whole, I love that madcap mix after Mass.  You would be amazed how much information and understanding goes back and forth during those ecclesiastical flash mobs.  I have a pretty good memory, and so if someone mentions a prayer intention or a baby (or grandbaby!) on the way or that an adult child got an awesome job in a faraway city or a sick grandma, I have a pretty good retention percentage.  It helps me keep in touch.
I particularly enjoy meeting new people.  Every now and then I ask, “Do I know you?” and find someone I have never met before.  I confess that once in a while it is somebody I have met before.  Oops!  I admitted to a high retention percentage, not total recall.
I meet a lot of visitors.  There was the nice lady from Missouri, who endured with forbearance my follow-up questions as I asked which diocese, what city, and which parish.  She lit up when I told her that her pastor is my seminary classmate!  Recently I happily informed a nice couple from Georgia that their new pastor once had been assigned here as a seminarian during the year he was ordained deacon (remember now-Father Scott Winchell from oh, about nine years ago?)
But most often I meet new families, just moved into the area, often with very young children.  Just this past weekend I met two; one had a baby named Elise who smiled past her pacifier; another had a two-year-old named E.J. who was more interested in our maple trees than in talking to me.  I did get the family names, but I am less certain on the parent’s names, so I’ll have to do some follow-up next I see them.
On Easter we had what I call the “hospitality” on the lawn, and a lot of people were with us who are not usually here.  But these two encounters happened the week after Easter, which is much closer to the norm around here.  We always have visitors, and we always, always have people in our midst who are with us for the first time. 
Standing outside the church doors to greet everybody as they exit is probably not your thing.  However, I would not want to deny you the pleasure of meeting the people who come into our midst knowing nothing and nobody, only the Mass schedule.  More importantly, I would not want to deny these newbies the pleasure of meeting you. 
In this area, and in this time, there are fewer and fewer people who build their lives around the worship of God in His Church and in the sacraments.  In other words, almost anywhere else you go in the course of the week, you are less likely to meet somebody who shares your priorities and your belief than you are when you are right here.  You are less likely to find somebody twenty or forty years older (or younger!) with whom you already have something in common, and grounds for more.  You are less likely to encounter a total stranger who shares some friendship, enthusiasm, or experience of authentic personal significance with you.  But right here, in what can look like a rugby scrum after Mass, there are people who already share so much with you who are really hoping that this will be the place they feel at home.  Will you extend your hand?
Especially now, as the weather warms (finally!) and our lawn becomes an inviting place to play and linger, every week, you should meet somebody new.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Share the joy

Christ is risen!  And we’re feeling a little better, too. 
Yes, a lot of time and work went into Holy Week and Easter here. Once done, here in the rectory, we had a good dinner then all got really quiet; pooped priests!  But we were not the only ones who poured out a lot of ourselves to make it happen.
Up close and in real time, there were dozens of ‘moving parts,” intricate elements and energetic individuals moving in different directions and at different speed, paths crossing in the church, in the rectory, or on the lawn.  It did not even slightly resemble a choreographed ballet.  But there was a unity behind, and before; and that unity was revealed in a glorious week.
The “deep” preparation was hard to spot, but its effect was clear.  The sacristy and rectory staff oversaw the arrangement of people, flowers, furniture, tools, resources, and even feet (for Holy Thursday), a veritable army of artists in the floral medium arrayed our sanctuary (for Easter) and green thumbs both professional and parochial helped prepare the grounds. You would not believe the checklists and phone lists that were used, or how many people could work in such a tight space over such a short time, even if you saw it happen.
My altar servers were awesome; there were rehearsals and instructions and provisions and exceptions and cues and long long liturgies.   I doubt the Cathedral crew did as well.  It was clear that our lectors here are also exceptional; the Word of God resounded with clarity and conviction.  And who did not overhear some visitor agog over the glorious music?  Special thanks to Chris Mueller and all the singers and musicians for all they gave.  Our Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion were, of course, extraordinary.  The Boy Scouts gave us fire (for the Vigil).
The seriousness of our worship goes hand-in-glove with the warmth of our mutual affection and welcome to visitors.  Folks were moving about to set up the coffee and other elements when the sun came up that holy morning.  The Hospitality on the Lawn Easter morning was overseen by Liz Dooley and Jasmine Kuzner, at the head of an army of volunteers (eggs, anyone?) and contributors (homemade treats are the BEST, and everyone said so), with an especial nod to our Home School Association, and the Rosensteel Knights of Columbus.  I know it made a lasting impression. 
Speaking of welcome, it was a delight to provide the Sacraments of Initiation to Kyle Hammer, Vanessa Staak, and Laura Dunn; I hope you will make the opportunity to get to know these, our neophyte members!
The ushers had plenty to do (especially at the Easter 9 AM!); people needed to be welcomed, and seats found, and offerings collected.  And the counters?  They are STILL counting, last I checked.  That’s good news – because heaven knows we need it.  Seen the parking lot lately?  Yikes.
To the visitor, it resulted in a beautiful, seamless whole; people who love one another were also happy to welcome them, coming together to worship God with the very best of what they could muster and offer to Him.  The visitors who thought that got it just right, I think.  And I think and hope that all who call Saint Bernadette home were reasonably proud to do so.
Please offer your prayers and gratitude to God for the talent, joy, diligence, and good humor of so many people, who made our Holy Days remarkable and effective in giving glory to God and spreading the Good News to our neighbors.   Christ is risen, indeed.
Monsignor Smith