Saturday, February 15, 2020

Why, and why not.

This is the time of year when so many of you encourage me, and I am grateful.  
It is the time for the annual Appeal, whatever we are calling it this year, and as Pastor I am tasked to exhort you to give.  It is no surprise, and should hardly be a drama; nonetheless, it is nobody’s favorite topic to hear, and least of all mine to address.  Nonetheless, there is no room to argue that it has no place in our conversation, no ground to suggest that sacrificial giving and money should not be the subject of Christian preaching.  Just page through your favorite Gospel and count how often our Lord Jesus spoke about money and giving.  Still, He is God and speaks with authority; I am not God, and my authority is much less.  Just as well, you may say – and you would be right.
This is why when it comes to questions of when, whether, and how much to give, I try to present our Lord’s instruction, rather than my own.  That may seem like a no-brainer to you, but to others it seems brainless: in these times, and in this culture, the techniques of fund-raising are finely tuned and carefully proven to obtain results.  It is imprudent not to use this technical know-how to get people to give.


But I beg your forbearance.  You see, for a portion of my priesthood, I worked directly for the foremost fund-raiser in the Church – in the whole Church, the universal Church.  He was a master of the art, and knew every technique and tactic to its finest point.  He paired with that an extraordinary, even preternatural sense of people, what they wanted and what they needed.  And he used this understanding to provide what people wanted and needed in order to get them to give what he was asking, and more besides.  
Among the needs or wants he sought to fulfill were the desire to be needed, the longing for approval, and the craving for gratitude that many people have.  Add to that the hope that people nurture of making a difference.  He was a master of convincing folks of the pernicious delusion that God Himself needed, approved, and in fact was grateful to them for the difference that they were making in the world.   This, in one line, is the snake-oil song of the ecclesiastical fundraiser, and he was the all-time virtuoso chanter and enchanter.  
My stomach churns at the recollection, and not only because of how successful he was at this; but also because of what he obtained by this.  He received the gratitude, the affection, and the emotional dependence of untold numbers of people high and low, rich and poor, because he made himself the bestower of the approval that they craved, told them that they were good and God Himself was grateful to them, and delivered them from the authentic demands of Jesus and His Gospel.   This is what their giving purchased, and what his fundraising obtained.  But he took more from them than just their donations, for he was a ravening manipulator of human affections, and a devourer of souls. 
You would be hard pressed to find a person in our Archdiocese, Catholic or not, who did not fall for this seduction to some degree, or at some time.  We all want approval; we all enjoy gratitude.  He offered Divine approval and God’s own gratitude, and many were the ones who did his bidding to obtain it.  Many good works were accomplished in this manner, and benefits from them still accrue to this day.  But the cost, the cost in human lives and dignity, the cost to the integrity of the Faith, the cost to the fabric of the Church, is only recently become apparent to all.
So I beg your indulgence if I eschew fundraising techniques, and avoid tactics with proven records of success.  When it comes to giving to the Church and laying an offering before the Lord, I plant my flag on His own words and promise:  To offer first our tithe to the Lord in His holy Church, and to see to the needs of the poor as well as those close to us, is not only our duty but moreover our path to happiness, right order, and health.  In return, our faithful God will give us neither gratitude nor approval, but blessing, more than we have room to receive.  
Instead of a fund raiser, I am charged by God to be a faith-raiser.  And to the many of you who encourage me, I am grateful.  
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Contagion


We did something unusual this week; we closed the school for a day due to illness.  A large proportion of our students was sick, mostly with the flu.  Many stayed home, but some came to school anyway, which made things worse.  Our principal, Mr. Ted Ewanciw, checked with the Archdiocesan Schools Office and with me, and we all concurred: shut ‘er down.  We let parents pick up their kids when possible after lunch on Monday, and Tuesday we did not open, in order to stop the spread.  
Of course, this is happening at a time when everybody is excited about the coronavirus outbreak in China.  Tens of thousands ill, hundreds of deaths.  So, the response has been similar regarding travel to and from China: shut ‘er down.  Quarantines and travel bans and cancelled flights, all in order to stop the spread.
In this context at 6:30 Mass on Tuesday morning, the day the school was closed, I offered a votive Mass of the Holy Angels.  I was inspired by the great statue of Saint Michael the Archangel in Rome, atop the Castel Sant’Angelo.  It is a monument to the vision given the faithful of that city who were threatened by a plague that was killing thousands of people. It marks the place where in response to their prayers, the holy Archangel was seen wielding his flaming sword, and at which point the plague ceased its spread.  My logic in choosing that Mass was that if the angels can turn back the plague, we could certainly use their help just about now, to stop the spread.
How easy it is to forget we have angels who are assigned to protect us; Guardians, we call them.  We have governments and institutions, laws and insurance and risk management; we trust them to defend us from threats.  But every now and then, a threat comes along that reminds us that there is only so much that governmental action and tort law can prevent.  We watch anxiously as the virus spreads. Perhaps we are moved to prayer.  Do we pray to our Guardian, the angel whose one job it is to defend us? 
Like all angels, ours is pure spirit, so his first priority would be our spiritual well-being.  Physical harm is of secondary importance unless it would leave us at a spiritual disadvantage, such as danger of eternal damnation.  Perhaps the invisible nature of our defender, and what it is about us that he defends, makes it easy for us to lose sight of his importance.  
How rare it is to be granted a vision of the angel who defends us; no wonder it left such an impression on the Romans, and no wonder they erected that statue to remind people.  
Even rarer to see with bodily eyes is the reality of the slaughter wrought by sin; the sickness, weakness, death, and putrefying rot that sin effects in human lives as it claims and consumes them.  Awareness of our vincibility can have a salutary, that is, healthful effect.
Thanks to coronavirus, evidence of our vulnerability to pandemic is featured now on every news outlet.  If we could see the progress of the sin that kills, the contagion that leaps from person to person and moves through gatherings and societies, it would not be unusual for us to identify the point of contact, and shut ‘er down.  What wouldn’t we do to stop the spread?  
Saint Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.  May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into Hell Satan and all the other evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.  Amen
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Fides in Fido

The new dog for the Church's Nativity scene, newly arrived from Italy;
happily sitting where it belongs for now -- on my desk
Well, I got a dog.
No, not a real dog; not a rectory hound, nor another puppy with whom to share the rectory.  I got a dog for the new Nativity set in the church!
In December, after the six new figures arrived and were arranged on the manger-platform constructed for them by Andy Greenleaf, I was convinced of their positive impact on our celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord.  It was not only the children of the parish who were captivated by their engaging beauty.
So, I said outright in my post-Christmas column that I wanted a dog, meaning a dog figure for the creche scene.  My plea got quite the response!  The rectory staff lived in trepidation that someone would appear at the door with a retriever puppy, but blessedly that has not occurred.  No, at least three people offered to donate the dog for the scene within the week.  Quickest on the draw was Nancy McNally, in memory of her late husband John McNally and his dog Dexter.  Quite often, I used to encounter the three of them out walking in the evening – a happy memory. 
Timing was everything.  I enjoyed a quick post-Christmas sojourn to Rome to visit a friend of mine who had just retired from his decades-long work for the Holy See.  While there, I went to the shop where I had found the original Holy Family group, and ordered the dog.  Since the exchange rate is so good right now (the best I recall in 18 years), and since I would have to pay shipping anyway, I added two more figures to the purchase: a herald Angel, and Caspar, one (1) of the Three Kings or Magi. 


Not Harold, but HERALD Angel.
Caspar, the friendly king, bearing his gift.
The price was very good, and the shipping was very fast.  A large box arrived at the rectory from Rome two days after I returned, precisely one week after I ordered the figures.  Like the figures we already have, the new ones are beautiful; even more attractive than I expected.  The dog is great.  So good, in fact, that various staffers have connived to have him sit on their desks instead of mine, where he belongs.  
The Angel and Caspar are both worthy additions.  I went ahead and got them “on spec” in hopes that seeing how terrific they are, someone would contribute their cost ($960 each), AND that they will show how great it would be if someone were to donate for Melchior and Balthasar, so we would have ALL THREE Kings.
There also exists the possibility of a camel (for the truly ambitious) and other farm animals, as well as people who participate in the scene.  But I think these “major players” are our priority now.  I also found out how much it would cost to get a new Nativity group, 30% larger than the carved-wood indoor set and made of weatherproof fiberglass, to replace the 75-year-old crumbling plaster figures in our outdoor creche scene.  It’s less than you’d think -- but I digress.
Not only do I have good company in the rectory, but also I got precisely the dog the parish needed.  What a gift to me and the parish!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dimensions of Grace

Our church is really big.  We get used to it, of course, and periodically we take advantage of it, like at Christmas, when we fill it.  But it was designed to seat over 800 people, and that makes for a very big church.
Moreover, the sanctuary is big.  The large altar on its raised predella, topped by the towering baldachin, requires and enjoys a large space around it for a proper and proportionate setting.  This vast space can be a problem, such as when you realize how much time is required for the priest and assisting ministers to travel from point A to point B, say from the chair to the credence table, then further yet, up to the altar.  That takes time!  But the space can also be a blessing, such as when you have room to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy in all its glory, and nine or ten altar servers.  It is a great place to have a wedding; we have even had an Ordination in that sanctuary.  And the complex, beautiful liturgies of Holy Week and the Triduum play out in all their splendor, because there is room.
But that big church and big sanctuary are surprisingly intimate.  The eternal God of heaven and earth comes down to be with us on that suddenly-not-so-big altar.  The people who tread that space, whether a couple exchanging their nuptial consent, or servers washing priests’ hands, are engaged in many intimate and beautiful actions.  Christian worship is necessarily intimate because in it, Man finds intimacy in the very Holiness of God.
Our worship is much enhanced by music, music that is itself one of the treasures of our Church and our Faith.  The vastness of our church poses problems and benefits to our music, as the complex acoustics make it difficult to unite voices and instruments, but also provide glorious resonance to our efforts.   
Music draws us into that divine intimacy, with God and with one another, as our voices and our hearts unite.  The music of our worship overcomes the vastness of our church, and the vast divide between us and our neighbor, and between us and our God.  
It is in this context that I am pleased to let you know that starting this week, the Director of our Music here at Saint Bernadette will be someone with whom we are already quite close, though he had been quite the distance away.  Mr. John Henderson, who was with us in this same capacity until August 2017, is returning.  Join me in rejoicing!
Yes, he went to Texas (Austin); yes, he studied music of kinds other than church music; yes, he enjoyed it very much.  But he had come to the conclusion that he wanted to return to the Washington area, and he wanted to commit to parish music leadership, when I sent him a note to say I was looking for a new music director.  The rest, as they say, is history.
This is the first formal announcement of John’s taking the musical helm, but over the past months I have told any number of people.  All of them were delighted.  Our own choir section leaders – Joey and Siena, Veronica and Andrew – did a great job of leading our music for the two-month interregnum.  We should thank them, along with Paul Griffin, our interim organist.  But know that they are among the most excited at John’s arrival.  Because the sacred music that we enjoy here, and the sacred intimacy it brings about for us, will be much enhanced by the presence, participation, and leadership of our good friend.  
They say it’s a small world, and we know we have a big church.  But I hope you are as pleased as I am to welcome John Henderson home to the musical heart of our worship, both large and intimate.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Putting up a fight

Corine helps Father Russo identify
all the families on the Parishioner Tree.
Both easier and harder is taking down the Christmas decorations.  Easier, because it goes more quickly as everything simply goes back into its box, whereas in putting them up first one had to find and open all the boxes for a given project, then arrange and array every element just so.  Harder, in that all that was so festive and attractive and enjoyable to display, and promised so many beautiful times to come, yields to a remarkable barrenness with only bleak and wintry prospects.
It’s that time around the rectory.  The magnificent balsam fir that was in our dining room came down today, having been stripped of its glory yesterday.  The weeny little tabletop tree in my sitting room came down the day before that, along with my creche scene and other festive touches.  The Santa hat on the bust of Pope John Paul II in my office gave way to his customary Nats cap.   But the progress stopped in the reception office, as the villagers there put up a bit of a defense around the Parishioner Tree.
You see, the last days of the Parishioner Tree are the best, as only now is its full glory revealed.  All the photo cards that came in since Thanksgiving of current parishioners and former parishioners find a place on its boughs, so it looks rather naked when it goes up right after Immaculate Conception, but heavy laden by Epiphany. 
It is a great way to get to know the current members of our parish family, so someone who has been here a few years – say, Corine – can hone her knowledge of family names and relationships; while somebody new to the place – say, Fr. Russo – gets a bonanza of information and imagery to help him learn who is who.  
But it’s also true that former parishioners still send cards from their new places, whether that be Buffalo, Charlotte, or Pittsburgh, or just Bowie, Clarksburg, or Olney.  Those cards can spark stories and explanations laced with affection.  
Fr. Berhorst would benefit from the parishioner tree, but he left for Missouri in mid-Advent, after it had been up for only a few days and had only five or six cards on it.  He will be back this weekend, but I am afraid that will be too late.
Like all the others, the Parishioner Tree is coming down.  Something about that reception area makes it dry out faster, almost as if all the people who enjoy looking at it somehow take some of the life with them.  In that regard the tree is like the Cross of Christ, the real Tree of Life that yields its life to fill up our life.   
We can save all the cards for Father Berhorst to appreciate when he comes back.  But to take down the Parishioner Tree, we are going to have to get past Carol, who doesn’t want to let it go yet.  It is going to be a lot more hard than easy to take down this particular Christmas decoration.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Manifestation

You probably do not recall how wretched it was the Saturday before Gaudete Sunday.  But I do, because when I reluctantly went out into it, I found about ten of our Holy Name men erecting the manger scene outside the front of our church.  This was the day before they hosted Breakfast with Santa, which seemed to me to be very popular with all comers, young and old. 


Santa and his elves worked hard
to get everyone ready for Christmas at Saint Bernadette
With particular thanks to the abundant gifts and gracious givers of poinsettias for our altar, and wreaths and greenery from our CYO, the flower-moving and church-decorating team did a marvelous job. Anthony Dao and his kids did remarkable work, and we could hardly manage without Margaret McDermott.  This was the swan-song of Elaine Vining, who has been masterminding the arrangement for over a decade; she plans to move to South Carolina this year.   If you want to have some real fun with beauty, consider volunteering to help in future.  
The beauty of the music took me aback.  Since we are “between music directors,” our section leaders (Joey & Veronica & Siena & Andrew) have stepped up to plan and prepare, and print programs, and with the help of interim organist and conductor Paul Griffin.  I called our approach “family style,” which may be why it made for such a musically perfect Christmas.  
The altar servers, especially those who came to Masses different from the ones their families usually might have preferred, were superb.  Father Russo has taken the lead as Server Wrangler for us, and they are responding to his attentions.  Similarly, our Lectors and Ministers of Holy Communion arranged their holidays around our parish needs and liturgies, to our great benefit.
Andy Greenleaf's beautifully crafted stable
provided the perfect setting for everybody gathered around the manger.

Of course, I am grateful to the family of George and Doris O’Brien, whose gift in their memory made possible the arrival of ox and ass, sheep and shepherds for our indoor Nativity Scene.  They came from Italy, but the stable scene itself was designed and constructed by our own Andy Greenleaf, most famous for his role of Lector at nine o’clock Sunday Masses, and moved here with the help of some of those same intrepid Holy Name men.  Honestly it could not be more marvelous.  There are more figures to be had for it (wise men, angel, etc.), if more donors step forward.  I want a dog.
There were also the workers who were invisible, such as our counters, who came in on Boxing Day in addition to their usual Monday work.  You probably just assume our crowds are preternaturally tidy, because you don’t see the people who clean up the church before and after all these liturgies; and that the priests are similarly diligent, because you don’t see the work of the sacristans.  What would make you suspicious is how neatly cleaned and hung by size all the altar server vestments are; you know there must be a mysterious person who swoops in regularly to put them in order – and there is.
Do not be fooled by those announcements about the rectory offices being closed.  The staff does not “take it easy” around Christmas and the New Year; nothing could be further from the truth  They busted their humps for us but with grace and care like nobody you’ve seen.  
Also, I should mention that Father Russo, in his assignment as student with residence here, was not obliged to stay here for the holiday.  But he did.  He was a great help, good company, and even gave every sign that there was no other place he would rather be for Christmas.  I think the lad may have a future!
Because as I have long told you, there is no place but here I would rather be for Christmas or any other holiday.  Now that my mom and dad live close enough to come join me, they understand better why that is.  This a beautiful place to be in communion with The Newborn King and all who adore Him.  It’s a great place to be a priest.  And I don’t just say that because of all the cookies and treats and … beverages that found their way to the rectory in recent weeks, though I am grateful for that too.  It’s because of the faith and life and service and love and joy manifested in the people here.  
Please join me in thanking everybody whose work I noted above, and anybody whose work I inadvertently left out.  Altogether, it’s enough to make you fail to remember any wretchedness in the day.  Merry Christmas and blessed Epiphany to you!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Go to school with a Pope!

The Flight into Egypt, Martin Schongauer, c. 1470-75
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Nazareth is a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like and even to understand his Gospel. Here we can observe and ponder the simple appeal of the way God’s Son came to be known, profound yet full of hidden meaning. And gradually we may even learn to imitate him.
Here we can learn to realize who Christ really is. And here we can sense and take account of the conditions and circumstances that surrounded and affected his life on earth: the places, the tenor of the times, the culture, the language, religious customs, in brief, everything which Jesus used to make himself known to the world. Here everything speaks to us, everything has meaning. Here we can learn the importance of spiritual discipline for all who wish to follow Christ and to live by the teachings of his Gospel.
How I would like to return to my childhood and attend the simple yet profound school that is Nazareth! How wonderful to be close to Mary, learning again the lesson of the true meaning of life, learning again God’s truths. But here we are only on pilgrimage. Time presses and I must set aside my desire to stay and carry on my education in the Gospel, for that education is never finished. But I cannot leave without recalling, briefly and in passing; some thoughts I take with me from Nazareth.
First, we learn from its silence. If only we could once again appreciate its great value. We need this wonderful state of mind, beset as we are by the cacophony of strident protests and conflicting claims so characteristic of these turbulent times. The silence of Nazareth should teach us how to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom and the counsel of his true teachers. Nazareth can teach us the value of study and preparation, of meditation, of a well-ordered personal spiritual life, and of silent prayer that is known only to God.
Second, we learn about family life. May Nazareth serve as a model of what the family should be. May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and exemplify its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings, in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children—and for this there is no substitute.
Finally, in Nazareth, the home of a craftsman’s son, we learn about work and the discipline it entails. I would especially like to recognize its value—demanding yet redeeming—and to give it proper respect. I would remind everyone that work has its own dignity. On the other hand, it is not an end in itself. Its value and free character, however, derive not only from its place in the economic system, as they say, but rather from the purpose it serves.
In closing, may I express my deep regard for people everywhere who work for a living. To them I would point out their great model, Christ their brother, our Lord and God, who is their prophet in every cause that promotes their well-being.
From an address by Saint Paul VI, pope (Nazareth, January 5, 1964)