Saturday, July 23, 2016

A Century to GO

It didn’t seem particularly ominous last week when a five-year-old boy named Joshua who always greets me after Mass said, “We have a new game!  It’s...”  I was interrupted from sharing his excitement by an even younger parishioner who tugged on my other arm, so I excused myself from Joshua and further details of his game.
That same evening, my dinner was late enough that I could enjoy it on the porch, where soon I was distracted by cars behaving strangely.  Instead of the usual racing through the rectory driveway shortcut, they pulled straight up behind the rectory and sat there like they were trying to see into the guest room.  About the fourth time this happened, I came down off my porch to ask what was going on.  The young driver explained that he was playing the same game that Joshua had told me about that morning.  There on his phone’s screen was the crucified Christ statue on our back wall, but with an animated creature next to it.
The next morning’s paper reported this very game as a phenomenon that was sweeping the English-speaking world.  It apparently projects imaginary animated creatures onto images of actual places, challenging the player to find and “capture” them.  The news reported how players of the game were so fixated by what they saw on their screens that they were injuring themselves by bumping into objects or falling. 
Since then my housemates and I have found groups of people loitering by the rectory, apparently in hopes of scoring points or something similar.  If I speak to them, they are startled at the interruption that reveals their playground as somebody’s home, and their backdrop a sacred place. 
It has been just over hundred years since screens with pictures moving on them became part of our experience.  From marveling at the effective representation of reality, people have acquiesced into accepting the projection itself as a reality.  Now screens are ubiquitous and indispensable.  As I compose this letter, I stare at a screen.  It’s not just for entertainment anymore!
Already it is common to see two people at a dinner table, each engrossed in his own screen and seemingly oblivious of the actual person present with him.  Some people lament their own dependence; others lament only what would interrupt their fixation.
This has been the case for longer than we would like to admit.  Long before most people had personal, portable devices that displayed almost anything instantly on their screens, the image on the screen held strong influence over people’s thoughts and actions.  And people who appeared on screens gained authority far beyond what is reasonable:  already it is four decades since “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” became a successful endorsement.  This tyranny of what is seen gives extraordinary power to anyone who can effectively project an illusion on a screen. 
People blithely assume that they are masters of the eyes and minds that these images and projections fill, and that they have and exercise right discretion over what they believe and disbelieve.  Believe that of yourself only if you believe it of the people who fell off a precipice pursuing an animated creature while playing Pok√©mon Go.  Who controls what is on the screen, controls also human behavior. 
If people are injuring themselves and ignoring their friends because artificial images on a screen lead them to pay no attention to the realities that can be seen, how much more injury and loss is accruing because of a taught unwillingness or trained inability to pay attention to realities that cannot be seen?  It is the devil’s most potent trick to convince people he does not exist; it is not by any means his only trick. 
How can any of us know what to believe, when our eyes are so readily complicit in our deception?   We do far better to believe our ears:  Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  (Jn 6:68)

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Too Much to Mock

My undergraduate university is moderately well known for its “Mock Convention,” a quadrennial tradition dating back well over a century, in which students undertake to re-enact a political event that has not yet occurred.  Not a rare undertaking, it is unique in its achievement: a perfect record of predicting the nominees.
Now in our era of Big Politics, such accurate prediction in March of the election year is well and truly No Big Deal, since by that stage in even the most hotly contested race, the convention is already pejoratively dubbed a “coronation”.  But my college’s version dates back to when the process was truly up for grabs, and the result often, if not always, in dramatic doubt.    Good, old-fashioned, honest politicking, face-to-face and often neither good nor honest, played out in those hot arenas to achieve the party’s nomination.  My college’s accuracy dates back to those days of drama, and its reputation was solidified when it correctly predicted a particularly shocking nominee back in, oh, I think it was 1956.
Because time and resources are limited, only one party’s convention is staged: the party out of power.  Back in my day, slightly after the ink dried on the Constitution, the Democrats were looking to prevent Ronald Reagan from achieving a second term.  The student body of my college had fewer than average folks who could pass for actual Democrats, unless one included Southerners of that affiliation.  That is not inappropriate, since it was a heavily Southern university.  But the Mock Convention undertakes to reproduce the motivations and dynamics of the actual convention, not to be a vehicle for the political preferences of the student participants. 
With much hue and cry, and the attendant parade and parties, the nod went to one Walter Mondale, who called to accept and congratulate us on our perspicacity.  Even in March, there was not much doubt.  Nobody was surprised when the same mild-mannered Mondale accepted the actual nomination at a much larger, but no more enthusiastic or carefully staged “real” convention, four or five months later. 
We all knew that it was hard not to know the nominee, but it was fun anyway to re-enact what would be carefully choreographed rituals surrounding the nomination.  That is how modern politics works, right?  It may not have been a challenge, but perhaps it was a learning experience.
This year, I think eyes will be on the out-of-power party’s convention with an awareness, and for some a hope, that that its outcome is still uncertain.  Have we moved “beyond” the predictability of modern politics, at least in one party?  Or is this just one big (yuuuuge) personal anomaly?  I went to my college’s web site to learn who had been the nominee of this year’s Mock Convention.  At a time when there were still five or seven candidates vying for the privilege, the students’ carefully researched process produced a nomination that now, in July, seems “predictable.”  But is it?  
What was my role in the whole thing, back in the day?  I was a reporter for the college radio station, WLUR-FM, even though my experience was as a classical music deejay.  This year, I am again an observer, not a participant, and still very much an under-informed outsider about how such processes choose our leaders.  Both parties’ conventions this year confirm my conviction that I am in the right line of work.  The result of one is inescapable, the other indigestible.  I prescribe a remedy: Let us pray.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 09, 2016


It was great to celebrate the 240th anniversary of the beginning of our nation last weekend, and any attention we gave to it was rightly spent.  In the course of the festivities, another anniversary passed, far less significant, but I hope you will nonetheless enjoy recalling it with me: July 1st marked the tenth anniversary of my pastorate of Saint Bernadette.
Ten years is the longest period of my life that I have lived in one place.  Priests joined me in the rectory, and in serving you: Frs. Winthrop Brainerd, Robert Golas, Vincent DeRosa, and now Fr. Gallaugher, the Archbishop of Washington assigned here.   We also enjoyed the company of Frs. Joseph McCabe, M.M. and Clint McDonell; now Fr. Markey, and first, longest, and whenever he gets the chance yet still, the indispensable Fr. Food, …um, I mean, Fr. Nick Zientarski; these came because I invited them.   
Adding the time I served here when newly ordained, my roots are deep and long.  One of my favorite things to tell a young person is, “I have known you since you were just good news.”  I have yet to witness the marriage of anybody I baptized, but it is getting close.  Not only have I baptized the children of couples I helped prepare for marriage; I have given them First Holy Communion, presented them for Confirmation, and handed diplomas to them as eighth-grade graduates.  From tiny to teen-ager, from punk to solid citizen; the kids I have watched grow and blossom into fine young adults bring me great joy.
One of my great delights has been accompanying people into the fullness of the Faith, and giving them the Sacraments of Initiation.  It is such a delight to see them fully incorporated into the Body of Christ, here in this parish, often with their own children whose development in the Faith they now shape and lead.
More sadly, during these ten years many have left our parish communion: no small number by death; others by relocation to new homes; some by transfer to other parishes; and far too many by indifference.  I grieve them all.
I arrived in 2006 to find a huge mortgage, and even a loan from the Archdiocese to cover payroll that summer.   Later, we obtained a line of credit to complete certain projects on a more advantageous schedule, principally new, energy-efficient heating and cooling system throughout the school buildings.   We are now debt free.
In a time or great change, cost, and difficulty, our (now fully air-conditioned) parish school is robust and respected.  While the school community is strong, it is not the only strength or identity of the parish: our religious education and home-school families are more involved and invested than ever before.  New families with young children, and young adults; folks relocating from elsewhere, and people of varied backgrounds and cultures make their home here, bringing new life to our parish. 
What draws the most comment, and perhaps some controversy, is what everyone finds at the heart of our parish, in our beautiful church: liturgical worship and doctrinal preaching.   This is the greatest treasure of our Holy Mother, the Church, and the heart of my priesthood.  After decades of experimentation and distraction throughout the Church, it is not what many people are used to, or think they want; but faithful celebration of the sacraments while shining the light of Tradition on the rich depths of Scripture in the context of the Sacred Liturgy is the sine qua non of Catholic Christianity.  It is our lifeline in a society at sea.
Our last two pastors, Fathers Bernard Martin and William Thompson, both served Saint Bernadette for about nine and a half years.  In reaching ten, my tenure is second only to that of the inimitable and indomitable Msgr. William F. “Pete” Stricker, our first and founding pastor, who gave us twenty-seven years.   While tying that record is beyond the reach of reasonable hope, continuing to approach it is a happy thought.     
To paraphrase what they say on airplanes: This is your captain speaking.  I know you have other choices when you travel toward heaven, but I am grateful you have chosen to travel with us.  Thank you for everything you do to make our journey a success, and God bring you safely home.    
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Hang in there?

There was one solitary Catholic signatory to the Declaration of Independence: Charles Carroll.  He arrived too late to Philadelphia to participate in the preparation of the document, or to vote to ratify it; nonetheless he was permitted to contribute his consent to the final product.
What a privilege! you might think.  Such a signal moment in the development of the new nation!  One for the history books!  You will dine out on this for the rest of your life!   Who would not jump at the chance?  As it turns out, the Founding Fathers saw it with a bit more nuance.  They realized that in committing to signing the Declaration of Independence, they were putting their names to a formal act of rebellion.  Should the forces of King George III lay hold of them, they would be liable for the proper penalty: death.
Because of that, one of the other members of that august body complained that with a name as common as Charles Carroll’s, he was risking nothing, since if circumstances turned against their endeavor, he might disappear into the mists of a multitude. 
Mr. Carroll wasted no time in clarifying his personal commitment: he leapt up, took the pen a second time, and modified his signature to read: Charles Carroll of Carrollton.  This removed all doubt as to his unique identity and responsibility.
Often on national holidays we recall the cost of our freedom, paid in the lives sacrificed for her protection.  However, at the same time we fail to call to mind the risk that our nation required, especially of those Founding Fathers and all who strove with them.  Is it possible that her continuance require risk of us who are her citizens?
As we in our nation move toward another vote, Charles Carroll’s willingness to take a personal risk to obtain a political good draws my attention.  In these days when one can obtain insurance for almost anything, what risks are we taking, not only corporately as a nation, but also individually? 
Do any of our prospective leaders demonstrate a willingness to take personal risk, like Charles Carroll did?  Or are they only offering “power” (or the illusion of it) to the people who embrace them?  Do they assure their prospective supporters that all will be set right simply by “taking back” what has been wrongly obtained by some anonymous, amorphous someone “else” – the so-called “wealthy” or the ever-threatening foreigner? 
I am always nervous when someone promises to make the “wealthy” pay what is needed for this or that.  This is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.  By historical standards, we are all the “wealthy;” almost nobody is immune to that appellation.  The only one who seems to be exempt from having to pay is the one advocating the program.  Who, if anyone, bears the burden of risk for their politics?  Who, if anyone, is risking more of himself personally than of the nation corporately?
Into a conversation oversaturated with mutually opposed assertions of rights, perhaps we need inject this question of risk.  We all value our freedom, but has it become a freedom from responsibility?  Ask a candidate for anything: by what measure do you claim to lead us?  What, if anything, are you risking for the common good, for our good?   Or will you fade back into privileged security when time comes to pay the costs of your failed endeavors?
To focus the mind of the delegates preparing the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin reminded them, We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.  On this day when we are so grateful that they did, we should be just as mindful that we must.

Monsignor Smith