Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Day of the Domestic Church

Good news, my friends!  We are not cut off from one another by this virus; we are not separated by precautions.  No — we are bound together in the Body of Christ, whose members we are.  United by our Baptism into His Body, the Church, and nourished by the Eucharist we have received, we are strong together in prayer. 
This is the Day of the Domestic Church.  Yes; the smallest unit of the church is not the individual, but the family.  Your home is become the center of faith for all who dwell there, and Christ will not neglect to nurture and nourish all who turn to Him for light and life in these days.  
Yes, things have changed.  We all need to stay away from everybody and everything not essential to our survival.  Every day has brought evidence that we are all taking this seriously.  Here at the rectory, on Tuesday we stopped opening the door, and started talking through the window.  By Wednesday the packs of middle-school kids ceased roving the playing field and ball courts together.  This is what prudent people do.  
The number of people looking to catch us offering Mass each day in the church has dwindled to a trickle.  That is good, but sad.  Everyone should stay home and far away from everybody else. Isolation hurts, whether isolation from one another, or from God.
But you do not need to feel the weight of distance between yourself and your Creator, between you and your Redeemer.  You have received the Holy Spirit to dwell within you, and keep alive the intimacy for which Jesus gave us the Holy Sacraments, even when circumstances keep you further away from those Sacraments than you would wish.  
In cases where it is not possible to receive sacramental communion, … it is beneficial to cultivate a desire for full union with Christ through the practice of spiritual communion, praised by Pope John Paul II and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life, taught Pope Benedict XVI his letter on the Holy Eucharist, Sacramentum caritatis.  Here is a simple prayer you can offer alone at any time, or together as a family during your Sunday Domestic Church worship, in order to make a spiritual Communion:
My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most Blessed Sacrament.  I love You above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul.  Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.  I embrace You as if You were already there, and unite myself wholly to You.  Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.  (St. Alphonsus Liguori)
You can print it out on a card and carry it around with you.  St. Leonard of Port Maurice said: “If you practice the holy exercise of spiritual Communion several times each day, within a month you will see your heart completely changed.”
You can use your Magnificat, or the USCCB Daily Readings web page for the daily readings.  Don’t settle to read them quietly to yourself; read them out loud in the assembly of your Domestic Church.  Share your thoughts on the readings; pray the prayers.  Pray for the intentions each member voices; remember those who are sick, or alone and cut off from family; remember medical workers, and everybody you wish you could be with.  Remember your priests!
It is only fair that you pray for us (and I am grateful for all of you who have sent word that you are doing just that) because we are praying for you multiple times each day.  We are all three offering Mass every day, always, always carrying your intentions with us to that big, green marble Holy Altar we love so well.  We cannot wait until you are able to join us there; soon, soon we hope.
Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist connects us, unites us one to another despite distance and difficulty.  The love of God is poured out in the measure we need in the hour we ask for it, assuredly in our Domestic Church.  In time of sickness and separation, this is good news.
Through the intercession of Saint Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes, help of the sick, may the blessing of Almighty God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come down on you and remain with you forever. Amen.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Bigger Can Be Better

Introductions are behind us, and the denouement is still in the future.  We have now arrived at the big, long middle of Lent.  Long because we realize Easter is still a full month away, even though those daffodils are trying to convince us all it is just around the corner.  Big because of the weight of significance it carries for us, as we realize that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are essential to our health and well-being in both time and eternity.   But this year, there is another aspect that is big and long.
In the Lectionary cycle’s Year A, which features the programmatic reading of Matthew’s Gospel, the Gospels at Mass for the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent are all from the Gospel of Saint John.  They are all long, and they are all big.  In order, these important, elaborate accounts of episodes in the life of Our Lord are: this week’s Samaritan Woman at the Well (Jn 4:5-42); then the Man Born Blind (Jn 9:1-41) next week; then the Raising of Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45) as we enter Passiontide on the Fifth Sunday. 
Just look at those citations – how long they are, how many verses!   For those of you who were hoping to gain time because we have no Gloria at Sunday Mass in Lent – forget it.  Standing for these Gospel readings is more than just physical conditioning for the Passion according to Saint Matthew on Palm Sunday – the longest of the four Passion texts.  These accounts are not presented just to make us stand there, but to move us, to bring us along, to turn us to the Lord Jesus in a new and deeper way.
Chosen particularly for their instructive value to Catechumens, those who are approaching Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion at Easter, these Gospels can have just as big an effect on the lives of all of us, even if we have been Baptized and Confirmed long since.  
Resist the temptation, once you recognize the introduction, to tell yourself: Oh, I know how this one goes, and tune out.  Resist the temptation to pray against all hope that the “short form” of the Gospel will be used.  Listen to the story like you have never heard it before, and you will hear something you have never heard before.
Rather than give less attention, or less time, give these events more of your time.  Read them slowly once or twice in the days leading up to the Mass; read them again once or twice during the week after the Mass.
Ask yourself, try to figure out: What was the weather like that day?  What did she expect Him to do when she said that?  What was he afraid of about Jesus?  What was “the crowd” thinking or doing?  Where would I have been standing to be able to hear this conversation?  And the always appropriate:  Why did Jesus say that, or do that?  Just what is He proposing?
Saint John the Evangelist went to great pains to give us the opportunity to experience these moments that clearly changed his life.  Do not squander this opportunity to allow them to change your life.  Precisely for this purpose we have so much time here in the big, long middle of Lent. 
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Better late

Why do you stand here idle all day?
How is your Lent going?  You made it to Mass for Ash Wednesday, or -- maybe you didn’t.  You avoided meat all day Friday – except for lunch (doh!).  And your rosary-every-day resolution has been going great – since you found your rosary yesterday.
Lent happens.  Lent gets off to a rocky start some years.  Lent can start strong, but then we get distracted, or annoyed, or just hungry, and whoosh – there goes our Lenten resolve, right down the drain.  And once we have broken our perfect (or near-perfect) record, we think – Oh well; that’s gone.  And we stop trying.
Doubtless you have heard of “low self-esteem.”  Sometimes we can have “low Lent-esteem.”  We don’t really have our resolutions or Lenten “plan” ready, miss the first week or two of Lent, or drop the ball after a while, and we think that we have blown Lent this year, it’s beyond salvage, and we will just wait and do better next year.
Well, as the angel invariably says when he appears with a message from God: Fear not!  (You can check Scripture that angels really say this.)  All is not lost; Lent and its sweet benefits are still available to you, even at this late date.  
One of my favorites among the Lord’s parables is that of the vineyard-owner and the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).  Remember, the owner goes out into the market square several times as the day goes on, and keeps finding workers whom he hires and sends to his vineyard to work with the ones he brought on at the break of day?   He even hires and sends several “at the eleventh hour” (five o’clock in the afternoon).  Then, at the end of the day, they present themselves to the paymaster and all receive the same daily wage.  And the vineyard owner says to the disgruntled workers who had been there all day, “Are you angry because I am generous?”
He doesn’t have to say anything to the workers who came on late, because they are too busy dancing for glee at their good fortune.   They are taking home way more than they truly earned, and way more than they expected to get when they finally presented themselves in the market square.  
The Lord Himself makes it clear what work we are to undertake for him: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  All three, NOT one of the above; they all work together to heal our souls and rebuild our relationship with the Lord and one another.  This is the work of Lent, and he is still looking for folks who have not yet gone to His vineyard.
One could take this a step too far, and just wait until the last minute; but of course, we never know when our last minute really will come, do we?  Better to go when the Master calls and sends us.
So yes, it is late – the second Sunday of Lent, already.  But the Master is looking for workers to tend His vineyard, even when that vineyard looks remarkably like their own souls.  Do not fall into the grim cycle of low Lent-esteem!  Do not fret the progress of the day that has already gone and cannot be retrieved. Come now, because He calls you now.  You will take home way more than you truly earn, and way more than you expected to get when you finally got around to the undertakings of Lent.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Crazy talk

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, by Salvador Dali
The prayers fly by pretty fast at Mass, and only with the ones that recur are you likely to be familiar enough to call to mind the words or reflect on their meaning.  Even for me, who have the printed text in front of me and give them voice, they can be completely fleeting.  But the texts of the Mass are almost as important a statement of our faith as is the Sacred Scripture itself; and as in the Bible, the turns of phrase can be most instructive.   
As we solemnly offer the annual sacrifice for the beginning of Lent, we entreat you, O Lord, that through works of penance and charity, we may turn away from harmful pleasures and, cleansed from our sins, may become worthy to celebrate devoutly the Passion of your Son.  Who lives and reigns forever and ever.
This text is from Ash Wednesday, the Prayer Over the Offerings, which the priest says after he has placed the offerings on the altar, washed his hands, and said: Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours…, and the people have responded, May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…  It contains a term so shocking to modern sensibility, and so essential to the task and purpose of Lent, that I wanted to bring it to your attention for consideration.  
Did you catch it?  Harmful pleasures.  In our time when what gives a person pleasure is equated to what is good, and therefore must be a right, this simple phrase is shocking (noxiis voluptatibus in the original Latin).  
Sometimes we intentionally put aside authentic goods.  I have emphasized to you before that what we “give up” for Lent, we put aside because it is good, not because it is bad or sinful; we give up lesser goods in order to focus on greater goods, and realize how much more we need them.
But harmful pleasures would be even more dangerous than authentic goods that are less good than God and the good He wants for us.  Harmful pleasures stoke our vices and reduce our inclination for authentic goods.  Harmful pleasures tickle our most base fancies and most selfish appetites.  Harmful pleasures enslave us to pleasure.  
In a similar vein is the Preface II of Lent, which you know comes right before the Holy Holy Holy; it is one of four options during this season, chosen by the priest celebrant:  
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God.  For you have given your children a sacred time for the renewing and purifying of their hearts, that freed from disordered affections, they may so deal with the things of this passing world as to hold rather to the things that eternally endure.  
We pray to be freed from disordered affections (ab inordinatis affectibus expedita).  That, I think, would outrage our contemporaries even more than turning away from harmful pleasures.  Disordered is such a loaded word!  Can’t you just hear it now in Father Nick’s best “offended New Yorker” voice?  Who you callin’ “disordered?”
Bacchanale, 16th c., engraved by Enea Vico, after Marcantonio Raimundi
But we know that disordered has a specific meaning: out of proper order, or ordered toward the wrong thing.  Again, a desire or affection can be out of proper order if we place a lesser good before a greater one – say, the winning of a contest, over the safety of our family.  That’s disordered.  Similarly, an affection can be disordered if its goal or objective is objectively opposed to what is truly good, that is, what God has shown us to be good.  
God has spent a great deal of time, effort, and patience to teach us (mankind) that what is truly good is often very different from what we, in our foolishness, would desire or choose for ourselves.  Even when God has warned us against something, consideration and study can lead some among us to conclude that it is nonetheless good; history has shown over and over again that this results in great grief for individuals and societies, as the consequences invisible to intelligent man but clearly revealed by God are obtained by those who choose against His Word.   
Because of these two irrefutable realities, that God desires our good for us even more than we do ourselves, and that left to our own devices we can be very bad at figuring out what is good, we do not despair, but rather we pray.  And especially in Lent, we ask over and over again that our benevolent Father use our works of penance and charity to turn(us) away from harmful pleasures and free (us) from disordered affection.  Let these prayers fly!  
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Creature Feature

What an enormous response!  No, I don’t mean the national attention I got from what I wrote here last week; I mean to the new nativity scene and the opportunity to provide the parish with a full array of figures for the coming century.  Since the new set is carved wood, it should easily last a hundred years, unlike the old figures that were cast plaster and simply started to disintegrate after their first several decades.  
Last month, I shared a photo of the dog that I got because Nancy McNally offered, and one of the three kings (Caspar), and the angel I got in hopes that someone would “adopt” them.  Well, Mike McCartin rushed in to cover Caspar, and his dad, Joe, provided what we needed for the angel.  That’s terrific, since the McCartins have been part of the parish almost as long as the previous nativity figures.
But then the offers kept coming.  So, Anamaris Poley and Beth Staley are going to make sure that Caspar won’t be alone, but next Epiphany will have Balthasar and Melchior with him:  all three kings!
As the television advertisements say, but wait – there’s more.  Mercedes Flores and Gail Poulos both want to help, too.  Just because the kings already are coming does not mean that there is no more room at the inn, um, I mean, in the stable.  No, there is an array of creatures and characters that is available for our particular nativity set.  It is from Italy, remember, and the Italians love to have extended scenes around their bambinelli – the baby Jesus in their cribs.  
So, what I am going to do is contact Enrico.  Enrico is my “statue man” in Rome; his shop is just a few blocks from where I used to live, just outside the Vatican’s Saint Ann Gate.  He has been helping me with this and that for years, and when I showed up at his desk in January he knew exactly in which nativity set I was interested; he even remembered where my parish was.  So anyway, I am going to call Enrico.
He will provide quotes on several figures that are available for our set, in our size.  I know there is the possibility of a camel, but it’s expensive; ironically enough, more than twice the price of a single king!  But there are others, too.  There is a shepherd kneeling with a sheep that I wanted but was not available last fall; there’s a junior angel, a woman with a water jug, a young girl, and a boy; there are more sheep, plus goats, and a rooster I have my eye on (foreshadowing the Passion!).  Carol in the rectory here is hoping she can help us get a rabbit.  It’s possible.
Enrico can pull the information together and send me a current quote and a shipping estimate.  I know he can, because he did it for something else I asked about – new figures for our outdoor creche.  

The old outdoor ones are plaster too, and about to fall apart.  The new ones he showed me made of weather-resistant, fade-proof, chip-proof fiberglass, and bigger – about fifty percent again bigger than our new indoor wooden set; Joseph would be three feet tall.  Bigger figures would mean fewer figures, so all we would get would be Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the obligatory ox and ass.  I have an estimate for that.
So, if you are interested in contributing to the population of our nativity scene, send an email to the rectory saying so, and we will respond in a week or two with some options from which you can choose.  If you have mentioned it to me that you were interested, but have not yet emailed, please follow up with the note so that I don’t lose track of your intentions.
It is a great time to do this, because the exchange rate is fantastic – the best I have seen since 2002, the year the Euro was introduced.  Thank you for your response. 
Monsignor Smith

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


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