Saturday, February 26, 2011

A conversation worth having

Last fall, a book came out in German and Italian that caused a great flurry of controversy: Light of the World, an extended interview by German journalist Peter Seewald of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI. Everyone focused on one line, taken way out of context, about condoms. If that was not malicious, it was silly, but either way, typical. The whole book only later came out in English, and I just finished reading it.

I recommend it highly to all of you, for its accurate presentation of our Holy Father’s thoughts and personality, his gentle manner, brilliant intellect, deep faith, and sense of humor. You may see bits of it in this column in the future, for as I read, I often thought – I have got to get this to the people of St. B! But why wait for that? It’s almost time to start thinking about Lent, so maybe this book could be part of your reading plan – the part that helps you to know, understand, and love the Church.

Some of the exchanges are quite mundane, for example:

(Peter Seewald) Do you actually use the exercise bicycle that your former physician, Dr. Buzzonetti, set up for you?

Pope Benedict XVI: No, I don’t get to it at all – and don’t need it at the moment, thank God.

But a better sample would be this, about what it is like when the Pope talks to his boss:

(Seewald) Has your faith changed since you became responsible for Christ’s flock as the supreme shepherd? Sometimes people get the impression that now it has become more mysterious somehow, more mystical.

(Holy Father) I am no mystic. But it is correct to say that as Pope one has even more cause to pray and to entrust oneself entirely to God. For I see very well that almost everything I have to do is something I myself cannot do at all. That fact already forces me, so to speak, to place myself in the Lord’s hands and to say to him: “You do it, if you want it!” In this sense prayer and contact with God are now even more necessary and also even more natural and self-evident than before.

To put it in worldly terms: Is there now a “better connection” to heaven, or something like a grace of office?

Yes, one often feels that. In the sense of: Now I have been able to do something that did not come from me at all. Now I entrust myself to the Lord and notice, yes, there is help there, something is being done that is not my own doing. In that sense there is absolutely an experience of the grace of office.

And how does Pope Benedict pray?

As far as the Pope is concerned, he too is a simple beggar before God – even more than most other people. Naturally I always pray first and foremost to our Lord, with whom I am united simply by old acquaintance, so to speak. I am friends with Augustine, with Bonaventure, with Thomas Aquinas. Then one says to such saints also: Help me! And the Mother of God is, in any case, always a major point of reference. In this sense I commend myself to the communion of saints. With them, strengthened by them, I then walk with dear Lord also, begging, for the most part, but also in thanksgiving – or quite simply being joyful.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 19, 2011

News you can believe in

I imagine it is much the same for many of you. When you read a news story that purports to cover something in which you are professionally or personally involved, you laugh at how far from the mark the story is. Whether you drive a snowplow, or work in a classified branch of one of our national security agencies, you can only chuckle at just how wrong it can be presented.

Most of the time, there is no reason to impute any ill intent on the part of the reporter or the media organization. It’s just hard to convey accurately something that involves a lot of time and experience -- which describes almost every aspect of human life. It is especially hard when that understanding and experience are limited to a small portion of the population.

If we have no experience of being a snowplow driver or a CIA analyst, we can take these stories at face value. We have no other insight or information against which to compare them, and are limited by our sources of information.

However, living in Washington, we have reason to be more skeptical. Here in our fair metropolitan area, people whom we know well are deeply involved in activities that many people like to speculate about, and are not very widely shared experiences. In addition to national security, there is national government, lobbying, the military, and federal law enforcement. This is the stuff that people not only talk and write about, but also make movies about – even if they don’t have any direct personal experience.

Because we have friends or neighbors who are involved everyday in just these things, we know how often those public portrayals are laughably – or maddeningly – wrong. Most often what we know is the mundane reality of what someone else is trying to make sound exciting – or sinister. We chuckle that insider’s chuckle, and are pleased what we know that other folks don’t.

So I hope that all of us here know better than to believe what these same media assert about the Church – what we believe, how we function, and yes, whether a particular situation is truly exciting – or sinister.

Do we bother to make sure that our knowledge of what the Church teaches and believes is on a level with what we know about our own profession, much less our favorite sport or team? Yes, we go to Mass, but if we haven’t learned or studied the content of our Faith since we finished parochial school, then we are hardly at the level of “fan”, much less “faithful.”
And when situations get controversial – situations with a real moral aspect, like many of the political and cultural questions we confront in our state and our country these days – do we truly take advantage of the great wealth of truth and wisdom that the Church possesses?

This is why it is worth it to put ourselves on the Archdiocesan email list, so we hear the truth from the one who has been charged by God with conveying to us that truth, our Archbishop. And if we are curious about a teaching of the Church about some moral question, rather than try to remember what our sophomore religion teacher said, we should read an official document published by the Church herself – like the Catechism, or one of the Pope’s or the Cardinal’s letters.

We all know how wrong these other stories can be that we read every day. Why let someone tell us something false about our holy Church?

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Is anyone else getting a little stir crazy? I don’t know about you, but lately it seems like that movie Groundhog Day, where the same day keeps playing out over and over again – at least as far as the weather goes. I look out my window to see if any of the snow has receded, and what do I find? Snow again!

My inner Alabaman has a low tolerance for winter. I have long recognized that when it comes to this season, a necessary evil at best, I can handle intensity: it is duration that bothers me. And we have had our intensity this winter for sure, and endured it since mid-November!

The thing about winter is how little changes. Nothing grows. Nothing blooms. Nothing turns a pretty color. And most days lately, nothing even melts.

This year, not even the liturgical season changes. I don’t remember the last time we celebrated the sixth or seventh weeks in Ordinary Time – but here we are, as if it were normal. Usually those weeks get covered over by Lent, and then we emerge after Pentecost to the eighth, ninth, or tenth week. This year we’ll celebrate the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time before we get to Ash Wednesday.

So we march toward Lent, looking for something to break the monotony. I’m not sure the annual Appeal is going to brighten things up as much as we need, even if this year, it is the Cardinal’s Appeal, not just the Archbishop’s. That at least is a little new color.

There has been one change here at Saint Bernadette Central. This week, Margie Deen resigned as our parish secretary and rectory receptionist. After seven years on the job, often as the first face encountered at the rectory, or the first voice on the telephone, Margie has welcomed a lot of folks and tried to help them get what they needed.

Before her, there was Olive Gervase, who not only tended the front desk but played the organ as well. She was here for a long time. She and Margie are only the most recent in an unbroken line of generous, helpful folk stretching back to Ada, Msgr. Stricker’s housekeeper, all of whom put up with priests and helped a lot of people here at Saint Bernadette. Keep her in your prayers.

Speaking of parish history, this weekend (Sunday 13 February) is Fr. Bill Thompson’s fortieth anniversary of Priestly Ordination. He was Pastor here from 1997 – 2006, and now is retired and living at the O’Boyle residence by Providence Hospital. I know he would be thrilled to receive your well-wishes, and your prayers. Drop him a card: P O Box 29206, Washington DC 20017.

The only faces that don’t change around here are Jesus, His Blessed Mother, and the saints – especially that stone Saint Bernadette who looks delightedly up at Our Lady revealed in the grotto in the front of the church. I was relieved to see her face again after it was covered over for so long after that wet, heavy, sticky snow we had a few weeks ago, which reduced her to a misshapen blob. Now that I think about it, by this point in February, and this winter, I feel like I am a misshapen blob. Lent may be late this year, but that doesn’t mean spring needs to be. Saint Bernadette of Lourdes – pray for us!
Monsignor Smith

Sunday, February 06, 2011


I didn’t gloat; I didn’t chalk it up to divine favor; I didn’t rub anyone’s nose in it. When our power stayed on last week in the winter storm, I simply thanked God for this unmerited blessing, and internally and prayerfully shared the frustration of my parishioners who went without for two, three, or even four days. Really I did.

So when my power went out this Wednesday afternoon, I didn’t scream, or rant, or rage. But I did tense up just a little, because it happened exactly ninety minutes before Cardinal Wuerl arrived here, along with 25 other priests, for a meeting of the priests of our deanery, followed by dinner.

It was a very difficult forty-five minutes before the power returned. The meeting and dinner proceeded well, even if the power did go out TWICE more. Each time it was out long enough for it to get uncomfortable, for me at least. His Eminence enjoyed the visit, and seemed to enjoy the joke. He looks forward to returning in six short weeks, to celebrate Confirmation for our kids on March 15th.

Okay, so maybe I tensed up more than just a little bit. The rectory staff and I had been working for days to make this just right. I tried to remind myself that it was something completely out of my control, and that the Cardinal would understand this, and the other priests would understand this, and that there was no great requirement for me to do anything about it except to roll gracefully with the vicissitudes of Pepco and grim fate.

And because I knew it was one of those moments, I realized, I’ll laugh about this later. However it turns, out, in the future, I will have survived it, and I will be able to see how amusing it really is.

I think the key is there, somehow. Really, whatever has our stomachs in a knot right now, whatever makes us want to spit fire and bite off someone’s head, it will all be more intelligible in hindsight. Not only intelligible, but also enjoyable.

Long ago I recognized that when one comes back from an exciting trip, and people ask how it went, they are not really looking for the info on that perfect meal you had, how the flight connections unfolded without a hitch, how you arrived on the balcony just as the perfect sunset erupted in full glory. No, they want to hear what went WRONG. That’s where the fun is: the missed trains, three days without clean clothes or a toothbrush, the torrential downpours on your new silk dress. And just missing your moment to a talk to the Pope/the President/the Princess, because you were busy scraping gum off your shoe.

Our vacations are not the only thing that can be appreciated best – or at all – in hindsight. And humor is not the only thing that can be gained by the passage of time and perspective.

God’s work in our lives can often only be observed in retrospect. Grace, blessing, gift, and help are all invisible to us in the moment; but later, upon reflection, if we stop to ponder…. hey! Now we see it!

It’s not a cure-all, but pause, and look back, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you see the benevolent hand of God in your life, even in those times when it seemed everything was going wrong. You may or may not laugh, but you will see how grace was at work at times when you were preoccupied by how it was not unfolding according to your plan.

Why bother with this exercise? Because it will help us bear with what seems to be all bad next time your life does not meet your expectation. Because even miracles are sometimes only obvious when we look back in wonder.

Monsignor Smith