Saturday, March 30, 2013

Even if the Sun Should Fail to Rise

Imagine if the sun had no effect.
Imagine what it would be like if the days got longer and longer each spring, and the sun came closer and shone brighter - and nothing happened.  Days would be longer – but just as cold.  Flowers and trees would put forth buds, only to have them covered over with snow, not blossoms.  Fruit would be out of the question. 
I admit this grim scenario is brought to mind by the seemingly interminable extension of winter and tantalizing postponement of spring we have endured lately.  My inner Alabaman groans at every forecast of further chill, every bright sunny day that bites with Arctic teeth any soul foolish enough to step out into what should be a spring day.
But I can indulge in such apocalyptic complaining, because I know that the end is near - the end of winter, that is.  The sun's share of the day is growing, and we will not be denied its warmth and light.  Soon enough, we will be seeking shade, or worse, air conditioning!  Unless something - say, a great cloud of volcanic debris - come between us and the sun, there is no chance that the sun will not warm our part of the planet into verdant fruitfulness.
Imagine if the Resurrection had no effect.  
Imagine if one day, a long time ago, a man dead three days had risen from his tomb and gone about visiting his friends, explaining how he had predicted this all along.  Imagine that after this bizarre phenomenon, he was somehow different, so that he could go through closed doors, and sometimes go unrecognized by people who had known him well.  But he was also somehow the same, eating and drinking and laughing with his friends, who saw his face and touched his hands and knew him immediately.  And then he disappeared into the sky.
Would we treasure the story, like we do snatches of information of long-dead ancestors who migrated from faraway lands?  Or would we simply memorize it with other data, like William the Conqueror in 1066, Christopher Columbus in 1492, and the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII?
Sometimes it can seem as if the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus has been confined to just this kind of category: a blip on the historical radar, an anomaly, a curiosity, a story of once upon a time, and only once.  It has been buried beneath an avalanche of conflicting data and contrary opinions. 
That impressive late-spring snow we had last week covered everything with an inarguable winter.  The sun was invisible behind thick clouds all day, and the air temperature hovered near freezing.  Nonetheless, the snow didn’t stand a chance.  It melted, first on the pavement, and then on the grass and trees.  The ultraviolet rays from that invisible spring sun were strong enough to warm the ground despite the cloud cover and cold breeze.  
Like the sun, the Risen Christ is at work whether seen or not, whether acknowledged or denied.  Christ is risen, and that reality, though invisible, is at work now, in the lives of us who have been baptized into it, and even where ignorance or hostility reject it.  Behold, I make all things new!  This radiance changes the world in its substance, and makes lives inhospitable to death.  Unless something - say, a great cloud of persistent sin - come between us and our Savior, Christ our Sun, there is no chance that the Risen One will not warm our lives into abundant fruitfulness.
So do not imagine your own destruction.  The sun will warm you, and Christ Jesus is risen from the dead.  The Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, even though we cannot see it ourselves, is what is real, in this world, and in us.  This is who we are and what we are for. 
On this holy day, may you grow in awareness of and gratitude for this radiant truth that makes life possible.   Father McDonell, Father McCabe, and all of us here at your parish pray that you enjoy this reality, and bask in the glory of a blessed Easter.  Amen.  Alleluia!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Where we belong

Were you there?
A few years ago, that hymn was on the program for Good Friday, but for some reason we did not actually sing it.  Maybe twenty people said something to me afterward, by far the most who have ever made comments of that type.  It leads me to believe that it is a favorite.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? the song asks.  It is poignant, and makes us realize the reality of what we are marking.  We all have had crucifixes around us all our lives, and we make the Sign of the Cross every day, but do we turn our attention to what is signified by them?  Probably not so much.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? leaves no room for euphemistic thinking.  The harsh, hurting reality of that moment in the life of Jesus, and of the world, is suddenly front and center in our attentions.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? brings chills, or more accurately, the coldness of the grave that embraced the flesh of Our Lord.  There is no question of the reality, and the grief that accompanies it.
Were you there?   No one of us wants it to be the case that no, we weren’t there.  Even as dreadful the day was, we want to have been there; we want to go there, to be there, lest this greatest of all great sacrificial gifts be alien to us, be unknown and unexperienced.
Nothing that Jesus did was simply for that time and that place in which He first did it.  His discourse on the Beatitudes was not simply for the edification of those there on the Mount with him.  His words to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” were not meant to be heard only by him.  His instruction, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it,” were not to stop at the four walls of the Cenacle that Passover eve.   He intended for many, many more people than simply the woman caught in adultery to know that, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go now, but from now on, avoid this sin.”
And, yes, that painful day when all the disciples had to choose whether to flee or stay, that day when the sun was covered over with a veil of grief, and the curtain in the temple was rent in two, even that earth-shaking moment was not simply for that moment; it is for us today. 
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? is not merely a rhetorical question.  Christ makes that moment, that experience present and available to you and me when He re-presents in every Mass His own Passion and Death; and in excruciating detail on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  You can be there, because he will be there.  Jesus allowed Himself to be placed in that most painful of moments, to make clear that He is with us precisely when we are in pain.
This year, we will sing that song during the Solemn Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday.  It is but the second portion of the three-part journey through the Paschal Mystery, which begins with the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, and culminates in the Resurrection itself at the Great Vigil during the night of Saturday into Sunday. 
These liturgies -- or to be more accurate this liturgy of the Sacred Triduum, for it is one singular liturgical action spread over three days -- makes it possible for you to answer that plaintive question, Were you there? in the affirmative.
Be there.
Monsignor Smith

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Gaudium Magnum

It has been almost two hundred years – since 1829 – since the Church has elected a Pope during Lent.  As I grappled with the reality of Popelessness, it dawned on me that this is the perfect season in which to deal with the exigencies of a sede vacante in the See of Peter.
Have you noticed how everyone has been talking about what’s wrong with the Church?  No, not the things non-Catholics, non-Christians, and non-believers, as well as many hyperbolic commentators, think are wrong with the Church;  those are in fact exactly what is true, good, and beautiful about the Church because they reflect the Faith that is our precious treasure.  No, I am talking about the real things that are wrong with the Church, the fruit of human weaknesses and systemic failures that cling to the gown of the spotless Bride of Christ like stains on satin.
Even the Cardinals themselves have been working and praying to make certain that they do not neglect or overlook any of these shortcomings, to bring them to one another’s attention and to identify their sources and origins. To sit and endure this parade of shortcomings and have it discussed as if it were the defining characteristic of our Church is humiliating and discouraging.
Two weeks ago I likened a Conclave to the Sacrament of Penance, because of the way its unique grace occurs only in a conversation among parties, none of whom know in advance what the others will say, but all of whom are confident that the outcome will be the work of God.  Well, now I see yet another resemblance.
This airing of the “dirty laundry” of the Church Herself serves a similar purpose to the confession of a penitent.  In order to receive the remedy, the wound must be identified; the illness must be diagnosed.  That God be able to reveal His merciful prescription, we must acknowledge our need for His salvation. 
During both procedures – Confession, and the General Congregations – it can be quite discouraging if we allow ourselves to think for a moment that these sins, these shortcomings, define and describe us.  It is important that even as we admit responsibility for these wrongs, evil is not our only accomplishment, nor do our sins reveal our identity.  
Though sinners, we are beloved children of the living God, made in His image and likeness.  Despite the shortcomings of the Church’s all-too-human members, He makes that same Church into His own divine body, His very presence on earth, the vessel of salvation. 
Because we acknowledge our sins, we experience God’s life-giving mercy, and are bathed in joy.  Because the leaders of the Church acknowledge their faults, they are able to recognize who is our new shepherd.  The bells ring, the streets and squares fill, and the Body of Christ rejoices in her new head on earth. 
He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalm 126:6)  After the somber hues of Lenten penance, the Church bedecks herself in the festive raiment of Easter.  After the relentless self-scrutiny of the sede vacante, we announce our great joy – and, like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old (Mt 13:52b), show the world all the blessings of our Church.
Habemus papam!  Long live Pope Francis!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Popeless but not Hopeless

Okay, I admit it:  this is weird.  I mean, not having a Pope.  It is not a catastrophic as, say, if the sun were to go out, but more like the effect on everyone’s balance if the sun were to run its course from west to east.  Everything is cast in a different light.
The first day I found myself Popeless, Friday, March first, was tougher than I had expected.  Nothing seemed to have a chance of going right. I don’t mean that it was hard to leave out his name at Mass during the Eucharistic Prayer; I was ready for that.  No, I mean there is this sense of being hobbled by missing someone we need. 
As I explained a few weeks ago, this is not the first time the Church has been Popeless; on the contrary, it has happened 263 times.  We know what to do, and we are doing it.  This is attracting a lot of attention and speculation, much of it rather… overheated.  People are speaking of this moment in the Church’s life as if it were cataclysmically critical with peril on every side and seismic transformation imminent.  If that be true, it is not any more true now than any other time.  So I draw to your attention two things to help you maintain your perspective in the face of disorienting Popelessness.
First is the Lenten Food Drive in which we participated last week.  You brought in an extraordinary amount of food to be shared with our local poor through the Capital Area Food Bank.  Early estimates are that you handily exceed last year’s generous amount.  It sure took up a lot of space in the church!  Praise God for your willingness to care for your brothers and sisters and take seriously the Lenten charge of almsgiving.
Secondly, Tuesday evening saw the church filled to overflowing with seventy-eight of young people and their family and friends, along with a successor to the Apostles, Bishop Martin Holley, Auxiliary of Washington, who came to confer the Sacrament of Confirmation.  It was a beautiful evening, full of joy.  Personally, I found great delight and encouragement in seeing Confirmed so many kids whom I have known literally all their lives.  To see them so seriously attentive to the working of the Spirit was marvelous.  It was also good to see so many of their family members from near and far.  Many of them I have come to know and recognize over the years.
So, right here in Silver Spring, you have your evidence that the Church continues to be the Church.  Alms are given for the poor, and the Spirit comes at the invocation of the Apostles: the Body of Christ is alive.  The Church does the work of God’s mercy, turning our hearts and minds back to God in repentance for our selfishness, and giving what we have to those who have not.  She also brings the life that God alone can give in the Sacraments, reconciling souls to God, and distributing the very power of God to souls willing to conform their lives to Him and witness to His Saving work. 
So, yes, this is weird.  But the cataclysm – that the Church might cease to be who Church has always been – is not going to happen.  She continues to preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified as the unique hope of salvation.  She continues to teach what is good, and what is evil, and call people in every circumstance away from sin and toward obedience.  She continues to care for the poor, the lonely, and the sad, and she continues to provide the saving sacraments that are the presence and activity of the living God for all who crave Him.
So yes, these days are weird.  But our Popelessness will change, and soon, and the Church will not change in her essence any more than will our loving, constant God Himself.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Parts and the Whole

Did you ever dissect anything when you were in high school biology class?  I remember a worm, and a frog, and a fetal pig.  It did narrow my vocational discernment by at least one degree – I knew I was not called to practice medicine.
Suddenly I was reminded of that episode as I was reading the coverage of the Cardinals gathering in Rome to bid farewell to Benedict XVI (now the Roman Pontiff Emeritus) and prepare to choose a successor to him, and to Saint Peter.  The deeper you plunge into the biographies of these churchmen, the harder it becomes to remember that each is just one member of a larger whole – the College of Cardinals, and, overall, the Body of Christ: the Church.
It can be fascinating to focus one person, one situation, one element of anything.  In almost any case, it can give some insight into the inner working of whatever it is we are trying to understand.  But the danger is always there that focusing on the smaller components or elements can lead one to lose sight of the larger whole.  This is where the expression comes from that someone cannot see the forest for the trees.
Last week I wrote about Cardinal Baum, who is just one member of the College of Cardinals.  I was also priest secretary to Cardinal McCarrick.  Cardinal Wuerl has been my archbishop for almost seven years. Cardinal Dolan and Cardinal (Edwin) O’Brien were both my rector while I was in seminary.  Trust me:  they are ALL fascinating people.  You could listen to their homilies, study their biographies, list weaknesses and mistakes along with strengths and accomplishments.  But even if you were to come to some understanding of each or even every one of them, you would still have yet to understand how they function as a whole.
The “whole” here is the Conclave itself.  Just over one hundred of these Cardinals, fortified and informed by the experience of their encounters during the General Congregations, discern among themselves who it is that is emerging as the next Pope.  It is more than just information, opinion, or ideology.  It is something that none of them could do alone, or in any smaller group.
All that I can liken to this is the Sacrament of Penance.  That requires two people, with two personalities.  Both need to have been Baptized; one needs to have been ordained Priest. Neither can be omitted.  Both have something to say.  Both must listen.  What sins one is moved to recognize and acknowledge; what direction, consolation, encouragement, and assignment the other one gives – all this is the fruit of the moment, the mix, and the working of Holy Spirit.  And because of the actions of the two, God acts.  In all of this, His mercy takes away guilt, and sin.  A description of the participants before, and after, no matter how thorough, would not reveal what has occurred, or how.
The Conclave and the Confessional are not dissimilar.  Both are examples of how the several members of the Body of Christ must unite in order for God’s work to be accomplished. Both are more than one could ever comprehend simply by dissecting them into their component parts.  The Word becomes flesh, indeed; but since Jesus, not in just any one man’s flesh.  His many members unite to form His body. 
So you can have something of the Conclave experience right here at home, without even a red hat to your name.  The Cardinals will have in the Conclave with them two or three priests, chosen for their language abilities, to hear their Confessions.  When you are ready for your life to be united into the Body of Christ by His mercy, remember: the Light is On for You.
Monsignor Smith