Saturday, March 22, 2014


We took it off the bulletin, but we couldn’t take it off the menu.  What am I talking about?  Snow, of course.  We changed from our winter bulletin cover last weekend, after a number of people, not limited to the rectory staff, began to cry out to God and to me for deliverance from even photographs of snow.  So our steeple and rosy sky, plus the portrait of our Patroness, returned to herald spring, or at least express our hope for it.
Then, wham.  The snowfall exceeded predictions, and we all reverted to our accustomed responses as schools and offices closed, and another Monday fell to the weather axe.  Father McCabe has one professor he hasn’t seen in over a month because that class meets only once a week, and those days not lost to (so-called) Spring Break have fallen before the recurring frozen juggernaut.  Fr. McDonell has similarly lost weeks of certain classes. 
I was reading just this morning that the severity and duration of this winter have combined to kill off a number of plants that had been thriving locally for years.   That explains why my rosemary, usually a perennial in my herb garden, looked so, well, dead when I stopped to look at it last week.  It was on the list of things that usually survive, but this year have not.  Other victims will be identified when they fail to report for duty as the spring summons comes to their spot on the roster.  My one consolation is that this winter is supposed to have killed just as many bad bugs as it did good plants. 
Through it all, our church has kept up operations, not flagging from our duty of giving glory to God under all circumstances. (Frost and chill, bless the Lord. Ice and snow, bless the Lord!  Daniel 3) We have not missed a Mass or confessions yet.  The lot and sidewalk have been clear for anyone who could reach us, and the interior has been cozy and warm (with the exception of that two-week period in the third through eighth grade classrooms).    
Including the St. Patrick’s Day snow, we have spent $29,057.50 on snow removal, almost exactly twice our budget.  We’ve had excellent snow removal service at a good price, just a lot of snow.  We are still gauging the extent to which our utility bills have reached new heights driven by our demand for warmth. 
So next weekend, 29 – 30 March, we will have a second collection to cover winter expenses in the parish.  I would respectfully request that you offer at least what a normal Sunday offering would be for your family.  I know this winter has brought expenses to your household too.  My hope is that there was also a reduction in spending in some categories, because the weather was just too bad to go out and buy or spend.  But I am grateful for your willingness. 
As we have begun Lent and the practice of penance, I find myself counseling people in the confessional that their difficulty in maintaining charity and cheer in the relationships that surround them does not reflect a lack in themselves, much less in the grace God gives.  Rather, our irritability, and the evident defects of those we spend our days with, has been increased to near unmanageable levels by the combination of enforced enclosure together, and the reality that everyone’s fuse is short and visage is grim as we all wait for deliverance. 
But unlike last month, now it’s Lent, so there is something we can do with it: offer it up!  And next week when the basket comes around a second time for help with our parish’s winter expenses, the same response is called for: offer it up!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Rise and Converge

From the shadows of the narrow street, I walked into the Piazza Navona all alone.  The deep rose of dawn pushed in from the east and became salmon then cerulean as the dark of night retreated.  This breathtaking long oval plaza, shaped by an old Roman racetrack, is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful public spaces in the world.  Ordinarily teeming with tourists and Romans, waiters, vendors, hucksters, and beggars, its broad expanse of polished cobbles was gleaming and empty.  Three splendid fountains, Bernini’s “Four Rivers” masterpiece and two others by his workshop, gushed and splashed in competition for my attention.  
It was Lent, and I was on my way to the Station Church.
From as early as the fifth century, the Roman church designated a different church for each day of Lent.  For centuries, the Pope would lead a pilgrimage to the church of the day, where he would offer Mass.  This year, Pope Francis began Lent by doing just that at Santa Sabina, the ancient Station for Ash Wednesday. 
The pilgrimages on the other days proceed now without him.  Each of the forty days, people set out begin their pilgrimages from their homes all over Rome to reach the daily Station.  The Romans go mid-afternoon; the English-speakers, led by American priests and seminarians, offer their Mass at seven in the morning. 
The great basilicas of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint Mary Major take their places in the queue with little churches like San Giovanni in Porta Latina and San Lorenzo in Panisperna.  The breathtaking San Clemente gets the same number of days as the dumpy Sant’Eugenio, whose location by the fish market makes it breathtaking in other ways. 
As a seminarian, my attention to chronology and cartography earned me the responsibility of leading the group of men who left the North American College even earlier than our accustomed 6:30 Mass.  We had to find our way through the ancient city and arrive at each day’s destination by ten minutes to seven, so musicians and ministers would have time to vest or prepare.  Almost two hundred people would assemble for each morning Mass, many of whom we encountered every year.  
For many of the years I was there, my dad would come to Rome during Lent, not because the weather was so great, but because of the Station Churches.  Each year he would try to be there for a different week, and a different group of the forty churches.  It helps that my dad likes to walk!
If you cannot make the trip yourself, you can still visit these places and enrich your prayer with the new book Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, by my friend George Weigel.  With photos by his son Stephen Weigel, and artistic notes from Elizabeth Lev, it lacks nothing you need to make a virtual pilgrimage every day of the season.
When I returned to Rome to work with Cardinal Baum, I was the only one in my house who could make the trip, so I set out in the dark on my own.  That’s how I got the Piazza Navona all to myself.  But each day, as I drew closer the church, I would encounter more and more others who shared my goal.  By the time I arrived I was usually in a group excited to reach our destination.
This is the joy of Lent.  We have all fallen far afield from Jesus and what He offers us, so we must move toward him from our different starting points.  But the destination is the same for all of us on the pilgrimage, and as we move, with the direction of the Word of God and help of the Holy Spirit, we find company on our journey.  For in the pilgrimage of Lent, we do not walk alone. 
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 08, 2014

All aboard!

Only barely do I remember my first Confession.  I was in fourth grade (yes, it was in that era) and did not have a good grasp then on what the Sacrament of Penance was.  I was underprepared, under-catechized, and nervous, almost terrified. 
More clearly do I remember my first Confession after I had been “away for a while” from the sacrament.  I was a recent college graduate, and it seemed an eternity since my last Confession, maybe back when I was in eighth grade.  Now I can laugh and say it had been “only” eight years.  The place was Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, and the priest was Father Bob Wharton.  I was nervous, but not terrified; and afterward I was very, very glad I had gone.  I resolved that I would do that more often.
Even so, I didn’t just jump on the bandwagon right then and there.  I think that until I entered seminary, I would seek the sacrament at least once a year, but not much more often.  So it was a slow train I climbed aboard, but it was rolling in the right direction.
Now, along with all the other activities and obligations that Lent brings for me, the Sacrament of Penance is perhaps the most prominent.  I increase significantly the amount of time I spend in the confessional, maybe three or four hundred percent.  But it is not just a “workload” consideration, since the amount of grace at work in the confessional during Lent increases at least fourfold as well.
The Holy Spirit works faster and more furiously during Lent, judging by my experiences and the drained-but-energized feeling I have when I finish a round in “the box.”  There is a whole lot of grace flying, and an astonishing amount flows through me.  It leaves me thrilled, but beat.
Yes, people who have been “away for a while” come back more during this season, and that is a marvel to behold.  But also with the people who confess once or twice a year, or even more often, there is also a detectable difference.  There is something about Lenten penance; it is more powerful, more intense, and even more effective. 
This weekend we begin First Confessions, which are rightly a source of drama.  Because of what I remember about my own, I try to make them less likely to terrify.   Most of the kids leave the experience with a lightness and manifest delight that reassures me that they will not be afraid to come back.  We call it the first, after all, because there is the expectation of a second – and a thirteenth, and a forty-fifth.  Please keep these young, blossoming Christians and their life in the sacraments in your prayers this Lent. 
I would also ask you to count among your Lenten intentions one soul, someone you have never met, who will come, often in the entourage of a first penitent, who has been “away for a while.”  It may seem to him, or her, an eternity since last he made the Act of Contrition; she may be nervous, even terrified.  But with the help of your prayers, and the lift from the Holy Spirit so hard at work in these forty days, that self-conscious penitent will become conscious of the love of God in a way that can only be experienced by hearing Him say, Your sins are forgiven.
So by your example, by your encouragement, and by your prayers, offer a hand to someone who is hesitating to get on this train.  You know that soul you help will remember the moment fondly and well once on board and rolling, and finally, when we reach our destination.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Surge

This is not a complaint about the weather, or winter, or February.  So bear with me!
Not all months are created equal.  February is not only short, but it is short on appeal.  Now, in the southern hemisphere things may be different, and if you share your birthday month with George and Abe you may object, but none of the people I know wish that February could linger for just a few weeks more. 
This year, the month presented precisely the face for which she is infamous, and we endured every one of her bad habits with weary familiarity.  I have a new insight, though, into why this February was worse than usual: It wasn’t Lent yet.
Now how can that be a problem, you ask?  Wouldn’t it be worse if it were Lent?  Lent sucks the fun out of everything and imposes suffering where ordinarily there would be joy, doesn’t it?   Since February has so little joy, wouldn’t Lent only make it worse?
Sed contra, I respond, Lent does not impose suffering at all.  Rather, Lent does something good with the suffering that is already ours.
You see, because we are Catholic Christians, we have the amazing opportunity to transform our suffering into something powerful and positive by uniting it to the suffering of Christ.  This is what your mom, or grandma, or the nuns who taught you were trying to get you to do when they said, Offer it up.  When we offer our suffering to God with Christ, especially that which we accept freely or take on willingly, it contributes to the salvation of the world because it becomes part of Jesus’  saving sacrifice.
Now, that’s what we can do on our own.  But when we do it together with the Church, which is the Body of Christ, everyone is yoked together in the same service by the same Holy Cross.   A truly awesome power is put to work.
Lent is a time when the whole Church is united in penance freely taken on and suffering willingly accepted.  This union of intention and action bears fruit in every participant far greater than his or her efforts merit.  This is the grace of God at work, and the exchange of spiritual gifts that is only available within the communion of the Church. 
This is the power and attraction of Lent.  It takes what everyone has too much of – sadness, suffering, disappointment, and want – and turns it into something everybody needs more of: grace, mercy, and peace.  But unlike so many popular projects, you cannot just “do it yourself.”  You can only do it in union with the Church!
This year Easter is quite late – April 20 – so Lent begins later than we expect.  I submit to you the radical consideration that we need Lent, and delaying it only makes our situation unhappier.  Last year Easter was early -- March 31 – so we have gone more than eleven complete months without Lent, which is too long.  Moreover, because Lent was delayed until March, we didn’t have what we needed to deal with February.  And this February was a humdinger.
So by a fluke of the calendar this year, February fell five full days away from redemption: a thoroughly wretched month, squandered.  But do not despair!   Lent begins this week, finally, and all that horsepower will be at your disposal.  You need only bring your sacrifices and your suffering, and the channels of grace will be opened and running.

Monsignor Smith