Saturday, July 30, 2016

Take my mind off

I get distracted too, by things small enough for me to handle: small sadnesses and things none of us can change, like Nats losses, the cold spring’s destruction of the cherry and plum crops, and this month’s record heat.  Like you, my day is filled with practicalities and procedures: administrative details, Archdiocesan requirements, recreational opportunities.  It’s a life. 
Pelting us daily is a litany of things that we are told we should be concerned about, the work of politicians, activists, and advocates.  Narratives are spun for us to accept, to shape our understanding of the world and bring our behavior into line with someone else’s expectations.  Our critical filter can only accomplish so much to maintain the clear vision and moral freedom that we all like to assume we have.
Beneath it all is a drumbeat of our own helplessness, our dependence upon somebody else, some person who stands ready, some bright individual or brilliant group who can fix this for us, and make it right.  They tell you that this death, this loss, this injustice could have been prevented, and they can make it right. 
Ignore the drumbeat.
Human selfishness and false religion are at work in the world devouring souls and destroying lives.  Devastation in the dormitories and death on the promenade are the fruit of a repeated rejection of the one and only offer that can give any assurance or joy in this life.  Death wants you and wants me, and claims millions of hands for helpers.
There is evidence enough both at home and abroad to point our hearts and minds in the only direction that offers us relief.  There is one response that gives refuge, one action that will bear fruit, one effort that effects change.  This response, this action, is within in reach of me and of you, and requires neither activism nor advocacy, no policy change nor procedural perseverance.
Rend your hearts, not your garments.  Draw near to Christ and lay hold of Him as Lord.  Turn away from the noise and news that fills your ears and your head with manipulation and disinformation, and turn to Him who has the words of everlasting life.  Pour out your tears not for petty losses or personal griefs, but for your own sins.  
Throw away your yard signs and lapel pins and go to confession, go to communion, and go to the Lord Jesus.  Stop arguing, stop advocating, and pray:  listen for the still small voice that is the hallmark of God With Us.  Do not let anger turn you from the work of love; do not let what is wrong with the world deter you from lamenting what is wrong with you.
God has given us great power in giving us His Son.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  He has changed death into the path to life.  He has given us the ability to change the biggest obstacle to joy and freedom: our own hearts. 
Come!  Join me!  Let us rush to Him for the freedom and life that we crave!
Then I get distracted.

Monsignor Smith

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

Decade

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