Saturday, January 28, 2017

Who you calling that?

Cardinal Baum probably did not remember much about me after we first met in 1988.  I came to Rome for seminary five years later, and because he was attentive and generous toward us seminarians, he knew well who I was.  That was our acquaintance until 2002, when I came to live with him as his priest secretary, our path to real friendship.  For four years we were together through all sorts of events and challenges, ecclesiastical and personal.  After that I returned to parish life, and every time I visited him over his remaining ten years, he greeted me warmly as his dear friend.  This was a gracious gift he freely gave me.
Do you know what I called him throughout?  Your Eminence.  Always.  Well, sometimes I did it in other languages – Italian (Eminenza), since we were together in Rome; Latin (in the superlative form, Eminentissime!), and even once in a while in my attempt at French.  Some may wonder, is that any way to address a friend?  The only times I ever addressed him by his baptismal name, William, were the two times I administered the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, one of them about two days before he died
There is no term of address more intimate or respectful than Father, and thus at times I do not hesitate to use it in all respect and affection with peers, collaborators, and my dearest friends.  There is no distance imposed nor irony if I call a good buddy Monsignor.  Those two names are how Cardinal Baum called me most of the time.  Why shouldn’t he have used the latter, since I was granted that honor principally at his insistence?  
As his secretary, I knew all his friends, including his long-time priest and bishop friends, his seminary buddies, and even his best friend since kindergarten.  Some would refer to him as Bill or even Billy.  I knew who they meant, and detected not a hint of disrespect.  But as the saying goes, I never went there.  More often they, too, used a more formal term of address in conversation with him.  
All through college, most of my professors addressed us students as Mister, followed by our last name.  It was respect not servitude that led us to call them by their proper titles.  And it was a moment of great joy when, the day after I was graduated, one of the instructors to whom I was closest invited me to use his first name.  We are still close.
Because respect is the basis for any authentic intimacy or friendship, such formality does not preclude or reduce either, but rather can increase both.  A more formal style of address acknowledges not only the relative position of the speaker to addressee, but also the latter’s relationship to other people.  It is therefore also a sign of respect for every person who addresses him that way, be it Major, Doctor, or Your Holiness.  This forms the basis of a better relationship with all of those other people as well.
It may seem stiff to some, or even strange that I often use titles and last names.  I am happy to offer this respect wherever I can, not to impose a distance or obtain distinction for myself, but in order lay the foundation for a relationship based on mutual respect.  Not everyone understands this offer, and not everyone accepts it.   But in my experience, respect appropriately expressed, rather than instant intimacy assumed, leads more often to true friendship. 
Not everybody realizes how much closeness and affection can be expressed with the words, Your Eminence.   But when I said it, Cardinal Baum sure did.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Break the silence

As a moviegoer, I am not exactly committed.  Oh, sure, I go to movies occasionally, usually when raining or otherwise miserable weather on my day off.  Very often even then, I cannot find anything worth my time and money.  Sometimes I see something simply because everyone will be talking about it, like the latest Star Wars film, as long as it is not too egregious.  The movies I prefer and even recommend tend to be on the other end of the popularity spectrum.
What I recommend this week is like that, though it has received abundant press.  I mentioned it in my homily the week before I saw it, because I had long ago read and been impressed by the book upon which it was based.   That reference gained me an invitation to see the film with some men of the parish, principally Holy Name guys, which I gratefully accepted.
Silence is a grim and difficult film made grimmer by the prospect of seeing it alone.  The previews made clear that the sufferings of the Japanese martyrs are presented without mitigation. Even nearly thirty years after reading it, my memories of the book were clear about the anguish and ambiguity of the protagonist.  I knew it would be difficult.
Why would anybody go see such a film?  First, the historical setting is accurately depicted, but why would one immerse oneself in such a painful period of history?  Wouldn’t an amusing rom-com be more relaxing?  Secondly, if one does want history, even of difficult times, that can be explored through the eyes of protagonists we can unambiguously root for and applaud, like a good, heroic World War II epic or struggle for civil rights.  So why go so dark and painful?
Let me pose a few reasons.  First, it is rare that the history of the Faith and the Church are treated by the movie industry with anything even resembling accuracy and interest, much less sympathy.  To have a film of this quality of production and acting is do so openly and unapologetically is a rare opportunity.
Secondly, it makes one think about God.  The film, like the book it is based on, reveals many facts and realities, but also asks questions.  Though the viewer be not Japanese, nor missionary, nor priest (well, one out of three in my case!) the film brings one to think seriously about the reality of his own relationship with Jesus, the requirements it imposes, and how one meets them. 
Thirdly, it does all these things in a way that brings them before many people at the same time, like people reading the same book.  People all over America are seeing the film, and thus facing the same questions.  The crowd in the theater the night I went was surprisingly large.  So other people are interested, and willing to admit it.  Why leave your companions and conversation to chance?
Get a few people together and go see Silence.  My group went around the block afterwards to the pub for a late dinner and conversation, and enjoyed hearing what others had thought, noticed, and wondered.  I could identify a few elements from the book’s author, and a few additions by the film’s producer.  None of us was very good at the Japanese names.   We were all impressed by the demonstrations of faith, and we all wondered what was authentically from Jesus, and what was not.  What did it all mean?
So this is an ideal occasion to think about God in the company of other people and then spend time talking about it.  Why not commit to that?
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 14, 2017

What to do?

The weather is wretched.  The credit card is groaning beneath the weight of Christmas charges. The family is restless.  After you have made everybody sit down together and write thank-you notes for a whole weekend, what are you to do?
We are blessed to live in city of great monuments and museums, both of which are less crowded at this time of year.  Parking can be an issue though, and the winter weather affects those marble stairs and pavilions adversely. Speaking of perilous environments, the next week or be a time for only the valiant and prepared to try the Capitol or the National Mall.  The Basilica of the National Shrine is a great field trip, but you’ve probably done that already – and besides, the whole central vault is under scaffolding as the great central dome receives its beautiful new mosaic.  So what’s to do?
May I suggest the Saint John Paul II Shrine?  The building has been there for almost twenty years, but everything within the walls is completely new.  It is not a church, but it has two chapels; it is not a museum, but it has both permanent and temporary exhibits. 
The chapels are entirely covered in mosaics, recently conceived, executed, and completed by an artist whose work I had only seen in the private chapel of Pope John Paul II in the Apostolic Palace in Rome; the renovation was a gift to him or the twenty-fifth anniversary of his pontificate in 2003.  The style is unique, modern, traditional, colorful, and captivating.  The imagery will open your eyes to truths of the faith you had forgotten or never understood so clearly before.  The expert guides will help you see as they point out and explain the various elements. 

There is an engaging and enlightening permanent exhibit on the sainted pope and the Church during his 28-year reign.  Even as someone who lived through all of it, I am amazed to be reminded of the breadth and brilliance of his transformational teaching of Christ, and all he accomplished for the Church and the world.
The current temporary exhibit, continuing through March 31, is about Saint Thomas More, the “Man for All Seasons,” whose influence in our own time and nation is more than you would imagine, and not nearly as much as we need. 
My excuse for going to the newly invigorated Shrine was my parents’ visit in the days after Christmas.  Everything we saw was marvelous, and we didn’t have nearly enough time to do everything while we were there.  I am certain that they both want to take up where they left off when next they come to town. 
Neil Sloan is planning a Family Pilgrimage to the Shrine for our First Communion and Confirmation families on Sunday 26 February, with a special presentation and tour arranged.  We have an unusually strong connecting to the Shrine, in that a number of our parishioners, and a few until-recently parishioners, work in various capacities there.  So it is easy to feel at home.
Just off North Capitol Street between Carroll High School and Catholic University, it is a twenty-minute drive from the heart of the parish.  There is plenty of free parking.  Admission is free.  There is a gift shop.  And the energized Brookland/CUA area nearby is filled with new places to eat. 
So stretch your legs, and broaden your vision of the Faith.  Make it a family outing and compare who likes and learns what.  Soon you’ll be telling your out-of-town guests to make sure they don’t miss it, possibly so you can have another excuse to go yourself, no matter what the weather.   Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Tree of Lives

This week brings less a letter than a photo essay.  Pictures or images are suitable this weekend, as we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord – the “showing forth” of the one true God, the Word become flesh, the invisible God become visible, the image of the invisible God. 

The Epiphany of our Lord is multifaceted, though most of us think only of the Three Wise Men, the Kings, the Magi from the East, who follow the signs in which they are experts that point the way to the new-born King, and the come to adore and offer gifts.  But the other two aspects are just as significant, revealing the Godhead of Jesus to a wider and less specialized audience.  The second is Jesus’ miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, demonstrating His command over nature and substance, as well as His concern for people’s joy; and His Baptism, in which the heavens opened, the Spirit descended like a dove, and all present heard the voice of the Father say, behold my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased! 

For all of us in the rectory, it has become a favorite tradition to assemble the Parishioner Tree, where we hang the Christmas cards that arrive from throughout the parish.  We started because it seemed such a shame merely to look once then put aside these marvelous images of the love that makes up the smallest elements of our Church, the families.  Now we all enjoy seeing them for several weeks, including even “distinguished alumni” who still send cards after they have moved on, still nearby or even as far away as North Carolina and Pennsylvania.  The threefold Epiphany multiplies to many, many more in the manifestations of God’s presence in the Church. 

The tree is right by the counter at the front door, so anyone who comes to request a Mass intention can enjoy it like Michael our UPS guy does.  It will stay up for a few more days, so stop by now to check it out for yourself.  Let these photos help motivate you.  The manifold images reveal the presence of divine love abiding in the flesh and blood of our families united by the Holy Eucharist.  Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Monsignor Smith