Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Bulletproof

Shooting fish in a barrel has always struck me as an odd expression.  Who shoots fish?  What are the fish doing in the barrel in the first place?  How long would the barrel last once the shooting began?  For some reason, it is understood to describe something very easy, and more precisely, easily getting something out of people. 
I am not sure how many people use that expression for it, but I get the impression that is how some folks bent on raising funds view the prospect of speaking to a congregation at Mass: a captive audience, sitting ducks, fish in a barrel.
You have no idea how many solicitations, pleas, and proposals I receive from organizations convinced that their causes are worthy of presentation in the context of the Eucharistic worship of the Church.  Some of them even offer to provide a priest to celebrate and preach all the weekend Masses at a parish, and give Father Pastor a much-needed break.  Of course, his homily will instruct the people to give to the preacher’s organization, and of course its delivery in the context of Mass will give that exhortation great authority.  How many poor pastors are desperate enough for a break that they take up this offer?
Others want only to provide a “speaker” who will present his case at every Mass, then provide an opportunity to give freely, or purchase goods, to support whatever cause or organization. 
Sometimes it is not about money; rather, sometimes it is about involvement, or volunteering for a particular program.  Funny how the Scriptures of any given week can be turned to give Divine endorsement to participation in the speaker’s program by people “right here in this parish.”
Last weekend, we went through the in-pew process for the Cardinal’s Appeal.  The Appeal actually is a vital part of our identity as members of Christ’s Church, and we must consider it as such as we allot our resources.  The process whereby I lead you all through filling out your pledge cards is effective, but passing tedious.  I saw at least one fellow stand up and walk out last weekend, not to return.  Did you know that there are two or three other collections every year that present themselves as worthy of the same “now-everybody-take-up-your pencils” approach?  Lord deliver us!  Can you imagine doing that once every three months?  The Cardinal’s Appeal is unique, and I plan to keep it that way.
Similarly, as part of our ecclesiastical identity, our Archdiocesan Missions Office assigns us one missionary appeal every three years.  Only they know how many applicants beg for that privilege!  They apply some system and some fairness to what could otherwise be a scrum, and provide the ever-essential certainty of the worthiness of the cause and the fiscal legitimacy of the organization.
Every other year, I allow the Little Sisters of the Poor to come and beg (their words) to support their work.  These Sisters provide their marvelous ministry here locally (Harewood Road NE) and present a face of faithful religious life we see all too rarely here and now.  Look for them next weekend; they’ll be brief, and happily take what you offer. 
Next to the fundamental obligation of offering the first fruits of your material well-being to God through the parish offertory, these are the very few cases where you will be told with Divine and ecclesial authority what you should do with your time and money.  After we have met these responsibilities, we can all direct our own charitable efforts according to our personal inclinations and experiences.  Whether I continue to give annually to the Boy Scouts is my decision; you have similar ones to make for yourself.
But as long as I am Pastor, no one will take advantage of your openness to God and His instruction; no one will replace deep reflection on the Word of God with his own “pitch;” no one will equate fidelity and holiness with joining his group or supporting his project; and nobody will take you worshippers of God as “fish in a barrel.”

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Precious moments


A few weeks ago, the people in Hawaii received an emergency alert indicating that a missile attack was underway.  The alert soon was revealed to have been sent in error, but not before most people endured some anxious moments.  More recently, a parishioner told me that for relatives who had been among the affected, it had been horrible.
My first reaction was that it would have been less horrible if they had been going to confession regularly.  This seems a bit callous, or even self-serving, but not really.  That is what confession allows us to do: prepare for death and judgment.  If we know our sins have been forgiven and our soul is prepared to receive the Lord, then we have far less reason to be anxious about meeting Him.  An absence of anxiety is an absence of fear; how can it be callous to offer that? 
However, even having no fear of death or judgment is not enough to make one welcome death.  But might it help us welcome…life?
In 1922, when asked what he would do if faced with a hypothetical situation that very nearly matched what our friends in Hawaii experienced, the author Marcel Proust suggested: I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say.  Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.  But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! 
Imagine; threatened with the loss of life, we realize how beautiful it is.  Proust realized how in ordinary circumstances, we miss precisely this ever-present reality.  Once no longer threatened with privation of life, how quickly we would settle back into our indifferent squandering of it: The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire.  And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today.
Unafraid of death, delighted by life; the two seem to be opposed.  But clinging to only one or the other is results in an unbalanced, even unhinged disposition.  We need to cultivate both together, for only that can stabilize us and satisfy our deepest yearning.  We should not dread death, but neither should we fail to love life, even for a moment. 
This happy balance, this perfect complementarity, seems impossible to attain.  Perhaps to attain it for ourselves is impossible; but to receive it as a gift is surely possible.  For this union of fearlessness and delight is the fruit of faith.  Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because He is truth itself.  By faith "man freely commits his entire self to God."  For this reason, the believer seeks to know and do God's will.  (CCC 1814)
So yes, faith is a gift (from God) that makes possible a participation (by the believer).  Can it be a gift if it require participation?  By all means; it is not hard to imagine a gift that is no gift at all unless we use it, and use it for its right purpose.  And the right purpose of faith is to free us from fear, and fill us with delight.  What better gift could there be not only on our last day, but on our every day?
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody! Awake, my soul!
Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to thee, O LORD, among the peoples,
I will sing praises to thee among the nations.
For thy steadfast love is great above the heavens,
thy faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let thy glory be over all the earth!   (Psalm 108:1-5)

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Oh, the places you'll go!

Right up there with castles and countryside, cathedrals are what everybody expects to see when they visit Europe.  Chartres, Canterbury, Cologne – nobody would dream of skipping these monumental edifices if they passed within fifty miles.  People who do not otherwise darken the door of a church in the course of their year, or even their lives, are all excited to tour the great cathedrals. 
One of the stained glass windows for which Chartres Cathedral is famous.
The interior of Canterbury Cathedral.
The Cathedral of Cologne.
This is a worthy activity, and I would never try to discourage anyone from it.  We Catholics should eagerly engage in it, since we are truly “at home” in any Catholic church around the world, grand or grungy.  We are more likely to understand elements of the cathedrals, and recognize artistic depictions for their true purpose, since we have similar elements in our own church and use them all the time.
I have always been a bit defensive about our cathedral, since it is not very large and most people think of some other building in DC when they hear that word.  Besides the awesome significance of being where I was ordained a priest, Saint Matthew’s Cathedral boasts a truly beautiful interior hidden behind its mundane fa├žade.  Our Religious Ed families so enjoyed their pilgrimage there two year ago, that they are making another one soon this year.
The interior of Washington's Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle
Last week, I went to visit my friend Msgr. David Brockman at his parish in Wake Forest, North Carolina (the town, not the university).  He gave me the grand tour of the new cathedral of the Diocese of Raleigh, apparently the third largest in the US, and the first new cathedral built east of the Mississippi in over a century.  (Knoxville now has one under construction too).  Having heard about it from him when his bishop was first set on building it, I followed through him the planning and design, the fund raising and the permitting, and the construction and consecration, in all of which he played a large part. 
Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina
The interior of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral
Let me tell you, the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh is worth a visit if you are passing within a hundred miles of it, perhaps on your way to the beach, or even a special trip.  It makes you proud to be Catholic, and relieved, even exuberant to know that they can still build beautiful churches.  It is already packed with parishioners, and was filled to overflowing for its first Christmas.   The city of Raleigh, where Catholics have traditionally been in a small minority, is thrilled to have it soaring up at the edge of town.
The baldacchino and interior the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican.

We know that a true cathedral is not just any big church, but is the seat of the bishop of the local church, the diocese.  People who think they have found a cathedral in the Vatican are mistaken, since the great Saint Peter’s is not that but rather a basilica.  We have one of those too, right down the way: the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Even if you know it well, it too now merits another trip since the magnificent Trinity Dome mosaic was completed last month.  You will stop and stare.
The newly completed mosaic of the Trinity Dome at our Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
There is yet another basilica in town – Old Town Alexandria, to be precise.  Saint Mary’s Church there, not large, and only beautiful in comparison to its neighboring churches on that side of the river, is rich in historical significance, and was given the Papal honor of Basilica just this month.  It connects with my family history too: my maternal great-grandmother, Kathryn Risacher, was housekeeper there in the middle of the last century. 
The newly-designated Basilica of Saint Mary in Alexandria, Virginia.
At all these places, tourists will gape and passersby will gawk, but you and I are at home there as if in our own parish.  That should be more reason, not less, for us to pay a visit, to take a tour, to say a prayer and light a candle, and especially to attend a Mass.  Bring the family, and a friend, not as tourists, but as pilgrims.  For these monumental churches do not require a journey to Europe, but rather point the way on our journey to heaven. 

Monsignor Smith