Sunday, August 29, 2010

Good as new

Because my home is also my office, and because both of them are here at the heart of the life of the parish, there is a certain fishbowl element. That’s fine with me, but it does make me wonder sometimes about what people see me doing. Perhaps I get too self-conscious about it, but I feel like I need to explain about my washing my car.

It is something I really enjoy doing. Most recently, a parishioner ribbed me about doing it on a Sunday, and I had to explain that it is nearly pure recreation for me. I almost always do it while I am on vacation at the family cottage. I took a few days after Easter to go to Birmingham, and while I was there washed and detailed all of my parents’ cars, including the one Dad had just bought and the one he was about to sell. My idea of fun, I tell you. Oh, I visited with my family, too.

I have always enjoyed washing cars, back to when I was a kid. Not only did I enjoy getting my dad’s tomato-red Fiat roadster (124 Sport Spider, 1974) as clean as it had ever been, but even the family station wagon got the full treatment (Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, 1978). When living in a dorm and apartment, I had to wash the car with just a bucket, without benefit of a hose. When I was secretary, the Cardinal’s car was always clean. About the only time I didn’t wash my car much was when I was downtown at St. Mary’s, with only outdoor parking. It got dirty after an hour or two just sitting there.

Nowadays, washing my car is especially therapeutic, because unlike most of what I spend my time doing, it has immediate, tangible results. It is very satisfying to step back and see what I have done, especially when it doesn’t rain for a few days.

The spiritual realm, toward which my efforts are mostly directed, does not offer such tangible evidence of progress. There are exceptions to that, I guess. Even spiritually, there are certain benefits to periodic cleansing. Maybe that’s why I also regularly go to confession.

It is satisfying to know that whatever sins you bring to the Lord in the Sacrament, are rightly and truly forgiven. And if you bring all of them – even the ones you’ve forgotten – they are all forgiven. Unlike me and my car, Jesus’ forgiveness will never “miss a spot.” The only thing His forgiveness can’t reach are the things we withhold by not mentioning, whether because we are embarrassed, or refuse to admit that they are sinful, even after we have been told that they are. Everything else is wiped away, and assuming we held nothing back, we are as spotless as on the day we were baptized.

I wash my car at certain times of the year more than others. Similarly, certain times of the year are great for the Sacrament of Penance. In addition to Advent and Lent, I recommend gong to the Sacrament on your birthday or wedding anniversary. I discovered that by accident a few years ago – nothing focuses the mind so well as a lifetime milestone.

I also recommend right now – the end of summer. Halfway between Easter and Christmas, it is also when we shift gears and get serious after the summer’s fun. Go now, when we are putting aside our flip-flops and getting out our wingtips and school shoes. Clean up after the summer’s mess now, so your notebooks – and your car – won’t be the only thing that’s clean and ready for fall.
Monsignor Smith

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I do, I do

You probably thought I had been splurging on flowers for the altar. Nope; much as I would like to do that, the flowers have come from another source: an unusual run of weddings here at the Holy House of Soubirous.

The last day of July brought Julie McCord and Vincent Mata to the altar. The next Saturday saw Adriana James become Mrs. Samuel Vasquez. Last week, Victor Brooks and Dawn Hall became husband and wife. This weekend, it was Jerome Johnson and Narissara Taseeta. Please pray for God’s abundant blessings upon them!

It is surprising, but generally, we have few weddings here. Over past decades, the kids who grew up here had long since married, and new parishioners arrived already married, leaving a bit of a generation gap in the parish. But now we have younger adults joining before their marriages, and there is the prospect of kids I have seen become adults over recent years come trundling home with prospective spouses to walk the long, elegant aisle of Saint Bernadette.

It would be hard to imagine anyone not wanting to be married here in our beautiful church, with its handsome altar, rich stained glass, excellent organ, and that dramatic aisle, especially if they have been nourished in their faith and identity here. But kids move further away, and establish new lives in other places, before marrying. I concede that some might legitimately prefer to begin their married life in their new church homes.

But I think a lot of people, even Catholics these days, take their wedding vision and cues from other sources. The competition to have more innovative, more personal, or more astonishing weddings affects even Catholics, leading them to look everywhere but to the Church for their perfect “wedding venue.” While they may get much beauty, individuality, or novelty in the process, they lose something far more important: the sacrament of matrimony.

Catholic marriages happen in church, ideally a Catholic church. When marrying a non-Catholic in his or her home church, provisions can be obtained by preparing with the Catholic pastor. But with only specific exceptions (e.g., a Catholic marrying a Jewish person), a wedding in a building that is not a church, no matter how grand, special, or beautiful, is almost certain not to have the blessing of the Church. And a sacramental wedding never occurs outdoors.

The Church will always accommodate genuine needs – such as for a wedding in a hospital room – but otherwise expects couples seeking marriage in Christ to bring themselves to His “house,” showing their commitment to having Him dwell in their home. If they undertake marriage elsewhere, they undermine their union with Him in all the other sacraments, as well, wounding their Baptism and, in fact, breaking their Communion.

More beautiful even than our magnificent church is the sacramental intimacy that we as Catholics enjoy with the God who dwells among us, and marriage is part of that relationship. Jesus’ miracle at Cana only hinted at the abundant gifts he gives to those who invite Him to their wedding. His fidelity to His bride, the Church, is our only hope of life and salvation. To have that hope in our lives, remember – and teach your kids: if you want, skip the stained glass; skip the aisle and the organ. But bring your marriage to the altar! It’s about the life of grace – not the flowers.

Monsignor Smith

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Nun - of us!

It is always a bit of a bene when a Holy Day of Obligation falls on a Sunday – two for the price of one, and all that. Especially now in midsummer when none of us is looking for something extra to do, we can welcome the gift of efficiency in this year’s liturgical calendar.

Not everyone among us, however, is looking for ways to reduce the portion of our days we offer to God. At the beginning of this summer I wrote you about the priestly vocations that have come from Saint Bernadette; today I want to let you in on the news of another vocation from our midst, this one to religious life.

Teri Rockenhaus, a young women who has been a parishioner here for two years, will be entering the Sisters of Life. It is a relatively new community, founded in 1991 by the late Archbishop of New York, John Cardinal O’Connor, for the protection and enhancement of the sacredness of every human life.

The Sisters of Life are well known within certain circles of the church, but I think a lot of you wouldn’t know about them. Though based in New York, they attract sisters from around the country. Like my friends, the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, they include a number of highly educated and even “high-powered” women, if you’ll pardon the expression, who seek union with Christ, the opportunity to serve, and the blessings of religious life.

Which brings us to the simple question, why would any woman today want to be a nun? For a good answer, you will have to ask Teri, not me. But it has long been my observation, since my priestly assignments have blessed me to get to know various communities of sisters, that once you see how joyful is the life of women religious, how could anyone NOT want to be among them – or at least consider it?

It used to be that sisters staffed most of the primary schools of the church in our country. Not all sisters were teachers, but every young Catholic was exposed to the basics of the consecrated life. Since the near-collapse of religious life after the Second Vatican Council, hardly anyone ever sees sisters anymore, or if they do, they can’t recognize them. But they exist, and like the Church herself, they are young.

Some communities clung to their charism over the turbulent years, and continued to attract new life. Some communities have rediscovered themselves, and begun to flower again. And some vigorous souls have undertaken new foundations, or re-foundations. Whether long-faithful, or newer “renewal” communities, these institutes are in fact teeming with new life because they have whole-heartedly embraced an identity that is suited to the modern world and the post-conciliar Church, and fully conforms to the ageless elements of Christian consecrated life.

More and more, women are looking far and wide for a contemplative or active manifestation of religious life that brings to flesh the voice they hear calling them. They are giving their lives to Christ, and finding what the voice of Jesus is offering them: joy. And we would ask nothing less than that joy of intimate union with Christ among her new Sisters for our sister, Teri. I am sure we will be in her prayers; let’s keep her in ours.

Monsignor Smith

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Good dogs!

This Sunday is also the Feast of Saint Dominic. We won’t celebrate it liturgically, since the celebration of Sunday “wins” and Saint Dominic goes unobserved here. If we were in a parish named for him (which Washington has downtown, in southwest DC) we could celebrate him, but we aren’t, so we can’t.

I like to celebrate Saint Dominic because I studied in a Dominican university for three years while in seminary, the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum, because Saint Thomas is called the Angelic Doctor. So did Father DeRosa, for that matter. Never having encountered Dominicans before then, the more I learned about the them, the more I liked them.

Saint Dominic, who lived at the turn of the 13th century, founded his community to preach the truth in the face of falsehood, hence their official name, the Order of Preachers. Their dedication to study of the scriptures and teachings of the Church is so that their preaching will be grounded in the truth, which is the motto of the order -- Veritas.

Eight hundred years later, the Order continues to serve the Church in many ways consonant with Dominic’s vision. Their commitment to study and teaching leads them to serve in many universities and even to operate some of their own, like my alma mater. The Papal Theologian, whose responsibility it is to provide the Holy Father with doctrinal support for his Petrine ministry, is always a Dominican. Currently, that office is held by a Polish priest who taught me a seminar my first year in Rome (I didn’t do very well in that one.)

There is no shortage of need for the Dominican commitment to preach and teach the truth, especially in our culture that has subscribed to Pontius Pilate’s cynical dismissal, “What is truth?” Though the Cathar (or Albigensian) heresy which first motivated Dominic to undertake his mission has long since died, today’s aggressive and destructive relativism requires a response from those who know Christ Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life.

Our local Dominican province is thriving, thanks be to God. Recent entrance classes to their novitiate have numbered in the mid-teens, to this year’s low twenties. That is a strong indicator of the community’s fidelity to their charism in the truth, and speaks of this generation’s hunger for that same truth.

One of the more robust communities of religious women in the United States, and perhaps the most robust, is the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecelia, in Nashville. After repeated expansions of their motherhouse, and additions of new missions by their sisters, the Nashville Dominicans still fill every novitiate class, while being very selective about whom they admit.

The dogged commitment to the truths of the faith revealed in Christ Jesus has earned the Dominicans the nickname the Dogs of the Lord, a pun in Latin: Domini canes. Thanks be to God for the work of Saint Dominic, which continues into our own day, when the need is as great as ever for the truth to be proclaimed, and heard, and embraced. Christ is the truth, and the truth alone will set us free.

Monsignor Smith

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Good Counsel

Vacation. I know that is what is on the minds of many of you right now – a vacation about to begin, or perhaps recently enjoyed, and maybe, for the very lucky, both. It is what we do in the summer, especially if someone in the family is on an academic schedule.

Strangely enough, that is not our focus here at Saint Bernadette Central. While the school is quiet and Father DeRosa has been traipsing about in shorts far more than one would think prudent, we have been dealing with matters fiscal.

You see, rather like the Federal government and all associated with it do on 30 September, we of the Archdiocese of Washington end our fiscal year on 30 June. That means that over the last month, we have been finalizing our tallies on all the material aspects of this spiritual undertaking that is our happy parish. Our budgets have to be finalized, and our accounts have to be reckoned and rendered in our Annual Report to the Archdiocese.

You may not realize this, but over the course of one fiscal year almost five million dollars move through our church and school. Sixty-five people are employed here. And the Archdiocese of Washington makes certain that every penny and every person are carefully shepherded through their connection with us, and every bit of it is documented. The reason I am not a quivering mass of pummeled protoplasm today is largely due to two entities about which you probably do not think very often. One is our parish business manager, Delfina Castro. The other is our Finance Council.

Delfina handles all of these management and reporting tasks with aplomb. That’s a good thing, too, because all that information is what our Finance Council needs to make good recommendations to me, which is what I need to make good decisions.

Delfina and I, along with Mrs. Cheri Wood, the school’s principal, sat down with the Finance Council for our year-end meeting this week. We reviewed everything we were submitting about last year and this coming year, along with the changing circumstances that keep even our best planning on its toes.

So on a sultry summer evening when many folks would have preferred to be at the pool, ten of us sat around the conference table in our rectory meeting room, reviewing documents and projections, asking questions and making suggestions, and in the end, taking responsibility for stewardship of the resources that make this parish possible.

There is a lot of financial, accounting, managerial, and legal experience in that group, and operational insight and personal understanding to boot. What unites them is their care for the Church and her mission, and for you and me, her members. There is an awful lot of goodwill and good nature, too, which means that what could be burdensome or boring is in reality enjoyable. And it gives me insights, understanding, and confidence in which I truly rejoice. You may never see our Business Manager or Finance Council at work, but you need to know that they do – and well.

The good news is that there is good news; we are in pretty sound shape. But I am not going to go into that now. It will all come in the annual report to you, the parishioners, which we will publish in the fall – when everyone is back from vacation.

Monsignor Smith