Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rock the Cradle

Cradle Catholic. It’s a term all of us have heard, many of us have used, and most of us deserve. We became Catholic at our Baptism as infants and still are the Catholics our parents raised us to be. We aren’t converts – though some of us call ourselves reverts, that is, having returned to the Faith with zeal and conviction after some period of distance.

Cradle Catholic. It’s not something we discourage, by any means, since the Faith is a great gift to have received from your parents and to give to your children, bringing with it Life itself that lasts forever. On the contrary, it is something I cherish, and so should you. But is it enough?

Especially as I teach and lead the catechumens and candidates in RCIA who are seeking to enter the Communion of the Church, I pause periodically to ask myself if I would have had the personal openness, spiritual courage, and intellectual honesty to come to the Church had I not been born to her. And if I wonder about that, I have to wonder if I have had the personal openness, spiritual courage, and intellectual honesty to follow the Faith to the fullness of what it offers – and asks of me.

Sure, I can tell myself that since I have become a priest, I must have given everything Christ is asking, and must be enjoying all the graces he has for me. But Lent for me is a time of reflection and self-examination as well, so I always find areas where I come up short. That’s humbling, but enticing too, as I realize there is yet more grace.

But I have never had to confront the kind of costs of which I warn everyone who considers joining the Church as an adult: bewilderment, ridicule, and hostility. When you share your conversion, people feel free to tell you that no sensible, intelligent, educated, or virtuous person would do that. They distance themselves. Would I have been willing to endure that?
What the holy Sacraments of Initiation confer, and what our parents shape in us are precious indeed, but I have to ask – how many of us settle now for just what gifts we got before we were fifteen, or just what we learned from our parents, in any important category of our lives?

Because we attend Mass, because we are married with two, four, or six kids; because our kids are in Religious Ed, or even Catholic school; because we are happy and active in the parish community – do we think we are done turning toward God, and what He is asking, and offering us?

As we watch our brothers and sisters go to great lengths, and make great sacrifices, to enter the Church and live the Faith, there is no better time to ask yourself: is your Catholicism still in the cradle?

Please let me thank you for your immediate response last week to our collection to send some help to Japan. The amount given -- $5,598.06 – reflects your deep concern for your brothers and sisters you have never met. We will continue to accept anything you wish to contribute, and forward it immediately to Catholic Relief Services. However, our desire to help does not fade after we have written a check, so we will continue to pray, at Mass and at home, and offer our Lenten sacrifices for the help and consolation of these people suffering such dreadful disasters.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 19, 2011

First in the hearts

It was a splendid occasion this week when our Archbishop, Cardinal Wuerl, came to confirm our young people on Tuesday evening. The kids acquitted themselves splendidly under his scrutiny – that is, they stood up and answered all of his questions. Their parents and catechists had obviously prepared them well, so now they are fully initiated Christians, since the Holy Spirit is unstinting with His gifts.

It also turns out that this was first Confirmation that Cardinal Wuerl has ever done – that is, his first Confirmation since becoming a Cardinal last November. That is something this class of confirmati can always remember, and I can assure you, it is something the Cardinal will remember. Because it was obvious that he also remembers the first pastor of a parish he installed as Archbishop of Washington. That was….yours truly, here at Saint Bernadette. Five years ago, after he became Archbishop in June, in September he came here.

That is two big firsts in his life, both for Saint Bernadette. Of course, I wouldn’t dare suggest that we are the Cardinal’s favorite parish, no sirree bob. Well, maybe a little. Rather, I suggested to him that perhaps it does indicate that the strength of our affection for him is first among the parishes in the whole Archdiocese.

While we are on the subject of cardinals, which most of you know have figured more prominently in my life than for most people, let me tell you something about Cardinal William Baum, for whom I was secretary from 2002 - 2005. He was Archbishop here from 1973 to 1980, before moving on to serve the Holy Father in Rome until only recently. He has been rather “low profile” for the last several decades, but his work for the Church Universal, and on behalf of the Church in the US, has been vital.

As of last weekend, he is now the longest-serving cardinal in the history of the United States, surpassing Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, who died in 1920 after more than thirty-four years of service. In May of this year, he will mark two more milestones; first, he celebrates his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination, and then he marks his 35th anniversary of being created Cardinal. I feel like such a neophyte whenever I talk to him!

He has participated in many important events in the Church and the world, not least three Papal conclaves. Catholic author, papal biographer, and good friend of mine George Weigel wrote his weekly column about Cardinal Baum, which you can find online here: If you would be interested to know more about this magnificent churchman with whom I spent some years of my life, and learn some history in the process, you will enjoy this article.

On a more painful subject, I have been watching along with you the drama that is unfolding in Japan over the past week. The destruction and the danger are breathtaking, and we feel for our Japanese brothers and sisters. But I think we could also be inspired by the self-control which they have shown even in the face of such privation and chaos, revealing that so much of our dignity lies in choosing how we respond to events we cannot control.

It is vital that we help. Because of that, we will hold a second collection this weekend to help them, through the effective ministrations of Catholic Relief Services. But even greater than that is the help that we offer when we engage in prayer for them, making our sacrifices for them, and bringing to them the help that can only come from God. May He bless you with perseverance in this and all your prayer.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Vade retro!

Get behind me, Satan! As we begin Lent and accompany Christ into the desert, the first encounter we have is with the Tempter. Wielding the Sacred Scripture as His shield, Jesus deflects each of the devil’s offers that seem to be good things in themselves, but when linked to their costs are obviously no good deal.

As I write this, my stomach rumbles with the first fast of Lent on Ash Wednesday. My habits lead me to reach for the fridge or treat cabinet, or maybe just pop open a Diet Coke – but as I self-consciously strive to push things away from, rather than into, my mouth, I explore the most basic meaning of temptation.

Not all temptations are as simple as the cookie jar or as clearly poisonous as the proposals of Satan to Christ in the desert. Sometimes the temptation is simply to reject another person with whom we disagree, or who has done something to anger or inconvenience us. It seems easy and reasonable to decide he is stupid, or crazy, or evil.

Every one of us has been or will be confronted by a teacher who reprimands us; a boss who gives us an assignment we do not want; a president whose policies are odious to us; a writer who infuriates us; and maybe, possibly, even a priest who rankles us. The temptation is to condemn the person, rather than the action. We do this by attributing motives (She hates me. He hates women. He is paranoid. She is evil.) and by categorizing people (He’s a Nazi/Commie. She’s a whack job on a power trip.).

We are being led down this road by tempters – people who make it seem effective, attractive, or just acceptable to treat people this way. Media figures do it, television, radio, and print, often as commentators, but also seemingly sober newscasters. Political figures do it. Labor and management do it. We see it on the internet, in official web sites and personal blogs – and especially in the comments boxes. People who disagree savagely and coarsely attack the people with whom they disagree – rather than their statements, actions, or ideas. These used to be easily recognized by their Latin name: ad hominem attacks; against the man. They were unprofessional and unacceptable; but no more.

It is always appropriate to judge actions, but we are unable to examine, much less define and judge, the person’s motives. Similarly, it is imperative to judge ideas – ideas have consequences. But the one who writes or speaks of the ideas is a child of God just like you and me and deserves to be treated in a manner fully consistent with his human dignity.

Get behind me, Satan. One might overlook that Jesus said that not to Beelzebul in the desert, but to Simon Peter, his friend and disciple, whom He had just entrusted His church. (Mt 16:23). What had Peter done to deserve such a harsh response? He suggested that Jesus need not undergo His passion.

It is better for us to endure evil than to fall into sin. It’s not always easy to offer people charity, that is, human respect and Christian love, since they so rarely do what we want, when we want it. But Jesus teaches us what to say when we have the opportunity to condemn or hate another human being -- Get behind me, Satan!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Big Doings

It can be rather discombobulating to encounter a disembodied voice in church, especially one as deep as our Cardinal’s; but you all seem to be getting quite used to it. Thank you for your attentiveness to our Archbishop last week, and your game participation in the Appeal In-Pew Commitment program. I think that, like me, you might not choose that as what you want to do at Mass on Sunday, but you see how important the work of the Appeal is, and support it for that reason. So thank you.

Because many of you commented on it immediately after Mass, one thing seems to have caught your attention in all that the Cardinal said: that we are opening our own seminary here in Washington. Certain details have yet to be finalized, but I can share with you what the plan is, so that you can better understand and rejoice in this new and exciting development.

First of all, this seminary will be what used to be called a “minor” or college seminary, or a pre-theologate, not a “major” seminary or theologate. The reason I say, “used to be” is that such seminaries almost disappeared. Over the past fifty years, the number of men responding to priestly vocations dwindled, and those who came, came later – partly because even zealous priests encouraged men to wait until they were older. High school seminaries are all but extinct!

When the small St. Pius X Seminary in Scranton PA, to which Washington used to send men, closed about ten years ago, Cardinal McCarrick started to send our collegians to Dunwoodie in New York. Now that is a fine place in many respects, but it is a distance from the university where the men pursue their undergraduate studies (Fordham), an even greater distance from home, and run by priests of New York.

But now, younger men are once again pursuing vocations to the priesthood, and we have experienced an increase – almost a surge – in seminarians of college age. Take a look at that poster inside the front doors and see how young our guys are! They are committing earlier, and staying committed, to being Priests of Jesus Christ, and more of our men ordained are in their mid-twenties now than for decades.

So in order to provide these young men formation that is closer to their homes and families, in the midst of the local church they will call home for the rest of their lives; and in order to allow them to be formed by priests of that Church, whose brothers in service and struggle they will be, Cardinal Wuerl has done this radical and wonderful thing.

They will take their studies at Catholic University. After completing them, they will go on for four or five years of graduate theology and formation at the major seminaries that we have traditionally used: Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Theological College at CUA in DC, and the North American College in Rome.

The building is a former religious house on Taylor Street NE between Archbishop Carroll High School and the Ukrainian seminary. It has been offices for the Archdiocese for fifteen or twenty years, but was originally built as a seminary, so it should be an easy conversion. At this moment, we are awaiting only permits from the District government in order to have everything ready to go come this fall – there’s a prayer intention for you!
Monsignor Smith