Saturday, June 25, 2011

Do I have to?

Do I have to go to Mass? It’s a common enough question, especially when Holy Days come around – whether it is “Of Obligation”, or not. We want to do what we have to do, but what is not required, maybe not.

But what about, Am I allowed to go to Mass? Or, What will you do to me if you catch me going to Mass? It is hard for us to imagine, though we may have vague awareness of folks in other times, or other places, who were forbidden to go to Mass: China, Egypt, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, England.

England? You bet – in the sixteenth century, under Queen Elizabeth I, it was a capital crime to practice the Catholic faith. But some faithful people did stay faithful. Some of them died for it; just last week we celebrated the feast of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, who are famous martyrs under Henry VIII. There were others whose names you may not recognize who died, or otherwise suffered, under that cruel law.

One man remained true to the Faith but was not executed, possibly because of his great talent, definitely because of the personal favor of the Queen. His name was William Byrd, and he was one of the most gifted composers of his age. He wrote marvelous music for the royal court, but gave up that privileged life for a remote exile, where he continued to write music for the Mass and the worship of the Church, much of which was sung only in secret, for fear of punishment.

This week you will have a chance to experience this man’s music, and on a most appropriate day: the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, this Wednesday, 29 June. That evening at 7:30, we will have a Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form, much as Byrd would have known it, to celebrate these two great Apostles and the Church that Christ Jesus founded.

Byrd takes these prayers of the Mass and brings them to his own situation. In fact, he musically emphasizes the words, thus saith the Lord to Simon Peter, as if emphasizing to his persecutors who gave the Church her authority and her Pope. And throughout the Mass, he savors the texts that convey the beauty of the Truth for which he had given up all his comfort and ambition.

The choir Chantry will be singing Byrd’s music for our Mass. A concert they gave of it last week received a favorable review in the Washington Post: The repressive atmosphere may have helped produce some of Byrd’s most intense and personal music. There is nothing distant or High Church about these performances; (Chantry Director David) Taylor pulled robust, characterful readings out of his singers. If the effect was sometimes more athletic than atmospheric, it also brought edge-of-seat vitality to the music.

On this day that we celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ, and rejoice in this great gift that Christ gives us only in and through His Church, it is a good time to ask ourselves not whether we have to go to Mass, but what would we do if we weren’t permitted to go to Mass? What would we risk – our property? Our families? Our lives?

Thanks be to God we don’t have to make those decisions. It is always good, though, to remember just what the Mass truly is, and who gave it to us. You don’t have to come to Mass this Wednesday evening, -- but you can.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Mission: Possible

Trinity Sunday is traditionally one of the most dreaded days for preachers. No, it’s not a lack of material that intimidates, but rather a superabundance. What could be a richer inspiration than the inner life of the living God?

But there’s your problem: the inner life of God. It’s so difficult to see, or understand, or explain; so theological and complicated, so arcane. It can be oversimplified (Saint Patrick and his shamrock, or St. Joseph Calasanz and his threefold blanket) and overcomplicated (any theological text; the recurring word circumincession).

But don’t cry for me yet, Argentina. The awareness that God has given us in revealing His inner life to be Three Persons in one God is already woven into our life and understanding of everything. It is not foreign to us, nor far from us. Just like me, until you have to explain it, you are very comfortable with the Triune nature of God.

You see, as far away and arcane as can seem this talk of Trinity and Unity, there really is a lot there about us, ourselves, too. Every time you make the sign of the Cross, you invoke and express the Holy Trinity, even if only for grace before meals. You use words that you use in other conversations about your own life: name, father, son, spirit. Hello, my name is --; What name do you give this child? Wait ‘til your father gets home; Happy Father’s Day! My, but your son has a lot of spirit!

It is really fabulous and amazing news that God is in relationship, in conversation, even before anything else comes into being. It announces a sort of pre-existing openness to relationships and conversations that can, should, and will include you and me. That is a pretty radical thing for God to be up for. And it reveals that the kind of relationships and conversations that God has are consistent, mutual, and life giving; they are, in fact, the work of love.

Now, you probably do not think about that very often, even if you make the sign of the Cross a hundred times a week. But it changes your understanding of who you are, and what you are for. In case you wonder whether I am making this up, all you need to do is spend some time getting to know people or societies who have not accepted, or had the opportunity to accept, God’s revelation of Himself: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists. It changes everything about the way they understand themselves, what they want, how they live, love, and pray, and how their societies are ordered.

You could never say “In the Name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit” at the beginning of a government event anymore, but our whole society is shot through with the awareness that centuries of Trinitarian faith have given. The problem is that as we move away from an explicit acknowledgement of this understanding of God as the basis for our self-understanding, the less we know what makes for right relationships and right order in our society.

Once our personal relationships and societal order cease to be called explicitly to be consistent, mutual, and life giving, that is, the work of love, then our personal and public life will deteriorate. Obscuring the revelation of God will lead us into darkness.

So, pray for your preachers this weekend; pray for us, and with us. We don’t actually dread preaching on the Holy Trinity; we dread failing to preach the Holy Trinity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Whose idea?

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He told His disciples that unless He went away, they would not receive the Holy Spirit. It is possible that some of the disciples thought he was just making excuses, trying to cover up the real reason he was leaving.

While we know that it would have been foolish for the disciples to think that, nonetheless it is easy for people to suspect ulterior motives when somebody moves. Perhaps it is an indication of how vulnerable we are, that our fear leads us to suspect some threat, insult, or injury.

This is the time of year that priests move. Fr. DeRosa and I aren’t going anywhere, but Father Nick is going to his next assignment as Dean of the seminary in his home diocese of Rockville Centre. We all knew this was coming, as soon as he completed his doctoral studies. So without any fear or rancor, we can rejoice this weekend in all he has done for our parish as we acknowledge how much we will miss him.

But other parishes – including our neighbors St. Andrew and St. John the Baptist – are experiencing pastor changes this summer, and we know the temptation people will have to ask: Why is the Cardinal doing this to us? Why is the Cardinal doing this to him? Why did he want to move on? Why is he being taken from there and put here?

Oh, it is not just priests, either. It can happen with anybody else we count on to be there for us. This is also the time of year when teachers, including but not limited to those in our school, make their moves. It’s obvious why the change is needed when there is a new baby, but otherwise there is always the temptation to suspect that there is some more insidious force at work – especially if it someone with whom we had grown quite comfortable.

It was with great grief that I heard from Camille Frezzo that she is retiring this summer after fourteen years of leading our Contemporary Ensemble. I would have insisted she stay, except that her husband, Ron, is also leaving his decades-long work at Little Flower. They want more time to enjoy being grandparents – especially on weekends. They will both keep teaching during the week, Camille here in our school.

So, of course I am disappointed. But why would I suspect any other reason for her to leave? Just to make me miserable? It will be hard for her to step away from the choir she has led not only in music but also in prayer and friendship; why make it more difficult by taking offense, or doubting her reasons? I know her granddaughter, so it seems quite reasonable to me – darn it.

One of the great things about being pastor here is that I get to stay for a longer time. But being the one with the stability means I have to endure other people’s leaving. I mentioned last year, about this time, how it affects me when parishioners move on. Similarly, I feel not only my own loss, but also that of the whole parish, when the folks who have been making major contributions to the life, operation, and character of the parish move on – sometimes after many years.

But I have to trust that no one, least of all the Lord, is acting out of spite when these life changes occur. If He Himself had to move on so that the disciples could get what they needed, it is eminently believable that He has great things in store for the ones moving, and for us who are staying. Come Holy Spirit!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Stepping Up

One of the many things I love about our church is our sanctuary, which is raised above the level of the church, with the altar on a platform above the level of the sanctuary. This arrangement makes it clear that I am going “up the mountain” to Calvary, the place of Christ’s sacrifice, as I approach the altar to offer that Saving Victim anew in an unbloody manner.

It also makes it clear to all of us that getting to God is an uphill journey – whether literally, or just metaphorically. Fortunately for all of us, there are steps, so we need not feel pressed to clear the entire distance in a heroic leap.

The founders and builders of our parish put those steps in our church to make it possible for us priests to reach up bread to the altar, there to pull down the nourishing flesh of the living God, and carry Him down to you. Steps make it possible for us to get up even unto the level of God. There are steps on the way to God, not only in our sanctuary, but also in life.

This is the time of year when people move up a step; we call it graduation. Wednesday, our kindergartners showed us all how much they had learned as they crossed the threshold to first grade. This weekend, our eighth graders took their diplomas and their honors and moved on to the thrill of being freshmen. And our biggest graduate in the Class of 2011, Fr. Nick, is finishing what he counts as the 30th grade.

It is so exciting for all of us to see and celebrate their accomplishments, and we are proud. But let us not forget what makes possible every graduation, every move up one step: thank God for teachers. Without them, most of us would not have gotten very far up these steps. At these graduation ceremonies, they stand back and proudly watch their former charges claim their diplomas and applause.

Like the people who put the steps in our sanctuary, the best teachers help us not only to knowledge, but also to the Truth. In the foyer of our school building is a statue of the child Jesus, the Divine Teacher, revealing, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” All who truly teach participate in His revelation.

We have great teachers in our school, and catechists in our Religious Education program, and a number of our parishioners teach elsewhere. I hope all our graduates, in the excitement of their big days, will find time to find and thank the teachers who have helped them up the steps. I am so glad for my own teachers, and all who teach our kids here.

One of our parishioners was acknowledged this spring in the Washington Post with an Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award: Tom Krawczewicz, who teaches at DeMatha -- and on our athletic fields – is the sole non-public school honoree this year. It’s nice when the Post recognizes the good we know so well!

The climbing begins long before caps and gowns are considered, and that requires teaching, too. You parents know when your toddlers first begin to manage the steps in your home, scooting down on his bottom, or lifting her knee to get up, they have begun the long, graduated journey to heaven. You are the first teacher, and Christ is in you when you teach His commandments.

Congratulations to our graduates, gratitude to our teachers, and God be with you all on the next step!

Monsignor Smith