Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Good Example is Hard to Find

When I am preaching, one of the trickiest things is coming up with examples. This past weekend I used one that is important to me, but may strike you as odd. I said that we needed to be able to tell Jesus who we say He is when we are listening to the candidates and commentators in the upcoming months of our national election process.

In my own mind, I knew clearly what the challenge was that I was identifying, but was not certain exactly what course of action I would prescribe. Some folks, I fear, may not even have seen what the difficulty is. Listening? How could we fall into sin doing that?

First of all, why do we need to listen at all to the political dialogue? Why not just tune out the whole business? Well, we don’t need to listen to everything, surely, nor everybody. We should have criteria. But we do need to pay attention well enough to fulfill our obligations as citizens, and not to allow people to manipulate us.

What are the characteristics of Christian listening to political speech? The first word that comes to mind is skepticism, but a more accurate way to say it would be to listen critically. Is the speaker trying to get an emotional reaction out of you – positive or negative? Is he trying to make you feel threatened, or excited? Is his criticism ad hominem – Candidate or Party X doesn’t care about a) the poor or b) our national security, or is it a thoughtful assessment of potential flaws in the candidate’s proposal? If it is ad hominem, there is no reason we should credit the speech or the speaker.

Which brings us to another, trickier criterion. “Enlightened self-interest” is a principle of our economy and our political system. Nonetheless, as Christians we have to be wary of selfishness – our own and that of others, as well as those who appeal to it. Often folks look at a candidate and ask, what are you going to do for me? Unless it is in the context of our wanting the country, or our region, to thrive; or unless it is redressing some injustice, this is a very dangerous yardstick to take to the election. More often we are likely to see candidates offering certain groups something just for them that is a shameless appeal to selfishness. We also know that we don’t see the backroom deals where the real selfishness occurs, but that is a matter for their confessors, not yours.

Especially in these times when resources are constricting, it is sacrifice, not selfishness, that will animate any program of success. Everybody can quote Kennedy’s don’t ask what your country can do for you speech, but who is willing to call folks to sacrifice – measured, directed, and purposeful?

Finally, what we Christians bring to any political conversation needs always be first and last: charity. That begins with not claiming to be able to identify and condemn people’s motivations for their actions. Let the actions (and words) stand for themselves. It is also rooted in the humility of admitting to ourselves that we don’t get everything right, and not jumping on every single mistake.

Using these tools will help us determine very quickly to whom we should be listening. When we listen critically and find content rather than mere conviction, discover someone who is neither manifesting nor manipulating inappropriate self interest, and find in them evidence of both charity and humility, we will have found someone, candidate or commentator, who has something to say that we should hear. I am sad to say that it is precisely this of which I have found precious few examples.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Touching history, touching eternity

Do you have a treasured heirloom? Your grandfather’s WWII service weapon, or maybe a captured pistol or flag he brought back? Maybe a piece of jewelry that your great-great grandmother wore, or even a brush, comb, fountain pen, or something else simple she would have used daily? Remember, even humble things were made to last in those days. Maybe you can still use it yourself, or maybe you keep it displayed somewhere out of reach. Either way, these things are present and have a powerful effect on us.

Whether you knew this person yourself or only heard stories from your older family members, these objects form a sort of bridge that brings us into contact with our forebears. An object that was handled closely by someone who is now far away from us, allows us to touch his or her hand by touching it. The inanimate object occasions an instant of intimacy.

This past weekend, I went to North Carolina to witness the marriage of a young friend of mine who was marrying an alumna of Duke University in the chapel there. Because the wedding would be a nuptial ceremony and not a Mass, that morning I went to a nearby parish to offer Mass alone, of course for their intentions.

Holy Cross Catholic Church was founded in Durham in 1939 for the African-American Catholics of that then-small southern town. Until very recently, North Carolina had the lowest percentage of Catholics of any state in the US, so I assume that community was a very small minority indeed. Their first church was the office of a local dentist!

With the city, that community has grown. The church they built in the 1940’s and the land around it were first surrounded by a state university there, and more recently purchased to become part of that campus. The new church they built for themselves further out of town is a handsome building that is more than adequate for the thriving 350-family parish Holy Cross has become.

On a top shelf in the sacristy, I saw an old-fashioned, tarnished chalice and, forgoing the newer vessels, pulled it down on a hunch. Engraved on the base was an inscription indicating that the chalice had been a gift from a class at Loyola to Fr. John Risacher, S.J., who was the pastor of Holy Cross from its founding until 1966.

He was also my great-great uncle. My mother’s maternal grandfather had two older brothers who were ordained priests for the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in the 1920’s. Fr. Clement Risacher S.J. went to the Philippines and remained there until his death decades later. Fr. John’s principal work was this mission in the heart of the south.

I blew the dust and grit out of that chalice, and shortly thereafter poured into it wine and water. Speaking the same words over it that my uncle would have, and holding it up now containing the Precious Blood of Jesus, I was immediately aware of a powerful connection with him. The chalice and the prayers united me to him and his ministry as priest and pastor.

The chalice I carefully put back on the top shelf, and offered a prayer of thanksgiving in the church my great-great Uncle John’s foundation has become. The Priesthood of Jesus Christ that we share, and the Holy Mass that unites us each day, came home with me as my most precious heirloom.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Free of Contempt

I do not presume, nor would I ever presume as governor, to question or infringe upon your freedom to define, to preach about and to administer the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, but on the public issue of granting equal civil marital rights to same-sex couples, you and I disagree. . . . I look forward to working with you on other issues of mutual agreement. And I respect your freedom to disagree with me as a citizen and as a religious leader without questioning your motives.”

He probably thought he was being gracious. When Governor Martin O’Malley wrote that at the end of his letter to Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore, he must have been emphasizing his own generosity and good manners in allowing the Archbishop to teach the faith, and even to disagree with him, the Governor.

Archbishop O’Brien had first written a private letter to the Governor to ask him not to sponsor a bill that would impose so-called same sex “marriage” on Maryland. He reminded the Governor that his own Catholic beliefs should help him to recognize, value, and protect the reality that is marriage. Moreover, he emphasized that the reality of marriage is age-old at the natural level, what it has always been, and why it is a fundamental element of society that merits protection. The Governor published the Archbishop’s letter recently, along with his own response rejecting the plea.

To say that’s-okay-for-you-but-don’t-expect-it-to-affect-me dismisses the other person and his ability to discern and describe the truth. This is not an act of gracious respect, but an act of contempt. It is even more destructive as a universal assertion – that no other person can find truth, only his truth. This means that everyone is hopelessly benighted and only deluded by whatever assortment of assertions he or she has assembled; that mankind is incapable of recognizing what is true, so we have to make do with what we think or what we prefer. Therefore, they say, don’t you try to tell me what is true.

This assertion has become common and even dominant, leading our Holy Father to call it ”the dictatorship of relativism.” It denies our freedom and our dignity as human beings, which flow from our ability to recognize and choose the good, or reject it. Our society is based on that freedom and that dignity. If we are merely able to choose what we prefer, we are slaves of our appetites and emotions, and even worse off than the beasts.

We Catholics have been freed from this slavery, freed by Christ Jesus, in whom we behold not only who we are as sons and daughters of God, but also what we are for. However, in recent years even many Catholics have forgotten the awesome responsibility that comes with our redemption. Neither we nor even our children are immune; Governor O’Malley attended Catholic schools right here around us, and he seems to have misplaced this lesson.

Whether the Governor and others who make this argument think it is gracious or clever, expeditious or simply effective in liberating them from the burden of reason as well as that of revelation, I cannot say. But I must say that it is important for every one of us, though we are not running the state or running for office, not fall into this trap. To dismiss the truth that is presented in love, however inconvenient or unwelcome the demands it places upon us, is an act of contempt not only for the teacher, but also for ourselves.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, August 06, 2011


Perhaps you know that my job as a priest of Jesus Christ is to teach, to preach and to sanctify the people of God. I love doing all of these things. But with some of them, I need a little help. In the department of teaching, I have reinforcements.

It is my great pleasure to announce that Richard A. Budd has accepted my invitation to serve as the Director of Religious Education for Saint Bernadette Church.

Rich brings a zeal for Christ and sharing the faith to his new role in our community. His credentials include a Masters of Theological Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, and both a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Catechetical Diploma from Magdalen College. He also has most of yet another Master’s degree, as well as formation at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. Until accepting this position, he taught religion at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, VA, and earlier taught at the Thomas Burton Academy in Burton, Michigan.

Already during the summer, Rich has begun coming up to speed on the organization and requirements of our catechetical program. He spent much time with Neil Sloan, who did such excellent work as Interim DRE, and to whom I am grateful. He doubtless learned enough to be formulating plans to launch our upcoming school year.

Rich has been a parishioner of Saint Bernadette for two years, and is excited to take up this vital role in bringing our kids and families to a stronger knowledge of and relationship with Jesus. He loves the parish, and looks forward to getting to know you better. He will oversee the catechesis of our students in both the school and the Religious Education program, and the preparation of all of our kids for the sacraments.

One of the developments in our parish that I am most excited about is the growth in participation and community among the families in our Religious Education program. Rich’s talent and zeal will help this trend continue, and help it to enrich our entire parish.

I am glad to be confident that you will welcome him and lend him your full support and cooperation in the work of sharing the Gospel of Christ, in which we are all blessed to have a part.

Because when it comes to the Truth, and the Way, and the Life, we can never have too many good teachers.

Monsignor Smith