Saturday, November 26, 2011

Who Would Prevent Advent

It is all over now: the fabulous display of reds and oranges on the “October Glory” maple trees on our front green. Where the CYO and Scouts will be setting up the Christmas tree lot this weekend, there was the most splendid array of color and life that made us all pause as we came or went from church or school over the past few weeks. Not only we stopped; numerous passersby on University Boulevard pulled into our parking lot and wandered around, grinning, marveling, and taking photographs.

One parishioner came up to me after Mass one Sunday when the trees were ablaze and said, “whatever you do as Pastor, don’t cut down those trees!” I laughed and pointed out that I may reluctantly do just that to one or the other, as I did this spring with one dying maple, but as evidence that I have no intention of eliminating them, I showed him where I have also planted three or four new ones.

Another parishioner stood with me one morning as I was enjoying the trees (see, I told you we all stopped and looked – I did it every day for two weeks!). She said she had just been speaking about them to Bishop David Foley, who was the second Pastor of Saint Bernadette (1975 – 1983) when they were planted. He had laughed and told her that until then, that space was simply lawn, and when the trees were planned, a group of parishioners noisily complained, and insisted they liked the lawn just as it was, and did not want its simplicity and perfection spoiled.

We can laugh now about those folks who did not want the trees planted, wondering at what we all would have missed if they had got their way. I am sure the lawn was beautiful. I know it was useful – for years, the parish hosted a carnival out there that drew folks from all over. I am still grateful to the founders of the parish for not paving it all into one huge parking lot stretching all the way to the boulevard. But I am just as grateful for those trees, that give us privacy and buffer the noise from the roads seven or eight months of the year. And two weeks of the year, they are our own local Natural Wonder of the World.

When you have something good – very good, even – it can be hard to imagine that any change would make it better.

This weekend, the Church around the world changes something, something that was very good: how we celebrate Mass in English. The new translation changes your responses and all the prayers that we priests have to say. At least at first, we will all have our noses buried in our books or pew cards, stumbling through unfamiliar words that do not come naturally.

It will be hard for everybody. Some folks will grumble privately, others object publicly, that this is an affront or a mistake. But the Church is still guided by the Holy Spirit; and hundreds of talented, knowledgeable, and faithful people, who love the Mass and love you, have worked for decades to bring this to this point, where not to change would be a disservice to not only us but to future generations as well.

As deep as your love for the Mass, as beautiful as your experiences were of Jesus with the old translation, I promise you that this will only enhance and improve that love, that beauty, and your future experience. Just as our maple trees made our beautiful lawn exponentially richer and more marvelous, so will this change bring you more beauty, more truth, and even more color. Your love for the Mass is not over now; this is a new Advent.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Springtime in November

Most people think of spring cleaning, but here it is late autumn, and I am hard at it. It started with my bedroom, then my study. Aside from a few odds and ends, the clutter is principally in one category: reading material. Once I throw out the magazines, file the articles, and put the maps back, that leaves: books.

Books I read and loved, books I started and never had the oomph to finish, books I swore I would get to, and books I cannot figure out why I have; books I pulled to check a point for a homily, favorite books I revisited after many years, and books I never want to see again. They all have to go somewhere. I shelve them, share them, or most painfully of all, sometimes just get rid of them.

This fall, though, this project extends from my shelves to the sacristies, since in two weeks time we begin using the new English translation of the Missal. The new Missals for the church, the chapel, and for our offices have been coming in over the past few weeks, and they are wonderful – large, beautiful, well made liturgical books. But that presents a dilemma of its own – what to do with the old ones?

We have two in the sanctuary of the church, and one on the altar in the chapel. But we also have old copies in the sacristy cabinets that wore out or began to fall apart and were no longer fit to be used in the Sacred Liturgy. Nobody rebinds books anymore – trust me, I have looked. Not only missals, though, but also lectionaries accumulate. We changed lectionary translations back in 1999 (remember that?), and it comes in different volumes – Sunday, weekday, Years A, B, & C, etc.), so we have piles of the old version stored, plus newer ones that already were used to the point of disintegration.

I hate to throw away any books, but these are sacred books, so they cannot just go in the trash. So we have kept them. But with this new change, we just don’t have the room for more of that.

We will continue the parish practice of keeping an archival copy of these important books. We still have a 1965 Missal, which is the version from right after the Second Vatican Council that has both Latin and English in it. Hardly anyone even remembers those; even fewer actually have one. We will keep one copy of the old lectionary, and at least one copy of the Missal that will conclude its forty years service this month. I will carefully save any other volume that could be historically significant. On my shelves, I’ll keep my personal copy that Cardinal Hickey inscribed and gave to me the day he ordained me a Priest.

But all the others are stacked and ready to be disposed of properly. How is that, you ask? Some authorities have suggested burying them in the church cemetery. We don’t have a churchyard, so I am going to take a page form my Boy Scout training and burn them, with decorum and respect. We have a high regard for these books, after all.

The Missal that I bought for myself in Rome as a seminarian so I could begin learning how to say Mass, I will consign to the flames. We have been using it at the chair in church since its predecessor became unusable a few years ago. I knew the change was coming and saw no need to pay for a new one or keep that copy on my shelves.

All this cleaning because we are getting new books. After the initial awkwardness of changing the language we use at Mass, the new Missal translation will kindle a new awareness in all of us of the beauty, riches, and depth of our most perfect and powerful prayer, the Mass. So I expect this fall cleaning will bring about a new springtime, after all.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Getting religion

What, you didn’t know that I am not religious? I got that impression Sunday.

Technically speaking, I am not religious but secular. I just googled that and learned that there are a number of essays out there in which believing Christians would be included under the term “religious”, and atheists under “secular.” I am NOT that kind of secular.

According to long-standing Church understanding, however, “religious” are people under vows within a specific religious community, what you might know best as an order: Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans and the like. Their members, men and woman, ordained or not, are religious: nuns, monks, brothers, and yes, priests.

I, however, am not under vows and not a member of an order. I made solemn promises, not vows, when I was ordained, and am attached to a place, not an order: the Archdiocese of Washington. One of my promises was obedience to my bishop – currently Cardinal Wuerl, already my third Archbishop since ordination. Another was celibacy. The third was prayer – to pray the Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office) daily, in union with and for the Church.

The vow of poverty is a mark of life “in religion.” It is not a measure of how well they live, or how much they have, but the distinction that everything they have is provided by and property of the community. Some communities provide more than others.

Not me. I get paid a salary, the amount of which is fixed by the Archdiocese. The line between parish funds and my personal funds is very, very clear. I pay taxes, including Social Security (15.9% -- oof!). I invest in my retirement fund, a 403(b) instead of a 401(k). I have excellent health insurance, but make the co-payments. I make charitable donations, including to both the parish offertory and Cardinal’s Appeal.

You see how worldly that sounds -- mired in a lot of the same considerations you are? We don’t just live among you, but we live like you. I have to keep track of all this stuff – vowed religious do not. That’s why we’re called secular. In Church law it is considered a “less perfect” form of life than being “in religion,” which means that if we want to “upgrade” to religious life (e.g., go join a monastery) our bishop cannot stop us (though he can slow us down).

You may not lie awake thinking about this, but it is worth your attention for a moment. It came up in the context of the collection for the Retirement Fund for the Priests of the Archdiocese. Like many pension funds, it is severely under-funded now. You wouldn’t think that would be a problem, since we are not supposed to retire until we are 75!

Some parishes are run by religious priests; some have schools staffed by religious women. Some folks go to colleges or universities run and staffed by religious communities, men or women.

For most folks, the principal encounter with Christ, His Church, and his sacraments, is through a secular, that is diocesan, parish priest. We are not dramatic; we are simply here. We tend the household of the Faith. Your friendly, neighborhood priest is likely not religious; not in that sense, anyway.

Now that I have admitted that I am not religious, I hope you won’t be startled if I continue to try to get all of you to be more so.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 05, 2011


Even Jesus had to get away. More to the point, he took his disciples off to a remote location – “up the mountain” or “into the desert” -- when he wanted to get everyone onto the same page. So there is a precedent.

A few years back, Cardinal McCarrick started holding a Convocation for the priests of the Archdiocese of Washington. I missed the first one because I was living in Rome working for Cardinal Baum. Now it may surprise you to learn that when the Archbishop say, Hey Guys we’re all going to get away and be together and talk about things that are important to priests and the Archdiocese, that not all the priests respond immediately with Hey, great; I can hardly wait! There was some skepticism. Cardinal McCarrick, ever an astute observer of human – and priestly — nature, planned for that, and said it was mandatory and required a direct, personal exemption from him to miss it.

In the defense of us diocesan priest-types, I have to point out that the center of our job description is being here – here to celebrate the sacraments for you, here to respond to your questions and needs, here to take care of the church, and the parish, and the school; here to answer the door, whether it is the mailman, someone lost on University Boulevard, a parishioner in need of confession, the HVAC repair guy, or trick-or-treaters. An awful lot happens here, but that’s another story. So, truly one of the hardest things for us to do is be away. Harder still is to propose that we ALL be away. That is somehow….not what we are for.

So, on this Convocation, all the priests of the Archdiocese get to be together at a hotel and meeting center over in Cambridge, Maryland. We have Mass together and pray together – we even set up a Blessed Sacrament Chapel, right there in what most people think is a ballroom. We have talks by Cardinal Wuerl and some invited speakers, break into working groups, and have a chance for private meetings with the Boss for whatever we want to talk about. We eat and hang out together, some guys play golf together – but November is “off season” for a reason, and the weather does not always permit that.

After that first Convocation, and maybe the second, guys didn’t need to be told it was mandatory anymore. We all discovered that it is something worth doing, worth even leaving the parish without its priests for two whole days. So without threat or penalty, a large percentage of us show up, because it is a good thing to do.

So this week, Fr. DeRosa and I will be away for a couple of days. Father Nick used to tend the store when these things happened, and you all know how good he was at that. This year, Father Clint McDonell, whom many of you have encountered as he celebrates a Sunday Mass here most weeks, will be doing us this great favor. So thank him if you see him for making it possible for us to be away, because once we have done that we will be better at being here, with you and for you as your priests.

Speaking of the doorbell, we were completely overrun here at the Holy House of Soubirous on Halloween. I gave out everything I could lay hands on, and still they kept coming – well over 120 of them! So, if you are one of the masked monsters who left my doorstep with an IOU – come and get it! We are restocked and ready. Just bring that IOU; odds are, one of us will be here.

Monsignor Smith