Saturday, December 31, 2011

Where Credit's Due

Possibly the best ever - Christmas, that is. I am not sure, but think it may have been my number-one favorite.

I think one of the things that contributed to that was its being on a Sunday. Only one massive holy day per week seems to work best for me! Not only that, but it seemed that an extra day appeared in there during the time of preparation. Friday the 23rd was all lagniappe for me. The offices were closed, and I had no appointments, but it wasn’t Christmas Eve yet. How great was that! I puttered and prepared, went to confession, and visited Cardinal Baum. I was still in bed early enough to get a good night’s sleep before the Big Weekend!

And big it was: I figure between twenty-two and twenty-three hundred people came through here for Christmas Mass – a cool thousand of them at the five o’clock Vigil Mass. My only regret was that I didn’t get to talk to everyone as they left the church.

Everyone who came noticed how well everything was done for the great celebration. It started the week before Christmas, when the pageants of school and Religious Ed were both super, and helped us all get ready for the coming feast. Bernie Werwinski and the Holy Name men put that cumbersome crèche together out front to show Christ’s birth to all who pass by on the boulevard.

Then, Christmas Eve morning, Elaine Vining, Kelly Weisgerber, and the church decorating posse moved will skill and vision and made the church worthy to receive her new-born King. Not to name names, but Norma, Margaret, and Dao worked for hours to get the details just right.

Then the sun set, the crowds came, and the pressure was on. Lectors, ushers, and ministers of Holy Communion made their schedules conform to the needs of the parish, and my servers were so good I wished someone were there to take pictures to send to the Pope! Our choirs were superb. Our music director Richard Fitzgerald, both choirs, the schola, and the instrumentalists made Saint Bernadette a center of glory to God in the highest. A terrific amount of work went into the preparing, and the presenting. We even had a little adversity to overcome there at the Midnight Mass! But our people made it look easy.

I am grateful to all of these for what they did for me, and for us all. And let me not forget to thank you for one major thing—your clear and confident participation in the Christmas Mass using the responses of the new translation! You were AWESOME!

The counters came in to do their work, which took a gratifyingly long while. The one penalty of having Christmas fall on a Sunday is financial: the offertory takes a hit. Reasonably, folks don’t double their giving even though Christmas doubles up with a Sunday. That may cost us fifteen grand, or more, in this year when we can ill afford it because, honestly, giving has been down. If you only gave once, it’s not too late to go back and cover that base – especially if you have anything to thank God for in 2011!

I did get one donation I was not expecting – a flat screen television. I had mentioned that we need some for our meeting rooms here. More and more resources – catechetical, organizational – are available now in video format, and we have more groups, meeting in more rooms, in the parish. So if Santa brought you a TV upgrade this year, and you have not yet decided what to do with the old one, if it’s a bigger flat screen that’s not too old, we could use it! Not to mention if you have a spare DVD player, other video accessories, or even (believe it or not) one small (portable) CD player, Saint Bernadette could use it! Most people don’t put out their wish lists after Christmas, but I’ll be happy with leftovers here. Please keep us in mind.

Because for Catholics, Christmas does not end, but begins on the 25th, we prolonged the celebration with our first annual (we hope!) Living Nativity on Wednesday evening. John Kirk and the men of Orate Fratres really gave us a treat there – more excitement than our front lawn normally sees.

I am grateful for a truly graced year, and a beautiful Christmas. I thank God that He let me be here with you for it, a part of your family and your festivity, because there is nowhere else I would have more enjoyed being for Christmas. And I thank you for letting me be there with you, at Christmas, at the turn of the year, and any and every other day. Thank you for letting me be your priest. That’s the best gift, and the best Christmas, I have ever had.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Invitation of Christmas

Isn’t it remarkable the power of Christmas to bring people together?

For weeks now, people have had more and more in common as they went about the business of preparing, sharing a knowing look (sometimes of joy, sometimes of frustration) with folks in line with them at the cash register, laughing with the guys at the tree lot, and all trying desperately, simultaneously, to find a parking place. Christmas is something we have in common, despite our differences and diversity.

Now that the moment is upon us, look around you in our church and see, not only the number of people here, but see how they are with one another: fathers with daughters, mothers with sons, and even in-laws sidled up close, and beaming.

In fact, one of the things that I have noticed lately is how disappointed I become when I learn that someone from our parish is going to be away for Christmas. I know, I know, it is all in the name of bringing those families together – and heaven knows plenty of us are from someplace else. But I truly miss those folks who are part of our family of faith here in Four Corners, and feel their absence on the Holy Day.

The consolation prize is all the family members who come here, some of whom I only get to see at Christmas or First Holy Communion, and those folks I get to meet for the first time, who are uniting with us in celebration because of their travels.

This is the power of Christmas to bring people together, because it is the power of God, who would be together with us. By His power, He comes among us; and by his helplessness, He draws us to Himself.

That tiny child is not only no threat, but the most marvelous invitation. That God would so humble Himself in order to share our company, by also sharing our lot, our fate, is the most marvelous invitation ever issued, the invitation received and responded to again and again in the eyes and lives of tiny children and wizened faces who recognize this great gift and mystery.

One of my favorite lines from the liturgy of Christmastime is the antiphon of Vespers in the Divine Office. It begins: O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio, which I translate, O great mystery, and wondrous sacrament, that animals should see the new born Lord, lying in their feed trough. So descriptive of the most unlikely and most wonderful scene, it has often been set to glorious music. Though the animals could see the Lord in their midst, and could even sense their Creator’s presence, they could not be united with Him in the way that we are, whose human nature He embraced. Though it was in their feed trough that He lay, He would become food for us.

That scene, and that infant, draw us together in this holy place so that we, in similar awe and wonder, might find Him set before us not only to behold, but also as food. Partaking in His holy Body and Blood, we become able to be united not only with one another, but also with Him in His radiant holiness, perfection, and divinity. This is true unity, true Communion, indeed.

Every laugh, every wave; every greeting (yes, even “Happy Holidays,” although Merry Christmas says it better) and every kindness or courtesy extended in the crowded marketplace, not only draw us closer to one another in our humanity, but echo the invitation and possibility of being united with one another and with our saving God, in His divinity and eternal splendor. Peace on earth, indeed.

So take some time this day to marvel with me at how Christmas brings people together, especially as we become one in this Holy Communion at the center of our life as the Church.

Even if you travel in these festive days, and especially if you are joining us for the occasion or even for the first time, join me in delight in being together in the presence of our new born Lord. Thanks be to God for bringing us together in this peace.

And so in unison with Father DeRosa, the rectory staff and pastoral team, and all of us privileged to serve you in this center of our blessed Communion, I am pleased to wish you and all whom you hold dear a grace-filled and merry Christmas.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 17, 2011

On being heard

Can you hear me now? Before the wireless company made it their slogan, that was frequently a very pertinent question – even in church.

Recently someone lent me a book about Theodore Roosevelt that discussed a campaign speech he made in Madison Square Garden in 1912 – ninety-nine years ago. It mentioned the effect of the quality of his voice (high-pitched and shrill) and noted that the loudspeaker would not be invented until the following year.

Imagine national-level politics without electronic amplification! That’s hard to do in our era of the 24-hour news cycle and viral videos, isn’t it? There is NOTHING we don’t hear – though like me, you may often wish there were.

Something else has been transformed in that same century’s time: the sacred liturgy. As children of the electronic age, we bring to church the expectation that we will hear everything at volume. The question “Can you hear me?” is often considered as if it had been “is the sound system working?”, as if nothing is audible unless coming through powered speakers.

Long before electricity, the first level of amplification at Mass was to sing, which increased the range and clarity of the words. The next level was achieved by having several people sing, and thus choirs found their role in the sacred liturgy. For many centuries, the choir would sing or chant the prayers of the Mass that most people never would have heard if only the priest had spoken them.

For homilies, folks would crowd around the pulpit, which was carefully placed in the church, and often lidded with a sounding board, to help reflect the preacher’s words toward the hearers. You can imagine how people would have to strain if they didn’t get close!

Now our expectations have swung to the opposite end of the spectrum. We expect to hear every word at Mass as we do listening to a news broadcast. But while this attention and clarity of communication have helped in some aspects of our liturgical participation, I think they have wounded others.

When the preacher is preaching, when the Sacred Scripture is being read, or even when announcements are being made, information is conveyed, so intelligibility is important. Amplification enhances the effectiveness of that communication. In other aspects of prayer and worship, understanding is not dependent upon the intelligibility of every syllable, and a clear line of sight from face to face is not essential to participation.

But the expectation has taken hold that the priest or minister, whenever he speaks, is speaking to us, facing us, and conveying information. This has resulted in our own time in a liturgical praxis that often has the priest behaving like a newscaster, entertainer, or some other “talking head,” when in fact he is leading the people in prayer to Almighty God.

Not everyone can be gifted enough to have the kind of high-pitched, shrill voice that is prized for great orators, so I concede the usefulness of microphones in the sacred liturgy. But before you count yourself left out of some aspect of worship that does not sound as if it were coming out of your television or radio, let the psalmist remind you that at the heart of our worship for millennia the question has been the other way round: Lord, hear my voice! Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! (Ps 130:2) I paraphrase: O God, can you hear me now?

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Signposts in a Strange Land

One Pink Candle and Other Curious Signposts – that’s my title for the talk I gave to the RCIA group this week. Obviously, it refers to this week’s unique phenomenon signifying Gaudete Sunday, our day in Advent dedicated to rejoicing.

Gaudete Sunday takes its name from the first word of the Introit or Entrance Antiphon for the Third Sunday in Advent: Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near. (Phil 4: 4-5)

The lecture introduced our inquirers to the fact that Christian worship is characteristically liturgical, and went over some of the aspects of the Catholic liturgy, including feasts and seasons, vesture and posture. The form and content of our liturgy is received from the Church and her tradition, to form our prayer and practice, and inform our faith. This lecture is always fun to give, since there are so many concrete and colorful examples to discuss – like this week’s Advent candle.

Oddly, though, in recent decades, American Catholics have lost sight of this element of the Mass, its proper antiphons. They are called proper because they are different for every day, feast, Mass, or occasion. Every Mass has three: the Introit, the Offertory, and the Communion. They are related to the Scriptural readings of the Mass and are often themselves based on Scripture, and are combined with selected verses from an appropriate psalm.

Possibly because the translations into English were slow to be available after the changes forty years ago, and possibly because musical settings were nearly non-existent, in most places they have been replaced with generic songs or hymns.

With the introduction of the new translation of the Missal, however, the Church has renewed all of its texts, and emphasized the value of all of them to the full celebration of the Mass. Since the texts, including the antiphons, have been available to composers for some years now in anticipation of their introduction, there are musical settings of them available.

I hope you have noticed and appreciated that, since summer, at all of our Masses with music, we have had these antiphons sung by the cantor or choir, and the text available to read in the program. It has preceded, but not supplanted, the songs we have grown accustomed to singing. On some occasions, the congregational song is clearly chosen because of its relation to this antiphon.

This is all part of our effort, encouraged by our Holy Father and the informed leaders of our Church, to sing the Mass rather than simply sing at Mass. Coupled with the new musical settings necessitated by the new texts of the commons of the Mass (which are those parts we sing or say every Sunday, like the Gloria, or the Lamb of God) this makes for a lot of new music.

Novelty can be exciting, but in liturgy it can also be unsettling. One of the key elements to liturgical worship is familiarity and repetition. For this reason, in introducing these antiphons this year, at the same time we have been learning the new Mass parts, we have not reduced or removed any of the songs or hymns that we previously had been singing at Mass.

So I hope that this Gaudete Sunday you appreciate hearing sung the full antiphon that is the reason we call it Gaudete Sunday. Along with that familiar pink candle, it is another beautiful signpost pointing our way to the heaven on earth that is our full participation in the Sacred Liturgy.

Monsignor Smith