Saturday, August 25, 2012

Right This Minute

I have a computer on my desk, and an iPhone in my pocket.  We have WiFi in the rectory, and high-speed broadband internet connectivity.  Our communications technology is fast.
I frequently order from, things I used to write on a list for the next time I could drive to the store.  Often they arrive at my door the next day; I am disappointed if I have to wait both days of the two-day shipping.  I send out emails every morning, and chafe if I have not had a response by lunch.  I send text messages to people from whom I want to find out something right then.  My plans are frustrated if I have not had an answer in fifteen minutes.  So you see, sometimes I suffer from Instant Syndrome.
Our expectations have been set by the instant technology that links us to one another, and to the producers, vendors, communicators, and commentators of our society.  We tap our fingers impatiently if we have to stare at the spinning color wheel on our screen for more than a second.  We go out of our minds if our request, operation, or order is not completed immediately; something is not working as it should.
What is the problem? Is the technology not up to speed?  Then it must be fixed. But what if the technology is working?  Then the problem must be….with the people!  Some people are not up to speed some of the time.  Some people are not up to speed at any time.  People are not instant.  But is that a problem?
Our instantaneous technologies have transferred our expectations for instant communication and placed them on the people with whom we are communicating.  But do you know what?  That is not the way people work. 
People have lives.  Lives are complex.  Complexity requires consideration, balance, and compromise.  None of these things disposes the average person to present an instant response to most communications from most people under most circumstances. 
Electronic communication deprives us of any information about the person we are dealing with, except for what we expect from them.  We do not know if they are sick, or changing the baby, or running for their lives from a wild beast.  We only know that they aren’t meeting our expectations.  We are quick to transfer blame to them.  Blame leads to anger.  Anger is a symptom of Instant Syndrome.
Don’t be angry.  Don’t have instant expectations for anything but instant technology.  People are not the problem – they are the reason we communicate in the first place.  Don’t let Instant Syndrome describe your relations with people; none of the best relationships are instant.  Real people, and real relationships, require time – your time. 
Delfina Castro, our business manager, is in El Salvador for three weeks to help her sick sister.  She paid the bills, and set up payroll to come out on schedule.  Other than that, folks just have to … wait.  You would be surprised at the responses that elicits.  There must be some way I can get what I want, when I want it, because I want it!
We have great technology here in the rectory; fast technology.  We also have some really terrific, helpful, generous people.  Just not very many – you’d be amazed how much is done by so few.  So it may take some time before we can respond to any request.  How much time may depend on things that you do not know as much about as you know about your own expectations.
The best stuff we have for you is what we have had since Jesus gave it to His Church two thousand years ago.  And freely giving some of our own time to Him is the best cure I know for Instant Syndrome.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What's in a word?

My mom stopped baking pies about sixteen years ago, shortly after my dad was diagnosed as diabetic.  This had two effects: first, it verified my instinct from childhood that my mom really cooked for my dad; we kids just got to eat the results by happy coincidence.  Second, it cut off my supply of pie.
I had been blessed from birth.  My grandmother and mother both made splendid pies.  Plum was my dad’s favorite; I often had for my birthday peach pie instead of cake.  But after the cataclysmic Pie Shutdown, I wandered the earth pieless.  Life was grim.
Finally, this year, in a fit of frustration at the pathetic excuses for crusted food that vendors peddle under the unmerited name of pie, I resolved that I would learn how to make pie.
I consulted my mother, and I consulted books.  I went online to answer a few specific questions.  I bought flour and I bought sugar.  I scoured farm markets for miles around to find the best fruit.  I tried this for shortening, and that for shortening.  I kept the oven hot for whole afternoons through July’s withering heat wave.  Chris Seith, our summer seminarian, was pressed into service as sous chef, and loyally mustered the enthusiasm to peel and roll and taste.  The rectory staff valiantly presented themselves around the kitchen island for forensic pie tastings:  too this, not that enough.  Try again.
We learned many things, such as how to pit cherries with a paper clip, how to dazzle with latticework, and that pies take a very long time to cool after baking, preferably overnight.  We were reinforced at every draining step by the discovery that People Really Like Pie, and so we persevered.  Our triumph came when Chris and I made six pies in one day to serve to the priests and seminarians at the send-off party for the new men going to the North American College in Rome.  Their approval sounded more like forks scraping plates than like applause, but happy noises abounded. 
I don’t know how theological it is to observe that fresh pie for breakfast is a foretaste of heaven, but far from being a diversion or a distraction, pie-baking can reveal the truth to those who care to learn it.   The other morning as I rolled out some chilled dough that a few hours earlier had been flour, shortening (what type is my secret), water, and a pinch of salt, I marveled at how these few basic elements had become a completely new thing, with no distinction of their individual selves.
Because there is a word for what you do to diverse ingredients when you bring them together in such a way that they can no longer be separated, and they become a new thing.  Do you know what that word is?  You marry them.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Feasting all week

Each day this week has been a feast.  It began with the Transfiguration of the Lord on Monday, and proceeded from that day on Mount Tabor all the way up to the last century.
On Tuesday, there was Pope Saint Sixtus and his (Deacon) Companions, who were arrested in 258 AD while offering Mass in one of the catacombs, and beheaded on the spot.   Four days later, Saint Lawrence, the sole remaining Deacon of the Church of Rome, was roasted to death on a gridiron.  We remembered his fortitude and fidelity on Friday.
On Wednesday and Saturday, we had two of the great religious founders of the thirteenth century: first, Saint Dominic, whose friars operate one of the Roman Pontifical universities in which I studied; then Saint Clare of Assisi, who was one of the few people in history as charismatic and committed to Christ as her friend and inspiration, Saint Francis. 
Thursday gave us one of my personal favorites, whom you may not know well.  She is one of the newer additions to the Roman Martyrology, which is the book of Saints celebrated by the Church, and the dates on which they are remembered.  Her name in religion is Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, but like many people, I refer to her most often by her given name, Edith Stein.
Edith was a Jew from Breslau, which was then in the part of Germany that after World War Two became Poland, called Wroclaw now.  She was a gifted scholar who studied with the greatest philosophers of the time.  She was coming into her own as a thinker of the first order when Hitler’s rise to power forced Jews out of prominence and responsibility in all fields, including the universities.
At the same time as she was growing in stature as a philosopher, she spent a weekend at friend’s vacation home, where she found on the shelf in her room the autobiography of another Saint, Theresa of Avila.  Devouring it in one night, she concluded, “This is true!”
She quickly sought instruction and Baptism, and turned her gifts and intellect to understanding human thought and being in the light of Jesus Christ.  As the Nazi oppression grew and the positions open to her dwindled, she taught in a convent school for girls, until becoming a Carmelite nun in Cologne.
On orders from her superiors, she fled the coming genocide to Holland, but after the German takeover there, and after objections by the Dutch bishops to the Nazi deportation of Jews, along with all Catholic priests and religious of Jewish ancestry, she was deported and killed at Auschwitz.
I have visited the church where she was baptized, and the convent where she taught.  I was allowed to kneel on the prie-dieu on which she prayed, and looked at papers that she graded, and manuscripts of her masterworks of philosophy.  I love her spiritual poetry.
I feel like I know her, and want you to be able to do the same.  She is one of the great philosophers of the last century, thoroughly approachable and intelligible as a soul in love with Christ, and a hero in the face of great evil.   One of the saints and martyrs who is easy to see as also being one of us struggling to be faithful in the modern world, it is an annual delight to keep her feast.
 Monsignor Smith

Saturday, August 04, 2012

They'll Get Theirs

The Church gives people many things, good things, holy things.  I am sure you could list many that she has given you, starting with the Good News, or the sacraments, or the Faith.  Those would be fun to discuss – heck; I discuss them all the time!  But they are pretty much the expected things.  The Church also gives us unexpected things.
Last week, I took our summer seminarian, Chris Seith, out for a good steak dinner of the kind he cannot hope to get in Rome.  Earlier that afternoon, I had been exchanging email with my own seminary classmate, Fr. Mark Knestout, who was having a bad day.  In an effort (successful, as it happened) to bolster his humor, I invited him to join us.  As Chris and I parked a block from the restaurant, my cell phone rang and Fr. Knestout began to pepper me with questions about why we weren’t there yet, and where I wanted to be seated.  Ending the call so we could walk the two minutes to the restaurant, I rolled my eyes in mock frustration.
“Be careful who they stick you with as your classmate,” I warned him.  “You’re pretty much stuck with him forever.”  Since Chris is heading back to Rome for his third year of theology, he knows what it is like to be one of two Washington men in a class as it moves through the hurdles of formation at the North American College.  In addition to the normal experiences of formation, there are even more things that you wind up doing together.  The NAC has certain expectations of Washington men, and most of them involve little bonus duties.  The Archdiocese also has expectations of her NAC men, with similar bonus duties, many of them affected by the Cardinal’s visits to Rome.
After decades of steadily sending men from our Archdiocese to the NAC, the role and experience of Washington men there has developed into a culture within the culture, a corps within the corps.  For that reason, this week I will be hosting our annual send-off dinner for the “New Men.”  The priests who are alumni of the College, and the men studying there now, will come together to encourage, and perhaps instruct, Stephen Wyble, Robert Boxie III, and Jack Berard, who will set out within the month to begin five years in Rome.  It will be for them an introduction to a unique fraternity.  The experiences and expectations that they encounter over the coming years will unite them to Christ in the priesthood, please God, and to us who are already ordained. It is more than likely that it will unite them also, even especially, to one another.
Sometimes it seems that Father Knestout and I can hardly handle any problem on our own, though there is nothing we cannot conquer together.  We gripe, and encourage; advise, and admonish.  We vacation together, and occasionally – rarely -- even get assigned to work together.  One day in 1993, Fr. Brennan, the vocation director, turned over the phone so I could speak for the first time to my classmate.  Who knew?
A retired Marine friend of mine maintained (and his wife agreed) that, “If the Marine Corps wanted me to have a wife, it would have issued me one.”  Obviously that is not something that the Church wants me to have, nor will she issue one to the young men answering Christ’s call to priesthood in the Latin Rite.  But for these men who are following that same call to the seminary in Rome, it is very likely that she is providing them friends for life.
 Monsignor Smith