Saturday, June 28, 2014

Live from the Rock

Well, now, THAT’s not what I expected, at all.  Last Sunday I mentioned to you who were at the Masses I celebrated that Cardinal Wuerl has assigned me and you a Parochial Vicar – for two months.  Father Christopher Seith, ordained Priest last Saturday, will assist here, where he spent the summer two short years ago as a seminarian, until mid-September, when he will return to Rome, the North American College, and the important work of finishing his graduate degree in theology. 
Everyone who remembers him is excited to hear this.  We enjoyed him then, and he enjoyed being here.  When I saw him Saturday shortly after we had both been informed of this big news, we both just laughed.  In a way it is almost as if he never left!  He knows where in the kitchen the cereal is, and what drawer in the sacristy holds what he needs.  He knows a lot of names, and can even find his way out of Woodmoor without a map.  It is almost too smooth a transition for him.
For me, it means I get to take summer vacation for a change!  I am scrambling around, trying to figure out what I can do to take advantage of this opportunity.  Since I do not need to introduce or instruct him, I have no problem running off and sharing the joy of parish work and parish Masses with him, to introduce him to his new identity in Christ.
This weekend in particular is a great time to reflect on what we receive in Father Seith.  He has been studying in Rome for four years, and has grown acquainted with the successors of Saint Peter, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.  He has been in their presence often and recently.  He brings to our relationship with the Supreme Pontiff a liveliness and personal insight that we could not otherwise enjoy or expect.
As you know, I spent a great deal of time in Rome shortly before coming here as Pastor, and was often in the presence of Popes Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  However, that was almost nine (9!) years ago now and I confess the connection is fading.  My only conversations with our current Holy Father were long ago, brief, and before he enjoyed the graces and responsibilities of the Petrine Office. 
So in a rare year when the great Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul falls on a Sunday, we rejoice to establish a new and personal connection with the Saint Peter of our day, and the church that was founded and formed by Peter with the help of Paul, and nourished not only by their witness and their wisdom, but by their very blood.  Father Seith comes to us directly from the presence of Peter, with not only his words, but also his voice, alive in his heart.
Father Seith arrives here in less than two weeks, on 9 July.  He will be excited to be here again, and delighted to learn from you what it is that you expect from a priest.   You are good teachers; your time with him is short, so do not hesitate to reveal to him, as only you can, what it is that God has entrusted to him in his priesthood.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Warm gratitude

Pause now and reflect; think back now to January.  And March.  And even the early weeks of May.  Then, step outside of that air-conditioned church/home/car, look up at those bright green leaves radiant with life in the light of the sun against the blue sky.  Feel the humidity embrace you, sink into your clothes and your hair, and soften every sound that might try to interrupt your reverie.  Wait for the first beads of sweat to form and roll down onto your collar. 
And know ye: It is not winter!  Give thanks to God, who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Mt 5:45b)  So even in that moment we find reason to give thanks.
Also, this weekend, we of our Archdiocese have other reason to give thanks: we receive seven new priests.  Give thanks to God for Father Tony D’Souza, Father Charles Luckett, Father Ken Gill, Father Aaron Qureshi, Father Cesary Kozubek, Father Christopher Seith, and Father Tim Daniel.
Why should we bother?  What does it have to do with you?  On this great solemn day dedicated to the Most Holy Body and Blood of the Lord, let us see what Saint John Vianney has to say about the most Blessed Sacrament, and the priesthood, and the relationship of the two.
"All the good works in the world are not equal to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because they are the works of men; but the Mass is the work of God. Martyrdom is nothing in comparison for it is but the sacrifice of man to God; but the Mass is the sacrifice of God for man."
"Without the Holy Eucharist there would be no happiness in this world; life would be insupportable. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive our joy and our happiness. The good God, wishing to give Himself to us in the Sacrament of His Love, gave us a vast and great desire, which He alone can satisfy. In the presence of this beautiful Sacrament, we are like a person dying of thirst by the side of a river he would only need to bend his head; like a person still remaining poor, close to a great treasure — he need only stretch out his hand. He who communicates loses himself in God like a drop of water in the ocean. They can no more be separated,"
At the sight of a church tower, you may say, "What is there in that place?" "The Body of Our Lord. " "Why is He there?" "Because a priest has been there, and has said holy Mass. " 
"Without the priest, the passion and death of our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who continues the work of redemption here on earth...What use would be a house filled with gold, were there no one to open its door? The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of His goods...Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest and they will end by worshiping the beasts there... The priest is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you."
So give thanks, early and often; give thanks especially for God’s presence in our midst, for the hands that feed us this food of immortality, and for the sunshine that reminds us of the omnipotent God who gives us every good gift.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Tuneful Truths

Monday was the feast of Saint Efrem, often known as “the Syrian,” and sometimes as “the Hymn-writer.” He was a fourth-century deacon famous for his ability to compose poetic texts about Christian truth that could be sung to familiar tunes.  In his day, just as the Faith and the Church were coming “above ground” without fear of official persecution, there was the threat of false teachers and their false doctrine leading souls away from the truth.
One of the biggest threats then was gnosticism, an approach to religion that is based on knowledge, often secret knowledge.  Gnosticism survives to our day and is an attractive misrepresentation of Christianity, but also shows up in a Jewish context, or a seemingly secular-but-spiritual guise.  It is particularly popular with folks who make movies, and want the aura of Catholicism or Judaism, whether to advocate or malign it, but do not know or do not desire to know the true content of God’s self-revelation.  From what I understand of it, the recent film Noah was a textbook example of this theatrical form of error. 
Anyway, Saint Efrem was gifted at producing songs that rejected errors and misconceptions, and laid out the liberating truth of salvation in Christ Jesus in a way that left little room for misinterpretation or manipulation.  The people who learned and sang his hymns were thus freed from the threat of deception, which is the true freedom of the sons and daughters of God.  Singing these songs not in church during the liturgy, but in their homes and as they went about their daily tasks, fortified people’s faith, and helped them internalize the more complex terms and concepts that are essential to right belief.
I preached about Efrem briefly on his feast, pointing out the genius at work in him.  You must sing what you believe, I said, or you will wind up believing whatever you sing.  After Mass, a parishioner with teenage kids approached me in the sacristy to reinforce the importance of what I had said.
So many of us, not only our kids, sing along with all sorts of music that is anything but liberating from sin and fortifying in faith.  Myself included, we convince ourselves that by some act of intellect and will we can prevent the horrid texts we sing from affecting our belief and our behavior.  Sex and violence are but two symptoms of the bad theology and even worse anthropology that is conveyed by much popular music.  Tell, me, is a twelve-year old singing along with every word of a song, capable of preventing those words from influencing his thoughts and actions?  I doubt it.  I wonder what makes us adults think we are.
Now, I get all warm and happy inside when I hear on the radio a song from my earliest days of listening, back when I got my first clock radio (analog clock, AM only).  I was only seven, but many of the words come back to me immediately; they are still in my mind.  So… what all do these popular songs of the early 1970’s keep with them in my mind? 
The other night as I was preparing dinner (I have a seminarian to feed!), my inner Alabaman was coming out:  I had the online radio tuned to a bluegrass station.  It so happened that all the songs were Gospel songs about sin and salvation, prayer, life, death, and even the saving blood of Jesus.  Now these were not hymns for church singing, but heartrending ballads or toe-tapping hootenanny songs.  What would be the inner and outer disposition of someone who grew up singing that when they were at parties and barn dances, and listening to (doubtless AM) radio in the truck or the kitchen?
Saint Efrem challenges us even now. You must sing what you believe, or you will wind up believing whatever you sing. 

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, June 07, 2014

On Tact

This week we celebrated the feast of Saint Boniface, which gave another example of how the best way to come to know all the riches and talents of the Church is to enter into her Sacred Liturgy every day, not only on Sundays and feasts.
Now, I have known Saint Boniface for a long time.  He is the patron and founder of the town of my brother-in-law’s family, Fulda (Germany).  He is entombed beneath the cathedral there.
An Englishman sent on mission to the pagans, he preached to the (barbarian) German tribes and brought many of them to Christ, founding monasteries and dioceses and building up the Church and the civilization that only she can provide.  However, those successes did not satisfy him, and late in life he set out to bring Christ to the pagans of Friesland. 
Like many of their cousins across the English Channel, the Friesians worshipped trees. Saint Boniface began his conversation with them by cutting down their largest and most sacred oak.  They were not amused.  Though a number were converted, a number also attacked and killed him, cutting him down much as he cut down the tree. 

I have always thought of Saint Boniface a bit much; over the top, pushy, and at the very least, undiplomatic.  But as I re-read (for the umpteenth time) his letter in the daily Divine Office, I was reminded of several things that it is easy to forget.
First, he emphasizes that the only thing we have of value is the Faith that we have received from the Apostles who came before.  Second, he reminds us that the Church is constantly rocked by adversity and attacked by opponents for her insistence on the Truth, but that adversity and those opponents will not prevail.  Third, he points out that those who have been entrusted with the mission of pastoring souls must speak this saving truth in its entirety to those entrusted to their care, at the peril of their own souls.  I give you some of his own words:
In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship but to keep her on her course.
The ancient fathers showed us how we should carry out this duty: Clement, Cornelius and many others in the city of Rome, Cyprian at Carthage, Athanasius at Alexandria. They all lived under emperors who were pagans; they all steered Christ’s ship—or rather his most dear spouse, the Church.  This they did by teaching and defending her, by their labors and sufferings, even to the shedding of blood.
I am terrified when I think of all this.  Fear and trembling came upon me and the darkness of my sins almost covered me. I would gladly give up the task of guiding the Church which I have accepted if I could find such an action warranted by the example of the fathers or by holy Scripture.
Let us stand fast in what is right and prepare our souls for trial. Let us wait upon God’s strengthening aid and say to him: O Lord, you have been our refuge in all generations.

Let us trust in him who has placed this burden upon us. What we ourselves cannot bear let us bear with the help of Christ. For he is all-powerful and he tells us: My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Let us be neither dogs that do not bark, nor silent onlookers, nor paid servants who run away before the wolf.  Instead let us be careful shepherds watching over Christ’s flock.  Let us preach the whole of God’s plan to the powerful and to the humble, to rich and to poor, to men of every rank and age, as far as God gives us the strength, in season and out of season, as Saint Gregory writes in his book of Pastoral Instruction.
Thank you, Saint Boniface.  Now, let me at that stupid tree!

Monsignor Smith