Saturday, May 23, 2015

Keeping the day

I remember that when I was preparing to enter the seminary, there was a newly-ordained priest who was particularly kind to me.  As a server at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, I had served with him while he was a seminarian, then served his priestly ordination.  I liked him and wanted to know him better, so after some months I did the necessary research to learn his parish assignment and the Mass schedule there, which took rather a lot of work in those days before the Internet.  I found Holy Redeemer in Kensington on the map, and made my way to Mass there - twice, because the first time, some other priest was celebrant.
I reintroduced myself to him outside the church after Mass, and he invited me to the rectory, where I joined a small group of folks who were eating with him and the pastor.  It was very loose and casual, so soon we were talking just the two of us.  I told him that I had already applied to be a seminarian for the Archdiocese, but as best I can recall, I had not yet been accepted then. 
Over the course of that summer, as I was accepted and then assigned to begin studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, we connected several times.  He encouraged me and gave me advice on how to thrive (or survive!) in seminary.  During that school year, he wrote to me several times, and I to him.  Just before school ended, his pastor died after a long fight with cancer, and I attended the funeral, where I saw him overseeing the logistics of that large and emotional event while dealing with his own sadness.   Then, just two years ordained, he found himself administrator of that substantial parish until a new pastor could be named.
But we talked about those things only a little before I went to my new seminary in Rome.  We maintained our written correspondence, and he continued to advise, encourage, and amuse me in the face of all my challenges.  Shortly after I left, he himself was diagnosed with cancer – of the colon, as I recall – and he spent a year battling that, until finally it went into remission. 
Studying at the North American College brings the expectation that a seminarian will not return to the United States after his first year, and so it was only after twenty-one months overseas that I began to prepare to return home.  Shortly before I could, I received a call that my friend had died after a recurrence of the cancer.  Only three years older than me, he had been healthy when I left, and died and was buried before I could see him again.
His last letter to me was more reflective, but no less humorous, and no less encouraging.  These were real letters, by the way, so I still have them and re-read them on occasion, though I have not done so in years.  I often wonder what sort of priest-friends we would have been, once I was ordained and serving in the Archdiocese.  Often I try to imagine his reaction to something I do or experience as a priest, which would make him proud, or amused, or satisfied, or jealous.  It always makes me smile, and sometimes I chortle out loud.
I keep the holy card from his funeral in a volume of my breviary, but have recently pulled it out to rest atop the kneeler where I pray in our little chapel, because you see, it is almost his anniversary.  This Wednesday, May 27, it will be twenty years since Father Derek Goerg entered eternal life.  And I remember. 

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Going & going & gone

Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.
So says the Lord Jesus to his disciples, right before he is taken up before their eyes. This instruction is so big, so huge, so infinite that nothing and nobody is excluded.  Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature: every place, every time.
This is the constant for us priests.  The whole priest “thing” launched with that word: go.  So, we go.  We go far more than we stay.  We go everywhere, we go whenever; and we go when and where we are told to go, not when or where we choose to go.  
Fr. McCabe, whose missionary experiences are now well known to you, has taken this charge to its most complete meaning.  For Fr. McDonell, it may seem to be less the case.  But why has he been here?  Because his bishop said, go.  And now why is he leaving us?  Because his bishop said, go.
Now, it may seem to you that after nine years, I have lost familiarity with the sound of that word, go.  But it was that word that brought me here in the first place – then took me away, across the Atlantic and back, then back here again.  So, my staying here, even this long, is because I was told to go. 
That’s the first part.  The second part, about proclaiming the Gospel, is astonishingly universal: to every creature?  Really?  Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God, crucified, died, raised, and ascended: that is the Good News.  There is no creature who has some other message coming, nor anyone for whom some other news is the good.  And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
What response does this news call for?  Repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, as Jesus himself never tired of explaining.  It is such a magnificent offer that no one should be left out, but Jesus knows that some will opt out.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.  
Every creature on earth, in every place and at every time, needs that good news and the opportunity to make that response.  To make that happen requires a lot of go-ing.  For those who are sent, it makes the importance of going all the more clear.  That we understand the only two possible outcomes is one of the main reasons we are willing and ready to go.
So this week you see it: the Church in motion.  The Apostles heard the word, and they went.  Ever since, souls called to preach have heard the word, and gone.  It seems random, unpredictable, unsettling, and upsetting, but this is the life of the Church, who, as our Holy Father has reminded us, does not have a mission, but is a mission.  It is a big world, and there are many, many souls in need of hearing the Good News.  Some of them are here, some in Detroit, some in a location to be named (by Maryknoll) later.
I don’t know about you, but I am sad that they are going.  I enjoyed their company and their help and their friendship and support.  But even when they came, I knew it was so that one day they could go.  And their willingness to go makes me glad.
So thank Frs. McCabe and McDonell for everything they did for you, including their continued willingness to go.  Wish them well, and promise your prayers.  But don’t take too long about it; if they are going to Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature, they had better get going.  Godspeed!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Funny ha-ha, or funny strange?

A funny thing happened in the rectory office this week: I got a Quran in the mail!  Addressed to the “Office of the Priest,” this heavy box with its handsomely bound volume was sent by the Council for American-Islamic Relations to me, and to many other priests, one may deduce.  You know CAIR; they’re the ones who put out that “coexist” bumper sticker that seems to be awfully popular with some of our neighbors. 
Offered to me “as an educational resource,” it is a translation with commentary by Leopold Weiss (later Muhammad Asad) who “had a profound knowledge of the Judeo-Christian tradition” and is “among the select group of well-known 20th-century converts to Islam who subsequently took up scholarship.”
The form letter that accompanied the book stated “We hope you will receive this in the spirit of interfaith cooperation and understanding in which it was intended and make it part of your reference library.”
Well.  Isn’t that…special?  I am honestly a bit flummoxed by this, and somehow can’t help but feel there is a bit less air to breathe in my office. I admit to being less than complete in my study of Islam and the man who started it, and not very advanced at all in my study of the book he wrote. I am more familiar with the history, origins, and progress of the religion based upon it, especially in relation to geopolitics and culture.  Perhaps that is why I detect a whiff of audacity, and possibly even aggression.
I wonder what response I would get if I were to deliver a similar copy of the Sacred Scriptures in Arabic, with commentary, to all the mosques in Montgomery County?  Unlike single-author, self-identified “holy books,” our Scriptures have a wide range of sources, styles, and circumstances of origin over a remarkably broad swath of human history, with a singularity of subject and message  -- that is, the person Jesus Christ.  Perhaps that would make them less “impressive” to followers of the Quran.  I don’t know.
I do know that the monolithic singularity of the Quran can be impressive to people who seek a single and solitary authority that presents itself in a way that is systematic and dismissive of competing authorities.  Like this gift I received, the Quran contains everything in one “box,” both literal and metaphorical.  That sort of manageability, masterability, and portability can be very appealing.
This month, it would be easy to walk blithely through the remaining days of our annual observance of the Paschal Mystery, marking the Ascension of Our Lord and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost with enthusiasm and observance not terribly different from, and possibly even subordinate to, that of our other festivities, like Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and graduation.  That, now more than ever, would be a mistake.
Do not take for granted the gift God is giving you in your faith in Jesus Christ.  He is the foundation of all that you cherish in your identity, relationships, and life.  Resolve now to plunge anew into the holy teaching that sustains you in your knowledge and love of Him.  Reopen your study of the Sacred Scriptures; renew your contemplation of the Sacred Mysteries; reassert the priority of prayer in your life.  Like everything of value, our faith requires maintenance and effort, lest it lapse into disrepair and be vulnerable to destruction.
The Lord Jesus Christ will defend us against all who would harm us, but only if we cling to him, remain ingrafted to Him, the True Vine.  Otherwise, we will wither, and  “people” will carry (us) off to be burnt. (cf. Jn 15:1-8)   And that does not strike me as funny.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Sic transit

It has been a good weekend.  It always is when I am privileged to give First Holy Communion to any soul but especially when I do it for so many (fifty-three!) young members of our parish.  Everybody’s eyes are on the kids, but what I get to see is that their eyes are fixed on Jesus.  They have an awareness that I am giving them a whom, and not a what, and they show their eager hospitality to the Divine Guest about to enter under their roof.  It is a beautiful thing, and very likely my most favorite Mass of the year.  It is one of the great joys of being a pastor.
Because it is kind of hard to do everything with the same level of enthusiasm I have for First Holy Communion, it is also good to have a little help.  So, even before I moved in here as Pastor, I invited Fr. Nick Zientarski to live with me while he pursued his doctorate in theology at the Catholic University of America.  He stayed for five happy years, from 2006 to 2011.
Shortly after Fr. Nick moved out, Fr. Clint McDonell began helping here while he pursued his studies in philosophy, and moved into the rectory full-time in 2012.   A few months later, I got a call from Fr. Joseph McCabe, M.M., whom I had met while I was working in Rome.   He was looking for a parish in which he could live while earning his License in Canon Law.  I invited him, and he moved in January of 2013.
Having finally this winter been allowed to finish his final requirements, Fr. Nick will receive his hard-earned doctoral degree at CUA graduation.  Fr. McCabe just told me his thesis is approved and will be published, his comprehensive exams are scheduled (May 7-8; pray for him!), and he, too, will march to receive his degree the same day.  Father Nick will go back to the seminary in Yonkers, and Fr. McCabe will go on to a new mission for Maryknoll.
That was pretty much what we had been expecting all along.  Not expected was that Fr. McDonell learned last week that before his triumphant completion of academic expectations, his Archbishop is calling him home to Detroit to teach in the seminary there.  It is not that he should have finished his degree work by now – that was neither expected nor even possible.  No, it is just the needs of the local church and the decision of the bishop.  He may be back someday to finish what he started, but he will not be living at Saint Bernadette in the fall.
All of this is coming to a head in the same weekend.  On Saturday May 16, Fr. Nick and Fr. McCabe will celebrate their graduations, and while they are busy with that, Fr. McDonell will offer his last Sunday Mass in our parish at the Saturday vigil.  The next morning, Fr. McCabe will celebrate the nine o’clock, and Fr. Nick, the eleven.  They will all race away that evening or the next morning, and while Fr. McCabe will be back around Memorial Day weekend to pack and help me with Masses, it will be a lot quieter around here all of a sudden.
On Sunday, May 17, the week after Mother’s Day, after the nine and eleven o’clock Masses, we will have a celebratory reception when you can greet, congratulate, thank, and send off Fr. Nick, Fr. McCabe, and Fr. McDonell.
Priests come and go, in a parish and in parishioners’ lives.  Christ Himself remains constant, but his voice and his face change.   These three priests all did something for you, and probably even did something helpful or beautiful or memorable or simply needful.   Their main job and only assignment was their academic work; everything they did here in our midst was on their own initiative, on their “own time,” as it were.   It was very good, and we are very grateful. 
I always ask the children to whom I have given their First Holy Communion to remember to pray for me throughout their lives.  Heck, how hard is it to remember Smith?  Somewhere on a list you keep of people you want to remember in prayer, write down these three names, and pray for them.  Thanks to them, it has been a very good couple of years.

Monsignor Smith