Saturday, October 31, 2015

All together now!

Isn’t it just great to get the group together?  The old saying “There is strength in numbers” still holds true, with many possible ways to understand the notion of “strength.”
Last weekend, the whole gang got together for our annual Fall Festival.  It was great to see so many people out and having fun with one another, whether while watching their kids in the cake walk, or elbow-to-elbow in the frenzy of the bingo tent.  Over in the Knights of Columbus tent, Redskins fans were even grazing peacefully together with Giants fans– that’s a real the lion shall lie down with the lamb moment!
We had very good weather this time, thank God, despite the iffy start to the day.  I know we lost some participants when we rescheduled from three weeks ago because of that hurricane.  But it was good crowd, great fun, and a splendid moment to meet the parish community for any of our neighbors who came by for the event.
Please join me in thanking those responsible for making it happen, especially Laura Irwin and Kristien Carroll who oversaw the whole thing.  Along with Lauren Draley, a chairman emerita who apparently doesn’t believe in retirement, they really pulled together a beautiful festival – and they did it twice!  Almost everything had to be changed, redone, restaffed, or reordered when we rescheduled.  All the volunteers did a super job.  Thank you so much.
This weekend, too, we are having an all-hands-on-deck gathering of a different sort.  For the Solemnity of All Saints, we bring out all of our relics of saints to be venerated on our altar.  We are privileged to have a large variety of saints represented in our collection.  From Christ’s contemporary John the Apostle to Maria Goretti of the 20th century, the gang’s all here!

A relatively tiny sample of the denizens of heaven, it is nonetheless a representative sample.  Like attracts like -- Saints Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, and Catherine LabourĂ© are grouped together in a “Vincentian” cluster indicating their link on earth.  But differences are also overcome:  Saints Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola, founders of radically different religious communities, now rejoice together in heaven, and their relics are side by side here in Silver Spring, too. 
Any time one of your secular or Protestant friends tries to be hip and dismissive of our care for relics of the Holy Ones, feel free to point out how relics are woven into the very fabric of our (American) culture: remember when soldiers took a lock of hair from their beloved and wore it on a chain around their neck?  More recently, how many people wait in line and pay money to visit Graceland, and touch the things of Elvis?  Heck, I bet most folks have a tool or kitchen utensil treasured because it belonged to a beloved grandparent. 
It was clear last Sunday was a good day when I saw several children weeping simply because the bouncy house was being deflated.  They did not want it to end!   And you know it is a good day when so much human evidence of Christ’s reconciling power throughout the ages is so clearly present right in front of us.  The saints are people like us, friends and fellow members of the Body of Christ.  Having shared a purpose on earth, they now share the fullness of communion in heaven.  All Saint’s Day is how we celebrate that the very best gathering never ends.
Our relics are many, but the saints are many more – a number uncountable by us, since so many are unrecognized by us.   There is strength in their numbers, and helping us to be numbered one day among them is the very best use of their strength.  Saints of God arrayed upon the altar, and future saints arranged around it:  isn’t it just great to get the group together? 
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Shine upon them

Yesterday I picked up one of the All Souls envelopes off the table at the back of the church to prepare mine to go on the altar at the beginning of November, the month given over to remembrance of our beloved dead.  Then I pulled out my list.
The names on the list are of the deceased for whom I pray particularly and personally.  It is quite the exercise of memory and affection to read through it: all four of my grandparents; a boyhood friend who was hit by a car; a high school girlfriend; a college classmate who died in a fire when we were freshmen; college professors; priest friends and collaborators who died in the fullness of years or tragically young; and many others.  But each year brings new names to add.
William Cardinal Baum, whom I first met before I entered seminary, a lofty figure of grace and ecclesial influence.  While I studied in Rome, he was a wise and encouraging protector.  Four years later, I entered his service as secretary, and he was my patient guide and teacher, a generous master.  In his latter years, he was my dear friend, always sharing the depth of his faith with me in his pain and illness.
Father William Thompson, my first pastor after priestly ordination, and my predecessor as Pastor of Saint Bernadette.  Gruff and generous, pragmatic and obedient, he was widely regarded by my seminary classmates as the best pastor any of us had.  He, too, took what could have been just being my boss, and turned it to being my friend.
And Andrew Esherick, whom I met when he was still a child.  He started as a student among students here, and member of a family with whom I was close enough to visit at home.  As his identity and faith developed toward adult fullness, he generously brought me along.  Eventually introducing me to his future wife, then his first child, though he lived states away, he did the work of staying engaged rather than leaving me merely his childhood pastor.
All three of these names will be on the roll I call at our parish All Souls Mass.  Offered especially and by name for these and all who have been buried from our church this year, over time this beautiful liturgy has become increasingly poignant to me.  With each additional year as pastor, I have known more of the people on the list, and their families, longer and more intimately.   These thoughts come crowding forward fresh and alive with their names.   
As these sentiments and memories come, the richness of the Requiem Mass brings to bear all the power of the prayer of the Church.   These are not mere names of those who once were, but now no longer are.  These are lives entwined with our own even now, and we invoke their names before God in that pure act of love for them we call prayer.  
As the list grows longer with our lives, what could seem a burden brings also a boon.  All these souls for whom we offer our precious time and memory are unable to pray for themselves, but can and will pray for us.  Thereby is not only distance, but also difference overcome; and even when, to those who lack eyes of faith, death seems to have put the relationship past rescue or repair, the reconciling work of Christ is accomplished.
So come, hear these names called out before the throne of grace, and lend your prayer to their perfection.  The All Souls Requiem Mass will be Monday evening, November 2, at 7:30.  And for the prayers and sacrifices we will offer throughout the month, prepare your own envelope, and your own offering.  But first, linger over your own list.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Pack the place

From Papal Visit to Packed Pews, they call it.  That’s the Archdiocesan operative’s plan to get some “bounce” (to use a Washington term) in the faith life of our local church from the recent visit of our Holy Father Pope Francis.
In the three weeks since the visit, I have had an amazing array of people tell me just how much the Pope’s visit excited and moved them.  Many of them were people who received their tickets to the Mass of Canonization from our parish allotment, and therefore are people I know well and see often.  But there were also many others, including some whom I had only just met.  It is the first subject of conversation when I run into non-Catholic friends and acquaintances, as well; they profess to share in some of the excitement too.
An ever-growing percentage of the population around us claims and professes identities, associations, and ideologies that are not only Catholic or Christian, but sometimes even opposed to Catholicism and Christianity.  An ever-growing number of Catholics are comfortable with, and confident in, those same identities, associations, and ideologies, sometimes without realizing how they conflict with the basic truths of Divine Revelation in Jesus Christ.
Our Archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, recently released a Pastoral Letter whose purpose is summed up in its title, Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge.  Beautifully printed copies of this letter are available for you, now, in the church.
He points out: As Americans, we are not required to carry around identity papers or wear special insignia on our clothing marking us as Christian. Nevertheless, each day the world does ask us, “Are you Christian?” We must answer truthfully and then act accordingly. If we are Christian, then Christ should be recognizable in us, and we should not be made to mask him or appear to be something else.
Our Holy Father made it his frequent refrain that all Catholics are called, first to conversion, then to witness: first to seek God’s mercy, then to offer it.  To remember the excitement of the visit and forget the content of the message would be to betray Pope Francis, and undermine the purpose of his visit.  This may seem like a burden, but in reality it makes for a great opportunity for the Church in the United States, in Washington, and in Four Corners. 
There is an abundance of good will toward the Pope in particular, Catholics in general, and the Church herself, which in our nation can never be taken for granted, but especially now.  All the more true right now is what His Eminence observed:  “What does the Church bring to society?” Even when people seem to pose this question as a challenge, deep down there is usually a note of hope in it.  After seeing the Pope, and the crowds, more people will be wondering, and well-disposed.  They will be turning to you and me with that question, and that hope.  We must respond ourselves, not with expectations for someone somewhere else in the Church.
Our Catholic identity, even when challenged, should remain for us a source of conviction and pride. As God was with those who first accepted the challenge, “You will be my witnesses,” so God is with us as we accept the summons to be faithful witnesses to our Catholic faith today in all that we say and do.  By taking our Archbishop's exhortation to heart, and following our Holy Father’s example ourselves, we will do more than pack the pews: we will draw souls to Christ.   Now that is “bounce.”

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Forgiveness, Isaac, & I

A reflection I encountered last month in the Divine Office seemed worth sharing with you this month in the context of the Synod on the Family.  From a sermon by Blessed Isaac of Stella, a Cistercian abbot of the 1100’s, peer of Saints Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Becket, it struck me as a marvelous explanation of how forgiveness is available to us, as well as a demonstration of how marriage is a central to our understanding of Christ’s relationship with the Church, that is, purifying Bridegroom and spotless Bride -- and therefore with us.  It would seem forgiveness and marriage have something in common too.  Enjoy!
Monsignor Smith
The prerogative of receiving the confession of sin and the power to forgive sin are two things that belong properly to God alone.  We must confess our sins to him and look to him for forgiveness.  Since only he has the power to forgive sins, it is to him that we must make our confession.  But when the Almighty, the Most High, wedded a bride who was weak and of low estate, he made that maid-servant a queen.  He took her from her place behind him, at his feet, and enthroned her at his side.  She had been born from his side, and therefore he betrothed her to himself.  And as all that belongs to the Father belongs also to the Son because by nature they are one, so also the bridegroom gave all he had to the bride and he shared in all that was hers.  He made her one both with himself and with the Father. Praying for his bride, the Son said to the Father: I want them to be one with us, even as you and I are one.  (John 17:22)
And so the bridegroom is one with the Father and one with the bride.  Whatever he found in his bride alien to her own nature he took from her and nailed to his cross when he bore her sins and destroyed them on the tree.  He received from her and clothed himself in what was hers by nature and gave her what belonged to him as God.  He destroyed what was diabolical, took to himself what was human, and conferred on her what was divine.  So all that belonged to the bride was shared in by the bridegroom, and he who had done no wrong and on whose lips was found no deceit could say: Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak.  Thus, sharing as he did in the bride’s weakness, the bridegroom made his own her cries of distress, and gave his bride all that was his.  Therefore, she too has the prerogative of receiving the confession of sin and the power to forgive sin, which is the reason for the command: Go, show yourself to the priest.  (Luke 5:14)
The Church is incapable of forgiving any sin without Christ, and Christ is unwilling to forgive any sin without the Church.  The Church cannot forgive the sin of one who has not repented, who has not been touched by Christ; Christ will not forgive the sin of one who despises the Church.  What God has joined together, man must not separate. (Mark 10:9)  This is a great mystery, but I understand it as referring to Christ and the Church. (Ephesians 5:32)
Do not destroy the whole Christ by separating head from body, for Christ is not complete without the Church, nor is the Church complete without Christ.  The whole and complete Christ is head and body.  This is why he said: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the Son of Man whose home is in heaven. (John 3:13)  He is the only man who can forgive sin.
Isaac of Stella