Saturday, February 25, 2017

Time to change

Just one human life can change the world, as I reflected here last week.  Those lives that fulfilled that potential, and who “used that power for good,” as a movie script might say, are worth celebrating.   
This is a quite literally a revolutionary notion; it fueled the American Revolution.  But rarely do such civil revolutions result in the desired opportunity, since they are not often founded on the personal revolution required for human beings to raise their own lives to the level of virtue of which they are capable.  The Founding Fathers never ceased to call both the children of their families and the citizens of the nation they founded to put aside selfishness and strive for virtue.
The foundation of this hope and this vision is precisely the one life that saves the world, Jesus of Nazareth.  The tiny infant we so recently greeted, we will soon see executed by religious and political processes he did not seek to overturn.  Our liturgy moves straight through his death to his resurrection and ascension, as may and as must we all.  This is the full potential of human life in Christ. 
We are daily bombarded by commentary and commercials that assail us with what we need to change about other people, and what we need to purchase in order for our lives to change.  Both lines of thought lead us away from the change that is genuinely possible and uniquely necessary: the change of ourselves.
This week we begin the season of Lent, the time the Church sets aside for all her members to change, whatever their state in life, their age, their responsibility, or their achievement.  This is the necessary step that cannot be omitted on the path to changing the world for the good: changing the one life that we have control over – our own.
In other words, forget chocolate and forget beer.  Go big or go home – which exhortation actually works well for Lent, when many folks settle for giving up something little, to which they return comfortably when the season ends.  So don’t just change your diet, change your lives!  Or as the prophet Joel tells it, Rend you hearts, not your garments.  (Joel 2:13)
The Prophet continues:  Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.  So by going back – back to our Creator, back to our Father – we move ahead.  To make progress toward what is truly new, we return to our source and find there, in Him, our goal.  By this we change, with our desire and our cooperation, and by the powerful work of grace in our lives because of our intimacy with Jesus the Lord.  Changing our souls, we begin to change the world.
On our parish letterhead and over the arch that leads to the doors in our church, my predecessor Father William Thompson printed the statement from our patroness Saint Bernadette Soubirous:  I must become a saint; my Jesus expects it.  Through the sacraments of the Church, God makes this possible; through the Constitution of the United States, our nation frees us to achieve it.  Any change in the world, any change for good, is brought about by what we do with our one human life.  Go ahead and do it!  Do it now; you have the power.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Indivisible Irresistible

For Christmas, Fr. Markey gave me a biography of Saint Augustine, which I recently started and have found difficult to put aside.  Who knew a forty-five year old book about a North African Bishop who lived seventeen hundred years ago could be so engaging? 
I am also in the middle of another biography, this one a long audiobook that I “borrow” from the library when I am going to be able to listen to it in my car.  It examines the life of U. S. Air Force General Bernard Schreiver, of whom I had never heard before I found this available for download.   Why spend so much time on someone of whom I had never even heard?  To learn who he was, and why what he did was important.
There are few subjects more interesting than a human life, fully lived and carefully examined.  Sometimes the historic impact of a life can disguise our lack of knowledge of the person, and personality, as I am learning from the Augustine book.  This seminal thinker in Western Christianity -- the author of Confessions and City of God, influence on Catholic moral teaching, author of the Rule of St Augustine, whose strengths and weaknesses magnified by his influence arguably precipitated the split in western Christianity by their effect on one other individual soul, the Augustinian priest Martin Luther -- was just one guy.
All this echoes in my head on a weekend I cannot stop calling Washington Holiday.  I know the bureaucracy relabeled it years ago with a more generic title acknowledging all forty-five presidents, with perhaps a grudging nod to the first and the sixteenth.  But last weekend I was mentally marking Lincoln’s birthday, and this week, it is George Washington whose life I cannot relinquish to some class or category.
This one man, this one life, is the sine qua non of the entire “American experiment:” the nation in which we live and the Constitution that governs us.  His personal virtue, military achievement, and executive fortitude all made this country happen in a way that stands above the contribution of any other individual.  That is true even before you take into account his unique act of freely and willingly laying down executive power, on schedule.  This precedent defines our nation to our own day – indeed, even unto last month.  I cannot be convinced that it is not necessary annually to celebrate this president among presidents.
As I continue to drive and listen to the life and work of General Schreiver, I find another example of what General Washington’s selflessness made possible: a nation where the innate value and potency of every human life can achieve fulfillment, for the good not only of the individual and his intimates, but for the good of the entire nation.  And this flowering and fulfillment is best determined and directed by the individual himself.  This is radical stuff, as a wise observer once noted.
I have read biographies aplenty of George Washington, and would not be surprised if I were to enjoy more in coming years.  Pushing past the legends and legacy of the Father of His Country to the find the man himself leaves me in wonder that this was just one guy.  Similarly delightful is discovering the full humanity of the monumental Father of the Church, Augustine. 
It is in examining this not diminutive, but fully familiar humanity that I also see what each of these greats has in common with … me.  And you.  And the neighbor, and our parents, and the kids, and the person across the aisle on Metro.  It bears recognizing and rejoicing that the possibility of achievement that is open for our lives stands firmly on the shoulders of these full and faithful lives that have given us so much.   How better to reawaken that, than by reading a good biography?

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Once more, all together now!

Doing things together: it is one of the greatest casualties of our over-personalized, instant-access, and virtually-connected culture.  I spend a lot of time at my desk, and thus in front of my screen, and it is truly amazing how much I can accomplish through it.  I think most of us take advantage of this to arrange things to our maximum convenience.
This morning I bought something I read about the paper, but I did it online, so I didn’t go to the store.  So I didn’t run into any parishioners.  And I didn’t have one of those conversations with the store staff that can happen when I am dressed in my clerics.  I will get my “stuff,” l; but with no human contact at all.
An opposite example was Sunday evening, when I went over to the home of some friends to watch the Super Bowl.  I hadn’t watched more than 30 minutes of NFL football all season, but I looked forward to this.  It was more engaging to watch with somebody, more than because it was a better football game than recent Super Bowls have been.  We talked about the game, and laughed about it, and also talked about all sorts of other things.  I even got in a little “business” conversation right as the Patriots started climbing out of their hole.  It was not a conversation I would have been able to have by email or letter, either.
This is a gathering I go to almost every year.  There are folks there, friends of our hosts, whom I only see once each year.  But because we do this together, we have built up a friendly relationship.  I look forward to the Super Bowl principally because we do it together!
That value, I think, contributes to the high price of the advertising time: not only is the audience numerically huge, but also it is together, talking about that they are watching.  That multiplies the impact and the value of what they are watching -- even the commercials. 
Interesting, isn’t it, that the union of God with Man in Jesus Christ is made available only by doing it together.  You can’t get it by phone, letter, or email; there is no web interface with the Living God.  There is no home delivery or takeout, except for the sick and homebound, and even then He comes in the hands of another member of the Body.  No UPS guy, no drone will bring Jesus to your door.
So when you come for Jesus, there you are, together with all these others.  Many are regulars; some you’ve known for years, with others you have a nodding acquaintance.  Some are strangers, passing through.  Some are in-between.  If “diversity” is as good a thing as the talkers would have us believe, you won’t find more of it anywhere than you do at a Catholic Sunday Mass!  But there is also more, there is commonality, and there builds the communion.
When Mass lets out at our parish, all that togetherness, with God and one another, spills out into the yard and is a thing to behold.  It is one of the only places, if not the only place, where ages and generations mix freely and well beyond the structures of family gatherings.  Somebody else’s grandma, somebody else’s toddler, all get the same regard and response that they would merit if they were family.  And that makes for health and happiness that cannot be imposed by any external structure or governance.   
Our obligations and our interests in these times pull us apart.  Aware of this pull, it is wise to renew the commitment to the one activity that makes it possible to be ourselves: being united with God in the holy sacraments.  God puts a value on our doing things, His things, together – and so should we.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Think on Me!

Years ago, when Mrs. Wood, our principal, Mr. Lee, our middle-school apologetics teacher, and I were first working together here, a disgruntled parent wrote a memorable note complaining that what was wrong with our school was that  it had "too much discipline and godliness."
Even now, years later, thinking about that letter can bring a smile to our faces no matter what the present problem we face.  If you had to condense into as few words as possible what we hope to offer kids in our school, "discipline and godliness" would be first among them.  We filed that original complaint as an endorsement and continue to draw encouragement from it.
This is what our school offers to kids that is different from what they would receive elsewhere. Thinking about this during Catholic Schools Week, which we just concluded, made me also wonder, what about the rest of us?  We are halfway between the start of the new calendar year, with its revelry and call for resolutions, and Ash Wednesday, when revelry gives way to Lent and its call to penance and piety.  Is "discipline and godliness" as unappealing to us as it was to that plaintive parent, or does it have a place in our days now?
Is it not clear that the two go together?  Closeness with God, friendship with God, being like God - all included in godliness - don't just happen.  There is not a time when God is not offering us precisely that.  But to enjoy this, it is necessary that we advert - turn toward - the offered treasure.  The turning requires an act of the will on our part.  Just as often, it also requires a turning away from something else:  work, leisure, entertainment, even our emotions of the moment.  That is where the discipline comes in.
The discipline can be imposed from outside of us, as it is for kids enrolled in a Catholic school.   Such is the discipline of Lent, when the Church calls us to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  But even imposed discipline must be taken up freely and become self-discipline in order to bear its best fruit.
This discipline is available to us even now, when there is no external, seasonal call for it.   It is also necessary for us even now, today and always, if we are to be fully human, fully ourselves.  We need to turn toward God in ways daily and small, as well as ways large and life-changing.  He has made it clear that as great the gift He offers us, He will not force it upon us. 
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are, as the Apostle John reminds us in his first letter.  And how will we find joy in that love, if we never make the time to think on it?  What good will that love do us, if we do not nourish ourselves with it?  And how will that love bring us joy, if we do not confirm our actions, even our desires, to its imperatives?   It is the mark of the Christian life that we make time and effort toward all these, by giving a little less time and effort to work, family, exercise, entertainment, and goofing off, even when it is not Lent.
Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth, think of the Lord with uprightness, and seek him with sincerity of heart; because he is found by those who do not put him to the test, and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him. (Wisdom 1:1).  Make time in your day, and room in your mind, for the mystery of our God.  Think of the Lord.  And perhaps will come the day when you, too, rejoice to be accused of "too much discipline and godliness."

Monsignor Smith