Saturday, April 29, 2017

Sight unseen

Sometimes it’s funny what you see and what you don’t see.  Now, that is different from what is visible and what is invisible, a distinction made clearer when the translation of the Mass improved a few years ago.  In the Creed, we used to say that God the Father was the maker of “”all things, seen and unseen.” More accurately, now we say “all things, visible and invisible.”  There are genuinely invisible realities, spiritual realities; but oddly, among things that are visible, not all of them are seen.
Last week I reflected on all the people who had poured out their time and effort on the great work of worship that was our celebration of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus.  Or, more accurately, I tried to get them all.  It’s hard to do; I don’t want to run credits, like the end of a movie, when the key grip and the best boy and the caterer’s driver all are listed.  But the work itself bears noting; and the folks who do it are people that you know, or may meet, and a few names mentioned here and there testify to the reality of their work. 
But I was also aware of two works that I failed to include in my list, and I wanted to mention them now, since it is likely you didn’t see them.
The first group you did not see is the counters.  Their work is nearly invisible for good reasons: security and discretion.  The count the sacrificial offerings that people give before the altar of God, more commonly known as the collection.  We have to protect that precious cargo from anyone who would divert it from its intended purpose – the service of the parish – and so it is a hidden work.  But it also remains hidden because it’s none of anybody’s business how much or how often you or anyone else offer to God.  Hidden though it is, the work must be done, and records must be kept, so that all the funds go to the use for which they are intended, and all the givers receive records of their giving.  Their work is vital but unseen.
But there is another group: our ushers.  Their work is hidden in plain sight.  You see it all the time – or do you?  Of course they pass the baskets into which you place your offerings, vital work indeed.  But did you know that the offertory can be one of the most time-consuming elements of Mass?  The more better ushers we have, the more quickly and smoothly it is accomplished, and the less “dead time” accumulates there at the middle of our liturgy.  You may not have known how much it can affect you and everyone else if this work is done well and quickly – or not.
They do more: they help.  They help everyone.  They help people in and out of the church,  they help people find a seat, they help visitors orient themselves when they enter our church and get what they need to worship with us, including music material.   They help with the doors, and they help when there is a problem.  It is a sacrifice: they make themselves available to make Mass go better for everyone.   Usually, you don’t even notice.  You don’t see them!
But I want you to look for them over coming weeks, for a simple reason: we don’t have enough of them.  We need help!  We need people to help with ushering duties.  Please, identify one of our current ushers and offer to help.  You might have trouble finding the usher, because you haven’t really seen the ushering going on; but once you’ll look, you’ll realize you that work was right in front of your eyes all along.
It is the perfect work for someone who likes to keep a low profile.  The funny thing is that most people will not even see you do it.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, April 22, 2017


There are only three days a year when I can sleep as late as 6:30, enjoy breakfast with the paper, then wander across the deserted campus to the church and unlock it.   Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday all begin without morning Mass, so after I have prayed the Divine Office for the morning, it seems like leisure to stroll into the church with my list of things to do. 
Though I enjoy this later start, I realized this year that I enjoy even more completing all the tasks that each of those days brings in order to prepare for the rites that come later.  This quiet, invisible work is essential to the Sacred Liturgy, and therefore has a liturgical character as well; that is, a sharing in the work of worship and giving glory to God that is the public prayer of the Church.  Moving furniture and assembling equipment, setting books and texts, even adjusting the thermostat, may not seem like prayerful acts to you, but they deepen my participation in the explicitly worshipful elements of these holy days.
In this I am by no mean alone.  When I unlock those church doors, invariably I find Anthony Dao, our maintenance factotum, already at work preparing the church, cleaning it, and heaving up from the boiler room items that we use precisely once each year.  For the last few years his four children have joined him in this, working almost as hard as he does.  This year when I arrived they were bringing the flowers up from the “garden” at the altar of repose in the MSR.
Those are not the only kids who spend time and effort, either.  My altar servers all spent about ninety minutes each day rehearsing for the demands of the liturgy of the Triduum.  I was delighted to have the skilled and generous help of ten or fifteen servers, all between the ages of 10 and 18, for the long rehearsals and even longer complicated rites.  They were superb, and I was edified by how seriously they took the requirements they accepted.  Easter Sunday, whose Masses are relatively uncomplicated only by comparison, also benefitted from large groups of young people who gave up their time to make everyone’s worship more fitting.

We have a room we call the “working sacristy” to distinguish it from the “priests’ sacristy,” but during Holy Week that doesn’t help at all because both sacristies are filled with people working.  Norma and her posse of helpers and polishers and launderers put in long hours with vessels and vestments and candles and all sorts of elements we need for the sacraments to be celebrated.   You probably don’t see that, either: everything we need at whatever Mass you attend just seems miraculously to be already right there.  That’s how it should be; but please appreciate what a neat trick that is.
You also would be shocked to arrive at church and see people in dirty jeans and work gloves crawling about the floor on all fours, but that is exactly what you would have found Thursday morning in the MSR, as Julie Wilson, Peggy Hicks, Kathy Horstkamp, and Ron Farias arranged two truckloads of flowers into the Garden of Gethsemane around our altar of repose; and Saturday morning in the church as Melissa and Peter Franklin, with Ron and Peggy again, bedecked our altar with a well-ordered floral explosion. 
Watching them as I moved about the sanctuary with my tasks, I began to perceive that anybody who does not participate in all this work is missing something, an understanding and experience that enhances the Easter-finery worship that we all enjoyed so much. 
Our choir and musicians, under the gentle guiding hand of John Henderson, put in hours of rehearsal and preparation to be able to provide hours and hours of beautiful music, different each day.  The music made everything better and more beautiful; even the rehearsal of the brass and organ fanfares for Easter provided a motivational soundtrack to our church decorating squad.   Consistent excellence is what we have come to expect; like the liturgical items that are ready to hand in the sanctuary, we rarely wonder at the work that goes into making it happen so seamlessly.  How blessed we are to have them!  

Similarly, the friendly reception of the front lawn has become Just One of Those Things We Have at Easter.  But what work goes in to making it happen!  Jasmine Kuzner, Juliet Marandure, Jeff Reddig and Liz Dooley marshaled an array of collaborators and contributors (especially of goodies) to make it all look effortless and elegant.  And let’s hear it for everybody who made the egg hunt such a rollicking success, including the kids who waited patiently for the start signal.  Join me in praying it helps some of our visitors decide to come join us more often.

And speaking of people who have been working to make this happen, please welcome our newest brothers and sisters, the neophyte Catholics who received the Sacraments of Initiation at our Great Vigil of Easter:  Kishana Nyoh, Uyen Phan, Moriah Van Vlerah, Kim Brantley, Carolyn Fletcher, David Kuzner, Kevin McCulley, Christopher Nagy, Nina Otero, Justin Freer, and Edna Zelaya.  They had all been working since last fall to make themselves ready to receive the Holy Spirit and the Body and Blood of Christ. 
It is easy to agree that the work these folks did, by study and prayer, increased the efficacy of the Holy Sacraments they received.  Who then would not just as willingly acknowledge that the work of all these others also enhances their worship and even their communion with Christ?  The grunt work, the lifting and moving, the cleaning and polishing, the practicing and preparing: all of this integrates the prayer and praise into flesh and spirit, all of this increases understanding and integration of worship and sacrament.
This was their sacrifice, poured out with and like Christ’s own as a “waste” of their perfectly good lives and time.  This outpouring they offered to God not to obtain His gratitude, for that would be silly, obtains rather divine glory shared with them by the risen Christ.  That glory reaches through them to all who reaped the fruits of their labors.  And for that, I hope you will join me in thanking them as you look back on these extraordinary, holy days.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Try try again

The books that sell best on Amazon indicate that people want to know how to achieve success.  That is hardly a surprise.  Look at these titles: How to Succeed, or, Stepping-Stones to Fame and Fortune; Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals; and How to Succeed.  Some make it seem as if there’s one secret to mastering anything: How to Succeed in Everything: A Workbook.  Then, there is specialized success, too: for college, U Thrive: How to Succeed in College (and Life); for business, Driven: How To Succeed In Business And In Life; for children, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character; and even for a very small group of people: How to Succeed as a Federal Judicial Law Clerk.
Relatively few people set their caps toward failure, and I have a sneaking feeling these books are really just how to succeed books with contrary titles:  How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big; How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide; and How to Fail as a Therapist: 50+ Ways to Lose or Damage Your Patients.
So, here we are today, all celebrating.  Something great and life changing has occurred.   So has success been achieved?  Who succeeded, and at what?
Just a few days ago, what had been achieved was total failure.  Jesus had failed to win hearts and minds to his side.  He had failed to avoid capture.  He had failed to have good people around him.  He had failed in his own defense.  He had failed, in fact, to survive.
Nonetheless, He announced It is accomplished.  Was failure what he had sought to accomplish, as if he had picked up one of the abovementioned books on the subject?  No.  He has accomplished the will of His Father.  He succeeded in being obedient in every detail to what seemed to be a program to bring about His humiliation and destruction. 
But the will of the Father was not that His Son be destroyed; no, His will was that Jesus save everybody, including especially those who destroyed Him, by sacrificing Himself even unto His own complete destruction.  This is the great work that went in to what we celebrate today.
For by accepting death, Jesus conquered death, and by rising from the dead, changed death forever for us who unlike Him are rightly doomed to die.  He did this by choosing freely to deny Himself every shred and vestige of success, and taking upon Himself the consequences of yielding that success to all and every person’s grasping for the success they insist upon and crave.   
Already the separation of a few days makes it hard for us to remember that apparent catastrophe, as we welcome His victory.   But as we rejoice that Jesus has changed our own deaths into a pathway to His eternal life, let us remember how we got here.
None of the above books, nor the people who buy and read them, would propose as a path to success what we celebrate here this weekend.  But we have all the information we need to identify the path to the one true and lasting success.  What looks for to the world like failure gives us confidence to get through our days of difficulty. 
Submitting our will to the will of the Father, even when it seems to lead us to destruction, is the path to life.  Recognizing that acceptance and approval mean nothing if they distance us or separate us from the Cross, is the path to life.  Yielding what we desire, so that someone else may have what he need, is the path to life.  Giving our life in love that another might live, thrive, and grow, is the path to life.  Being faithful to the one who is unfaithful, is the path to life. 
By all means, claim as your own the victory that Jesus succeeded in winning for us.  At the same time, recognize so-called failure as the only path to it, and be not afraid.  
Fr. Gallaugher, Fr. Markey, and all of us here pray daily for your Easter joy.  As we rejoice today in the liberation from death that Christ our God has won for us by His submission to failure in all things but doing His Father’s will, please accept my humble wish that you and all your loved ones enjoy a blessed Easter, Feast of the Lord’s Resurrection, and of our victory.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Eyes to see

Do you even look?   It is so easy to allow it to be part of the background, the d├ęcor of a church, school, or home.  Maybe you even wear one; is it a decoration?   Look again; what is it?
It is a crucifix, a graphic depiction of Jesus dying on the cross.  It is not a blank cross, just the wood and the shape of the instrument of his death.  It is not a statue of Jesus, standing or sitting or teaching or even rising from the dead.  It is the central sacramental of our Faith, the most concise statement and reminder of Him in Whom we believe, and what He has done for love of us.
Because of its consistent importance from the beginning of the Church, the earliest surviving crucifixion scene is an expression of mockery of a Christian and his faith.  From a barracks wall in Rome in the early 200’s, someone name Alexamenos is depicted “worship(ping) his god,” crucified with the head of a donkey:
But within two hundred years, in the early fifth century, a short distance away the same gruesome scene is depicted with devotion and zeal for souls on the massive carved doors of the church of Santa Sabina:

Outrageous still to many in that time, and still in our own, the depiction of a criminal execution being held up as the saving act of the One True God is too easy for us to take for granted.  But this weekend, we stop to look.
Perhaps it seems odd that for us to look the crucifix at the focal point of our church be veiled from view.  But its hiddenness helps us to see.  As we stand for the proclamation of the Passion of Our Lord, our ears discern anew what has become obscure to our over-indulged eyes, and we see with our hearts the great act of love that Jesus accomplishes for us. 
Listen to your heart, which will share more readily in the pain and sorrow.  Respond in faith fortified by love, overflowing with grief, guilt, and gratitude.  This mysterious work of God is even now claiming us back from the vault of death and destruction, remedying the sins whose remedy we ourselves fail to achieve, or sometimes even desire.
Listen, then, this weekend, and listen on Good Friday, to our only hope.  Listen to the love of God become flesh so that He might die for us, while we are still sinning.   Listen, and believe.  Listen, and see.  And having seen with your heart, place once again at the central point of your home and of your life the image Jesus’ saving love.  Every time you pass, by all means, look.

Monsignor Smith