Saturday, May 27, 2017

Old hat, or disregard?

This past Wednesday morning, the Sovereign Roman Pontiff received at the Vatican the President of the United States.  Nobody cared.
When I first got up that day – pretty early, too -- the meeting was already concluded.  There was no mention of it in the online version of the Washington Post.  None.  By evening, two related opinion pieces appeared, one of which was about what clothes the First Lady had worn.  At the same time, the Wall Street Journal had a synopsis of the event, with photos, for me to examine with my morning coffee. 
Regardless of whether you were breathlessly watching the event, and without really considering the possible content and effects of a meeting between this particular Pope and this particular President at this particular time, I hope you realize that the simple lack of excitement it elicited is itself worthy of wonder.
Only after more than two hundred years of nationhood, in 1984, did the United States under President Ronald Reagan establish full diplomatic relations with Holy See.  Even then, only great effort and sensitivity overcame popular and political resistance to the move.   It was a necessity of the time to fortify the shared project of resistance to and eventual demolition of Soviet Communist domination of Eastern Europe, but opposed by two centuries of American skepticism and even hostility toward the Holy See as a sovereign entity and global authority.
Before that, various Presidents had recognized the indispensability of the Holy See in world emergencies, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt who circumvented the need for Congressional approval of an ambassador by sending a “personal representative” to the Holy Father as Europe spun into war under competing atheist ideologue dictators.
The first incumbent U.S. President to meet a reigning Pope was Woodrow Wilson, of all people, perhaps the most anti-Catholic of all twentieth century presidents.  It was 1919, and he was hoping to establish a League of Nations to bring about world peace after the Great War.  Gosh, who tipped him off that the Pope in Rome, in this case Benedict XV, might know something about a league of nations, and about peace?
After that, next was Dwight Eisenhower.  Of course, John Kennedy visited the Vatican as well, continuing a progression of Presidents to the Vatican that has continued to our day.  Every one has called, even Gerald Ford in his brief tenure.  Lyndon Johnson was the first President to receive a Pope in the U.S., when Paul VI came in 1965 to New York for the day, to speak to the United Nations.   Jimmy Carter was the first President to welcome a Pope to the White House, when John Paul II arrived on the first of his pilgrimages to the U.S., a tradition that each of his successors has maintained. 
When I was in seminary, President Clinton came to call at the Vatican.  The Papal Household invited to the Apostolic Palace all U.S. seminarians and priests in studies.  We were eager to see the Pope, who had been out of circulation for months after being injured in a fall.  But the President, not so much.  We dutifully answered the call of our Holy Father, who remained secluded, and settled for a speech by the President.
The only time I have ever met a U.S. President was in Rome, the night before John Paul II’s funeral, when at a reception at the US Ambassador’s residence I spoke with Clinton and both Presidents Bush.  Historically unlikely as it is, I have been a resident of the Capital for most of the past thirty-one years, and my only direct contact with my own President or his predecessors was brought about by the Pope.
This past Wednesday morning, the Sovereign Roman Pontiff received at the Vatican the President of the United States.  Nobody cared.  That’s a big change – but is it entirely an improvement?
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, May 20, 2017


This week I met with the Neophytes, the new Catholics who entered the Communion at the Easter Vigil last month, in one of the dwindling meetings of RCIA.  We spend a lot of time reflecting on the Sacraments, which they are graced now to understand by having received them.   But we also go over things about being Catholic that they probably don’t know because they did not grow up in a Catholic culture.
The things you are obliged to do because you are Catholic are called the Precepts of the Church, because they are not commandments from God but are positive laws given by pastoral authorities.   There are five:  1.  You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.  2.  You shall confess your sins at least once a year.  3.  You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.  4.  You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.  5.  You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.
Laughing, I pointed out that these directives reflect human nature’s inclination to ask, Do I HAVE to??   Because that question comes from adults as well as children, the Church made clear what we must do.  It is a minimum, not an ideal; but at least it is a place to begin.
Now, for those who want the full experience, with sound and color, there are awesome things that Catholics can do; they will leave non-Catholics wide-eyed in wonder.  These are a few that I came up with.  You can:  Go to daily Mass; Make a visit (to the Blessed Sacrament in a Church or chapel); Celebrate a feast day (with food or fun, for your own patron saint or someone else’s); Light a candle; Finger your beads;  Have a Mass offered for someone (and send a Mass card as a token);  Make a pilgrimage (to a holy place nearby or far away);  Watch EWTN;  Listen to Catholic radio (on Sirius or 1160 AM);  Mark your home and workplace for Christ with a crucifix and images of the saints, or even just a parish calendar; and you can mark yourself for Christ with a medal or crucifix or pin.  
One of the best “Catholic things” that people of every age can do, and it costs nothing, is say grace before meals in public, at a restaurant, buffet, or picnic, even as an individual, but ideally as a family, complete with the Sign of the Cross.
All of these are things that a person new to the Faith would not know how to do.  Maybe he saw it in a movie, or she noticed these things in a home she visited once.  So it is important that somebody introduce them to this new power that they have to sanctify their times and places, their homes and activities, and to work for themselves and for others in the battle for salvation. 
But how many of us twenty-first century American metropolitan Catholics do these things regularly, as part of the fabric of our lives?  How many of us have shared them with our families in the same way that we have passed down other cultural touchstones, like ethnic heritage, sports team loyalties, school ties, or family holiday celebrations?
I share them with you because many of us – myself included – did not grow up in a Catholic culture.  And unless we do the things that a Catholic is obliged to do, and take advantage of all the cool things a Catholic is able to do, neither will the next generation.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Home improvement

Father Gallaugher and I are just back from our annual One Day Convocation, an event for priests that Cardinal Wuerl encourages us to attend every year.  We joined about 150 priests from around the Archdiocese of Washington for a five-hour get-together down at Catholic University, where they have room for such things since classes are ended.  Every year, they present a range of topics chosen to enhance our performance as priests, individually and together.  Invariably at least one of them is dry and dreadful, usually administrative, but the others are at least okay. 
This year the keynote was outstanding: the topic was preaching, the speaker Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., editor of Magnificat.  What made this year stand out in my mind is that it is the first of the eight or so Convocations we have had in which every priest there really wanted to hear what he had to say.  As evidence, two questioners after the presentation stand out in my mind: one was Fr. Alec Scott, who has been ordained not yet two years; and the other was Abbot James Wiseman, O.S.B., from St. Anselm’s Abbey, who has been a priest for decades longer. 
After his formal presentation, Fr. Peter joined Monsignor Charles Pope and Father Bill Byrne in a “panel” on the subject of homiletics.  Those two are both priests known and respected across the Archdiocese for their preaching abilities.   The two have styles that are wildly different, but all the guys listened as if their lives depended on it to the particular practices and general admonitions the offered. 
And in a way, our lives do depend upon it.  As priests, our lives are in Christ, and we must give Him voice if we hope to live, because every human life depends upon hearing Christ, and having the opportunity to respond to Him.  We are His chosen instruments, the ones He has called, and sent to all the word, that the world might be saved through Him.  
Now, this might not seem as exciting to you as it was to us.  But let me tell you: I do not remember any other instruction that received the level of attention and engagement that this one did.  I share this with you not so that you think that Father Peter is the Indispensable Man, but so that you can know what I saw: that all these priests truly desire to do what it takes to make their preaching better. 
Every priest wants to preach well; every priest wants to preach better.
It was a moment of brotherhood, genuine and deep.  It made me rejoice in what I share with all of those men, however long or brief our association.  We are united in the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, and we are united in our desire to serve it faithfully, to serve Him faithfully, and to serve YOU faithfully. 
One of the points Father Peter made was that the people who come all want to be preached to, and for it to be done well.  This is a universal hunger, a universal openness.  It leaves room for a universe of styles and voices and emphases, but calls for one thing, or really, one person:  Jesus Christ. 
So if you are one of the people to show up hungry here at Saint Bernadette, know that we are willing and trying to bring you the Word made flesh, the Bread of Life.   It’s the project of a lifetime, but along with every priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, we truly are working for you.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Pressed down, shaken together, running over.

We have been quite blessed over the years to have with us good and generous priests who share their lives and faith with us while they work toward degrees at Catholic University.  There have been four such student priests during my time as pastor, and all have contributed greatly to your lives and to mine.  But it is the time of year when new assignments take effect and life changes for priests, and so it will change here in the Holy House of Soubirous.
Father Markey is finishing the Philosophy degree he came to earn.  He just now just came home from passing his comprehensive exam, much relieved at clearing that major hurdle.  He still has exams to pass for his individual classes this week, but he is very close to that blessed land called Being Finished.  By the time you see him this weekend, I think he will be there.
He has yet one more week here with us before he returns home to Connecticut.  As always, he will be a big help with Masses during the week, then next weekend, Mother’s Day, he will celebrate his last Sunday Mass here at 11:00.  I hope you get a chance to speak to him this weekend or next, to let him know how much we have all enjoyed having him here with us. 
Our past priests continue to be important to us, too.  This weekend, you’ll probably know that Fr. Nick is back on campus.  He has the 11:00 Mass this Sunday.  Those of you who are more recent arrivals may not know that Fr. Nick Zientarski was our student resident priest here for five years, the longest of any we have enjoyed.  He started in 2006, shortly after I came as Pastor, and was here until 2011.  He got all his academic credentials, and has been Dean of the seminary up in New York.  Because that is a particular sort of life, he has enjoyed “parish vacations” here with us over that whole time.  But that is about to change.
Fr. Nick will become a Pastor himself this summer, at a parish in his own Diocese of Rockville Centre:  Saint Christopher in Baldwin, New York.  If you ask, he’ll tell you what he knows about it; he is quite pleased.  But it means the weekend visits we have enjoyed will probably not continue.  He will have a parish of his own to claim his weekend attentions; holidays, too.
But you can join me in hoping he will continue to visit, even if not on the weekends.  I have also begun making discreet inquiries about the guest accommodations at St. Christopher, since he has hosted me several times at the seminary.  We really have a good time when we get together.  Usually, there is dining involved – he does happily live up to his nickname of Father Food. 
There certainly will be festive meals with Fr. Markey before we send him off to home.  Maybe he will come back for visits, since seminary work does seem to be in his future, though not exclusively that.  But we can’t count on it; these great priests who are with us while studying are an extra, a bonus, gratia gratis data we receive gratefully and remind ourselves we have no right to expect.  So join me in thanking them for their presence, and thanking God.  Don’t forget to pray for them, and while you’re at it, put in a word for their successors here, because we could always welcome another blessing.

Monsignor Smith