Saturday, July 15, 2017

What's in your response?

Shortly before he died in 1990, one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy, set himself to reflecting on his answer to the question, “Why are you a Catholic?”  Among the reasons he is a favorite are, in no particular order, his being from Birmingham, fascinated by language and what it indicates about human nature, a convert to Catholicism, best friends with Shelby Foote, piercingly critical of the postmodern therapeutic mindset, ironic, self-deprecating, and funny.  In the heat of summer, when it feels like we are in the South that Percy called home, here are some passages from his answer to that question:
When it is asked just so, straight out, just so: “Why are you a Catholic?”  I usually reply, “What else is there?”  I justify this smart-mouthed answer when I sense that the question is, as it usually is, a smart-mouthed question. In my experience, the question is usually asked by two or three sorts of people.  One knows quite well what is meant by all three.
One sort is perhaps a family acquaintance or friend of a friend or long-ago schoolmate or distant kin, most likely a Presbyterian lady. There is a certain type of Southern Presbyterian lady, especially Georgian, who doesn’t mince words.
What she means is: how in the world can you, a Southerner like me, one of us, of a certain class and background which encompasses the stark chastity of a Presbyterian church or the understated elegance of an Episcopal church (but not a Baptist or Methodist church), a Southern Christian gentleman, that is to say—how can you become one of them, meaning that odd-looking baroque building down the street (the wrong end of the street) with those statues (Jesus pointing to his heart which has apparently been exposed by open-heart surgery)—meaning those Irish, Germans, Poles, Italians, Cajuns, Hispanics, Syrians, and God knows who else—though God knows they’re fine people and I love them all—but I mean there’s a difference between a simple encounter with God in a plain place with one’s own kind without all that business of red candles and beads and priest in a box—I mean, how can you?...
The following statements I take to be commonplaces. Technically speaking, they are for my purposes axioms. If they are not perceived as such, as self-evident, there is no use arguing about them, let alone the conclusions which follow from them.  Here they are:
The old modern age has ended. We live in a post-modern as well as a post-Christian age which as yet has no name.  It is post-Christian in the sense that people no longer understand themselves, as they understood themselves for some fifteen hundred years, as ensouled creatures under God, born to trouble and whose salvation depends upon the entrance of God into history as Jesus Christ.
It is post-modern because the Age of Enlightenment with its vision of man as a rational creature, naturally good and part of the cosmos which itself is understandable by natural science—this age has also ended. It ended with the catastrophes of the twentieth century.
The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a loss of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which, in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia…
Judaism is offensive because it claims that God entered into a covenant with a single tribe, with it and no other. Christianity is doubly offensive because it claims not only this but also that God became one man, he and no other.  One cannot imagine any statement more offensive to the present-day scientific set of mind…
It is for this reason that the present age is better than Christendom. In the old Christendom, everyone was a Christian and hardly anyone thought twice about it. But in the present age, the survivor of theory and consumption becomes a wayfarer in the desert, like St. Anthony, which is to say: open to signs.
I do not feel obliged to set forth the particular religious reasons for my choosing among the Jewish-Christian religions. There are times when it is better not to name God. One reason is that most of the denizens of the present age are too intoxicated by the theories and goods of the age to be aware of the catastrophe already upon us.
If you like these excerpts, you can find the whole article online, or better yet in the book that collects his essays, Signposts in a Strange Land.   But it could also fill an afternoon of summer leisure simply to sit down with a pen, or keyboard, and try to answer for yourself the question, “Why are you a Catholic?” 

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Here and there, not everywhere

Ah, summer vacation!  It’s a wonderful luxury most of us manage to enjoy each year.  We slip out of our ordinary place and ordinary routine and do something else, whatever that may be.  Sometimes its touring, sometimes its basking, sometimes it’s a project we have long been hoping to complete.  Even what colloquially has come to be known as a “staycation” is rooted in a break from the ordinary, even if it happens in the ordinary place.
After Mass last weekend, I had a delightful conversation with a couple who explained that they had been away recently, told me where they had attended Mass while there, and shared what they had enjoyed about it.  I remarked that this was one of the best things about travelling: going to the same Mass in a different place, with different people.  That triggered several stories from them about delightful or enlightening experiences that they recalled from past travels.
The first time I got on a jet airliner was also the first time I left the USA: it was my college semester abroad.  I was 19 years old.  I remember how fascinating, challenging, and exciting it was to go to Mass on Sunday in German churches with German people who were speaking singing and praying in German.  Boy, was I not in Alabama anymore, Toto!  Nonetheless, they were all doing the exact same thing I had been doing all my life on Sundays, and it gave me an opportunity to engage with them other than being a tourist-spectator or a paying customer.  So it quickly made me feel more at home, even that foreign country, and that foreign language.
When I was younger, the travels were frequently by car, and before the internet, Google Maps, and, it could be a challenging thing to find Sunday Mass while on the road in the family Oldsmobile station wagon.  But we did it, nearly every time, and there was no question it helped give the family something to talk about in the car, and something to remember about our trip.  Sometimes it exposed us to things we wished we had at our home parish, like the large pealing bells in the crossing tower at Sacred Heart in Shadyside PA.  Sometimes it made us glad we didn’t have something at home, like the time everybody in the church linked and raised their hands – willingly or not – during the Our Father in Ocala FL. 
“God is everywhere,” people blithely say, missing the point of the Incarnation, when the eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us in order to be somewhere – somewhere we could find Him, and be with Him.   The Holy Mass re-presents that fundamental mystery in a way that repeatedly poses to us the opportunity to go to Him, be with Him, listen to Him, and receive Him in our flesh.  Or not.
“I feel close to God when I am at the ocean,” people say, or “on a mountaintop.”  Feelings are feelings and there is no arguing with them, but neither of those is where God promises He will be.  And when God makes a promise to little old us, to whom He owes nothing, He calls it  a covenant, and we know it is true.
So whether we stay or get away, the vacation that we enjoy and even need always includes holding up our end of that relationship, showing up where God makes us know He is waiting to be found.  It will enhance our time and give us something to remember and talk about, and probably even make us glad to be back here at ol’ Saint B.  There is no better way than attending Mass to obtain a blessing for your summer vacation.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 01, 2017


We have news from our old friend, Fr. Nick Zientarski.  This week he reported for duty as Pastor at Saint Christopher Church in Baldwin, New York.  Since leaving our rectory here, where he was in residence for five years while pursuing his doctorate in sacramental theology, he has been assigned to seminary work as Dean, first at Huntington, then at Saint Joseph Seminary, Dunwoodie, where the Archdiocese of New York and the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre send their candidates for priesthood.  This is his first pastorate, and his first time living in a parish rectory since moving out of here.  He is excited.
How pleased he is to be moving in to a place he has never lived before, in a parish full of people he doesn’t know.  And, judging by the sign, they are at least as excited to be receiving him. The previous pastor there was quite good, and well liked, so it’s not as if they are excited to be delivered from some burden or other difficulty.  It is unlikely that they know Fr. Nick; he has been working outside the diocese for most of the past eleven years.   So you have a pastor who is convinced he is going to love these people he has never met, and a parish full of people who are convinced that they are going to love this pastor, whom they have never met.  Odd, isn’t it?   
This scenario is playing out all over America now, as dioceses and parishes move through the customary time of reassignments.  It happens all over the Church around the world, too, though not necessarily at this point on the calendar.  Parishes receive new priests, and priests receive new parishes, and most of the time there is eager anticipation and generous welcome.  
Why should parishioners expect to love someone they have never met, and what makes a priest think he will be able to love so many people with whom he has no prior connection?  All I can liken it to is the other relationship universally love is assumed to blossom deeply and immediately where no prior acquaintance, nor mutual selection has taken place: parents and children.  They do not choose one another, but everybody expects love to be the initial and lasting response.  And so it is.
The Church gives us our family, and arranges “marriages” between pastor and parish that bear fruit in life and love.  Prior acquaintance, tests for interpersonal compatibility, and convincing courtship are omitted from the formation of these relationships, but the expectation is that they will be good and holy and life giving.  And so they are.
Father Nick, our good friend, is entering a new chapter in the love story between him and the Church.  But he has not forgotten us, who long ago welcomed him with similar excitement and without any knowledge of what about him there would be to love.  He has sent us more than a postcard; he is sending a person, in fact, a priest.  In August we will welcome a new Fr. Jason Grisafi, also a priest of Rockville Centre like Fr. Nick, to be in residence here while studying Sacred Scripture at Catholic University.  Because Fr. Grisafi is ordained only a few years, Fr. Nick was also his Dean while he was a seminarian, and has played “matchmaker” by arranging for him to be part of our rectory and parish life. 
He has never set foot on the property, and in fact he and I have never met, but we are confident that this will bear great fruit.  We should be excited.

Monsignor Smith