Saturday, March 31, 2018

Sicut dixit

You may have noticed in recent weeks that during the intercessions at Mass, among the sick we have prayed for Bishop David Foley.  Unless you have been associated with the parish for a long time, you might not know that Bishop Foley was the second pastor of Saint Bernadette, succeeding in 1975 the founding pastor, Monsignor Stricker, and serving here until 1983.  Many people here remember him quite fondly.  He is responsible for the pipe organ, the maple trees, kindergarten in the school, and the continued spiritual and liturgical health of the parish in a time when that was uncommon.
Not many years after he left Saint Bernadette, he was ordained Bishop to serve as Auxiliary in Richmond.  In 1994, he became Bishop of Birmingham in Alabama, which is where I grew up, and where my parents lived until recently.  In that context I have been privileged to come to know him well.  The unusual symmetry delighted us both, that he went from Saint Bernadette to Birmingham, and I went from Birmingham to Saint Bernadette. 
Since his retirement in 2005, he has remained there and kept up quite the schedule, filling his weeks by helping out the thin-stretched clergy of northern Alabama, covering parishes and Masses while the pastor was sick, or traveling. In retirement he often had more Masses, in more places, than he did while an “active” bishop!  When I went to Alabama for my nephew’s confirmation two years ago, Bishop Foley was the one who confirmed him. 
Bishop Foley turned 88 last month, and he was maintaining that schedule until the symptoms began that are detailed in the statement from the diocese: Bishop Foley Statement.  His first goal, he told a friend, was to stay able long enough to celebrate one more big confirmation at a parish this past weekend; he did it.  Now he hopes to participate in the Chrism Mass.  Plus, since he has to sit so much anyway, he figures he may as well sit in the confessional!  My goal, perhaps less dramatic, is to be able to let him know that the parish of Saint Bernadette is praying for him. 
It seems clear from the published diagnosis where this is leading for him.  Also clear, from what he has said privately and shared publicly, that he is not frightened or even disappointed by this prognosis.  As Saint Paul would put it, He knows Him in whom he has believed.  (2 Tim 1:12)

Today we rejoice for something so enormous, so wholly other from our common experience and our human expectation that we have trouble grasping it as real.  We might like the resurrection as an idea; we might find it comforting as a concept.  We might even be able to accept it as history:  Jesus rose from the dead.  All of that is good enough – as a start.  From that start, we can continue all the way up to the point where we are aware and confident that Christ is risen from the dead – and so are we. 
This is what make the Resurrection of the Lord different from say, Washington’s crossing the Delaware, or another historical event.  Easter Sunday, every Sunday in fact, is far more than a commemoration of something that happened once.  Easter Sunday is the event itself, here, now, and in our lives, in this time.   
Which brings me back to Bishop Foley.  He is not frightened nor sad; neither should we be.  He has had a long and good life, you may point out;  although that is true, it is not the cause of his joy.  His life has been blessed principally not by length nor by achievement, but by the experience of oneness with God and the foretaste of unending wholeness.  That is, he has already touched and tasted heaven.
What’s more, he has shared that touch, and brought that taste, to untold thousands of souls.  He has seen with his own eyes the resurrection work joy into lives haunted by death.  He knows the persistence and the power of Him who did not create death, nor desires the death of any living thing; and rather desires our wellness, not our woe.  He knows Him in whom he has believed, and has made Him known to us.
Every autumn, the bishops of the United States hold their meeting near here, for the last decade or so in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  Every time Bishop Foley has come for that meeting, he has visited Saint Bernadette.  You might not have seen him; usually even I didn’t see him.  But a few years ago, when I returned to the rectory about suppertime from my day-off activity, there was a rental car parked out front and a single light in the church.  I went in, and there he was, up by the Blessed Sacrament, praying.  He could find his way through the church in the dark; he knew where the light switches were.  He was at home. 
This parish, this church holds a place in his heart.  He associates it with intimacy with Christ, with pastoring, the heart of his priesthood.  He has lived that priesthood to the abundant benefit of this parish and all of us here now, even you who do not remember him.  He has been a true pastor to my parents and family, and a friend and an example to me.  I owe him a debt of gratitude; so do we all.  The time for repayment has come, so as a parish, let pray for him.
Our prayer should be doused not in sadness, but in exhilaration and anticipation.  For he is one of many who have taught here well; we too know Him in whom we have believed.  And we know that He is the resurrection, and the life. 
Christ is risen from the dead, and Bishop David Foley, the second pastor of Saint Bernadette, is about to join him.  He understands this so clearly, knows it so thoroughly, believes it so powerfully, that he can already rejoice in it.  And still, even from several hundred miles away, and decades after he moved on from here, he is helping us rejoice too.  Praise God!  Death has no power over us; Christ is risen.  Truly he is risen, Alleluia!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Ave crux, spes unica

One of the abiding mysteries of the diminishing religious practice of Catholics in our day is the persistent popularity of Palm Sunday.  Not being quite so cynical as those who insist that this enthusiasm is simply because of the “giveaway,” that is, the palms handed out and carried home; and only in briefest flashes of uncharity thinking some come just so the priest won’t greet them on Easter Sunday with, “How have you been since Christmas?”;  I peer more closely into the motivation of the increased throng at this Mass, the longest and arguably grimmest Sunday Mass of the entire liturgical year.
No, I think that the discomfort of attending Mass that is augmented on this day — the increased length, the increased standing, the increased emphasis on the sufferings of Jesus, the deep discomfort and more deeply resonant shouting of “Crucify him!”— that is precisely what makes it so right, so important to attend Mass this day.
Any other day of the year, that very discomfort, the inconvenience of mobilizing our families or just ourselves for Mass, of enduring what fails to entertain, of abandoning our leisure and our work for the purposeful purposelessness of ritual worship; all this chafes on any normal day, on “any given Sunday.”  The talk of sin, the talk of death, all seems such an intrusion on our day and what we want to get out of it. 
But this day, precisely that discomfort seems somehow to fit our needs, to answer some craving.  Holding limply our new-blessed palms, our half-hearted singing of All Glory Laud and Honor is just like our half-hearted singing on any other day; but this day, our half-heartedness is precisely what we have in common with the crowd: they greeted the Lord with enthusiasm, then condemned him.  Standing for the entire reading of the Passion wearies our feet and our patience, just as our weight shifts and our minds wander during the reading of every Gospel; but this day, that weary, weighty shifting, that desire to be somewhere else, puts us however momentarily in Christ’s own shoes. 
In fact, this might be the only day that Mass makes sense; for once we do not show up expecting to be encouraged or enthused over, to be coddled and congratulated.  We want no compliments; that would strike us as foolish on Palm Sunday, and make us look away with embarrassment for whoever tried it.  No, we expect to encounter own our guilt this day; to stare at the wounds of Christ without turning our eyes away, to recognize the crown He wears is of our weaving, to admit the nails are of our forging, the pains of our hammering.
We know each Sunday is a “little Easter,” which might lead us to expect unmixed joy on the other fifty-one of each year.  Smiles and delight should mark the members of the winning team, as the cheering resounds – right?  Instead, we find again, disappointingly, this cross, this blood, this death we thought we had already treated sufficiently.  We find our weight shifting in our shoes, and our attention wandering to where we would rather be.  We want more encouragement, more entertainment, more efficiency, and if we cannot find it here, we will seek it in other endeavors.  Mass becomes a burden.

Today we confront the reality of the burden that is our salvation, and Him who bore it.  We acknowledge what a grace and privilege it is to be able to do “not our will, but yours” in such a small way, with such great fruit.  The little difficulties of giving glory to God combine into a dying to ourselves that opens us to life purchased for us with blood.  Each “little Easter” is achieved only by the littler Calvaries we take up willingly: missing out on some fun, getting everybody into the car, or getting nothing out of the homily.  The pains we endure in approaching the saving meal are what we have in common with what the Saving Victim endured to put food on the table.  Today, when we expect the Cross, it all makes sense; but the rest of the year, when we would be inclined to avoid it, only this selfsame Cross of Christ will bring sense to our lives, and bring us authentic joy.

Hail the cross, our only hope.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 17, 2018

How Long, O Lord?

Winter and Lent have at least one thing in common, and that is that the experience of both is a matter of duration as well as intensity.
Winter gives us no choice or chance for input.  The official duration of winter is strictly marked out on the calendar as three months, whether by astronomical markers (winter solstice to spring equinox) or so-called meteorological ones (December through February).  The problem is that the subjective, experienced duration is not fixed, but similarly thrust upon us.  Whether it be harsh cold, or unrelenting sunlessness, or frozen precipitation that closes roads and schools, winter weather spreads all over the calendar without regard to official boundaries rather like old schoolbook maps of the expansion of the Roman Empire.  Some years autumn ends in a matter of weeks, or it seems as if spring will never come at all.
Similarly the intensity of winter, which takes no requests and respects no preferences.  Remember that long blast of arctic air that settled over us for so long in January?  Nobody requested that; at least nobody I know.

Lent also has a fixed duration, from Ash Wednesday through Passiontide, until Easter breaks the penitential setting.  There is a particular genius to this aspect of Lent. These forty days, no more no less, can seem quite interminable, but because we know precisely when they will end, we can bear almost anything, undertake almost any penance, with confidence that we shall at least survive.
It is the intensity of Lent that is open to our preference, and our input.  Oh, sure; the Church sets an official baseline: two days of fasting – two whole days!!  And abstinence from meat on Fridays (seven days, but two of those were already in the first group).  Beyond that, what?  Unlike winter, the intensity is up to us.  I have undertaken intense Lents, and I have allowed myself easy ones. 
When it comes to winter, I long ago determined that I am much better able to withstand and even enjoy intensity than I am duration.  Bitter cold is bracing, a challenge to my Boy Scout preparedness, and makes me feel vigorous when I get used to it.  Plus, I get to wear my Russian rabbit hat.   A long, drawn out winter reduces me to a quivering heap, discouraged, forgetful of what daffodils actually look like.
So, what about Lent?  The pinpoint precision with which its duration can be predicted should give me confidence to measure out a right proper level of intensity; but no.  It is the duration I can stand, and the intensity which fluctuates with my so-called resolve and fortitude.
This weekend we have reached the limit of my tolerance for winter’s duration, so rather than try to change the weather, we have simply changed the bulletin cover to do away with the snow.  But Lent is moving into the home stretch now, the hardest part: Passiontide.  We have veiled the statues and crucifix to remind us how grim our lot when God’s face is covered over.
Spring is coming, but it will pass into the endless cycle of seasons.  So, too, will Easter come, but the Resurrection that great festival brings will endure forever.
Surviving winter til the sun’s warmth break through brings us joy and fills us with a feeling of having overcome adversity.  Making it through Lent leaves us confident not in our strength or achievement, but in the mercy and great love of God.  Other than that, they have a lot in common.
 Monsignor Smith