Saturday, January 26, 2019

Take up and read

Spurred by logic I couldn’t identify, this week I plucked from my topmost bookshelf a collection of short stories I had purchased and last read over thirty years ago.  For a paperback book, it had held up well through the years, stored in a box, displayed on a shelf, and battered by moves among many residences.  The small photo of the author I recognized, and the title of one of the stories.  But the rest struck my memory with no more than a faint familiarity, and a conviction that it was good.
In the four days since that impulse hit, I have read eight of the eleven stories, and forced myself to slow down to prolong this startling pleasure of re-discovering what I once knew.   I dare not rush ahead; there is no more to be had beyond this slim volume.  The author died before the book was published; before his twenty-seventh birthday, in fact.  The stories he writes are not much happier than his own, each depicting a sadness, frustration, failure, or poverty in exquisite detail.  
The prose is taut and powerful, refined but not fancy.  The effect is gripping, even consuming.  He writes about people in a place not far from where my own dad grew up, at a time not much later.  I recognize them, though they are far, far away from where I live now.   Perhaps the familiarity and the distance help me enjoy their stories.
Each tale comes inexorably to its end, or at least to the end of its telling; there is no resolution, conclusion, or denouement.   With the final lines, the final words, the picture merely snaps into focus, and it is clear that the sadness, frustration, failure, or poverty will continue beyond the page and beyond the view of the reader and the writer.   The first effect is something like shock, something like grief, something like horror; the lasting effect is wonder.
Why anybody would spend time reading fiction is difficult enough to convey, but to read fiction this painful is past explaining. Generic fiction, fiction that entertains, fabricates made-up characters in made-up situations who act in made-up ways, all of which is realistic enough to convince the reader to believe it just enough to be informed, amused, and distracted.  But good fiction, what is stuffily called literature, fabricates made-up characters, situations, and actions that reveal universal truths about real human character, situation, and action.    
These stories that I am reading about another time and another place reveal something these made-up people have in common with everyone I know, and with me.  The bright lights and fast pace of prosperity and progress, or even overfamiliarity with our own mundane world, can hide from our eyes human sadness, frustration, failure, and poverty.  Why, then, do we feel so much pain; are we the only ones who are sad?  A made-up story can reveal how real people are sad and enduring pain; reassure us that our pain, too, is real but does not isolate us; and teach us about the source of human sadness.  Made-up people reveal to us the real people around us, and something real about ourselves.  The lasting effect is wonder.
We routinely and repeatedly hear stories about people and situations that are far, far away from where and how we are now.   Though not made-up, they are strange to us, yet real enough to convince us to believe them just enough to be informed, amused, or distracted.  This, however, is not fiction; it is revelation, and the contents of Sacred Scripture are truer than any historical documentary or scientific treatise could ever be.   The Author behind the authors is revealing universal truths about real human character, situation, and action, about our character, situation, and action.  The Author behind the authors also is revealing His Own character, situation, and action. We return to these stories again and again, but we dare not listen casually, thinking ‘we already know how this one ends.’  Each time for the first time, the picture snaps into focus, and Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.  The lasting effect is wonder.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Go to the Flow

Vino sfuso doesn’t translate easily into English.  Technically it would be rendered “diffuse wine,” which makes little sense.  “Loose wine” makes it sound as if it has escaped its confinement, or is of low morals.  “Bulk wine” indicates too much of it.  Perhaps you’ll best get the picture if I call it unbottled wine.  
During the two periods I lived in Rome, first as a seminarian, then as Cardinal Baum’s secretary, I became a devotee of Roman vino sfuso.  You may be surprised to learn it was not red wine, like in Tuscany, but white; actually it was a rich straw-golden color, made from the grapes grown for millennia in the nearby Alban hills. 
The wine was served in pitchers or carafes that were filled and refilled from a barrel in a corner of the restaurant closest the door.  The location was consistent from restaurant to restaurant because the barrels were filled by a hose that more resembled surgical tubing than the garden variety and was extended from the wine truck that stopped daily just outside in the street. The trucks were whimsical and almost toylike both in their size - they had to be short and narrow enough to navigate the narrow Roman streets - and in their configuration, with two double rows of wooden barrels on the flat bed behind the tiny upright cab, as if someone had told an Italian child to design a truck to carry wine, or as if they had simply replaced the horses that drew the wine carts for centuries with a cab-over diesel motor.
The wine itself was a marvelous substance that accompanied perfectly and enhanced most every food.  It was distinctly rustic in quality, almost raw, so one would not readily drink it by itself; but the acidity helped it stand well with any food acidic with tomatoes or rich with oil or cheese, which covers most pasta sauces.  It was ideal with veal, chicken, fish, and seafood, but also stood up well even to beef, though Romans eat relatively little of that.  Every meal revealed another feature of this glorious beverage.
I write of it in the past tense, because it has nearly disappeared from Roman tables.  EU regulations have taken much of the best fun out of Italian dining, and put table wine into bottles.  It’s a shame; that stuff is thin gruel, without the robustness that made vino sfuso so versatile.  In this country you can buy a bottle of Frascati, which is white wine from the Alban hills, but it’s indiscernible from a pale insipid sipping wine like cocktail party pinot grigio.
The first of the signs worked by our Lord was at the wedding in Cana, where he changed water into superb vino sfuso. This passage of the Holy Gospel is one of my very favorites not only because of the substance of Christ’s gift, but because it has revealed to me the nature of all Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels.
This is my favorite Gospel passage to read at weddings, especially convalidations, that is, when Catholics who have married outside the Church bring that relationship into full sacramental glory.  Having worked closely with each of these couples as they came to this point, I know them and understand something of the particular nature of their relationship that is distinct from every other marriage. When I then address the homily to the two of them, each time, for each couple, a new facet of this Gospel and this Divine miracle reveals itself to me, and one hopes to them.  It is like a new pairing that reveals another quality of the same rich, versatile wine.
There are many passages like this that occur frequently at funerals as well as weddings, times when the distinct and different realities of each human situation are set in high relief, like strong and subtle flavors of a particular dish.  Served next to this complex reality, the Gospel reveals nuances that have always been present but gone unnoticed.  These nuances once discovered are not lost, but remain and continue to enhance the experience of drinking deeply from the wellspring of God’s self-revelation in Christ and in the Sacred Scriptures.
One need not be in Holy Orders nor preach in order to taste the many flavors and qualities of God’s Holy Word written for us. Each of us has a variety of circumstance and situation that we can ourselves bring to the light of the Word, and find in that pairing a new delight and new refreshment that we never lose but which will continue to enhance our understanding and enjoyment of the smorgasbord of God’s saving action in or lives and for our joy.
Each time we take up the Sacred Scripture for help or solace or enlightenment, we learn how the Word of God is like vino sfuso, raising our eyebrows and our eyes in wonder and delight like the steward at the wedding feast of Cana, and saying: “you have kept the good wine until now.”
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Arbor vitae

Every year I write about it.  That may be because every year I enjoy it; every year, Corine and Jackie and Carol and Norma and Dao and even Ron spend time admiring it.  This year, Father Magro encountered it for the first time; the rookies always find it useful.
It’s the Parishioner Tree, just next to the receptionists’ desk, where we hang just enough lights and a few ornaments, and then all the photo Christmas cards we receive.   It was late in “blooming” this year, as many cards arrived after Christmas, so we are keeping it up as long as we can to prolong the enjoyment.  It really is beautiful as a whole, and in each of its parts.
New parishioners don’t often grasp in their first year or so how much we like to see their cards here at the rectory, so it is the veterans who make sure we have their smiling faces to trim our tree. 
Of course, for Father Magro and anyone else who is still learning the parish, it is great to see who goes with whom, that is, all the family members together, and maybe string together a few names and faces. So again, I remind parents not to leave themselves out of the photos!  
Also significant now is the number of former parishioners who still send cards from wherever it is they moved.  Our former flock sends cards from New York and North Carolina, Olney and even overseas, that remind us of people whom we loved having around and still miss.  Before we hang them on the tree, we pass them around and read all the news.  Can Jackson already be twelve years old?  Look at little Steve with two younger brothers who are already big enough to play with! And don’t you think Jay is starting to look like his dad?  It is a source of wonder.
The Germans still put real candles on their trees, but it is your faces that light our Tannenbaum.  Please keep sending the cards, and try to come up with some excuse to stop by and enjoy the tree next time you have a chance.  We bundle and keep the cards each year, but we always hate to take down the Parishioner Tree.
In related news, I got an email yesterday from Father Grisafi.  Remember him? He’s only been gone four months, but it seems like ages already.  He’s now Parish Administrator of Saint joseph Church in Babylon, New York.  He just survived his first Christmas “in charge” and he sounded pleased, if completely gassed.  He remembers Saint Bernadette fondly.
Better than a card or email is a visit, and the one and only Father Nick Zientarksi is around this weekend to make sure you don’t need a picture to remember who he is.  He really has been the gift that keeps on giving.   With him, you are all ornaments on the branches of this blessed parish.  Every year I enjoy it, and I hope you do too.
Behold how the Cross of Christ stands revealed as the tree of life!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Beginning with the Family

The last weekend of the year was for the Holy Family of the Lord, that is, the Living God who entrusted himself to a mother and a foster father and counted on them to care for Him and teach Him.  All that the Lord allowed Himself to need, he trusted His family to provide.  
The past weeks gave us time to rejoice in our families. Those on whom we depend for everything, and who depend for everything upon us, are at the center of our schedules in the days after Christmas and as the new year commences.  This is what I think of when I think of “quality time.” 
I want to ask you to join me in thanking our brothers and sisters here in the parish for all they did that you may or may not have noticed to bring so much beauty to our family Christmas.  The amazing team who gave hours of their limited time on Christmas Eve morning to turn the church from somber Advent to dazzling Christmas; to the Holy Name men who assembled the outdoor crèche; and to the “arrangers” who arranged for things to be beautiful in the rectory as well as the church.  
The choirs, musicians, and their director who provided splendid music, from the gathering of the rowdy throng for the kids Mass into the wee hours of the night, then again from dawn until past noon; the leaders of the Children’s Liturgy; the ushers; and all the Extraordinary Ministers who helped distribute Holy Communion, especially at the vast Vigil Mass Christmas Eve.   I am particularly grateful to my altar servers, who are superb in their skill and service, and who make our Masses so good without drawing attention to themselves.  That is a gift!   All of this is true service.
Our sacristy team – first, second, and third shift, all of them mobilized – and staff worked like fiends, or at least elves, to handle all the logistics.  Picture what youwould have to do if nine hundred people were coming to yourhouse for dinner!  Then do it four more times.  Also our crew of collection counters put in a very long day at the table.  I hope that bodes well for the totals.
Also, while we are meditation on family, I get to thank myfamily for coming to visit me.  Mom and Dad were here for forty-eight hours of frenzy and festivity, and made the rectory quite homey for both me and Father Magro.  They’re pretty inconspicuous by nature, but thank you to all of you who greeted them warmly and treated them well.  It makes it more likely that they will come back.
I also want to thank you for all the generosity you have shown me personally over the last few weeks.  The gifts and goodies, the cards -- especially the ones with pictures, all of which are now on the Parishioner Tree; and double-especially the ones with newsletters (I really read and enjoy them all!) -- and for your encouraging words.  I am grateful to have the opportunity to be your priest.
There is no better way to nurture your own family ties, to thank and earn the gratitude of those who give you most and count on you most, than to come together to the Holy Mass.  In this great Family Feast, we receive the very life of our souls and our selves, and to receive Him together unites us in flesh and faith.  The frequent family dinner table is second only to this feast in building up what makes family, family; that includes gratitude. 
And so as you offer your thank-yous to everyone who gave to you in recent weeks, join me in giving thanks to everyone who made possible and beautiful and delightful what we the Church do that no other family can do, that is, the Holy Eucharist, wherein by feasting on Christ Himself, we give proper thanks to God.
Monsignor Smith