Saturday, September 28, 2019

What are you bringing?

It was an inspiring television spot.  The organization Catholics Come Home has put together a number of “evangomercials,” short videos reminding people of the nature and identity of the Catholic Church, of the content and impact of the Catholic Faith, and the indispensable benefits of attending Mass.   (click here to see Catholics Come Home evangomercials)  The first one I looked at made me go to their webpage to review some of the others.  I liked them all well enough, but one scene from the first one stuck with me; it made me wonder.
It was a brief clip of a family being greeted by a priest, who was vested for Mass.  The dad was reaching out to shake Father’s hand, and was wearing a shirt and tie.  
Yeah, and? You might say; what happened next?  But that was it.  He was wearing a long-sleeve shirt and a tie.   At first, I chuckled.  Nobody wears a tie to Mass anymore,  I thought.  Well, okay, there are a few I can think of, but still.
I’ve grown accustomed to this.  Compared to our Alabama Protestant neighbors, my family was not big on dressing up when I was a kid, for church or anything else.  We did have “church clothes” that were nicer than what we wore any other day of the week (including to school), and my dad usually wore a tie, as I recall.  That was a long time ago; society, and clothes, have changed.
Nowadays, I go to church all the time, and for Mass I almost always wear my cassock.  But for Sunday Mass and Holy Days, I dress up.  My Chaplain’s cassock (the one with the purple buttons and piping) and good shoes, a crisp white shirt often with French cuffs.  Fancy, right?  Is it to show how important I am, or how sophisticated?  No.  It is because Sunday Mass is the most important part of my week and “upping my game” in wardrobe both shows others and reminds me what a really big deal Sunday Mass truly is.  Christmas and Easter, weddings and other personal celebrations are opportunities for me not to slack off in my preparation but to show how important they are to me and the Church.  
This is my own wardrobe “vocabulary” and as such only one part of how I communicate the significance of the sacred actions of the Church in which I am privileged to participate with and for you.  I do not dress any better or “fancier” for the Archbishop, the President, or the Pope than I do for Our Lord and for you when you come to Sunday Mass.   
So that’s what I do, and it’s no skin off your nose.  Not everybody – hardly anybody even – thinks that way anymore, and I understand that and have grown comfortable with it.  But then I saw that“evangomercial” with that family and that guy wearing that tie.  And it made me think.  
You, we are all so busy; we all have so many activities and obligations and opportunities and things we have to do that it often does make our head truly spin.  Especially for families with little kids and the unpredictabilities of family life to manage, simply getting everybody into the church is a triumph, and you know I rejoice with you in that.  The Church – and this parish church – place no obligations whatsoever on you about how you present yourself before the Holy Altar of God; well, maybe we do ask that you avoid anything too revealing or lewd, or with actual vulgar words or images printed on it.  That’s a pretty low bar though. 
What if you raised the bar a bit on yourself?  What if you wore a tie and sport coat to Mass every week, and a suit on big holidays?  What if you polished your Sunday shoes on Saturday evenings?  Women’s wardrobes have morphed to the point that I cannot even guess what the equivalent would be.  But what if your kids saw the effort you put into preparing yourself for Mass?  What if the neighbors saw you leaving the house dressed like that?  What if people saw you in the bakery or the grocery store afterwards still in your church clothes?  
But most of all, what difference would it make to you if you “upped your game” in wardrobe and grooming for Sunday Mass?  What if you prepared yourself externally  to a higher standard?  Would it affect how you were disposed internally ?   Would you get more out of Mass if you put more into it?  
There’s only one way to find out what happens next.  Excuse me while I go polish my shoes.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Playing with House Money

The master commended the dishonest steward for his prudence.
Now, that’s just wrong.  That is our first response – and the response Jesus is looking for among the ones to whom He tells today’s strange and confusing parable. We start with a crook – a steward caught ripping off his employer – and he ends up a hero?  What could Jesus possibly be trying to convey?
Our protagonist, the steward, is not exactly sympathetic, but we have clue to his motivation when he says: I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. Too soft, too old, too weak to earn an honest living by his labor, he is also too proud to ask for the charity of others.   He is honest at least in his self-assessment. 
Though his time is almost up, he has a few days or even hours left in which he is still steward of the master’s resources.  What is there to do but use his power to make other people’s lives better in hopes that in future they will return the favor?     
His master, who will pay the bill for this, approves, commend(ing) the dishonest steward for his prudence.  That’s weird.  Then Jesus weighs in, and He seems to approve too:  the sons of this world are wiser in their own generation than the sons of light.  How can that be right?
This parable follows immediately after last week’s about the Merciful Father and his Prodigal Son, and the Found Sheep, and the Found Coin. Who is welcomed by the Father? Who is carried by the Son and Shepherd? Who is found by the lamp of the Spirit carried by the woman?  Who, that is, is justified to enter the Kingdom of God? 
The clue comes when the steward is honest with himself: I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.  He describes precisely every one of us.  And the steward’s master and our Lord commend him for how he solves the problem: by using what is not his to get what he needs.
Like the steward, we are too weakto gain what we need -- salvation; justification; entrance into the Kingdom -- by our labor.  We just cannot do it.  Inexplicably, we are also ashamed to beg; to throw ourselves on the mercy of God and repent, that is, admit how selfish, stubborn, and disobedient we have consistently been.  We simply will not do it.  So, like the steward, we are up the proverbial creek.
This realization dawns on us, as on the steward, only when we realize that everything we think we control now (our lives and goods and time) does not belong to us, but to our divine Master.  He grants us seemingly total control over all this, BUT: for our misdeeds, He will take the stewardship away from us.  We will die. 
So, here we are:  too weak to dig and too proud to beg.  What shall we do?   Use what we control for these brief moments (our lives and goods and time) to make other people’s lives better in hopes that in future they will return the favor by helping us.  This is how to make friends for (our)selves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive (us) into the eternal habitations.  
I admit it:I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.  In fact, I should make a sign that says so and hang it over my desk.   Maybe you should too.  It will help us remember what we are to do:  make friends for (our)selves by means of unrighteous mammon.  There is nothing for it but to use what we control for these brief moments (our lives and goods and time) to do the works of the Lord, so that when it fails (He) may receive (us) into the eternal habitations.
That’s right: The master (will) commend (us) dishonest steward(s) for (our) prudence.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Company You Keep

Here come the Monday Train!
You know I like trains, at least if you’ve been reading this for more than a year or two.  But there are exceptions to that, and one of them hit us this week: the Monday Train.
Though last week was the second our school was in session, it began with quiet Labor Day.  This week was the first full week after summer ended, and it began with the first full-strength Monday of the new season.  It came through the rectory like a mile-long load of coal from West Virginia pulled by four CSX diesels.  You have heard, perhaps, of being thrown under the bus?  That’s nothing compared to being hit by the Monday Train. 
By the time Monday noon rolled around, the staff and I were gasping for breath and laughing at how manic it had become, and how suddenly.  Phone calls, drop-ins, follow-ups, deadlines, and situations!  It was such a lovely summer of manageable days and quiet afternoons, leisurely lunches and good humor.  And it is OVER.
That’s not to say we didn’t get any work done over the summer; quite the contrary.  There was a steady, even measured chipping away at the quarry walls as we hewed out the necessary blocks of diligence and accomplishment.  In-boxes were emptied and loose ends tied; reports were signed and submitted; plans were considered and chosen.  All this was accomplished under a remarkable torrent of turnover among the priest residents of the place; for details, see my previous letters. Let me assure you, it was no mean feat.
Which brings me to the happy point of sharing with you the amazing amount and quality of work done for you, for me, and for Jesus by the folks who work here in the rectory and in the administration of our school. When I write that, it would seem that there be a cast of thousands, but they are astonishingly few.  Stakhanovites would blush with shame to see how paltry their production next to the workload effortlessly carried by gentle, smiling church folk.  
Ron, Jackie, Corine, Norma, Carol, and Dao here in the rectory do things in an afternoon that a building full of bureaucrats could not pull off in a month.  The same arithmetic applies to Mr. Ted Ewanciw’s “tiny but mighty” team of Molly, Karyn, Kate, and Nicole over in the school, but let me focus for now on the folks here around me. 
Each of them fulfills what would be two or even three jobs in any other organization.  Each of them has an astonishing roster of “other duties as assigned” which they work out without anyone having actually to assign them.  The range of details and projects, the amount of special consideration and accommodation they routinely apply to the people they assist, and the level of good humor and generosity they maintain in the face of This Particular Supervisor would leave you somewhere between astonished and indignant if I could possibly list it all.  
Not only do they take remarkably good care of me, but you should ask our two new rectory residents how they are managing to adjust to life around the parish.  Let me just say that the staff has admirably cushioned the impact of their new situations, as near as I can discern.
Never was it so obvious to me how much I count on the people who serve in this rectory office, so clear how hard they work for you, nor so manifest their conviction that the Lord has called them to this particular intimacy with Him in their daily work.  This should bring joy and gratitude to you, as it does to me, especially when comes the Monday Train.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Not beyond our reach

So much at stake
It is rare enough for our nation and its news outlets to maintain sustained attention on a situation in a foreign country.  Our notoriously short attention span, lack of interest in anything that does not directly affect us, and near-complete thrall to the infotainment industry’s agenda of selling us consumer goods and political panic preclude our awareness of and interest in what is happening far away.  But somehow, Hong Kong has slipped through this near-impermeable barrier.
Far away from us, so why are we paying attention?  Why does news from there still merit front-page photos and top stories on every program and site?  Is it that we recognize our common humanity manifest in the striving of the millions who march against oppression?  Is it out of suspense as to how long recurring mass demonstrations can be sustained before one side or another (the demonstrators or the demonstrated-against) does something to tip the entire situation into chaos?  Is it out of the same sort of morbid fascination that makes people keep watching the ocean swimmers in the movie Jawseven as doubt about the eventual outcome dwindles and disappears? Or, against all reason and experience, do we secretly nurture hope that it all might resolve and turn out well?  
Let me give one reason why you and I should transfer our motivation to that last possibility, the hopeful one: Father Joseph McCabe, M.M.
Fr. McCabe, to refresh your memories, or to inform you who are new to the parish, lived here for two and a half years until June 2015. A Maryknoll missionary priest from Long Island, he obtained a Canon Law degree from Catholic University and made a big contribution to – and quite the impression on – our parish.  Hardly your usual student priest, he was in his mid-sixties already when he arrived, after decades in the missions of Tanzania and the Russian far east, and another decade in service of the Holy See in Rome.  If you weren’t here then, ask someone who was: he was a force of nature.  
Once he achieved his degree, his assignment was to become Judicial Vicar for the diocese of – you guessed it – Hong Kong.  For four years I have enjoyed his stories about that city, his parish work there (dozens in RCIA every year! near-constant weddings!), and his rectory life.  He also has become superior of all Maryknoll personnel in the whole region, including southeast Asia and Australia.  
After a long, anxious silence, Fr. McCabe recently wrote me. He is okay; but life in Hong Kong is changed and difficult.  There is hope, there is fear, nobody knows whom to trust or where there is safety.  Both demonstrators and demonstrated-against frighten and threaten.  Nobody knows what to expect, when or how it will end, but they must and do nurture hope that it all might resolve and turn out well
Not only because he must and will stay in Hong Kong, and not only because he has grown to love and care about many people there, but also because it is what he as a priest does and what we as Christians do, he begs for our prayers.  He knows, though not everybody there knows, that prayer to God is a powerful force for good in this life and in this world.  He knows, though not everybody there knows, but we do if we pause long enough to consider, that you and I are not powerless to contribute to the outcome of this spectacular and historic drama playing out on the other side of the planet.  He knows, though we can easily forget or be distracted, that our common human nature binds us to every soul there, and our common baptism binds us to every Christian soul there and around the world, and to the divine life of the Holy Trinity, God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in all His glory and power.
With this great power comes great responsibility.  The lives and futures of one whom we know well, and millions whom we know by our shared human need for life and liberty, teeter precariously in the balance before our very eyes.  We are not helpless spectators; let us pray.
Monsignor Smith