Thursday, October 31, 2019

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Old Friends

Perhaps in the predawn of the 6:30 weekly Mass, I am more susceptible to emotion.  Something was at work this week, when on Tuesday we observed the Memorial of Pope Saint John Paul II.  Unlike all the other Saints whom we commemorate liturgically, I had personal contact with JPII – quite a lot of it.  I met him when I was still discerning my vocation, and again when he welcomed my seminary class to Rome.  I deaconed a Mass for him in Saint Peter’s Basilica.  As Secretary to Cardinal Baum, I was with him so many times I stopped getting the photos they make of every papal encounter.  Almost every Sunday for four years I stepped onto our balcony at noon to listen to his Angelus address from his window above the square.
So it was more than nostalgia that came over me as I offered prayers with his name, and quoted him in my homily.  It was the awareness of genuine intimacy of a different sort than other saints, and different than other church figures, too. 
It brought to mind some letters I had written from Rome during the days after his death, through his funeral, and up to the Conclave.  I share excerpts with you here.
(From the period of mourning and visitation of John Paul’s body in the Basilica): The rooftop of every building within blocks of mine radiates the unnatural white of television lights, as chattering, calm faces try to fill time with stories that explain what is going on … But people know.  They have seen a real life.  They have seen John Paul and have seen Christ in him.  He showed them who they really are – the oppressed people of Poland and Eastern Europe, and of Cuba; the disillusioned and disinterested youth of the consumerist West, of France and Germany, of the United States; the people who know they are capable of love and of joy despite their poverty, in Mexico, in Africa, in the Philippines.  They saw the truth about themselves, and they saw it because of him.  And it changed the world.
I also marveled at what a privilege and blessing it is to have known John Paul.  What a priest!  What a father!  Up to his last breath he kept nothing for himself, nothing, but offered it all for the salvation of souls.  And even now, even in his death, he is still drawing people to Christ and His Church.  Lives are being changed.  
He has shown us what one single human life can be, when lived in fidelity to its creator:  rich and strong, true and irresistible.  To see him there, just one body, vulnerable as any of us, and to realize what he did with what he was given, makes it difficult not to think about that an amazing thing Man is.  As Saint Anselm said, “The glory of God is the living man!” 
The people out there, waiting in line in the streets for twenty hours to see a dead man, cannot be categorized in any way, not in age, not in culture, not in education or credulity.  They are just people.  And they, like most people, want to DO something about what they have seen and known.  So they come.  
That's the way everyone seems to be.  All the cops, paramedics, military personnel, volunteers; even the trash men and street sweepers want this to go WELL for the people who come.  Because they deserve it.  Pope John Paul TOLD us they deserve it.

(From the funeral):  … this was no ordinary crowd; it was a JPII crowd.  They were not spectators, they were PARTICIPANTS. They were THERE, and they made their presence, and their participation, felt.  For twenty-six and a half years, John Paul II had been telling them how precious they were, how important their very presence, how important their participation in the great mysteries of life and of God.  They believed him.  
…from what I gather, the crowd was even bigger than the millions they say …  But these vast dimensions … made it very tempting to overlook something: what happened today, though vast in scale, unprecedented in its participants, unheard of in its impact, was totally ordinary.  It happens all the time.  It is what families do.  It is what Christians do.  It is simply what we do.
This is what we do when we lose a loved one.  We take him to the altar.  We welcome our Lord and God who comes in the Eucharist, right into our midst. Then we all stand up and in one voice present the one we have loved and lost to that same Lord.  Take him home!  And then we bid him goodbye.  All this is ordinary, in the sense that it is a part of life; necessary, and even good.  But by no means easy.  We lost a father.  Today, it just took a while to say goodbye … 
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Itch -- and Ol' Scratch

See how they hang on his every word?
Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist (Luca Signorelli, 1499–1504)
Today’s Epistle reading, the second at Mass, is from Saint Paul’s instruction to Saint Timothy, whom he is leaving in charge of a local Church.  Not one of the Twelve, Timothy nonetheless steps into the role of apostle and overseer (episcopos = bishop) of a body of Christians as Paul moves on.
Paul fills his two letters to Timothy with instructions about all sorts of things, first and foremost in living wholeheartedly the Faith that he has been given, with confidence the God Who has called him.   He also gives pointers on what to demand of priests and deacons, and for resolving disputes, among other things.  
Today’s reading is near the end of the second letter, encouraging as well as hortatory as Paul nears the conclusion of his instruction.  He is quite specific about the expectations, but also wants Timothy to know that in Christhe can do this.  It is a very warm and human correspondence.
But between the ending of the passage we hear this week, and the beginning of next Sunday’s epistle, there are omitted these two verses: 
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:4-5)
Why the Lectionary omits this, I cannot fathom.  It is not so much a clairvoyant prediction of some future time or event, but a rock-solid insight into reality.  “The time is coming” is not about some future day or date, but is, in fact, about human nature, and the fragile nature of the community of faith.  In this regard, it is like Our Lord’s observation: One of you will betray me.  Like all of the Sacred Scriptures, it is about right now, and it is about us.
You could not distill a more pure and accurate description of the modern Christians in general, and early twenty-first century Catholics in particular, including especially those of the entire Christian West, of the USA, of the DMV, and of zip code 20901.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.
This is a peril, this is a phenomenon: itching ears.  Who tickles people’s ears, and who tickles their fancies?  Flatterers, politicos, and hucksters; liars, frauds, and cowards.  They propose what you want to hear, and tell you how right you are to demand it, so you will do what they tell you to do, what will benefit them.  As simple as it can be to spot their falsehoods, people want to believe these promises of ease, and turn away from the Truth.  And the Way.  And the Life.  They relinquish the freedom of the Sons and Daughters of God, and become slaves.
This “time” is now, my brothers and sisters; and the people concerned look an awful lot like us.  Heed Saint Paul’s warning and flee anyone who offers you anything other than the Cross of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  I cannot guess why the compilers omitted this admonition from our Lectionary, but it may explain why I do what I do to know that these verses hang next to my mirror, each day to remind me:  As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.
Monsignor Smith

Friday, October 11, 2019


This weekend at Mass, I want you to do something different.  I want you to offer your prayers, your participation in the Holy Sacrifice, and your intentions, at least in part, for somebody for whom you did not plan to pray.  Please pray for a person near you in church who is not part of your family or group.
Let the inscrutable purpose of Providence choose the person for you.  And do not simply note their presence and toss off a prayer; no, pay attention to the person, the identity, the appearance and other clues to life and needs.  Take good note of this person, who is close to you in the sight of the Lord.
One aspect of being a priest is being privy to people’s secrets, good news and bad.  Secret sickness or sorrow, secret fears and faults, but also secret joys and anticipation.  It is a great privilege and a constant call to prayer for me when people share their secrets with me, and opens my mind to those who do not share them with me yet surely have them.  It is this bearing of burdens both revealed and concealed that I want you to consider.  
You know a lot of the people around you at Mass.  You talk after Mass, maybe even hang out around the parish, field, or school, and possibly even have been to one another’s homes.  Some you know only by sight and a friendly greeting.  There is a familiarity, even an intimacy because of where you are together.  
If today’s prayer assignment for you falls to these people, think first about all you know about them – maybe their busy lives, maybe just who they attend Mass with, how they present themselves, and how they look today.  Look for clues to what they are placing before the Lord today:  sorrows or joys, hopes or fears.  Then allow for what you do not see, what they might be keeping secret.  Then bring it all into your prayer and offer it to the Lord for them.
Alternatively, you may find your new “prayer partner of proximity” to be somebody you know only barely or not at all.  This, too, is a gift of Divine Providence and reveals the mystery of the Church and corporate worship.  Beyond our family or church-going group with whom we assemble in our pew, we have no control over and no prior knowledge of who will be near us in our worship of God.  Sometimes it can be quite striking.
It has become quite clear to me that even here in our supposedly self-selecting suburban society, Catholic Mass is the place of greatest diversity and greatest unity of any experience available in the metropolitan area.  You have a broader range of people than you would find together on any city bus or Metro car, in any dive bar or concert venue.  And unlike those places, by and large we are all glad we are all there.
So you may find your prayer-gaze settling on somebody truly alien to you – unknown, unfamiliar, and unlike you, and therefore inscrutable in ways that others are not.  Maybe a generation or two older than you; maybe much younger, even a child.  A child’s fears and anticipations are childlike not childish, and real.  Whoever it is, pause to search: good day or bad day – can you guess?  Secrets heavy or joyful – what clue is there?  Comfortable or cautious – what can you discern?
Now you have your mission, your assignment: pray for this person, friend or stranger, as if his concerns were your own, as if her joy depended on you.  Because they are, and it does; in Christ, we are one body, and you will walk out of church today different: with that much more life in you.  
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Keeping priorities emphasizes priority

Sometimes for Mass you just wear what you're wearing.
Last week I wrote, with some trepidation, about dressing up for Mass.  I must have struck the right tone because nobody clobbered me over it.  Thus emboldened, let me add that I did regret leaving out one thing, though.
Clearly there is value in prioritizing Sunday Mass with proper preparation in every category, and wardrobe is one of them.  However, there are situations in which prioritizing Sunday Mass must be done when it is not possible, or at least not practical, to change your wardrobe.
The difference should be apparent between coming to Mass in what you wore to a swim meet because the competition was at Blair High School on a Saturday afternoon and when it ended you came straight across the street to Mass at Saint Bernadette; and dressing when setting out for Mass as you would for the pool because it is a summer weekend.
For those whose wardrobe is determined by some priority or obligation that takes precedence over the niceties of church, their attendance at Mass as they are obliged to be dressed can often serve to emphasize the importance of Eucharistic worship, not only to them but ideally to everyone.  Consider how this reality is reflected in dramatic moments seen in historical photos of field Masses during wartime, when the soldiers not only are in uniform, but whose gear and kit are determined by the combat in which they have until recently been engaged, and to which they will soon return.  
Therefore, it is a powerful statement even in peacetime when military personnel participate in our communal worship in their uniforms, whether they be BDUs or Class As.  Similarly, when uniformed police officers or other service personnel attend and kneel with us before our Eucharistic Lord it gives glory to God in a way that it would not if they had changed clothes into something less conspicuous. 
But those are not the only people who come to church dressed in a distinctive way to indicate their roles in society or simply the work they do.  Weekday Mass attracts many people on their way to work, and it is possible to identify medical personnel, bakers, school personnel, plumbers, and others who dress distinctively for their work.  Even on Sundays you’ll see some of these folks whom we all need to work on weekends, even if only occasionally.  
Especially in downtown Washington parishes, many Mass-goers reveal what work they do and from which they come to church by the badges they wear on lanyards or clips.  Mix them in with obvious tourists and some of the other interesting folks who populate the DC version of “urban Catholicism,” and this can serve to emphasize the universality of the call to worship Our Lord in His Saving Sacrifice.
When we are lucky, some of our brothers and sisters from other lands and cultures dress according to their traditions in celebration of Sunday.  I don’t have to explain how this enriches the experience of us all.  
Casual carelessness in approaching the Lord can undermine one’s own experience and participation in the Holy Mass as well as that of others.  But the call to prepare and present yourself with care before the Lord of Hosts does not require lockstep uniformity, nor fashion expense, much less labels or up-to-the-moment currency.  It may get me clobbered, but I consider it always to be good news when I share with you something that you and your family can do to increase your own sanctification, and for the greater glory of God. 
Monsignor Smith