Saturday, November 30, 2019

You know the time

For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed;
the night is advanced, the day is at hand.
With violet silence it begins, turning our year and our eyes in expectation of the God Who comes to dwell among us.  The sights and sounds could not be more different here from those outside, or the preparations directed toward a more different project.  What we Catholics do here is different from what many deem urgent in these days.   
The stark difference of Advent from popular so-called Christmastime or, poorer still, “the holidays,” reveals why and how what we do in this sacred place, our church, is so different from what is done elsewhere, and therefore necessarily is not what many people expect.
The public and popular culture that surrounds us is based in commerce and appetite, stoked by emotional manipulation and ordered toward consumption or indignation.  It speaks of freedom, but emphasizes desire; it flatters people’s uniqueness, while pulling them into the herd.  Flashing lights and signs, amplified soundtracks, constant offers, and congratulatory transactions simultaneously stoke and soothe the fear of missing out.  Throughout the year they surround us, but in these days, they combine to form an omnipresent chorus.  It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, they sing, and dare anyone to say otherwise. 
We dare.  We must dare, lest we be consumed by our own consumption.  We say otherwise when we unite our voices into the words of the Church, O Come, O Come, God-with-us.  We say otherwise when we unite our voices into the words of the Blessed Mother, Be it done unto me according to your word.  The prescription and practice handed us intact and entire by the body that is both ours and Christ’s, the Church, is the gift of liturgical worship.  
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.
The expectations and expressions of the secular culture have no place in our worship, and in fact would destroy it.  The two are incompatible, and we depend on our worship to deliver us from the egoist appetites that the secular culture encourages.  This is the age-old struggle of every human life, as one seeks to dominate the other, and one offers liberation from the other.
For this reason, what we do here, in this church, is different.  It is not only different from the sights and sounds and songs of the secular culture in the marketplace, but also it is different from what has become a mainstream mingling of sights and sounds and songs into a hybrid form of worship familiar in many Catholic parishes.  The music here, in this church, is different.  The movements are different.   The forms and expressions are different, because our God is different.  God is holy.  That’s what holy means: different, unlike us.  
Our God became Man (like us) so that we could become holy (like Him).  Our communion in this sacred place is not only with one another, which is beautiful but insufficient.  Most importantly, our communion is with God, Who is different, Who is holy.  Who makes us holy, like Him; Who makes us different.
To make our worship of God resemble the secular culture is to reject that transformation.  That pollutes or even replaces our worship of God with the worship of ourselves, decorated with our emotions and our appetites.  It may send people home feeling good about themselves, but those feelings immunize them against awareness of the difference and distance between themselves and God.
Our secular culture sustains a roaring economy and advancing technology, and by its pervasiveness shapes our experience and expression.  But the language and goods of this culture are completely unsuited to our encounter with the Living God Who created us, redeems us, and beckons us into communion with Him here and now and unto the ages of ages.  Participating in the worship of the Church as received from the Church is the antidote to the self-destructive selfishness that drives and defines our secular culture. 
As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
The clear divergence in both form and content between the secular and the sacred during Advent is our teacher for the whole year.  Put aside tasks and habits that are literally mundane, that is, of the world, and enter freely and willingly Advent worship and preparation.  Find yourself made open to Christ Jesus, the life, the truth, and the Way throughout the entire year.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Go Pro

Viva Cristo Rey!  Long live Christ the King.  So shouted the young Jesuit priest as a firing squad executed him.  
This weekend’s Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe (that’s the real name; there’s a good reason we shorten it customarily to Christ the King) falls close by the November 23 memorial of Blessed Miguel Augustin Pro.  His dying words ring in our ears with urgency that we find hard to match, but serves us well.
Just one hundred years ago, the Catholic Church and the practice of the Faith was essentially illegal in Mexico.  That’s right, Mexico – where we might rightly assume most folks are Catholic.  And that’s right, one hundred years ago; right at the end of World War I.  
The leftist, single-party government of Mexico was anti-clerical and anti-Catholic.  Father Pro was obliged to pursue his religious and priestly formation in Europe because of the hostility of the regime.  By the time he returned to Mexico as a newly ordained priest, the hostility had become outright violent repression.  Churches were closed; celebration of the Sacraments was forbidden; priests were hunted down, those who clung to their faith rounded up.  Groups who insisted on defending their clergy and churches were called “Cristeros,” and fought the tyranny in every way, including armed resistance in the provinces.  
But in the capital, the regime was strong, and Father Pro had to go about the business of bringing Christ to His people in secret, often in disguise and by night.  The stories from this time in his life read like a spy novel, as Father Pro was both inventive and audacious in going about his duties. 
However, in the wake of a failed assassination attempt of a former president in which he had no part, Father Pro was arrested and sentenced to death without any juridical process.  On the day of his execution, he prayed, forgave his executioners, refused a blindfold, extended his arms into the form of the crucified Christ, and shouted Viva Cristo Rey! as he died.
That was 1927, less than a century ago.  The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that controlled Mexico at that time, did so until just over a decade ago, when free elections finally brought in another government.  Recently, that same PRI returned to control of the Mexican government.  
That was 1927, less than a century ago.  The United States government, particularly the State Department, did not object to the forced suppression of the Catholic Church in her southern neighbor.  In fact, diplomats at the time were exclusively from aristocratic (and protestant) East Coast families, who even thought it salutary.
All my grandparents and the bishop who ordained me were alive in 1927; it is not so far removed from our time.  Policies and conflicts in Mexico now are of daily interest and influence on what occurs in this country, as the slightest glance at the daily news will reveal.   The evil governmental prejudices and policies that brought about this violent repression of the Faith, and the complacency or even complicity of our own leaders, are not far from us in any way.
Nor is Blessed Miguel Augustin Pro far from us in any way; nor is the faith that sustained him unfamiliar or unavailable to us.  The One True Ruler of our lives, our hearts, and indeed the whole universe is nearer to us than any politician, party, platform, or policy.  He is guardian of our lives and of our souls, grantor of all our rights, and our defender against all harm.  Christ is our King.  Viva Cristo Rey!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Leaves, change

When they come back, they say nothing has changed; everything is exactly as they remember it.
“They,” in this case, would be parishioners from two, three, five, or even seven decades ago.  They come for funerals, as often as not, but once in a while they come for the fortieth or fiftieth anniversary of their wedding here.  Sometimes they swing by just because they were in town for a visit and wanted to see the old parish.  They come from the places they moved when they were much younger and never thought they would stay.  
Of course some things have changed; we built the “connector” with the new entrance to the school in 2002.  The school is now air conditioned.  All sorts of things have been replaced, upgraded, or improved; but when it comes to the experience of Saint Bernadette, the most important things have not changed.  
Perhaps to some it seems like I have been here forever, so maybe even the pastor does not change – though the visitors all have stories about some other Monsignor named Stricker.  Current parishioners are still learning the names of Fathers Russo and Berhorst, but nobody seems to think their having joined us in recent months really counts as change.  New priests, but the same parish and same Faith.  Nothing has changed.

Recently Chris Mueller, our music director since 2017, told me that he would be leaving us to move with his family to another parish in another part of the country.  The arrival of a new music director is in the works, but that will take some time.  
Meanwhile, our choir leaders are stepping up to help, and we will be having our Advent and Christmas this year “family style.”  There will be plenty of music, but it may be a bit simpler.  I do not think we will suffer for this; we all know what we want to sing and hear during Advent and Christmas anyway.  I bet some of you are already listening to it on your earbuds or in your cars, even if secretly.  These are holy days in which nobody seeks change.  
Chris will be here through Christ the King, next weekend, then will set out to begin Advent in his new place.  So for music that has deepened your prayer, elevated your praise, or enhanced your knowledge and love of God, please thank him before then.  Join me in promising him our prayers for him and his family. 

Sometime in the 1970’s, the pastor of Saint Bernadette authorized the planting of trees on the pristine expanse of lawn in front of the campus.  This verdant sward had been used for decades for the annual carnivals that helped fund the construction of our church.  Parishioners wailed and moaned about the uncalled-for change that would destroy the beauty of the place.
Well, this past week those same trees, October Glory maples, began their annual master class in beauty.  Nobody remembers that it was ever any other way.  When they come back, they say nothing has changed; everything is exactly as they remember it.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Fair game and foul balls

Once you’re a parish priest, you almost never hear any other priest’s homilies.  Why?  Well, because you’re almost always the priest at Mass, and therefore the preacher as well.  And while most priests really enjoy Mass, I can’t think of any who will go attend a Mass offered by someone else in addition to the Mass (or Masses) he has already celebrated himself.
This has some odd penalties; we priests never get to see (or hear) our friends work. Our seminary buddies with whom we practiced preaching, the friends we have made along the path of our priesthood: they celebrate their Masses, and we celebrate ours, usually in different churches, often in different states, or even time zones.  We do not get to learn from their best practices, or even just enjoy how their personalities and abilities come through. 
But there are benefits, too: we do not have to put up with the foibles and faults of another priest or preacher.  One of the bad habits that left a lasting impression on me when I attended Masses rather than celebrated them, was when the priest talked about some sport or team more than, or even instead of, about our Lord, about the Gospel, about the Faith.  Whether Alabama-Auburn or Redskins football, depending on what time in my life we are discussing, or whether some celebrity player or championship contest, it always struck me as a major cop-out for the priest to seek attention and approval by feeding the fanbase instead of the spiritual needs of his flock.  It drove me nuts, and as I progressed in my own vocation, I resolved never to resort to it.
Despite my fidelity to that pledge, many of you are very aware that I have been completely consumed for the past five or six weeks with the most remarkable and eventually delightful late- and post-season run of our local baseball club, the Nationals.  Yes, it was awesome; yes, I went to the games AND the parade; yes, I did stay up that late, that many evenings; and yes, I am thrilled and proud.  I was even interviewed live on local television as a Nats-obsessed priest (clearly a curiosity).  This week I insisted that the kids in our school enjoy an ice-cream-sundae social to celebrate the victory.  And yes, I am exhausted as well as elated, and about a month behind in many other obligations and responsibilities.  So, for all of you who checked with me for the score as soon as you exited the Vigil Mass, or bemoaned the latest on-field embarrassments, or simply whispered, “You must have enjoyed yesterday’s game!” outside the church door: thank you, and Go Nats.   
To recover, this past week I went with Father Russo and most of the priests of our Archdiocese to a hotel on the Eastern shore for our biennial three-day Convocation.  When these started, back in 2003, the priests had to be required to attend.  They’ve been so good, now most of the guys are eager to come, and especially so this year when we have a new Archbishop to check out.  Our principal speaker was the excellent Archbishop Hebda of Saint Paul-Minneapolis, and we had some practical seminars.  But most important was the time to just be together, dine together, pray together, and talk together.  This event fortifies the bonds of brotherhood among us priests of this local church, and these days especially, that is vital.   
It also provided two days when not only did I not have to preach, teach, or speak; but I got to listen to someone else do so – a rare and refreshing experience.     
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Blaze of Glory

Brothers and sisters: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. (Rm 8:18)  So asserted Saint Paul at one pre-dawn Mass this week.  Cheeky, to say the least; bold, as Paul always is, making statements and insisting we believe him.  Hard to stomach sometimes, especially at 0-dark-thirty.
But then I remembered something I had noticed on Sunday.  I snapped a photo of it, and sent it to my sister, who lives in the desert and does not have such things to enjoy.  As I waited for the last Sunday Mass to end and the mobs of happy people to flow from the church, I saw that the leaves on our trees were something splendid:  still green and fresh for the most part, their edges had become flaming red. 
For over a month there has been conversation about the coming autumn; whether there would be color, whether it would be as beautiful as we know autumn can be; whether it would be mostly brown like the last two or three years have been, and disappointing.  Now it looks like we have our answer.  
The entire tree had just a halo of rosiness to it, but each leaf had a brilliant red edge.  It was spectacular, and gave me hope for a fabulous autumn.  And then Saint Paul started in on the glory to be revealed for us and reminded me of those leaves. 
Human nature is a mixed bag for the most part, fresh and lively some of the time, sour and selfish at others.  It is this parade of the complexity of our human reality that takes most of our attention and most of our time.  However, there are times when something else shines out at us from a person or act, something spectacular and, well, glorious.
I think first of the All-Star Game at Nationals Park last summer, when as part of the pregame activities some twenty-eight Congressional Medal of Honor recipients were assembled before us.  A retrospective video, and some intimations of the self-sacrifice for the sake of their comrades under the harshest threats, brought about in me a wave of emotion I couldn’t have anticipated.  Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13) And from these mortal men shone a glimpse of the glory to be revealed for us.
Under extraordinary circumstances, what some would consider superhuman behavior can be seen in otherwise ordinary persons.  Not the stuff of superheroes, this is the supernatural aspect, that is, the aspect of the human nature that resembles the divine nature in whose image and likeness we are all made.  When we catch this glimpse, it is breathtaking.
It is not only under such grave circumstances that this glory radiates from earthly human nature.  Sometimes you can see it in a mom with her children; not necessarily in rescuing them from mortal danger, but making an authentic self-sacrifice that is selfless love poured out in the face of a child’s need.  
Every one of us is capable of reflecting the divine love by which and for which we are created.  A seemingly simple act of selfless generosity flashes with the very glory of God.  Though these radiant acts do not require mortal threat or danger, of their nature they come at great expense – sometimes unto life itself, but by no means always.  Therefore, they are marked by some cost, some pain or penalty freely undertaken; that is the essential element of sacrifice.  Call it suffering, freely chosen.
Look at the leaves, then watch your neighbors and friends, and look for suffering freely chosen in a flash of self-giving.  And Saint Paul’s words will ring in your ears, too, as you realize the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. 
Monsignor Smith