Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dimensions of Grace

Our church is really big.  We get used to it, of course, and periodically we take advantage of it, like at Christmas, when we fill it.  But it was designed to seat over 800 people, and that makes for a very big church.
Moreover, the sanctuary is big.  The large altar on its raised predella, topped by the towering baldachin, requires and enjoys a large space around it for a proper and proportionate setting.  This vast space can be a problem, such as when you realize how much time is required for the priest and assisting ministers to travel from point A to point B, say from the chair to the credence table, then further yet, up to the altar.  That takes time!  But the space can also be a blessing, such as when you have room to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy in all its glory, and nine or ten altar servers.  It is a great place to have a wedding; we have even had an Ordination in that sanctuary.  And the complex, beautiful liturgies of Holy Week and the Triduum play out in all their splendor, because there is room.
But that big church and big sanctuary are surprisingly intimate.  The eternal God of heaven and earth comes down to be with us on that suddenly-not-so-big altar.  The people who tread that space, whether a couple exchanging their nuptial consent, or servers washing priests’ hands, are engaged in many intimate and beautiful actions.  Christian worship is necessarily intimate because in it, Man finds intimacy in the very Holiness of God.
Our worship is much enhanced by music, music that is itself one of the treasures of our Church and our Faith.  The vastness of our church poses problems and benefits to our music, as the complex acoustics make it difficult to unite voices and instruments, but also provide glorious resonance to our efforts.   
Music draws us into that divine intimacy, with God and with one another, as our voices and our hearts unite.  The music of our worship overcomes the vastness of our church, and the vast divide between us and our neighbor, and between us and our God.  
It is in this context that I am pleased to let you know that starting this week, the Director of our Music here at Saint Bernadette will be someone with whom we are already quite close, though he had been quite the distance away.  Mr. John Henderson, who was with us in this same capacity until August 2017, is returning.  Join me in rejoicing!
Yes, he went to Texas (Austin); yes, he studied music of kinds other than church music; yes, he enjoyed it very much.  But he had come to the conclusion that he wanted to return to the Washington area, and he wanted to commit to parish music leadership, when I sent him a note to say I was looking for a new music director.  The rest, as they say, is history.
This is the first formal announcement of John’s taking the musical helm, but over the past months I have told any number of people.  All of them were delighted.  Our own choir section leaders – Joey and Siena, Veronica and Andrew – did a great job of leading our music for the two-month interregnum.  We should thank them, along with Paul Griffin, our interim organist.  But know that they are among the most excited at John’s arrival.  Because the sacred music that we enjoy here, and the sacred intimacy it brings about for us, will be much enhanced by the presence, participation, and leadership of our good friend.  
They say it’s a small world, and we know we have a big church.  But I hope you are as pleased as I am to welcome John Henderson home to the musical heart of our worship, both large and intimate.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Putting up a fight

Corine helps Father Russo identify
all the families on the Parishioner Tree.
Both easier and harder is taking down the Christmas decorations.  Easier, because it goes more quickly as everything simply goes back into its box, whereas in putting them up first one had to find and open all the boxes for a given project, then arrange and array every element just so.  Harder, in that all that was so festive and attractive and enjoyable to display, and promised so many beautiful times to come, yields to a remarkable barrenness with only bleak and wintry prospects.
It’s that time around the rectory.  The magnificent balsam fir that was in our dining room came down today, having been stripped of its glory yesterday.  The weeny little tabletop tree in my sitting room came down the day before that, along with my creche scene and other festive touches.  The Santa hat on the bust of Pope John Paul II in my office gave way to his customary Nats cap.   But the progress stopped in the reception office, as the villagers there put up a bit of a defense around the Parishioner Tree.
You see, the last days of the Parishioner Tree are the best, as only now is its full glory revealed.  All the photo cards that came in since Thanksgiving of current parishioners and former parishioners find a place on its boughs, so it looks rather naked when it goes up right after Immaculate Conception, but heavy laden by Epiphany. 
It is a great way to get to know the current members of our parish family, so someone who has been here a few years – say, Corine – can hone her knowledge of family names and relationships; while somebody new to the place – say, Fr. Russo – gets a bonanza of information and imagery to help him learn who is who.  
But it’s also true that former parishioners still send cards from their new places, whether that be Buffalo, Charlotte, or Pittsburgh, or just Bowie, Clarksburg, or Olney.  Those cards can spark stories and explanations laced with affection.  
Fr. Berhorst would benefit from the parishioner tree, but he left for Missouri in mid-Advent, after it had been up for only a few days and had only five or six cards on it.  He will be back this weekend, but I am afraid that will be too late.
Like all the others, the Parishioner Tree is coming down.  Something about that reception area makes it dry out faster, almost as if all the people who enjoy looking at it somehow take some of the life with them.  In that regard the tree is like the Cross of Christ, the real Tree of Life that yields its life to fill up our life.   
We can save all the cards for Father Berhorst to appreciate when he comes back.  But to take down the Parishioner Tree, we are going to have to get past Carol, who doesn’t want to let it go yet.  It is going to be a lot more hard than easy to take down this particular Christmas decoration.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 04, 2020


You probably do not recall how wretched it was the Saturday before Gaudete Sunday.  But I do, because when I reluctantly went out into it, I found about ten of our Holy Name men erecting the manger scene outside the front of our church.  This was the day before they hosted Breakfast with Santa, which seemed to me to be very popular with all comers, young and old. 

Santa and his elves worked hard
to get everyone ready for Christmas at Saint Bernadette
With particular thanks to the abundant gifts and gracious givers of poinsettias for our altar, and wreaths and greenery from our CYO, the flower-moving and church-decorating team did a marvelous job. Anthony Dao and his kids did remarkable work, and we could hardly manage without Margaret McDermott.  This was the swan-song of Elaine Vining, who has been masterminding the arrangement for over a decade; she plans to move to South Carolina this year.   If you want to have some real fun with beauty, consider volunteering to help in future.  
The beauty of the music took me aback.  Since we are “between music directors,” our section leaders (Joey & Veronica & Siena & Andrew) have stepped up to plan and prepare, and print programs, and with the help of interim organist and conductor Paul Griffin.  I called our approach “family style,” which may be why it made for such a musically perfect Christmas.  
The altar servers, especially those who came to Masses different from the ones their families usually might have preferred, were superb.  Father Russo has taken the lead as Server Wrangler for us, and they are responding to his attentions.  Similarly, our Lectors and Ministers of Holy Communion arranged their holidays around our parish needs and liturgies, to our great benefit.
Andy Greenleaf's beautifully crafted stable
provided the perfect setting for everybody gathered around the manger.

Of course, I am grateful to the family of George and Doris O’Brien, whose gift in their memory made possible the arrival of ox and ass, sheep and shepherds for our indoor Nativity Scene.  They came from Italy, but the stable scene itself was designed and constructed by our own Andy Greenleaf, most famous for his role of Lector at nine o’clock Sunday Masses, and moved here with the help of some of those same intrepid Holy Name men.  Honestly it could not be more marvelous.  There are more figures to be had for it (wise men, angel, etc.), if more donors step forward.  I want a dog.
There were also the workers who were invisible, such as our counters, who came in on Boxing Day in addition to their usual Monday work.  You probably just assume our crowds are preternaturally tidy, because you don’t see the people who clean up the church before and after all these liturgies; and that the priests are similarly diligent, because you don’t see the work of the sacristans.  What would make you suspicious is how neatly cleaned and hung by size all the altar server vestments are; you know there must be a mysterious person who swoops in regularly to put them in order – and there is.
Do not be fooled by those announcements about the rectory offices being closed.  The staff does not “take it easy” around Christmas and the New Year; nothing could be further from the truth  They busted their humps for us but with grace and care like nobody you’ve seen.  
Also, I should mention that Father Russo, in his assignment as student with residence here, was not obliged to stay here for the holiday.  But he did.  He was a great help, good company, and even gave every sign that there was no other place he would rather be for Christmas.  I think the lad may have a future!
Because as I have long told you, there is no place but here I would rather be for Christmas or any other holiday.  Now that my mom and dad live close enough to come join me, they understand better why that is.  This a beautiful place to be in communion with The Newborn King and all who adore Him.  It’s a great place to be a priest.  And I don’t just say that because of all the cookies and treats and … beverages that found their way to the rectory in recent weeks, though I am grateful for that too.  It’s because of the faith and life and service and love and joy manifested in the people here.  
Please join me in thanking everybody whose work I noted above, and anybody whose work I inadvertently left out.  Altogether, it’s enough to make you fail to remember any wretchedness in the day.  Merry Christmas and blessed Epiphany to you!
Monsignor Smith