Saturday, February 29, 2020

Crazy talk

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, by Salvador Dali
The prayers fly by pretty fast at Mass, and only with the ones that recur are you likely to be familiar enough to call to mind the words or reflect on their meaning.  Even for me, who have the printed text in front of me and give them voice, they can be completely fleeting.  But the texts of the Mass are almost as important a statement of our faith as is the Sacred Scripture itself; and as in the Bible, the turns of phrase can be most instructive.   
As we solemnly offer the annual sacrifice for the beginning of Lent, we entreat you, O Lord, that through works of penance and charity, we may turn away from harmful pleasures and, cleansed from our sins, may become worthy to celebrate devoutly the Passion of your Son.  Who lives and reigns forever and ever.
This text is from Ash Wednesday, the Prayer Over the Offerings, which the priest says after he has placed the offerings on the altar, washed his hands, and said: Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours…, and the people have responded, May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…  It contains a term so shocking to modern sensibility, and so essential to the task and purpose of Lent, that I wanted to bring it to your attention for consideration.  
Did you catch it?  Harmful pleasures.  In our time when what gives a person pleasure is equated to what is good, and therefore must be a right, this simple phrase is shocking (noxiis voluptatibus in the original Latin).  
Sometimes we intentionally put aside authentic goods.  I have emphasized to you before that what we “give up” for Lent, we put aside because it is good, not because it is bad or sinful; we give up lesser goods in order to focus on greater goods, and realize how much more we need them.
But harmful pleasures would be even more dangerous than authentic goods that are less good than God and the good He wants for us.  Harmful pleasures stoke our vices and reduce our inclination for authentic goods.  Harmful pleasures tickle our most base fancies and most selfish appetites.  Harmful pleasures enslave us to pleasure.  
In a similar vein is the Preface II of Lent, which you know comes right before the Holy Holy Holy; it is one of four options during this season, chosen by the priest celebrant:  
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God.  For you have given your children a sacred time for the renewing and purifying of their hearts, that freed from disordered affections, they may so deal with the things of this passing world as to hold rather to the things that eternally endure.  
We pray to be freed from disordered affections (ab inordinatis affectibus expedita).  That, I think, would outrage our contemporaries even more than turning away from harmful pleasures.  Disordered is such a loaded word!  Can’t you just hear it now in Father Nick’s best “offended New Yorker” voice?  Who you callin’ “disordered?”
Bacchanale, 16th c., engraved by Enea Vico, after Marcantonio Raimundi
But we know that disordered has a specific meaning: out of proper order, or ordered toward the wrong thing.  Again, a desire or affection can be out of proper order if we place a lesser good before a greater one – say, the winning of a contest, over the safety of our family.  That’s disordered.  Similarly, an affection can be disordered if its goal or objective is objectively opposed to what is truly good, that is, what God has shown us to be good.  
God has spent a great deal of time, effort, and patience to teach us (mankind) that what is truly good is often very different from what we, in our foolishness, would desire or choose for ourselves.  Even when God has warned us against something, consideration and study can lead some among us to conclude that it is nonetheless good; history has shown over and over again that this results in great grief for individuals and societies, as the consequences invisible to intelligent man but clearly revealed by God are obtained by those who choose against His Word.   
Because of these two irrefutable realities, that God desires our good for us even more than we do ourselves, and that left to our own devices we can be very bad at figuring out what is good, we do not despair, but rather we pray.  And especially in Lent, we ask over and over again that our benevolent Father use our works of penance and charity to turn(us) away from harmful pleasures and free (us) from disordered affection.  Let these prayers fly!  
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Creature Feature

What an enormous response!  No, I don’t mean the national attention I got from what I wrote here last week; I mean to the new nativity scene and the opportunity to provide the parish with a full array of figures for the coming century.  Since the new set is carved wood, it should easily last a hundred years, unlike the old figures that were cast plaster and simply started to disintegrate after their first several decades.  
Last month, I shared a photo of the dog that I got because Nancy McNally offered, and one of the three kings (Caspar), and the angel I got in hopes that someone would “adopt” them.  Well, Mike McCartin rushed in to cover Caspar, and his dad, Joe, provided what we needed for the angel.  That’s terrific, since the McCartins have been part of the parish almost as long as the previous nativity figures.
But then the offers kept coming.  So, Anamaris Poley and Beth Staley are going to make sure that Caspar won’t be alone, but next Epiphany will have Balthasar and Melchior with him:  all three kings!
As the television advertisements say, but wait – there’s more.  Mercedes Flores and Gail Poulos both want to help, too.  Just because the kings already are coming does not mean that there is no more room at the inn, um, I mean, in the stable.  No, there is an array of creatures and characters that is available for our particular nativity set.  It is from Italy, remember, and the Italians love to have extended scenes around their bambinelli – the baby Jesus in their cribs.  
So, what I am going to do is contact Enrico.  Enrico is my “statue man” in Rome; his shop is just a few blocks from where I used to live, just outside the Vatican’s Saint Ann Gate.  He has been helping me with this and that for years, and when I showed up at his desk in January he knew exactly in which nativity set I was interested; he even remembered where my parish was.  So anyway, I am going to call Enrico.
He will provide quotes on several figures that are available for our set, in our size.  I know there is the possibility of a camel, but it’s expensive; ironically enough, more than twice the price of a single king!  But there are others, too.  There is a shepherd kneeling with a sheep that I wanted but was not available last fall; there’s a junior angel, a woman with a water jug, a young girl, and a boy; there are more sheep, plus goats, and a rooster I have my eye on (foreshadowing the Passion!).  Carol in the rectory here is hoping she can help us get a rabbit.  It’s possible.
Enrico can pull the information together and send me a current quote and a shipping estimate.  I know he can, because he did it for something else I asked about – new figures for our outdoor creche.  

The old outdoor ones are plaster too, and about to fall apart.  The new ones he showed me made of weather-resistant, fade-proof, chip-proof fiberglass, and bigger – about fifty percent again bigger than our new indoor wooden set; Joseph would be three feet tall.  Bigger figures would mean fewer figures, so all we would get would be Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the obligatory ox and ass.  I have an estimate for that.
So, if you are interested in contributing to the population of our nativity scene, send an email to the rectory saying so, and we will respond in a week or two with some options from which you can choose.  If you have mentioned it to me that you were interested, but have not yet emailed, please follow up with the note so that I don’t lose track of your intentions.
It is a great time to do this, because the exchange rate is fantastic – the best I have seen since 2002, the year the Euro was introduced.  Thank you for your response. 
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Why, and why not.

This is the time of year when so many of you encourage me, and I am grateful.  
It is the time for the annual Appeal, whatever we are calling it this year, and as Pastor I am tasked to exhort you to give.  It is no surprise, and should hardly be a drama; nonetheless, it is nobody’s favorite topic to hear, and least of all mine to address.  Nonetheless, there is no room to argue that it has no place in our conversation, no ground to suggest that sacrificial giving and money should not be the subject of Christian preaching.  Just page through your favorite Gospel and count how often our Lord Jesus spoke about money and giving.  Still, He is God and speaks with authority; I am not God, and my authority is much less.  Just as well, you may say – and you would be right.
This is why when it comes to questions of when, whether, and how much to give, I try to present our Lord’s instruction, rather than my own.  That may seem like a no-brainer to you, but to others it seems brainless: in these times, and in this culture, the techniques of fund-raising are finely tuned and carefully proven to obtain results.  It is imprudent not to use this technical know-how to get people to give.

But I beg your forbearance.  You see, for a portion of my priesthood, I worked directly for the foremost fund-raiser in the Church – in the whole Church, the universal Church.  He was a master of the art, and knew every technique and tactic to its finest point.  He paired with that an extraordinary, even preternatural sense of people, what they wanted and what they needed.  And he used this understanding to provide what people wanted and needed in order to get them to give what he was asking, and more besides.  
Among the needs or wants he sought to fulfill were the desire to be needed, the longing for approval, and the craving for gratitude that many people have.  Add to that the hope that people nurture of making a difference.  He was a master of convincing folks of the pernicious delusion that God Himself needed, approved, and in fact was grateful to them for the difference that they were making in the world.   This, in one line, is the snake-oil song of the ecclesiastical fundraiser, and he was the all-time virtuoso chanter and enchanter.  
My stomach churns at the recollection, and not only because of how successful he was at this; but also because of what he obtained by this.  He received the gratitude, the affection, and the emotional dependence of untold numbers of people high and low, rich and poor, because he made himself the bestower of the approval that they craved, told them that they were good and God Himself was grateful to them, and delivered them from the authentic demands of Jesus and His Gospel.   This is what their giving purchased, and what his fundraising obtained.  But he took more from them than just their donations, for he was a ravening manipulator of human affections, and a devourer of souls. 
You would be hard pressed to find a person in our Archdiocese, Catholic or not, who did not fall for this seduction to some degree, or at some time.  We all want approval; we all enjoy gratitude.  He offered Divine approval and God’s own gratitude, and many were the ones who did his bidding to obtain it.  Many good works were accomplished in this manner, and benefits from them still accrue to this day.  But the cost, the cost in human lives and dignity, the cost to the integrity of the Faith, the cost to the fabric of the Church, is only recently become apparent to all.
So I beg your indulgence if I eschew fundraising techniques, and avoid tactics with proven records of success.  When it comes to giving to the Church and laying an offering before the Lord, I plant my flag on His own words and promise:  To offer first our tithe to the Lord in His holy Church, and to see to the needs of the poor as well as those close to us, is not only our duty but moreover our path to happiness, right order, and health.  In return, our faithful God will give us neither gratitude nor approval, but blessing, more than we have room to receive.  
Instead of a fund raiser, I am charged by God to be a faith-raiser.  And to the many of you who encourage me, I am grateful.  
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 08, 2020


We did something unusual this week; we closed the school for a day due to illness.  A large proportion of our students was sick, mostly with the flu.  Many stayed home, but some came to school anyway, which made things worse.  Our principal, Mr. Ted Ewanciw, checked with the Archdiocesan Schools Office and with me, and we all concurred: shut ‘er down.  We let parents pick up their kids when possible after lunch on Monday, and Tuesday we did not open, in order to stop the spread.  
Of course, this is happening at a time when everybody is excited about the coronavirus outbreak in China.  Tens of thousands ill, hundreds of deaths.  So, the response has been similar regarding travel to and from China: shut ‘er down.  Quarantines and travel bans and cancelled flights, all in order to stop the spread.
In this context at 6:30 Mass on Tuesday morning, the day the school was closed, I offered a votive Mass of the Holy Angels.  I was inspired by the great statue of Saint Michael the Archangel in Rome, atop the Castel Sant’Angelo.  It is a monument to the vision given the faithful of that city who were threatened by a plague that was killing thousands of people. It marks the place where in response to their prayers, the holy Archangel was seen wielding his flaming sword, and at which point the plague ceased its spread.  My logic in choosing that Mass was that if the angels can turn back the plague, we could certainly use their help just about now, to stop the spread.
How easy it is to forget we have angels who are assigned to protect us; Guardians, we call them.  We have governments and institutions, laws and insurance and risk management; we trust them to defend us from threats.  But every now and then, a threat comes along that reminds us that there is only so much that governmental action and tort law can prevent.  We watch anxiously as the virus spreads. Perhaps we are moved to prayer.  Do we pray to our Guardian, the angel whose one job it is to defend us? 
Like all angels, ours is pure spirit, so his first priority would be our spiritual well-being.  Physical harm is of secondary importance unless it would leave us at a spiritual disadvantage, such as danger of eternal damnation.  Perhaps the invisible nature of our defender, and what it is about us that he defends, makes it easy for us to lose sight of his importance.  
How rare it is to be granted a vision of the angel who defends us; no wonder it left such an impression on the Romans, and no wonder they erected that statue to remind people.  
Even rarer to see with bodily eyes is the reality of the slaughter wrought by sin; the sickness, weakness, death, and putrefying rot that sin effects in human lives as it claims and consumes them.  Awareness of our vincibility can have a salutary, that is, healthful effect.
Thanks to coronavirus, evidence of our vulnerability to pandemic is featured now on every news outlet.  If we could see the progress of the sin that kills, the contagion that leaps from person to person and moves through gatherings and societies, it would not be unusual for us to identify the point of contact, and shut ‘er down.  What wouldn’t we do to stop the spread?  
Saint Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.  May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into Hell Satan and all the other evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.  Amen
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Fides in Fido

The new dog for the Church's Nativity scene, newly arrived from Italy;
happily sitting where it belongs for now -- on my desk
Well, I got a dog.
No, not a real dog; not a rectory hound, nor another puppy with whom to share the rectory.  I got a dog for the new Nativity set in the church!
In December, after the six new figures arrived and were arranged on the manger-platform constructed for them by Andy Greenleaf, I was convinced of their positive impact on our celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord.  It was not only the children of the parish who were captivated by their engaging beauty.
So, I said outright in my post-Christmas column that I wanted a dog, meaning a dog figure for the creche scene.  My plea got quite the response!  The rectory staff lived in trepidation that someone would appear at the door with a retriever puppy, but blessedly that has not occurred.  No, at least three people offered to donate the dog for the scene within the week.  Quickest on the draw was Nancy McNally, in memory of her late husband John McNally and his dog Dexter.  Quite often, I used to encounter the three of them out walking in the evening – a happy memory. 
Timing was everything.  I enjoyed a quick post-Christmas sojourn to Rome to visit a friend of mine who had just retired from his decades-long work for the Holy See.  While there, I went to the shop where I had found the original Holy Family group, and ordered the dog.  Since the exchange rate is so good right now (the best I recall in 18 years), and since I would have to pay shipping anyway, I added two more figures to the purchase: a herald Angel, and Caspar, one (1) of the Three Kings or Magi. 

Not Harold, but HERALD Angel.
Caspar, the friendly king, bearing his gift.
The price was very good, and the shipping was very fast.  A large box arrived at the rectory from Rome two days after I returned, precisely one week after I ordered the figures.  Like the figures we already have, the new ones are beautiful; even more attractive than I expected.  The dog is great.  So good, in fact, that various staffers have connived to have him sit on their desks instead of mine, where he belongs.  
The Angel and Caspar are both worthy additions.  I went ahead and got them “on spec” in hopes that seeing how terrific they are, someone would contribute their cost ($960 each), AND that they will show how great it would be if someone were to donate for Melchior and Balthasar, so we would have ALL THREE Kings.
There also exists the possibility of a camel (for the truly ambitious) and other farm animals, as well as people who participate in the scene.  But I think these “major players” are our priority now.  I also found out how much it would cost to get a new Nativity group, 30% larger than the carved-wood indoor set and made of weatherproof fiberglass, to replace the 75-year-old crumbling plaster figures in our outdoor creche scene.  It’s less than you’d think -- but I digress.
Not only do I have good company in the rectory, but also I got precisely the dog the parish needed.  What a gift to me and the parish!
Monsignor Smith