Saturday, September 25, 2021

Friends in the Best Places

Twice in the past few weeks, different people asked me to name bishops I considered excellent or exemplary.   In each situation, Francis Cardinal George was one I quickly identified.  Archbishop of Chicago from 1996 until shortly before his death in April of 2015, Cardinal George was widely regarded as the greatest intellect among American bishops, but that only begins to describe why he was remarkable. 

In the second of these conversations, I recalled that there had been a documentary prepared about Cardinal George’s life, and I had been invited to a premier screening at CUA.  It had started well and awakened strong feelings in me before I had to leave early for another event; I regretted never having seen the rest of it.  Last night, I had an idea, searched the web, and found it available on FORMED, the Catholic catechetical platform we subscribe to as a parish.  I promptly watched the whole thing, under ninety minutes, and was left with admiration, affection, and gratitude bubbling over.  

You see, I knew Cardinal George.  More astonishingly, he knew me.  Not that we ‘hung out’ together or were ever peers in any way; we met when I was starting my second year of theology as a seminarian, and he was Bishop of Yakima.  But because of his remarkable gifts and generosity, he was able to include me in his life.

It was during the first week of the Synod on Religious Life that had been called by Pope John Paul II, and Bishop George was one of the participants from the US.  My bishop at the time, James Cardinal Hickey, was in Rome for the Synod as well.  I assisted at Cardinal Hickey’s morning Mass in his small private chapel, and Bishop George concelebrated.  That is how we met, and after that he never forgot my name.  We ran into one another several times in following weeks, and I was amazed at how candidly and extensively he shared his observations about the Synod with this mere seminarian.  Before I left Rome, he was created Cardinal, and it was fun to greet him during the celebrations.  

A few years later, I got into the “Cardinal business” and over those four years would cross paths with Cardinal George at various events.  No, he wasn’t there to spend time with me, and I did not expect that; but being involved in those events did help me know him better.  It is hard to explain how he was open and attentive, truly present; but he was.  Over all this time, I was also reading many articles and one of the books he wrote, and hearing talks he gave.  All were frank, honest, brilliant in their insight, humble and charitable in their presentation.  

Which brings me back to the video documentary of his life, which brought all these memories flooding back, because of the consistency and integrity of life, work, and word that it depicted.  Oh yes, I knew this man, and it was a privilege – and a blessing.  

You all have access to FORMED, as parishioners here.   Go to the website, sign in under the parish membership, and explore.  You can find this biographical video (I heartily recommend it) and others about people from every time and place in the Church’s life.  You can find multi-episode treatments of the Faith (Symbolon, or The Search), Scripture studies galore, and expositions of the Holy Trinity, the Eucharist, the Virtues both Theological and Cardinal, and all other points of doctrine.  

You know that in general I am the last person to recommend screen-time, but this has real value that transcends its medium.  If you watch anything, you should be watching FORMED as part of your mix.  It will not leave you aggravated or depressed, which puts it in a small minority of the programming being produced; nor will the joy it conveys dissipate quickly into ennui and appetite, which makes it nearly unique.  You can watch it with your husband or wife, kids or parents; with your buddies over beers or with your study or support group, as a topic for discussion.  It is a small step toward knowing the Faith, and a big help to living it.  Theology and prayer, history and biography; all are genuine helps in these days when we all need help.  With a bit of persistence, you will surely encounter somebody you know, or want to know better; and that encounter will leave you filled with admiration, affection, and gratitude bubbling over.  

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Picking up what they are putting down

Feeling indignant lately?  Or are you outraged?  Are you feeling that way more often in recent months than you recall from times long ago?  If you are, this is hardly surprising.  Many people are more agitated to begin with, and therefore more irritable, because of the stressful circumstances surrounding the pandemic.  But that is not the worst of it; no, in these days, people are actually working to make us indignant; people are actually paid to elicit our outrage.  They have the best tools, and they are good at what they do.  So more often than you would like, you feel like you could spit nails. 

In this era of virtual communication, social distancing, and personal isolation, circumstances are ripe for developing a conviction that other people are SO WILDLY DIFFERENT FROM YOU in attitude, priorities, and behavior, that you have little or nothing in common with them.  Disdain grows naturally with distance.

Our Lord wants better for us.  He wants joy, not outrage, to be our lot.  If your first instinct is to assert that you would be plenty happy if those other outrageous people would simply shut up and go away, then reject that impulse and listen to the great, long homily we call the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with what we all know as The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12).   Another way to put that would be “The Happinesses,” or “The Joys;” and if not all of them, at least one would surprise you.  

In a sermon on the Beatitudes, Saint Leo the Great, who was Pope A.D. 440 – 461, draws our attention to the happiness offered to those who mourn.  Crazy, you say?  I beg you, consider:

After preaching the blessings of poverty, the Lord went on to say: Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. But the mourning for which he promises eternal consolation, dearly beloved, has nothing to do with the ordinary worldly distress; for the tears which have their origin in the sorrow common to all mankind do not make anyone blessed. There is another cause for the saints, another reason for their blessed tears. Religious grief mourns for sin, one’s own or another’s; it does not lament because of what happens as a result of God’s justice, but because of what is done by human malice. Indeed, he who does wrong is more to be lamented than he who suffers it, for his wickedness plunges the sinner into punishment, whereas endurance can raise the just man to glory. (Sermo 95, 4-6)

To mourn the sin, the bad action, of some other person, helps us to find and focus on what we have in common with him, and nurtures the charity that brings life to us, and to the world.  To recognize that the sinner, even the egregious sinner, is VERY NEARLY JUST LIKE US AFTER ALL in that he is human and weak, fallible and afraid, and therefore vulnerable to eternal misery and death, is an act of charity.  It is a greater act of charity to desire some other outcome than damnation for that person’s choice to sin.

Imagine how painful was Jesus’ grief over your sin, and mine, that He willingly took up and endured the cross to rescue us, offering us rescue from the pit we ourselves had dug.  His own mother, Our Lady of Sorrows whom we celebrated this very week, stood by His cross grieving his death, and grieving her loss, but no less mourning the cause: your sin and mine.  This great grief accomplished redemption and rescue, but fresh sin brings yet fresh grief.

When confronted with the bad actions of another, whether presented to us by a professional grievance-monger or by a well-intentioned amateur, you and I have the power to escape indignation, and refuse outrage.  Mourn the sin; pray for the sinner.  Now enter in to the joy of your Lord.  (Mt 25:23)

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Not made for infamy

Mark the days and mark the years and see the distance you have come; but raise your eyes from your own steps, look up: and see the distance yet to go.     

Mark the days and find us here again, the weekend after Labor Day, the first Sunday after summer’s end.  Not yet fall, a new season nonetheless.  By official count, the year begins the first of January; liturgically, the first of Advent; but for a parish, life’s year begins with the return to school, the return of certain sports, the resumption of Religious Education classes, of choir and Community Sunday.  We resume and rejoice.

Mark the days, and mark twenty years since we looked up in shock to see our shining towers burn, and fall.  We looked round in fear for another plane to fall from the sky into our own city; we looked and watched and waited for our loved ones to return, having sent them off that crystal morning toward that familiar monument, its five-sided symmetry now smashed and scorched.

A bright day recurs.  The joy and hope of a new school year, of crisp fresh autumn and books and shoes and getting bigger and smarter, of learning and growing to the full measure of human nature and ability.   The return from vacation, from dispersion to faraway places and diverse experiences, reuniting in the communion that nurtures our families and our faith.  The restoration of right worship where limits and restrictions had prevented and pushed apart what God calls together.  The fabric of life, human and divine, knit together once again by hundreds of hands and hearts, warms the affections and feeds the soul.  

A dark day recurs.  Memory serves to mark where we were when we first saw, when we first understood, and when we grieved.  Mark that moment, and mark the impulse that raised our eyes to God in prayer, prayer for help, prayer for deliverance, prayer for understanding.  Many will tell you, for their own purposes, what of our world, what of our nation, and what of our life has changed since then; and many will tell you, to scare you, what is the same.  Mark for yourself, however, the distance you have come since that day.  Are you closer to, or further from, the God to Whom you looked to save you?  

We mark the dark days, we mark the bright.  Year by year, the days return, the seasons too; they bring their remembrances and they bring their promise.  The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come (Mark 4:28-29)

We mark the day they rolled the stone across the tomb (it was a large one); and the day that stone was rolled away, the tomb found empty.  Where have you taken HimWhy do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here.  Not one day in the year, Easter, but one day in seven, Sunday, is the day of the Lord, Whom the tomb could not hold.  We mark it weekly, we mark it together; we mark it in obedience, and we mark it in freedom.  We remember what was on that day, so that we can see and recognize and believe the One Who Is in our days.  

It is right and just to remember what we have endured, and what and whom we have lost.  Memory nurtures prayer, and our prayer brings the ones remembered closer to the light.   Prayer nurtures hope, and hope directs our eyes from the darkness toward the light, and with our eyes, our feet and our hearts as well.  In hope, we bring our children and our friends, our voices and ourselves, weary or jubilant, together to the light.   

We teach memory; we teach hope.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  (John 1:5)   Mark the days and mark the years and see the distance you have come; but raise your eyes from your own steps, look up: and see the distance yet to go.  

 Monsignor Smith

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Better than Booksmart

The students are on campus again!

While it can be asserted that the Church operates according to the liturgical calendar, and there is plenty of evidence of that around here, it can also be observed that the stronger schedule and dominant calendar around this campus is the academic calendar.  

That is the calendar that dictates when our school has kids in it, six days a week: Monday through Friday for our parish school, and Sunday for our religious education programs.  The teachers and staff are there early as well as late, and parents are coming and going in their vehicles across the pavements, often with alacrity.  With all this curricular activity comes the extracurricular activity on our sports field, afternoon, evening, and weekend, also generating its own mini-beltway-ballet of SUVs around the rectory drive.  Looking back at the fading days of summer, it is tempting to ask Wasn’t all that quiet nice?  But the shrieks and giggles of learning and playing small people is a delightful din.  

And so it began this past week with all due solemnity on the playground lot by the school, as the kids lined up with their classmates for their teachers, and their moms and dads and younger brothers and sisters looked on all about.  Welcomes were given, prayers and blessings bestowed, and allegiance pledged.  Then by grade they filed, and bounced, and chattered, into their new classrooms to begin the endeavor that we have all come to appreciate more over the past eighteen months.

Meanwhile, as you have gathered by now, students are in the rectory again too.  Having bid farewell both to our previous student, Father Berhorst, and our parochial vicar, Father Russo, we rejoiced this week to welcome two new student priests.  Two weeks ago, I told you about Father Santandreu, of Buffalo; today’s news is that Father Michael Novajosky of the Diocese of Bridgeport moved in last Saturday.  He even offered one of the parish Masses the next day, Sunday.  Now that’s coming up to speed quickly!  

Like Fr. Santandreu, Fr. Novajosky is beginning the serious work of obtaining a degree in Canon Law.  As bishops occasionally do, his bishop informed him fairly late in the summer of this plan, so his application and other logistics were prepared late in the game.  By the time he was ready to find a residence, he was almost as pleased to find he could live here with us as I was to learn that he would be coming.  Please extend a hearty Saint Bernadette welcome to him, while you continue to do so, warmly, to Fr. Santandreu.  All indications are that it will be a cordial and vigorous rectory community.

Over the past fifteen years, we have had at least one student priest in residence here all but one year, and two from 2013 to 2015 when we were without a parochial vicar as we are now, plus some summertime students.  I have found this most helpful to me personally, not only because of their help with priestly work such Masses and confessions, but also because of the good company they provide, and the contribution they make to the intellectual life of the rectory.  They are studying intensely a subject important to the life of the Church, and thinking about it seriously.  This spills over into our conversations, and I wind up learning from them, and along with them.  Similarly, the whole parish benefits, sharing the fruits of their academic studies as well as their experiences in parishes of other dioceses.  

Faith seeks understanding, as Saint Augustine asserted.  This is what our minds are for.  So as you see the kids coming and going, and encourage the ones around you to make the best of their opportunities to learn, heed your own advice.  Remember that we all are in a position to grow in our knowledge and love of God through study and intellectual engagement with the intellectual heritage of the Church.  

So, here it is Labor Day, and once again, in the school, in the rectory, and in the pews, the students are on campus.

Monsignor Smith