Friday, October 29, 2021

The Haunted Rectory

The Ugly Pumpkin comes out at twilight to haunt the files of those awaiting Baptism.
The story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman can still raise the hairs on the back of your neck with excitement and trepidation, but the Legend of Sleepy Hollow happened a long time ago and in a village far, far away.   In our own time and in our own region, most of us who drive regularly are convinced that our local roads are haunted by cars with drivers worse than headless.  Now that’s scary.

But hereabouts in the Holy House of Soubirous, the villagers still whisper a tale fraught with menace and trepidation; it is the Legend of the Ugly Pumpkin.  Drained of any healthy color and encrusted with warts, this hideous menace lurked about the rectory for weeks one autumn years ago.  

Rumor was, it found its way from a farm stand in the oddest of places – an empty stretch of Beach Drive between Chevy Chase and Silver Spring, where pedestrians fear to tread alone at night and the wind howls eerily at rare moments when the traffic on East-West Highway subsides.  The pastor slowed down while passing the vegetable array on his way to a nearby nursing home, and when he returned to campus, The Ugly Pumpkin was in the back seat.  Spooky. 

There was no carving it into a jack-o-lantern, nor prettying it up into an Autumn Display.  It presented itself menacingly on various desktops, occasionally donning one or another of the hats that seem to proliferate in this house.  Staffers cried and visitors screamed, until one day it was gone.  Its heinous shell was found scraped clean, along with its stringy innards, in a trash bag in the kitchen.  Forensic investigation yielded no insight.

For years, only its legend remained, and a few blurred photographs that might also show the Loch Ness Monster, or Bigfoot.  Its name is mentioned furtively, in hushed tones, but everyone knows what is meant when you say The Ugly Pumpkin.

Now, it’s back.  After years of vigilance, the pastor grew lax and again visited a farm stand.   No, no, not that same one; he won’t make that mistake again.  This one looked harmless, crowded and bustling.  He left the hatch of his car open to accommodate the four huge chrysanthemums he was buying, while he shopped for gourds and fall vegetables and fruit.  When he returned home, there it was in the passenger footwell: The Ugly Pumpkin.

Rectory workers avoid a certain corner office where it has been sighted.  The mailman won’t come within twenty feet of the front door – when he shows up at all.  Strange sounds are heard from downstairs late at night, which may or may not be a refrigerator door opening and closing.  Nobody can find the dog.

There is only one thing for it.  It may take a few weeks to organize a band of willing villagers with torches to set out together one night, and someone willing to feign helplessness, as bait.  Because around here, we know what to do with An Ugly Pumpkin.

With a cleaver big enough, you simply split it in two, scrape out the stringy bits, and roast the halves in a hot oven.  Roast until tender, a few minutes in a blender, and your Ugly Pumpkin  will render the most marvelous bright orange puree.  Cook that into a custard, get that stuff crusted, and soon enough you’ll have pie of pumpkin, ugly no more.  BWA-HA-HA-HA!  And we’ll all live happily ever after, or at least breakfast well for a few days.  The End.  

Monsignor Smith


Friday, October 22, 2021

Do not just 'honor' them; HELP them!


How frustrating it is to see on the news or in our neighborhood people – modern, otherwise capable people – respond helplessly and cluelessly to death.  They gather at night on lawns and pavilions, hold candles and sway together in large numbers; they pile up flowers and teddy bears and notes that will never reach their addressees.    They put decals on their vehicles, erect crosses and even little shrines by roadsides, and find any number of ways to “honor” the dear departed.
Our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a more excellent way to respond when death robs us.  More than “honor,” we pour out love, and prayer is the form of love that pierces the veil that veils all nations (cf Is. 4).  Yes, prayer is the one work of love that is not thwarted by the separation at death.  The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the prayer that destroys the web that is woven over all nations, that is, death.  

Nothing any of us does, and nothing any of our beloved dead did, is enough to “win” eternal life in heaven.  Only the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Holy Cross accomplishes that.  He does this not for Himself, of course, but for us, so how are we to partake?   The fruit of this “tree” in the garden of Gethsemane is the only antidote to the deadly fruit of the tree in the center of the garden of Eden, and that sweet fruit of the Holy Cross is His life-giving Body and Blood laid upon the Altar at Mass.
We who remember, and still live, are able to apply this saving work to the benefit of our beloved dead by offering our participation in the Holy Mass for the happy repose of their souls.  It is particularly beneficial and powerful for the priest celebrant, who stands before God in persona Christi, to offer his intention in their behalf, as the priest does, for example, at a funeral Mass.   These are powerful tools in our hands; powerful works of love.
The second day of November, Tuesday this year, at 7:30 in the evening, we will offer a Requiem Mass for the souls our parish has commended to the mercy of God over the past twelve months.  Looking at the list of names of the ones we have lost over just this past year, I was amazed at how many of these people were prominent members of the parish, well-known and loved.  Read through it yourself – it will be printed in the bulletin – and see if you don’t know several of them, or their family members here.  Then come, join us and their families at the altar in prayer for these souls.
Come do something for the ones who no longer can choose or do anything for themselves; the ones you love, or remember, who have died, and await their liberation.  The music will be from Gabriel Fauré’s sublime setting of the Requiem Mass, “requiem” being Latin for “rest,” as in, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.”  Jesus’ death and resurrection has left us great power in the face of death, and we should not leave that power untapped.

Click here to listen to the final movement of Fauré's Requiem, the "In paradisum"

You should also be preparing your own list of names for your All Souls intentions.  Add to your roster any of your family and friends whom you have lost this year, and maybe some others as well, such as names you pick up from the news – people you may not know personally, but whose tragic or heroic deaths moved you.  This is something you can do for them, now that they can do nothing for themselves.  You can put it in your envelope with your offering at any time from now on; it will rest on our altar with those provided by everyone else in the parish, and receive the intention of one Mass each day throughout the month.
How often do you see the inscription “Never forget” associated with the memory of people who have died?  On all Souls Day, November 2, we Catholics not only remember the dear departed, but we also do something for them.  

Monsignor Smith

Friday, October 15, 2021

What goes up

The several roofs of Saint Bernadette, doing their job -- more or less.
Practical matters are rarely the most fun to discuss.  Vacations are fun to talk about; doing our jobs, not so much.  For example, I could tell you that we needed and obtained a new refrigerator for the rectory kitchen over the past month, but that will hardly have people queuing up to gawk at it, or asking about features.  It is just a refrigerator.

That sense has postponed my sharing with you one of the projects we have actually been pursuing for over a year: the roof on our church.  We have tested it and examined it and repaired it and it just seems to have come to the point that we have to replace it.  Oh, it is not a catastrophe, but since we want to restore, refresh, and repaint the interior of the church, it is something of a prior necessity to make the roof sound and reliable.  I thought we had achieved that four years ago, but developments since then have proven this thought wrong.

It took some time to come to this conclusion, but the evidence keeps coming in.   The past year has been a time famous for the difficulty of getting onto the calendar of a good contractor, and roofing contractors are hardly different.  Our roof is large and complex, and not just any roofer has what it takes to undertake the whole project.   And even if they do have that, it is astonishing how long it takes to prepare a proposal and estimate.  

The heart of the matter is that the various components of the roof that we have repaired since the new roof was installed twenty years ago -- the flashing upgrades, vents, sealers, and such -- are not working together to do their jobs.  And the bugbear of the whole system is the built-in gutters.  These copper liners are inserted into the limestone cornices that surround and distinguish the exterior of our church building, and they are worn out in several places and repaired and worn out again.  They need to be replaced, and to avoid the failures that come from bit-by-bit repairs, the rest of the roof needs to be replaced at the same time, and in a way that locks into the new gutters in the most secure and lasting way possible.

Even after a year or more of trying to get this done, it is still premature to tell you exactly what we are going to do.  But we are close to being able to accept a proposal and move forward, which is a hard prerequisite to doing any of the work for which we conducted our capital campaign over the past three years.  

All of your donations toward that campaign are intact and secure, and none has been spent, In fact, we have even added to the total.  This pause that has been imposed by this very uncertainty about the roof.  We will have to direct some of it toward this roof repair, which is only fitting since that is the first step toward the renewal we desire.   But the good news is that we will be able to pay for a large percentage of the roof project with the capital maintenance funds of the parish budget.  That amount is stronger just now because enrollment in the school is up, which frees up church funds for church work.  

Of course, as anybody knows who even pays a passing glance to the news, it is a terrible time to undertake a project like this.  Materials are scarce and costs rising fast, and the contractors are still much in demand.  The supply chain is not our friend right now, to put it mildly.  Nonetheless, we are moving forward and we think we should be able to arrange something soon, though the work might be done months from now, even next year some time.

It took us almost a month to get that new refrigerator for the rectory for these same reasons, but for certain necessities these difficulties must be forborne.  The roof is one of those necessities.  It must be done before we renew the rest of our church.  Once this is scheduled, then we can start the project we are all so eager to see; that will be enjoyable. 

Practical matters are rarely the most fun to discuss, but fun doesn’t keep the church dry.  

Monsignor Smith


Friday, October 08, 2021

Link to the Missing

You haven’t seen them in so long, you might have forgotten their faces – but you have not.  They sat just a few rows ahead of you most Sundays.  You did not often speak with them, maybe at Community Sunday occasionally, or one time to encourage them when one of their kids was having a really rotten morning.  Maybe you held the door for them, back when they were hobbling after surgery. 

You haven’t seen them in so long, you almost have become accustomed to their absence.   Look in the direction where you used to see them; search the other parts of the church to see if they are there instead.  What were their names again?  How old was their youngest – last you saw them?

You know them in the way that we know the people whose days and activities overlap with ours.   There are people we know from our commutes, from our shopping, from the sports we watch, and the games our children play, from our doctor and dentist visits, and from the building we work in, and the places we eat when we are out.  We have something in common with those people, and we may even know their names.  

But you also know these people in another way, more than that, because you have prayed with them.  You have shared with them in the very Body and Blood of Jesus, God.  You could tell when they were having a heavy week, or a delightful one.  You genuinely wanted for them what would be good; you asked God to bless them, even sometimes without realizing.

You do not know why they are not there.  Perhaps they moved away; a number of our favorite folks have, for this is a transient town.  Perhaps they have been become ill, or disabled.  Or perhaps they are simply not coming.

Some people are afraid, and are staying away.  Some people count it as caution.  Some have lost the habit, or the motivation, or the inclination.   And some few might even think they are happier not coming.  There is never a shortage of reasons, but right now reasons seem to hang ripe from the very trees.

You understand these reasons; so do I.  But that does not fill the place these people, our brothers and sisters, have in our lives, and our parish.  It seems genuinely un-neighborly just to forget and let them go.  They need this, and we want them to have it.  We want them to continue to be a part of this, to return to being a part of us, this unique and local reality that is the assembled members of the Body of Christ, this church.

Before you forget their faces, before you forget the places that they knelt to pray and stood to sing, kneel today in your own accustomed place, and pray for them.  Pray for our loving God to convey to them the grace and power of the everlasting desire for divine intimacy and personal communion than can be satisfied on earth only here, at the banquet of the Lamb.  

Ask Our Lord, Who loves them and loves us far more than we manage to love one another, to make them aware of the love that waits for them here.   Ask Jesus to awaken in them the memory of His presence, His comfort, and His care, which they enjoyed and came to count on when they came together here with us.  Ask the Holy Spirit to remove all obstacles that the Tempter has placed between them and our Communion, to make short and straight the path that will bring them to their places before the Lord, and close to us, in the divine worship.

Tell Mary you miss them; she understands what it is to long for someone who is away.  Ask Saint Bernadette to take their hand and lead them to this holy place where they will be safe.  Pray for them like you pray for your own family, for indeed they are.

You haven’t seen them in so long; but you have not forgotten them.  And neither have the rest of us.

Monsignor Smith


Friday, October 01, 2021

Ask a simple question

He was the newest member of the faculty at the seminary, and the only Jesuit.  Faculty were as intimidated by him as students, and he seemed to be amused by that.  I was one of the new class of seminarians, and the first from the Archdiocese of Washington in 25 years.  That seemed to intimidate the faculty, too, as if I had more significance than being just a seminarian, like maybe a spy or something.  

We new seminarians were still in orientation, before class even started, learning the practices, culture, and expectations of the seminary.  Each seminarian had to choose two faculty members to be his personal formation team: a spiritual director for the internal forum, that aspect of formation that is off-limits to evaluators with a privacy akin to that of the confessional; and a faculty advisor, the external forum member who handled academics, apostolic work, the personal and social aspects of seminary – pretty much everything else.  

Since he and I were both outsiders, it seemed the sensible thing for me to do to ask him to be my faculty advisor, so I scheduled a meeting with him to see if he would take me on.  He was not getting many other inquiries.  It was something like a job interview, with him asking the questions to see if he would accept me.  One of them is still as clear as if we spoke last month:  Are you ideological?  he asked me.  

Dividing everybody in the Church into ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ is not a new phenomenon, and seminaries are hardly immune to the syndrome.  Not only that, but a bunch of men uprooted from their lives and entering a place and a process that exists explicitly to form them will be trying to fit in and find friends, as well as identify people who share their priorities, whom they can trust, and whom they will allow to lead them.  Everybody was sizing everybody up and making these important decisions, but that does not necessitate dividing everybody into left and right, much less them and us. 

Are you ideological?  The question gave me pause, as I did indeed have some expectations and priorities according to which I was making my decisions.  But no, I realized;  I am not guided by ideology.  So I answered: No, I am idealistic.  We talked a bit more, and he was my advisor for my year in that seminary.  It was a fruitful relationship.

This exchange has come back to me lately, as everything and everyone seems to be embracing or assigned an ideology.   It is hard to avoid, as this is the running ‘narrative’ (a word that does not mean only what it used to mean) imposed to explain everything and describe everybody.  But it is a bad fit, dividing everybody into left and right, into ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.  It is especially destructive in the household of the Church, where there can be no them and us.  Sure, politics is what happens whenever people are involved in numbers exceeding one.   But politics is not the big story among the members of Christ’s Body on earth.  

Everything good comes from God and leads to God.  The Church is a divine institution filled with human beings, NOT a human institution.  God’s Word is eternal, and took flesh to dwell among us.  By Baptism we are made members of that body, and by Holy Communion united in that flesh.  Jesus’s words will not pass away, and He will not leave us orphans.  

Almost thirty years after I was asked, I know my answer was honest and accurate, and I am still an idealist.  It gets me into trouble because my expectations for everybody and everything in the Church, including my flawed fragile self, are so high; the ideal, in fact.  But the Faith also makes me a realist who knows that every person is a sinner and everything man-made is flawed and starts to crumble as soon as it is made.  

These two aspects of human existence, ideal and real, are not incompatible, but complimentary.   Human nature craves the ideal, but stumbles over reality, requiring it to request repair and restoration.  Divine nature, the ideal we crave, rather than remain distant and unattainable, pours out perfection as response to the request.   This is no ‘narrative’ but the Narrator’s own Story of Salvation.  This unchanging truth is now and forever our only hope, and in hope we were saved.  (Rom 8:24)

Honesty and situational awareness would make us acknowledge the forces both personal and social that surround us are working, for their own purposes, to ideologize us.  They are not from God, nor do they love us.   Am I ideological?  might be a good question to ask yourself as you come before the Lord.  I think most of us would wish to answer No.  The first and most frequent step in the direction of making that answer true is to turn our eyes toward the soul who stands before us, and see someone who, like us, is not ideological and does not wish to be. 

Monsignor Smith