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St. Charles Borromeo, pray for us

Posted on 04 November 2015 by patmarrin

"Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27).

Today's gospel passage begins with a description of Jesus at the height of his popularity. Huge crowds are following him as he moves from town to town preaching and working miracles. Jesus turns and tells the crowds what he has already told his closest disciples -- that their enthusiasm must reckon with the reality that anyone who wants to follow him must go through a profound conversion that will cost them everything, including their lives.

Mention of the cross, as scripture scholar Fr. Roger Karban emphasizes, is not a reference to crucifixion, which has not happened to Jesus yet, but to the Greek letter T (tau), the symbol for life, and which in this context referred to the specific burden and responsibility each individual has for their own life. Anyone who has not come to terms with his or her own life situation and vocation cannot claim to be either a mature human being or a servant of God.

Jesus was saying, in effect, that he was determined to do God's will, which would include his prophetic struggle in Jerusalem and his death. Anyone who wanted to follow him had to do the same, whatever the cost. Jesus tells two little parables to illustrate the challenge of discerning God's will and knowing your real vocation. Someone planning to construct a tower must know the full cost and labor ahead before he begins. A king facing an approaching enemy had better know his own troop strength before he goes out to defend his kingdom. Those who rush to the challenge without knowing the full cost and effort involved will fail.

This is a paradox, for the truth is that few of us really grasp the full cost of what we undertake, whether in choosing a career, in marriage, parenting, or any vocation we attempt. What Jesus asks of his disciples is the whole-hearted desire to follow him and the willingness to undergo continuous conversion and the necessary learning curve that opens us to greater life guided by God's grace.

The disciples all stumbled, failed, but then recovered to complete their vocations. In the end, they all succeeded not by their own efforts but by the grace of God. Their failures taught them mercy, the essence of the Gospel they preached to others. Holiness is a gift to the big-hearted and humble servants who give their best efforts, knowing that only God can complete the mission.

On this feast of St Charles Borromeo, bishop of Milan (1538-1584), we pray especially for Bishop James Johnston, who will take up the tau and the challenge of serving the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri as its chief shepherd.


Come to the Feast

Posted on 03 November 2015 by patmarrin

Go out into the streets and alleys and bring in the poor, the blind and the lame" (Luke 14:21).

A wedding banquet in Jesus' time was a big deal, and once preparations were begun there was no turning back. Food was cooked, animals slaughtered and roasted, wine barrels tapped, tables set, garments created, musicians hired -- everything we think of today, but in a world without phones or refrigeration

A bridegroom journeyed by procession to the house of the bride, arrival time announced by messengers along the way, as other servants rushed to tell the invited guests to come to the feast. In a culture steeped in a strict honor code, tribal obligations and table reciprocity, refusing to come to a banquet was a deep insult. It wasn't just a father standing in an empty hall with his weeping daughter, but an attack on his social standing in the community.

Luke uses this shocking scene to describe the failure of Israel to respond to Jesus' invitation to come to the nuptial of its covenant with God. The wedding is then thrown open to social outcasts and gentiles, a complete upending of the hierarchy of privilege, status and loyalty. God's gift, once offered, is not withdrawn, but flows freely to others. Luke sees in this parable the extending of the promise from the Chosen People to outsiders -- from exclusive to universal salvation. The replacement wedding crowd would have delighted St. Martin De Porres, whose feast we celebrate today.

Catholics, especially leaders, may face the same shock to realize that the Holy Spirit is loose in the world, pouring out gifts on anyone who is living the Gospel of justice, peace and inclusion, even without knowing it. Those who think membership guarantees status will be surprised to learn that the revolution is going forward without them, or that their inaction has made them a part of the problem and not the solution.

Pope Francis, representing the global church, has shocked some of his fellow bishops by projecting the heart of the church from the inner circles of privilege to the margins of poverty and exclusion, where true evangelization by example is ongoing, especially by religious sisters, young people and through collaboration between church and secular agencies committed to serving the victims of global displacement and exploitation.

The wedding is on, the invitations have gone out, a banquet of justice and love is being prepared for those who are building a different future for our troubled, violent world. Check your mailbox, RSVP today, plan to be there. This is the joy of the Gospel.

All Souls Day

Posted on 02 November 2015 by patmarrin

"The souls of the just are in the hand of God" (Wis 3:1).

The Commemoration of All Souls is a celebration of the deepest intuition human beings hold and faith confirms-- that love is stronger than death.

The fact of death is incontrovertible, a reality we confront at every funeral. But hope refuses to accept that we will never see our beloved family and friends again. The Paschal candle, the white cloth covering the casket, the songs and readings hold us together and lift us up in our darkest hour by proclaiming that love trumps death.

If life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, the community of faith surrounding the bereaved proclaims that hello will triumph because God keeps every promise and our baptismal union with Jesus Christ cannot be broken. "Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8: 39).

For Catholics of a certain age, All Souls Day once prompted us to visit our churches throughout the day to say the prayers that gained plenary indulgences for the souls in purgatory. The theology that defined that era was less important than the deep solidarity people felt with their deceased family members and friends. We posted bond and paid bail to get them out of detention and on their way to heaven, where reunion in eternity has always been the promise, dream and belief.

Today, in churches everywhere solemn remembrance and prayers with sung litany of the saints, a parish "book of the dead" and photos of loved ones fulfill the same sense of solidarity. Our communion with one another is unbroken. The dead are among us, their journeys complete as they now become a source of encouragement and love for us. Don't be afraid, stay on course, keep the faith.

As I post this I am receiving word that Dominican Sister Bede Frahm, who turned 100 just last July, died Saturday night in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is now among the holy people we call the church triumphant, welcomed into heaven by her good friend Bishop Ken Untener and thousands of other people she served as a community cook and beloved mentor during her long years of service. I am reassured to know that Bede is with God in the great mystery we celebrate today as church. She is now watching over her dear friend, Sr. Maureen Flanagan, countless others, and even me. This is the joy of the Gospel, come full circle, whole and complete. Thanks be to God.


Lord, I Want to Be in that Number

Posted on 31 October 2015 by patmarrin

“Beloved, see what love he Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God” (1 John 3:1).

Because Halloween, a commercialized version of the “hallowed eve” of All Saints Day is such an important holiday (holy day) for children, it oddly enough accomplishes its original purpose. Children get to decide who they want to be as they grow up and go out into the world. They become heroes and princesses, athletes and movie stars, even monsters. They are exploring their emerging identities and their emotional needs in a revealing way.

Over 60 years ago, when bags filled up quickly with apples, home-made popcorn balls and penny candy, I went trick-or-treating as a pint-sized, buck-toothed and bespectacled Robin Hood. In those days, parents stayed home, and we roamed freely a designated four-block perimeter of familiar neighbors. What I remember most was the sense of importance I felt as I donned my costume. I was one of the “good guys” in the struggle between virtue and greed, poverty and wealth, and my role was to take from the rich (adults) and give to the poor (us kids). If it didn’t rain on my paper hat and feather, I returned home with enough candy to last until Christmas, the next major bonanza in our lives.

What I had little sense of then but can celebrate now is how much children need to imagine who they want to be. Halloween is one small marker on the road pointing them toward adult lives and vocations in the world. And just below the surface of their fantasies lies the dream of wholeness and purpose that is for all of us the call to holiness. We are all destined to be saints, big S or small s. How we navigate this journey of self-discovery is called life. Only toward the end do we see what we have become because of our choices and the circumstances that shaped and challenged us.

The song “When the Saints Go Marching in,” so identified with Carnival in New Orleans, reminds us that life is about joining the parade of sainthood body and soul. The Beatitudes in today’s Gospel, describe our upside down discipleship with Jesus, who gave himself in service, mercy, sorrow, a passion for justice, a commitment to peace and the acceptance of resistance all prophets face in promoting a better world. The parade we joined includes martyrs and outcasts, ordinary people like us who labor quietly for decency, order and beauty for themselves, their children and especially for those left outside the world’s image of success.

The Kingdom of God must first be imagined, then lived, for it to make sense in a world slow to understand downward mobility as the path to glory. We rejoice that this is our calling and that we do not travel alone but have each other.

Sainthood is a family matter, contagious at family gatherings like Sunday Eucharist, where we sing songs we know by heart and share stories that inspire and instruct us. Holiness shows in our family resemblance to God, whose beloved children we are. Jesus, our brother, leads the parade as the pioneer of our salvation. He is what I want to be when I grow up. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Paul's Anguish and Quandry

Posted on 30 October 2015 by patmarrin

“Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath or not?” (Luke 14:3).

When Jesus heals a man suffering from dropsy on the Sabbath, it sets up one of many confrontations in the gospels over whether human need supercedes ritual and legal observance.

As Luke was composing his Gospel, the early church was slowly separating itself from its Jewish origins as it attracted more and more gentile converts. This must have been difficult transition for many Jewish Christians, who felt they were losing their spiritual homeland and identity. Despite the joy of their faith in Jesus and the freedom from the Law, separation from family, vital traditions and cultural ties must have caused great stress for these believers.

St. Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles responsible for the expansion of the church beyond its Jewish roots, writes of his own personal anguish In Romans 9 as conflicts heated up between the rabbis, who saw Jesus as a heretic and lawbreaker, and Christian preachers, who accused Jews of rejecting God's plan and losing God's promise. This rupture was to become a deep would that has defined church history even into our present time.

For Paul the question was whether the new covenant in Jesus replaced the old covenant between God and Israel, and if so, what did this mean for Israel. Were Jews cut off from God's love forever? And how could this be, since God's promises were forever. Paul's suffering was so deep that he said he would be willing to be lost if only his Jewish brothers and sisters could be saved. His solution was to affirm both covenants as absolute and eternal.

This became the basis for Nostra Aetate ("In Our Times"), the Vatican II document on Jewish-Christian relations promulgated 50 years ago. God’s promise to his Chosen People is irrevocable, and the continuity between Judaism and Christianity is essential to the fulfillment of both faith communities. The document sought to heal a breach going back to the first century that had sown seeds of division and destruction, including the scourge of Christian anti-Semitism.

The greatest miracle of healing is yet to be completed — the restoration of all the People of God, Jewish and Christian, to one family whose diversity is a source of great creativity and challenge. No rule, prejudice, theology or doctrine is more important than this reconciliation, and we are all invited to participate in its accomplishment.

To Jerusalem

Posted on 29 October 2015 by patmarrin

"I must continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem" (Luke 13:32).

In April of 1986, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr went to Memphis to support the striking garbage workers, knowing that the FBI was routinely withholding credible reports of threats against his life. J. Edgar Hoover called him “the most dangerous man in America,” and was using the resources of the agency to undermine his leadership and to intimidate him in every way possible.

King’s final speech the night before he was assassinated revealed how fully aware he was of the danger he was in, that he was not likely to survive to see the Civil Rights Movement achieve its goals. Yet he was convinced of the rightness of the cause and the inevitability of its success. Resigned to whatever was to happen to him personally, King completed his speech by saying, "I just want to do God's will."

The Pharisees, always cagey and duplicitous in Luke's Gospel, tried to deter Jesus from completing his journey to Jerusalem by warning him that King Herod was after him. Herod, who had had John the Baptist beheaded to please his dancing stepdaughter, was both venal and unpredictable, so the threat was real.

Jesus showed his determination to go to Jerusalem, "where all the prophets die," and expressed his disdain for Herod by calling him "that fox." Jesus knew what his mission was, and he was likewise committed to completing it at any cost; he was listening only to the Spirit and to the prophecies that would be fulfilled by his death. There was no turning back.

Jesus had earlier had spoken of a baptism of fire he was to undergo, and how eager he was to complete it. Three decades later, St. Paul faced his own fiery baptism in Rome, rejoicing that he had run the course despite great suffering and opposition and that he had kept the faith.

Each of us is on his or her own journey to the Jerusalem of our mature acceptance of God's will in our lives. After all is said and done and every other lesser goal is met or surrendered, the one thing necessary is to complete our story within the loving grace of God.

A lifetime of listening, obedience in small things and self-emptying love is how we will know that we walk the final mile with Jesus, whether with joy or in tears. To follow him is to be on the road to glory. There is no other way to God, whose will is all there really is.


Sinners Welcome Here

Posted on 28 October 2015 by patmarrin

“Jesus went up to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. When day came, he called his disciples to himself…” ( Luke 10:12).

We see the many scriptural references woven into Luke's description of Jesus when he chose the Twelve. He first spends the night in prayer on the mountain, just Moses and Elijah did when communing with God. Jesus will fulfill the Law and the Prophets in what he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem.

But he will not do this alone. By choosing 12 companions Jesus is reconstituting the 12 tribes of Israel. The Apostles represent the whole the People of God. Yet it is in the selection of these specific individuals that we see the stunning paradox of God's redemptive plan.

They are far from perfect. Instead of heroes, Jesus surrounds himself with cowards and sinners, blind to his mission and obstructing it at every turn. Yet in a deeply mysterious way the church will only see in hindsight, it is their obvious flaws and inadequacies, their stubborn and quarrelsome immaturity that will reveal the power of Jesus to redeem and reconcile the worst qualities in human nature to produce the new model of humanity God saw from the beginning.

Peter will fail Jesus in his hour of greatest need. The others will run away. Judas will betray his beloved Master to death. Jesus, the greatest paradox of all, will accomplish his mission by dying on the cross, an apparent total defeat and a crushing blow to the hopes of all his companions.

But out of this inexplicable disaster will rise the new creation, humanity healed of its estrangement to God and restored to the original plan of a divine destiny. The choice of so many flawed people for apostles made them representatives of every kind of sin and alienation, including betrayal and suicide.

The gathering up of these broken lives into the glorified body of Christ is the sign of God’s reconciliation with a sinful world and the gift of mercy offered to all, even those who murdered Jesus. There is no limit to God’s mercy for us while we were sinners. The door is open, the light is on, and every lost soul is invited to come home to a loving God. The risen Jesus, still bearing the marks of his crucifixion, comes to his disciples and his first words are “Peace.”

For all of us, is this not the joy of the Gospel?


God is Everywhere

Posted on 27 October 2015 by patmarrin

“What is the Kingdom of God like? To what can I compare it?” (Luke 13:8).

Today’s readings from Romans 8 and Luke 13 are worth copying on a piece of paper to fold and place in a pocket. To carry them around today (or to learn them by heart) would be like having a personal map to heaven. These words hold the full joy and promise of the Gospel.

(Paste this link in your browser to see the full readings every day: Click on the small calendar to find the date.)

Paul describes the groaning of creation to achieve its full glory as redeemed by Christ. We who are in Christ also groan as we await the redemption of our bodies, the gradual but entirely natural unfolding of our baptismal identity as children of God destined for eternal life.

Luke presents two of Jesus’ shortest parables: God’s presence discerned in the images of a mustard seed and in the yeast. We go to God by the mystery of ordinary growth, starting small but achieving full stature, as grace — like a tiny seed or a small square of yeast that disappears into our everyday lives— becomes active in us.

Our longing for God and our groaning in the trials of life that make us mature are how we know that Christ is alive in us. The paschal pattern, his Passover from the old creation to the new, guides our transformation. Each time we die to ourselves in ordinary acts of surrender to the needs of others, we share in the death of Jesus. Each time we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, we share in his resurrection.

Jesus’ parables should inspire us to see our own parables. A colorful fall day reveals the death of nature, signaling the coming of winter when the seeds of spring lie fallow. The many relationships in our lives offer countless opportunities to be leaven for others, lifting them up, or to be like sturdy trees that allow those who are vulnerable to find safety in our branches, shade from life’s harshness. The kingdom of God is revealed everywhere there is love, forgiveness, patience and encouragement. God is present in every act of kindness or advocacy.

To understand the Gospel, we only need to be the Gospel. Like a message in our pocket, God will show us the secret of life hidden in plain sight everywhere we turn.

Rise Up!

Posted on 26 October 2015 by patmarrin

“When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, ‘Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.’ He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God” (Luke 3:12).

The story of the woman bent over double follows a familiar pattern that includes a healing that is also liberation, a confrontation with religious authorities who are bending the backs of the people with their interpretation of the Law and, finally, a story about the equality of women in the eyes of God.

The woman has been bent over for 18 years. She is present in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus sees her, calls her, touches her and says, 'Woman, you are free of your infirmity.' A wonderful miracle has just occurred, but the leader of the synagogue sees only a violation of the sabbath prohibition of work. As in another story -- the woman taken in adultery -- the authorities do not see the woman as a person at all, only as an object useful to their attacks on Jesus for placing mercy above the rules.

Jesus uses the Law itself to answer the official — that if an animal can be rescued on the sabbath, then why not this “daughter of Abraham”? She is equal to the “sons of Abraham” in the long history of the covenant, but only grace, not the Law, could make her truly righteous (upright). The crowd rejoices to witness this stunning liberation, not just of the woman, but of all those burdened by official legalism. God’s mercy is greater than the Law, and it is given freely. Jesus is fulfilling his mission to “set the prisoners free.”

This public victory over the small-mindedness of formal religion only intensifies the temple establishment's determination that Jesus must be silenced. His preaching is threatening the whole institution. Powerful forces are stirring, and they will place a heavy cross on Jesus to try and bend and break his influence. But in the end, he will "rise up" to liberate us all from sin and death.

As the official church moves forward from the Synod on the Family, the Word of God comes to all of us in the Lectionary to proclaim that the face of God is mercy. How many faithful people, and especially women, have labored under the burdens of patriarchal narrow-mindedness and legalism that protects power and privilege?

Jesus sees those who suffer, calls them to himself, touches and heals them. No power on earth can stop the movement of the Holy Spirit to liberate the oppressed. This is the joy of the Gospel.

No Pencil Preaching Friday, October 23

Posted on 23 October 2015 by patmarrin

Say a prayer for the success of the 50th anniversary celebration for the National Catholic Reporter at Dominican University in River Forest, Il, this weekend. This blog will resume on Monday.

Here is a short reflection for Sunday, October 25, 2015: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

On the Road with Jesus

“What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:50).

The story of Bartimaeus is filled with themes that touch on our own call to discipleship.

Like all of Luke’s wonderful stories, we are meant to enter the scene, make it real for ourselves and respond in a way that opens us to the same graces and insights being sought by the characters Luke is describing. The Living Word is calling us, here and now.

Bartimaeus is a blind beggar who has lived much of his life on the sidelines, dependent on the charity of others. Whenever a crowd forms, he tries to get their attention and to give him alms, his only source of support. He has already heard about this new prophet and wonder worker, Jesus of Nazareth, and he decides to call out to him when he passes by. He uses a messianic title, “Son of David,” to show that he understands that God promised to send a messiah from the line of King David to save his people.

The crowd tries to quiet him, but Bartimaeus is determined to get Jesus’ attention. Perhaps to his surprise and certainly that of the crowd, Jesus hears and summons him in the midst of noise and confusion. “Jesus is calling you,” they say to him (and to us). “Get up and go to him. This is your big chance.”

The moment is charged with serious consequences, for if he leaves his spot along the road, he might lose it to another beggar, and if nothing happens, what will become of him? But he decides to risk everything, even his cloak, his only possession and protection from the cold nights.

It is in this determination and risk that we see the cost of discipleship. How many people are satisfied to remain on the sidelines, blind and limited, dependent on others but never finding their true calling or taking any chances.

Like the rich young man in last Sunday’s Gospel, Bartimaeus wants more, and he senses that Jesus can help him come into the light and take the next step.

With a question that goes to the heart of the call to discipleship, Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” He can ask for anything, but he asks to see, for sight is the key to every other possibility. If he can see, he can begin to live productively and independently, go where he chooses, support himself, find his way.

But what he sees first when his eyes are opened is the face of Jesus, and this encounter changes him forever. The look of love he receives, then returns, thrills his heart and he knows that there can be no real life for him except to follow Jesus, which is what he does.

What must we do to be saved, to have a full life? Let Bartimaeus be our teacher today, for he has made the journey from the sidelines to the road that leads to Jerusalem in the blessed company of Jesus and the other disciples. It is the road to glory, and once called, we should jump up and follow, for this is what it means to have life.