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Good Fruit, Bad Fruit

Posted on 25 June 2014 by patmarrin

“By their fruits you will know them” (Matt 7:16).

The late theologian Fr. Ivan Illich once observed that “the corruption of the best is the worst.” He was referring to the long history of damage done to the mystery of the church when the Gospel message of Jesus gets distorted.

His observation captures our own abhorrence for the clergy sex abuse crisis. Pedophilia is a pathology present in other groups and in the culture as a whole, but when a priest abuses a child it violates a sacred trust on which all sacramental ministry depends. Christ is present in the power of human touch – holding a child, anointing and embracing one another, the closeness of the shared meal, the laying on of hands, sexual intimacy in marriage. Anyone who enters the sacred web of relationships with the intent to abuse someone to satisfy his or her own needs is, in Jesus’ words, a "wolf in sheep’s clothing."

Because human beings are opaque, we can present ourselves by appearance before reality, style before substance. It takes a while before we know another’s true motives and agendas. But over time, if we are not duped by our own desires, we see through the surface to what another person is really like. “By their fruits you will know them,” Jesus said. Pay less attention to what someone says and more to what they do, and note the effects of their activity over time. A good tree will bear good fruit. A rotten tree will bear bad fruit. A sincere person builds up community. A manipulative or dishonest person will harm the community.

The Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure of heart,” describes the sincerity and transparency of those who see and reflect God’s own holiness in the life of the community. To pray for this blessing is a key to Pope Francis’ call to live in the joy of the Gospel.

John is his name

Posted on 24 June 2014 by patmarrin

“Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength, yet my reward is with the Lord” (Isaiah 49:4).

We remember John the Baptist today, declared by Jesus to be the “greatest person ever born of woman” as precursor to the even greater dignity bestowed by grace on those called to enter the kingdom of God.

Yet on the historical face of it, John’s life could easily seem an abject failure. Born of aged parents, he was drawn into the wasteland as a wild prophet whose radical message attacked the temple establishment and religious experts as a “brood of vipers.” His short life ended in prison and with brutal decapitation when he dared to publicly call King Herod an incestuous adulterer.

Among the many paradoxes of salvation history is God’s apparent use of human failure to advance the triumph of love and reconciliation. John’s execution foreshadows Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul’s beheading, Peter’s upside-down crucifixion and the violent persecution of the early church only seemed to spur growth. In Tertullian’s famous words: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of conversion.”

Doing God’s will in our own lives may mean entering deeply and anonymously into the ordinary work of building up community, holding tradition in place while adapting it to changing circumstances, suffering silently as the many ambitious and ego-driven agendas play out all around us. Being faithful, as Dorothy Day often said, is more important than being successful. God alone sees the whole story and blesses those hidden servants who become the enduring cornerstones of the church in every generation.

No doubt many bishops and priests belong in this blessed group. And the many religious sisters and brothers who have labored without recognition or honor. And surely all the parents, mentors and servants, inside and outside the church, whose very lives make up the warp and woof of the seamless garment of love that has advanced civilization itself.

So today we honor the great hero John, and with him all those who hear God’s voice and act upon it.

Pencil Preaching is Back

Posted on 23 June 2014 by patmarrin

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Matt 7:1).

Pope Francis could not have been clearer in expressing his desire that the church turn a more merciful face to the world than when he startled reporters and not a few of his fellow bishops with the now famous reply to a question about gay members of the church: “Who am I to judge…?” If the pope, one of the great moral teachers in the world and, for Catholics at least, an infallible source of truth, declines to pass judgment, how can any of us put ourselves in that place of superior insight and authority over another human being?

This does not mean that certain actions cannot be judged harmful or unjust, as the pope demonstrated just this past week after visiting victims of violence by the Italian crime syndicates. Any Catholic who participates in these murders is automatically excommunicated, Francis declared. Condemnation is reserved for the most heinous crimes, even if we cannot judge the motives or freedom of the individuals who commit them (and forgiveness is always possible with conversion).

Jesus also condemned many types of behaviors, especially harming the innocent, scandalizing the weak, or acting hypocritically. But in today’s Gospel, he addresses one of the most debilitating patterns within every human personality – the impulse to judge others. Jesus warns against this not just because it makes mutual forgiveness that much harder, but because those who judge are actually boxing themselves into their own judgments. “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you,” Jesus said.

People who are constantly judging others become crabbed and enclosed by their own high standards and spend all their time and energy keeping track of other people’s faults. Judgmental people are always right, and who wants to be around them? They get trapped in their own self-righteousness. They cannot allow themselves the freedom to make and admit mistakes, to apologize, let go and start over, which is the very essence and the joy of the church of mercy Pope Francis wants.

Begin today with a general amnesty. We are all sinners. We are all works in progress. So let everyone off the hook. You will be surprised by how unburdened and free you yourself will be. A day without judging is a day of grace, and it is ours for the asking.

Pencil Preaching on Holiday

Posted on 13 June 2014 by patmarrin

Dear Readers:

Today's first reading from 1 Kings 19 seems a propitious invitation to get away for a rest, a chance for my wife and I to see family in Minnesota, including my 102-year-old Aunt Bea. Unlike the prophet Elijah, I won't be going to the mountains to seek God in a tiny whispering voice, but I hope to find some quiet time near a lake, catch up with myself and God away from our offices here in Kansas City.

Pencil Preaching is halfway through its second year. I am grateful for the support of readers who share my love of the daily scriptures. Opening up the Lectionary with the universal church each morning, listening to the Living Voice of God as I read the local paper and have my first cup of coffee has been my compass for the rest of the day. A favorite line from one of the psalms: "A man meets his friend early in the morning," will accompany me to the north country, where crying loons and dragon flies are summer reminders of the state of our world.

My sincere hope is that my own running encounter with the themes found in the daily readings will encourage others to trust their own first impressions, their "pencil thoughts" at first watch over coffee or tea, whether it inspires a homily or just enriches an early morning walk. Word and Spirit are eager to form us in Christ, our own true selves emerging in daily conversion and fresh insight. Whether we are at rest or in the thick of busy lives, the joy of the Gospel is always there.

I will resume Pencil Preaching on Monday, June 23. Hasta la vista. Pat Marrin


Open the Door

Posted on 12 June 2014 by patmarrin

"Settle with you opponent early" (Matt 5:24).

Jesus understood well that a conflict left to simmer takes both sides deeper into their differences and the emotional justification to support them. As the old saying goes: "Don't let the sun go down on your anger." Once anger takes hold, it is like neighbors who cannot resolve a dispute, end up in court, then in jail, when they might have resolved the issue with an apology or ordinary arbitration.

Who has not known people who seem to define their lives by some perceived injustice or family dispute from the past? They tell their side of the story to whomever will listen. So-and-so did this-or-that to me, and it ruined my whole life. In fact, they have chosen to paralyze themselves in this moment, tying a knot in the lifeline for themselves and blaming others for not being fair long after everyone else has forgotten all about the big argument and moved on.

Settle early. Let go. Go forward. Life is short. Do your part to be reconciled even if the other person is not ready or willing. Let time and grace do their holy work. Where quarrels go back in time, make that phone call, write that letter, get back in touch with someone who has hurt you or you have hurt. Get out of prison and declare amnesty for others. Reconciliation is difficult, but it is the essence of the Gospel.

For All the Saints

Posted on 11 June 2014 by patmarrin

“Barnabas was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11:23).

St. Barnabas was just what the early church needed as it laid the foundation for the future. He showed courage when the community in Jerusalem sent him to Antioch to check up on the fearsome Saul, newly converted as Paul. Together they built up the community in the Holy Spirit and faith, gifts Barnabas was personally known for. Like many real pillars, he disappeared into the buried support level of the church on which others would stand. Paul is famous, but he would never have made it as an Apostle without Barnabas.

Most parishes have such people, self-effacing, happy to disappear in the background, yet always there when projects get organized, volunteers are needed, small tasks add up to larger results, whether it is a church festival or a funeral dinner.

Ordinary time requires ordinary faith and service, the steady dedication that holds local churches together in season and out. We rejoice in all the unheralded saints in every parish who show up, stay after to clean up, who go to planning meetings and are always on hand to make things happen. Happy Feast of St. Barnabas to all of you.

Abundant Living

Posted on 10 June 2014 by patmarrin

The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry” (1 Kings 17:14).

Today’s readings focus on flour and oil, salt and light. These simple, basic staples become signs of God’s presence and power in the world and in our lives. Elijah the prophet blesses the poor widow who uses her last bit of flour and oil to make him a small cake and give him a cup of water in time of famine. She and her son will survive and live secure because of their act of generosity.

Jesus tells his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Their words and actions will suffuse all their relationships, seasoning and enlightening everyone with their faith. Ordinary things become symbols of something hidden yet still influencing daily life in their communities.

Catholic life is notably called “sacramental,” filled with spiritual realities that become visible and give quality to our daily interactions. From birth to death, a disciple is surrounded by signs of God’s loving care. From the waters of baptism to the anointing of the sick with fragrant oil, he or she celebrates God’s presence, especially when sharing meals, speaking words of encouragement and forgiveness, in the intimacy of marriage and parenting, in responding generously to the call to serve. The sacraments reveal the mystery of the Incarnation — God with us in the flesh and blood and bones of human existence. We are never alone, and every day is a fresh encounter with God’s gift of friendship.

Be salt, burn brightly for all to see, open your store of flour and oil to a neighbor in need, be quick to share a cup of cold water with anyone who asks. Let life itself affirm the mystery that is never far away. God is as close to you as your next breath and heartbeat. Your very existence is a sure sign that God loves you, has called you by name and is sending you today to be salt, light, flour and oil for others. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Blessed Are You ...

Posted on 09 June 2014 by patmarrin

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” Matt 5:1).

The church ends the Easter season with Pentecost, then begins the long months of “Ordinary Time.” We have had 50 days to ponder the pattern Jesus left us: Die to yourself and rise again to love God and one another in humble, self-emptying service. This is the Paschal Mystery, our union with the crucified and risen Christ, who is now present and active in the world though us, the members of his body, now animated by the gift of his Holy Spirit.

Discipleship begins with the challenge of the Beatitudes. See what happens if you live your life like this – poor in spirit, meek, hungry and thirsty for justice, merciful, clean of heart, peacemakers, enduring resistance with joy. Only the Holy Spirit can make a life like this possible, but begin, one day at a time, one step after another in the direction of greater union with God, now present on the earth through you. Find companions for the journey – other disciples just as hesitant and skeptical as you. Don't be afraid. Try it together, see what happens, go forward.

The pope prays and plants an olive tree in the garden behind the Vatican with representatives of the Palestinian and Israeli people. As the tree grows, so may peace in that troubled “holy” land, slowly taking root, watered with tears, nourished by hope. This is what the Beatitudes look like, foolish and impractical, gestures and words, yet able to bend the arc of history toward justice. What the mind refuses to accept, the heart knows. A different world is possible. A different world is necessary.

Come, Holy Spirit

Posted on 07 June 2014 by patmarrin

"Jesus said to them, 'Peace be with you.' He showed them his hands and his side ... He breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained' ” (John 20:21 ff).

What does the Holy Spirit look like?

Priest poet Raymond Roseliep (1917-1983) offered this scene in one of his poems. Mid-1950s. A college locker room and a noisy group of students getting ready to shoot baskets in the gym. An older student, there on the GI bill, enters the locker room. The younger men make jokes about the "old man" and their eagerness to show him how to play basketball. The man silently takes off his shirt to reveal a long shrapnel scar on his torso.

What does the Holy Spirit look like? Jesus comes among his disciples to give them the spirit that will animate them for their mission of reconciliation in the world. "Peace be with you," he says, then shows them his wounds. They are the cost of his gift of forgiveness and his authority to tell others to forgive one another. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of healing and forgiveness between enemies, the power to let go of hurts that define and divide the community into camps, justify their unresolved conflicts that fester and paralyze hearts from making a fresh start, that destroy the one capacity that makes us both human and Godlike in mercy.

What does the Holy Spirit look like? What does a relationship look like. What does the unique spirit of a community look like? How would we describe the impact of someone's life on friends and family, or the legacy of a significant movement on the culture as a whole?

On the eve of Pentecost 2014, we pray to understand both the Who and the What of God's presence and activity in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. Saying yes to this essential gift is the key to our participation in the mystery of the risen Christ in and through us in the world.

Without the maturity that comes from the Holy Spirit, baptism remains dormant, the Eucharist becomes meaningless. Without the power to respond to violence with nonviolence, hatred with love, there is no church, no continuation of the work of the crucified and risen Christ in the world. Without the Holy Spirit there is no holy breath in us; we remain small and tight in our sins and we never grow up.

It does not need to be this way. So we pray: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and enkindle in us the fire of your love.


Posted on 06 June 2014 by patmarrin

“Feed my lambs” (John 21:16.

Many will pause today to mark in ceremony and private memory the events 70 years ago on the beaches of Normandy that were the beginning of the end of the Second World War in Europe.

Over 10,000 soldiers, one quarter of them American, were killed that day as Allied forces came by sea and air to free occupied France. Over all, the six-year war cost 50 million dead and devastated much of Europe, one of many great violent spasms that made the 20th century the most destructive in world history, including the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States.

In today’s reading from Acts 25, Paul is fatefully rescued from his religious enemies only to be handed over to imperial authority. He is a Roman citizen, entitled to appeal to Caesar. After spending his final years under house arrest in Rome, Paul is thought to have been beheaded at Nero’s order. Acts seemingly softsells Roman violence as the church gradually moves from a Jewish sect to legal status in the empire under Constantine, beginning a long history of entanglement between Church and State.

In the Gospel reading from John 21, Jesus reconciles Peter from his triple denial be eliciting three times his commitment of love. He then confirms Peter as Shepherd, ordering him to feed his lambs and his sheep. The Good Shepherd who laid down his life to protect the flock, defines leadership in the church for the ages to come. It is an uneven history, including warrior popes and bishops who did their patriotic duty in time of war. Witness to the radical pacifism of Jesus is narrow ground occupied by Quakers and Catholics like Dorothy Day. Wars and rumors of war are still the norm, not the exception.

We mourn the dead, their families, their lost potential, the man-made tragedy of conflicts over territory and national hubris that fell so heavily on civilians and young soldiers. We pray for peace, negotiated settlements that redress injustice, reconcile neighbors, place lambs and sheep above profit and propaganda. Never again war. Never again.