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May the Circle Be Unbroken

Posted on 06 May 2015 by patmarrin

“Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:6).

In today's two readings from Acts 15 and John 15, we witness the struggle of the early church to emerge from internal conflict and external persecution to a more stable sense of identity and purpose. Every movement that becomes an organization goes through this difficult process.

The essential charism and inspiration must be preserved -- the mystery of Jesus -- and yet adapted to new circumstances. The church's reliance on the Holy Spirit is evident. They are moving into uncharted waters, daring interpretations of the scriptures and the Jewish traditions that formed them. So they put up their sails and caught the wind.

The Council of Jerusalem, which probably took place in the 50s, some 20 years after the Christ event, brought missionaries Paul and Barnabas back to the "Mother Church" in Jerusalem, where the question of gentile converts had to be decided. Should these pagan initiates be required to become Jews before they could be Christians? In other words, should they have to be circumcised and observe all of the 613 laws of the Torah to share in the grace of forgiveness won by Jesus?

Paul had seen the work of the Spirit in the gentile communities, Moreover, his theology was developing that said that if Christ saves, no other obligations were necessary. The Gospel was precisely this: Gentiles were being welcomed by God into the Covenant with the Chosen People. Universal salvation by union with Christ was all that was needed. To add other requirements diminished the complete saving gift of God in Christ.

This is what the church decided at Jerusalem, and it opened the community to the world. Without this freedom under the Spirit, Christianity would have remained a Jewish sect.

Some say that that the second most important council in the history of the church-- for its universal scope and impact-- was the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). It brought the church out of a tight, juridical fortress mentality into the modern world. It activated the laity to share more fully in their church, and it opened the way to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

Not everyone, including some bishops, were happy with this expansive renewal and openness to the world. They saw greater freedom for the laity as the threat to their authority, and dialogue with other Christian churches and religions as compromising the Catholic church's unique status.

In today's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that to continue to grow in grace they had to remain in unity with him. A branch cut off from the vine withers and dies. So church unity is a key to the Christian life and to an integral understanding of the mission of the church. Councils have been one way the church has adjusted to new challenges. Those who disagree with the fundamental direction the church chooses to take, whether liberal or conservative, must decide to remain or depart. Or resolve their disagreements.

This is why internal reconciliation and mutual forgiveness has always been essential to the unity of the church. United we stand, divided we fall.

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Transfer Moment

Posted on 05 May 2015 by patmarrin

"If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father" (John 14:30).

In the last discourses of Jesus in John's Gospel, when Jesus speaks about "going to the Father" he is referring to his death.

The disciples cannot imagine life without Jesus. But if he does not die, the transfer of his person and mission by the power of the Holy Spirit cannot take place. They are to be his body in the world and in history, extending the mystery of God's redemptive plan in time and space through the church. The time-bound, geographically limited physical presence of Jesus of Nazareth must give way to universal presence of the risen Christ, the pioneer of the New Creation.

Theologically, the Incarnation happens twice: First, in the appearance of Jesus as a human being; and secondly, in the birth of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The divine life now animates the disciples, sent to be Jesus in the world.

The most important threshold any person must cross in their development toward maturity is when they take and internalize all the influences that have shaped them. An adult no longer acts in conformity to the will of another, but freely from their own inner self. This self can be intimately formed in obedience, but full responsibility now rests with the individual. Letting go of our need for approval and fear of punishment is the moment of independence that makes a human being fully mature.

The disciples anguished over this transfer of power and responsibility from Jesus to them, but it was the crucial act that determined the future of the church. And it was not a one-time occurrence. The same transfer must happen for each generation of the church for the mission to continue. We must in our time accept full responsibility for becoming Jesus to the world.

The church desperately needs adults. Without them, the church will remain in a childish state of immaturity characterized by conflict and blame by people who want power without responsibility, truth without dialogue, and peace without reconciliation. The mission of the church must first happen among us. Only then will we have anything to say to the world.

The Trinity Within

Posted on 04 May 2015 by patmarrin

"Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come and make our dwelling with him" (John 14:22).

The final discourses of Jesus in John's Gospel can make for difficult reading, but they give us a profound window into the evolving faith of the Christian community toward the end of the first century.

The death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, their friend, brother and teacher, forced his closest disciples to search the scriptures to understand who he was and what his presence among them meant. The first generations of Christians were Jews, strict monotheists, so Jesus' relationship to the one God was crucial.

John's Gospel explores this question as Jesus speaks of God as his Father and promises that when he returns to the Father, they will send their Holy Spirit to the disciples as teacher and guide. Anyone who loves Jesus and carries out his word will experience the mysterious indwelling of Father, Son and Spirit.

In other words, the mystery of the Incarnation-- God entering human history in Jesus-- will continue in the church. The followers of Jesus will carry God within themselves as the animating and transforming source of their lives and their mission to share this mystery with others. We see in these passages the foundation for the gradual development of the theology of the Trinity. The one God in fact is a community of three divine Persons in love, generating a constant gift of themselves to believers, whose mission was to extend this gift to others.

God dwells in us, as members of the community of God, all our individual gifts fitting together to reveal the many facets of the one God, the source of life and unity drawing the human community toward its divine destiny.

The poet e.e. cummings has a poem that begins, "I am a little church." To think of this as our deepest identity is to open our hearts and imaginations to the profound mystery of life. In our desire to know God, we are all called to be poets and mystics. Is there any idea more compelling, revealing, all-encompassing and as wonderful as this? Carry this mystery within and it will tell you who you are and lead you home to God.

One Thing

Posted on 02 May 2015 by patmarrin

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit” (John 15:4).

While there are few parables per se in John’s Gospel, the metaphor of the vine and the branches enabled the evangelist to express a great deal about Jesus' relationship with his disciples, and with us, the church.

First of all, baptism unites us to Jesus in an intimate, life-sustaining way. We are not just members of the group; we are incorporated into the risen Christ. What the Eucharist affirms is echoed in the union of vine and branches, namely that the very flow of vitality we need to be other Christs is not just an aspect of our lives: It is our life, our very existence. Separate from that source we have no life. Cut from the vine, a branch withers. Without the sap and nutrients flowing from the plant rooted in the earth, we bear no fruit, i.e., no gracious, redemptive activity or influence can flow through us to the community or the world.

Second, a necessary part of increasing the yield from the grape vine is pruning. A disciple can expect to be pruned of extraneous or unfocused activity in order to direct their energy into what is truly productive in God’s eyes. Gardeners who want the perfect rose understand this as they prune away others to concentrate the life of the bush into the prize rose. People in ministry learn quickly that too many activities only lead to exhaustion. Better to do one thing well, go for depth rather than distance, quality over quantity. Choose something you can throw your heart into, that gives you joy, and you will accomplish more good than the busiest apostle eager to save the world.

When Jesus says that his disciples are “consecrated,” the word implies being set apart, cut from everything except the mission. The verb “to decide” has the same meaning. To choose one thing is to set aside everything else. People who try to keep all their options open indefinitely accomplish little and enjoy none of the benefits of commitment. Trail boss “Curly” in the movie “City Slickers,” says that the secret of life is to focus on “one thing.” It doesn’t matter what it is, but if you want to be fulfilled, do one thing well.

Our Communion with Christ is the “one thing” that empowers us to do everything else God asks of us. Renewing our minds and hearts at the Table of the Lord is the secret of holiness and effective service. We cannot give what we don’t have.

The Carpenter

Posted on 01 May 2015 by patmarrin

"In my Father's house there are many dwelling places" (John 14:2).

If you could design your own house, what would it look like? My perfect place would have an upstairs and perhaps a tower room with large windows to catch the light, and a roof port so I could lie in bed under the moonlight.

You would design something different, of course. If a house is an extension of self, everyone would have their own idea of how their home would express and define their presence in the world. For some, the kitchen would be the most important room in the house, or a large central dining room, or a large living room with comfortable chairs where friends could enjoy each other's company. Would you have a walled garden, or a pool, or a large patio under shade trees?

For most of us, we are talking about heaven. Jesus reassures his disciples that when their earthly labors are complete, he will be waiting for them. The divine carpenter will have gone before them to prepare a place for each one, and there will be many to choose from, because people are different.

Variety and diversity in this world will continue in the next. And though our differences will be many, harmony will rule and everything will fit together peacefully and perfectly, because this is heaven, where the original occupants, the Holy Trinity, have already set the model for unity in diversity. All races, religions, cultures and histories of the world, and all the unknown mysteries of the universe will come together in love.

It is good to dream, to send our imaginations out ahead to scout out the possibilities for joy as our final destination. Despite this world's travail and limitations, it is God’s promise to us that all things will be gathered into Christ, God’s dream for us, and that nothing that is true and good and beautiful will be lost. But there is work to be done.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. This carpenter taught his boy the trade and filled his imagination with the dream of a better world. Jesus the carpenter carried the blueprint for God’s kingdom in his heart, and he has shared it with us. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Send Me

Posted on 30 April 2015 by patmarrin

"Whoever receives the one I send receives me ..." (John 13:20).

The "send" button in an email program ought to make us stop and think before we click on it. What flies from our computer out onto the World Wide Web takes on a life of its own, but is always traceable back to us. Our words might be forwarded, reaching a few or going viral to millions; they can be misinterpreted or altered, quoted in other emails to support ideas we do not hold, triggering an avalanche of responses from people we do not know and did not intend to contact.

Whatever the impact, large or small, the original message will bear our name even after it disappears into some virtual graveyard as deleted or perhaps saved in a profile stored for some unimaginable purpose.

This can make us paranoid, but it should also help us understand the power of the word as self expression. In an absolute sense, God is as good as the divine Word, an expression of the divine will that is the source of all existence, including ours. To say that Jesus is the Word of God is to say that Jesus is God. The one sent bears the full authority of the One sending.

In today's Gospel, Jesus has just washed his disciples feet. It is a gesture worth a thousand words, a lesson in humility and a call to service for those who would lead. It is the Word in action -- Jesus revealing who he is, and therefore who God is. God is the One who serves, who lovingly washes the feet of his creatures, including one who will betray him, another who will deny him, and all those who will abandon him in his hour of self-emptying love for them.

More astonishing, Jesus includes his disciples in this dynamic mission of revealing God in the world. Anyone who receives them will be receiving Jesus, and anyone who receives Jesus will receive God, the divine presence.

To return to the metaphor of how we use our devices today: If we have downloaded this program called God, we have agreed to the terms it carries, and it has entered our identity as fully as software distributed in every folder and operation we are capable of. How joyful we should be, and in awe, that everything we "send" today will be a source of grace to those who receive it, because we are nothing less than members of the body of Christ, the beloved children of God.

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Light from Light

Posted on 29 April 2015 by patmarrin

"I came into the world as light, so everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness" (John 12:45).

When I was a child I wondered why my red jacket lost its color when it hung in the dark closet. What in fact was color if not the interaction between the object itself, light and my ability to perceive it?

I did not grow up to be a scientist, but my curiosity helped me appreciate just how human intelligence assigns meaning and order to our objective world.

In today's Gospel, Jesus identifies himself as light. His presence in the world enlightens our minds to see the will of God evident in creation, which bears the image and likeness of the creator. To live in harmony with the underlying designs built into us and the world is to walk in the light of Christ, the perfect model of what it means to be a human being.

Sensitivity to God's gracious imprint on everything enables us to move with the flow of life. Jesus' example of compassion and his commandment to his disciples to love one another were not extraordinary, but the most natural way to live. When we love God, ourselves and others, we are being true to our nature. Peace and joy are signs of God's presence in us.

But we know from the suffering and death of Jesus that the light he brought to the world was resisted by sin, which prefers the cover of night. The harmony Jesus brought met the cacophony of violent competition to conquer creation and control others. Jesus was rejected and killed. Anyone who brings light threatens the hidden use of power to manipulate and distort reality for personal gain.

We pray for insight and courage. "Lord, I want to see" is the first prayer of the disciple. Give me the insight to know my role in this world that I can act in harmony with your love. When my small efforts encounter suspicion and rejection, give me the courage to reaffirm your healing hand present in all things.

God sees our true color, in sunshine or in shadow. Let us walk in the light of life.

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Suspended Between Time and Eternity

Posted on 28 April 2015 by patmarrin

"How long are you going to keep us in suspense?" (John 10:24).

Have you ever been left hanging? Have you ever hung on someone's every word? The expression and imagery describe the experience of being left incomplete, anxiously awaiting resolution.

The mystery of God’s redemptive relationship with us is complete in eternity but still taking place in time. God’s eternal love meets our free decision to accept or reject our divine destiny. To accept is not to achieve it all at once, but to enter a lifelong process of development toward the goal of becoming other Christs. If we die with him each day through service and love, we rise with him each day to greater and greater strength and joy.

Jesus is the way to God, and along the way we find ourselves suspended between what is and what is still to be revealed. Salvador Dali’s awe-inspiring image of the crucified Jesus shows him hanging between heaven and earth, time and eternity. The redemption won for us by Jesus must reach the ends of earth and into the full scope of human history. This happens through us and our journey of acceptance and free participation in God’s plan for creation.

Humility and patience are foundational virtues because they enable us to endure the gradual process of grace working through human weakness and failure. We must remain faithful and hopeful even in times of great frustration and discouragement. God’s peace and justice will prevail, this we know, but the path is long and hard. What disciple has not experienced the stress of waiting for even small victories over selfishness and ignorance to advance the kingdom of God?

The Beatitudes tell the story of God’s holy people on pilgrimage through history. As members of the body of Christ, St. Paul reminds us, we have our share of the sufferings of Christ to make up, but this the road to glory. We rejoice to be part of the mystery.

Called to Be Shepherds

Posted on 27 April 2015 by patmarrin

"Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and out and find pasture" (John 10:9).

The pastoral images used in the scriptures to describe Jesus take many forms. He is the Lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins. He is the Good Shepherd who guides and protects the flock. In today's Gospel Jesus is the gate to the sheepfold. The sheep come in and out through the gate when they recognize the voice of their shepherd.

The versatility of this metaphor also applies to us. Sometimes we are like the sheep, innocent, vulnerable and in need of guidance. But while this might apply to children, adults are hardly sheep, docile, dumb animals who need to be told what to do. The negative aspects of the metaphor have often been applied to the faithful by leaders who expected them to simply "pay, pray and obey."

Adult Catholics, lay and religious, are called to be shepherds. As parents, professionals and responsible leaders in their own right, baptized disciples of Jesus come to maturity when they care for others. Many serve as gatekeepers -- members of the church called to teach, minister and steward resources for the common good. Wise bishops and pastors know they cannot function without the collaboration of men and women whose skills and gifts enrich the life of the church.

The Second Vatican Council had as one of its central goals the awakening and empowering of an adult church. Laity make up 99 percent of the church, and without their full, conscious and active participation, the church is deprived of all the gifts of the Spirit that bring to fullness her celebration of the mystery of Christ and her mission to evangelize the world.

Baptism activates the priesthood of all the faithful, including the clergy, to live the paschal mystery -- our share in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the world. Then we become with him the Lamb of God, the Good Shepherd and the trustworthy Gatekeepers to the precious mystery of God's unfathomable love.

If today you hear his voice, follow him wherever he leads. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Good Shepherds

Posted on 25 April 2015 by patmarrin

“I will lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15).

When the U.S. Catholic bishops met in Dallas in 2002 to address the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by priests, their meeting ended with a Mass at which the scheduled Lectionary Gospel reading happened to be today’s selection from John 10 about Jesus, the “Good Shepherd.” If this was a coincidence, it sounded a stern warning to the church’s official shepherds. It was regarded by many as providential, and the bishops were quick to try and get out ahead of a pastoral and public relations disaster for the church by issuing a charter outlining clear procedures for dealing with the pedophilia crisis.

Only the so-called Dallas Charter, as critiqued then and in the 13 years since, came up short in focusing on problem priests but not on bishops who knew about them but did not act to remove them from ministry. Lack of accountability by bishops, the chief shepherds responsible for the Catholic people and their children, became the issue, and failure to address it at this level only extended and exacerbated the scandal instead of healing it.

For all the necessary programs set up to remove offending clergy and screen any other church employee ministering to children, no bishop was ever held accountable for his failure to uphold the charter. While the recent removal (resignation) of one bishop has suggested a shift in policy, questions remain: Why did it take so long? What are the church’s real priorities? When will Catholics believe that the church is really moving beyond this nightmare?

Preaching is about engaging the Word of God, listening to the living voice of Jesus speaking now to his church and to the world. Good Shepherd Sunday is the right time for homilists around the world to do a reality check and speak to the challenge Jesus puts before all of us. If we love the church, if we are the church, then God’s love compels us to be responsible for one another, especially the most vulnerable members of our communities, our children.

There can be no higher priority for the disciples of Jesus, at every level within the church, but especially its leaders. Our ability to evangelize and serve depends upon our credibility as witnesses to God’s tender love for everyone and our commitment to accountability for those in power and for anyone entrusted with protecting the innocence of children, the dignity of our elderly, the poor and the outcasts of our society. These are the people Jesus came to shepherd and to lay down his life to protect.