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Provocateurs for Christ

Posted on 05 June 2014 by patmarrin

“I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word …” (John 17:20).

If you want an example of provocative evangelization, consider St. Boniface (675-754) cutting down the sacred Oak of Thor to demonstrate that pagan gods don’t have any power. Or in today’s reading from Acts 22, St. Paul deliberately starts a battle between the Pharisees and Sadducees over the question of resurrection. It gets him rescued by the Roman commander in Jerusalem, who sends him to Rome to appeal his case to the emperor. There he will be executed under Nero. Boniface was martyred by the pagans as he carried out his missionary work in Germany.

There is no question that the Gospel is provocative. The message of compassion, reconciliation and radical nonviolence runs against the grain in a culture based on competition, consumption, hair-trigger politics and the use of force. Christians who oppose nuclear weapons, capital punishment and the draconian treatment of immigrants, minorities and poor people pay a high price for their counter-culture stances.

Jesus completes his farewell discourses in John 17 praying for all those who will follow his commandment to love their enemies and take up the mission of forgiveness and reconciliation. By their lives they will witness that he came from God, the source of all love. Anyone who encounters a faithful Christian will encounter Jesus, and whoever knows Jesus will know God.

This is evangelization. Pope Francis has highlighted the joy of the Gospel. What else could motivate so many people to start so much trouble and live such provocative lives?

Savage Wolves

Posted on 04 June 2014 by patmarrin

“I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you, and they will not spare the flock” (Acts 20:30).

Conflict among religious people is particularly shocking because of the high ideals everyone is supposedly committed to. But when absolutes and strong loyalties to God and the group are involved, all bets are off and any tactic can seem acceptable if it means defeating evil or protecting orthodoxy from error and ignorance.

The rise of fundamentalist and apocalyptic extremes in mainstream religion is a sign that different cultures and worldviews are colliding, people feel threatened and that dialogue or reconciliation is regarded as no longer possible. Victory over a perceived enemy is a matter of survival.

The crucifixion of Jesus was the culmination of a fierce determination by the temple establishment and official leadership to stop a blasphemer and heretic, even if it meant turning a brother Jew over to the Roman occupation for torture and a brutal public execution. The chief priests, scribes and Pharisees must have felt justified in condemning Jesus to death. It was better that one man die than the whole nation be undermined.

Jesus’ Last Supper discourses were aimed at preparing his disciple for the resistance they would encounter after his departure. He had done all he could to protect them. Now they would have to rely on the Holy Spirit to help them navigate the rough currents and storms the infant church would encounter in its first critical generations.

Paul’s farewell address to the church he founded in Ephesus warned them that after he was gone, wolves would attack the flock. After years of seeing his preaching undermined by pagan opponents, synagogue officials and other Christian “Judaizers” who followed in his tracks to subvert the freedom he had proclaimed to converts not obligated by the Mosaic law, Paul knew just how fragile the faith of his communities was.

We should not be shocked today that great battles are being waged within the church over the legacy of Vatican II on the issues of collegiality, enculturation, transparency, and the rights of the laity. Behind the quarrels over liturgical rubrics and language, sacred music, clerical status, theology and politics are deeply entrenched worldviews. Dialogue is painful and parish life is often characterized by low-intensity warfare and deep divisions, often unspoken and unacknowledged.

The hardest position to take in these struggles is that of Jesus himself and of Paul, who sacrificed themselves to promote unity in love, mutual forgiveness and trust that God blesses those who serve others, even their enemies. The church of the future will emerge from this kind of largeness of mind and heart and the willingness to endure any suffering for the sake of the common good. It would be impossible without the Holy Spirit. That is why Pentecost is such an important feast for everyone to welcome and share.


How Many Martyrs?

Posted on 03 June 2014 by patmarrin

“I will no longer be in the world, but you are in the world, while I am coming to you.”

Today’s commemoration of the 22 martyrs of Uganda on June 3, 1886, prompts us to consider the many people being killed in the name of religion in African countries today because of conflicts that have roots in the colonial period and the current tensions between Western and Islamic cultures. The resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism and the West’s “war on terror” have produced a toxic stand-off in places where co-existence based on the common good had once ruled.

Economic disparity and the flood of weapons into many areas have exacerbated tribal divisions, producing millions of refugees and regularly reported atrocities. Reclaiming stability and effecting reconciliation will be the work of generations to come, while many innocent people, disproportionately women and children, will suffer and die for geopolitical agendas they know nothing about and have no stake in.

Today’s reading from Acts 20 continues the story of the emerging church in a world roiled by cultural and religious shifts that would also cause enormous violence and persecution. The Jewish-Roman war a decade after Paul’s death would destroy Jerusalem (70 CE), cause a million deaths and disperse both Jews and Christians into Europe and North Africa.

Today’s Gospel reading (John 17) continues Jesus’ farewell to his disciples as he seeks to prepare them for the difficult times to come after his departure. He promises that he will not leave them orphans but will return to them in the Holy Spirit, who will animate them to be his active presence in the world.

We are the continuation of that promise. Our mission, like theirs, is to preach God’s love to the ends of the earth, a love that forgives and reconciles those it touches. Evangelization today is synonymous with reconciliation and conflict resolution in troubled areas of our own fractious society and around the world in conflicts we have helped create and must help in resolving. How many martyrs will it take to bring peace in today’s complex and violent world? A different world is possible. A new world is necessary, and it will be born in water, blood and spirit. Does not our Christian faith call us to accept our role as midwives to this rebirth in hope?


Come, Holy Spirit

Posted on 02 June 2014 by patmarrin

“We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:3).

In a former life I was faculty moderator for a college yearbook, and one of my jobs was to hire a photographer to do yearbook pictures. This was before the advent of the I-phone, so the term “selfie” had not yet been coined. But human nature being what it is, the students tried to get the most out of this photo op, knowing these mug shots would survive to represent in the future who they thought they were at ages 18-21. Since they (or their parents) were paying for the pictures, students were pretty much free to represent themselves as they wished. Some chose total anonymity by skipping the photo sessions altogether. But others came in groups and all donned the same funny hat. Not unexpectedly, one student had his picture taken with a paper sack over his head.

I find myself wondering what the college yearbook picture of the Holy Spirit would look like. Asked to describe the Holy Spirit, what would most of us say?

Theologically, we affirm that the Spirit is a separate person within the Trinity. We imagine the Father, we imagine Jesus as a first century Palestinian Jew, but the Spirit disappears from sight, the most invisible and ineffable of our images of God. How many Catholics, even after 12 years of Catholic schools, might say with the disciples Paul encountered in Ephesus, “We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” We recite the creed, but can most of us say we have actually experienced the presence and active influence of the Holy Spirit?

This is why the church gives us a 10-day retreat between the Ascension and Pentecost to focus our attention and deepen our desire to receive the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, our baptism would be meaningless, our active participation in mystery of the body of Christ extended in time through us would be moot, and our faith in general would lack inspiration and motivation. The church herself would be an organization, not a living web of relationships animated by God’s living, breathing presence among us.

The Gospels contain the promise that anyone who asks for the Holy Spirit will receive this gift. Now is the time to pray for a full measure of God’s life, the indwelling of the Trinity by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life and source of all holiness. Ours for the asking.


Posted on 31 May 2014 by patmarrin

'And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.” (John 17:11).

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke uses the metaphor of the "dark interval" to describe the silence between notes that makes music possible.

The Feast of the Ascension begins the dark interval between Jesus' departure and Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the church. It is a crucial interval in which the followers of Jesus wait and pray. Mary is with them, a keynote to the miracle of the church, which repeats the moment of conception Mary welcomed that made possible the Incarnation, "Word made flesh." Now the same Spirit will hover over the followers of Jesus and, with their consent, will make them the body of Christ in the world.

We celebrate Ascension by placing ourselves in the same waiting stance of prayer, opening our minds and hearts to the mystery of Jesus. In our generation, we are the body of Christ in the world. The Word becomes flesh in us. Our hands and feet, voices and actions are the means by which God is active in the world.

So we are faithful to the mystery when, together with Mary, the model disciple, we say, "Yes, be it done unto us according to your word." We are now in the dark interval. The music of redemption, love and reconciliation continues in us.


Something Big and Lovely

Posted on 30 May 2014 by patmarrin

“ … and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

I can think of no better way to mark today’s readings than to quote the late Doris Murphy (d. Aug 11, 2011), author and lifelong pastoral minister, from an article she wrote about stress in ministry, published in the September 2002 issue of Celebration:

“True, stress causes tension. But tension is sometimes necessary for good things to happen. Unless a violin string has a certain tension, beautiful music cannot be heard. Unless the adrenaline is really pumping the athlete may not win. Could it be that some of the stress in church ministry can be the stimulus for greater things to happen? There is a wonderful passage that speaks to this in the book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott (p. 107):

'... this man worked for the Dalai Lama. And he said - gently - that they believe
when a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big
and lovely that is trying to get itself born - and that this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible.’

“What is the something big and lovely trying to be born?”

Doris served the church during the difficult years when the vision of Vatican II seemed to suffer from revisionists and traditionalists eager to dismiss it as an aberration from the steady march of the fortress church in history. She did not live to see the election of Pope Francis and the reawakening of the great call to reform first issued by John XXIII in 1959. But she trusted the Holy Spirit as the true Midwife of history. Conception had occurred and, as long as it took, something mysterious and wonderful was stirring and was going to be born no matter what.

We are in the birth pangs once again, but we can already rejoice that the Spirit is moving mightily in the church again as it tries to catch up with the many prophets, young and old, inside and outside the church, who have gone forward to welcome a renewed world. A different world is necessary. A different world is possible. Doris would rejoice to witness what we are being invited to see and help usher into reality.


Hidden in Plain Sight

Posted on 29 May 2014 by patmarrin

"Why are you standing there looking at the sky?" (Acts 1:11)

The Ascension of Jesus has its parallel in the royal welcome given to a victorious general returning from battle to take his place at the right hand of the king. Jesus, victorious over sin and death, ascends in glory to heaven. He has taken captivity captive, overcome evil in all its forms and from his place at the throne of his Father he distributes the spoils of victory to his loyal companions.

But there is also another image of ascension to glory present in the scriptures, far more mysterious and demanding of the followers of Jesus than his departure to heaven. In this alternative scene, enshrinement and the focus on heaven are replaced by the image of Jesus going on ahead of his disciples into the world (Galilee), where they will encounter him in many different guises and settings, especially in so-called strangers and among the poor.

Matthew 25 shows us this dramatic continuation of the life of the risen Christ in the world, hidden in the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick and alienated poor. By serving them, we will encounter and serve Jesus. By ignoring them, we will deny Jesus and break communion with his commandment to love as the surest path to God.

At the end of the Ascension narrative in Acts, two messengers chide the disciples for standing there looking up at the clouds. We need heaven, the promise of future glory to motivate us, even as we need beautiful shrines to remind us of God's holy presence among us. But ritual devotion and ceremonial worship cannot substitute for seeking out the body of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need our compassion. The "real presence" of Jesus in the host and on the altar or displayed in our churches inspires us even as it points beyond itself to the greater mystery of God incarnate in the community and in the poor. Along with our devotions and time spent in personal prayer, we ask for eyes to see the glory of God everywhere, hidden in plain sight, and for the courage to love and worship him there.


Faith Seeking Understanding

Posted on 28 May 2014 by patmarrin

When the Holy Spirit comes, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16:13).

NY Times columnist David Brooks offered his picks for summer reading, dividing his classics into two baskets: Athens and Jerusalem. This common distinction recognizes truth from science (philosophy) and truth from faith (ethics or religion). Among his Jerusalem favorites are St. Augustine’s Confessions and Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness.

The pursuit of human meaning by faith and reason is an ancient one. Paul came to Athens and tried to interest a group of Greek philosophers in the mystery of Christ by observing that among their shrines they had one dedicated “To an Unknown God.” Paul offers his best arguments from natural theology but is politely dismissed when he speaks of resurrection from the dead. He has crossed a threshold from rational speculation to belief, and the Greeks refuse to follow for lack of proof. Two millennia later, many prominent thinkers are stuck at the same safe, skeptical holding place with the same erudite theories about the origins and future of the universe.

In the 13th century, at the height of Christendom and church control of all education, daring thinkers like Albert the Great and his pupil Thomas Aquinas helped distinguish philosophy and theology as different approaches to the same truth. Their formula “faith seeking understanding” helped define modern thought as a dynamic, respectful dialogue between science and religion in which both camps need each other to explain the whole mysterious reality we are all part of.

Jesus tells his disciples on the eve of his Ascension that their journey to the truth will come in stages. “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now,” he says. But he promises that the Holy Spirit will guide them to all truth. This Holy Spirit is for us believers the breath of history and the moving force behind all intellectual inquiry. We prepare for Pentecost by opening our minds and hearts to this Spirit and to sincere dialogue with every seeker of truth.

The Fall of the Tower of Power

Posted on 27 May 2014 by patmarrin

"If I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you" (John 16:7).

Paul's escape from prison by earthquake in the middle of the night (Acts16:22-34), like Peter's escape (Acts 5:17 ff), echoed the power of the resurrection of Jesus. No tomb, jail cell or shackles can hold back the Gospel. Grace is loose in the world.

The crucial transition has occurred. A frightened, cowardly group of disciples has been transformed by the Holy Spirit into the continued presence of the risen Christ. This expansion of the mystery of the Incarnation required that the historical Jesus depart so that the focus of God's Word could enter and animate the church.

One of the paradoxes of the growth of any movement is that as long as the founder or a single charismatic leader is in power, the rest of the organization stays dependent on their authority. Only when that person is gone can the power be diffused into the next generation of leaders. Only then can the movement evolve and adapt to changing circumstances.

A fearful organization that places absolute authority in one leader will never mature or be fully activated. The idea of collegiality, debated (and to large extent defeated) at the Second Vatican II, has continued to define the church as a monarchy, dependent upon the pope to make all the decisions. Pope Francis seems intent on changing this by entrusting the future of the church to a culture of discernment that involves broad consultation and the appointment of strong commissions on pastoral care of families, now addressing the sex abuse crisis and the need for financial transparency. The pope is effectively shifting control of the church from centralized Curial offices to broad episcopal and expert advisory bodies representing the whole church.

Make no mistake, we are witnessing a revolution in governance with the potential for a new Pentecost of shared responsibility and acknowledged charisms of the entire church, especially the laity, the 99 percent of the baptized being awakened from its long sleep of passivity and immaturity. There will be no going back if this is accomplished and formalized in church law, policy and structure.

Jesus is gone, but never gone. The church is alive with his crucified humanity and glorified divinity. We are the body of Christ, God's eternal Word proclaimed in our time and in our world. With courage, let us all take up the joy of the Gospel. Isn't this the real meaning of Pentecost?

Memorial Day: "Hello, I Must Be Going."

Posted on 26 May 2014 by patmarrin

“I have told you this so that when the hour comes you will remember” (John 16:4).

The time between Easter, Ascension and Pentecost invites us to reflect on the mystery of presence in absence. We often know someone more completely in their absence than when they were with us. Death and departure heighten our awareness of the meaning of someone’s life for us. This is an appropriate thought for today’s national Memorial Day celebration.

Acts 16 continues the story of Paul’s journeys into gentile territory. He arrives in Macedonia, where he meets a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, who is converted by his preaching. The name Lydia brings to mind the signature song by Groucho Marx: “Lydia, Oh Lydia, say have you met Lydia.” Or his other hit song, “Hello, I Must Be Going.” This tune especially might have been the theme song for Paul, who was constantly preaching, then moving on.

The theme of coming and going also rings true for the transition John describes in the last discourses. Jesus is saying goodbye and at the same time promising his continued presence in the Holy Spirit. “Hello, I must be going.” But when departed, he returns to dwell in the minds and hearts of his followers, who become his presence in the world. The Eucharist is what we do in memory of Jesus, but in doing so, we are also “re-membered” as his body.