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Posted on 05 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you” (Matt 6:18).

Lent comes for some of us like an oasis in a desert of overactivity, distraction and dissonance. The ancient practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving encouraged by every religion offer us the chance to catch up with ourselves, calm down, reassert priorities. Just to know who we really are is to rediscover God, our source and destination. Though we have completely ignored this inner Abba, as Jesus named God, the divine presence surrounds us, has never left us. Jesus urged his disciples to reclaim the hidden recesses of the self, where the Father knows us, sees us constantly, loves us. Clear the lifelines of whatever blocks or slows the steady flow of grace that is our most important relationship.

Fasting makes space in the soul by challenging our addictions, which clamor constantly to be fed, a surfeit of self-satisfaction that only increases the craving but leads to stupor. Fasting is about clarity, simplicity, traveling light, purification. It is its own reward, but also overflows into an awareness of others. Giving away our surplus to those in need rebalances everyone.

Still, Lent is less self-help than journey. Every disciple sets out on the road to Jerusalem because Jesus wants us to be with him when he accomplishes his mission. He will fulfill the Law and the Prophets by emptying himself, accepting the full burden of human failure and its consequences in order to lift up the world in glory. Lent is the school of love that enables us to follow him, imitate him, share this mission.

So we are signed with ashes, the sign of the cross that says to the world we are signed up for the journey. For some it is a continuation, others a crash course. Blessed are those who begin, and even more blessed those who complete this journey to Easter.


Where's Mine?

Posted on 04 March 2014 by patmarrin

“We have given up everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28).

Mike Royko, longtime Chicago humor columnist (d. 1997), devoted much of his work to the antics of Chicago politics, which was then riddled with nepotism, cronyism, patronage, voter fraud and under the table deal making. This was his artist’s canvas for the study of human nature, both noble and despicable, in the universal game of survival. Royko once suggested the Latin saying Ubi est mea? (Where’s mine?”) as the official motto on the city seal.

Peter asks Jesus the same basic question in today’s Gospel. He enumerates all the things he and the other disciples have given up to follow Jesus, then wants to know what they will get in return. In what may be one of the few overt “jokes” recorded in the New Testament, Jesus tells Peter that for sacrificing house, family and property they will get back 100 times in kind, “with persecution,” and eternal life in the age to come. Jesus was describing the enormous responsibility his disciples would have to carry in serving the faith community. Their lives would be crowded with dependents, duties and anxieties. Most pastors get the joke. Some laugh, some do not. The reality of church life is service.

For those who are called to it, the saving grace is to share the burden and the joy of community life in which the many needs are matched with the abundant talents and resources there for the asking. “To each according to their need; from each according to their ability” is the description of the early church in Acts 2:44. It may be an idealized picture, but the principle is found in the famous words from Vatican II that the renewal of the church rested on fully conscious and active participation by all [the baptized] as their right and duty and the indispensable source of the true Christian spirit. (CSL, 14).

Whatever we have given to God will be multiplied 100 times, “with persecution,” and given back to us. It is the only game in town.


Traveling Light

Posted on 03 March 2014 by patmarrin

"Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven" (Mark 10:21).

When Pope Francis said he envisioned a "church of the poor, for the poor," he was quoting his predecessor, Pope John XXIII, who expressed the same thought in 1959 before the second Vatican Council. Perhaps the goal John had in calling Vatican II was to recover the authentic church of Jesus and the first Christian communities from centuries of historical accretion and complexity that had produced an institution so wealthy and powerful that it was hampered from preaching the Gospel. Over 50 years later, Pope Francis, in word and gesture and, now, in actual structural reforms, is trying to do the same thing.

It will not be easy. The story of the rich man who approaches Jesus to ask how he could inherit eternal life illustrates the challenge of any conversion that involves letting go of wealth and the security and status it bring in order to find God. The man is eager to keep the commandments -- refraining from obvious violations of piety and social harm, but once Jesus tells him to give up his money, he withdraws. It is simply too much to ask; it would change everything. Even after seeing the look of love in Jesus' eyes, he turns away in sadness.

In the United States in the 1880s, strong beliefs in rugged individualism coupled with unregulated Darwinian capitalism created huge fortunes for industrialists and bankers. Katherine Drexel, the scion of a wealthy Philadelphia banking family, used her inheritance to found a community of sisters devoted to serving African and Native Americans. She had heard Jesus' invitation to the rich man, but rather than turning away, she gave her fortune and the rest of her life to serve the poor. She was canonized in 2000. Her order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, continues her vision and service.

Each of us has a chance to enter today’s Gospel account with the same desire to find and follow Jesus. While our stories may be less dramatic than Katherine’s and our “fortunes” less obvious, we all have a chance to travel lighter and do what we can to help others. In return, Jesus promises us greater freedom and the joy of belonging to the church of the poor.


A Little Bird Told Me

Posted on 01 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Look at the birds of the air…” (Matt 6:27).

A study was done on what most people worry about, and in general the results revealed that the vast majority of concerns people fret about they also have no control over. We worry about future unknowns, past mistakes, the safety of our families, possible health crises, natural disasters. While it is clear that people need to plan, take reasonable steps to avoid problems, stay safe, monitor their health, etc., too much energy devoted to worry keeps us from welcoming each day as it comes and using its opportunities and gifts fully and with joy.

Jesus must have looked out at the crowds he was preaching to and realized how anxiety was robbing them of simple joy and gratitude. Competition was keeping them from a sense of community; concern for money and the false security it promises was keeping them from being generous and hospitable. In another setting, he taught them with the miraculous multiplication of bread and fish as a kind of exercise in showing people what openness and sharing could create to make 5,000 strangers into neighbors.

Jesus also turned to nature to show people how the rhythms and cycles of life were played out in the existence of the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air. These creatures witnessed in their short lives the beauty and balance of God’s gifts to all. An ecology of both nature and grace is the face of God’s care for the world, and even in cycles of loss and restoration, full and fallow, life and death, it reveals a wholeness that serves the needs of everyone and everything.

What most of creation does naturally, human beings must do freely and consciously. When people grow anxious or selfish, they can upset the balance of nature and cause untold damage to the ecology of life that everyone depends on. Rachel Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring, warned that the overuse of pesticides could destroy songbirds. The damage to the natural world would also sever our deepest link to spiritual values that teach us so much about how to live.

If we need a good homily today, a single songbird could provide it eloquently and poignantly to anyone able to listen.


Protect Ideals, Acknowledge Reality

Posted on 28 February 2014 by patmarrin

“The Lord is kind and merciful” (Psalm 103).

As a pastoral issue, divorce is one of the most complex and anguished challenges that will face the Synod on the Family in Rome next October. Catholics who divorce, then remarry without having their first marriage annulled, are excluded from full communion with the church. Today’s Gospel expresses the ideal for covenantal marriage supported by Jesus in a Jewish culture that allowed men to dismiss their wives with a simple bill of divorce. Jesus goes back to the Genesis account of the unity of husband and wife as an inseparable bond blessed by God. On this ideal rested the stability of family, the survival of the tribe and the witness of fidelity in God’s relationship to Israel.

Like all ideals in the long biblical narrative, which includes patriarchal polygamy, royal promiscuity, deception and adultery, the theme of God’s mercy and forgiveness also flows freely like a river in the desert of human failure. In the long history of church practice, annulments acknowledged the reality that not all marriages were valid for lack of essential freedom, understanding and maturity, and that people needed to get on with their lives for their own sake and the sake of their children. The ideal is preached, the pastoral reality is addressed, and the requirements of both justice and mercy are met.

A broken love relationship and a failed attempt at marriage are cause for deep human suffering, but life is not ended. Where sincere people are doing the best they can, the support of the community is essential. Truth and reconciliation have healed the aftermath of wars and violent social injustice. Can the church, reflecting the full teaching of Jesus, find a way to do the same with the intimate suffering of divorce and remarriage?


Salted with Fire

Posted on 27 February 2014 by patmarrin

“Keep salt in yourselves and you will be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).

Anyone with children or who cares for children knows how vulnerable they are because they are innocent. They were given special regard by Jesus as belonging among God’s anawim —little ones. With the beatitudes and other teachings, Jesus was convening a community of anawim, disciples whose innocence and powerlessness made them vulnerable to those with worldly power. In giving preference to them, Jesus sided with the poor, the outcasts, with widows and orphans, the sick and even sinners – anyone who was thrust to the margins of social status and influence. They were to be the ones who would in a special way carry the Good News of God’s love to the world.

Today’s Gospel passage promises a blessing on those who care for the anawim and warns anyone who would harm them that it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their necks and be cast into the sea. This is graphic hyperbole, like Jesus’ suggestion that it is better to cut off your hand and foot or pluck out your eye than to let these lead you into sin, but he makes his point in the strongest possible terms.

We wonder how to apply these words to our contemporary setting. The emphasis is on striving to be one of God’s anawim, disciples who guard their innocence and integrity as the most important gift they have. In another passage, Jesus says, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world but forfeit their soul?” Jesus also says that his followers must be “salted with fire,” a powerful, even painful, image of purification. In the light of current crises facing the church, Jesus has clearly stated the priorities that must inform the reform and renewal so critically needed to get us back on track. What we hope to preserve must first be purified.



Posted on 26 February 2014 by patmarrin

"Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40).

In a few sentences, Jesus lays down the basis for collaboration that might have prevented a long, violent history of religious wars, sectarian squabbling and inter-communion competition. "Anyone one who is not against you is for you." Anyone who is working to achieve the same goals you have is your ally, not your enemy. Find common ground. Work together.

The disciple John, of the famous brothers, James and John, “sons of thunder," who wanted to call down fire on a town that refused to accept them, proudly tells Jesus that they tried to stop someone from performing exorcisms in his name. Someone not of their group, unauthorized, unofficial, an upstart free-lancer. Jesus rebukes them for their narrowness and presumed control of the power Jesus himself saw as freely given by God to anyone with faith.

Theologian Fr. Peter Phan has challenged traditional notions of the church’s missionary efforts to establish Catholic churches in pluralistic settings by seeking converts, building churches, competing with other religions. He suggested a more upside down approach of starting with dialogue, sharing efforts to do works of justice, address basic human needs. All faith organizations can join together with other humanist or non-religious groups toward such common ground goals. Then, when relationships have formed, groups can talk about their theologies.

How quickly and credibly religions help create a better world if they took this approach instead of denigrating one another as inferior and ignorant of God and the right path to God. And how happy God must be when such unified efforts are tried.

Servant of All

Posted on 25 February 2014 by patmarrin

“If anyone wishes to be first, he or she shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9:36).

If asked to give the chain of command in the Catholic church, most Catholics, especially the laity, will describe a pyramid with the pope at the top, cardinals and bishops next, then priests, brothers and sisters, and finally, as the large base of the pyramid, the laity. But if we listen to Jesus' message to his Apostles in today’s Gospel reading, we would get a different picture. The pyramid would be turned upside down, with those in authority at the bottom, carrying the weight of the church in service. The hierarchy exists only to serve the members of church.

Pope Francis presided over the installation of 19 new cardinals this week in Rome. It is the highest office in the Church next to the pope himself, but Francis was quick to point out that the candidates were not being promoted as much as asked to take on additional responsibilities in serving the People of God.

Likewise, the pope’s emphasis on greeting children in every public setting is also an imitation of Jesus addressing the Apostle’s ambitions for high office by placing a child in their midst and telling them that those who aspire to greatness must become as humble as little children. Like Jesus' lesson to his followers, Pope Francis' example with children sets the expectation that those in church leadership must do everything in their power to protect children from harm, for in receiving them we receive Christ.

For an adult to grasp this reversal of human need for importance and status is like turning our lives upside down. Self-importance and lording it over others has no place in the church. Every disciple is called to practice “downward mobility” and to be eager to serve others rather than be served. Easier said than done, but an inescapable part of following Jesus, Lord of all who humbled himself out of love for us.


Deep Trouble, Deeper Faith

Posted on 24 February 2014 by patmarrin

"I do believe, help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:25).

Today's dramatic healing of the possessed boy illustrates well Mark's understanding of how the advance of God's kingdom requires openness and trust on our part.

Jesus and this three closest apostles -- Peter, James and John -- are just coming down from the likewise dramatic experience of the transfiguration in which it is revealed that Jesus, God's chosen one, will accomplish his mission to fulfill the Law and the Prophets by his death in Jerusalem. Therefore, it is made clear that Jesus' extraordinary power is tied to his own coming suffering and death.

The disciples who were left behind find that they do not have the authority to expel the demon possessing the boy. When Jesus arrives on the scene, he first expresses frustration that there is so little faith. In earlier healing stories, Mark has said that without faith Jesus was unable to work miracles in his hometown. The crowds want miracles not because they believe but because they don’t believe. A circus atmosphere is growing up wherever Jesus goes, distracting from his mission. From here on in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus will withdraw from the crowds to concentrate on building up the faith of his closest disciples, not based on sensational signs but on the deeper mystery of his coming suffering and death as the one power –- God's self-emptying love -- that can save a rebellious, sinful world.

Any parent who has ever heard this Gospel story can identify with the anguish of the father. He has lost his son to some invasive power (addiction, schizophrenia, a seductive and abusive relationship, brainwashing, etc.) that is slowly destroying his child. How can I get him back? He is at the point of despair when He brings the boy to Jesus, his only hope. “I believe, help my unbelief!” he cries out.

When Jesus tells his disciples later that there are some cases so difficult only prayer can accomplish the healing, he is in effect saying, “This is no magic show. You must go deeper to access the grace of the moment, to grasp God’s will in this situation.” It is a process Jesus himself is apparently confronting as he heads of Jerusalem to perform the deepest exorcism of all, one that will cost him his life.

Sunday, Feb 23, 2014: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Posted on 22 February 2014 by patmarrin

“Offer no resistance to one who is evil” (Matt 5:38).

Matt 5:38-48 is the basis for radical Christian pacifism, which some say is so essential to Jesus’ message and method that to compromise it is to preach another Gospel altogether. Others say that a nuanced interpretation to Jesus’ use of Semitic hyperbole (think of his teaching about cutting off your hand or plucking out your eye) is necessary for anyone to live in the real world, where the use of force for self-defense or as a deterrent to aggression is the only thing between the common good and total chaos.

Libraries of books have been written to either defend radical nonviolence or interpret it to allow the use of force in specific circumstances. The church’s formal criteria for a “just war” were used to promote the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The U.N. police action in Kosovo was justified on humanitarian grounds and the lack of intervention in Rwanda was faulted on the same grounds. So much violence might have been prevented by the use of controlled violence, it is argued.

There seems little question that Jesus practiced what he preached. After evaded some threats by departing Judea for Galilee, he then proceeded to Jerusalem, where his preaching provoked his arrest and execution. He did not strike back when attacked; he went the extra mile with his enemies; he forgave his executioners. When the time came, he did not resist evil but succumbed to injustice, violence and death. Yet, in accepting apparent defeat, he emerged victorious over those same evils, fulfilled the Law and the Prophets and transformed history, inspiring the major nonviolent movements that have advanced human rights and equality around the world. If we want to know if nonviolence is effective, ask Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela. Or examine the history of violence to judge whether it has ever solved conflict or brought genuine peace.

It also seems clear that nonviolence, before it is a social question, is a process of transformation in the human heart. The skill and discipline of the pacifist approach to conflict not only resolves problems before they become violent, it produces a profound peace and freedom in those who practice it. It is an effective strategy for turning enemies into friends, disarming and breaking cycles of violence before they take hold and opening up longstanding animosities to fresh and creative solutions.

Learning to live nonviolently is the one growing edge we all can contribute to. The peace we need in our own lives, our families, communities and nations depends on it.