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February 6, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 197




Pat Marrin When a local church is decapitated

By Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration

Today's Gospel reading: "What shall I ask for?" she asked. Her mother replied, "The head of John the Baptist." Mark 6:23.
Commemoration of St. Paul Miki and Companions, martyrs.
In the early 1970s, a remarkable Dominican priest named Valerian Flynn remarked on his own struggle to update his theology in the wake of the Vatican II. "I don't just need some new ideas," he said, "I need a new head."

At midlife and in mid-stride, Flynn was in terrible transition, realizing that the massive, systematic intellectual formation he had received was like the King's English in a world that spoke Esperanto.

Radical transition makes demands. John the Baptist was the last of the old prophets. Jesus said of him, "John is the greatest person ever born, but the least in the reign of God is greater than him." Something new has occurred, and to discern it we must leap across some immeasurable gap and be reborn, not just by water but by fire and wind.

John, who knew God's justice in his bones, did not recognize the reign of mercy Jesus was proclaiming. So John, in prison, sent disciples to ask Jesus if he was the messiah, or if they should look for another. John was about to enter the mystery Jesus has inaugurated, but without his head.

Jesus hinted at his own radical separation from old ways of thinking when he said, "The Son of Man has no place to lay his head." There is no comfortable ideological resting place once you enter the ongoing rebirth and conversion required of the disciple. You will never be "learned" again in the sense of finished; you will always be learning something new. Head ideas are another way to label and control change. Jesus calls us to an accelerated understanding that moves faster than we can think. God is doing something new and different. Entrust your heart to me and your head will follow.

Other Today's Takes by Pat Marrin
Feb. 5, 2003 The Good News meets the daily news
Feb. 4, 2003 Jesus had a credibility problem
Feb. 3, 2003 The sacrament of touch
Feb. 2, 2003 Leap year is an invitation
Dec. 5, 2003 We are expecting a baby
Dec. 4, 2003 Facing the storm head-on
Dec. 3, 2003 Just one pope away from ...
Dec. 2, 2003 'Hope is the thing with feathers'
Dec. 1, 2003 Peace: the minimum requirement
Oct. 31, 2003 Freely chosen reality
Oct. 30, 2003 The burden of servant leadership
The Japanese martyrs received this radical baptism in 1597. Jesuit Brother Paul Miki and 25 companions died for their faith. The small church they left behind survived for nearly 270 years without any contact with the outside world; no bishops, no clergy and no sacraments except baptism. The late Godfrey Diekmann once speculated whether in such circumstances a lay church might presume to ordain new leaders. When a local church is decapitated, if they still have baptism, the first, essential sacrament, cannot the whole be reconstituted? If two or three are gathered in Jesus' name, does God withhold Eucharist, reconciliation, confirmation, anointing and other signs of grace from these baptized children, already "priests, prophets and kings?"

The church in crisis is a church being reborn. Radical transition often starts not in the head but with the heart. Continuity, personal and official, is critical to the survival of our fragile communities of faith. From the struggling base communities of Latin America to the priestless parishes of Montana, the Spirit is present and at work, especially among the laity. What will emerge is a matter of speculation, but one thing seems certain. If the church is to make passage in these times of institutional dislocation and official gaps, it will be because the seeds of faith are rooted deeply in the hearts of the baptized.

At the Last Supper, on the eve of a catastrophic loss for the first Christian community, the disciples gathered close around Jesus. Their minds were confused, their heads useless to grasp the enormous change that would occur after the death and resurrection of their leader. One disciple, John by name, perhaps exhausted with anxiety and fear, leaned over and put his head on Jesus' chest. Head to heart, he would hear the mystery that would make him the Beloved Disciple, the first one to understand the meaning of the empty tomb.

We need to keep our heads, rule number one in a crisis, but something more is needed as well. A well-tuned heart speaks a different, more universal language. What is your heart saying to you today?

Pat Marrin's e-mail addres is Celebration, NCR's sister publication, is an ecumenical worship resource. For a preview, follow this link: Celebration.
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