Saint Martha and you and me

Today the Catholic Church remembers and celebrates Saint Martha.

You’ll recall that Martha was the one who was out in the kitchen slaving away on the hard work of hospitality while her sister Mary sat listening to Jesus’ words (a revolutionary place for a woman in that day).  We all likely have our own mental picture of Martha striding from kitchen to living room to ask Jesus to correct the situation by insisting that Mary share some of that burden.  But alas, the part of Jesus’ response given directly to Martha seems to say only, “My dear friend, you are worried about so much.  Don’t.  Be calm.  Let it be.”

At the time these words may have been less than comforting as she returned to domestic chores alone (unless Mary voluntarily came in to help, not impossible according to the Gospel text).

But, as today’s memorial evidences, the Christian community nonetheless considers and holds up Martha, the complainer, the one who did not sit at the feet of Jesus but rather kept the rolling pin busy in the galley, to be a saint.  Just as much as her sister.  Just as truly as her brother Lazarus, whom Jesus would one day restore to life from death – at Martha’s request.

I celebrate Jesus’ willingness – beyond the limits of his time – to allow Mary to come close and to stay with him, hearing him, and I suppose conversing with him.  I celebrate this because I celebrate all that Mary’s sisters down through the centuries have given to the church in their shared insights into the person of Jesus; insights shared with a child at bedtime or with a classroom of students in a graduate course in theology.  I celebrate Mary’s choice because I value highly the life of prayer, and the magnificent witness in this and in most Christian centuries, of the men and women who live a contemplative life whether in monastic communities or in the midst of family and business life.

However, today I am heartened by the holiness of Martha, the activist, the practical person, the one who says in effect, “Look there’s stuff to be done here, and who the (fill in the blank as you please) is going to do it if we all just sit around?”

On this day of Martha I consider recent words of theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, author of a recent memoir, Hannah’s Child.  His words in a recent web interview with the Jesuit weekly, America, I find compelling. (The link is posted on my Facebook page,  Hauerwas, born a Methodist, long a Catholic, now an Anglican, always a disciple of Jesus Christ, addresses at one point the decline over the past several decades now of the mainline Christian churches.  Hauerwas raises the possibility, and I now express this in my words, that the woes facing the churches may be evidence of the firmly loving hand of God, the Father of Jesus, knocking at the door of our hardened hearts, indeed of the church’s hardened heart.  This Hand may be knocking in order to knock over, to start again.

This is a startling proposal to those committed to the church.  To many will come to mind the promise heard in Jesus’ scriptural words that Satan will never prevail against/over the church.  That is a promise to count on.

But consider this.  Is the God who brought the church to be, and Who brings the church to be in every generation, not free to do as He wills?  If the church as we know it were to fail completely, say over the next century, falling apart into a million pieces, would this mean that Christ’s promise was not to be kept?  Might it not mean instead that the sovereignly free God who created, then sent the flood, then began again with Noah and friends, might be re-creating the church in a way that none of us can fully see?

If this were to occur in some form or other, in some series of painful events or another, the renewed church that emerged from 22nd or 23rd century ashes, would it not be the church?  Would it not be based on the Gospel of Christ, gather people in prayer, celebrate rituals that serve as particular channels of grace into human lives, have a discernable structure and a structure of leadership?  Could it not be, as truly as anything we have seen since Abraham’s covenant with God, the work of God?  “See,” the Scriptures say, “I am doing something new.  Do you not perceive it?”

Mary and the crucified Jesus

That something new, as all things new, is less than likely to be entirely comfortable to us who have grown accustomed to the established.

Stanley Hauerwas raises the possibility that the pain and diminution the churches have already known might be God insisting that we take seriously the divine Will that there is one church and that we are called constantly to work for Christian unity, and to really believe it is possible and that we can see it and live it.  And if we won’t do so, well God might just do some radical surgery.  And the scalpel may already be in play.

On this memorial of Holy Martha, consider, in the light of the challenges facing the churches, what are you and I being called to do?  What specific actions, uniquely as individuals and together as communities, are we being called to undertake?

With Mary we are privileged to hear the voice and the words of Jesus.  With Martha, we are called to action.  And with their brother Lazarus, we are called to life, even if we as church look as if we are totally dead and buried.


There was a little shaking of the ground in southern California yesterday and a 3.7 magnitude quake today in Washington, DC. Meantime, on the human side, between transition in my own life and the number of people I talk to each day, there’s a whole of shaking going on inside people from hour to hour.
All of which reminds me of a line I once heard (and have repeated since, as I think it makes a vitally important point): When everything in world and life are shaking like leaves and you appeal to God to stop the tumult, don’t be surprised to find on at least some occasions that it is precisely God who is doing the shaking.
Look to God only for stability and comfort, and you’re likely to get a big surprise.

Farewells & the Work of the C21 Center

My C21 Director’s blog entry for today, July 15, 2010.  Also found on the Church in the 21st Century Center website currently (

Dear Friends,

I am writing in the middle of this midsummer afternoon to let you know about some endings approaching here at the Church in the 21st Century Center.

Even as we are working diligently here to frame the upcoming year’s series and prepare for the publication of the fall issue of C21 Resources, we also have books being packed in cartons, farewell celebrations taking place, and interviews for successors underway.

Before summer ends both Alanna Valdez, exemplary administrative assistant at the C21 Center, and myself will be leaving our labors here.  As in any transition, though these are self-chosen, there is a bittersweet taste.  It has been a pleasure to work here with Alanna and with assistant director Karen Kiefer (who will remain!) and with those who preceded them.  I hope, and indeed believe, that we have been able to gather wise voices, gifted minds, and open hearts to address significant matters which the Church takes seriously in order to not only survive in a difficult time, but to grow healthier and stronger.

The work of the C21 Center, thanks to the commitment of Boston College to the good of the Church, will go on.  I hope within a short time to be able to introduce you to my successor.  As I prepare to empty my desk, I am convinced that the resources the Center is gathering from year to year will not only remain, but grow in value as time passes.  We are leaving a trail through the forest of these times in the pages of C21 Resources, in the books we continue to publish, and in the vast array of past lectures, conferences and panel discussions continuously available to anyone anywhere with access to the internet.  As I’ve often urged: use these resources in every way you can imagine and share their availability with others.  Share them with believers who seek deeper understanding, with those looking for something to believe in, with the discouraged, and with those who seek to find a voice for their hope.

A final word: in Christian terms, both the individual and the community are of great importance.  Were it not for the development of the Christian theology of the first centuries after Christ, the world would not have the concept of the person that we value so highly.  Were it not for the sense of the assembly that is so fundamental to the experience and definition of Church, modern society would be in danger of losing entirely the certainty that we ultimately belong to one another in the sight of God.

I say this only to note that you as individuals, interested and committed, and the local communities of which you are members, stand as beacons of hope for the Church today, as always.  Though the challenges of the third millennium thus far have been heavy, the Church is called as always to share the light of Jesus Christ and still possesses the Spirit to do so.

With gratitude,

John McGinty

Good Times

The farewell gathering at BC yesterday for Alanna, C21’s administrative assistant, and myself, was a wonderful moment.  Bittersweet, but wonderful. A good number of the very good people with whom the C21 Center collaborates at BC were present.  The President of the university, Father William Leahy, SJ, was there and spoke.  Bob Newton, special assistant to the president and chair of the C21 Steering Committee, served as master of ceremonies.  There was iced tea and lemonade, a huge cake and other goodies, and a general good spirit.

I would say that the air was light with a sense of thanksgiving.  I love that. I certainly felt it in myself, and I heard it in the voices of the others who spoke.  There is no better foundation for mutuality and a sense of bondedness than this: to be grateful to and for one another.

Boston College seen, as soon I will, from a distance

Words of gratitude at a crossroads

I am, if I do say so myself, very good at middles.  It is beginnings and endings that are hard.

My heart is so full of gratitude to you, to each one of you here, and to others who can’t be with us today.  To Father Leahy, who took a chance on me once to give me the opportunity to find a place to work here at BC and who later took a chance on me again to invite me to direct the C21 Center; to Tom Groome, who had lunch with me in 2006 right here at Hillside Café and offered me the opportunity to direct continuing education at the IREPM; to Bob Newton who has been one of the beating ventricles of C21’s heart since its inception, whose wisdom, forbearance, humor, and patience have borne me up and encouraged me constantly over these last years; to all the intrepid members of C21’s advisory committee,  steering committee, standing committees, seated committees, and drove-me-to-my-knees committees!

I have never in my life been as privileged to interact on a regular basis with such brilliant and committed people at work on a common task well worth doing; to the wonderful men and women I have been engaged with as cosponsors of events and series, as well as those many stalwarts whose expert work in the background have made what we do at C21 possible, and made it look good.  These are too many to name in their fullness; everyone at OMC and BOC and MTS and all the alphabet soup that together spells excellence at Boston College.   That’s why I am here: to say from the bottom of my heart a most profound thank you to all of you and the many more I could’ve named, and kept us here for days!  But why are you here?

Perhaps you are here because you feel as I do that as things change and people come and go, it is right to celebrate the things that remain.  So much remains, even in times like ours of rapid change and considerable upheaval; so many vitally important realities endure.  Friendship remains.  Faith remains.  Family remains.  Memories remain, and indeed become even dearer as time passes (and perhaps a bit embellished as well).  The importance of learning and teaching remain, and so this great institution approaches its 150th anniversary.  As it does, hope remains, and the Word of God addressed to us all, and the individual calls each of us receive in and from that Word; calls to serve in a myriad of ways, forming the mosaic that is the Body of Christ alive and acting in the world everywhere, every day.

Just earlier today in the office we were working on the cover for the upcoming fall edition of C21 Resources.  It features a mosaic from the foyer of Lyons Hall here on campus.  There is the figure of the intrepid and unstoppable Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, with her a suffering man whom she is comforting, and beneath them two children, a boy and a girl.  Maybe they are his children.  But Dorothy knew, as inhabitants of the human future, they are our children, offspring of us all.  And above their heads are inscribed memorable words of Dorothy Day herself, “Love is the measure by which we will be judged.”

When it comes to the work we all share here at BC, when it comes to the life of the Church in the 21st century (and the 20 before), when it comes to my own life and yours, the choices we make and the present and futures we choose, those words apply so profoundly: “Love is the measure by which we will be judged.”

Next month I will go forth from here with a heart full of thanksgiving, as it is today.  I’ll go forth holding you all in my heart with great affection, with both the hope and the intent of seeing you again.  I’ll go to the city of New York, and hope there to engage with people in their need, to be with them in the name of Jesus, to recognize Jesus in their eyes, in the lines on their faces, in both their smiles and their tears.  As I arrive there in September, I’ll bear in mind the words of EB White, “It is a miracle that New York works at all.  The whole thing is implausible.”  Since I am rather implausible myself, New York and I may be a good fit.

But Boston is home – first, last and always.  And your faces and smiles and tears are a big part of Boston for me.  So I will leave you for the moment with the words of two others who say what I would say if I were brighter.  I don’t know when they spoke or wrote these words, but it must have been a moment in their lives like this one in mine.  Both of these lived in 19th century Europe, which must say something about me!  But I think of you today as I make their words my own:

Robert Southey, the English Romantic poet, wrote that “No distance of place or lapse of time can lessen the friendship of those who are thoroughly persuaded of each other’s worth.”

And Alfred De Musset, the French poet and novelist, adds this exquisite phrase, “the return makes one love the farewell.”



Celebrating is a funny word.  It is used in so many ways.  We celebrate weddings.  But in church parlance, at least, we celebrate funerals as well.  This flies sometimes in the face of how people are feeling as a funeral nears, but in faith terms (resurrection terms) it makes perfect sense.

I bring this up because this afternoon Boston College is having a farewell reception for me and for our administrative assistant here at the C21 Center who also is leaving this summer.  It is very gracious of the university to do this, and to bring people together in this way.  It will provide an opportunity to see and talk with and express gratitude to the many people across Boston College who have worked with this office and with me so graciously over the last several years.

At the same time, this gathering falls into that mode of feeling like you are present at your own wake – living, that is!  John Garvey, the outgoing Dean of BC Law School and the new President of Catholic University in Washington, DC spoke at the farewell gathering for him recently.  He told the story of a person whose farewell celebration took place on a day sometime prior to their actual departure.  The following day a co-worker stuck his head in the office and said to the honoree, “There you are!  Forgotten, but not gone!”

We’ll see if there’s a bit of that feeling inside this afternoon, especially as I’ll be here from today, July 13th, until August 13th!

Keep your lamps lit, for you know not the day nor the hour. (Stained glass window, Trinity Chapel, BC Newton campus).


A month from tomorrow, on Friday, August 13, I will leave my post at The Church in the 21st Century Center and complete the better part of the past five years at Boston College.  This change comes at my own volition.  From today forward I want to begin to write about this transition as it  – not begins, for that was some time ago – but as it continues and deepens and becomes more real and definitive.

I have re-discovered what we all know who ever have lived through change: that even when you choose it yourself, it’s not so easy.  In the coming days I want to open up here why I am making this move and what significance I see in it.  I do this not because my choices and what is happening in my life is of any great significance beyond my own little circle of family and friends, but because I believe that the life story of any one of us – of all of you! – can and does shed light on the lives of all of us.

Some of you will have already known before reading these words that I am leaving BC.  But others did not. There are some to whom I have spoken face to face (how wonderfully old-fashioned) about all of this, and there are others to whom I intend to speak yet in person.  These latter include one old friend in southern California.  I will be at his door as soon as the airlines agree that a reasonable fare Boston to LA is possible this summer!

I am and always will be enormously grateful to have been at Boston College at all.  I owe that opportunity first of all to William P. Leahy, SJ, the president of the university who took a chance on me as I left ministry at Sacred Heart in my hometown of Lynn and introduced me through BC’s able and experienced VP of Human Resources to Tom Groome in the spring of 2006.  Tom Groome is a blessed force, one of the finest contributors to the life of religious education in Catholicism of this generation, a gracious and generous son of Ireland, a wonderful husband and father, a true believer through times fraught with serious challenges to faith.  Tom hired me to direct continuing education at the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry part-time.  That was the beginning of an amazing association with myriads of marvelously talented people here at Chestnut Hill.

Throughout this time I have tried to remain alive to discerning the ways of God in and around me.  In the summer of 2005 I spent a blessed three months with the Benedictine monks of Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick, Ireland.  In July of 2007, I made a 30-day Ignatian retreat at Gloucester.  These are two of the primary moments in an ongoing attentiveness to where God is and what God is saying.

Over the last year, I have heard that ‘voice’ speaking in terms reminiscent of those spoken to Abram (though infinitely less grandiose): Get up, leave the place you know, and go where I will lead you.

Twilight, Hudson, NH, 7/11/2010