“I am the vine and you are the branches,” Jesus says to us. These words spoken by Jesus form one of the most profound metaphors we have for understanding our relationship with Him and with God. His vision is one of healthy vines and branches in abundant partnership, a vision in which He dwells in us and we in Him.
As the branches of the one true vine, we are linked seamlessly with Christ, for branches cannot exist without the vine. Because of our unity with Christ, we are called to yield good fruit – the good works of our faith. As with any cultivated vine or plant, attention must be paid to creating the right growing environment: sunlight, soil, water, and perhaps most importantly, pruning. Jesus tells us that God will remove all the branches that don’t bear fruit and prune the ones that do, so that they may bear more fruit.
There is something bold in the act of pruning, an act of trust that what will grow back will be stronger, more beautiful, yield better fruit than what we can see before us right now. Pruning itself is an act of faith modeled for us by God.
The Greek word we translate as pruning is “katharos,” which is also the Greek word which means to purify or to make clean. This act of purification, cutting away that which is not life-giving, prepares us to receive, and share, the gifts of the Resurrection, in ways we could not do if the branches on the vine were simply left to grow wildly. In today’s first reading, we meet up with Saul, not yet called Paul, in Jerusalem, very soon after his conversion. Saul had everything stripped of him that was yielding harmful, nasty, bitter-tasting fruit, as God prepared him to yield beautiful fruit. The conversion of Saul was one of the first great prunings in the early life of the Church. And once God’s bold act of pruning was done, Saul became an unceasing laborer in God’s vineyard, helping to prune the branches and reap beautiful fruit.
In cutting away the branches that are yielding bad fruit, such as greed, selfishness, anger, discrimination, isolationism, misogyny, heterosexism – we create a fresh clean spot where new branches can emerge and yield the fruits of caring, love, service, forgiveness, community, justice and hope. What actions, thoughts, and attitudes in us need to be pruned so that we may bear more faithfully the fruits of the Resurrection? What actions, thoughts, and attitudes in our Church need to be pruned so that together as a community, we may bear more faithfully the fruits of the Resurrection?
Once Saul had been “katharos-ed,” so to speak, pruned and purified, he was ready to yield the true fruit of the Gospel. We read today that Saul spoke out boldly in the name of Jesus. In fact, this phrase is used twice in our first reading. He spoke out boldly in the name of Jesus. Saul would eventually become Paul, and he would become a great champion for Christ, traveling from Christian community to Christian community, preaching the Gospel, writing letters, teaching how the love of Christ saves us all, and bearing witness to the power of God’s holy pruning.
About 1300 years after Paul’s ministry, bolding speaking out in the name of Jesus, a young holy woman in the Tuscany region of Italy was just beginning her ministry. St. Catherine of Siena, the second woman Doctor of the Church whose feast day we celebrate today, was a woman of profound faith. Influenced greatly by the writings of St. Paul, Catherine’s personal piety was matched only by her works of charity – but only after her own pruning and inner conversion. Young Catherine longed only to spend time quietly in prayer with God. For several years, she maintained an almost hermit like existence in her family’s home; but a mystical encounter with Christ helped her to see that true faith meant leaving the family home and going out to serve those in need. She nursed elderly and infirmed widows, accompanied prisoners to the gallows, and (on more than one occasion!) gave away her family’s possessions to the poor.
Like Paul, Catherine spoke out boldly in the name of Jesus. Like Paul, Catherine wrote letters to those she perceived she could influence in returning to Christ, returning to lives rooted in the Gospel: bishops, priests, kings, queens, family friends, and even those she didn’t know personally but for whom she believed she could be the presence of Christ. Today we have nearly 400 of these letters preserved, which offer extraordinary insight into the life of this holy woman; a servant who always saw the possibility of reconciliation and the potential to yield good fruit in the lives of those around her. The gift of her letters continues to bless us, for they are a vehicle for God to prune the branches among us and make us ready to be more perfect disciples of Christ. Filled with reminders of God’s fierce love for us, admonitions against the dangers of straying from the Gospel, and so grounded in her fervent desire to save souls, Catherine’s letters are messages of love, designed to help us trim away the branches in our hearts and lives that are yielding poor fruit, to make room for God’s immense grace. Just as Paul’s letters to the communities her cherished bear witness to the work of the vineyard, so, too, do Catherine’s letters offer a window into the life of a woman who would become one of God’s great laborers in the vineyard of salvation.
Paul and Catherine did more than speak boldly in the name of Jesus. They prayed boldly. They served boldly. They led boldly. In the name of Jesus. But neither would have had the impact they did, had they not been open to God’s pruning of their hearts, had they not trusted that they could yield greater fruit by allowing themselves to be cleansed and purified by God. This act of pruning is sacramental, made holy by grace and the love of Christ.
During this Easter season, as we contemplate the beautiful mysteries of the Resurrection, can we allow God to reveal the places inside our hearts that need to be pruned; allow God to cut away what is warped inside us so that we can yield good fruit in our relationships and work? What needs to be cut away so that we may be true disciples, desiring not conversion in others, but desiring only enough love within ourselves that we may serve others in the most genuine Christ-like way possible by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, consoling the prisoner, and welcoming all to the table of the Eucharist.
Can we as Church be as bold as Paul? Can we as Church be as bold as Catherine? Do we speak boldly in the name of Jesus to provide sanctuary for refugees and immigrants being targeted for deportation? Do we speak boldly in the name of Jesus to demand criminal justice reform and equality for our sisters and brothers of color? Do we speak boldly in the name of Jesus to help those whose homes and communities have been devastated by natural disasters? Do we speak boldly in the name of Jesus to welcome our LGBTQ sisters and brothers into full communion in the Church? Do we speak boldly in the name of Jesus to claim the full dignity and equality of women in the Church?
God’s bold pruning of Saul, of Catherine, of each one of us, makes room for the Holy Spirit to create new branches that yield radical love. Can we be as bold, in the name of Jesus, as the promises of the Resurrection? Do we have the courage to let God prune what is decaying and yielding bitter fruit, trusting that with God’s faithful intercession, we will instead bring forth the scrumptious fruits of life in Christ?
St. Paul, pray for us!
St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!
Karen Murphy earned a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Philosophy at the University of Scranton before beginning a career in fund development. She worked for CCS Fundraising, helping social service organizations of all shapes, sizes, and interests to raise funds for programs and projects that help to ease suffering and make life better for those in need. While with CCS, she spent two years working for the Archdiocese of New York, running the Cardinal’s Annual Appeal in the months following the 9/11 disaster and preceding the Boston Globe expose of spring 2002. One of her favorite campaigns was for Doctors Without Borders!
Karen also worked as a senior level fundraiser for the Girl Scouts of New York City and the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation. After a successful decade-long career in development, Karen left fundraising and became a Jesuit Volunteer with JVC Northwest. Karen was assigned to work at a mental health center in Missoula, MT, where she supported and advocated for women and men with debilitating mental illness. The vulnerability and grace of this work changed Karen’s life and she stayed 10 months longer than her one-year JVC assignment.
Upon returning to the east coast, Karen continued in her new career trajectory, taking a job managing group homes with Putnam ARC, an agency that serves people with intellectual disabilities. It was this work of accompaniment that allowed Karen to finally say yes to a longing she had been holding in her heart since college – to return to school for a Master’s degree in theology. Karen attended Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA, and was able to take classes at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry in the course of earning her degree. Karen’s studies focused on the lives of great holy women including Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena and others.
Karen collects icons of holy women, and listens carefully to see what their lives and spiritual paths can teach us today. She is drawn to Mary Magdalene and Catherine of Siena as especially profound spiritual mothers. Karen continues to practice the Ignatian spirituality she learned in college as her primary form of discernment and prayer. Her various forms of church-related ministry include serving as lector, choir member, and director of the RCIA in her home parish in Brewster, NY. Karen also leads retreats through her retreat business, KarenMarie Retreats (KarenMarieRetreats.com).
Karen is an avid swimmer who believes an hour a day with her “head underwater” makes life better for everyone in her life! Karen has crocheted more than 100 blankets, which she gives to family and friends as gifts. Her favorite activity is to spend time with her nieces, ages 8 and 4, whose innocence, love, joy, and curiosity Karen believes are proof of God’s incredible love for us.