The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
Why do we have a special feast of All Saints for our Order? Indeed, are there any Dominican saints in heaven? There is a good reason for saying that there aren’t any because our vows as Dominicans only last until death. As such, any saint in heaven is no longer a member of any religious Order. This is because the saints have already reached the goal, the aim, of religious life itself. For the sacraments, and religious Orders, and religious consecration are only meant for this life, to aid us in the Church Militant. They are meant to help us, the pilgrim Church on earth who are striving for perfection, to become saints. For, ultimately, holiness is the fundamental vocation of every Christian, and religious life, and being a Dominican, is just one way to reach that common goal of attaining salvation in Christ. As the Fundamental Constitution of the Order says, we friars are “intent on procuring [our] own and other people’s salvation”.
So, why celebrate All Saints of the Order? I suspect that part of the reason is to remind ourselves that our Dominican life works; that this way of life does procure our salvation by perfecting us in charity! And it is worth reminding ourselves that this is the aim of being a Dominican. Because it’s all too easy to for our life to become just about what we do. But Dominican life is not fundamentally about preaching beautiful sermons, or thinking profound thoughts like academics, or living together in a religious frat’ house where we sing psalms now and again. Rather, as the Fundamental Constitution says: “we consecrate ourselves entirely to God by profession” so as “to ensure that by following Christ in this way we would perfect our love of God and of our neighbour”. So, the perfection of charity both for ourselves and for others is our aim as Dominican brothers and sisters. By looking at the Dominican saints in this one celebration, we are reminded of this, and we are encouraged that so many have gone before us in this way of life and become saints because of it.
Hence St Thomas Aquinas says that the religious life is, objectively, the most direct way to Christian perfection because a life of poverty, chastity and obedience – which is the kind of life Jesus himself lived – “prepares the way for a safer and more perfect observance of the divine precepts”. That religious life makes saints may not seem apparent or all that obvious, especially if you’re using me as an example. But this is not because of any lack in the Order or the consecrated life as such, but due to a stubbornness on my part, I confess. So, another reason we celebrate today’s feast is to call on the Dominican saints to pray for us. At our profession we each asked for God’s mercy and the mercy of our brethren. Today we do that again, asking for God’s mercy for our failures to live up to our vocation, seeking the grace to renew our efforts to live the Dominican life, and asking for the mercy of our holy brothers and sisters that they will intercede for us, and teach us by their example.
In the words of a Responsory at Matins today: “Grant us, Lord, we pray, the forgiveness of our sins, and at the intercession of the saints whose feast we celebrate today grant us such devotion that we may deserve to join their company. May their merits help us, who are hindered by our own wickedness, may their intercession excuse us whom our acts accuse; and as you granted them the palm of heavenly triumph, do not deny us the forgiveness of our sins, that we may deserve to join their company”. Amen.
St Charles Borromeo is one of the great saints of the Catholic Reformation, renown for his tireless efforts in reforming the Archdiocese of Milan, of which he was made bishop at the age of 27. This fact alone tells us something about the Church in the 16th-century. It was a time when nepotism was common, and St Charles, being born of an influential noble family was given ecclesiastical preferment early in life; he was made cardinal-nephew at the age of 22. One might say that the popes then did the opposite of what Christ recommends in today’s Gospel. It was, alas, often precisely their “friends or… brothers or… kinsmen or rich neighbours” that were favoured and invited to high office and feasting!
But although Charles was born into such a milieu, he did not allow himself to be corrupted by it. So, for example, when at the age of 12 he became a titular abbot, and so, received the income of that abbey, he insisted (against his father’s wishes) that the income of that abbey was only used to prepare him for the priesthood, and that any surplus belonged to the poor and was not to be used for other purposes. This was a central motif in Charles’ life - he was personally austere and overturned the conventions of the day in order to benefit the poor and needy. In 1576 when a famine hit Milan and was struck with plague, he remained in the city when other men of power fled. As bishop he organised the relief of the sick and dying, cared for the hungry by organising the religious houses of his diocese to feed around 70,000 people daily, and he used up his own funds and even went into debt in his personal efforts to feed the poor. Here indeed was one who invited “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” when he gave a feast!
Such counter-cultural action – and every effort at reform is necessarily counter-cultural – required heroic bravery and perseverance from Charles. One of his biographers said that Charles Borromeo was “austere, dedicated, humourless and uncompromising”. And he said this with admiration. For St Charles met with great opposition from his family, his peers, government officials, and from within the Church. On one occasion, someone even tried to assassinate him. The inertia of people and institutions means that anyone who strives for reform has to be heroically single-minded and determined, with a clear vision of what he or she is aiming for. Above all, the reform of any institution or society begins with the reform of the individual whose gaze is fixed on Jesus Christ. It is this all-pervading love for the Lord that made Charles Borromeo a saint.
Very often we can speak of reform, and hope for change, whether in our world or in the Church, but the only person we can truly change is ourselves. Hence St Charles strived to conform his own life to Christ, allowing the Holy Spirit to fill his heart and renew him, as today’s Collect says. And slowly, he began to win over his own clergy. Thus, we prayed in the Collect that all of us, God’s Church, might also receive that same renewing Spirit, so that, like St Charles, we will each be reformed by grace into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.
This is possible if we want it enough, and if we are docile to the Holy Spirit; if we take St Charles’ motto to heart, namely, ‘Humilitas’. For it is humility: the emptying of ourselves and our worldly loves; coming down to earth so that we are open to learning and receiving God’s mercy, teaching, and grace; and kneeling down to the ground to serve others that will lead us to sanctity.
At this time when our new Archbishop sets about to renew and reform this Archdiocese, and indeed, when our Pope sets about to do the same for the universal Church, may St Charles pray for them, for all clergy and seminarians, and for all of us, that we may be responsive to the grace of the Holy Spirit.
I was tempted to read the shorter version of today’s Gospel, which omits the parable of the prodigal son, because this parable had already been read on the 4th Sunday of Lent (10 March 2013). Then, we could just focus on the two shorter parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep. However, hearing the same parable twice within six months, and especially one as familiar and well-loved as this, offers us all a challenge, which is to look again at what Jesus says. We’re used to thinking that the prodigal son stands for all repentant sinners who will be joyfully welcomed and embraced by God. Hence, “there is joy… over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10). And this is true. But what else might this parable reveal about God?
Let’s look again at its context. The parable is unique to St Luke’s gospel and it is being told as a response to how the Pharisees and scribes react when they see Jesus eating with allthe tax collectors and sinners (Lk 15:1). The Pharisees are scandalized, thinking that tax collectors were unclean sinners, and so, to be avoided, lest they too become unclean.
There is something of this sense of holiness as purity in the First Reading. God is far off on a high mountain, with Moses as his intermediary. God is unapproachable, almost as though to come close to sinners would contaminate him, or because mankind would be destroyed in the presence of the Holy One. Indeed, ideas about the necessary separation between the clean and unclean, the earth and the heavens, the material and the spiritual, holiness and sinners still persists even today. It sometimes gives rise to a kind of dualism that can foster deep feelings of ‘unworthiness’, or resentment about God and the Church, or the compartmentalization of faith from the rest of life.
But, in becoming Man, Jesus Christ reveals a deeper truth about God, about his relationship with creation, and the depths of his love and mercy. God doesn’t just relent and forgive as our First Reading says, but he goes in search of us as the first two parables of today’s Gospel shows. And in the third parable, that of the prodigal son, Jesus reveals just how extravagant God’s searching love is.
In fact this parable elaborates on what Jesus has done, which so provokes the Pharisees.
One word recurs in our readings today: glory, from the Latin gloria. But what, really, do we mean by glory? Usually, I think this word evokes light, brilliance, and splendour. And these are related to the Greek word for glory, which is doxa. But if we look at the Scriptural origins of glory from the Hebrew word kabod we find something rather unexpected. Glory, coming from kabod is related to weight. So, in contrast with our association of glory with soaring flights of angels, light, and uplift, glory, coming from the Hebrew kabod, denotes a quality of being heavy with weight, wealth or nobility, or with exceptional goodness. Glory, in this sense, implies the wealth and power of the king, his riches and worth, because of what he has done. Or we can think of an Olympian or a soldier who has achieved glory in athletics or combat, and is weighed down with medals; their weightiness proclaim what he has achieved, they glorify him.
If we translate this idea to God, then kabod, glory, signifies the wonderful work that God has done in creating all that is, and it tells of what Christ has achieved in dying, rising again and ascending into heaven. For God’s greatest work, his heaviest impact, his glory is seen in the salvation of sinful humanity; in our being brought from the death of sin to the fullness and abundance of new life in the risen Lord Jesus. Thus St Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is Man fully alive”. The glory of God is you and me, being re-born through grace as sons and daughters of God, sharing in the divine life of Christ, being one with him in the communion of love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf Jn 17:26).
This tremendous work of God’s grace that lifts up a sinner to become a saint, beckoning Mankind to “Come” and enjoy freedom and life in the Trinity (cf Apoc 22:17), brings about the glory of God. And the effect of God’s grace is glorious, and this is probably why the word ‘glory’ has come to connote light, brilliance and uplift, because the effect of what God has done for us, what his grace causes, is to raise sinful Man up to share in God’s light and divine life.
However, the idea of God’s glory, kabod, is still related to weightiness because each saint is like a shining medal glorifying God, signifying who he is – our Creator and Redeemer – and what he has done – united the saint to God’s self through grace. For each and every saint, beginning with St Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, witnesses to the triumph of God’s grace. Stephen’s life and death testifies to what God has done for weak, frightened and sinful humanity through Jesus Christ, which is to re-make each human person in Christ’s image, strengthened with his virtues. Thus, Stephen’s death, which completes and seals his life’s work, is deliberately portrayed by St Luke as mirroring Jesus’ death: both innocently condemned, executed outside the city, and died forgiving their killers.
The work of God’s grace that re-fashions us in Christ’s image is weighty, heavy business; the work of our sanctification and our salvation is impressive, world-impacting, life-changing. As such, it’s also glorious. And kabod does carry this notion of being heavy with goodness. In this sense, we might speak of the weight of our vocation as Christians. For we’re called to be holy, we’re made for glory, and this will involve a certain expectation of what we’re called to do. This gives a certain weightiness to the moral choices we make, and heavy sacrifices will be necessary. For love demands sacrifice, as the life of Christ and of St Stephen shows us, but it is only through love that we become like Christ, that we are united and become one with God who is love.
In 1970, Pope Paul VI did an unprecedented thing. He declared not one but two women saints to be Doctors of the universal Church, and we celebrate the feast of one of those women today: the lay Dominican saint and mystic, Catherine of Siena, who is also patroness of Europe.
St Catherine lived in the turbulent 14th-century when there was much warfare among the Christian states of Europe, and under the influence of the powerful French monarchy, the pope no longer lived in Rome but in Avignon. This came to a climax in 1377 when French and Italian factions competed for the papacy and cardinals under their influence ended up electing two popes, thus bringing about the Great Western Schism that lasted until 1417. But this schism could only have happened because the Church was in serious need of reform: the clergy was corrupt, beset by scandals, and the laity were morally and doctrinally lax.
Hence, through deep prayer, penitential austerity and mystical experiences, Catherine was called by God in 1370 to care for the spiritual sickness that was then afflicting the Body of Christ. She was to be a doctor to the Church, called to heal the Church’s disunity and corruption which, in her words, disfigured the beautiful face of Christ’s Bride with leprosy. The disunity of the Church and the sins of her members – lay and clerical alike – were a great wound to Christ’s Body, and St Catherine bore this wound in her own body. For in 1375 she received the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – and she bore these invisibly until her death in 1380, when she would die at the same age as Christ, thirty-three.
For the last decade of her life, Catherine wore herself out travelling throughout Italy and France speaking and pleading with influential people, writing almost 400 letters to urge Christians to seek peace and unity, and imploring the pope to reform the clergy and to return to Rome – the symbol of the Church’s unity – which Gregory XI did in 1377. But his death shortly afterwards led to the schism, which weighed heavily on St Catherine.
So, she’d laboured to heal the Church’s disunity but she seems to have failed at the end of her short life. Yet, she is a Doctor of the Church because in her saintly life she taught us a most important lesson, and one which is ever relevant, especially today.
St Catherine knew that the reform of the Church was not primarily about politics and structures and bureaucracies. Rather, the Church is animated by the Holy Spirit, and so, she has to be healed spiritually, made whole by God’s love first. Hence, St Catherine offered her whole life of austerity, penance, fasting and prayer, as well as her ministries out in the world, for the love of God’s Church. So, Jesus promised her that “With these prayers, sweat and tears, I shall wash the face of my spouse, the holy Church”.
For Catherine knew, too, that reform was not ‘out there’ or the problem of the Roman Curia, or the warring cardinals. There can be much hand-wringing about the need for institutional reform, but St Catherine knew, rather, that the problems were also very much hers. As she put it “I have slept in the bed of negligence. This is why so many evils and ruins have befallen your Church”.
Thus, Doctor saint Catherine’s remedy for the sins of the Church was to look to her own sins, and to repent and change her ways. Because she knew that the only soul she could change and cause to co-operate with God’s grace, to conform to Christ’s will, was her own. So, reform of Christ’s Church comes through each of us as members of the Body of Christ striving to be faithful to Christ and our Christian vocation; each of us allowing Christ the divine Doctor to heal us so that we can play our proper part within his holy Body. Hence, through the “prayers, sweat and tears” of the saints, Christ himself will purify and reform his Bride; it is his Church.
With this fundamental knowledge and faith in Christ, and love for Christ’s Mystical Body, St Catherine became a saint, and so can we today. May she pray for us, for God’s Holy Church, especially in Europe, and for our lay Dominicans for whom she is patroness.
Several things might have struck us about our new Holy Father last night. Firstly, he chose his papal name in honour of St Francis of Assisi, a universally popular saint who appeals to Christians and non-Christians alike. A saint renowned for his love of holy poverty, simplicity and austerity of life, humility and a zeal for re-building Christ’s Church. And the man who appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s seemed to have these qualities. He, the first Jesuit pope appeared in the simple white papal cassock – said to have been modelled on the white Dominican habit – bearing the name Francis. And he spoke simply, prayerfully, and then bowed in humility before the crowds to receive their – our – blessing before he, in turn, blessed us. Simplicity, humility, prayerfulness. Are these not qualities we associate with St Francis, which is why he is so loved?
But, it seems to me, the reason why we are drawn to such qualities is because of who they point to ultimately: our God. These works, so to speak, bear witness to Jesus Christ, who in humility bowed down to earth and was born of the Virgin Mary; our God who shares our poverty, our sufferings, and our alienation; Emmanuel, God-with-us. As the works that Christ does bears witness to the truth, to who God truly is, so, the works that we do as Christians bears witness to Christ, testifies that God is love and mercy. Moses learns this by first having to be merciful and compassionate himself, pleading with God for clemency. It seems that only when we ourselves have learnt these ‘works’ of humility, mercy and love, which reflect God’s true glory, then we can understand who God is, and, as his witnesses, attract others to him.
Hence, the work of rebuilding the Church, of restoring God’s glory to his Mystical Body, of witnessing to Christ and the saving truth of the Gospel does not belong to Pope Francis alone, or to saints like St Francis, but to each of us. And it begins with each of us learning, as Moses did, to be merciful and compassionate, interceding, praying, for others – much as Christ does, interceding at the right hand of the Father for us sinners. Simplicity, humility, prayerfulness are to be our virtues, too and Pope Francis led the way for us last night.
For, surely, one reason why so many people do not believe in Christ is because I – we – are often such poor witnesses? So, in this Year of Faith, the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, has exhorted us all, as Christ’s Church, to undertake an “authentic conversion” to the person of Jesus Christ so that we can be better witnesses. We can have no better model of radical conversion to Christ than St Francis, who (as Pope Benedict XVI has said) “simply wanted, through the word of God and the presence of the Lord [in the Eucharist], to renew the People of God, to call them back to listening to the word and to literal obedience to Christ”.
Now the Holy Spirit has raised up another Francis. May he renew God’s People in the same way. Perhaps we have one little indication of how Pope Francis will act. St Francis of Assisi famously tore his rich garments, and left them at the feet of his merchant father as a sign of worldly renunciation. So, too, Pope Francis, in his letter for the start of Lent this year, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, has referred to the tearing of garments, or, more properly of our hearts. His words raise a challenge for us individually and as a Church:
“Rend your heart, not the clothing of artificial penance without [an eternal] future.
Rend your heart, not the clothing of technical fasting of compliance that [only serves to keep us] satisfied.
Rend your heart, not the clothing of egotistical and superficial prayer that does not reach the inmost part of [your] life to allow it to be touched by God.
Rend your heart, that we may say with the Psalmist: ’We have sinned.’
Rend your hearts, open your hearts, because only with [such a] heart can we allow the entry of the merciful love of the Father, who loves us and heals us… Changing our way of living is both a sign and fruit of a torn heart, reconciled by a love that overwhelms us”.
Rend your hearts to experience, in serene and silent prayer, the gentle tenderness of God.
Rend your hearts to hear the echo of so many torn lives, so that indifference [to suffering] does not paralyze us… Rend your hearts to be able to love with the love with which we are beloved, to console with the consolation with which we are consoled, and to share what we have received”.
In our trek across the Lenten desert today, we encounter not just one but two bushes. For the parable in today’s Gospel can be juxtaposed with our First Reading, which recounts Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. For the early Christians, the burning bush came to be seen as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, who was consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit but whose virginity remained untouched. But, by co-operating with God’s grace, Our Lady became most fruitful, and she bore the most beautiful fruit of all: Jesus Christ.
In contrast, the parable presents a tree or bush which is barren; for three years it has produced no fruit at all. As such, it is fit only to be cut down and burnt up. This bush, I think, could well stand for us sinners if we do not co-operate with God’s grace. For although our loving God is ever-ready to save us from the barrenness of sin, God can only do so with us, and never without us. This means we have to engage our human freedom and act; we need to choose to co-operate with God’s grace.
This involves a change of heart, acknowledging our need of God’s forgiveness. Co-operating with grace entails repentance and willing a conversion of life that is made concrete in the sacramental means that God has chosen. And for some, this means will be as strange and as startling as the burning bush! But, it is the way that God has established. So, it is ordinarily in the sacrament of Confession that we truly encounter the living God (as Moses did), and we come into contact with God’s purifying fire; we are opened to his transforming grace, and receive his mercy and forgiveness. In the holy ground of the confessional, God says to each of us: “I have seen your affliction and heard your cry, and I am here to deliver you”. And, like Moses, we can choose to go to the Lord. Or we can choose to turn away and not co-operate with God’s grace, remaining fruitless. But if we go as Moses did, then we will see a great sight, and experience the wonders of God.
But the transforming work of God’s grace is often slow and gradual, and sometimes hard and messy, too. It is like gardening, and we have to repeatedly return to the confessional just as we repeatedly dig up and weed our gardens, and even, pile on the manure. So, in the Gospel parable, a gardener asks for a year’s reprieve for the barren tree. Here, I’d suggest that the gardener is the divine Vinedresser, God himself, and the year given for the barren tree to bear fruit is our lifetime. As such, each day of our lives is God’s grace-filled time, in which he patiently cares for us and coaxes fruit from our barren, sinful state.
God’s desire and plan is that, over a lifetime’s co-operation with his grace through repeatedly using the sacrament of reconciliation, we, the barren bush would become a burning bush. For, as we co-operate with grace, the Holy Spirit will inflame us with charity, divine love. And God’s grace is a holy fire that does not consume and destroy our human nature. Rather, grace perfects us and elevates our humanity. The result of co-operating with God’s grace is that we will flourish as human beings and flower in virtue, so that, we too, like Our Lady, will bear that most wonderful fruit, Jesus Christ. For grace transforms us so that we become Christ-like, partakers in the beauty and being of God.
Spring is a time for gardening, so, Lent (coming from the Old English word for spring) focuses our minds on God’s cultivation of grace in our hearts, and the vital role of confession in that, so that we are fruitful. The journey towards holiness, of course, takes not just forty days but the entire ‘year’ of our lives. But none of us knows how long that – our lifespan – will be. So, in the time we have, each precious day, let us make good use of the means God gives us, the sacraments, to receive his mercy and forgiveness, and to grow in his love.
The real wonder of today’s Gospel isn’t the staggering catch of fish, but the closeness of God to humanity. Typically, God is holy, indeed thrice-holy, and this meant being distant from the profane world. Hence, the Hebrew word for holy, qadosh, comes from the root qodesh, meaning to ‘cut off’ or ‘separate’. And God is separate from his creatures so that he remains clean and undefiled by sinners. This typically Jewish notion seemed odd to me at first, because I’m so used to the idea of God’s holiness transforming my sinfulness, but in fact, it’s common sense. No one uses a greasy cloth to polish glass, or applies a dirty brush to a clean shirt; the unclean soils the clean. And so, the traditional notion of God and holiness seems to be that God had to be separate and cut off from his creatures in order to be clean, pure and holy.
But this is not the God that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. The beauty of the Incarnation, of our Christian faith, is that we believe that God has become Man, has entered time and space, and walked, eaten and worked with his creatures, with sinful humanity. In the previous chapter of St Luke’s Gospel, an unclean demon acknowledged that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” (Lk 4:34), and he said “Have you come to destroy us?”, and Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to depart. This signals that, contrary to what had been thought, the unclean does not contaminate the clean. Rather, the Holy One drives away sin, evil, the unclean; God’s grace heals, redeems, transforms and purifies.
Thus, in today’s Gospel, the Holy One of God comes to sinners to be their salvation; this is the first time in St Luke’s Gospel that this idea is expressed. So, God is found, not in the Temple, or a designated place, but out and about by the lakeside, in the workplace of these fishermen, where we are. For Jesus shows that our holy God does not separate himself from us, but comes in search of us to make us holy by uniting us with himself and his mission.
God does this because God is love. For only love will impel us out of ourselves and all our self-preoccupied concerns for our own cleanliness, safety, and comfort, driving us out into the world to take risks for those we love. Hence, Christ’s action reveals that God is love, and what he does overturns the traditional notions of God as holy, and who thus stands aloof from his creatures. Rather, God’s holiness is seen in the depths of his love. God thus wills to take on the messiness of humanity, to become a part of his creation and get ‘dirty’, so to speak, and to even embrace a sacrificial death on the Cross.
A friend and I visited the National Museum of Scotland recently and there were so many things to see that we rushed around from one exhibit to another. But one display had us transfixed with morbid fascination. It was called ‘The Maiden’, a beheading machine made in Scotland in 1564, some two centuries before the French Revolution and the guillotine, and over 150 people had been executed by it. Today’s feast also seems to have at its centre an instrument of torture and execution, and it may appear somewhat gruesome or shocking, or even repulsive, to celebrate the cross. And it would be so, were it not for who the Victim of the Holy Cross is, and what he accomplished through it.
For God chose to mount the wood of the Cross as his means of showing the world the depths of his love for Mankind: a sacrificial love that is stronger than death, that conquers human violence, and that ends the reign of sin. The vertical and horizontal arms of the Cross thus remind us of God’s love that reconciles Man with God, and unites us to one another, through Christ who is our peace and reconciliation. At the same time, the Cross reminds us of the sufferings of humanity and of the wicked deeds we’re capable of inflicting on one another; a reminder of the wickedness of sin that Christ overcame on the Cross, and also that God is with us in our pain and suffering. Hence, the Cross reveals on the one hand the goodness of God and, on the other hand, the evil of sin.
Thus, the Cross becomes the true Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Eden, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit of that tree, greedy for the devil’s false promise of divinity, and so, by choosing to trust in another than God, their friendship with God was ruptured. But now, through Christ’s obedience and perfect trust in God, that dynamic is overturned. For, on the Cross, Jesus restores mankind to friendship with God and becomes the health-giving fruit of the Tree of Life, so that, whoever looks at it shall live. But we’re not invited to just look at the Cross but, moreover, to take up our Cross and to follow Christ: to follow him by learning to conquer sin in our hearts, to master our selfish desires, and above all, by learning to love.
Where does greatness lie? We celebrate St Albert the Great, Charles the Great (nominated a saint by the French!), and now, St Gregory the Great. Does it lie in breadth of learning, such as St Albert exhibited? Or in military prowess and political strategy such as Charlemagne had?
Some would say it’s a combination of both, which we can see in the life of today’s pope, Gregory I. He was born of a noble and wealthy Roman family c.540, and when he was a child Rome was sacked; the apogee of Rome. Gregory was well educated, and he became a monk, eventually turning his family home on the Caelian Hill into a monastery, dedicated to St Andrew. It’s still there. Gregory became a papal diplomat, sent to the imperial court in Byzantium to ask the Emperor for military aid against the Lombards but in 590 he was elected by acclamation to become the next Bishop of Rome. When the Lombards did invade, Pope Gregory organized the defense of the city, and eventually signed a treaty with them.
For popes were effectively governors of Rome at the time, so Pope Gregory had to shelter, feed and defend the people of Rome. When there were famines, he organized for grain from Sicily to be imported and distributed.
Pope Gregory’s papacy was also one of great evangelizing energy and reforming zeal. He sent monks to evangelize northern Europe, and among these missions was that of St Augustine to the Anglo Saxons of England. He reformed the Roman Liturgy, and is credited with codifying the Church’s heritage of sacred music that is still named after him: Gregorian chant. St Gregory’s copious writings form the basis of early medieval Christian thought. By his death in 604, he’d commentated on the Scriptures, written many sermons, collated stories on the life of St Benedict, and written hundreds of letters.
All these achievements, we might think, would amount to greatness. And yet, we don’t canonize saints for their political prowess and able leadership, as such. Saints are honoured because they display the greatness of God’s grace at work in their lives. As St Paul put it: “I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling… but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God”. Our greatness, as Christians, is found in how much we allow God’s power to shine through us, in the degree of our faith, hope, and charity which unites us more closely to Christ.
So, as St Gregory himself said: “Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom”.
So, as we celebrate the feast of this saint, let us give thanks to God whose Spirit has been given to us, anointing us for great things: “to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And these great things, Pope St Gregory certainly did.