Friday, September 3, 2010

The LORD Chose Gregory To Be His High Priest; He Opened His Treasures To Him, And Made Him Rich In Generosity.

Memorial of Saint Gregory the Great,
pope and doctor of the Church
Reading I
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Brothers and sisters:
Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ
and stewards of the mysteries of God.
Now it is of course required of stewards
that they be found trustworthy.
It does not concern me in the least
that I be judged by you or any human tribunal;
I do not even pass judgment on myself;
I am not conscious of anything against me,
but I do not thereby stand acquitted;
the one who judges me is the Lord.
Therefore, do not make any judgment
before the appointed time,
until the Lord comes,
for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness
and will manifest the motives of our hearts,
and then everyone will receive praise from God.
Paul continues the theme that he and the other apostles and ministers in the community are merely human agents of God.

He asks the Corinthians to see him and his fellow workers in the church as servants and not masters or lords. They are to be seen as stewards or house managers working for a master. And they have been entrusted with communicating the “mysteries” of God.

The word “mystery” (mysterion) here does not strictly mean something that is beyond all understanding. Rather it refers to truths which we could not discover by our own human efforts but which are now being revealed, made known by God through his agents to those who believe. The term is linked to the so-called “mystery religions” of the time, where the inner workings of the religious sect were only made known to initiates.

In the Christian community there are also “mysteries” made known. They are not meant to be kept secret but it is likely that they will only be accepted and understood by those who have faith.

Paul emphasises that what is most expected of a steward is that he can be trusted, that he is reliable and conscientious. Paul also knows, however, that he has his critics among the community so he affirms that his trustworthiness cannot be measured by them. He does not even dare to evaluate his own trustworthiness, on the principle that one is very often a poor judge where oneself is concerned.

Nevertheless, in spite of the criticisms he has received, his own conscience is perfectly clear but that still is not enough. Only God can be his judge. And if only God can judge, a fortiori others have no right to pass final judgement on him. Jesus had something to say about that (cf. Luke 7:37).

When the Lord comes at the end, “at the appointed time”, the hidden intentions of all (Paul and his critics) will be made plain. Then, and only then, “will be the time for each one to have whatever praise he deserves, from God”.

We should remember that each one of us, too, is a steward of the “mysteries” and truths of the Gospel. Through our baptism, they have been entrusted to us and we are expected to pass them on to others.

And we must do our utmost to be faithful and reliable stewards. Even if we are carrying out our stewardship to the best of our ability, it is almost inevitable that we will run into criticism, misunderstandings and opposition. In such cases, we must do our best to be people of honesty and integrity.

Sometimes the criticisms may be valid; sometimes not. If they are valid, we should be grateful and make the necessary changes. If our consciences are clear, we should not be too concerned with what is being said about us and leave the judgement ultimately to God. On our part, we continue to carry out our stewardship to the best of our ability.

Jesus never promised praise and popularity to those who proclaim the Gospel; quite the opposite, in fact. He himself lost his life because of the hatred his work for others generated. “The servant is not above his Master.”

Paul focused on loving and serving Christ and the Gospel in spite of great opposition both from fellow-Jews and fellow-Christians. Let us try to follow in his footsteps.*
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Psalm 37
The salvation of the just comes from the Lord.
Trust in the LORD and do good,
that you may dwell in the land
and be fed in security.
Take delight in the LORD,
and he will grant you your heart's requests.
The salvation of the just comes from the Lord.
Commit to the LORD your way;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make justice dawn for you like the light;
bright as the noonday shall be your vindication.
The salvation of the just comes from the Lord.
Turn from evil and do good,
that you may abide forever;
For the LORD loves what is right,
and forsakes not his faithful ones.
Criminals are destroyed
and the posterity of the wicked is cut off.
The salvation of the just comes from the Lord.
The salvation of the just is from the LORD;
he is their refuge in time of distress.
And the LORD helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.
The salvation of the just comes from the Lord.
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Luke 5:33-39
The scribes and Pharisees said to Jesus,
"The disciples of John the Baptist fast often
and offer prayers,
and the disciples of the Pharisees do the same;
but yours eat and drink."
Jesus answered them,
"Can you make the wedding guests fast
while the bridegroom is with them?
But the days will come,
and when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
then they will fast in those days."
And he also told them a parable.
"No one tears a piece from a new cloak
to patch an old one.
Otherwise, he will tear the new
and the piece from it will not match the old cloak.
Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins,
and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined.
Rather, new wine must be poured into fresh wineskins.
And no one who has been drinking old wine desires new,
for he says, 'The old is good.'"
The call of the first disciples is followed in Luke by the cure of a leper and then of a paralytic. Then there is the call of Levi (called Matthew in Matthew’s gospel) and the discussion with Jesus about his mixing with sinful and unclean people. It is the first of many confrontations between Jesus and the Jewish leaders.

We then come to today’s reading. Some scribes and Pharisees want to know why, when their disciples and those of John the Baptist regularly fast, Jesus’ disciples “eat and drink freely”. We know that John grew up in the desert and lived on an austere diet of locusts and wild honey. He also preached an austere penitential message and lived a highly disciplined life. The Pharisees also led a highly regimented and strict lifestyle. Jesus, however, together with his disciples, is frequently seen eating at the tables of Pharisees and tax collectors and in the houses of friends.

But, while Jesus rejected ostentatious fasting, we know he fasted (once for 40 days) and praised it together with prayer and almsgiving, provided it was done discreetly and not for display.

Jesus gives two answers to the question. First, he says that it is not appropriate for guests to fast when the bridegroom is still around. A Jewish wedding was and is a specially joyous occasion (plenty of wine needed, as we see in Cana) and it could last for a week. It would be unthinkable to fast at such a time. Here Jesus is the bridegroom. There will come a time when he is not physically with his disciples and then they will fast.

The second reason goes deeper and is presented in the form of a parable. One does not use a new piece of cloth to patch an old garment. At the first sign of stress, the new cloth will be stronger and the old cloth will be torn. Nor does one put new wine into old wineskins. The new wine is still fermenting and expanding. The old wineskins, which are made of goatskins, are already stretched and no longer flexible. When the new wine expands, the old wineskins will not be able to stretch any more and will burst. The result is lost wine and ruined wineskins. So new wine has to be poured into new wineskins. 

In this Jesus is clearly saying that his whole vision of religion is new and it can only be accepted and adopted by people who are prepared to see things in a new way. His teaching, his vision cannot be grafted on to the old religion. The old religion emphasised externals like observance of legal and ritual regulations and fasting; Jesus emphasises the interior spirit which is the real measure of a person’s value.

This parable may also be read in conjunction with John’s account of the wedding feast at Cana where Jesus produced new and better wine from the water in the ritual washing jars.

Jesus knows the difficulties his adversaries face. “No one, after drinking old wine, wants new. He says, ‘I find the old wine better’.” Those who had grown up with the ‘old wine’ of the Mosaic Law would find it difficult to switch to the ‘new wine’ that Jesus was offering.

In our Church today there are many who still hanker for the ‘old wine’ of pre-Vatican II days. They have not made the inner shift which is necessary. They have not understood that Vatican II was much more than a change of external practices (such as have taken place in the liturgy). They nostalgically long for the Tridentine Mass in Latin and compare it favourably with the “new” liturgy which they find superficial and lacking in reverence. But they do not seem to have grasped the thinking which is behind the liturgical changes. The new patch does not fit their old cloth. “The old wine is better,” they say.

The new wine will not be appreciated until the wineskins are also changed; otherwise we are in the same situation as the Pharisees were with Jesus.*
Saint Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church

Gregory was born about 540, the son of a Roman senator and, as a young man, became a servant of the state. In 573 he sold off his considerable properties and, with the money, founded six monasteries in Sicily and another in Rome as well giving generously to the poor. In 574 he entered his own monastery of St Andrew’s on the Celian Hill. Here he led an austere life which he looked back on with pleasure in later years but which was also the cause of constant health problems later in life.

Pope Benedict I called him from the monastery to be one of the seven deacons of Rome, while the next pope, Pelagius II, made him apocrisiarius (ambassador) in Byzantium. Six years later, Gregory returned to Rome and became abbot of St Andrew’s monastery of which he had been the founder. He apparently believed that the future of Christianity lay with the monastic style of life as he watched the Eastern Roman Empire in decline. However, he would not be able to continue following this way of life. In a well-known story he one day saw Anglo-Saxon slaves on sale in Rome. On being told they were ‘Angli’, he replied, “Non Angli, sed angeli” (Not Angles but angels). They inspired him with a desire to go as a missionary among them. However, during an outbreak of the plague he was elected pope. He was at once faced with major problems – floods, famine, plague, a Lombard invasion of papal territory. There were also problems arising from the role of Byzantium in Church affairs and the need for missionary work among the so-called ‘barbarians’ coming down from the north.

In 592-3 he made peace with the Lombards. He appointed governors to Italian towns, administered the vast properties of the Church with prudence and skill. Also, following the breakdown of civil order with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the pope and the clergy had to assume many of the secular roles of a civil society.

Gregory, as mentioned, was very keen on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. It was he who sent Saint Augustine and his monks on this potentially dangerous mission. However, as the mission succeeded, Gregory continued to give advice when Augustine was not sure how to proceed. Later popes continued this policy so that England in some ways was closer to the papacy than Gaul. And it was in England that the first biography of Gregory was written. In time, with more attention being given to Saint Augustine and also to Saint Aidan, Gregory’s role as pioneer and support of the mission was partially forgotten.

Gregory is also remembered for his writings both in quantity and quality and in their accessibility both to contemporary and later readers. He was able to pass on to the Christianised ‘barbarians’ the learning of the Greek and Latin Fathers. He did this especially through his Homilies on the Gospels and his Moralia on the Book of Job. His works on pastoral care had a deep influence on bishops of the Middle Ages. His 854 letters are of particular interest to historians as they reveal his wisdom, prudence, and preoccupation in dealing Church and State problems. This included monastic issues, the missionary role of the Church, the integrity of Church teaching and the reproof of senior clerics who liked to use impressive titles. He himself liked to be referred to as the ‘servant of the servants of God’, a title still used by popes today.

Gregory is also remembered for his interest in the development of the liturgy. Many prayers in the Roman liturgy reflect his ideas, if not actually composed by him. He moved the Pater Noster (Our Father) to its present position immediately after the Eucharistic Prayer. He also added material to the Hanc igitur (Father, accept this offering…) in the First Eucharistic Prayer (also known as the Roman Canon). He also introduced the nine-fold Kyrie at the beginning of the Mass, as it still is in the Tridentine Rite. His name has also long been linked with Church music and especially by the Chant which bears his name. It is believed he was much involved in the development of a number of forms of plainchant.

Although his own monastery did not follow the Benedictine rule, Gregory wrote a life of Benedict and he was seen as embodying the Benedictine spirit. Few had more influence on medieval monastic life.

Although he was pope for just 13 years, his influence on the development of the Church and of the papacy in the Middle Ages was regarded as far-reaching. He certainly earned the title of ‘Great’ given to him.

During much of his life he suffered from gout and digestive problems but was intellectually active to the end. He is believed to have been 65 or 70 when he died in 604 and was soon acclaimed a saint.

The earliest pictures of Gregory show him as pope, writing, with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove dictating what he should write. Later he figures as one of the Four Latin Doctors (with Saints Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine). Later again the pictures stress his role as teacher of the efficacy of prayer and the Mass in freeing souls from the pains of Purgatory. He introduced the custom of having 30 Masses for a deceased person, still known as Gregorian Masses.

Gregory was also highly regarded in the East and in Ireland, where he was even provided with an Irish royal genealogy!*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

By ensuring the Anglo-Saxon settlers/invaders in Britain were converted, Gregory was also making them much less vulnerable to the international slave trade. The conversion of Slav nations in eastern Europe had the same result, because Christians were less inclined to plunder and enslave other Christians than pagans.

The idea of freedom from slavery is so important to Christianity that I expect Christian leaders of the time loved to see the Gospel liberating people in this very literal way.