Monday, September 4, 2017

Pope St. Gregory, Great in his Humility

A friend of mine once said that he thinks we use the word “great” too much to describe people and things. We too easily say that something is great. A trip was great. A baseball player is great. A restaurant was great. He thinks that “great” should be reserved for truly wonderful people and moments; otherwise the word becomes too watered down and loses much of its meaning.

Surely today is an occasion to use the word, however, as we celebrate the patronal feast of St. Gregory the Great here at our parish. St. Gregory (540-604 A.D.) was in fact “great” in the true sense of the word.

19th century mosaic of
St. Gregory the Great
Non Angli sed Angeli
when he first encountered English boys
at a slave market in Rome, sparking his
dispatch of St. Augustine to England

He sent missionaries to Christianize England. Acting like a governor of Rome, he provided for people suffering from disease, poverty and hunger and maintained civil order.  He defended the Roman people from Lombard invaders by negotiating a peace settlement with them. He built monasteries. He promoted the unity of the Church by developing people’s understanding of the papacy. He taught doctrine and virtue and preached courageously against evil and sin and did all of this well; he wrote a number of books on theological topics.

If you or I were to accomplish even just one of these facts I mentioned, we would have a place in history books. 

Interestingly, though, St. Gregory did not want to be praised in the eyes of the world and even fought against this.

In one of his most famous writings, The Book of Pastoral Rule penned in the 6th century, a book written for fellow bishops, St. Gregory states that whenever we accomplish something well or perfectly we should consider our own infirmities and limitations, thereby crushing any sinful pride we might feel about those accomplishments (Pastoral Rule, Book I, Introduction).

St. Gregory himself did not think he was a competent preacher. He mentions also that he had difficulty practicing what he preached.

What a refreshing example this is to us. In our culture we are conditioned to try to make ourselves look successful before others. If anyone had a trophy case of amazing accomplishments to write about and brag to others about it was St. Gregory. Instead we find him writing about Jesus Christ, morality and St. Gregory’s own faults. Instead we find him busy doing the work of helping the poor and serving the Christian community. In this his true greatness lies.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

World Day of Prayer for Creation 2017

In 1994 in one of the first sessions to prepare for my confirmation, I remember our instructor teaching us to repeat after her a phrase that went something like this: ‘I am a unique, wonderful masterpiece of God’s creation.’  What a beautiful and profound message for a teenager to think about as he began to prepare for the sacrament of confirmation.  It is a message we should all reflect upon too today.

 Today we celebrate the World Day of Prayer for Creation (September 1) started by Pope Francis. God’s creation is wonderful, rich and diverse.  Usually we associate today’s celebration with the environment. Just looking around our campus, we see it teeming with plants, trees, flowers, and fields and are thankful for these gifts of God.  Or when we think of God’s creatures we first think of animal life.  

The other night I attended “Bark at the Park” at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton, an event where dogs were invited to attend the Trenton Thunder baseball game that evening. There were many amazing breeds of dogs, large and small.  All of these things are part of the fabric of God’s wonderful design. 

And at the top of God’s creation on earth stands the human person.  With his hands, mind, heart and will, man is able to carry out so much good for others in our world and is able to glorify God.  What a masterpiece of God’s creation!

Our care for our neighbor is part of what the last three popes have referred to as “human ecology”.  “[T]here is … an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will” (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Address to the German Bundestag, 22 September 2011).   

May we be caretakers and protectors of nature and of all the wonderful things and persons that God has brought into this world!  What a lofty calling on this day of prayer for Creation.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reflections on Matthew: The Calling of St. Matthew

As Jesus passed on from there [Capernaum], he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.  He said to him, ‘Follow me.’  And he got up and followed him” (Mt 9:9).

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew is pictured above.  It was painted in 1600 and hangs in the Contarelli chapel of Rome’s Church of San Luigi de Francesi.  Pope Francis has said that he often went to the church as a young man to contemplate the painting.

Is St. Matthew the man with the black hat pointing with a look of surprise on his face as if saying “Who, me?”, or the younger looking man with his head still down counting the coins?  We do not know for sure, although as far as I know most think it is the man pointing.  Perhaps the ambiguity is a way that Caravaggio puts the observer’s focus more on the Caller than the called.  Jesus Christ is the person all the way to the right.  Jesus has an impressive look of determination on his face, certain as to who He is calling and able almost to bring light down upon this person and into this gathering of tax collectors.  The light travels from right to left in the same direction as Christ extending out his hand. The light emerges from just above Jesus and seems to be a powerful extension of Him. 

We can see a lot of physical movement in the painting.  Look at Christ’s feet; they are already turned away and he is walking to his next destination.  The young man directly to the left of St. Peter appears almost to be getting up in a mildly aggressive manner drawing his sword to stop Jesus. The scene has pointing, facial movements, and probably conversation.

But there is another more important type of movement in the painting: spiritual movement.  Christ in his will wants this man to follow Him. And St. Matthew is undergoing movement in his heart.  Will he change his ways, leave his money behind, get up and follow Him? Will He allow this man of light to cleanse him of his sins?  Will he answer the call to leave his life behind and become not just a disciple but also an Apostle, a leader in this man’s Church?  Caravaggio beautifully paints this type of movement too.

What an amazing, powerful scene. There is so much happening here. There are movements of the body masterfully depicted and more importantly movements of the heart. St. Matthew answers the call and follows Jesus, giving his entire life to Him. May we follow his example and hastily get up from our tables to follow as well.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Reflections on Matthew: You are the Light of the World (Mt 5:14)

I read an online article a while ago that says that our country has not been this divided since the Civil War.  There have always been differing points of view in America from the very beginning of our history, but now what we see are two giant irreconcilable points of view, two philosophies that cannot coexist or find common ground. People differ on major questions such as when life begins, whether there is a God, and whether truth exists or whether everything is just someone’s opinion or point of view.  Despite the major differences, too often people do not want to sit down and talk through their differing opinions.  We just get angry and impatient.  In February a group of students did not like a speaker that was speaking at UC Berkeley, but rather than write a letter to the campus newspaper they started breaking windows and burning things.  

This is a real problem. Thankfully we are not powerless though in the face of what we see happening.  As Christians we are agents of love and unity. We can bring about peace.  We have been given great power by God through our baptism.  Jesus says to his disciples: "You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.”  We should not give into the negative view that religious people, that Christianity, does not have anything to offer to the world and that we should be quiet.  No, we are what the world needs, now more than ever, even desperately.

By living out the Gospel message of the Beatitudes, of dependence on God, meekness, mercy, peacemaking and righteousness, we are light, love and life in the world.  We influence the world for good. The Bishops of Vatican II in their document Lumen Gentium describe the Church – you and me --- as “a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race.“ 

The Beatitudes which we hear about in Matthew chapters 5-7 are the roadmap to unity.   They teach us to “Avoid quarrels, harsh or hurtful words and actions…  [A]void all abruptness of manner, and never speak while in an angry mood”  (Adolphe Tanqueray, The Spiritual Life, number 1164).   They teach us to offer a pleasant word, to suffer patiently… to control my tongue, even in the face of someone who hates me.  This is light that overcomes the darkness.   

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Reflections on Matthew - Beatitudes

We live in what I consider an angry society.  Just look at our national politicians and media personalities: they are constantly yelling and asserting themselves and their beliefs over others’.  It seems as if they are incapable of sitting down and having a rational conversation.  

What a perfect time to reflect on the refreshing attitude from Jesus in Matthew 5: 1-11: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.”  There are eight of these phrases altogether. 

The person who lives this way in their personal relationships: who decides to pray rather than to fight back, to love rather than retaliate, and most importantly to trust in God and let Him do the work, rather than to do it oneself, is a much happier person and a much more pleasant person to be with.

Yes the Beatitudes are counter-intuitive and counter cultural.  They are definitely not the way we normally think. ‘Happy are those who have no worldly joy.’ ‘Happy are those who are vulnerable and unable to fight back.’ ‘Happy are those who reconcile quarrels, those who forgive and give alms.’  Suffer wrongs patiently. Be meek.

It is not that we are called to be passive and like a rag doll.  Rather, if we truly live the way of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) and trust in God and do not worry, then we would not be angry and bitter.  There will always be someone who disagrees with you or who has hurt you in some way.  It’s time to make the decision to love them in return and forgive what they have done, so that their actions and poor choices can disappear from your life forever.  That’s not passivity; that’s power.