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Gregory’s story has a lot to teach us about that tricky thing called discernment.

Back in 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI devoted two General Audiences to this saint.  He began with a helpful outline of his life – born into an important Roman family, serving as prefect of Rome, turning his family’s land into a monastery togregory the greatwhich he retired, then entering the service of the pope during very difficult times in Rome, including the plague, which killed the pope, and then…

The clergy, people and senate were unanimous in choosing Gregory as his successor to thend  See of Peter. He tried to resist, even attempting to flee, but to no avail: finally, he had to yield. The year was 590.

Recognising the will of God in what had happened, the new Pontiff immediately and enthusiastically set to work. From the beginning he showed a singularly enlightened vision of realty with which he had to deal, an extraordinary capacity for work confronting both ecclesial and civil affairs, a constant and even balance in making decisions, at times with courage, imposed on him by his office.

Benedict engages in some more analysis in the second GA. This is useful and important to read. 

Wanting to review these works quickly, we must first of all note that, in his writings, Gregory never sought to delineate “his own” doctrine, his own originality. Rather, he intended to echo the traditional teaching of the Church, he simply wanted to be the mouthpiece of Christ and of the Church on the way that must be taken to reach God. His exegetical commentaries are models of this approach.

And that is what any teacher of the faith, especially a pastor, is called to do.

Moving on:

Probably the most systematic text of Gregory the Great is the Pastoral Rule, written in the first years of his Pontificate. In it Gregory proposed to treat the figure of the ideal Bishop, the teacher and guide of his flock. To this end he illustrated the seriousness of the office of Pastor of the Church and its inherent duties. Therefore, those who were not called to this office may not seek it with superficiality, instead those who assumed it without due reflection necessarily feel trepidation rise within their soul. Taking up again a favourite theme, he affirmed that the Bishop is above all the “preacher” par excellence; for this reason he must be above all an example for others, so that his behaviour may be a point of reference for all. Efficacious pastoral action requires that he know his audience and adapt his words to the situation of each person: here Gregory paused to illustrate the various categories of the faithful with acute and precise annotations, which can justify the evaluation of those who have also seen in this work a treatise on psychology. From this one understands that he really knew his flock and spoke of all things with the people of his time and his city.

Nevertheless, the great Pontiff insisted on the Pastor’s duty to recognize daily his own unworthiness in the eyes of the Supreme Judge, so that pride did not negate the good accomplished. For this the final chapter of the Rule is dedicated to humility: “When one is pleased to have achieved many virtues, it is well to reflect on one’s own inadequacies and to humble oneself: instead of considering the good accomplished, it is necessary to consider what was neglected”. All these precious indications demonstrate the lofty concept that St Gregory had for the care of souls, which he defined as the “ars artium”, the art of arts. The Rule had such great, and the rather rare, good fortune to have been quickly translated into Greek and Anglo-Saxon.

Another significant work is the Dialogues. In this work addressed to his friend Peter, the deacon, who was convinced that customs were so corrupt as to impede the rise of saints as in times past, Gregory demonstrated just the opposite: holiness is always possible, even in difficult times.

He proved it by narrating the life of contemporaries or those who had died recently, who could well be considered saints, even if not canonised. The narration was accompanied by theological and mystical reflections that make the book a singular hagiographical text, capable of enchanting entire generations of readers. The material was drawn from the living traditions of the people and intended to edify and form, attracting the attention of the reader to a series of questions regarding the meaning of miracles, the interpretation of Scripture, the immortality of the soul, the existence of Hell, the representation of the next world – all themes that require fitting clarification. Book II is wholly dedicated to the figure of Benedict of Nursia and is the only ancient witness to the life of the holy monk, whose spiritual beauty the text highlights fully.

Above all he was profoundly convinced that humility should be the fundamental virtue for every Bishop, even more so for the Patriarch. Gregory remained a simple monk in his heart and therefore was decisively contrary to great titles. He wanted to be – and this is his expression – servus servorum Dei.Coined by him, this phrase was not just a pious formula on his lips but a true manifestation of his way of living and acting. He was intimately struck by the humility of God, who in Christ made himself our servant. He washed and washes our dirty feet. Therefore, he was convinced that a Bishop, above all, should imitate this humility of God and follow Christ in this way. His desire was to live truly as a monk, in permanent contact with the Word of God, but for love of God he knew how to make himself the servant of all in a time full of tribulation and suffering. He knew how to make himself the “servant of the servants”. Precisely because he was this, he is great and also shows us the measure of true greatness.

And he’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints. 

amy-welborn-bookgregory-the-great

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Not even two months after her death on March 27, Easter Sunday, Raymond Arroyo has published  another book on EWTN founder Mother Angelica, Mother Angelica: Her Grand Silence. The Last Years and Living Legacy.

The first part of the book has clearly been written for a while and, I’m guessing, was intended  as an addendum to the original biography. It is a thoroughly researched and well-told account of the stresses and fractures that developed within the community from Mother Angelica’s initial 2001 stroke onward. It’s quite interesting and even startling reading. Startling not because such fractures are news – anyone familiar with religious history and the history of religious orders is familiar with the dynamic of a religious order undergoing change after a founder’s death or after an original charism has faded into memory.

No, it’s just startling – but in a good way – to see these matters concerning a still-existant community written about (seemingly) so forthrightly. The divisions, the dynamic, the personalities are all explored. It makes sense. The monastery was subject to a Vatican-ordered visitation, a matter of public record, so there is no reason to pretend otherwise.

This was also interesting to me on a personal level because these events came to one of their climaxes shortly after we moved here in 2008. I knew something was going on and all was not well at the monastery, but no details. In the fall, a young woman who had left the monastery became Mike’s secretary – a lovely young woman who has since found her place in another religious community – and the events described in the book – which came to a head in the spring and early summer of 2009, after Mike had died in February  –  helped all of that click into place for me.

And the story of Mother Angelica’s trip to Japan in 2004 is fascinating in a borderline horrific way. I had no idea this had happened.

The rest of the book, however, is almost a patische of various elements. Her life story is retold. Again. Arroyo’s own connection with her is narrated again. Many pages are taken up with letters testifying to the impact Mother Angelica had on people’s lives. Arroyo discusses what he sees as how she lived out heroic virtues. He discusses some of her mystical experiences, including a tentative “I’m just throwing this out there” suggestion about bilocation. Hmmm.

Since Mother Angelica had let go of the reins of EWTN in 2000(a still-controversial decision made to prevent influence by elements in the Church – aka bishops – who opposed her vision), the network doesn’t enter into the narrative much, except in places where Arroyo is recollecting his relationship with Mother Angelica. It seems that in that last decade and a half, she was not even interested in the network, wanting the channel changed to Fox News or reruns of I Love Lucy from the station she’d founded. To the extent that she was invested in events, it was the conditions and direction of her sisters that concerned her the most, as far as she was able to be concerned about what was happening around her.

What there is related to EWTN, I was most interested in his description of a tussle regarding Pope John Paul II’s 1997 visit to Cuba.

At the network there were certain individuals (long gone) who wanted to shape our coverage to suit their own political perspective – mainly to establish that Cuban president Fidel Castro was a neutral or even positive actor in the region. This tracked with the views of some in Latin America, markets where EWTN was attempting to secure carriage….” (162)

The narrative of Mother Angelica’s last few years – her health, her daily life and care – is actually sketchy and scattered throughout the book. What is there is a good reflection by Arroyo and her caregivers about the nature of suffering and the different ways that we, throughout our lives and at different levels of physical strength and ability – can use our time for God and for others. But it’s not at the level of detail or spiritual depth that one finds, for example, in accounts of Mother Teresa’s life.

It’s 224 pages  – a short book – I read it in little over an hour – and Mother Angelica fans will undoubtedly enjoy it. If you’re interested in contemporary church history, it’s worth checking it out from the library to read over that first section.

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Here’s a graphic outlining the Pope’s itinerary in Cuba, via Catholic News Agency.

Text of today’s homily

Here are the speeches and homilies from JPII’s 1998 trip to Cuba

B16 in 2012

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