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WEEKLY REFLECTIONS

~ What About the Pope? ~

So Pope Benedict is under fire, one that descended on the Vatican like an unexpected storm. Who are these men, elected by their peers to head the Roman Catholic Church and oversee more than a billion adherents?

When doing comparisons across political, religious or cultural arenas, I urge people to compare the best with the best, the worst with the worst, but never the best with the worst, which is unfair and manipulative. For example, let us not compare the best of Native American spiritual practices with the worst of the Christian missionaries sent to them. The Native Americans will come out looking superior. Conversely, comparing the worst of Native American spirituality with that of the best Christian missionaries will put the latter on top. The truth rests in identifying the best of all cultures and comparing those. "The best of all" is the best standard of comparison, don't you think?

Pope Gregory (540-604) was among the best, so much so that the church later bestowed on him the title of "Magnus," meaning "the Great." Gregory would have shunned this honor, having written, "I remember with sorrow what I once was in the monastery, how I rose in contemplation above all changeable and decaying things and thought of nothing but the things of heaven...But now, by reason of my pastoral care, I have to bear with secular business...And when I recall the condition of my former life, I sigh as one who looks back and gazes on the shore he has left behind." He accepted his papal election with reluctance and humility.

This excerpt from one of Pope Gregory's homilies [Vatican archive reference Lib. 1, 11, 4-6; CCL 142, 170-172] provides us an insight into the man and the office:

" 'Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel.' Note that a man whom the Lord sends forth as a preacher is called a watchman. A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming. Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height for all his life to help them by his foresight.

"How hard it is for me to say this, for by these very words I denounce myself. I cannot preach with any competence, and yet insofar as I do succeed, still I myself do not live my life according to my own preaching.

"I do not deny my responsibility; I recognize that I am slothful and negligent, but perhaps the acknowledgment of my fault will win me pardon from my just judge. Indeed when I was in monastery I could curb my idle talk and usually be absorbed in my prayers. Since I assumed the burden of pastoral care, my mind can no longer be collected; it is concerned with so many matters.

"I am forced to consider the affairs of the Church and of the monasteries. I must weigh the lives and acts of individuals. I am responsible for the concerns of our citizens. I must worry about the invasions of roving bands of barbarians, and beware of the wolves who lie in wait for my flock. I must become an administrator lest the religious go in want. I must put up with certain robbers without losing patience and at times I must deal with them in all charity.

"With my mind divided and torn to pieces by so many problems, how can I meditate or preach wholeheartedly without neglecting the ministry of proclaiming the Gospel? Moreover, in my position I must often communicate with worldly men. At times I let my tongue run, for if I am always severe in my judgments, the worldly will avoid me, and I can never attack them as I would. As a result I often listen patiently to chatter. And because I too am weak, I find myself drawn little by little into idle conversation, and I begin to talk freely about matters which once I would have avoided. What once I found tedious I now enjoy.

"So who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness? Truly the all-powerful Creator and Redeemer of mankind can give me in spite of my weaknesses a higher life and effective speech; because I love him, I do not spare myself in speaking of him."


Gregory made it known he preferred the title, "Servant of the servants of God." That is the kind of leadership Christ taught and modeled. Gregory's honest self-reflection in public is congruent with many of our own. Like us, Gregory was challenged to balance and incorporate the arenas of his inner spiritual life with that of his secular and ecclesial office responsibilities. A review of his life underscores his success in doing that.

Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped: "All of my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients."
Not many of us are familiar with the writings of the early church fathers and mothers or of the medieval wisdom literature. Here are a few quotes to ponder:

"… the disposition of (rich) men … is turned to raving anger by pride."
[Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care, ca. A.D. 590]

"So, the cross is always ready and waits for you everywhere. You cannot escape it no matter where you run, for wherever you go you are burdened with yourself. Wherever you go, there you are."
[Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ, ca. A.D. 1440]

"Would you wish for the praise of one who thrice an hour calls down curses on his own head? Would you please one who cannot even please himself?"
[Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, ca. A.D. 155]

"My sermons are applauded merely from custom, then everyone runs off to [horse racing] again and gives much more applause to the jockeys, showing indeed unrestrained passion for them! There they put their heads together with great attention, and say with mutual rivalry, 'This horse did not run well, this one stumbled,' and one holds to this jockey and another to that. No one thinks any more of my sermons, nor of the holy and awesome mysteries that are accomplished here." [John Chrysostom, 349-407, earned his name from "Chrysostomos," meaning "golden mouth."]

Not much has changed in the human condition, has it? I much rather be burdened with the cross of Christ than with myself. Instead of "Wherever you go, there you are," I would much rather observe and experience, "Wherever you go, there is Christ." Is that possible? Of course. Is it challenging? Gregory the Great would say so. Have I learned anything of substance while I was comfortable and satisfied with myself? No. Have I learned substantial things in challenge and adversity? Definitely.

I end this reflection with a quote from someone far from being an "ancient," author Betsy Hart: "Leave it to some American evangelicals to come up with the notion that the Christ who was about to suffer an excruciating death for the remission of sin meant to convey that what he really wanted to give us was bigger condos in the here and now...Why am I so sure the 'health and wealth' folks have it wrong? More than anything because of how Christ and his disciples lived -- and because I think that in the Christian life settling for more fancy bathrooms is settling for too little." [betsysblog.com]


John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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