The last week has been a rather tumultuous one. Events have transpired that have called for change, presented immense challenges and perhaps even have given cause for discouragement.
Now, in hearing that you might be thinking of how some of you have left home for the first time; some have met new roommates, colleagues, or even workplace supervisors; some have made one of the most significant financial investments their lives; some might even have suddenly come to the realize that their time here at St. Gregory’s is nearly over and it will all too soon be time to set forth on the next stage of life.
All this is true. And yet, as tumultuous and challenging as these events have been, that’s not the source of the greatest tumult of the last week. In the last few days, as we were beginning a new academic year at St. Gregory’s, the world outside this peaceful campus continued to turn apace, and has faced truly tumultuous and challenging events. Several natural disasters were catching the headlines: a powerful hurricane threatening the coast of Mexico, wildfires raging in Los Angeles, and yet another powerful earthquake striking Indonesia only yesterday. World economies continued to give confusing signals and families and communities faced the challenges of unemployment and reduced purchasing power. Attempts to discuss access to health care in our nation continued to devolve into shouting matches rather than respectful dialogue, even as new threats such as H1N1 Flu lurk menacingly at the door. New reports came out of Europe of violence against minorities such as the Roma or “Gypsies” and Jews by nationalistic and new-Nazi groups. Then there were the violent acts of terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, where – we need to remember – we as a nation are still involved in a now eight-year war, with last week ending the month of the highest number of American fatalities in Afghanistan, not to mention injuries and fatalities inflicted on innocent by-standers. To top the week off, the UN Secretary General made a trip to the Arctic Sea to point to the reality of melting ice caps and the threat of extinction faced by many species as a result of climate change – from Polar Bears to, yes, human beings.
Yes, it has been a tumultuous week. But, has the last week really been that atypical of the times in which we live? We live in a period of world history that is saturated with the news and challenges of natural disasters, war, economic uncertainty, political discord, societal instability, and environmental change.
When we make our way up the tree-lined drive of our peaceful campus, as we listen to the rhythm of the bells and the daily chanting of prayers in the Abbey Church, and when we enjoy the blessings of the community we form here at St. Gregory’s, it is easy for us to lose track of the importance of what we are being called to do here, all of us at this university, as we seek to Build the Kingdom of God through Education in the Catholic and Benedictine Tradition. My purpose in reminding us of the tumult of the world in which we live as we begin this academic year is not to depress us or to make us feel guilty for enjoying the many blessings which we share. Rather, my purpose is to remind us that God is calling all of us at St. Gregory’s – members of the student body, staff, faculty, administration, board, and monastery – to work together and to assist one another in discerning God’s will in our lives, in developing our talents and abilities, and in responding to the challenges of our world with faith, with hope, and with love.
The readings for our Mass today remind us of this shared call, and show us how we can accomplish it with God’s grace. The Prophet Jeremiah reminds us that God has formed each of us from the womb for a purpose and unique mission. And while some of you might object that you are too young to make a difference in the challenges that face our campus, our monastery, our nation or our world, the Lord in this reading is not ready to accept youth as an excuse for one not to take responsibility for the task of improving the lives of those around us, or in addressing many obstacles that place the world at risk. Rather, the Lord is ready to touch your hearts, your minds and your lips that you might overcome fear and doubt in order to provide effective prophetic witness to the nations.
Similarly, in our gospel today, through his words to the original apostles, Jesus calls all of us to seek greatness not by exploiting or taking advantage of others, or by grasping at positions of power. Rather, Jesus teaches us that we can achieve true greatness only by dedicating our lives to the service of others. If we are called upon to exercise some position of leadership, or authority, or teaching, or power, we will find success and fulfillment in those roles only if we exercise them for the good of all in an attitude of service.
Finally, the passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans gives us the blueprint of how we can be successful as a Christian, Catholic, and Benedictine community. Each of us has a role to play – through teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership, service, or encouragement. By following the words of St. Paul, which echo the teaching of Jesus, we will be a successful university and monastic community that is true to our Catholic identity and Benedictine inspiration, and we will have immediate and long-term positive impact on the world about us. To repeat the final words of our second reading: “Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality.”
If we embody the words of the scriptural readings for today, and if we are mindful of how our mission here is a mission to Build God’s Kingdom by address the needs of a troubled world, then we will do nothing less than imitate the example of the wonderful patron of our monastery and university: St. Gregory the Great. St. Gregory also lived in a very tumultuous time in the history of his nation and culture, his Church and his world. Born around the year 540 – about the same time as the death of St. Benedict – St. Gregory lived his entire life in the context of social, economic, cultural and even religious crises. The great Roman Empire that for centuries provided political and economic stability for northern Africa, the Middle East, Western Europe and England, was collapsing as a result of foreign invasions, war, economic disruption, disease and moral decline. Even the integrity of the Church was somewhat compromised by unqualified and at times even unscrupulous pastors who used their positions not as offices of service but rather for personal gain.
Although he came from considerable wealth and nobility, and although he became the prefect of Rome at the young age of 30, St. Gregory withdrew from his worldly success and renounced his personal wealth in order to found and join a monastery – which most likely was at least partially inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict. St. Gregory was not, however, to enjoy his retreat to the monastery for long. He was asked to take up more and more roles of responsibility and leadership – no doubt due to his unique combination of great talent, intelligence, and devotion to Christ and the spiritual life.
On this day, in the year 590, at the age of 50, St. Gregory was chosen to be pope. Though he would not have chosen this role for himself, he embraced it and – with God’s help – he exercised incredible leadership. As a result of his pastoral leadership, his charity for all, his efforts to promote peace, his reform of the clergy and the liturgy of the Church, and his many written works, he was proclaimed to be a saint shortly after his death and became one of the only popes to be known as “the Great.”
Today, each of us gathered for this celebration can be challenged by the example of St. Gregory and the words of Jesus in the gospel. Each of us is called to serve rather than to be served – to find our greatness by emptying ourselves before God and before the needs of our brothers and sisters – and to discern where God might be leading us so that we might respond to the needs of the age in which we live – an age that faces challenges not unlike those confronting St. Gregory and his contemporaries.
We ask God’s blessing upon our shared response to this challenge during this liturgy, this celebration of the Mass. In a few moments, we will make public commitments to one another to live by the teaching of gospel and the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans. We will also be nourished by Jesus, who offers himself at this altar for our salvation. Our response must not, however, be limited to this celebration, this ceremony, today. Rather, we are to continually in service to one another, and to the task of addressing the needs of our world by Building the Kingdom of God one moment, one opportunity, one relationship, one choice at a time when we leave the refuge of this church. Today, the example of St. Gregory and the words of Jesus challenge each of us to take a discerning and active role in building up God’s Kingdom and to empty our very selves – who we are – in the service of the true King, Jesus our Lord. May we, like St. Gregory, be willing to share our lives with courage, generosity and integrity – and give witness to Christ in faith, hope and love!