Learning from our Holy Patron, Saint Gregory

Westminster Cathedral. St Gregory meeting the English slaves in Rome. (Photo by Fr Finigan)

We venerate the saints to give glory to God for His wonderful works in them, to ask for their assistance, and to imitate their virtues. St Gregory was one of the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church, a teacher whose writings are of perennial value.

He put his natural gifts at the service of the Church, being a wise and unimpeachable leader who taught others how to exercise authority and pastoral care. He was drawn to the contemplative life in the monastery and, although God called Him away from this life, he continued to write spiritual works for others to lead them in the path of prayer.

St Gregory is often pictured with a dove speaking into his ear, representing the Holy Spirit. He combined an effective practical apostolate with an experiential knowledge of the journey of the soul in its relationship with God through prayer and charity.

He is also renowned for helping to give shape to the sacred liturgy of both East and West, and for promoting the music of the Church which is in continuity with the sacred music of the Jewish people that was known and used in prayer by Jesus Christ Himself. Our celebration of Mass today owes much to St Gregory’s care and reverence for the form of our worship.

As we celebrate the feast of our holy patron, we ask for his prayers for our parish, that we may learn from him in our worship and in our evangelisation. In our own prayers, we ask for the wisdom and perseverance that he showed by his own teaching and example.

Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man

Christ Pantocrator - Capela Palatina - Palermo - Italy 2015
Christ Pantocrator – Palatine Chapel, Palermo – Italy 2015 (© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Our faith teaches us that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man. We find this doctrine spelt out in the Creed which we say at Mass. This magnificent statement of faith comes from the great Councils of the Church of the 4th and 5th centuries and is a touchstone of orthodox Christianity.

Since He is God, the man Jesus Christ is all-powerful, all-knowing and infinitely loving. In the gospels He teaches with divine authority and works great miracles. His resurrection from the tomb is the final and definitive demonstration of His divine nature. The disciples adored Him as truly God.

Since He is man, God the incarnate Word was born in time, was hungry, suffered pain, and grew in human wisdom and knowledge. He grieved at the death of Lazarus his friend, and he showed human affection to St John the beloved disciple, as to St Mary Magdalene and, of course, His mother, the Immaculate Virgin Mary.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God has humbled Himself to come close to us. In the carols we sing at Christmas, we rejoice at how approachable this makes God for us. We need to keep this in mind when we come to the Church where Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament on our altar.

Jesus invites us to trust in Him absolutely. The devotion of the Sacred Heart is particularly helpful in our friendship with Christ because it shows for us the infinite divine love expressed in a human way that we can understand.

Original Sin and the Path to Holiness

'Our Lady of Sorrows', possibly by Carlo Dossi, oil on panel painting, 18th century, El Paso Museum of Art
‘Our Lady of Sorrows’, possibly by Carlo Dossi, oil on panel painting, 18th century, El Paso Museum of Art
When God looked on the man and woman He had created, He saw that His creation was very good. In our present condition, however, we see many examples of how we and others are not always good, but have a tendency to commit sin. This is a result of original sin whose effects remain in the disordered desires that we experience.

We are indeed redeemed by Jesus Christ who opened the gates of heaven for us by His saving death on the cross. He calls us to follow Him by taking up the cross. This is necessary in order that we grow in holiness by His grace and overcome our greed and selfishness.

There will always be a place for the cross at the heart of our relationships because we do not love as fully as we are called to, and because we hurt others by our sins. Our Lord’s insistence on forgiveness is important in families and in communities so that discord does not grow and become the root of destructive resentment. In teaching that we should love our enemies, Christ sets forth an immensely powerful path for good in the world.

Sometimes, evil done by others can make a person’s life miserable and seemingly hopeless, leaving them “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” We ask our Lady as our Advocate to lead us ultimately to heaven at the end of this life, but she also consoles us as a loving Mother in the dark times of this life. She teaches us to bear the cross with Jesus and thus to allow Our Lord to bring meaning and hope where humanly these seem to be impossible.

The supernatural gift of God’s grace

Don Bosco @ Torino, 1880 (original)
Don Bosco at Turin, 1880
“Grace is a supernatural gift of God, freely bestowed on us for our sanctification and salvation.” (Penny Catechism) Sanctifying or habitual grace is given at Baptism. St Augustine explained that it is like the sunshine of the soul: God takes up His dwelling within us and invites us to friendship with Him.

We should rejoice in the generous love of God by which He enables us to remain in a state of grace, a continuing relationship of friendship with Him in which He offers us an increasing strength, beauty and holiness of soul, especially through the reception of the sacraments.

St John Bosco was a great saint who dedicated his life to the care of children and young people in need. When asked what was his chief aim in life, he answered “To remain in a state of grace.” The state of grace is lost through mortal sin and restored by God in response to our repentance and sacramental confession.

Actual graces are those helps that we need to carry out supernaturally good works, and to avoid sin and the occasions of sin. God gives us these graces in response to our prayers. St Alphonsus warned us that prayer is therefore morally necessary for our eternal salvation.

The gift of grace is supernatural, above our created human capacity, something for which we rely absolutely on the kindness and love of God, who is infinitely greater than the whole of His creation. Our Lord Himself teaches us that we should treasure the gift of grace more than any earthly riches.

The Infinite Perfection of our God

Cathédrale d'Auch 20
Relief, Auch Cathedral, France: the Ark of the Covenant
Ever since the first man and woman, endowed with a spiritual soul, people have understood that there must be a God, and have tried to understand what He must be like. In His infinite generosity, God has not left us in the dark, but has revealed Himself to us to teach us Who He is and how we might properly know, love and serve Him.

This revelation was given to the priests and prophets of the Old Testament and finally in the person of Jesus Christ who is truly God made man. Christ in turn founded the Church so that His teaching may be given authentically down the ages.

We know from these sources that God is infinite in all perfections. He is limitless goodness, love, truth power and beauty. This is not merely a theoretical affirmation, it is central to how we must relate to God; we must trust Him absolutely and without reserve, bow down with a holy fear in awe of His goodness and beauty, and return with all our hearts that undeserved love which he pours out upon us.

In our daily lives, we are guided by the commandments of God and the moral teaching of His Church, and when we sin, we may call confidently on His infinite mercy towards those who repent with sincere sorrow. In our worship, we offer Him the adoration, praise, and thanksgiving which are His due. Our faith is a cause for rejoicing, since, as Moses proclaimed, and Our Lord shows in the flesh, our God is so close to us as to dwell with us on earth and invite us to His company in heaven.

God, the Creator of the Universe

Screenshot from IMAX® 3D movie Hidden Universe showing the Carina Nebula
Carina Nebula. European Southern Observatory
As Catholics, we believe that we can know the existence of God with certainty from the natural light of human reason. Many people do rely simply on a sense of the presence of God, but when the reality of God is challenged, we need not feel that our faith is simply an emotion.

The beauty of creation is one way in which God’s existence is evident to us. Catholics have also always welcomed the formal investigation of the world in what we call the sciences, and many of the great scientific discoveries have been made by people who share our faith. Science also shows us the beauty of creation.

We observe that the universe is a cosmos rather than a chaos, that it works according to laws and constants that operated long before there were any human beings to discover them and describe them mathematically. The universe, as we discover it to be, shows an order that speaks of a supreme intellect or mind at the origin of all things, which upholds all things in being. This supreme mind we call God.

From what He has revealed to us, we also know God to be personal, loving and merciful, but even without any appeal to the scriptures or to faith, belief in a supreme being is rational and in accord with the evidence. When we reflect on the immensity and complexity of the universe and the way in which we can make use of science to fashion new things, we can also thrill to the power of the mind of God the Creator. Let us praise, worship and adore Him.

The Real and Personal Love of Jesus Christ

Sacred Heart
Statue of the Sacred Heart at St Austin & St Gregory, Margate. (Photo by Fr Timothy Finigan)

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus became popular through St John Eudes, and especially St Margaret Mary who was favoured with appearances of Our Lord who asked her to spread the message of His personal love for us.

Our Lord emphasised the wounds which our sins cause to His Sacred Heart, and the consolation which our prayer, penance and charity give to Him. We are encouraged to understand that our sins are not simply the breaking of rules, or foibles that we can excuse ourselves for, but personal offences against God who has come down to earth and suffered for us to redeem us.

Likewise, our good works of mercy, and our loving adoration are far more than the achievement of “peace of soul” or a purely human moral achievement. When they are undertaken out of a real and personal love for Christ, they console His Sacred Heart and bring us further graces to become more like Him.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, devotion to the Sacred Heart was a remedy against the rigorist tendencies of the Jansenists, especially by encouraging frequent devout Holy Communion, received with proper preparation and loving devotion.

Today, the same devotion is a remedy against the indifference and carelessness which arises from a lack of faith in the eternal truths and a reductive humanist approach to “religion” which makes it merely a lifestyle choice. Devotion to the Sacred Heart calls us to a living faith in Jesus Christ who calls for our loyalty and personal love.

The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

Disputa del Sacramento (Rafael)
Raphael. Disputation of Holy Sacrament. (1509-1510) Vatican Museums
The words of Our Lord in the sixth chapter of St John’s gospel shocked His Jewish listeners. It was unthinkable that a man would give his flesh and blood as food to others. Our Lord did not modify his words but insisted that His flesh was real food and His blood real drink.

Even the apostles did not claim to understand Him: St Peter simply showed their trust in Him by saying “Lord to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” At the Last Supper, Our Lord showed them the way in which He would give His flesh and blood to them and to the Church until the end of time.

From the very beginning, the Church has insisted on the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In the face of heresies at various times she has continued to do so, especially at the Council of Trent in answer to the new doctrines of the reformers.

In 1965, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed this teaching. He said:

“Once the substance or nature of the bread and wine has been changed into the body and blood of Christ, nothing remains of the bread and the wine except for the species—beneath which Christ is present whole and entire in His physical reality,” (Mysterium Fidei n.46)

Our external reverence can both show our faith and confirm it. Genuflecting devoutly, receiving Holy Communion with care, attending Benediction, showing reverence in the Church, all help to remind us that we do not believe the Eucharist to be “blessed bread” but the true body and blood of Christ.

Our Prayer to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Durante Alberti. Blessed Trinity with St Thomas of Canterbury and St Edmund (“The Martyrs’ Picture”) 1580. Venerable English College, Rome

God has revealed Himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He has also guided His holy Church to define the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and reject false expressions which end up by teaching that there are three gods or that the persons of the Trinity are simply three masks for one person. We believe and confess one God, three co-equal persons.

Rather than attempt to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the appropriate response to God’s revelation of Himself is adoration. Together with the angels and the saints, we bow down before the majesty of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The language that we use when speaking of God is given to us in the scriptures, the teaching of the great councils of the Church, and in the prayers of the sacred liturgy of the Church, our public worship. In the liturgy, we do sometimes pray to the divine persons individually, but very often, we pray to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. This traditional dynamic of liturgical prayer is a good guide to our own personal prayer.

In the public prayer of the Church, we sometimes pray for the material things that we need, but primarily, we pray in adoration and thanksgiving, and in the offering of sacrifice in reparation for our sins. When we make prayers of petition, these are usually to ask for God’s blessing and grace. Again this helps us by teaching us our utter dependence on God, our humility before Him, and the great generosity with which He hears our prayers.

The Delightful Guest of the Soul

Pentecost 01
From an English Missal from East Anglia. c1310-1320. National Library of Wales.
The tongues of fire which heralded the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles speak of that power which they received to go out and proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Jesus and call others to be baptised and to follow Him.

On the feast of Pentecost, we pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be renewed in us. When we received the sacrament of Confirmation, we learnt of the gifts of wisdom, understanding counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. We need these gifts to be renewed in us constantly if we are to play our own part as disciples of Jesus Christ.
We also pray for the Holy Spirit to bring peace to our souls. The sequence for today’s feast speaks of this effect of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

Thou of all consolers blest
Thou the soul’s delightful guest
dost refreshing peace bestow.

This “refreshing peace” (refrigerium) was an important hope for our early Christian saints who struggled in this life under persecution. Their pagan contemporaries sought peace in various forms of wisdom just as people do today in self-help schemes and the search for a healthy life.

When He taught the apostles about the Holy Spirit, Our Lord promised a peace that the world cannot give. (Jn 14.27) This peace is lost by sin and by lukewarmness towards the things of God, and discovered in devoted and attentive prayer. It is a great treasure because it is not simply the absence of turmoil, but the presence of our “delightful guest.”