June/July 2019 - Vol. 104

holding palm branches
Holding the Palm of Martyrdom

from a homily by Gregory the Great  (540-604 AD)

Today we are celebrating a martyr's birth into the life of heaven. If we are striving with the Lord's help to live out the virtue of patience, we hold the palm of martyrdom even though we are living in a time of peace. There are in fact two kinds of martyrdom. One takes place only in the heart, the other in both  heart and body. We too are capable of being martyrs, even without having anyone slay us. To die from someone's enmity is martyrdom out in the open; to bear insults, to love a person who hates us, is martyrdom in secret.

Jesus testified to both of these kinds of martyrdom, one that takes place in our hearts, the other in public. He asked the sons of Zebedee, Are you able to drink from the cup that I am to drink? When they immediately answered, We are able, he replied, You will indeed drink from my cup. What do we take his cup to be if not his passion, of which he said elsewhere: Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me? But in fact the sons of Zebedee, James, that is, and John, did not both die as martyrs. Each heard that he would drink from the cup, but John's life did not end in public martyrdom. Even so, he was a martyr. He sustained in his heart the suffering he did not undergo in his body. We too, following his example, can be unbloody martyrs if we truly hold to patience in our hearts.

Hold to patience in your hearts, my friends, and put it into action when the situation calls for it. Don't let any abusive word from your neighbor stir up hatred in you, and don't allow any loss of things that pass away to upset you. If you are steadfast in fearing the loss of those things that last forever, you will never take seriously the loss of those that pass away; if you keep your eyes fixed on the glory of our eternal recompense, you will not resent a temporal  injury. You must bear with those who oppose you, but also love those you bear with. Seek. an eternal reward in return for your temporal losses.

None of you should count on being able to carry this out on your own. Obtain it by your prayers, asking God who commands to provide it. We know that God gladly listens to those who ask him to grant what he commands. When we continually besiege him in prayer, God quickly comes to our assistance in temptation.

(excerpt from Be Friends of God: Spiritual Reading from Gregory the Great, translated from the Latin by John Leinenweber, 1990, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, Massachusetts.)

Top photo credit: (c) holding palm branches photo at bigstock.com IID: 295051987 by (c) Maria Marganingsih

Who was Gregory the Great?

A few highlights from his life written by editors of Christianity Today Magazine

Noble beginning
Gregory (540-604 AD) was descended from Roman nobles with a strong legacy of Christian faith. He was related to two previous popes (Felix III and Agapitus I), his aunts were nuns, and his parents joined cloisters in their later years. He was raised in Rome when it was only a shell of its former glory.

By the age of 30, he was the chief administrative official of the city, responsible for finances, police, provisioning, and public works an experience that helped him hone his administrative skills and, together with his personal wealth, gave him the opportunity to create six monasteries.

Yet Gregory remained dissatisfied, and upon his father's death in 574, he converted his house into a monastery and retired to a life of contemplation and prayer. During these years, the happiest in Gregory's life, he began a detailed study of the Scriptures. Here he also ruined his health with fasting, a sacrifice that would precipitate his early death.

Called again to service
His administrative skills did not remain unappreciated. In 577 Pope Benedict appointed Gregory one of the seven deacons of Rome, and Pope Pelagius II sent him to Constantinople in 578 as representative to the imperial court, then later recalled him to serve as his confidential adviser.

In 589 a flood destroyed the grain reserves of Rome, instigating a famine and then a plague that swept through Rome and killed Pope Pelagius. Gregory was elected to succeed him. Though he had tried to refuse the office, once elected, he went to work with vigor.

To deal with the famine, Gregory instituted a city-wide penance, fed people from the church's granaries, and organized systematic relief for the poor.

Gregory then set himself reforming the church. He removed high officials "for pride and misdeeds," enforced celibacy, replaced lay officers with monks, and initiated a reorganization of "the patrimony of Peter," the vast land holdings of the church. The efficient and humane management of these estates brought in the revenue necessary to run the church as well as perform tasks the imperial government was neglecting...

Pastoral care
Gregory also was actively concerned about the work of priests. He wrote a book of instruction for bishops, On Pastoral Care, in which he wrote, "Act in such a way that your humility may not be weakness, nor your authority be severity. Justice must be accompanied by humility, that humility may render justice lovable." It became a manual for holy life throughout the Middle Ages.

Gregory believed preaching was one of the clergy's primary duties, and he conducted a preaching tour of area churches. His Homilies on the Gospels was published in 591 and widely used for hundreds of years.

His interest in church music has been honored, as well: his name has been given to the plainsong ("Gregorian chant") that developed over the next few hundred years.

His frequent correspondence across the world shows him well aware of evangelistic opportunities in Britain. So it is not surprising that in 596 he sent Augustine, along with 40 monks, on a mission to "this far corner of the world."

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