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Charms of Sweetness, Contests of Temptation, and Fullness of Perfection

Updated on September 6, 2020

“Faith is the proof of what cannot be seen. What is seen gives knowledge . . . not faith.” ~ Saint Gregory the Great

There are but four Pontiffs in the history of the Catholic Church who have garnered the title of the Great. These great ones, the “Jackie Gleasons of Popes” as I like to call them ~ fans of the iconic 1950s TV Show ‘The Honeymooners’ will understand ~ include Pope Saint Leo the Great, the battler of heresies whose deft negotiation with Atillah the Hun prevented Rome from being sacked in the mid-400s. There was also Pope Saint Nicholas the Great, a lesser known Saint but remembered nonetheless for his defense of the Church in the face of incessant secular invasion as well as his ardent support of Saint Ansgar and his missionary work in Scandinavia during the mid-800s. There was of course the prolific modern-day Pontiff, Saint John Paul the Great, whose Resume in many respects speaks for itself in light of the fact that many of us were fortunate enough to have lived during his Papacy. Serving as the Vicar of Christ for 27 years, John Paul II’s tenure was the second longest in modern history after Pope Pius IX. “Do not abandon yourselves to despair,” was JP2’s mantra. “We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” This was his unflickering message of hope, one so desperately needed in our world today. Of course Saint John Paul II also said that “stupidity is a gift of God too, but one mustn't misuse it,” an equally salient message given our current state of affairs. But I suppose that’s a topic for another day.

The 4th Pope to earn this title is the man whose Feast Day we celebrate today, Saint Gregory the Great. One of only 36 Doctors of the Church, Saint Gregory authored a number of seminal works including Liber Regulae Pastoralis and the Dialogues, a collection of the lives of the saints. He also revitalized the sacred liturgy, the outcome giving way to what has become known as “Gregorian Chant.” His now famous Missions, undergone to convert the then-pagan Anglo-Saxons in England to Christianity, led countless souls to eternal life. These were dark times in the history of our Church, particularly in Italy. Gregory served not only as the Bishop of Rome, but as its de facto leader as well in the absence of anyone who even vaguely resembled a legitimately and duly elected one. He is the Patron Saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers.

“The wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God,” Paul tells the people of Corinth in today’s 1st Reading (1 Corinthians 3:18-23). As we’ll see in the Readings that unfold towards the tail-end of this week, yesterday too,, Paul is trying to head off the factions and rivalries that are beginning to bubble up amongst the people of Corinth. Whereas some were siding with him, others were inclining their ear towards Apollos. But Paul was trying to keep them focused on the message of the resurrected Jesus and the promise of eternal life. For in Paul’s eyes, the resurrection was the wellspring of our being (1 Corinthians 15:13-15).

"There are in truth three states of the converted: the beginning, the middle, and the perfection.” This was Saint Gregory’s thoughts on the faith journey. “In the beginning,” he explains “they experience the charms of sweetness; in the middle the contests of temptation; and in the end the fullness of perfection." It would seem as though the people were in the midst of this second state of the faith journey. Having been evangelized by Paul and Apollos and thus experiencing “sweetness’ charm,” it was now a matter of going into a fallen world saddled with the burden of original sin and the concupiscence that goes with it; to be “in the world but not of it.” (James 4:4, John 17:14-16, Galatians 1:4, Romans 12:2, etc.).

I imagine we can all relate to this. In this complex and confusing world, it isn’t always easy to distinguish between that which is spiritual and that which is worldly. In the Bible, Satan is called an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). Perhaps more accurately, he masquerades as one. In reality he is a cunning imitator. Jesus himself said that if it were possible, Satan would deceive even the elect (see Matthew 24:24). The secular world has a way of making the cross seem almost antiquated, irrelevant even. Yet those who follow Jesus, those who have come to understand that life is not about getting, having and receiving, are the one who achieve true joyfulness in their lives.

It goes back to Saint Gregory the Great’s quote that kicks off today’s reflection. Through faith, we come to believe in the ways of Jesus. Through living the Gospels, we inch closer to Saint Gregory’s 3rd stage of repentance and conversion, this fullness of perfection. We come to know the true meaning of abundant living. But mere human effort will not bring us to this fullness of perfection nor will it topple the dark forces of Satan’s unrelenting attacks. It happens through faith and hope; it happens through, and only through, Jesus.

“They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11).

Pope Saint Gregory the Great, pray for us.


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