The servant of all
Pope St. Gregory I is one of three popes to whom the faithful have assigned the adjective, “the Great.”
If the term “great” is appropriate for a man of colossal ability and effort who accomplished many wonderful things, it is well applied to St. Gregory. Born to a noble Roman family in the sixth century, he was first engaged as a public official in a Rome and an Italy that were almost falling apart because of the invasions of Germanic peoples from the north. Then he turned away from governmental work and became a monk. But the current pope did not allow him to remain long in the quiet of his beloved monastery. He sent him as papal ambassador to the emperor at Constantinople. When Gregory returned to Rome, he showed such skill as a churchman that in 590 AD he himself was elected pope, though he tried to avoid the office, fearing its heavy responsibility.
Because he was so conscientious, his thirteen years as pope proved a godsend for the Church and for Europe. His influence was wide in a hectic era. He was in regular contact with the Frankish rulers of France. He sent St. Augustine of Canterbury to preach Christianity to the Angles and Saxons in Britain. He organized the defense of Italian cities against the Germanic Lombards. He did not hesitate to upbraid the Roman emperor at Constantinople for his acts and oppression. Meanwhile, in an Italy that was impoverished and fatherless, he became its leader, seeing to it that the farmers were treated justly, the Jews were defended, the poor were fed and clothed – even at the cost of selling the silverware of the churches. Nor did he forget his spiritual duties. He was a great preacher, a writer of popular spiritual books, a reformer of Church personnel and a reviser of the liturgy (the Gregorian chant of the Church gets its name from him). At the end of his life Gregory was ill and reduced to skin and bones, but he still kept on. Why? Because he considered himself not the lord of God’s people, but (as he always signed himself) the “Servant of the Servants of God.” That is why he merited the title “the Great.” As today’s gospel reminds us, “If anyone wishes to rank first, he must remain … the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
-Father Robert F. McNamara
Q390: Why would Jesus choose a young child as a role model (in effect) for what it means to be “servant”?
Jesus is really challenging his followers to reconsider the cultural `wisdom’ of his day! His was an “honor and shame” society, and “humility” was definitely not the “in” word! But this is what Jesus urges his disciples to embrace: a willingness to serve others, rather than to compete for more “honor.”
My brother deacons and I have a special fondness for the word “servant” used in this Gospel (Mk 9:35), because this is where our word diakonos or “deacon” comes from. A “servant” is one who obeys and humbly accepts a servant relationship with all humankind. But this is not limited just to Deacons! ALL Christians are called to be “servant,” just like Christ. This is what real and true Discipleship is all about. To “obey” means to “listen” (Lat., obedire), to be open to anything that God might ask you to do to build up the Body of Christ. It means submitting and consecrating your will to Jesus Christ. To be “humble” means to live with a spirit of deference, putting your gifts and talents at the disposal of others, rather than vying for privileges and recognition.
So when Jesus chose to identify himself with a young child as an example of what he meant by “servant,” it was a radical break with the cultural expectations. Children had no legal status, no honor, and no rights whatsoever. The message was clear: if you want to be a Disciple of Jesus, and agree to his life of obedience and humility, then you will be risking – even anticipating – being ignored, reviled, and maybe even attacked (1st Rdg: Wis 2:12,17-20). But with Jesus as our role model, what else could you expect? No one is greater than his Master.
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! The first “obedience” is that of faith: to “listen” and freely submit to the word of God (CCC #144). Jesus and Mary are our perfect role models in this regard. “Humility” is the virtue that avoids inordinate ambition and pride and self-will (CCC #2559).
Q546: The apostles in the Gospel today sound like a bunch of kids flexing their pride by bragging and self-aggrandizing behavior!
Fr. Walter Burghardt has a delightful way of conjecturing about what was said between the apostles in the argument about “who is the greatest” (Mark 9:30-37). Andrew: “I saw him before you did, Peter.” Peter: “Yeah, but he gave me the keys.” James: “Hey, I was one of only three that Jesus invited to see his Transfiguration and Moses and Elijah.” Matthew: “I have this ability with numbers and writing, so he really needs me.” And then Judas with the last word: “He gave me the money bag. If you’ve got the money, you’ve got it all; you are in control.”
Isn’t it amazing how the worst side of our human nature seems to rear its ugly head in far too many situations, and we become selfish and self-centered? That is what today’s lessons are all about. Jesus makes it crystal clear that only a total dependence on Him, and a detachment from a desire to control will enable one to become the kind of disciple he wishes to follow him. St. James is just as clear in the application of Jesus’ lesson (Jas 3:16-4:3). The Medjugorje website pointed out many years ago that the wars outside of you are simply reflections of the wars that rage inside of you! Covetousness, envy, a desire for “more” – all of these things are the seeds of greater evils when they are turned into actions to fulfill our selfish interests.
The remedy is to trust in the Lord to fill your needs. Follow your gifts and use them wisely – they are from the Lord, and they will lead you to accepting and fulfilling his plan for you as well as lead you to a life of discipleship that is giving, not grasping.
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! God cannot answer a request that comes from a divided heart, one that seeks something to satisfy our many passions. Ask for what is in accord with God’s will, and it shall be granted (CCC #2737).
Who Is Number One?
Today’s readings address that question. Jesus tells his disciples of his impending passion and death, but they don’t hear; they are too busy squabbling over their status in God’s kingdom. They just don’t seem to get it. Time and again Jesus has told them of the cost of following his path of self-giving service to others. They do follow him, but they want full credit for what they do. Like so many of us they are concerned with competition and ambition. How do I stand in relationship to the other guy? Jesus reminds them and us that his greatness flows from his complete self giving for others. He tells them and us that we must be like little children — in his day the most powerless of all and of no public importance or status . This message is also reflected in the words of the Books of Wisdom and of St. James.
Lord Jesus, you were patient with your disciples’ failure to understand and reluctance to follow you all the way. Teach us patience. You humbled yourself for our sake; help us to follow you in selfless giving for others.