Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Saint Leo the Great, pope and doctor of the Church

With apparent strong conviction of the importance of the Bishop of Rome in the Church, and of the Church as the ongoing sign of Christ’s presence in the world, Leo the Great displayed endless dedication as pope. Elected in 440, he worked tirelessly as "Peter’s successor," guiding his fellow bishops as "equals in the episcopacy and infirmities." Leo is known as one of the best administrative popes of the ancient Church. His work branched into four main areas, indicative of his notion of the pope’s total responsibility for the flock of Christ. He worked at length to control the heresies of Pelagianism, Manichaeism and others, placing demands on their followers so as to secure true Christian beliefs. A second major area of his concern was doctrinal controversy in the Church in the East, to which he responded with a classic letter setting down the Church’s teaching on the two natures of Christ. With strong faith, he also led the defence of Rome against barbarian attack, taking the role of peacemaker. In these three areas, Leo’s work has been highly regarded. His growth to sainthood has its basis in the spiritual depth with which he approached the pastoral care of his people, which was the fourth focus of his work. He is known for his spiritually profound sermons. An instrument of the call to holiness, well-versed in Scripture and ecclesiastical awareness, Leo had the ability to reach the everyday needs and interests of his people. One of his sermons is used in the Office of Readings on Christmas. It is said of Leo that his true significance rests in his doctrinal insistence on the mysteries of Christ and the Church and in the supernatural charisms of the spiritual life given to humanity in Christ and in his Body, the Church. Thus Leo held firmly that everything he did and said as pope for the administration of the Church represented Christ, the head of the Mystical Body, and St. Peter, in whose place Leo acted.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (Luke 17.7-10)

Jesus said, Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'

(By Fr. E. J. Tyler)

At various times I have come across persons who regret that they have the religious duties that are theirs. They envy those with fewer and less demanding duties. Such a person may be, say, a Catholic. He knows that as a Catholic he has various duties to fulfil, and he observes that many non-Catholics do not see themselves as having as many religious duties as he. The non-Catholic may not feel himself required to attend worship every Sunday. He may see himself as having less demanding requirements in certain other spheres of life. This person who envies the other with fewer duties is reluctant about duty, he wishes to be rid of it, and cannot be said to love it. Duty is not for him a friend. Now, it is well to ponder often on the sheer phenomenon of duty in our daily experience. From our earliest years of conscious and reflective thought, we sense duty. I do not refer simply to external impositions which, if they are not respected, bring sanctions. After all, a school bully may demand of others that they do this or that, and he may get compliance because of the threats he makes. But none of those who comply would regard their compliance as a duty. It is merely expedient. The demand coming from other sources may, however, be perceived precisely as a duty - such as the demand by school authorities that there be no bullying. The sanctions which bullying attracts may result in compliance for reasons primarily of expedience, but all know that this compliance cannot be reduced to expedience. This is because the demand in this case is also seen as representing a duty. Duty cannot be reduced to expedience, even though we may recognize that the fulfilment of our duty is also expedient for our happiness. There is something ultimate about the quality of duty because there is something ultimate about the dignity of the one to whom one has the duties - be that person God, or one’s fellows. There is this, too. Duty is not like an unpleasant acquaintance or even an enemy. It is a true friend, and while love for it is not just a matter of utility, still, as with any good friend, love for it will lead to our real happiness.

Deep within his soul man senses duty. It abides within, and abides constantly. It does not glare menacingly at man, but while being severe it smiles with the promise of brightness ahead. More, man senses a greater Presence within duty. This Presence summons him to love precisely through his obedience to duty. That is to say, in the dictate of the conscience, the prudent man senses the echo of the voice of God. Our sense of duty is our most natural step to God, and, if we respect the demands of duty - not with a weary reluctance or as a mere expedient, but for love - it will take us higher and higher. In our Gospel today, our Lord surely suggests these ultimate rewards of doing one’s duty. “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty'” (Luke 17:7-10). Our Lord’s words intimate that the fulfilling of one’s duty for love of the God who summons in the duty, will bring happiness aplenty. Such a person will not need further rewards for his happiness. All this is to say that a life of obedience to God in the fulfilment of one’s duties of state will bring a profound happiness in itself. A girl marries early and leaves the home of her happy childhood to embark on her life’s work, being wife and mother. She lives out her long life in the one small locality, bearing up with her difficult husband and disappointing children. She humbly and consistently lives a life of duty, happy withal. She prays daily, she is cheerful, she makes allowances for the unreasonable thoughtlessness of many around her - in a word, she strives to fulfill her duty in life. She does all this because she wants to love and serve God. Her duty brings her peace and a great heart. She finally reaches her end and is buried with her relatives, her grave hardly distinguished. But she became a great soul and was recognized as such. She had done no more than her duty, and her duty had led her to happiness and to sanctity, humble, hidden but real. Duty is our best friend. It is the touch of God’s finger bringing light for the journey ahead and constituting our natural stairway to heaven.

We are unworthy servants. We have done no more than our duty. The greatest saints have had that to say, and if anyone at the end of life is able to say this, that person has reached his term. John Henry Newman was prepared to go a long way in accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution, but he drew the line at duty. The human being is distinguished by his conscience, by his sense of duty. Let us resolve to do our duty, the duties of every day which God has pleased to give us, knowing that our happiness and flourishing, here and hereafter, will come from their loving fulfilment.

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