Stephanie (Mary Catherine) Hamrick, Choir Director
Danielle (Phoebe) Kerr, Organist
Littie (Lydia) Hamrick
|7:00pm||- Deacon's Mass/Silent Prayer|
Every Christian knows how arduous the quest for holiness is, how difficult the struggle to overcome the passions and to live a Christ-like life. Converts to Christianity are also aware of the time that it takes to acquire the Christian “mind-set” – to take on the attitudes of one who has died to sin and risen with Christ in baptism and chrismation. How much more difficult it must be for an entire people who convert to Christianity to change their ways of thinking and acting. We know about these difficulties with one group of people through the writings of St. Gregory, bishop of Tours in the late 6th century.
Gregory, named Georgius Florentius Gregorius at his birth in 538, was from an old Roman family of devout Christians. Among his ancestors and relatives were numbered a martyr of Lyons, monastics, and numerous bishops, as well as senators. In fact, Gregory counted among his ancestors thirteen of the eighteen men who preceded him as bishop of Tours.
As a child, Gregory had an innocent and trusting faith in God and his saints. Later in life he wrote of two visions he received in dreams, not understood at the time, that led to miraculous healings. In both visions, a man (an angel?) appeared to him and told him how his father could be cured of the illness he was suffering from, making reference to the book of Joshua and that of Tobit. After reporting these dreams to his mother, who wisely recognized them as heavenly visions and made use of the remedies, Gregory’s father’s health was restored.
Rather than sending their spiritually precocious child to a monastery after these visions, Gregory’s parents decided that he should have a thorough education first, and they entrusted him to his uncle (St.) Gallus, bishop of Clermont-Ferrand. Gregory also frequently visited other related ecclesiastics, (St.) Nicetius, his grand-uncle who was bishop of Lyons, and his cousin (St.) Eufronius, who was bishop of Tours. With this overwhelming influence of saintly men of the Church, it was natural that Gregory should adopt the clerical life also. He was ordained deacon in 563, and when his cousin Eufronius died in 573, the people asked for Gregory as their next bishop.
Tours was an important pilgrimage site for Christians. It was there that St. Martin – revered around the world – had been bishop and where his relics still effected miracles. The city’s bishop was a Metropolitan, responsible not only for his own diocese but also for four others. The poet Venantius Fortunatus celebrated Gregory’s consecration with the following words, part of a long poem for the occasion:
Applaud, O fortunate people, whose desire hath now been accomplished. Your hierarch arriveth; it is the hope of the flock that cometh. May lively childhood, may the old and bent with age celebrate this event; may each proclaim it, for it is the good fortune of all.
Tours was in the Roman territory of Gaul, which had been conquered by the pagan Franks when, under the leadership of their king, Clovis, they defeated the Roman army at the Battle of Soissons in 486. Clovis was married to an Orthodox Catholic Christian, Queen Chlotild, and he eventually converted to the faith (while many of the other pagan tribes who invaded Europe became Arians). As the Franks populated the area and mingled with the remaining Romans, they gradually accepted Christianity over their former pagan beliefs. But conversion of behavior was slow in coming, as Bishop Gregory attests in his History of the Franks, which describes history as filtered through the wars and disputes of the royal families of the Merovingian dynasty. The book contains story after story of murder, treachery, deceit and royal rivalries.
Bishop Gregory had a remedy for this behavior, one that would bring the people closer to obedience to God’s commandments and true faith in him. While The History of the Franks may have been written to expose the people to the worst of their faults, Gregory also wrote eight Books of Miracles, which praise the virtues of the saints to be emulated by those who follow. Gregory stated his purpose in his preface to one of the books, The Glory of the Blessed Martyrs: “We ought to pursue, to write, to speak that which edifies the Church of God and by sacred teaching enriches the needy minds by the knowledge of perfect faith.” Bishop Gregory himself had experienced miracles of healing and guidance through the influence of the saints, and he wanted his people to know that the saints of God are always near and ready to intercede for sinners.
Another desire of the bishop was to provide his flock with churches whose beauty would lead them to greater devotion. He first restored and beautified the shrine church of St. Martin, which had been heavily damaged by fire. In his description of the basilica in his native Clermont, we have a picture of what the churches in Gregory’s day were like:
It is 150 feet long, 60 feet wide inside the nave, and 50 feet high as far as the vaulting. It has a rounded apse at the end, and two wings of elegant design on either side. The whole building is constructed in the shape of a cross. It has 42 windows, 70 columns, and eight doorways. In it one is conscious of the fear of God and of a great brightness, and those at prayer are often aware of a most sweet and aromatic odor which is being wafted towards them. Round the sanctuary it has walls which are decorated with mosaic work made of many varieties of marble.
These wonderful churches were often also used as places of sanctuary, and St. Gregory sometimes had to endure the presence of very unsavory characters who sought refuge in the church to escape their enemies, always praying for their repentance and change of behavior. The bishop also had many visitors who brought the wider world to his doorstep. He knew about the sites of the Holy Land from an eye-witness and, from an exiled Armenian bishop, he learned about the Church of the Forty-eight Martyrs and of the fall of Antioch. St. Gregory was called upon to act as arbiter in civil disputes and sometimes had to argue with kings and search out the truth when opposing sides gave different stories. The role of a bishop in 6th century Gaul was indeed varied.
After twenty-one years of faithful service to God as a bishop for his people, St. Gregory died in 594. Three hundred years later, the story of his life was written by Odo (879-942), a monk of St. Martin’s monastery in Tours, who later became abbot of the famous monastery of Cluny. Abbot Odo wrote of St. Gregory’s death and burial, “One is not entirely sealed in the tomb if his word itself is living in the world.”
May we take to heart those things which St. Gregory knew to be of great importance – veneration of the saints and the need for beauty in our worship – and may St. Gregory intercede for us as we strive for perfection.
In the year 203, a child, who was given the name Theodore, was born to a wealthy pagan couple in Neocaesaria. This child was destined to play an important part in the life of the Christian Church and to be numbered among the saints.
Theodore was an intelligent, precocious child – one who excelled in his studies of Greek and Egyptian philosophy. His family’s intention was for him to become a lawyer and to prepare him for this, Theodore was sent to Alexandria to study while still a teenager. In the fortuitous ways of God, it was there that Theodore met the prominent Christian teacher, Origen.
It was not long before Theodore began to question the pagan religion of his childhood and to desire to become a Christian. He was baptized by his teacher and took the new name of Gregory as he took on the new life of one who would follow Christ.
An incident from his student days shows how Gregory exhibited patience in adversity and forgiveness toward his enemies. Some fellow students, who were jealous of his abilities and ridiculed him for his virtuous living, played a cruel trick on him. They hired a well-known local prostitute to approach Gregory in a public place and demand payment which he owed for her “services”. When Gregory quietly replied that she was wrong, the woman persisted more loudly, attracting a crowd of curious people. To the delight of the perpetrators of this trick, Gregory paid the woman what she was demanding in the hopes of avoiding a further disturbance. Many in the crowd of onlookers were beginning to believe that this outwardly moral young man was not so good after all when the woman fell down, writhing in a violent convulsion. Gregory prayed over her and she soon recovered and apologized for participating in such a sham, restoring his reputation in the eyes of all.
Gregory abandoned the idea of becoming a lawyer and instead, went into the desert to devote himself entirely to contemplating the ways of God, praying and meditating on his goodness and mercy. He spent several years in the practice of extreme asceticism and as word spread of this intense man in the desert, he was sought out for spiritual counsel. When Gregory decided to make a visit to his hometown, the seventeen Christians who lived there gathered in anticipation of meeting him and asking him to become their bishop. In one of the many instances of his gift of foreknowledge, Gregory sensed this and, fearing the responsibility of being a shepherd, he went back deeper into the desert. Eventually, however, he assented to the will of the people and agreed to be consecrated as the bishop for seventeen people in a largely pagan city.
Through the following thirty years, Bishop Gregory was the instrument of God in reversing the make-up of the city of Neocaesaria. He was wise in his dealings with the people of his flock and their pagan neighbors and he was known for his neverwaning optimism. There were many events which could only be explained as miraculous. Once, when he was caught outside during a violent storm, he ran inside the nearest building – a pagan temple. He had to spend the night there and the next day, the pagan priest reported that he was unable to perform any of his usual ceremonies. The priest was so impressed with the Christian bishop’s powers that he sought conversion himself.
Another miraculous story shows how God’s answers to our problems can sometimes be humorous. Two brothers were fighting over their inheritance – a piece of land which included a lake which they both insisted belonged to their portion of the land. They asked the bishop to settle the dispute and after his fervent prayers for a resolution, the lake dried up in a very short time, eliminating the problem!
Bishop Gregory had a vision which greatly influenced his understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. He saw an old man and a woman in his vision. The man told Gregory that he was sent by God to explain the faith to him. The woman, whom Gregory realized was the Blessed Virgin Mary, addressed the man as John (the Evangelist) and asked him to proceed. John then explained to Gregory the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Gregory composed a creed based on this vision which was preserved and in the next century was used in the formulation of the Nicene Creed.
When the persecution of Christians began under the Emperor Decius in 250, Bishop Gregory advised his people to flee the area in order to preserve the Christian community for the future. Although the martyrdoms of many saints in other places and times contributed to the growth of the Church, this was the best plan for this place and time. The bishop and his deacon, who hid in the desert, were saved from discovery by the soldiers because they appeared to them as trees. The persecution ended the next year with the death of Decius, and the bishop and his people were able to return to the practice of their faith.
During his years as bishop, Gregory saw the conversion of so many people that a large church had to be built to accommodate the services for so many. As he lay dying at nearly seventy years of age, St. Gregory asked how many pagans were still left in Neocaesaria. Seventeen, he was told – the exact number of Christians he had first ministered to in this city. On the 17th of November in the year 270, St. Gregory entered the heavenly kingdom, thankful that his labors had changed the course of history in that place. Holy Gregory, pray for us.
In reading Holy Scripture and the lives of the saints, we are reminded of how often God takes sinful, fallen men whose lives have been anything but exemplary and, through his merciful kindness, brings them to repentance and change of heart so that others may revere them and look to them for help toward sanctification. The thief on the Cross, through his penitent cry to our Lord Jesus Christ, “Remember me in your kingdom” was forgiven by God, admitted to Paradise, and is known to us as St. Dismas. The militant enemy of the church, Saul of Tarsus, was so converted by a vision of the risen Christ that he became St. Paul, the great missionary and teacher. For some, such as St. Britius of Tours, this tranformation of life came gradually through many years, and sometimes through suffering great penance.
As a young man, Britius was sent to the monks of the monastery at Marmoutier, near Tours, for his education, and there he stayed to become a monk also. But this young monk lacked humility and respect for others. The abbot of the monastery was St. Martin, who was also Bishop of Tours and who was loved and revered as a saintly man while still in this life. But arrogant Britius was critical of the saint, calling him “crazy” on some occasions and at other times accusing him of falling into superstition. After each of these instances of slander, Britius asked the saint’s forgiveness, but his tongue was not long bridled.
Despite this sinful behavior, Britius progressed well in other ways. His studies were completed successfully and he was ordained a deacon by Bishop Martin. He was respected by his fellow monks and by the people of the surrounding area as a capable leader. So it was not surprising when the aged Bishop Martin predicted that Britius would succeed him as the shepherd of the people of Tours and as the abbot of the monks of Marmoutier. This happened upon the repose of St. Martin in the year 397.
Bishop Britius’ penance had just begun. Although he was a good and loving leader of his people, his sharp tongue and irascible demeanor were hurtful to some people and they struck back at the bishop with false accusations. Just as he had inflicted this pain upon St. Martin, Britius now had to endure the verbal attacks of others. Remembering the admonition in St. James’ Epistle, “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless” [James 1:26], Britius began to soften his manner and to be more gentle in his dealings with others.
But his worst penance was yet to come. One of the ways in which Britius was completely above reproach was in purity of body. He had taken the vow of chastity as a young monk and had never violated that vow. But when he had been bishop for 33 years, a woman who did laundry for the monastery accused him of fornication, and the people rose up against him.
In an attempt to clear his name, Britius appealed to the Patriarch in Rome and as he was traveling there, the people of Tours elected a new bishop. Although the pope eventually exonerated him, Britius had been deposed from his bishopric and remained in exile, lamenting his earlier sins. Finally, after seven years, he returned to Tours and his episcopacy on the death of the bishop who had replaced him.
God granted Britius seven more years in this life and, with great energy and zeal, the bishop served him faithfully and humbly. The much chastened and repentant saint fell asleep in the Lord in the year 444.
Through all the centuries since then, St. Britius has been remembered – not for his capable leadership, sound teaching, or missionary endeavors – but for his repentance. May St. Britius pray for us that we may also be repentant and amend our lives to conform to God’s will.
Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Saints, by David Farmer; Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St. Gregory of Tours, tr. Fr. Seraphim Rose.