Sunday, Aug. 28, is the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A, Cycle I).
Sept. 3 is the feast of St. Gregory the Great. He came from a unique family. He was born in 540 Rome to a father who was a senator and a mother who was a saint. As a young man, Gregory was both an intellectual, studying philosophy, and a governor of Rome.
When his father died, he turned his large house into a monastery and was named one of Rome’s seven deacons. Gregory was a clear choice for pope, but he refused the honor, and hid in a cave in disguise to try to get away. Nonetheless, his 14-year pontificate changed the course of the Church. He adopted the papal title still used today, “servant of the servants of God” and sent St. Augustine of Canterbury to convert England. And, apropos for this Sunday’s Gospel, he did it all while suffering illnesses that easily could have caused him to give up.
Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63:2-6, 8-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27
We all imagine we could do something gallant and impressive for our faith. Today’s readings make clear that the suffering we are called to isn’t glorious martyrdom, but pain, disappointment and rejection.
In a way, we should be used to having to suffer for what we love.
We can think of several things people will suffer for in life. We suffer for others, especially for marriage and family. Or for goals. Maybe we changed our lives significantly, living in a new place or following a new career path. To do a particular kind of work, we may have studied things we didn’t necessarily like, changed how we dress, or even what part of the country we live in.
A good question to ask ourselves is: Have we ever suffered this way for God?
He should be the thing we value most in life. He should be the great love of our life. He should be the one we change most for.
If he is not, we need to get on a path to fix that. A good aid for this: Read more spiritual authors, especially St. Therese of Lisieux, Blessed Teresa of Calucutta, C.S. Lewis and Fulton Sheen.
Another way to ignite love for God is to serve others for him. Above all, pray more — and pray for the grace of love.
When we do grow in our love for God, a different problem emerges. It’s the problem that Jeremiah faces in our first reading and Peter in our second. Yes, they love God. But that doesn’t mean their suffering makes sense.
For us, too, it seems unnecessary that such a beautiful faith needs to cause such effort and heartache.
Look again at those loves people often sacrifice for: career and romantic love. In both cases, the suffering sometimes rankles, even when it is the right thing to do.
George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life experienced that. He sacrificed a lot for his family and his career. After growing angry at a major loss at work, he lashes out at his family:
“Why did we have to live here in the first place and stay around this measly, crummy old town? … Everything’s wrong. You call this a happy family? Why did we have to have all these kids?”
He might as well have said, like the first reading: “You duped me, Lord, and I let myself be duped.”
Or, like the second reading, he could have repeated what Peter said to Jesus about the cross: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
The answer is the one Christ gives: The only way to find true value in your life is to give your life away.“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,” he says, “but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Those who try to live for comforts end up profoundly uncomfortable. Those who accept suffering find themselves profoundly happy.
That is why Christ’s other famous words in today’s Gospel are a call to happiness, not a call to drudgery:
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Every Christian who sacrifices for love will discover what George Bailey discovered. As hard as it is, as disappointing as it seems sometimes, in the end, we discover that the Christian life, though hard, is truly wonderful.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.