Michael the Archangel

Michael is a mighty archangel described in Scripture as commander of God’s heavenly armies. Many of us call upon him daily as a defender and protector. But in what sense does he protect? And what is the battle really about?

Scripture describes Michael casting Satan out of heaven (Revelation 12), battling with Satan over the body of Moses (Jude 9), or battling a spirit described as “the prince of Persia” (Daniel 12).

If angels are spiritual and immortal beings, what does it even mean for them to “fight”? They cannot be wounded or killed – so how can there be any battle, any victory or defeat?

The real battleground is over human freedom, and all that is impacted by our “yes” or “no.” This battle has implications for each one of us individually, but also cosmic ones – because God makes us his stewards.

Each and every human person is created in God’s image and likeness. The devils envy and hate each one of us, and relentlessly seek to ruin us. But God also placed the entire cosmos under human stewardship. God invested us with true authority – an authority the devil has always envied and hated. He seeks to steal it away by seduction and lies. He seems to succeed – both with Adam and Eve and with each of us. They and we give away what is not his to take. And then he thinks he can hold us captive.

Enter Jesus as the new Adam. He ushers in the Kingdom of God, the new creation, new heavens and a new earth. Those who are willing to die with him and rise with him through Faith become members of his Body. Under his headship, every enemy is placed under his feet, until at last even death itself is destroyed (Ephesians 1-2). All this happens by human agency, by the exertion of human freedom – his human freedom, but also yours and mine.  In due time, our human destiny is to become higher than all the angels as we behold God face to face and become like him (1 John 3).

We tend to esteem our own dignity and freedom far less than God does! He never forces us to do anything. For that matter, evil spirits cannot force us to do anything either. Had Adam said “no” and told the devil to leave, the devil would have had to honor Adam’s God-given authority! The same holds true for us, though we need the power of Jesus to reclaim and restore that which we have given away. United with him and in him, we need never fear evil spirits. Indeed, it is they who fear us as we shine with restored glory!

When I say that God honors our freedom, that also means that he allows our freedom to have its consequences. We were the stewards of this current cosmos, and we failed in our stewardship. Though it still bears stunning goodness and beauty, this cosmos is irreparably damaged. The world as we know it is passing away.

[NOTE – I am using the original Greek word kosmos, which can be translated either as “world” or “universe”]

Jesus tells us that he came into this cosmos not to condemn it but to save it (John 3:17).  He will cast out the devil, the ruler of this cosmos (John 12:31). But in what manner? Jesus does not stop us from dying, and he does not stop this universe from coming to its just demise. His kingdom is not of this world – because we the stewards have truly ruined it by giving dominion over to the devil. The devil will have his pound of flesh. But the devil has never understood love or the new life that springs forth from love.

In his dying and rising and ascending, Jesus crushed the head of the serpent. And he ushered in the new creation. Like his risen body (or rather, AS his body) this new creation is both the same and new. We already participate in it! In Christ the head, the battle is done. It is finished. Love wins.  In us the members, the battle is still playing itself out – we need only give over our freedom!

In the early Church, the Letter to Diognetus taught that we Christians are in the world, but not of the world. In one sense, we live and act just like everyone else. But we actually live in an entirely different dimension!  In the 300’s, Gregory of Nyssa observed that “the foundation of the Church is the creation of a new cosmos.” More recently, Pope Benedict XVI explained the Ascension of Jesus as opening up a new dimension of human existence.

That is where Michael comes in. He is the mighty guardian of this new creation. He is God’s answer to the devil. His name is not a name but a menacing question: “WHO IS LIKE GOD??” The devil styles himself a god, but is not. Michael brings God’s Truth and Love to full light and casts out the devil. All that is true and good and beautiful is resurrected in the new creation. All that is disordered, all that tends toward ruin or destruction, all that spirals towards nothingness – that belongs to the devil, who will ultimately be the ruler of nothing.

But back to human freedom. If we want Michael’s protection, we must choose to abide in the new creation, rather than cling to this world, which is quickly passing away. That means becoming willing to die to what is easy or familiar and trust in the newness that is coming. We gain glimpses and tastes of that newness, but are not yet ready for it in all its fullness.

It is truly challenging to abide in the “already but not yet” of Hope. Even now, we possess the Kingdom and already participate in it. But we are not yet ready to see God face to face, and not so completely transformed as to share in the fullness of the ascended glory of Jesus. We call on Saint Michael again and again to defend us in that in-between place, in which we are still vulnerable to the attacks of the evil one. Michael willingly and faithfully defends us. He safeguards the space in which grow. but only we can do the growing!

The more we become who we are, the fewer entry points the devil even has to attempt an assault. God’s light shows us the weak spots where the devil will predictably attack us. We ask Michael’s protection – but we also cooperate with Christ to repair those breaches!

Gregory the Great calls the earthly Church “the Dawn” – surely and certainly ushering in the full light of Day, but still mixed up with the darkness. We eagerly await the full Day, when Christ will always shine, and when Michael’s protection will no longer be needed. In the meantime, we engage our journey of change and growth, until Christ becomes all in all.

Understanding “Capital Sins”

We are all quite familiar with the seven capital sins: pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Perhaps we learned about them in a classroom setting; certainly we have encountered them in ourselves and others!

Today, I would like to invite each of us to do something we normally don’t do – to feel deeply the Father’s kindness toward us in our weaknesses and our repeated tendency towards sin. Then, with Jesus, we can allow ourselves to be curious about these inclinations that we experience.

As an accomplished sinner myself and as one who offers pastoral care to sinners, I find that we fallen humans tend to feel a great deal of shame and contempt around our weaknesses, our vulnerability to sin, and the details of our acting out. We tend to despise any part of ourselves that feels inclined to think or speak or act in one of these ways. Whether an inclination to numb out in slothfulness, to overeat, to compare ourselves with others and feel sadness, or to enter the realm of sexual fantasizing, we just wish that it would all go away. Shame incites us to see the broken pieces of our heart as worthless garbage to be incinerated, rather than as bearing the image of God and beckoning us back to the heart of the Father.

A deeper understanding of the capital sins – what they really are and why they are called “capital” in the first place – leads us to seek traces of God’s goodness even in those places of our heart that feel totally beyond his reach.

If we speak with greater accuracy, these seven impulses are not “sins” in the full and proper sense. They are tendencies or vulnerabilities in us. They are called “sins” because they come from sin and incline us toward sin. In Catholic theology, we speak of “concupiscence” as a wound in us, a strong inclination toward sinfulness that is part of the human experience as a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve. This wound of concupiscence is, of course, exacerbated by our own choices in life. The more we sin, the more we want to sin. The seven capital sins can then be understood as seven different ways that fallen human beings experience a strong inclination toward sin. We do not find it difficult to allow ourselves to indulge in any one of these seven inclinations. Jesus speaks about the wide gate and easy road that leads to destruction – in contrast to the narrow gate and difficult road that leads to life.

Indeed, we probably best know these tendencies as the “seven deadly sins” – because they easily become toxic, harmful, and deeply destructive. Unchecked, they rupture our relationships with God, others, and self, and ultimately lead towaerd death in every sense – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of a God who is love – an eternal communion of persons in glorious relationship. We innately understand just how destructive our acting out becomes – and the devil is all too eager to bury us in shame. His endgame is to tear away as many of us as he can and get us to agree to never ending isolation, misery, and torment.

But why are these seven tendencies called “capital sins”?  The word “capital” comes from the Latin caput – which means “head,” but can also mean “source.”  John Cassian and Gregory the Great reflect on how each of these impulses becomes a source of sinfulness in us – not sins in and of themselves, but, if unchecked, strong impulses that lead us down the road of perdition.

The thing is, the devil cannot create. He is not God. He can only use the good and beautiful things God has created in an attempt to lie and steal and destroy. Ignatius of Loyola refers to the devil as “the enemy of human nature.” He absolutely despises us. He hates the glory of God that shines in each of us. That is where he attacks the hardest – which in a backwards way teaches us an important lesson: if we look deeply into our hearts at the places where we experience the most intense attack in the form of the seven capital sins, there we will find God’s glory the most present. Why else would the devil attack us so intensely there?

In other words, at the core of each of these seven capital sins in us, we find amazingly good desires and needs that God has placed in the human heart. Yes, these seven tendencies can easily become sources of sinfulness that have great potential to lead us astray. But they can also be deeply helpful clues to lead us back to God!

That is where tender kindness, childlike wonder, and holy curiosity come in. Rather than shaming myself, I can start noticing what is happening in my heart. My anger is there whether I like it or not! Yes, I can allow it to leak out in aggression toward others or myself. But it can also be an invitation into the fullness of God’s truth and justice, and an awakening of my prophetic identity in Christ. In my envy I can notice the things my heart deeply aches for – often things the Lord deeply desires for me – but only if I am willing to allow myself to feel the heartache of longing and waiting. In my lust I can notice all kinds of desires and needs – to be desired and chosen, to be safe and secure, to be embraced, to be known and understood, or to be loved as I am, (notice that none of these is really about sex!). In my sloth I may discover much less “laziness” and much more shame and fear – an urge to hide and isolate and turn away when what I actually need is real relationships, in which I can be cared for precisely where I feel the weakest and most vulnerable.

Whatever capital sins we find to be our “personal favorites” are also very likely the places we will find the deepest and holiest longings of our hearts –places in which our loving Father desires us to experience our true dignity, meaning, and purpose as his beloved children. Each of us can become “disciples” – yes, in the sense of discipline, but even more so by allowing Jesus to help us become students of our own heart, which is created in the image and likeness of God and declared by him to be “very good.” If we open ourselves to that experience of authentic discipleship, the places of our deepest sorrow and struggle will become the very places that lead us back to the heart of the Father.

Watching for Dawn

We begin another Advent. We open our minds and hearts to the coming of Christ.

Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of three comings of Christ: (1) his first coming in humility, in the manger at Bethlehem; (2) his coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and (3) the invisible way in which he comes to all true believers who desire him.  In the words of Jesus, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him” (John 14:23). Jesus desires to be present to those who desire his presence.

Advent is a season of presence. “Advent” comes from the Latin adventus (“arrival” or “coming”). But adventus is a translation of the Greek word parousia – often used to describe Jesus’ coming again in glory, but literally meaning “presence.”  It is easy for some Christians to slip into gloom and doom fantasies about a future apocalypse; it is challenging to abide in the present moment, to watch and wait with sober Hope.

That is the invitation of Jesus: “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:37). In Greek, this command to “watch” is gregoreĩte. The Christian name Gregory is derived from this invitation to sober watchfulness, so frequent in the admonitions of Jesus as well as in other New Testament writings (e.g., 1 Peter 5:8).

Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) is one of my favorite popes and saints. He was born into a prominent Roman family – during a time in which the faded glory of Rome was quickly passing away. Much that was good and beautiful had collapsed or was about to, and Gregory had no illusions that the clock could be turned back to “the good old days.” He answered God’s call to become a Benedictine monk, and his heart desired the peaceful prayer of the monastery. However, God and others kept tapping his talents for administration during a time of great crisis. He humbly describes his struggles to remain a man of prayer amidst the administration of stressful crises that were impossible to ignore. I can relate!

Gregory was profoundly aware that his name meant “Watchman” and that the words of Isaiah applied to him: Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. A watchman is called to stand upon the heights, to keep his mind and heart in a place of calm, peace, loving awareness, discernment, wisdom, and creativity – so as to be a blessing to others. Such was Gregory’s deep desire, even though he felt and expressed his struggles: “Who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness?”

Whatever his pain and struggles may have been, Gregory’s holy desire to be a watchman prevailed. Constantly renewed and enlightened by Jesus, Gregory’s foresight led to the establishment of hundreds of monasteries, which preserved so much of the beauty, goodness, and truth of Athens and Rome, and which became vibrant hubs of evangelization in the centuries ahead. Gregory’s sober watchfulness allowed him to continue doing works of mercy in the present moment, but without being consumed in a false fantasy to prop up structures whose time had passed. His sober watchfulness was both deeply pessimistic and optimistic at the same time – accepting the depressing truth that the good old days were definitively gone, and simultaneously seeing with optimistic Faith new rays of hopeful light where other more frantic people were blinded by their busyness, fear, or denial. Survival mode does not tend to bring the best out of human beings. Our field of vision narrows (both literally and figuratively), and we tend to keep going back to repetitive and predictable “solutions” – as though doing it for the forty-second time will somehow yield different results. True to his name, Gregory knew how to keep getting back into his watchtower.

When reflecting on the great mystery that is the Church, Gregory offers one of the most profound descriptions I ever came across during my doctoral research. He compares the Church to the dawn:

The holy Church, seeking the rewards of heavenly life, is called the dawn, for as she leaves behind the darkness of sin, she shines forth with the light of righteousness. But while we live, it is dawn, not perfect Day … For dawn or daybreak indeed announces that the night has passed, but does not manifest the full splendor of the Day. Rather, as it dispels the night and takes on the Day, the dawn holds a light that is mixed with darkness.

The Church, on her present sojourn through history, is indeed a mixture of weeds and wheat, darkness and light, sinners and saints. The same is true of our own hearts.  Gregory proceeds:

As long as the law of the flesh clashes with the law of the spirit, and the law of the spirit with the law of the flesh, light and darkness will blend together. Thus when Paul says, “The night is far gone” (Romans 13:12), he does not add, “the Day has arrived,” but rather, “the Day is near” … The Day shall arrive when no darkness of sin triumphs. Then the Church of the elect will be fully day, when no shadow of sin is mixed with her.

What wise and Hope-filled words! He can look truthfully at his own heart and at the Church and see truthfully both darkness and light. But there is Hope. The thing about dawn is that it does NOT turn back into night. So also with the Church. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. He will be with her always. No matter how deep the darkness may seem at certain moments, we can look for the streaks of light and be assured that the dawn will break into full Day.

Our present age is eerily parallel to that of Gregory. So much that we once took for granted has collapsed, and there is no turning back the clock. The only way forward is the way through, and we can easily get discouraged.

This Advent, we can join Gregory, not to mention the original twelve Apostles who first heard Jesus’ admonition to “watch.” Heeding the invitation of the Beatitudes, we can embrace our poverty and grieve our losses – getting past our denial and blame. We can abide in the present moment, even when it feels disorienting and scary. We can stay sober and vigilant. Jesus will open the eyes of our heart, and help us to see the new light that he always brings. As promised, his Spirit is always at work, shining in unexpected places.

Being watchful disciples means attuning to those first streaks of dawn, and allowing them to surprise us with joy. We tend to have tunnel vision about how Jesus is going to answer our prayers. Jesus always tends to surprise his disciples with joy in ways they least expect. If we are sober and watchful in the present moment, our vision can be broadened again and again. Noticing with true vision the streaks of dawn, we can become eager heralds of the full light of Day that is breaking into this world.

Gradualness: Lessons from Paul

Wise preachers and teachers in every age understand that growth in faith happens gradually, one step at a time. Today we turn to the apostle Paul, the most successful Christian preacher of all time.

Paul’s life and message can be summed up in one word: conversion. He experienced a profound conversion to Jesus, not only once on the road to Damascus, but each and every day of his life.

Paul boldly proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ; I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20-21). For Paul, every day was a dying and rising with Jesus: Christ living in him and he living in Christ. Saul of Tarsus encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. He took on a new name and new identity, and his life would never be the same.

This new identity is not simply a “me-and-Jesus” existence. We become fellow members of the one Body of Christ. Notice what Jesus says to Saul on the road: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). He does not say “my followers” or “my friends”  but me. To be a disciple of Jesus is to co-exist in Christ as one whole person.

We exist organically as members of the one risen and ascended Body of Christ. Little by little, we become fully alive as members of that Body. It is a gradual and lifelong process. Paul understood that point. His primary task was always his own conversion: “It is not that I have received it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may receive it, since I have indeed been received by Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12).

The Letter to the Ephesians speaks often of the “fullness” of Christ. There is a gradual and dynamic growth into that fullness, until at last God’s plan of salvation comes to perfect completion. The entire human race (those willing anyway) and the whole cosmos will be brought into perfect unity under the headship of Christ. He will become all in all.

In the meantime, conversion is all about growing reception and receptivity. We earnestly strive to receive more and more from on high. We receive and give help from and to each other. And most importantly, we are received, taken up into this heavenly Body of Christ that is always beyond us, beckoning us daily to come further up and further in.

At any given moment, each of us receives and is received into this fullness as much as we can. But our capacity for reception depends upon our depth of desire, our freedom, and our willingness to cut out the things that are blocking our receptivity.

That means that we need different kinds of care and different moments. Paul explains the gentle nurturing that is so often needed in the early stages of conversion. While we are still spiritual infants, we need milk rather than solid food (1 Cor 3:1-2). And hopefully we remember the same when it is our turn to nurture the faith of others, whether our own children or the adult members of our churches who are only just beginning to relate to Jesus as a real person. Paul explains to the Corinthians that he guided them, not “with a stick,” but “with love in a spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:21), for he is their father in Christ Jesus through his preaching of the Gospel to them.

But notice the next point. As Paul proceeds in a spirit of love and gentleness, he urges them to use a stick – figuratively anyway – by casting out from their midst the man who is living with his father’s wife. And he urges them not to associate with the sexually immoral, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or robbers. He concludes pointedly, “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13).

This whole “gradualness” thing is complex! On the one hand, our shared membership in Christ constantly impels us to receive one another as Christ has received us (Romans 15:7),  and to be receptive to those who are weak (Romans 14:1, 15:1). Yet there are also moments when we have a duty to hold others accountable and impose consequences.

Remember the lessons learned from Gregory the Great regarding the evangelization of Kent: some attitudes and practices (idols, idolatrous prayers) must be cut off at once; others are to be tolerated patiently with a view to full maturity. Discernment is key.

Paul often draws a distinction. Some Christians are “mature” or “spiritual” while others are “immature” or “fleshly.” We need patient tolerance for those who are immature or still in the flesh – but we also need to keep nourishing and caring for them so that they do not get stuck there!

We can ask an obvious question: What distinguishes a “mature” from an “immature” Christian? For Paul, it is simple: the mature Christian has embraced Christ Crucified, and is willing to sacrifice himself with Jesus. Paul warns strenuously against those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “minds are set on earthly things” (Phil 3:18-19).

Sadly, some of the approaches to gradualness by some Church leaders today have become the equivalent of avoiding the Cross.  Yes, patience and gradualness are important, but so is finishing the journey, fighting the fight, running the race to the end! We are wise to begin with gentleness, sweetness, and patience. But in due time, full conversion is the goal. We must never forget that! With Paul, may we all truly take on this attitude of constant conversion and inspire others to embrace the same: “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).

Gradualness: Lessons from Alcuin

Genuine Christian conversion happens gradually, one step at a time. That was the lesson that Gregory the Great imparted to the missionaries in England in the early 600s. By the 700s, there was a great spiritual vibrancy there, particularly in Northumbria. A land still steeped in Anglo-Saxon paganism was transformed in less than a century. In all fairness to my Irish friends, I should point out that Celtic missionaries such as Aidan may have had more to do with that conversion than the Roman missionaries. God can sort that one out! The main point is that gradualness is highly effective, especially when it focuses on inward transformation through conversion.

Enter Alcuin, born in Northumbria in 735. From him we can learn the essential role played by human desire and freedom in the step-by-step journey of conversion.

By the mid-700s, the spreading fire of Christian conversion in Northumbria had ignited many vocations to monasticism as well as an explosion of learning. If you or someone you know has undergone a profound conversion experience, you know how that works. You begin to feel an insatiable zeal to keep learning more about your newly discovered (or newly recovered) faith. It was no different in Northumbria. An influx of manuscripts from the mainland supplied new libraries. At the library in York, Alcuin soaked up all the learning he could: mathematics, literature, law, Scripture, theology, and more.

Enter Charlemagne as king of the Franks. He sought out a circle of intellectual advisers, and persuaded the reluctant Alcuin to come to his court in 782. Alcuin spent eight years in Aachen, educating Charlemagne, returned for a time to Northumbria, then back to Charlemagne’s court, and finally to Tours, where he lived from 796-804.

Perhaps you have heard the stories of Charlemagne forcing conversions among the newly conquered Saxons. Many of them became Christians, not because they desired to, but because they were forced to, upon pain of death. It was a gross misapplication of the Gospel passage: “Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).

What a difference Alcuin must have noticed! The recently converted Christians in Northumbria were unstoppable in their repentance, their spiritual growth, their eagerness to learn, and in their zeal to go out and evangelize others. By contrast, those forcibly made Christians under Charlemagne were not exactly growing in their Faith.

When Charlemagne began employing the same methods among the Avars in Hungary, Alcuin had seen enough. He wrote three rather scathing letters in 796: a carefully worded one to Charlemagne, a more candid commentary to Arno (Bishop of Salzburg), and an expression of exasperation to his close friend Maegenfrith, one of Charlemagne’s courtiers.

When Alcuin writes Charlemagne, he begins with flattering sentences, but you can detect the veiled sarcasm. He praises the king’s devotion to Christ’s glory, and his prowess in leading the peoples away from the worship of idols and towards the knowledge of the true God. With Charlemagne’s ego sufficiently appeased, Alcuin proceeds to correct the king’s actions, not so much by criticism of the past as by instruction for the future.  He presses upon Charlemagne the urgency to provide worthy and suitable preachers to the newly baptized, in order to foster growth in their faith during this very vulnerable stage. He cautions his king, “If knowledge of the catholic faith does not come first into the soul through the use of reason, the bodily cleansing of holy baptism will be of no avail.”

He is much more candid when he writes to Arno: “The miserable race of the Saxons has so often lost the sacrament of baptism, because they never had a foundation of faith in their heart.” He reiterates the same points to Maegenfrith: “We learn from Saint Augustine that faith is a voluntary thing, not a necessary thing. A man can be attracted toward faith, but not coerced. You can coerce baptism, but it does not profit faith.”

Has this not been the story of “faith” in so many of our Catholic families today? How many kids go to Catholic schools or go through their parish’s religious education program (or get Confirmed) because they have to? How many Catholics still show up at Mass on Sunday not because they eagerly want to be there, but because they feel obliged? Without freedom, without a growing desire, there is no authentic conversion. There is no spark that grows into a blazing fire. Indeed, there is often decline and decay.

Yes, there is a time and place for duty and obligation. It is right and just to give God thanks and praise. Not to gather on Sunday to give him due praise is an injustice against his greatness and his goodness. But even in the virtue of justice and the virtue of religion, there is a willingness and a growing interior freedom. Until there is inward growth, there is not yet virtue.

Many of my best experiences as a priest have come in my work with RCIA, as men and women of all ages find their way into Catholicism or back to Catholicism. Even in those cases where there is painful personal brokenness, the conversion can be amazing and truly transformational. Once that fire is burning, it becomes hard to keep up with the pace of their hearts and their lives.

Children are a different story, yet the same principles apply. In the end, it is desire and freedom that lead to deeply rooted virtue and enduring faith. Early on, we may need to “make” children do things. We may use fear of punishment and eagerness for reward to motivate them. But the long-range goal is to awaken holy desires and motivate them to make a free and wholehearted decision for Jesus. I don’t need to tell you that the raising of children (in the faith and in all things) is a step-by-step process – and not all steps move forward. Alcuin actually appeals to the raising of children as he explains (in some detail) the step-by-step journey of conversion in the heart of a believer. Gregory’s passage about gradualness draws more attention, but Alcuin goes more in depth on the actual steps.

I’ll share more next time.

To be continued…

Gradualness: Lessons from Gregory

Others often ask me to name the single greatest need in parish life today. Without hesitation, I tell them, “accompaniment.” Then I need to explain myself, because they can easily get the wrong impression.

“Accompaniment” and “gradualness” have become divisive buzzwords in the tumultuous era of Pope Francis. On the liberal side, there are some who employ the words as code for avoiding any conversation about objective truth and goodness, especially in the context of marriage and sexuality and gender. On the conservative side, there are some who have an intense visceral reaction against any talk of accompaniment or gradualness. It means you are “one of those” and therefore an enemy of the cause of truth and goodness and right.

This is all too tragic, because both accompaniment and gradualness are incredibly important, and both sides seem to be missing the point. We are called to abide in love and truth. You cannot have one without the other. Both are essential as we walk the path of ongoing conversion. If we fudge the truth in the name of love, we will reach a roadblock in our conversion. But we may never begin the journey if we are blasted immediately with the harder truths – before interiorly receiving the first truth that we are definitively loved. Jesus and the saints understood both points quite clearly. They loved the person in front of them and then accompanied them step by step on the formidable path of conversion.

What do authentic gradualness and accompaniment look like? Many of the saints offer us outstanding examples. I plan to draw from their wisdom in the weeks ahead.

Gradualness (or “gradualism” or “graduality”) means what it suggests – that growth in holiness comes gradually, step by step. It is a long journey of patient and persistent progress.

One of the most memorable examples of gradualness comes from Gregory the Great. He is perhaps my favorite pope of all time – and not just because he once preached about poop. He was a truly wise and loving shepherd during tumultuous decades that were shockingly similar to our own. By the time he was pope (590-604), there was no turning back the clock on the decline and fall of Roman civilization. It was a done deal. Much that was good and true and beautiful was collapsing, never to return. But Gregory refused to become discouraged or demoralized. Even in the twilight of Roman greatness, God worked through Gregory to begin planting the seeds of long-term renewal. He patiently and persistently established monasteries. These became islands of civilization and hubs of missionary activity. Eventually, every barbarian tribe that had run roughshod over Europe came to know Jesus Christ and his saving message. Learning was preserved and the foundations of modern civilization laid down. So much of what is good and true and beautiful in our own American heritage did not happen by accident. It was the fruit of ten centuries of steady monastic influence.

Thankfully, not all of Gregory’s efforts took a millennium to bear fruit. One of the earliest and most enduring evangelizing successes was in England, in the kingdoms of Kent and Northumbria. From Rome, from the monastery formerly known as his family’s suburban villa, Gregory sent out his abbot to travel to faraway England and evangelize the Angles. That reluctant missionary went on to become Saint Augustine of Canterbury. It warms my heart to think of it. I have been in that Roman monastery up on the Caelian Hill. It overlooks the Circus Maximus, an ancient racetrack and site of entertainment. There the pagan Romans had chased after fleeting pleasures and killed so many of the early Christians. That blood of the martyrs, sown with such great love and in such great abundance, truly bore fruit in the mission field in faraway England. By the time Bede the Venerable rolled around (672-735), Northumbria was so thriving in the Faith that it was sending out many missionaries of its own. Today, as we behold things dear to us falling apart, it is good to remember that much can be built up in just a couple of generations – especially when one learns to be patient and proceed step by step.

That was the lesson that Gregory taught in his famous instructions to Augustine and his fellow missionaries in a letter to the Abbot Mellitus dated July 18, 601. One of the greatest pastoral challenges Augustine was facing was how to handle the pagan shrines. One might expect a seventh-century pope to counsel the destruction of those temples, but Gregory’s response was much more nuanced: “Tell him what I have decided after thinking to myself for a long time about the case of the Angles, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation should by no means be destroyed, but that the idols themselves that are in them should be destroyed. Have holy water prepared and sprinkled in these temples; have altars constructed and relics placed in them.”

Gregory proceeds to address the Angles’ celebrations that involve sacrificing cattle to their gods (or as he puts it, to demons). He urges the missionaries to adapt these celebrations into Christian feasts. Let the people keep on collecting tree branches and erecting their ritual huts. But make sure that their rituals are centered around the newly Christianized shrines. Let them slaughter and eat their cattle (what kind of fool would take away their feasting on steak?). But teach them to do so with prayers of thanksgiving to God, rather than prayers of idolatry. Allow them to enjoy their outward practices, says Gregory – but teach them to transition into the more interior joys of Christian faith.

Gregory then explains the law of gradualness. You cannot root out everything all at once from hard heads or stubborn minds. And you cannot climb a mountain by one great leap, but only step by step.

Notice that Gregory does not suggest that all these practices on the part of the pagans are holy or helpful. He suggests instead that many further conversations will need to be conducted. He is just giving a sense of where to start. After much prayer and discernment, he figures out the first steps that can be taken that will allow conversion to catch fire and accelerate.

Neither of Gregory’s decisions is a permanent solution, but rather a provisional measure developed by a wise and loving shepherd to address a unique pastoral circumstance. Gregory does not want to drive away new converts or potential converts by imposing too many rules too quickly. So he focuses on the most important things. He identifies two objective moral evils: pagan idols and pagan sacrificial prayers. These are direct violations of God’s commandments and have to stop. But he seeks to be as lenient as possible towards other attitudes and practices: attachment to a particular building, use of ritual branches and huts, and the killing and eating of animals. Yes, these attitudes and practices arise from hard heads and stubborn minds who have much to learn. More changes will be needed over time. One step at a time.

In short, Gregory’s view is one of “tolerance” –  but a totally different sort of tolerance than the one promoted today. Gregory’s tolerance is pastoral patience that is willing to walk with people step by step on the long journey of conversion.

His overarching goal is that we will all one day arrive at the peak of the mountain. We will never do that if we permanently settle on a plateau!

In every age the evangelist faces similar challenges. Where to begin? There is so much that is good and true and beautiful in every human heart, and so much that is broken. Thanks be to God, there are those who are finding their way back to faith and the Church. I am so inspired by their holy desires. I am moved to tears by their sad stories and woundedness. I have learned not to start with rules, but to start with love, compassion, and careful listening – tuning into the Holy Spirit who has led this person here in the first place. Not all topics need to be broached in the first or second – or even tenth – conversation. Much patience and tolerance is needed on the long road of conversion. Perseverance is also needed, resisting the temptation to settle for less than the fullness of truth. I find that once the fire of conversion is burning, the rest tends to take care of itself, one step at a time. Gregory understood all those points, and the results speak for themselves.