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Archbishop's homily at Papal Vespers, San Gregorio Magno al Celio

The Archbishop attends Vespers at San Gregorio al Celio Basilica. Photo: Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

Saturday 10th March 2012

Archbishop Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict XVI led evening prayer together at the Church of San Gregorio Magno al Celio as part of a visit to Rome by the Archbishop.

After a private meeting earlier in the day, the Archbishop and the Pope travelled to San Gregorio to join the resident monastic Community there for Vespers (evening prayer), during which the Archbishop and the Pope each delivered a homily, and lit candles in the Chapel of St Gregory the Great.

Saturday's Vespers marks the third time in recent decades that the Bishop of Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury have shared a liturgical celebration in this historic setting. The previous occasions were both during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II - during the September 1989 visit of Archbishop Robert Runcie, and the December 1996 visit of Archbishop George Carey. 

A transcript of the Archbishop's homily follows. 


The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Homily at Papal Vespers,

San Gregorio Magno al Celio

10 March 2012

Your Holiness, Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

It is a privilege to stand here, where my predecessors stood in 1989 and 1996, and to offer once again, as we did most recently in Westminster [and Assisi], the sacrifice of praise that we owe to the One Lord in whose name we are baptized;  the One Lord who by his Spirit, brings to recognisability in each member of his sacramental Body, the image and abundant life of Christ his Son, through the temptations and struggles of our baptismal calling.

St Gregory the Great had much to say about the peculiar temptations and struggles of those called to office in the Church of God.  To be called to this service is to be called to several different kinds of suffering – the torment of compassion, as he puts it (Moralia 30.25.74), the daily awareness of urgent human needs, bodily and spiritual, and the torment of praise, flattery and status (ib. 26.34.62).  This latter is a torment because those called to this ministry know so clearly their own inner weakness and instability.  But that knowledge is a saving knowledge, which among other things helps us minister effectively to others in trouble;  and it reminds us that we find stability, soliditas, only in the life of the Body of Christ, not in our own achievement (Homilies on Ezekiel 2.5.22).

These are insights deeply rooted in St Gregory’s formation as a monk.  Humility is the key to all faithful ministry, a humility that constantly seeks to be immersed, involved, in the life of Christ’s Body, not looking for an individual heroism or holiness.  And it is this humility which the writer of the first life of St Gregory, written in England in the early eighth century, places at the head of the list of his saintly virtues, associating it with the ‘prophetic’ gift which allowed him to see what the English people needed and to respond by sending the mission of St Augustine from this place.  That association of humility and prophecy is indeed one that St Gregory himself makes in the Dialogues.  The true pastor and leader in the Church is one who, because he is caught up in the eternal self-offering of Jesus Christ through the sacramental mysteries of the Church, is free to see the needs of others as they really are.  This may be ‘tormenting’, because those needs can be so profound and tragic; but it also stirs us to action to address such needs in the name and the strength of Christ.

And here lies the heart of Gregory’s monastic vision, the vision which the brothers and sisters of Camaldoli—whose millennium we celebrate with sincere joy here today—still seek to live out.  To be immersed in the sacramental life of Christ’s Body requires the daily immersion of contemplation; without this, we cannot see one another clearly;  without it we shall not truly recognize and love one another, and grow together in his one holy catholic and apostolic Body.  The balance in the monastic life of solitude and common work and worship, a balance particularly carefully worked out in the life of Camaldoli, is something that seeks to enable a clear, even ‘prophetic’ vision of the other – seeing them, as the Eastern Christian tradition represented by Evagrius suggests, in the light of their authentic spiritual essence, not as they relate to our passions or preferences.  The inseparable labour of action and contemplation, of solitude and community, is to do with the constant purification of our awareness of each other in the light of the God whom we encounter in silence and self-forgetting.

Your Holiness, dear brothers and sisters, it would be wrong to suggest that we enter into contemplation in order to see one anther more clearly; but if anyone were to say that contemplation is a luxury in the Church, something immaterial for the health of the Body, we should have to say that without it we should be constantly dealing with shadows and fictions, not with the reality of the world we live in.  The Church is called upon to show that same prophetic spirit which is ascribed to St Gregory, the capacity to see where true need is and to answer God’s call in the person of the needy.  To do this, it requires a habit of discernment, penetration beyond the prejudices and clichés which affect even believers in a culture that is so hasty and superficial in so many of its judgements;  and with the habit of discernment belongs a habit of recognizing one another as agents of Christ’s grace and compassion and redemption.

And such a habit will develop only if we are daily learning the discipline of silence and patience, waiting for the truth to declare itself to us as we slowly set aside the distortions in our vision that are caused by selfishness and greed.  In recent years, we have seen developing a vastly sophisticated system of unreality, created and sustained by acquisitiveness, a set of economic habits in which the needs of actual human beings seem to be almost entirely obscured.  We are familiar with a feverish advertising culture in which we are persuaded to develop unreal and disproportionate desires.  We are all – Christians and their pastors included – in need of the discipline that purges our vision and restores to us some sense of the truth of our world, even if that can produce the ‘torment’ of knowing more clearly how much people suffer and how little we can do for them by our unaided labours.

Your Holiness, ‘Certain yet imperfect’ was how our predecessors of blessed memory, Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Robert, here in Rome in 1989, characterised the communion that our two churches share.  ‘Certain’ because of the shared ecclesial vision to which both our communions are committed as being the character of the Church both one and particular – a vision of the restoration of full sacramental communion, of a eucharistic life that is fully visible, and thus a witness that is fully credible, so that a confused and tormented world may enter into the welcome and transforming light of Christ.  And ‘yet imperfect’ because of the limit of our vision, a deficit in the depth of our hope and patience.  Our recognition of the one Body in each other’s corporate life is unstable and incomplete;  yet without such ultimate recognition we are not yet fully free to share the transforming power of the Gospel in Church and world.

‘The truth will set you free’, says Our Lord.  In the disciplines of contemplation and stillness, we are brought closer to the truth, and so also closer to the cross of the Lord.  We learn our weakness and we learn something of the mystery of how God deals with our weakness – not by ignoring or rejecting it but by embracing its consequences in the incarnation and the passion of Christ.  His self-emptying calls out our own self-denial – an appropriate theme for this Lenten season.  We learn how to set on one side our busy and self-serving agendas and allow the self-giving Christ to live in us, to open our eyes and to empower us for service.  Today, as we give thanks for a millennium of monastic witness, we celebrate the gifts of true and clear vision that have been made possible through this witness.  And we pray for all who are called to public service in Christ’s Church that they may be given the grace of contemplative discipline and prophetic clarity in their own witness, so that the glory of Christ’s cross will shine forth in our world even in the midst of our own weaknesses and failures.

©  Rowan Williams 2012

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