By Thomas Palanza, Jr.
“‘Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing… When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man…’ Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’ When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:1-11).
What makes this Gospel passage a fitting choice for today, the feast of Gregory the Great, is not so much the connection between the apostles and bishops, but the universal Christian experience of starting a new life in Christ. It has been a theme lately in the daily and Sunday readings. It is a prominent theme in Gregory’s life. Asked to be pope despite wanting to live a quiet, monastic life, Gregory trusted that Christ would support him in his new role – one he often felt unable to perform well, “So 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? Truly the all-powerful Creator and Redeemer of mankind can give me in spite of my weaknesses a higher life and effective speech; because I love him, I do not spare myself in speaking of him” (Office of Readings, Sept. 3).
While not all of us are called to be pope, we are all still called to a new life in Christ, to be “a kind of firstfruits of creation” (James 1:17-18). This new life is beyond our ability to live alone, just as it was beyond the ability of the apostles to catch fish and beyond Gregory to be pope. Taking on this new life is frightening. To catch fish, the apostles must go out into the deep water; to be pope, Gregory had to leave his monastic life that he lived so well; to be Christians, we too must leave behind our own shallow waters and familiar surroundings. We know we are living Christianity well when we are uncomfortable (see the Beatitudes).
Yet, even in the unknown, there is the familiar. This is because a new life with Christ is not absolutely unlike our old life. True enough, leaving behind our old life is difficult and painful – a necessary transformation that is well documented in the recent Old Testament readings – but the conversion is not without carryover. Thus, the apostles are called to be fishermen still, yet now fishers of people. Jesus does not just ask us to live a new life completely unknown to us, but, even more extraordinary, shows us that the life we think we know so well is actually far deeper and more mysterious than we imagine. Our challenge as Christians is not to be other worldly people, living a life that is disconnected from the life of others, but a people that can see the otherness in the world, a people that is aware of the presence of abiding, living, breathing grace. That was the struggle Gregory had, to see Christ in the world. It is not an easy task. It requires us, just as the apostles and Gregory, to be overwhelmed by Christ, to be completely out of our league, to be totally dependent on someone else for our success, to love as Christ loves. Oh what a love that must be, to be overwhelmed even by death and yet have a love deep enough to win out over it!