A Truly Endearing Saint

Pope St Gregory the Great

FEW WRITINGS BY POPES or Saints give us such an endearing insight into the writer’s humble spirit as the extract from a homily set down in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Feast of St Gregory the Great on 3 September. Before we present the extract Let us consider the outline of his life.

Born in Rome around 540, Pope St Gregory the Great died on 12th March, 604. It has been rightly said of him “if no account were taken of his work, the evolution of the form of medieval Christianity would be almost inexplicable …… Almost all the leading principles of the later Catholicism are found, at any rate in germ, in Gregory the Great.” (Non-Catholic writer F.H.Dudden Gregory the Great, 1, p.v.)

His father was a wealthy patrician. They lived in a mansion on the Caelian Hill in Rome. Gregory’s mother and two of his aunts were saints (Saint Silvia and Saints Tarsilla and Aemiliana.) The family owned extensive estates in Sicily. But his early life was lived under the threat of barbarian violence when Rome was captured by the Goths in 546 abandoned by them, besieged and captured again by them until freed in 552. Gregory of Tours recounts that St Gregory was second to none in Rome in grammar, rhetoric and dialectic. He loved Sacred Scripture and to listen attentively to the conversations of his elders.

His patrician rank, intellectual capacity and personal integrity brought him at age 33years to the position of Prefect of Rome. - the highest civil dignity in the city. Only a year or so later he resigned the post in order to become a monk. He converted the family mansion into his monastery under the patronage of St Andrew and gave up his Sicilian estates founding six monasteries on them. It is now generally agreed that St Gregory and his fellow monks at St Andrew’s followed the Rule of St Benedict.

Four years later in 578 Pope Pelagius II called him out of his monastery, and despite Gregory’s contrary desire, ordained him as one of the 7 Deacons of Rome. The city was facing yet another crisis. The Lombard hordes were threatening and the city needed help. The Pope appointed Gregory as his permanent Ambassador to the court of the Emperor Tiberius in Constantinople. The Emperor had his own troubles, and the main lesson that Gregory took from his 6 years or so in Constantinople was that the city of Rome could not rely on Imperial help. During his time there he lived, as far as possible a monastic existence with several of the monks from St Andrews who had accompanied him. He also wrote a series of lectures on the Book of Job known by the title “Morals”, at the request of St Leander of Seville whom he met in Constantinople. He was also involved in correcting the Patriarch of Constantinople Eutychius in his wrongful views on the attributes of resurrected bodies. Gregory’s teaching was upheld by the Emperor. The Patriarch took ill and died acknowledging his error.

In 585/586 Gregory was recalled to Rome and returned to his beloved St Andrew’s where he became Abbot. The monastery flourished. He published many famous works numbers of which are available still. During this period there occurred the now famous “Not Angles but Angels” encounter with natives of England in the streets of Rome. The Venerable Bede tells us they were slaves. Pope Pelagius was persuaded by Gregory to let him go with a band of his monks to convert the Angles. The Pope agreed, but the Roman people did not. They learned of the mission, and Gregory and his companions were three days on their way when they overtook them, stopped them and brought their beloved Gregory back to Rome Pope Pelagius made Gregory his chief adviser and secretary.

589 Brought unprecedented flooding throughout Italy and even in the city of Rome, and the city’s store of grain was lost. Pestilence swiftly followed and much of the population died from disease. In February 590 Pope Pelagius died. The clergy and people of Rome at once elected Gregory as his successor. The plague continued unabated. Pope Gregory called on the surviving population to form processions from each of the seven regions of the city, to converge on the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin whilst praying for pardon and an end to the plague. As they approached the mausoleum of Hadrian, St Michael the Archangel was seen to appear on its summit sheathing his sword. This was taken to mean that the plague was ended. And so today
 we know the building as Castel Sant’ Angelo and it is topped by a statue of St Michael sheathing his sword, as he was seen.

Gregory’s pontificate lasted 14 years. They were years of continuing troubles and strain, particularly in dealing with the barbarian invaders. We hope to return to his achievements in greater detail in future. Suffice it to say that he reformed the Church wherever needed, reformed the monasteries even as far away as Gaul, insisted on the highest standards of probity in the handling of Church finances everywhere, defended the prerogatives and mandate of the Papacy against all comers and in the face of the collapse of the civil authority ruled for the good of the people.

Now we read straight from the heart of the first monk Pope:

EXTRACT from a homily on Ezekiel by Saint Gregory the Great, Pope

(Lib.1, 11, 4-6: CCL 142, 170-172)

"  "Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel". Note that a man whom the Lord sends forth as a preacher is called a watchman. A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming. Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height for all his life to help them by his foresight.

How hard it is for me to say this, for by these very words I denounce myself. I cannot preach with any competence, and yet insofar as I do succeed, still I myself do not live my life according to my own preaching.

I do not deny my responsibility; I recognize that I am slothful and negligent, but perhaps the acknowledgement of my fault will win me pardon from my just judge. Indeed when I was in the monastery I could curb my idle talk and usually be absorbed in my prayers. Since I assumed the burden of pastoral care, my mind can no longer be collected; it is concerned with so many matters.

I am forced to consider the affairs of the Church and the monasteries. I must weigh the lives and acts of individuals. I am responsible for the concerns of our citizens. I must worry about the invasions of roving bands of barbarians, and beware of the wolves who lie in wait for my flock. I must become an administrator lest the religious go in want. I must put up with certain robbers without losing patience and at times I must deal with them all in charity.

With my mind divided and torn to pieces by so many problems, how can I meditate or preach wholeheartedly without neglecting the ministry of proclaiming the Gospel? Moreover, in my position, I must often communicate with worldly men. At times I let my tongue run, for if I am always severe in my judgements, the worldly will avoid me, and I can never attack them as I would. As a result, I often listen patiently to chatter. And because I am too weak, I find myself drawn little by little into idle conversation, and I begin to talk freely about matters which once I would have avoided. What once I found tedious I now enjoy.

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."

Tony Dixon
Copyright This article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of FOUNDATION.


Popular posts from this blog