Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Pope St. Gregory the Great

Pope St. Gregory the Great reigned from 590-604 A.D. He is the second out of four popes to be called "the Great." His pontificate marked the advent of the medieval papacy. He is considered the fourth doctor of the Church and the founder of medieval spirituality. His feast day is on September 3. (March 12 in the 1962 calendar.) St. Gregory came from a wealthy, privileged and influential background. He was extremely well-educated and Gregory of Tours praised his education as being "second to none."

St. Gregory had a very successful public career and attained a powerful position, urban prefect, by the age of thirty. He also served as a deacon for Pope Pelagius II and later as a papal representative to the Byzantine Court.

St. Gregory was one of the richest men in Rome. Unlike his equally successful colleagues, St. Gregory used his wealth to found seven monasteries in Rome. Forsaking all wealth, he converted to the monastic life in 573 A.D. Throughout his writings it is evident that St. Gregory considered his three years in the contemplative life at St. Andrew's monastery on his family estate as the happiest of his life.

A reticent monk...

St. Gregory was elected Pope after his predecessor, Pelagius II, had surrendered to the deathly plague roaming through Italy at the time. He became the first monk to be elected to the throne of St. Peter and was extremely hesitant to lead a city cursed with plagues, famines, and wars: "Farms and houses were carried away by the floods. The Tiber overflowed its banks, destroying numerous buildings, among them the granaries of the Church with all the store of corn. Pestilence followed on the floods and Rome became a very city of the dead. Business was at a standstill, and the streets were deserted save for the wagons which bore forth countless corpses for burial in common pits beyond the city walls."

He wrote to the Emperor Maurice strongly protesting his election. While he was waiting for a response from the Emperor, St. Gregory, in reaction against the plague, organized a procession to the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin. During the procession, St. Gregory and the people saw a vision of St. Michael, which symbolized that the plague was over.

St. Gregory was unsuccessful in changing the Emperor's or the people's mind on his election to the papacy. It is said that he was so horrified at the news of his election to the Holy See that he considered escaping. There is a legendary story which tells of St. Gregory, horrified at the prospect of becoming Pope, hiding in the forest for three days to avoid consecration! Although it does not seem to be historically accurate, it makes for a dramatic story. Despite his "Great" pontificate, St. Gregory never ceased to regret his election.

"Servant of the Servants of God"

St. Gregory was the first to refer to himself as, "Servus Servorum Dei." The title has been inherited and used frequently by subsequent popes.

Once St. Gregory came to terms with his new role, the word that best describes the last fourteen years of his life and his pontificate is zeal. Although he had a brief pontificate, some consider him the “greatest of the great,” because of his numerous efficacious achievements and his personal devotion and holiness, despite his poor health.

On the political front, St. Gregory, "secured the grain supply for Rome, sent troops against the Lombards, secured defense of Naples, paid ransoms when necessary to buy off soldiers, and was eventually forced to become paymaster, defraying the daily expenses of defending Rome."

The greatest challenge St. Gregory faced politically was regarding the Lombards. He wanted to establish and maintain a peace treaty with the double aim of converting them from their heretical Arian views. His attempts at peace created tension between him and Emperor Maurice because his success would advance the political importance of Rome over the Byzantine Court. Moreover, similar to Pope St. Leo, St. Gregory emphasized Rome's premier position with the rival sees and patriarchs.

It was his involvement with the Lombards which increased the temporal power of the papacy. One is reminded of St. Leo's encounter with Attila the Hun in learning of St. Gregory's famous meeting with the Lombard king, Agilulf, on the steps of St. Peter's. A peace treaty with the Lombards was accomplished in 598 and through his diplomatic progress with the Lombards, the catholization of the Lombards was underway. This was a huge step in the final defeat of Arianism by the 7th C. (Sadly, once Arianism was over, the Islamic invasions were beginning...)

One can not discuss the papacy of St. Gregory the Great without mentioning his commitment and perhaps obsession with reforming abuses prevalent in the Church at the time. He convened a noteworthy council in Rome in the year 595 and promptly abolished acceptance of any fees for ordinations or for the granting of the pallium. He also forbade an old traditional practice of charging very high prices for burying the dead in privileged places in the churches. Other abuses he sought to correct included simony, seizure of land, privileges and ecclesiastical reforms. He wrote in a letter, “We do not wish the purse of the Church to be polluted by shameful gains.”

St. Gregory, a fearless politician and pope, had a deep and great love for the poor. Every day he invited twelve poor people to dine with him. He was criticized for leaving the treasury empty when he died because of his generosity to the poor. He was also a huge defender of religious paintings and deemed them "the books of the unlearned."

Despite these difficult challenges within the city of Rome, St. Gregory believed it was his primary duty to cultivate the spiritual life by his writing and preaching.

"Pastoralis Curae"

St. Gregory's conviction was that preaching was one of the first duties of a bishop. Thus he did not spend time building churches as other popes had and would in the future.

Thus, he was a prolific writer—preserved are 850 letters of his. One of his most important works is his book on pastoral care, which he composed for bishops. St. Gregory felt the weight of his pontificate and the responsibility he had to provide his sheep with good and holy shepherds, the bishops. He was also strongly concerned with bishops being involved in too many worldly and temporal affairs, which admittedly he struggled with himself.

Gregory the "Consul of God"

There is a story that recounts St. Gregory encountering some “Anglo” pagans to which Gregory remarked, “Ah, what a pity that the author of darkness owns such fair faces, and that, with such grace of outward form, they should lack inward grace!”

He is known to the English as "The Apostle of the Island" because he is responsible for England coming to the Faith by sending St. Augustine of Canterbury and monks to proselytize there.

Earlier, St. Gregory had planned to become a missionary to England himself despite Pope Pelagius’ reluctance in giving him permission. However, the people were determined to keep their beloved Gregory in Rome. Later, St. Gregory advised St. Augustine of Canterbury not to destroy the pagan temples in England but to re-consecrate them for Christ. In this way, he set the method for missionaries of the future.

The French historian Jean Leclerq said of Gregory's influence in the Middle Ages, "Everyone...had read him and lived by him." Further, "Gregory's concern with the moral meaning of Scripture, his concerns with suffering and evil, his attitudes defining the proper exercise of power, and his view of the centrality of the church and its sacraments all foreshadow later medieval views, as does his vision of an invisible world of demons and angels surrounding men and women in everyday life ready to wreak havoc or extend aids as executor's of God's will."

St. Gregory's poor health did not prevent him from speaking to his loved ones, his people. One of these such occasions caused him to speak with moving tenderness: “But if my mouth has been silent, do not think that my love has grown cold. It happens sometimes that, even in the midst of the occupations which hinder me, love is glowing in my heart although it can not show itself in deeds….”

His preaching, although not as brilliant and eloquent as the first "Great", “has a simplicity and familiarity that Leo does not know.”

Pope St. Gregory the Great, pray for us. +

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