ST. GREGORY THE GREAT,
Pope and Doctor of the Church.
ST. GREGORY THE GREAT,
Pope and Doctor of the Church.
POPE BENEDICT ON ST. GREGORY THE GREAT.
Called back to Rome, Gregory, although living in a monastery, was a close collaborator of Pope Pelagius II, and when the Pope died, the victim of a plague epidemic, Gregory was acclaimed by all as his Successor. He sought in every way to escape this appointment but in the end was obliged to yield. He left the cloister reluctantly and dedicated himself to the community, aware of doing his duty and being a simple and poor “servant of the servants of God”. “He is not really humble,” he wrote, “who understands that he must be a leader of others by decree of the divine will and yet disdains this pre-eminence. If, on the contrary, he submits to divine dispositions and does not have the vice of obstinacy and is prepared to benefit others with those gifts when the highest dignity of governing souls is imposed on him, he must flee from it with his heart, but against his will, he must obey” (Pastoral Rule, I, 6). It is like a dialogue that the Pope has with himself at that time. With prophetic foresight, Gregory intuited that a new civilization was being born from the encounter of the Roman legacy with so-called “barbarian” peoples, thanks to the cohesive power and moral elevation of Christianity. Monasticism was proving to be a treasure not only for the Church but for the whole of society.
With delicate health but strong moral character Saint Gregory the Great carried out intense pastoral and civil action. He left a vast collection of letters, wonderful homilies, a famous commentary on the Book of Job, and writings on the life of Saint Benedict, as well as numerous liturgical texts, famous for the reform of song that was called “Gregorian”, after him. However, his most famous work is certainly the Pastoral Rule, which had the same importance for the clergy as the Rule of Saint Benedict had for monks in the Middle Ages. The life of a pastor of souls must be a balanced synthesis of contemplation and action, inspired by the love “that rises wonderfully to high things when it is compassionately drawn to the low things of neighbors; and the more kindly it descends to the weak things of this world, the more vigorously it recurs to the things on high” (II, 5). In this ever timely teaching, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council found inspiration to outline the image of today’s Pastor. Let us pray to the Virgin Mary that the example and teaching of Saint Gregory the Great may be followed by pastors of the Church and also by those in charge of civil institutions.
(3 September 2006)
In the footsteps of his father, Gregory entered early into an administrative career which reached its climax in 572, when he became Prefect of the city. This office, complicated by the sorry times, allowed him to apply himself on a vast range to every type of administrative problem, drawing light for future duties from them. In particular, he retained a deep sense of order and discipline: having become Pope, he advised Bishops to take as a model for the management of ecclesial affairs diligence and respect for the law like civil functionaries. Yet this life could not have satisfied him since, shortly after, he decided to leave every civil assignment in order to withdraw to his home to begin the monastic life, transforming his family home into the monastery of Saint Andrew on the Coelian Hill. This period of monastic life, the life of permanent dialogue with the Lord in listening to his Word, constituted a perennial nostalgia to which he referred ever anew and ever more in his homilies. In the midst of the pressure of pastoral worries, he often recalled it in his writings as a happy time of recollection in God, dedication to prayer, and peaceful immersion in study. Thus, he could acquire that deep understanding of Sacred Scripture and of the Fathers of the Church that later served him in his work.
But the cloistered withdrawal of Gregory did not last long. The precious experience that he gained in civil administration during a period marked by serious problems, the relationships he had had in this post with the Byzantines, and the universal respect that he acquired induced Pope Pelagius to appoint him deacon and to send him to Constantinople as his “apocrisarius”—today one would say “Apostolic Nuncio”—in order to help overcome the last traces of the Monophysite controversy and above all to obtain the Emperor’s support in the effort to check the Lombard invaders. The stay at Constantinople, where he resumed monastic life with a group of monks, was very important for Gregory, since it permitted him to acquire direct experience of the Byzantine world as well as to approach the problem of the Lombards, who would later put his ability and energy to the test during the years of his Pontificate. After some years he was recalled to Rome by the Pope, who appointed him his secretary. They were difficult years: the continual rain, flooding due to overflowing rivers, the famine that afflicted many regions of Italy as well as Rome. Finally, even the plague broke out, which claimed numerous victims, among whom was also Pope Pelagius II. The clergy, people, and senate were unanimous in choosing Gregory as his Successor to the See of Peter. He tried to resist, even attempting to flee, but to no avail: finally, he had to yield. The year was 590.
Recognizing the will of God in what had happened, the new Pontiff immediately and enthusiastically set to work. From the beginning he showed a singularly enlightened vision of the reality with which he had to deal, an extraordinary capacity for work confronting both ecclesial and civil affairs, a constant and even balance in making decisions, at times with courage, imposed on him by his office.
Abundant documentation has been preserved from his governance thanks to the Register of his Letters (approximately 800), reflecting the complex questions that arrived on his desk on a daily basis. They were questions that came from Bishops, Abbots, clergy, and even from civil authorities of every order and rank. Among the problems that afflicted Italy and Rome at that time was one of special importance both in the civil and ecclesial spheres: the Lombard question. The Pope dedicated all possible energy to it in view of a truly peaceful solution. Contrary to the Byzantine Emperor, who assumed that the Lombards were only uncouth individuals and predators to be defeated or exterminated, Saint Gregory saw this people with the eyes of a good pastor and was concerned with proclaiming the word of salvation to them, establishing fraternal relationships with them in view of a future peace founded on mutual respect and peaceful coexistence between Italians, Imperials, and Lombards. He was concerned with the conversion of the young people and the new civil structure of Europe: the Visigoths of Spain, the Franks, the Saxons, the immigrants in Britain, and the Lombards were the privileged recipients of his evangelizing mission. Yesterday we celebrated the liturgical Memorial of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, the leader of a group of monks Gregory assigned to go to Britain to evangelize England.
The Pope—who was a true peacemaker—deeply committed himself to establishing an effective peace in Rome and in Italy by undertaking intense negotiations with Agilulf, the Lombard King. This negotiation led to a period of truce that lasted for about three years (598-601), after which, in 603, it was possible to stipulate a more stable armistice. This positive result was obtained also thanks to the parallel contacts that, meanwhile, the Pope undertook with Queen Theodolinda, a Bavarian princess who, unlike the leaders of other Germanic peoples, was Catholic, deeply Catholic. A series of Letters of Pope Gregory to this Queen has been preserved in which he reveals his respect and friendship for her. Theodolinda, little by little, was able to guide the King to Catholicism, thus preparing the way to peace. The Pope also was careful to send her relics for the Basilica of Saint John the Baptist which she had had built in Monza and did not fail to send his congratulations and precious gifts for the same Cathedral of Monza on the occasion of the birth and baptism of her son, Adaloald. The series of events concerning this Queen constitutes a beautiful testimony to the importance of women in the history of the Church. Gregory constantly focused on three basic objectives: to limit the Lombard expansion in Italy; to preserve Queen Theodolinda from the influence of schismatics and to strengthen the Catholic faith; and to mediate between the Lombards and the Byzantines in view of an accord that guaranteed peace in the Peninsula and at the same time permitted the evangelization of the Lombards themselves. Therefore, in the complex situation his focus was constantly twofold: to promote understanding on the diplomatic-political level and to spread the proclamation of the true faith among the peoples.
Along with his purely spiritual and pastoral action, Pope Gregory also became an active protagonist in multifaceted social activities. With the revenues from the Roman See’s substantial patrimony in Italy, especially in Sicily, he bought and distributed grain, assisted those in need, helped priests, monks, and nuns who lived in poverty, paid the ransom for citizens held captive by the Lombards, and purchased armistices and truces. Moreover, whether in Rome or other parts of Italy, he carefully carried out administrative reorganization, giving precise instructions so that the goods of the Church, useful for her sustenance and evangelizing work in the world, were managed with absolute rectitude and according to the rules of justice and mercy. He demanded that the tenants on Church territory be protected from dishonest agents and, in cases of fraud, quickly compensated, so that the face of the Bride of Christ was not soiled with dishonest profits.
Gregory carried out this intense activity notwithstanding his poor health, which often forced him to remain in bed for days on end. The fasts practiced during the years of monastic life had caused him serious digestive problems. Furthermore, his voice was so feeble that he was often obliged to entrust the reading of his homilies to the deacon, so that the faithful present in the Roman Basilicas could hear him. On feast days he did his best to celebrate the Missarum sollemnia, that is, the solemn Mass, and then he met personally with the People of God, who were very fond of him, because they saw in him the authoritative reference from whom to draw security: not by chance was the title consul Dei quickly attributed to him. Notwithstanding the very difficult conditions in which he had to work, he gained the faithful’s trust, thanks to his holiness of life and rich humanity, achieving truly magnificent results for his time and for the future. He was a man immersed in God: his desire for God was always alive in the depths of his soul, and precisely because of this he was always close to his neighbor, to the needy people of his time. Indeed, during a desperate period of havoc, he was able to create peace and give hope. This man of God shows us the true sources of peace, from which true hope comes. Thus, he becomes a guide also for us today.
(28 May 2008 )
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