So self-absorbed was I last week that I missed the Holy Father’s Wednesday Audience on Gregory the Great. (He continued with Gregory today, but I haven’t seen a translation yet.) Teresa Benedetta translated last week’s.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Last Wednesday I spoke of a Father of The Church who is little known int eh West, Romanus the Melodist. Today, I wish to present the figure of one of the greatest Fathers in the history of the Church, one of the four Doctors of the West, Pope St. Gregory, who was Bishop of Rome from 590-604, and who has earned the traditional title of Magnus or Great.
Gregory was truly a great Pope and a great Doctor of the Church. Born in Rome around 540 to a rich patrician family of the Anicia clan, which had distinguished itself not only by noble blood, but also for its dedication to the Christian faith and for services rendered to the Apostolic See.
The family also gave the Church two other Popes, Felix III (483-492), great great grand-uncle of Gregory, and Agapitus (535-536.
The house where Gregory grew was on the Clivus Scauri, surrounded by solemn edifices that testified to the grandeur of ancient Rome and the spiritual force of Christianity.
Inspiring him to elevated Christian sentiments were the examples of his parents Gordianus and Silvia, both of them also venerated as saints, and those of his two paternal aunts, Emiliana and Tarsilia, who lived at home as consecrated virgins in a life of prayer and asceticism.
Gregory entered early into an administrative career, following his father, and culminating in becoming Prefect of Rome in 572. This office, complicated by the sadness of the times, allowed him to apply himself to a vast range of administrative problems, bringing light to them for his future tasks.
In particular, a profound sense of order and discipline remained with him. As Pope, he suggested to the bishops to model themselves in the management of church affairs after the diligence and respect for law shown by civilian functionaries.
But this life must not have satisfied him, because much later, he decided to leave every civilian responsibility to retire and start a monastic life, transforming the family home into the monastery of St. Andrew in Celio.
This period of monastic life, a life of permanent dialog with the Lord and listening to his Word, left him with a perennial nostalgia which always and ever more became apparent in his homilies. In the middle of nagging pastoral worries and concerns, he would recall it many times in his writings as a happy time spent in contemplation of God, dedicated to prayer and serene immersion in study. That is how he was able to acquire a profound knowledge of Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church which served him later in his own works.
But Gregory’s cloistered retreat did not last long. The invaluable experience that matured in civilian administration during a time of serious problems, the relationships he had developed with the Byzantine world while in office, the universal esteem that he had earned, led Pope Pelagius to name him a deacon and send him to Constantinople as his ‘apocrisarius’ [ambassador to the imperial court], which we would call Apostolic Nuncio today, in order to help over come the last after-effects of the monophysite controversy [controversy between the Church of Alexandria and the Church of Antioch, each of which tended to emphasize only one aspect of Christ’s nature – either the divine or the human], and above all, to get the Byzantine emperor’s support in Roman efforts to contain the pressure from Longobard (Lombard) invaders. [The Longobards were a Germanic people originally from Northern Europe who settled in the valley of the Danube and from there invaded Byzantine Italy in 568.]
His stay in Constantinople, where he resumed the monastic life with a group of monks, was most important for Gregory, because it gave him direct experience in the Byzantine world, as well as with facing the Longobard problem, which would later severely test his ability and energies during his Pontificate.
After several years, he was recalled to Rome by the Pope, who named him his secretary. Those were difficult years: continuous rains, flooding and famine afflicted many areas of Italy and Rome itself. Towards the end, there was an eruption of plague which took numerous victims, among them Pope Pelagius II himself.
The clergy, the people and the Senate were unanimous in choosing Gregory himself to be his successor on Peter’s Chair. He tried to resist this, even attempting to flee, but he had no choice: In the end, he had to yield. It was the year 590.
Recognizing that this was the will of God, the new Pope immediately set to work apace. From the beginning, he showed a singularly lucid vision of the reality against which he had to measure himself, an extraordinary capacity for work in both ecclesiastical and civilian affairs, a constant equilibrium in the decisions, often courageous, that the office imposed on him.
There exists ample documentation of his governance, thanks to a registry of his letters (almost 800), in which he reflected on his daily confrontation with the complex questions that came to his desk – questions that came from bishops, abbots, priests, and even civilian authorities of every order and rank.
Among the problems that afflicted Italy and Rome in those days was one which was particularly outstanding in both the civilian and ecclesiastical fields: the Lombard question, to which the Pope dedicated every possible energy towards a truly peacemaking solution.
In contrast to the Byzantine Emperor who started from the premise that the Longobards were simply crude predators to be defeated or exterminated, St. Gregory saw them with the eyes of a good pastor, concerned with announcing to them the word of salvation and establishing fraternal relationships with them for a future peace founded on reciprocal respect and peaceful coexistence among Italians, the subjects of empire and the Lombards themselves.
He concerned himself with the conversion of the new peoples in Italy and the new civilian order in Europe. The Visigoths in Spain, the Franks, the Saxons, the immigrants to Britain and the Lombards were the priority objects of his evangelizing mission.
Yesterday, we observed the liturgical commemoration of St. Augustine of Canterbury, the head of a group of monks tasked by Gregory to go to Britain to evangelize that land.
To obtain peace from the barbarian incursions in Rome and Italy, the Pope committed himself thoroughly – he was a true peacemaker – undertaking detailed negotiations with the Lombard king Agilulfo. These negotiations led to a truce that lasted three years (598-601), after which it became possible to stipulate a more stable armistice in 603.
This positive outcome was also helped by parallel contacts which, in the meantime, the Pope had with Queen Theodolinda, a Bavarian princess, who unlike the heads of other Germanic peoples [who invaded Italy] , was Catholic, profoundly Catholic. A series of letters of Pope Gregory to that queen has been conserved, which reveals his esteem and friendship for her. Theodolinda managed gradually to lead the king himself to Catholicism, thus paving the way for peace.
The Pope also took upon himself to send the queen relics for the Basilica of St. John the Baptist which she had ordered built in Monza [northern Italy, near Milan, capital of what became the Lombardy region], and he did not fail to send his best wishes and precious gifts for this Basilica on the occasion of the birth and baptism of Theodolinda’s son Adaloaldo. The episode of Queen Theodolinda constitutes a beautiful testimony of the importance of women in the history of the Church.
Basically, the three objectives that Pope Gregory aimed for constantly were: to contain the expansion of the Lombards in Italy; to take away Theodolinda from the influence of schismatics and to reinforce her Catholic faith; and to mediate between the Lombards and the Byzantines towards an agreement that would guarantee peace in the Italian peninsula and at the same time allow evangelical activity to be undertaken among the Lombards.
Therefore, he had a constant two-sided orientation in these complex events: to promote his objectives on the he political and diplomatic levels; and to to spread the proclamation of the true faith among the people.
Besides his spiritual and pastoral activities, Pope Gregory was also an active protagonist in many forms of social work. With the income from the conspicuous patrimony that the Roman See possessed in Italy, especially in Sicily, he bought and distributed grains, assisted those who were in need, helped priests, monks and nuns who lived in indigence, ransomed citizens who were captured by the Lombards, negotiated armistices and truces.
Besides this, he carried out in Rome and other parts of Italy a careful administrative reorganization, with precise instructions that the goods of the Church necessary for its subsistence and evangelizing work should be managed with absolute rectitude and according to the rules of justice and mercy.
He demanded that the people be protected from the deceptions of the concessionaires of Church properties, and that in case of fraud, they should be promptly restituted so that the face of Christ’s Bride would not be smirched by dishonest profits.
Gregory carried out these intense activities despite ill health which often forced him to stay in bed for many days. The fasts he observed during his monastic years had resulted in serious disturbances to his digestive system. His voice was so weakened that he often had to entrust his deacon with reading his homilies so that the faithful in the Roman basilicas could hear them.
But he did everything possible to celebrate the Missarum sollemnia, the Solemn Mass, himself on religious feast days, during which he personally encountered the People of God, for whom he felt great affection, because he saw them as the authoritative reference point from which to draw certitude. There is reason he was soon being called consul Dei.
Notwithstanding the most difficult circumstances in which he had to operate, he succeeded – thanks to the sanctity of his life and his rich humanity – in winning the confidence of the faithful, achieving for his time and for the future results that were truly grandiose.
He was a man immersed in god. The desire for God was always very vivid in him, and because of this, he was very close to his fellowmen, to the needs of the people of his time.
In a disastrous and desperate time, he knew how to create peace and hope. This man of God shows us where the true springs of peace are, from where true hope comes, and is thus a leader and guide even for us today.