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Greatness Times Two

Teresa Benedetta translated Pope Benedict’s second audience talk on St. Gregory the Great.

Dear brothers and sisters,

In our Wednesday encounter today, I will return to the extraordinary figure of Pope Gregory the Great to draw more light from his rich teachings.

Notwithstanding the multiple commitments connected to his office as Bishop of Rome, he has left us many works, which the Church in the following centuries has drawn from fully.

Besides his conspicuous epistolary – the Registry that I referred to in the previous lecture has more than 800 letters – he has left us, above all, writings of an exegetic character, among the most distinctive being his Moral Commentary on (the Book of) Job(known by its Latin title Moralia in Iob), his Homilies on Ezekiel, and his Homilies on the Gospel.

Then there is an important book of a hagiographic character, the Dialogues, written by Gregory for the edification of the Lungobard Queen Theodolinda.

But his main and doubtless most famous work is The Pastoral Rule, which the Pope published at the start of his Pontificate with a clearly programmatic purpose.

In making a rapid review of these works, we should note above all that, in his writings, Gregory was never concerned with delineating ‘his’ doctrine, or his originality. Rather, he meant to echo the traditional teaching of the Church – he wanted simply to be the mouthpiece of Christ and his Church about the path that must be followed in order to reach God.

His exegetical comments are exemplary in this respect. He was a passionate reader of the Bible which he approached with intentions that were not simply speculative. From Sacred Scripture, he thought, the Christian should draw not so much theoretical knowledge but rather daily nourishment for his soul, for his life as a man in this world.

In the Homilies on Ezekiel, for example, he insists strongly on this function of sacred text. To approach Scripture simply to satisfy one’s own desire for knowledge means yielding to the temptation of pride and thus exposing oneself to the risk of slipping into heresy.

Intellectual humility is the primary rule for whoever seeks to penetrate the supranatural realities, starting with the sacred Book. Humility obviously does not exclude serious study, but to make it spiritually profitable, allowing one to truly enter into the profundity of the text, humility is indispensable. Only with this interior attitude can one listen and finally perceive the voice of God.

On the other hand, when it comes to the Word of God, understanding means nothing unless it leads to action. In the Homilies on Ezekiel can also be found that beautiful statement according to which “the preacher should dip his quill into the blood of his heart; this way, he will be able to reach the ear of his neighbor.”

Reading his homilies, one can see that Gregory truly wrote with the blood of his heart and therefore speaks to us even today.

Gregory develops this discourse even in his Moral Commentary on Job. Following Patristic tradition, he examines the sacred text in the three dimensions of its meaning: the literal dimension, the allegorical dimension and the moral, which are the dimensions of the single meaning of Sacred Scripture.

Gregory nonetheless attributes a clear prevalence to the moral sense. In this perspective, he proposes his thinking through some significant ‘binomials’ – knowing and doing, speaking and living, understanding and acting – in which he evokes the aspects of human life that should be complementary but often end up being antithetical.

The moral ideal, he comments, always consists in realizing a harmonious integration between word and action, thought and commitment, prayer and dedication to the obligations of one’s status – this is the way to realize that synthesis thanks to which the divine comes down to man, and man is elevated towards identification with God.

The great Pope thus traces for the authentic believer a complete plan for life – that is why the Moral Commentary on Job constituted in the Middle Ages a sort of Summa of Christian morality.

His homilies on the Gospel are of remarkably outstanding and beautiful. The first was held at St. Peter’s Basilica at Advent in 590, a few months after he was elected to the Papacy; the last was delivered in the Basilica of St. Lawrence on the second Sunday after Pentecost in 593.

The Pope preached to the people in the churches where the Roman ‘stations’ were celebrated – these being particular prayer ceremonies during the high points of the liturgical year or on the feast days of the titular martyrs [to which each Church is dedicated].

The principal inspiration that links the various discourses can be summarized in the word “praedicator”: Not only the minister of God, but even every Christian, has the task of making himself the ‘preacher’ of whatever he has experienced intimately in following the example of Christ who became man in order to bring the good news of salvation to all.

The horizon of such a commitment is eschatological: the expectation of the fulfillment of Christ in all things is a constant thought in Gregory the Great and ends up as the inspiring motive for his every thought and action. This, his incessant calls for vigilance and for commitment to good works.

Perhaps the most organic text of Gregory the Great is his Pastoral Rule written during the early years of his Pontificate. In it, Gregory proposes to draw the figure of the ideal bishop – teacher and leader of his flock. To such end, he illustrates the weight of the office of pastor of the Church and the obligations it carries: thus, those who are not called to such a task should not go after it superficially, while those who have assumed it without the necessary reflection should feel a dutiful trepidation begin within their spirit.

Taking up a favorite theme, he affirms that the Bishop is, above all, the ‘preacher’ par excellence: As such, he must first be an example for others, so that his behavior may constitute a point of reference for everyone.

Effective pastoral action also requires that the bishop knows who it is addressed to and adapt his interventions to every particular situation. Gregory takes time to illustrate the various categories of the faithful with acute and timely observations, which could well justify those who also see this work as a treatise on psychology. One thus understands that he truly knew his flock and that he spoke about everything with the people of his time and of his city.

The great Pontiff, nonetheless, insists on the Pastor’s duty to recognize daily his own poverty, so that pride may not render in vain, in the eyes of the Supreme Judge, the good that he has done.

Thus, the final chapter of the Rule is dedicated to humility: “When one is pleased at having achieved many virtues, it is good to reflect on one’s insufficiencies and be humble: instead of considering the good one has achieved, one must consider that which one failed to achieve.”

All these valuable instructions demonstrate the very high concept that St. Gregory has about the care of souls, defined by him as ‘ars artium’, the art of arts. The Rule had great fortune to the point that – something rather rare in those days – it was quickly translated to Greek and to Anglo-Saxon.

Equally significant is the other work, the Dialogues, in which, to his friend and deacon Peter – who was convinced that customs had been so corrupted that they could no longer allow the emergence of saints as in the past – Gregory demonstrated otherwise: that saintliness is always possible, even in difficult times.

He proved it by narrating the lives of contemporary persons or those who had recently passed away, who could well be considered saints even if not canonized. The narration was accompanied by theological and mystical reflections which make the book a singular hagiographic text which is able to fascinate whole generations of readers.

The material is drawn from the living traditions of the people and has the purpose of edification and formation, calling the attention of the reader to a series of questions such as the meaning of miracles, the interpretation of Scriptures, the immortality of the soul, the existence of Hell, the representation of the afterlife – all topics that required timely clarifications.

Book II is entirely dedicated to the figure of St. Benedict of Norcia, and is the only account from antiquity on the life of the sainted monk whose spiritual beauty is shown in full evidence.

In the theological design that Gregory develops through his works, past, present and future are relativized. That which counts for him more than anything is the entire span of the story of salvation, which continues to extend itself through the obscure meanderings of time.

In this perspective, it is significant that he inserts the announcement of the conversion of the Angles right in the middle of his Moral Commentary on Job: in his eyes, the event constituted an advancement of the Kingdom of God that Scripture speaks of – and therefore, it could be mentioned in the comment on a sacred book.

According to him, the leaders of the Christian community should commit themselves to reread events in the light of God’s Word: in this sense, the great Pontiff felt the duty to orient pastors and faithful into the spiritual itinerary of an enlightened and concrete lectio divina situated in the context of one’s own life.

Before concluding, it is necessary to say a word on the relations that Pope Gregory cultivated with the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople itself. He was always concerned with acknowledging and respecting their rights, guarding against any interference that would limit their respective autonomies.

And although Gregory, in the context of his historic situation, opposed the title ‘ecumenical’ on the part of the Patriarch of Constantinople, he did not do so to limit or deny a legitimate authority, but because he was concerned with the fraternal unity of the universal Church.

He opposed it, above all, because of his profound conviction that humility should be the fundamental virtue of every bishop, and more so, of a Patriarch. Gregory had always remained a simple monk at heart and therefore was decisively opposed to grand titles. He wanted to be – and this was his expression – servus servorum Dei, servant of the servants of God.

This expression, which was coined by him, was not just a pious formula from his lips, but the true manifestation of the way he lived and acted. He was intimately struck by the humility of God, who in Christ, made himself our servant, who bathed us and washed our dirty feet. Thus he was convinced that a bishop, first of all, must imitate this humility of God and thus follow Christ.

His desire was really to live as a monk in permanent conversation with the Word of God, but for the love of God, he made himself the servant of everyone in a time full of tribulations and sufferings – he knew how to be the ‘servant of the servants of God’. And because he was this, he is great and shows us the true measure of greatness.