Weekly General Audience June 4, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on the Fathers of the Church during his general audience on June 4.
Dear brothers and sisters,
During today’s gathering, I would like to return to that extraordinary figure, Pope Gregory the Great, in order to shed further light on the richness of his teaching.
Despite his countless responsibilities as Bishop of Rome, he left numerous works upon which the Church drew heavily in the following centuries. In addition to his many letters — the Registry, which I referred to during my previous catechesis, contains more than 800 letters — he left, first and foremost, manuscripts of an exegetical nature, most notably his Moral Commentary on Job (known by its Latin title, Moralia in Iob), his Homily on Ezekiel, and his Homilies on the Gospels. Then, there is an important work on the saints, Dialogues, which Gregory wrote for the Lombard queen, Teodolinda.
Undoubtedly, his most important and well-known work is his Pastoral Rule, which he wrote at the beginning of his pontificate, where he clearly had a plan in mind.
During our quick overview of these works, we should note, first of all, that Gregory is never concerned to set forth “his” doctrine or to demonstrate his originality. Rather, his intention is to echo the Church’s traditional teaching.
He simply desired to be a mouthpiece for Christ and the Church, pointing out the path we should follow in order to reach God. His exegetical commentaries are a good example of this.
He was a passionate reader of the Bible, but he did not read it merely with some speculative intention in mind. He believed that Christians should read sacred Scripture in order to draw daily nourishment for their souls and for their lives as human beings in this world rather than reading it merely for theoretical knowledge.
In his Homily on Ezekiel, for example, he strongly emphasized this role of the sacred writings: Approaching Scripture only to satisfy one’s own desire for knowledge means giving in to the temptation of pride and running the risk of slipping into heresy.
Intellectual humility is the primary rule for those seeking to delve into supernatural realities based on this sacred book. Obviously, humility does not exclude serious study, but in order for it to be spiritually profitable, humility is indispensable when one allows oneself to truly delve into the deeper meaning of the text. One can truly and ultimately hear God’s voice only by adopting such an interior attitude.
Moreover, when the Word of God is involved, understanding means nothing if this understanding does not lead to action. In this Homily on Ezekiel, we also find those beautiful words that tell us that “a preacher has to dip his quill into the blood of his heart in order to be able to reach the ears of his neighbor.”
Reading his homilies, we can see that Gregory truly wrote with the blood of his heart and, for this reason, he speaks to us even today.
A Scripture Scholar
Gregory also develops this idea in his Moral Commentary on Job.
Following the patristic tradition, he examines the sacred text according to the three dimensions of its meaning — the literal dimension, the allegorical dimension, and the moral dimension — which are three dimensions of the single meaning of sacred Scripture. However, Gregory clearly attributes a marked prevalence to the moral sense.
In this regard, he presents his thinking by pairing together some important words — knowing and doing, speaking and living, understanding and acting — which evoke two aspects of human life that should be complementary but that often end up working against each other.
The moral ideal, he notes, always consists in the harmonious integration of word and deed, thought and commitment, and prayer and dedication to the responsibilities of one’s state in life: This is the way in which this synthesis can be achieved, whereby the divine comes down to man and man elevates himself to God and identifies with him.
This great Pope thus outlines a complete plan of life for those who truly believe in him; his Moral Commentary on Job was a sort of Summa of Christian morality throughout the Middle Ages.
His Homilies on the Gospels is especially outstanding and beautiful. The first was given in St. Peter’s Basilica during the Advent season of 590 — a few months after his election to the papacy. The last was given in the Basilica of St. Lawrence on the second Sunday after Pentecost of the year 593.
Gregory preached to the people in those churches where the “stations” were celebrated — special prayer services that were held at significant times during the liturgical year or on the feast days of the titular martyrs.
The principal inspiration that ties these homilies together is summarized in the word praedicator. Not only the minister of God, but also every Christian, has been entrusted with the task of “preaching” everything that he has experienced in his most innermost being, following the example of Christ, who became man in order to bring the good news of salvation to all.
This commitment has an eschatological perspective: Gregory the Great had a constant concern for the fulfillment of all things in Christ and this ended up being the purpose and the inspiration of all his thought and activity. From here flows his incessant plea for vigilance and commitment to good works.
Perhaps Gregory the Great’s most important work is his Pastoral Rule, which was written during the first years of his pontificate.
Here, Gregory portrays the ideal bishop, who is the teacher and the guide for his flock. In order to do this, he illustrates the gravity of the office of the Church’s shepherds as well as their responsibilities.
As a result, those who have not been called to this office should not seek it lightly and those who might have assumed the office without the necessary reflection might feel a dutiful trepidation well up in their souls.
Taking up one of his favorite topics, he points out that the bishop is, above all, a “preacher” par excellence and, as such, he must primarily be an example to others so that his conduct might be a reference point for others. For their pastoral work to be effective, bishops have to understand those to whom they are preaching and adapt their talks to each particular situation.
Gregory takes great care to describe with keen and timely observations the various groupings of faithful, which would explain why some people have also seen this work as a treatise on psychology. Thus, it is clear that he truly knew his flock and that he discussed everything with the people of his time and of his city.
Nonetheless, Gregory the Great insists that a shepherd has to recognize his own poverty each day so that pride may not render vain the good he has accomplished, especially in the eyes of the Supreme Judge.
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 inadequacies and to humble oneself. Instead of considering the good one has achieved, one must consider that which one has failed to accomplish.”
All of this valuable advice demonstrates the very high concept that St. Gregory had about caring for souls, which he defined as the ars atrium (the art of arts). The Rule was so popular that it was soon translated into Greek and Anglo-Saxon — something rare in those days.
Example of the Saints
Another significant work is his Dialogues, in which Gregory shows his friend, the deacon Peter — who was convinced that customs had become so corrupt that they could no longer allow the emergence of saints as in the past — that saintliness is always possible, even in the most difficult times.
He proves it by recounting the lives of people that who were his contemporaries or who had recently passed away, who might well be considered saints even if they were not canonized. Reflections of a theological and mystical nature accompany his narrative, making the book a unique account of the saints that has the capacity to fascinate entire generations of readers. The material is drawn from popular oral tradition and its purpose is to edify and educate, calling the attention of the reader to issues such as the meaning of miracles, the interpretation of Scripture, the immortality of the soul, the existence of hell, and the portrayal of life hereafter — all topics that were in need of clarification.
Book II is entirely devoted to St. Benedict of Nursia, and is the only account from ancient times of the life of the saintly monk, whose spiritual beauty is clearly apparent in his text.
In the theological plan that Gregory develops throughout his works, past, present and future become relative.
What counts for him above all is the entire span of salvation history, which continues to unravel throughout the obscure labyrinth of time. In light of this, it is significant that he inserts an announcement regarding the conversion of the Angles right in the middle of his Moral Commentary on Job.
From his perspective, the event constituted an advancement of the Kingdom of God of which Scripture speaks; therefore, it could be mentioned in a commentary on a sacred book. According to him, leaders of the Christian communities should take it upon themselves to interpret events in the light of God’s Word.
For this reason, Gregory the Great felt it was his duty to guide his pastors and the faithful in their spiritual life through a lectio divina that was both enlightened and concrete, situated in the very context of their lives.
Before concluding, it is only fitting to say a word about the relationship that Pope Gregory cultivated with the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria and even Constantinople.
He always took care to acknowledge and respect their rights, guarding against any interference that would limit their legitimate autonomy. Even though Gregory, in the context of his own historic situation, was opposed to the patriarch of Constantinople’s use of the title “ecumenical,” he did not do so in order to limit or negate his legitimate authority, but because he was concerned about the fraternal unity of the universal Church, and, above all, because of he was profoundly convinced 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 resolutely opposed to grandiose titles. He wanted to be — and these are his words — a servus servorum Dei (a servant of the servants of God). This expression, which he coined, was not merely 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 became our servant, washed us and washed our dirty feet. Therefore, he was convinced that a bishop, first of all, must imitate God’s humility and follow Christ in this way.
His true desire was to live as a monk who was in a permanent conversation with the Word of God, but, out of love for God, he made himself the servant of all in a time that was full of tribulation and suffering. He knew how to be the “servant of servants.”
It is precisely for this reason that he is great and shows us the true measure of greatness.