Weekly General Audience May 28, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on the Fathers of the Church during his general audience on May 28. He spoke about Pope St. Gregory the Great, scion of a patrician family, who distinguished himself as a civil servant before embracing the monastic life. St. Gregory the Great proved to be an effective, prudent and saintly pastor, whose life and teaching continue to inspire us today.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Last Wednesday we spoke about Romanus the Melodist, a Father of the Church who is not well-known in the West. Today, I would like to speak about one of the greatest Fathers in the history of the Church and one of the four Doctors of the Western Church, Pope St. Gregory, who was Bishop of Rome from 590 to 604 and whom tradition has honored with the title of Magnus (Great).
Gregory truly was a great Pope and a great Doctor of the Church. He was born in Rome around the year 540 in the wealthy patrician family of the Anicia clan, who were well-known not only for their noble blood but also for their devotion to the Christian faith and their service to the Apostolic See.
There were two other Popes who belonged to this family: Felix III (483-492), the great-great grandfather of Gregory, and Agapitus (535-536).
The house in which Gregory grew up was located on the Clivus Scauri, surrounded by stately buildings that were a testimony to the grandeur of ancient Rome and the spiritual strength of Christianity. Along with this, the example of his parents, Gordianus and Silvia, were an inspiration to him in his growth as a Christian. Both are venerated as saints as are two aunts from his father’s side, Emiliana and Tarsilia, who were consecrated virgins and lived in the household with him, dividing their time between prayer and asceticism.
A Dedicated Servant
Gregory began his career as an administrator at an early age, following in the footsteps of his father, and reached the culmination of his career in 572 when he became prefect of the city. His work was complicated by the problems of that era, but it enabled him to apply his vast insight to every sort of administrative problem, equipping him with even greater insight for his future responsibilities.
In particular, it instilled in him a deep sense of order and discipline.
Once he became Pope, he suggested that the diligence and respect for the law that characterized civil servants should serve as a model for bishops as they administered the affairs of the Church.
However, it appears that he was not satisfied with life as a civil servant because he decided shortly thereafter to abandon all public office and retire to his home where he began to live like a monk, transforming his home into a monastery known as Sant’Andrea al Celio. His nostalgia for this period of his life as a monk, which was a time of ongoing dialogue with the Lord and listening to him in prayer, would continue throughout his life, becoming increasingly apparent in his homilies.
Whenever he faced the assault of pastoral concerns, he would recall this period in his writings as a time of special intimacy with God, of dedication to prayer and of peaceful immersion in study. As a result, he was able to acquire a deep knowledge of sacred Scripture and of the Fathers of the Church, which he would later use in his own works.
His Service to the Church
However, Gregory’s cloistered retreat was short-lived. As a result of his valuable experience as a civil administrator during a period beset by serious problems, his contacts with the Byzantine world during his career, and the widespread esteem that he acquired, Pope Pelagius named him a deacon and sent him to Constantinople as his apocrisarius (apostolic nuncio as it is known today) in order to clear up the last vestiges of the monophysite controversy and, above all, to secure the emperor’s support in the struggle to counteract the influence of the Lombards.
The time he spent in Constantinople, where he once again lived a monastic lifestyle with a group of monks, was very important to Gregory because it enabled him to experience the Byzantine world firsthand and to directly confront the problems with the Lombards, who would later prove to be a test of his ability and his strength during the years of his pontificate.
A few years later, he was called back to Rome by the Pope, who named him his secretary. Those were difficult years. Many areas of Italy, including Rome, were afflicted by unrelenting rain, overflowing rivers and famine.
Eventually, a plague broke out that left behind many victims, including Pope Pelagius II. The clergy, the people and the Senate were unanimous in their choice of a successor to the Chair of Peter: Gregory himself.
He tried to resist — even by fleeing — but he was powerless to do anything and he finally gave in. It was the year 590.
Recognizing God’s will in everything that happened, the new Pope immediately set to work with energy and enthusiasm.
From the very beginning, he exhibited a singularly lucid vision of the reality that he faced, an extraordinary capacity for working through both civil and Church matters, a consistent balance in his decisions, and the courage that his office demanded. Thanks to a Registry of his letters (almost 800 of them), there is ample documentation from his papacy, in which his daily confrontation with the complex issues that came across his desk is reflected. Questions came from bishops, abbots, clerics and even civil authorities of every order and every rank.
Among the problems that plagued Italy and Rome at that time, there was one that was particularly thorny vis-à-vis both civil and ecclesial matters: the Lombard issue.
Pope Gregory dedicated all his energy to a truly peaceful resolution of this matter. Unlike the Byzantine emperor who saw the Lombards as uncouth predators that had to be overcome and exterminated, St. Gregory saw them with the eyes of a good shepherd and had a special concern that the message of salvation be proclaimed to them and that a fraternal relationship be established with them so that there would be peace in the future, based on mutual respect and on living peacefully together as Italians, Greeks and Lombards.
He had a concern for the conversion of this new nation and for the new civil structure in Europe. His evangelistic mission reached out in a special way to the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks, the Saxons, the immigrants in the British Isles and the Lombards.
Yesterday [May 27], we celebrated the liturgical memorial of St. Augustine of Canterbury, who was head of a group of monks that Gregory sent to the British Isles to evangelize England.
The Pope, truly a peacemaker, was fully committed to obtaining a lasting peace in Rome and Italy and entered into serious negotiations with Agilulf, the Lombard king. These negotiations led to a truce that lasted almost three years — from 598 to 601 — after which it was possible to arrange a more secure armistice in 603.
Such a positive outcome was also achieved thanks to the contacts that the Pope maintained in the meantime and at the same time with Queen Theodolinda, who was a Bavarian princess and, unlike the leaders of the other German peoples, was a Catholic — a deeply committed Catholic.
A series of letters of Pope Gregory to the queen has been preserved, in which he expresses his esteem and friendship for her. Little by little, Theodolinda succeeded in steering the king to Catholicism, thereby preparing the way to peace.
The Pope also took it upon himself to send the queen some relics for the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, which she had built in Monza, and also took it upon himself to congratulate her and send her some valuable gifts for the cathedral in Monza when her son, Adaloaldo, was born and baptized.
This beautiful story of this queen is a testimony to the importance of women throughout the history of the Church.
Basically, Gregory focused on three objectives in an ongoing way: to contain the expansion of the Lombards throughout Italy, to keep Queen Theodolinda away from the influence of schismatics and to reinforce her in her Catholic faith, and to act as a mediator between the Lombards and the Byzantines in the hope of procuring an agreement that would guarantee peace throughout the peninsula and that would enable him at the same time to carry out a work of evangelization among the Lombards themselves.
His objective in such a complex situation was consistently twofold: to promote mutual agreements on the diplomatic and political level, and to spread the message of the true faith among the nations.
A Life of Service to the Poor
Besides his spiritual and pastoral activities, Pope Gregory was also active in promoting many forms of social work. With the income from the large patrimony that the See of Rome possessed throughout Italy, especially in Sicily, he bought and distributed wheat, helped those in need, assisted poverty-stricken priests, monks and nuns, paid the ransom of those citizens who had fallen prisoner to the Lombards and negotiated armistices and truces.
Moreover, he cautiously carried out in Rome and in other parts of Italy a work of administrative reorganization, giving careful instructions so that the Church’s possessions, which would be useful both for its own subsistence and for its work of evangelization throughout the world, would be managed with utmost integrity and in accordance with the rules of justice and mercy.
He demanded that tenant farmers be protected from the abuse of those who managed lands that were the property of the Church and, in case of fraud, that they be speedily indemnified so that the face of the Bride of Christ would not be disfigured by profiteering.
Gregory carried out his intense activity despite his poor health, which often forced him to spend long days in bed. The fasts that he undertook during the years of his life in the monastery had resulted in serious digestive problems. Moreover, his voice was very weak, so much so that he often had to have a deacon read his homilies so that the faithful in the basilicas of Rome could hear them.
Nevertheless, he did everything possible to celebrate the Missarum sollemnia (solemn Mass) on religious feast days, when he would then meet personally with the people of God, who had great affection for him, because they saw in him a reference point that was both authoritative and a source of security. It was no accident that they quickly attributed to him the title of consul Dei.
Despite the very difficult conditions in which he had to work, he was successful — thanks to the holiness of his life and his abundant humanity — in winning the trust of the faithful, thereby obtaining truly great results for his time and for the future.
He was a man who was immersed in God. The desire for God was always alive in the depths of his soul and precisely because of this he was always very close to others and to the needs of the people of his time.
During a disastrous time — a time of true desperation — he managed to create peace and hope. This man of God shows us the true source of peace, from which true hope comes. Thus, he is also a guide for us today.