2 Great Lessons for Young Men from St. Gregory the Great

The great pope and Doctor of the Church offers encouraging wisdom to young priests, seminarians and potential seminarians.

Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint Gregory,” c. 1627
Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint Gregory,” c. 1627 (photo: Public Domain)

Pope Saint Gregory the Great has become a real guide as I strive to grow in my understanding of what it means to be a priest and as a formator of priestly vocations as the academic dean of a seminary.

Pope Saint Gregory the Great was the author of The Book of Pastoral Rule, a text in which he laid out what he believed the monk needed for his basic formation and for his service to the people of God. The Book of Pastoral Rule is, in effect, the first manual on what is and how to do what we now term “priestly formation” and this is what perhaps it is most famous for today. This patristic text is, in many ways, a guide to the holistic formation of a priest for service to God’s people.

What Saint Gregory really does with this text is to strive to teach the young monk-priest to balance the tensions that can exist between ascetic idealism and the realities of pastoral ministry. Gregory in his Book of Pastoral Rule is eminently practical. He not only gives advice to the abbot of the community as to the qualities of the monk to be ordained priest and, in doing so, recognizes the reality, even then, that the monk might be all too ready to give up the contemplative life to embrace the administrative role in the life of the cura pastoralis.

Therefore, with this in mind, two things we might learn today from the life and thought of Pope Saint Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule.

First, don’t be afraid to say yes to the vocation of priest (and don’t be afraid to encourage a young man to think about the priesthood if you are a lay person!), and second, as a young priest, don’t be too ready to take on the role of spiritual formator.

Gregory rebukes those monks who run away from what is their call, the call that they have discerned from God and verified in their experience (and in the experience in the community) that they are called to be a priest. He writes:

For there are several who possess incredible virtues and who are exalted by great talents for training others: men who are spotless in their pursuit of chastity, stout in their vigor of fasting, satiated in the feasts of doctrine, humble in their long-suffering of patience, erect in the fortitude of authority, tender in the grace of kindness, and strict in their severity of judgement.

After a while, part of discerning a priestly vocation is to trust: to trust God and to trust the Church. We can always find reasons, in our imperfections, not to be ordained. But can we recognize that, even with the imperfect product we are now, and recognizing that each of us is always a work in progress, there is a reason why, in God’s plan, that we are called — right here, right now — to discern. And not only to discern, but to accept with open docility the plan of formation that the Lord has given to us. We can always find a reason to say no to a priestly vocation. Can we find, even with our imperfections, a reason to say yes?

Second, Gregory warns the young monk: “No one presumes to teach an art that he has not first mastered through study. How foolish it is therefore for the inexperienced to assume pastoral authority when the care of souls is the art of arts.”

We are all, both seminarians and formators, students of the Master, Our Lord, Jesus Christ. However, experience counts in life and in the  living  out of the ordained ministry. Young seminarians or priests should be careful to whom they offer spiritual direction. It is an art — one that takes years, not only of doing the work of seminary formation, but really of being alive, of struggling and striving to be a Christian, of struggling to live our priestly identity. Nemo dat quod non habet — you can’t give what you don’t have. In order to pass on spiritual wisdom, we have to put in the time to grow in spiritual wisdom. The master first must be a disciple.

All that ultimately matters, as Saint Paul the Apostle reminds us is Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23). We come, weak and trembling, before the Lord, knowing that we are only disciples, not masters of the spiritual life, but alive with the idea that, like the Lord has ascribed to himself in the Gospel of Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”

Yes, God’s spirit is very much upon us. Young men, please don’t be afraid to yes to his call of service, despite imperfections. Christ, the only truly perfect one, will, with his grace and with true openness and honesty to his will and to priestly formation, assist you. Know that you have the prayers for the People of God!

Duccio’s ‘Pentecost’ (1308)

Pray the Pentecost Novena

The prayer recalls and invites Catholics to participate in the nine days that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles spent in prayer after Christ ascended into heaven.