June 06, 2008

St. Gregory the Great was a monk, and pope, and wrote the life of St. Benedict

"Book II is entirely dedicated to the figure of Benedict of Nursia, and is the only ancient testimony on the life of the holy monk, whose spiritual beauty appears in the text in full evidence."
Zenit.org provides the following translation of the Holy Father’s lesson on Pope St. Gregory the Great, June 4, 2008.


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I return today, in this our Wednesday meeting, to the extraordinary figure of Pope Gregory the Great, to glean additional light from his rich teaching. Despite the many commitments connected with his work as Bishop of Rome, he has left us numerous works, which in succeeding centuries the Church has received with open hands.

Beyond the conspicuous collection of letters— the Register to which I referred in the last catechesis contains an additional 800 letters— he left us letters written primarily in an exegetic character; outstanding among them is the Moral Commentary on Job— known under the Latin title of "Moralia in Iob." He also left the Homilies on Ezekiel, and the Homilies on the Gospel.

There is moreover an important work of hagiographic character, the Dialogues, written by Gregory for the Lombard Queen Theodolinda. The principal and best-known work is without a doubt the Pastoral Rule, which the Pope wrote at the beginning of the pontificate with a clearly programmatic end.

In wishing to consider these works briefly, we must note, however, that in his writings, Gregory never seems concerned to delineate "his" doctrine, his originality. Instead, he seeks to echo the traditional teaching of the Church, he wishes simply to be the mouth of Christ and of his Church on the way that must be followed to reach God.

Exemplary in this respect are his exegetical comments. He was a passionate reader of sacred Scripture, which he approached not only with speculative understanding. He thought that from sacred Scripture the Christian must distill not just theoretical knowledge, but also daily nourishment for his soul, for his life as a man in this world.

In the Homilies on Ezekiel, for example, he energetically underlines this function of the sacred text: To approach Scripture simply to satisfy one's desire to know, means to give in to the temptation of pride and thus expose oneself to the risk of falling into heresy. Intellectual humility is the main rule for one who seeks to penetrate supernatural realities flowing from the sacred book.

Humility, obviously, does not exclude serious study; but in order to make this result in spiritual profit, consenting to truly enter into the profundity of the text, humility remains indispensable. Only with this interior attitude does one finally truly hear and perceive the voice of God. Moreover, when it is a question of the word of God, understanding is nothing if the comprehension does not lead to action.

Found also in these homilies on Ezekiel is that beautiful expression according to which "the preacher must dip his pen into the blood of his heart; thus he too will be able to reach his neighbor's ear." Reading these homilies of his, one sees that Gregory has really written with the blood of his heart and, consequently, speaks to us also today.

Gregory develops this discourse, also, in the Moral Commentary on Job. In keeping with the patristic tradition, he examines the sacred text in the three dimensions of its meaning: the literal dimension, the allegorical dimension and the moral. These are dimensions of the singular meaning of sacred Scripture. But Gregory attributes a clear prevalence to the moral meaning.

In this perspective, he proposes his thought through some significant binomials— know how/do, speak/live, know something/act— in which he evokes the two aspects of human life which should be complementary, but which often end up by being antithetical. The moral ideal, he comments, consists in achieving always a harmonious integration between word and action, thought and commitment, prayer and dedication to the duties of one's state: This is the road to attain that synthesis thanks to which the divine descends into man and man is raised to identification with God.

The great Pope thus traces, for the authentic believer, a complete plan of life. Because of this, in the course of medieval times, the Moral Commentary on Job was seen as a sort of "Summa" of Christian morality.

The Homilies on the Gospel are also of noteworthy relevance and beauty. The first of these was delivered in St. Peter's Basilica during Advent in 590, and therefore, a few months after his election to the pontificate. The last was given in St. Lawrence's Basilica on the second Sunday after Pentecost in 593. The Pope preached to the people in churches where "stations" were celebrated— particular ceremonies of prayer at intense times in the liturgical year— or the feasts of titular martyrs.

The inspirational principle, which links together the various addresses, is summarized in the word "praedicator": Not only the minister of God, but also every Christian, has the duty to make himself a "preacher" of what he has experienced in his own interior, following the example of Christ who became man to take to all the proclamation of salvation. The horizon of this commitment is eschatological: The expectation of fulfillment in Christ of all things is a constant thought of the great Pontiff and ends by being the inspirational motive of his every thought and activity. From here flow his incessant calls to vigilance and commitment to good works.

Perhaps the most organic text of Gregory the Great is the Pastoral Rule, written in the first years of his pontificate. In it Gregory intends to delineate the figure of the ideal bishop, teacher and guide of his flock. To this end he illustrates the gravity of the office of pastor of the Church and the duties it entails: Therefore, those who are called to such a task were not called and did not search for it superficially, those instead who assume it without due reflection feel arising in their spirit an onerous trepidation.

Taking up again a favorite topic, he affirms that the bishop is above all the "preacher" par excellence. As such, he must be above all an example to others, so that his behavior can be a reference point for all. Effective pastoral action requires therefore that he know the recipients and adapt his addresses to each one's situation. Gregory pauses to illustrate the different categories of faithful with acute and precise annotations, which can justify the appraisal of those who have seen in this work a treatise of psychology. From here one understands that he really knew his flock and spoke about everything with the people of his time and of his city.

The great Pontiff, moreover, stresses the daily duty that a pastor has to acknowledge his own misery, so that pride will not render vain— before the eyes of the supreme Judge— the good he accomplished. Therefore, the last chapter of the rule is dedicated to humility. "When one is pleased about having attained many virtues it is good to reflect on one's own insufficiencies and humble oneself. Instead of considering the good accomplished, it is necessary to consider what one has failed to accomplish."

All these precious indications demonstrate the very lofty concept St. Gregory had of the care of souls, defined by him as "ars artium," the art of arts. The rule had great success to the point that, something rather rare, it was soon translated into Greek and Anglo-Saxon.

Significant also is the other work, the Dialogues, in which to his friend and deacon Peter, convinced that the customs were now so corrupt so as not to allow for the emergence of saints as in past times, Gregory demonstrates the contrary: Holiness is always possible, even in difficult times.

He proves it by recounting the life of contemporary and recently deceased persons, who can well be considered saints, even if not canonized. The account is accompanied by theological and mystical reflections that make the book a singular hagiographic text, able to fascinate whole generations of readers.

The material is drawn from the living traditions of the people and has the objective of edifying and forming, attracting the attention of the reader to a series of questions such as the meaning of miracles, the interpretation of Scripture, the immortality of the soul, the existence of hell, the representation of the above— all topics that were in need of opportune clarification.

Book II is entirely dedicated to the figure of Benedict of Nursia, and is the only ancient testimony on the life of the holy monk, whose spiritual beauty appears in the text in full evidence.

In the theological design that Gregory develops through his works, the past, present and future are relativized. What counts most of all for him is the entire span of salvific history, which continues to unravel through the dark meanderings of time. In this perspective, it is significant that he inserts the announcement of the conversion of the Anglos right in the middle of the Moral Commentary on Job. To his eyes the event constituted an advancement of the Kingdom of God which Scripture addresses. With good reason, therefore, it is to be mentioned in the commentary on a sacred book.

According to him, the leaders of the Christian community must be committed to reread events in the light of the word of God. In this respect, the great Pontiff felt the need to guide pastors and faithful in the spiritual itinerary of an illumined and concrete "lectio divina," placed in the context of their lives.

Before concluding, it is only right to say a word on the relationship that Pope Gregory cultivated with the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople. He was always concerned with acknowledging and respecting their rights, allowing himself no interference that would limit their legitimate authority.

If, however, in the context of his historical situation, St. Gregory was opposed to the title "ecumenical" on the part of the patriarch of Constantinople, he did not do so to limit or deny this legitimate authority, but because he was concerned about the fraternal unity of the universal Church. He did so above all by his profound conviction that humility should be the fundamental virtue of every bishop, even more so of a patriarch.

Gregory remained a simple monk in his heart and that explains why he was decidedly opposed to great titles. He wished to be— this is his expression— "servus servorum Dei." This word, coined by him, was not a pious formula in his mouth, but the true manifestation of his way of living and acting. He was profoundly impressed by the humility of God, who in Christ made himself our slave; he washed and washes our dirty feet.

Therefore, he was convinced that, above all, a bishop must imitate this humility of God and, for love of God, be able to make himself the servant of all in a time full of tribulations and sufferings, to make himself the "servant of the servants." Precisely because he was this, he is great and shows us also the measure of true greatness.


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