Pope St. Gregory the Great: Cincinnatus of the Church

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“St. Gregory.” Francisco de Zurbaran, 1627. (Image/Wikimedia Commons)

When evaluating the lives of the Saints, I have had the tendency to see them as perfect, almost as though they had neither thoughts nor feelings. I spent so much time comparing myself to them that I forgot to do the things that would make me resemble them more! And yet the saints were real people who faced real struggles. One only has to read about them to see it. In Pope St. Gregory the Great, known to the East as the Dialogist, I see a type of the leadership that Anglicanism will need in a country with a fraying social fabric.

Formation

Gregory was born around 540 to a family that had already produced many  public servants and churchmen. By 573 he was Prefect of Rome, as his father had been, and had proven a capable administrator. In 574, he retreated from the world and converted his family estates into monasteries.  Among them was St. Andrew’s, where for three years he engaged in extreme asceticism, ruined his health, and declared that he had never been happier.

By 579, however, Gregory was appointed apocrisarius, or ambassador to New Rome, to request military aid against Lombard encroachment from the north. Though he became a revered spiritual director to many members of New Roman high society, Gregory and his delegation returned to Old Rome six years later with nothing to show for his work. Constantinople probably never paid attention to his requests to start with.

But the monastic diplomat was not idle. Around this time, Patriarch Eutychius voiced an opinion that our resurrected bodies would be ghostlike, even though Our Lord’s resurrected body was solid. The resulting dispute became so bitter that it was brought to the Roman Emperor, who settled it in Gregory’s favor.

Even in a time when symphonia between Church and State was the ideal, how strange it must have seemed that a diplomat from a far corner of the world would come to the center of civilization to beg for aid that would never come, then spend his idle hours in a nasty disputation with his hosts!

On his return to Rome, Gregory was made abbot of St. Andrew’s. Pope Gelasius II died shortly thereafter. Gregory was immediately elected (against his will) to be 64th Bishop of Rome.

Pontificate

He faced total societal collapse. Roman infrastructure, already sluggish, would fall apart under the stress of accepting refugees from barbarian raids in the north of Italy. Rome had no acting Prefect or  military commander. As Gregory had learned during his apocrisariate, Rome needed a loan, not a bishop. Lacking hindsight, the new Pontiff believed that he was living in the End Times.

One of Gregory’s first acts was to write his Liber Pastoralis Curae, or Book of Pastoral Rule, arguing that monks should seek Holy Orders and exercise their asceticism on the behalf of the public, rather than in wasteful isolation. A synthesis of the contemplative life of monasticism and the active life of, say, a statesman, could enable the Church to efficiently distribute both spiritual and earthly services to the public.

Gregory proceeded to govern Rome according to this ideal.

Most notably, he tightened the management of the Patrimony of St. Peter, hundreds of square miles of donated farmland of which the Pope was landlord. To ensure competent financial management, he replaced the laity under his command with clergy, and imposed brutal discipline on them. The honesty of his subordinates guaranteed, he used the produce of papal estates to feed both Romans and war refugees who poured into his city. He is credited with inventing some principles of accounting, such was his efficiency.

The Servant of the Servants of God (it was he who first adopted this style) also negotiated for peace with the barbarians, and eventually bought it with tribute. If the notion of a clergyman having a foreign policy sounds odd, just consider his domestic policy: Gregory conferred the pallium only on those Western metropolitans whom he deemed worthy of it, even though its bestowal was normally taken for granted. Bishops who refused to improve company culture, so to speak, could lose a highly-visible sign of rank.

As a result of Gregory’s practice of virtue, but most of all his practicality and cynicism, Western Christendom was saved, the barbarians turned back, and the papacy bankrupted. The Holy Father also gained secular power and public trust that few men afterward have been able to wield honestly. Of those who could, few became Pope!

Lessons

  • Holiness doesn’t erase personality. As Pope, Gregory acted on the assumption that his talents obliged him to serve the public. Though it is “God from whom all blessings flow,” he acted this way because he was reared with the expectation of public service, not specifically because he was a Christian. The Church didn’t make Gregory a bureaucratic genius. To think otherwise is pious nonsense.
  • Vocation can be very clear. A Prefect of Rome just so happens to enter the Church when it is one of the last surviving institutions? Nobody gets that lucky. It’s too convenient. Deus ex machina. It sounds like a movie script, and yet it’s well-documented history. In spite of his reluctance, Gregory must have known that he was called to the Papacy.
  • Even the saints had feelings. St. Gregory wrote his Pastoral Rule to convince himself that he could discharge the duties.  He didn’t just resent his election; he was afraid he couldn’t do the job and needed to form a strategy. When he wrote Bishop John of Ravenna about what a good bishop ought to be like, he was using his friend as a sounding-board as he mulled over his duties. I would bet money on it.
  • Live like every day is your last. Our fearless leader died in his fifties, but his accomplishments would be astounding for one who lived to be 100. We should all remember that the Last Days are upon us.
  • Good intentions have no value. St. Gregory’s sanctity is the least important aspect of his personality. What’s really important is the Roman model of civic virtue that he was raised with and embodied. It’s why he left retirement and took drastic measures to protect his ancestral home. He was the Cincinnatus of the Church.

Holy Father Gregory, pray for the renewal of the Church!

Sources:

Catholic Online
New Advent
Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor and First Man of Rome by George Demacopoulos

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