A pope worth knowing

This is my profile of Gregory the Great for the Zondervan Dictionary of Spirituality. He is indeed a pope worth knowing–and one of the ten figures in my Patron Saints for Postmoderns.

Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604). Pivotal medieval pope. “The Great” is the customary honorific for Pope Gregory, the first practicing monk to be elected to the papacy (590 – 604). Roman Catholics designate him Doctor of the Church and one of six Latin Fathers. Born of noble blood and ascending to the secular prefecture of Rome before entering the monastery, he became pope at a time of barbarian invasion, plague, drought, famine, and the abdication of responsibility by the old Roman senatorial class. He filled the leadership void, negotiating peace with the invaders, draining the coffers of the church on behalf of the suffering, and leading penitential parades beseeching God to turn back the plague. His leadership in Rome is considered a key moment in the rise of the papacy to Western power both ecclesiastical and secular. However, appalled by claims of the Patriarch John of Constantinople to be “ecumenical patriarch,” Gregory styled himself “Servant of the servants of God” (though still assuming the Western primacy of the Roman bishop).

Gregory’s extant writings include the Pastoral Care, which throughout the Middle Ages was given to every new Western bishop at consecration; the Dialogues, a hagiographic account of Italian saints, including the only contemporary biography of Benedict of Nursia; the very long Commentary on Job (Magna Moralia); sermons on the Gospels, Ezekiel, and the Song of Songs; and over 800 administrative letters.

Gregory sent Augustine of Canterbury and a group of other monks to missionize England for the Roman Church; they encountered a lively Celtic church and remnants of earlier Gaulish missions, and they established the episcopal see at Canterbury and re-founded the ancient see of York. Under his guidance, that mission cleansed and re-purposed, rather than destroying, pagan places of worship, and adapted, rather than completely supplanting, customs of the Celtic church.

A great spiritual as well as administrative leader, Gregory elaborated a spirituality both supernatural and earthy, hybridizing the prior work of Augustine of Hippo and John Cassian. His lively sense of the sacramental presence of God in creation can often look like credulous supernaturalism (as in the Dialogues), but he also insisted that Christians foster and practice discretio (discernment) to judge accurately where God is talking in their experience of the world. He treated suffering as an instance of God’s sanctifying speech to us; even our sins, he counseled, God transforms into stages of growth. He made the emotional virtue of compunctio (compunction) a central value in Western spirituality; this is a kind of godly sorrow for sin, mixed with both a fear and a joyful desire for God, whose etymological root refers to the “piercing” of Peter’s hearers recorded in Acts 2:37. For this reason Dom Jean LeClerc called him “Doctor of Desire.” Gregory was perhaps as much “father of medieval Western spirituality” as Augustine was father of medieval Western theology.

R. A. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World (1997); J. Moorhead, Gregory the Great (2005); T. C. Oden, Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition (1984); C. Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection (1988).

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