Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome
This post is based on the sermon I will give this morning at San Cristóbal
This week we have the feasts of two Gregorys; Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory the Great. Gregory of Nyssa's feast day was Sunday, transferred to Monday, but I missed it. Today is the feast of Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome. Gregory was a bishop in a time of transition; it was the end of the era of Late Antiquity, the period in which Greco-Roman influence was at its height. Gregory lived during the end of Late Antiquity and the beginning of the Medieval era. The center of the empire had shifted from Rome to Constantinople two hundred years earlier and the two great cities (and ecclesiastical Sees) continued to drift apart. It was the time in which the once great city of Rome was being attacked and raided by barbarians. Gregory was the one who held the city and the church in Rome together during this dangerous time.
Gregory was born in the year 540. He was the son of a senator who was also a lawyer in charge of the estates of the Bishop of Rome, and Gregory himself became the prefect of Rome in 573 at the age of 33 years. He was a man of fine upbringing, and even though he was prefect of the city he did something that no politician of our time would do: he sold all his lands and gave the money for the relief of the poor, and then he set up a monastery around the home of his parents. He founded seven monasteries: six in Sicily and one in Rome. A year after he became Prefect, he entered the monastery in Rome as a monk. He was very serious about monastic life and followed a very austere rule. Several years later the Bishop of Rome convinced Gregory to leave the cloister and made him one of the seven Deacons of Rome. In the year 578, a new Pope, Pelagius II, made Gregory ambassador to the Court in Constantinople, where he learned a lot about church and governmental politics. His experience in Constantinople convinced him that Rome could not expect any help from the struggling Eastern Empire. He returned to Rome in 585 to become Abbot of his former monastery, but a few years after his return Pope Pelagius II died of the plague. In the year 590, Gregory was elected the new Pope, the new Bishop of Rome. There is a story that just after he was elected Pope he saw a slave at an auction. This slave was blond and fair-skinned, and when Gregory asked what nationality this slave was, he was told "an Angle from Angleland." He is said to have responded "Not an Angle, but an Angel!" He took 40 monks from his monastery and made them missionaries to England, and one monk, Augustine, became the first Bishop of Canterbury. The conversion of England was one of the greatest successes of his episcopate. Many years after his death, Gregory the First was called "the Great" but he was not very popular during his lifetime, and he was a very hard and practical man, brought up to believe in efficient administration. Gregory was bishop when bishops were no longer mere "overseers;" they no longer had only spiritual authority but were in charge of the protection of their cities. The Church had taken over the care of the poor and indigent and soon this led to the protection of the entire city, so Gregory was in charge of the protection of the city of Rome. Gregory rebuilt the defenses of the city, and the aqueduct, bringing water to the besieged city, and he also cared for those who had suffered from the terrible floods, pestilence and famine which threatened the city. Gregory was a man of firmness and strength of character, tempered with gentleness and charity. He was able to do what must be done, but he was also compassionate. We have an idea of what he looked like from frescoes painted in his lifetime, although these frescoes were later destroyed. According to John the Deacon, who wrote a biography of Gregory in the ninth century and saw the frescoes, described Gregory as a man of medium height, with a large, bald head, light-brown eyes, and long, thin, arched eyebrows; he had an aquiline nose, thick lips and a swarthy complexion. Gregory himself said that he felt like "an ape forced to play the lion." He was not very healthy; he had weak digestion, gout, and bouts of malaria, but, as I mentioned earlier, he had a strong will and a lot of common sense. He established relations with the Lombards who had been attacking the Empire on both the eastern and western fronts. He established a separate peace with the Lombards, while the government in Constantinople refused to do so and was under constant attack.
Gregory was a prolific writer. |He wrote a commentary on the book of Job, and we still have some 858 of his letters, which give historians a clear picture of how his mind worked. His idea of the pastoral life of a bishop, whom he regarded as a "shepherd of souls," became the textbook for the medieval episcopate. He was an ardent promoter of monasticism and kept all the monasteries under his control. This was a major change, as clergy are always under the authority of their bishop, but since Gregory, Roman monks are under the authority of the Pope. He followed the teachings of St. Augustin of Hippo, the great African saint, and he accommodated Augustine's ideas to fit sixty-century Rome. Gregory developed the idea of Purgatory, a place between heaven and hell where the souls of the deceased could do penance and finally win admittance into heaven, and he was also a great believer in the angelology of St. Dionysius, a mystical theologian of that era. Gregory encouraged the veneration of holy relics but only if they could be proved to be authentic. He made major changes in the liturgy and some of the prayers in the Gregorian Sacramentary were actually written by him, although the sacramentary was assembled later. He was also very much involved in the development of liturgical music. He gave the Roman Schola Cantorum its form, and his work in plainsong was so important that it is known as Gregorian Chant.
Gregory cared about the Church. He cared about the city of Rome and the western part of the Empire. He also cared about the poor. He sold his vast estates in order to establish funds of the care of the poor in Rome, and he fed the populace of Rome from the papal granaries in Sicily. Though he was able to work comfortably in the world of politics, his main concern was the souls of his flock. He was a strong believer in evangelism, and he strengthened the Church not only in Rome, but in Northern Italy, Spain, and Gaul. His fascination with the Angle slave he saw in Rome led to the mission to England (although there were already Christians there) and the growth of the Church in the British Isles, which contributed to the eventual establishment of the Church of England. The Church of England came to the Americas with the English colonists and eventually found its way to this Isthmus so that here we are, sitting in Parque Lefevre using the Book of Common Prayer in an Episcopal church with its roots in the Church of England. I think this is an example of just how far reaching one's actions can be at times; the actions of the son of a Roman senator, who saw an Angle slave in the city of Rome is inspired to send missionaries to England which eventually leads to our group here sharing the Bread and Wine in very much the same manner as did Gregory the Great. And during the healing part of our service we listen to music created under his influence. It is another example of how answering "yes" to God's call can change everything.
Almighty and merciful God, you raised up Gregory of Rome to be a servant of the servants of God, and inspired him to send missionaries to preach the Gospel to the English people: Preserve in your Church the catholic and apostolic faith they taught, that your people, being fruitful in every good work, may receive the crown of glory that never fades away; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I See You!
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