Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Pope St Gregory I in the year 604, after a reign of 13½ years. His feast was for many centuries kept on March 12, but this year, because it falls on a Sunday of Lent, it would be translated to today or omitted. This custom is still observed in some places, but on the calendar of the Novus Ordo, he has been moved to September 3rd, the anniversary of his election in 590.
St Gregory is without any doubt one of the most important Popes in all of the Church’s history, and is one of three traditionally give the title “the Great” along with Ss Leo I (440-61) and Nicholas I (858-67). As the de facto civil administrator of Rome, he kept the city running, and its population fed, laying the ground for the official establishment of the Papal state. His influence gave a definitive shape to the Roman liturgy, and the traditional chant of the Roman Rite is still called “Gregorian” in his honor. His many letters, sermons and theological writings had a profound influence on the Christian Middle Ages. As an example of this, when St Thomas Aquinas wrote his commentary on Job, more than six-and-a-half centuries after Gregory’s death, he concluded his introduction by saying, “We intend to briefly explain … this book… according to the literal sense; for the blessed Pope Gregory has opened up for us its mysteries so subtly and clearly that it seems that nothing need be added.”
One of Gregory’s most important works is the Regula Pastoralis, a long treatise on the duties of the clergy. Despite the growing cultural differences between the Eastern and Western churches in his time, the Byzantine Emperor Maurice had it translated into Greek and distributed throughout the empire. In Carolingian Gaul, it became customary to present a copy to every newly ordained bishop, which is why it is preserved in any unusually large number of manuscripts. It also holds the distinction of being the one of the very first books ever translated into Old English, as part of a personal project of King Alfred the Great (871-99) which also included his collection of Saints’ lives known as the Dialogues.
There have been various periods in the Church’s history when the lives of many clergymen were very decadent, but St Gregory’s was not one of them. Nevertheless, the Regula Pastoralis leaves no doubt as to his realistic awareness of the many dangers that await those in spiritual authority, as evidenced by his very first paragraph.
(Pope St Gregory the Great, by the Italian painter Defendente Ferrari, ca. 1485-1540)
“Nulla ars doceri praesumitur, nisi intenta prius meditatione discatur. Ab imperitis ergo pastorale magisterium qua temeritate suscipitur, quando ars est artium regimen animarum. Quis autem cogitationum vulnera occultiora esse nesciat vulneribus viscerum? Et tamen saepe qui nequaquam spiritalia praecepta cognoverunt, cordis se medicos profiteri non metuunt: dum qui pigmentorum vim nesciunt, videri medici carnis erubescunt. Sed quia auctore Deo ad religionis reverentiam omne jam praesentis saeculi culmen inclinatur, sunt nonnulli qui intra sanctam Ecclesiam per speciem regiminis gloriam affectant honoris; videri doctores appetunt, transcendere caeteros concupiscunt, atque attestante Veritate, primas salutationes in foro, primos in coenis recubitus, primas in conventibus cathedras quaerunt; qui susceptum curae pastoralis officium ministrare digne tanto magis nequeunt, quanto ad humilitatis magisterium ex sola elatione pervenerunt. Ipsa quippe in magisterio lingua confunditur, quando aliud discitur, et aliud docetur. Quos contra Dominus per prophetam queritur, dicens: Ipsi regnaverunt, et non ex me; principes exstiterunt, et ego ignoravi. Ex se namque, et non ex arbitrio summi Rectoris regnant, qui nullis fulti virtutibus nequaquam divinitus vocati, sed sua cupidine accensi, culmen regiminis rapiunt potius quam assequuntur.
No one presumes to teach an art unless he has first learned it with intent meditation. What rashness is it, then, is the pastoral authority assume by the unlearned, when the government of souls is the art of arts! For who can be ignorant that the wounds of the thoughts are more hidden even than those of the bowels? And yet often men who have no knowledge whatsoever of the spiritual precepts do not fear to profess themselves physicians of the heart, while those who are ignorant of the effect of drugs blush to appear as doctors of the flesh! But because, through God’s influence, all the highest ranks of the present age are inclined to reverence religion, there are some who within the holy Church, through the appearance of rule, affect the glory of honor. They seek to appear as teachers, they covet superiority to others, and, as the Truth attests, they seek the first greetings in the market-place, the first place at banquets, the first seats in assemblies (Matt. 23:6-7). And the more they have reached the magisterial position of humility only out of pride, the less able they are to administer worthily the office of pastoral care they have undertaken. Indeed, in a magisterial position language itself is confounded when one thing is learned and another taught. And against these, the Lord complains by the prophet, saying, ‘They have reigned, and not by Me; they have been stood forth up as princes, and I knew it not.’ (Hosea 8, 4.) For they reign of themselves, and not by the will of the Supreme Ruler, who, supported by no virtues, and in no way divinely called, but inflamed by their own desire, seize the supreme rule rather than attain it.” (Reg. Past. 1.1)