The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory

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Reflections on Gregory the Great

It’s Not Easy Being Pope

“Mortal, I have set you as a watchman to the house of Israel.” Note that Ezekiel, the one the Lord sent to preach the word, is called “a watchman.” A watchman or sentinel takes a post on the highest point, in order to see whoever may be coming from a distance. Similarly, anyone appointed watchman to a congregation should live a “higher” life so as to keep all things in sight.

As I say these words, I realize I am reproaching myself. For I do not preach as I ought, nor does my personal example accord with these principles that I’m preaching even now. I can’t deny my guilt, for I’ve become lethargic and negligent in my work; though perhaps by recognizing my failure I’ll win some sympathy and pardon from the judge. Before I started this work, while living in a religious community, I was able to refrain from talking about idle topics and to devote my mind to prayer. Since taking up this new pastoral position, I have been unable to concentrate on prayer, because I’m so distracted by my responsibilities.

For example, I have to consider questions about churches and communities and make assessments about people’s lives and acts. One minute I’m involved with a public policy issue, and the next minute I have to worry over outside threats to the well-being of the church under my care. I have to accept a public role in political matters in order to support good government. I have to bear patiently with law-breakers, and then confront them with an attitude of charity.

I am split and torn to pieces by the variety of weighty things on my mind. When I try to concentrate and pull myself together to preach, I feel inadequate to that sacred task. I am often compelled by the nature of my position to associate with worldly people, and sometimes I become casual in my speech; because if I spoke as my conscience dictates with all formality, I know some of them would simply drop me and that I could never influence them towards the goal I desire for them. So I endure their aimless chatter in patience. Then, because I am weak myself I am drawn gradually into idle chitchat — and I find myself saying the kind of thing that before I didn’t even want to listen to! I’ve come to relish wallowing where once I would have been ashamed to stray by accident.

What kind of a watchman am I? Far from the heights to which I aspire, I am constrained by my weakness. And yet — the one who created me and redeemed me and all humanity can give me, even in my unworthiness, some grace to glimpse the whole of life, and the skill and ability to speak of what I see. So it is for the love of God that I do not spare myself in preaching.BSG

, from a sermon on the Book of Ezekiel

 

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Gregory the Great Reliquary

The Pope, The Bishop, and the Troublesome Deacon

Pope Gregory I (“the Great”) was a wise and patient pastor, who prior to his election as pope had served as one of Rome’s seven deacons. In that capacity he was sent to Constantinople as apocrisarius, an ambassadorial office usually filled by a deacon 1 — for deacons, unlike the canonically sedentary bishops and presbyters, were in this age (the late sixth century) mobile and missionary.

Though wise and patient, Gregory was also of a somewhat abstemious bent — he had after all been a monk before being called to active service as a deacon. News had come to Gregory’s papal predecessor from Honoratus, the deacon of Salona, that the bishop of that metropolitan see of Dalmatia, Natalis by name, was living a lavishly convivial lifestyle to the neglect of his episcopal duties. Gregory wrote to the bishop to admonish him; a lengthy correspondence ensued. When the bishop said he was simply following the biblical injunction to hospitality, and, like Abraham, might be entertaining angels unawares, Gregory shot back, “Neither will we blame your Blessedness for feasting, if we come to know that you entertain angels.” 2

After continued complaints from Deacon Honoratus, Bishop Natalis finally had enough, and ordained the deacon to the priesthood against his will, “technically a promotion but a not uncommon device for disposing of troublesome deacons” 3 — since priests were restricted to their parishes. Gregory wrote to the wily bishop, “Thou didst attempt by a cunning device to degrade the aforesaid Honoratus thy archdeacon 4 under colour of promoting him to a higher dignity,” and demanded that he “restore the aforesaid Honoratus to his post immediately on the receipt of my letter.” He even threatend removal of the pallium, the symbol of papal approbation. 5 Natalis eventually complied, and in later years Gregory seems even to have warmed towards this convivial and witty metropolitan.BSG

Sources

Barmby, James. The Book of Pastoral Rule and Selected Epistles of Gregory the Great Bishop of Rome, translated, with introduction, notes and indices by the Rev. James Barmby, D.D., Vicar of Northallerton, Yorkshire. Volume XII of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Schaff and Wace. Reprinted by Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1979.

Richards, Jeffrey. Consul of God: The Life and Times of Gregory the Great. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, Boston and Henley 1980.

1. Barmby, xv.

2. Gregory, Epistle II.52. (Barmby 118)

3. Richards, 202.

4. In this period only deacons “were capable of holding the office of archdeacon.” (Barmby 79, n.)

5. Gregory, Epistle II.18 (Barmby 103 f.)

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