Thursday, 14 March 2013

Pope Gregory I (c. 540 – 12 March 604)


The following was written and delivered yesterday morning before the announcement that Pope Francis 1 was to become the next Pope.

Pope Gregory is known in English as Gregory the Great He was pope from 3 September 590 until his death in 604. Throughout the Middle Ages he was known as “the Father of Christian Worship” because of his
extended revision of Church’s worship of his day. (Note: changing the church services is something that has gone on from the beginning—it's not new!)

He was the first of the popes to come from a monastic background and is considered a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican Communion, and some Lutheran churches. Immediately after his death, Gregory was canonized by popular acclaim. The Protestant reformer John Calvin admired Gregory and declared in his Institutes that Gregory was the last good pope. He is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers.

Gregory’s name in Latin means “watchful” and his biographers say that from his earliest days he “was very diligent (watchful of) in God’s commandments” and with a deep respect for the monastic life. On his father's death, he converted his family villa into a monastery dedicated to the apostle Saint Andrew.  In his life of contemplation, Gregory concluded that:

 “in that silence of the heart, while we keep watch within through contemplation, we are as if asleep to all things that are without."

This does not mean that contemplation is an escape from the world - those who are truly contemplative are usually the most active in helping the poor etc - but that they are most alert to God and most dead to sin.

In 579, Pope Pelagius II chose Gregory as his ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople. It was a difficult role to play given the political situation at the time and after six years in service Gregory left Constantinople for Rome in 585, returning to his monastery.  He was elected by popular acclamation to succeed Pelagius II in 590, when the latter died of the plague spreading through the city.

Gregory very unwillingly accepted. He wanted to return to monastic life but was forced back into a world that, although he loved it, he no longer wanted to be a part of. He bemoaned the burden of office and mourned the loss of the undisturbed life of prayer he had once enjoyed as a monk. When he became Pope in 590, among his first acts was writing a series of letters disavowing any ambition to the throne of Peter and praising the contemplative life of the monks.

But as soon as he became pope he went to work and mission was one of his priorities. In the midst of all his burdens and anxieties, it seems that Gregory had never forgotten the English slaves whom he had once seen in the Roman Forum and described as having the appearance of "angels not angles". Pope Gregory had strong convictions on missions. He once wrote:

"Almighty God places good men in authority that He may impart through them the gifts of His mercy to their subjects. And this we find to be the case with the British over whom you have been appointed to rule, that through the blessings bestowed on you the blessings of heaven might be bestowed on your people also.”

Gregory was credited with re-energizing the Church's missionary work among the non-Christian peoples of northern Europe. He is most famous for sending a mission, often called the Gregorian mission, under Augustine of Canterbury, prior of Saint Andrew's where he had perhaps succeeded Gregory, to evangelize the pagan Anglo-Saxons of England. The mission was successful, and it was from England that missionaries later set out for the Netherlands and Germany. The preaching of the faith was a major priority for Gregory and remained a central focus of his pontificate. He was declared a saint immediately after his death again by "popular acclamation".

In his liturgical revisions he introduced Western plainchant—later called Gregorian chant—into the services. He is the only Pope between the 5th and 11th centuries whose writings have survived in large numbers including sermons, a commentary on Job and some 854 letters.

He was well known for his concern and provision for the poor in Rome and his many good deeds earned him the love and devotion of his people.

As we wait for the election of a new Pope to lead the 1.5 Billion Roman Catholics there are a few important features in Gregory's ministry and emphasis that need to be reflected in the new pope:

1. Humility—like Jesus Gregory saw himself as a servant of others. He coined the phrase: "Servant of the Servants of God" (servus servorum Dei) as a papal title and it is a practice that has been followed by most subsequent popes. But it is not the wording that is important but the attitude that goes with it.  Will the new pope be a humble man?
2. Bible—Gregory once wrote: "For the love of ...(God) I do not spare myself from His Word." Integral to the life of any monastic is reading and reflection (meditation) on the Word, the Bible. Gregory displayed a deep understanding and love of the Scriptures and encouraged others to do so. It is mainly through the Scriptures that we encounter God and, to quote St. Jerome, "Ignorance of the Bible is ignorance of God." How can you love someone if you ignore what they say?
3. Mission and evangelism— sharing the message of the Gospel by any and every means. As we saw earlier Gregory had a heart for mission. If the Gospel is Good News then keeping it to oneself is utter selfishness and an act of dangerous disobedience. Jesus' last words to the disciples was for them to "Go, and make disciples of all nations...." (Matthew 28:19ff). Jesus died for the sins of the world and calls His church to preach a "message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins" based on his death and resurrection, to whoever will listen (Luke 24:47ff).
4. Communication - Gregory saw the value not only in words and music in communicating the faith but once wrote: “Illiterate men can contemplate in the lines of a picture what they cannot learn by means of the written word." As the Church begins to interact with the society in which we live it needs to embrace the more positive aspects of technology and be unafraid to use modern media - PowerPoint, social networking etc - to try and get its message across.

So Pope Gregory is a wonderful model for the new pope to follow. Let's pray that he is up to the task.

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