Homily for the Feast of St. Gregory the Great, 3 September 2018
at a Mass for the Knights and Dames of St. Gregory, Elgin
The greatest among you must behave as if he were the youngest, the leader as if he were the one who serves (Lk 22:26)
These familiar words are taken from the account of the Last Supper in St. Luke’s Gospel. They are an appropriate choice for the feast of St. Gregory, who described himself as Servus servorum Dei - the Servant of the servants of God. That little formula has stuck to the Papacy ever since, and is still perhaps its most illustrious title and greatest honour. We are here now as a gathering of those who have rendered notable and distinguished service to the Church, and been honoured by her by association with St. Gregory. Gregory reminds us that one vital form of service in the Church is leadership; that authority is perfectly compatible with gentleness and humility; that strength of character is a virtue, not a vice: but also that as Christians we are always called to ever closer conformity with our crucified Master. So we gather now at the Holy Eucharist, where we encounter Jesus Christ our Lord precisely in his humility; Jesus who laid down his life for us, who bowed down low in order to serve us; Jesus our Lord, our King, our God, who comes to us still in lowly form to feed us, and to raise us up.
St. Gregory the Great was an aristocrat, born to rule; a wealthy landowner; a statesman; a Roman of the Romans; a loyal subject of the Roman Empire, and of the Emperor whose seat was in Constantinople. But first and foremost he was a Christian, a man of God, a contemplative, a mystic: outstanding for his knowledge and love of holy scripture, for his humility, for his prayer. Later ages conferred on him the title of Doctor of the Church. Gregory is not a doctor of theology though, in the way that a St. Augustine or a St. Thomas Aquinas are. Rather he is a teacher of the moral life: of how to live in this world while turned all the while towards God, longing for the eternal union with him which is our destiny, and which alone gives meaning and value to all we do. St. Gregory is known especially as a Doctor of desire: desire for God, and for heaven.
We know the main outlines of St. Gregory’s career. By the time of his birth in the mid 6th century, the Roman Empire of the West had already fallen, and been carved up among the many barbarian nations. Italy, or most of it anyway, had been reconquered under Eastern Emperor Justinian, but by the time of Gregory’s maturity, the hold of the Empire on Italy was uncertain at best, and under great pressure from new invasions. As a young man Gregory had already held high political office in Rome. Ordained a deacon, he was sent by the Pope to be his representative at the court in Constantinople. It was there that he preached to his monastic companions his massive commentary on the book of Job.
Absolutely against his will, Gregory was elected Bishop of Rome in the year 590. And immediately he found himself amid ecclesiastical, civil, economic, political and military chaos. Barbarian war lords were freely roaming about Italy, looting, burning, raping, torturing, murdering. Destitute and starving refugees were flooding into the city. The only coherent institution left in the country was the Catholic Church. So this lover of solitude and seclusion, this man of fragile health who only wanted to be a monk, this peaceful man of interior life and study found himself acting perforce as father of his people. No one else in the country was capable of exercising any control, and so he took over. We are fortunate to possess over 850 of the letters Gregory wrote during his Pontificate. They reveal a man of astonishing energy; a supremely competent and hands-on administrator, a man of the most upright rectitude, who was also well able to deal prudently with the most diverse and complex situations. Gregory’s first preoccupation as Pope was to secure a food supply for the population. Then to organise defence, while negotiating with the enemy. Then to manage flood relief. Then to buy back kidnapped prisoners. Then to appeal to the Emperor against unjust and impossible taxes and levies. Then to administer civil justice. Then to re-organise devastated monasteries and Churches, and to counter heresies, and to encourage and recruit good pastors. Then to evangelise the English.
And all this time Gregory was also preaching God’s word, in season and out. Many, though certainly not all, of his homilies and scripture commentaries from this period have come down to us. And we trace through all that he writes his own experience of physical pain, of bodily weakness, of crushing sorrow and loss, and also his intense awareness of the malice of sin. So Gregory loves to point us beyond this present age, this valley of tears, this realm of death and distress - to kindle our longing for our heavenly homeland, where God is, to which we are called, and where our dignity in Christ will find its fulfilment and achievement.
In the modern age this whole way of looking at life has been to a great extent set aside, and even rejected, even within the Church. It needs to be recovered, because it’s an open-eyed reflection on the truth of the human condition, while offering also a securely rooted understanding of human greatness, and human possibility, within God’s Kingdom.
One of the constant themes in all Gregory’s writings is the value of preaching, and the duty of preachers. Gregory had a very high view of the episcopal office, and of the power Bishops are given to preach God’s saving word to the people. So he deploys his harshest invective against the unworthy pastors of his time. Wherever his own authority extended, he did not hesitate to discipline them, to demand explanations of their conduct from them, to depose them when necessary, and even to excommunicate them. Some of his most ferocious comments are reserved for Bishops who were guilty of the sin of silence. That is, they allowed grave disorders to go on within their jurisdiction, and they said nothing, did nothing, about it. They wanted to avoid trouble. They wanted to retain good relations with those in power, however corrupt and evil they might be. They wanted to be comfortable and secure. And so their preaching was filled with pleasing platitudes, but on matters of pressing importance, which it was their God-given duty to address, they said nothing.
Some of this sounds depressingly familiar to us today. Gregory never mentions the sexual abuse of minors, but in fact the problem of his day and of ours is the same: it’s worldliness. When we have Bishop who are essentially worldly, we have a big problem. They are not true shepherds at all, but wolves in sheep’s clothing, and they bring disgrace to us all.
The Collect of today’s Mass focuses, most appropriately, on Pastors: on those given the authority to govern in the Church. Today then we ask that, through the example and intercession of St. Gregory the Great, new, courageous and faithful pastors may be raised up to shepherd God’s holy people. We pray that our pastors may be given a spirit of wisdom, so that God’s word may be proclaimed again in our day, in all its beauty and power of conviction, for the renewal of the Church, and for the glory of God.