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Gregory the Great - Pope and Politician

Quote: "It is doubtless impossible to cut off all abuses at once from rough hearts, just as a man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace."

Gregory (c. 540 - 604) descended from Roman nobility and was himself a propertied government administrator. But the church was in his blood. Three aunts were nuns, as was his widowed mother, Silvia, and his great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III.

Wave after wave of barbarian armies have brought ruin to the region. His dream is to escape, though not to the monastery. "Late and long," he recalls, "I put off the grace of conversion." But in his mid-thirties he leaves behind his government post, donates his property to charity, and sets out to establish Benedictine monasteries. Later he becomes a cloistered monk himself. In 579 he is appointed papal ambassador to Constantinople, where he becomes embroiled in a theological controversy.

Gregory (at this time only a deacon) confronts Eutychius, the patriarch of the city, who argues against the bodily resurrection of believers, while Gregory insists that just as Christ's physical body was raised from the dead so also would the bodies of his followers be raised. Eutychius' treatise is condemned and burned. Gregory returns to Rome to serve as abbot of St. Andrew's monastery before he is elevated to the papacy in 590. For nearly a century the church has not demonstrated strong leadership in the West, but Gregory quickly consolidates his power. A self-described "servant of the servants of God," he defends his absolute authority over the church.

During his fourteen-year reign as pope, Gregory serves virtually as head of state during wartime, overseeing welfare for refugees and others displaced by hostilities. But he is primarily a preacher who speaks with urgency, convinced that he is living in the end times. At the same time, he seeks to bring solemnity to public worship, establishing a training school for church musicians. The hauntingly beautiful Gregorian chants date to this period, as do standard liturgies of scripture readings and prayers for each Sunday of the year.

Pastoral care is also one of his passions. He writes Liber Regulae Pastoralis (Book of Pastoral Rule) in response to questions on the topic, using the symbols wine and oil offered by the Good Samaritan to denote the balance between discipline and compassion.

Gregory also plays a major role in theological matters, particularly in advancing the concept of purgatory, with its corresponding merit of the saints, particularly those who were miracle workers. His Dialogues, filled with miracle stories, ranks high as popular devotional literature for more than a thousand years. One story that Gregory reports in his Dialogues goes to the heart of his belief in purgatory. Justus, a monk at his monastery who has earlier stowed away money, dies repentant of this sin. However, Gregory, concerned for his soul, offers a month of Masses for him. On the thirtieth day, a visionary Justus appears to another monk, announcing that he has been freed from the flames of purgatory. These thirty Masses are believed to be so effective that the practice—known as "Gregorian Masses"—continues for centuries, particularly in Benedictine monasteries.

Even as barbarians plunder Italy and neighboring regions, Gregory is setting the stage for medieval missionary outreach. In 596 he commissions Augustine, the prior of St. Anthony in Rome, and forty monks to serve as missionaries in Britain. It is a dangerous mission, and before they arrive at the destination Augustine has second thoughts and turns back to Rome. But when word reaches Gregory, he orders them to turn around and carry on with their journey. On Christmas 597, soon after they arrive, Augustine baptizes ten thousand people. The mass baptism, remembered as the "Miracle of Canterbury," paves the way for the reestablishment of the church in that region. Gregory's concern for this mission venture is evident:

The heathen temples of these people need not be destroyed, only the idols which are to be found in them. . . . If the temples are well-built, it is a good idea to detach them from the service of the devil, and to adapt them for the worship of the true God.

Gregory later promotes Augustine to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Augustine dies in 604, just months after the death of Gregory. Their combined efforts leave the church in this region on a solid foundation.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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