HOMILY for the memorial of Pope St Gregory the Great
Where does greatness lie? We celebrate St Albert the Great, Charles the Great (nominated a saint by the French!), and now, St Gregory the Great. Does it lie in breadth of learning, such as St Albert exhibited? Or in military prowess and political strategy such as Charlemagne had?
Some would say it’s a combination of both, which we can see in the life of today’s pope, Gregory I. He was born of a noble and wealthy Roman family c.540, and when he was a child Rome was sacked; the apogee of Rome. Gregory was well educated, and he became a monk, eventually turning his family home on the Caelian Hill into a monastery, dedicated to St Andrew. It’s still there. Gregory became a papal diplomat, sent to the imperial court in Byzantium to ask the Emperor for military aid against the Lombards but in 590 he was elected by acclamation to become the next Bishop of Rome. When the Lombards did invade, Pope Gregory organized the defense of the city, and eventually signed a treaty with them.
For popes were effectively governors of Rome at the time, so Pope Gregory had to shelter, feed and defend the people of Rome. When there were famines, he organized for grain from Sicily to be imported and distributed.
Pope Gregory’s papacy was also one of great evangelizing energy and reforming zeal. He sent monks to evangelize northern Europe, and among these missions was that of St Augustine to the Anglo Saxons of England. He reformed the Roman Liturgy, and is credited with codifying the Church’s heritage of sacred music that is still named after him: Gregorian chant. St Gregory’s copious writings form the basis of early medieval Christian thought. By his death in 604, he’d commentated on the Scriptures, written many sermons, collated stories on the life of St Benedict, and written hundreds of letters.
All these achievements, we might think, would amount to greatness. And yet, we don’t canonize saints for their political prowess and able leadership, as such. Saints are honoured because they display the greatness of God’s grace at work in their lives. As St Paul put it: “I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling… but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God”. Our greatness, as Christians, is found in how much we allow God’s power to shine through us, in the degree of our faith, hope, and charity which unites us more closely to Christ.
So, as St Gregory himself said: “Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom”.
So, as we celebrate the feast of this saint, let us give thanks to God whose Spirit has been given to us, anointing us for great things: “to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And these great things, Pope St Gregory certainly did.