HOMILY for Pope St Gregory the Great
The 6th-century Pope who was called magnus, ‘the Great’ was also the first Pope to call himself servus servorum Dei, ‘servant of the servants of God’, an appellation that the Pope still uses. And humility in service was one of the hallmarks of a bishop as St Gregory wrote in the most famous of his writings, the ‘Book of Pastoral Care’, written c. 590 in the early years of his pontificate. The book was subsequently copied and read in Spain, Gaul, Italy, and even translated into Anglo-Saxon; St Augustine would be sent by Gregory the Great in 597 to evangelize the English.
St Gregory’s humility can be seen in the service he gave to Christ’s Church. He was born into a noble Roman family and educated for public office. He would become Prefect of Rome when he was just 33 years old. However, he had no taste for power, and after his father’s death he converted the family home – still visible on the Caelian hill – into a monastery. He named the monastery in honour of St Andrew, so we might say that he had not just an English but also a Scottish connection! He sold the rest of the family’s estates and distributed the money to the poor, and then retired to his monastery for a life of contemplation and prayer, reading and studying the Scriptures and Fathers of the Church.
But Pope Pelagius called him out of the cloister and back into the world to serve the wider Church. And so, with humility, he agreed to be ordained a deacon, and was sent to Constantinople as a papal ambassador to seek help from the Byzantine Emperor against invasions by the Lombards in Italy. Then he was made the Pope’s secretary and recalled to Rome which was then struck by famine, floods, and plague – these were turbulent times indeed! In 590, Gregory was elected Pope and he tried to resist and even run away but at last, with humility, he took on the papal office.
Because he saw this as the will of God, he dedicated himself whole-heartedly to the mission God has given him. Something of his humility and desire to do more for Christ and his Church – a desire born of love – can be seen in this sentence from his ‘Book of Pastoral Care’. He says: “When one is pleased to have achieved many virtues, it is well to reflect on one’s own inadequacies and to humble oneself: instead of considering the good accomplished, it is necessary to consider what was neglected”. This outlook spurred St Gregory on to reform the clergy, negotiate peace treaties with invaders, protect the Jews from persecution, feed the hungry, write many sermons and letters, and develop the Liturgy. Thus, he was called Magnus and named a Doctor of the Church.
However, Pope Gregory’s greatness is seen, above all, in his zeal for souls, in his desire to preach salvation to all peoples for there can be no greater mercy or love than to bring Christ and eternal salvation to people. Indeed, what Christ says in today’s Gospel can be applied to Pope St Gregory too: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Lk 4:43). Hence, he sent St Augustine and several bands of monks to evangelize England, and it was from England that missions were sent to Germany and the Netherlands. At the time, Pope Gregory wrote to the missionaries, saying: “do not let the toil of the journey or the tongues of men discourage you, but with all earnestness and by God’s guidance fulfill what you have started, knowing that great labour is followed by the greater glory of an eternal reward”.
After all his labours, Pope Gregory died in 604, and so, received an eternal reward from the divine Master for his humble service. We thank God for his life, his writings and example, and let us pray for our bishops, for the Church in England, and for our Holy Father Pope Francis, and especially for the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who, like St Gregory the Great, was also called to give up a life of study and prayer, in order to become a “humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord”.