What’s So Great About Gregory the Great?

VanniToday is the feast of St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome from 590 to 604. My use of “bishop of Rome” is intentional – as I will show in a moment, Gregory’s example as the “Servant of the Servants of God,” a title he coined, is echoed in Pope Francis’s practice of the papacy. But first, some nostalgia.

I went to a small Catholic K-8 grade school, and our library had not been particularly updated since the 1950s, and so was full of these charming hardcover books for children from that period, including a large collection of saints’Virgin Salus Populi Romani lives. I vividly remember the story of Gregory the Great; while I’m sure the book talked about his learning, his service to the poor, and his role in developing the liturgy and ecclesial music, at nine or ten years old I was captivated by the story of the plague in Rome in the late 6th century. According to the book and later traditions (which may or may not be entirely literally accurate), Gregory became bishop upon his predecessor’s death of the plague, and he proceeded to launch a campaign of public repentance and prayer in the city of Rome for its end. Decades before my first trip to Rome, I imagined the scene of day-and-night processions through the streets of the city, led by the image of Mary I would later come to know as Maria Salus Populi Romani, Mary the “Health of the Roman People,” which I wrote about here on Daily Theology back when Pope Francis invoked her intercession in prayer for peace in Syria back in September, 2013. As the story goes, on the last day of the plague, Gregory looked up and saw a vision of St. Michael the Archangel atop Hadrian’s Tomb (later, due to this vision, the Castel Sant’Angelo) indicating the end of the plague by sheathing his sword in his scabbard. The plague was over, and Gregory’s leadership of the people of Rome in prayer and repentance had saved the city.

Fast forward a number of years, and while I luckily maintained much of my sense of the saints as our companions and friends throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, my sense of what made for a great pope developed a bit more nuance. In particular, while writing a dissertation on the late Dominican ecumenist and theologian Jean-Marie Roger Tillard, O.P., I was taken by Tillard’s repeated turn to Gregory the Great as an example of papal primacy rooted in an ecclesiology of communion. And, unlike the story of the end of the plague, we have a bit more direct textual evidence for this aspect of Gregory’s greatness.

St. Eulogius, the patriarch of Alexandria, and Gregory were good friends, which allowed Gregory, in a famous letter, to reply to Eulogius’s use of the title “universal pope” with a gentle but firm correction – not only had he not instructed any other bishop to call him by that title, he instead saw it as detrimental to both each bishop’s own importance and to the honor of the papacy. Rather than attempt to centralize authority of the church in the office of the pope, Gregory wrote that the pope’s true honor “is the solid strength of my brothers [the other bishops].” He continued, “Then am I truly honored, when honor is not denied to each one to whom it is due. If your Holiness calls me universal pope, you deny to yourself that which you attribute in a universal sense to me. Let that not be so. Away with those words which inflate vanity and wound charity.”(Found in Tillard, Bishop of Rome, 190-91, and in a different translation at CCEL)

For Gregory, the title of the pope as the servus servorum Dei was not a bit of false humility, but a crucial aspect of a papal office dedicated to supporting all of the bishops and, through them, the diverse, particular local churches that they led. Rather than a model of the church as a multinational corporation with a headquarters and a branch office, Gregory – and Jean-Marie Tillard – understood the church as a “church of [local] churches,” and the papacy as an office by which the church of Rome was better able to maintain the communion of those churches, just as a conductor prevents an orchestra from falling into cacophony. And while the Catholic Church’s understanding of papal primacy continued to develop in the centuries after Gregory, his example of a bishop committed to his city and to humility in his role as the vicar of Peter, as a man who wrote to Eulogius “in rank you are my brothers, in manner of life my fathers.”

Pope Francis has a more than a bit of Gregory the Great in him – the same humility, the same care for the city of Rome, the same love for the icon of Mary Salus Popoli Romani. But for ecclesiologists, what may be most exciting are his continued actions to see his role as the choir director of a college of bishops, rather than as a CEO of a top-down organization. On the night of his election, he introduced himself as the “bishop of Rome,” and has continued to use that language and, more importantly, has followed that up with action to be not a “universal pope” but the bishop of a city that presides in love. At the end of his introduction on that March evening in St. Peter’s Square, just before asking the people of Rome to pray for him, he said, “Now let’s begin this journey, bishop and people, this journey of the Church of Rome, which is the one that presides in charity over all the Churches – a journey of brotherhood, love and trust among us.” (Quoted in Paul Vallely, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots [London: Bloomsbury, 2013], 165-66) On a visit to the Phanar to meet with the Patriarch of Constantinople, he bowed his head and asked for his brother Bartholomew’s blessing. Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si` are filled with references to the teaching statements of regional and national episcopal conferences, showing that being the servant of the servants of God sometimes means lifting up the voice of one’s brother bishops and their churches rather than saying everything on one’s own. And the sometimes messy character of the sessions of the Synod of Bishops should give us hope that Francis will continue to see himself as a leader among his brothers, and to echo Gregory’s words that “my honor is the solid strength of my brothers.”

In short, Francis seems the sort of bishop of Rome that Gregory the Great would recognize in his practice of the papacy; and with a rhetorical stretch we might even say that Francis’s actions and prayers are helping to end some of the plagues that sicken our world and our churches. On this feast day of Gregory, pray for his intercession for Pope Francis and for all bishops to be men of bravery, courage, and service.

O God, who care for your people with gentleness

and rule them in love,

through the intercession of Pope Saint Gregory,

endow, we pray, with a spirit of wisdom

those to whom you have given authority to govern,

that the flourishing of a holy flock

may become the eternal joy of the shepherds.

3 responses to “What’s So Great About Gregory the Great?

  1. Dear Brian: thank you very much for this consoling insight into the role Gregory played as “servant of the servants of God.” Francis demonstrates that this sense of community is not dead. Sincerely, John Wilcox, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, Manhattan College

  2. Pingback: An ecclesiological connection between Pope Francis and Pope St. Gregory the Great | Houston Catechetical Connection·

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