A message from Father Nick 24
Pope St Gregory the Great (I) “Servant of the servants of God”
3rd September is the memorial day of St Gregory the Great, one of the most significant figures in Christian history and one of the four great western “doctors” of the Church (the others are Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome).
Gregory was born in 540 AD, the son of a Roman senator. He too entered public life, becoming prefect of Rome at the age of thirty, but he was filled with deep spiritual yearnings. Inspired by the example of St Benedict, he founded a monastery in Rome and then joined it to become a Benedictine monk. But his special skills were needed in the Church’s active mission. Between 579 and 585 he served as papal agent at Constantinople and five years later he was elected pope.
If ever an age called out for greatness in leadership it was the sixth century, which has been described as a “time of intense suffering”. Disease, depopulation, invasion and famine had deeply affected the west, while the seat of empire had moved to Constantinople far away in the east. Gregory was forced to take centre stage.
In its introduction to his feast day, the Breviary says that he “showed himself a true pastor in his administration, his care of the poor, and in spreading and consolidating the faith. In addition he wrote many works on faith and morals.”
Most of all, Gregory reminds us of the real nature of his role as Bishop of Rome. We sometimes think of the pope as being at the top of a pyramid, above everybody else. For Gregory this would be putting things upside-down. He saw himself as being underneath – like Peter the rock – supporting all his brothers and sisters and enabling them to play their part in the Church’s mission. It was Gregory who referred to the pope as the “servant of the servants of God”.
Of course he exercised authority, with great humility and pastoral care, but he never saw himself as being the centre of the story. In fact, when a fellow bishop, the Patriarch of Alexandria, addressed him as “universal pope”, he gave a very firm rebuttal. The irony is that Gregory was perhaps the greatest pope of all and yet declined the title as his response shows.
“…Here at the head of your letter I find the proud title of universal pope, which I have refused. I pray your most beloved Holiness not to do it again, because what is exaggeratedly attributed to another is taken away from you. It is not in words that I would find greatness, but in manner of life…My honour is the honour of the universal Church. My honour is the solid strength of my brothers. Then am I truly honoured, when honour 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.”
He would have understood our use of the term today but not our failure to play our own part in the Church’s mission. We too are called to serve the Lord by using our different gifts in an act of witness that includes us all.