At first glance, we might think that it could be difficult to relate to someone who died over 1400 years ago.
(Now Saint) Teresa of Calcutta, for example, is a 20th century saint that we are all familiar with. She only passed away in 1997. We can picture her and have watched and heard her speak. We know her story: she dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. She is a contemporary saint, a saint familiar to us. You may have even met her. Many of the priests in our Diocese met her when she visited the Diocese of Trenton on June 18, 1995.
Furthermore, in addition to the fact that he lived over 1400 years ago, he also was a great figure of world history and for that reason seems ‘above’ us. He was “the Great”. He is one of only 2-4 popes in history who have had the title “the Great” attached to them because of their important role in history.
What are some of the great things he accomplished on the world stage?
He taught monks in his own monastery in Rome and then sent them as missionaries to England to help strengthen Christianity on that island.
He led many people in Rome through a difficult time: the Roman Empire was in decline; there were disease, poverty, and hunger everywhere; the Lombards were invading and trying to destroy Rome. St. Gregory not only offered spiritual guidance to the people of Rome, but he even helped to bring about civil order. At one point he had to send out armies to defend the city from the Lombards. At another point, when the army was about to revolt due to lack of pay, he paid them from the Church’s treasury. He negotiated a peace settlement with the invaders at one time. He fed the Roman citizens when the civil authorities were unable to.
Also, St. Gregory was a source of unity in the Church in his time, and his teachings and writings were foundational for the Church until the middle of the 8th century.
Most of us do not spend too much time thinking about the Church of the 6th century, like he did. But there are two main qualities of his life, that were very important to him, that we should imitate in our lives as well, and that can serve as guideposts for us whenever we see his name in the thousands of ways we do in the course of the year in our parish: on our stationery letterhead, on our school logo or bulletin cover, when the name “St. Greg’s” is mentioned in a conversation with a neighbor.
First, he was a humble man. He came up with a new title for the pope --- “Servant of the Servants of God” ---- stressing not the earthly power of the pope --- which at that time and later into the Middle Ages the popes had a lot of --- but rather the pope’s role of servant of people and servant of the members of the Church community and of the poor. Again, among popes of that period his humility and simplicity of style stood out. He even transformed the luxurious Lateran Palace, where popes lived then, into a kind of monastery during his papacy.
In a homily written by St. Gregory found in the Office of Readings for St. Gregory, the saint speaks not of his many, various accomplishments but rather of the struggles he faced in carrying out God’s will. For example, he did not think he was a competent preacher. He had difficulty practicing what he preached. He states that he was slothful and negligent, talked idly, and was distracted by worldly matters and problems (From a homily on Ezekiel by St. Gregory the Great, Pope, Office of Readings for September 3). How many of us would be so honest about our faults?
Secondly, St. Gregory was a man of prayer. He was the monk-pope. He was first a monk before he became a pope. He built 6 monasteries and a seventh one was his home in Rome that he turned into a monastery. He stressed the importance of contemplating God and meditating on the life of Christ. He exhorted people to combat vice and sin in their lives, to grow in virtue and to embrace the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us. He was a great teacher of the spiritual life.
For demonstrating these qualities and many, many more good ones; for all of the writings and homilies he has left us (more writings than we could read in our lifetimes!); for his complete commitment to Jesus Christ and to prayer, we say that we are so glad that he is our patron!
St. Gregory the Great, pray for us!