Monday, March 12, 2012

Feast of Saint Gregory the Great

TODAY, in the old calendar, is the Feast of Saint Gregory the Great (ca. 540 – 12 March 604), who was elected Pope in 590.

Centuries before, the Emperor Constantine moved the capitol of the Roman Empire from the city of Rome to Constantinople in the East, and the western parts of his Empire, having little military protection, eventually went into great decline, being overrun with barbarians. Everybody was going to die, and Pope Gregory, who was formerly a Benedictine monk living a contemplative life, found himself gravely concerned with worldly matters:
”Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel.” Note that a man whom the Lord sends forth as a preacher is called a watchman. A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming. Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height for all his life to help them by his foresight.

How hard it is for me to say this, for by these very words I denounce myself. I cannot preach with any competence, and yet insofar as I do succeed, still I myself do not live my life according to my own preaching.

I do not deny my responsibility; I recognize that I am slothful and negligent, but perhaps the acknowledgment of my fault will win me pardon from my just judge. Indeed when I was in the monastery I could curb my idle talk and usually be absorbed in my prayers. Since I assumed the burden of pastoral care, my mind can no longer be collected; it is concerned with so many matters.

I am forced to consider the affairs of the Church and of the monasteries. I must weigh the lives and acts of individuals. I am responsible for the concerns of our citizens. I must worry about the invasions of roving bands of barbarians, and beware of the wolves who lie in wait for my flock. I must become an administrator lest the religious go in want. I must put up with certain robbers without losing patience and at times I must deal with them in all charity.

With my mind divided and torn to pieces by so many problems, how can I meditate or preach wholeheartedly without neglecting the ministry of proclaiming the Gospel? Moreover, in my position I must often communicate with worldly men. At times I let my tongue run, for if I am always severe in my judgments, the worldly will avoid me, and I can never attack them as I would. As a result I often listen patiently to chatter. And because I too am weak, I find myself drawn little by little into idle conversation, and I begin to talk freely about matters which once I would have avoided. What once I found tedious I now enjoy.

So who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness? Truly the all-powerful Creator and Redeemer of mankind can give me in spite of my weaknesses a higher life and effective speech; because I love him, I do not spare myself in speaking of him.

St. Gregory the Great, homily on Ezekiel
Once I was having a conversation with a Deacon, and this was interrupted by a phone call from a friend: the caller just found out that he was appointed bishop. The Deacon commented that it was the worst job in the world. Indeed, and Pope Gregory seems to agree. The bishop is forced to engage with the world, with wicked, willful men, in a manner that will allow the Church to thrive while still preaching the Gospel to the heathens. In this situation, a bishop must rely ever more on grace while acknowledging his weakness.

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