The Leader as Servant: Feast of Pope St. Gregory the Great

2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 5-7; Luke 22:24-30

In the gospel we hear Jesus say to the Apostles, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. Few people epitomize those words better than the successor of the Apostles we remember today, Pope St. Gregory I.

Born around the year 540 into a wealthy, aristocratic Roman family, Gregory received the best education of the day, designed to form him as an effective political and social leader. He was also deeply grounded in the faith; indeed, his family tree boasted two popes, several consecrated religious, and at least one saint: his mother, Sylvia. If not born great, Gregory was certainly bred for greatness.

Greatness was certainly needed, for Rome was in dire straits. No longer the capital of the empire, it was barely guarded; vandals regularly overran it. Plague, war, and famine decimated the population from a high of one million to about fifty thousand. Although Gregory wanted nothing more than to pursue his dream of life as a Benedictine monk, his sense of public service prevailed; at the age of 30 he became mayor and served for two years. When his father died Gregory resigned, turned the family palace into a monastery, and became a monk. He called these the happiest years of his life.

They didn’t last long. Knowing of Gregory’s talent, Pope Pelagius summoned him, ordained him a deacon, briefly put him in charge of social assistance to Rome and then sent him to Constantinople, where for 6 years he served as ambassador, learning the workings of the imperial court. When he returned to Rome he was delighted to learn that he had been made abbot; however, that too didn’t last long; when Pope Pelagius died, Gregory was unanimously elected pope. He appealed to the emperor to reject the election but he refused. Against his will, Gregory served as pope for 14 years.

It is difficult to summarize briefly everything Gregory did to merit the title “Great,” but let me focus on two particular areas.

First was his great love of the missions. Gregory was the first pope to send missionaries to a distant land, dispatching 40 monks to England led by the man who would become St. Augustine of Canterbury. No less important was his acumen and sense of balance; Gregory advised Augustine to bring Christ in His fullness to the Anglo-Saxons but at the same time to adapt the faith where he could to the customs and ways of the people. This bore great fruit; the subsequent centuries saw England and Ireland send out missionaries of their own whose evangelization forever changed the face of Europe. But Gregory’s care and concern for the missions didn’t stop there. Hundreds of his letters still remain, and reveal the pope’s involvement in and knowledge of the missions in places as far away as Africa, Spain and Greece.

Second, Gregory was a great shepherd to his local flock. For bishops he wrote a book called Pastoral Care, really a treatise on preaching that became popular for centuries, as well as a book on St. Benedict. His own homilies are read to this day; in fact, it is for them that he was made Doctor of the Church. He also transformed Rome into a real diocese, organized under a bishop and seven regional deacons assisted by seven sub-deacons. Using this structure, Gregory systematized outreach to the poor, orphans, and widows. Charity burned so greatly within this man that for years he fed Rome’s poor with money out of his own pocket.

That’s not to say that the pope never used Church money. To the contrary, he used it whenever he could but did so to protect Rome from invaders. He was a good diplomat and a brilliant negotiator, doing whatever he could to keep the people safe, whether that meant paying imperial troops or bribing vandals to keep away. He was so effective that eventually the city put him in complete charge of the military.

We could say much more but let us close with St. Paul’s words: God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Pope St. Gregory was the lamp God set on Vatican Hill to shine in a very dark time and that light still shines today. In summary and in essence, Gregory’s greatness is the man himself. From him we learn these life lessons: First, we must be aware not only of our power and ability but also our weakness and fragility; this teaches us humility. Second, no matter how much we know or plan, not all decisions or circumstances will work out in our favor; this teaches us patience, perseverance, and fortitude. Finally, although we may want a certain life for ourselves, the love of Christ impels us to put that aside for the greater good of service to God and the world in which we find ourselves. From this we learn the greatest gift of all: Charity. In the end Gregory teaches us that those who are most truly leader most truly serve.

Pope St. Gregory the Great, pray for us.

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