Pope Gregory I lived in unstable times that found plague, pestilence, floods, and marauding armies (Lombards) being visited upon the domain of his rule. Serving as both Pope and de-facto Civil Magistrate Gregory I was tasked with trying to hold together Rome during dark times. A motif in his life might be found in his own words,
“In the midst of the unsteady flow of time, the man of God knows how to keep steady the steps of his mind.”
His sense of anguish and yet hope in the times he was ordained to live in can be heard in a sermon he gave on Ezekiel,
“Where, I pray you, is any delight to be found in this world? Mourning meets us everywhere; groans surround us. Ruined cities, fortresses overthrown, lands laid waste, the earth reduced to a desert. The fields have none to till them. There is scarcely a dweller in the cities. Yet even these poor remnants of the human race are smitten daily and without ceasing. The scourge of heaven’s justice strikes without end, because even under its strokes our bad actions are not corrected. We see men led into captivity, beheaded, slain before our eyes. What pleasure, then, does life retain, my brethren? If yet we are fond of such a world, it is not joys but wounds which we love. We see the condition of that Rome which anon seemed to be mistress of the world: worn down by sorrows which have no measure, desolate of inhabitants, assaulted by enemies, filled with ruins…. So far, dear brethren, by the gift of God, we have searched out hidden meanings for you. Let no man blame me if I close them here, because, as you all witness, our sufferings have grown enormous. On every side we are encircled with swords: on every side we are in imminent peril of death. Some return to us maimed of their hands; of others we hear that they are captured; of others, again, that they are slain. My tongue can no longer expound, when my spirit is weary of my life. Let no one ask me to unfold the Scriptures; for my harp is turned to mourning, and my voice to the cry of the weeper. The eye of my heart no longer keeps its watch in the discussion of mysteries; my soul droops for weariness. Study has lost its charm for me. I have forgotten to eat my bread for the voice of my groaning. How can one who is not allowed to live take pleasure in the mystical sense of Scripture? How can one whose daily chalice is bitterness present sweets for others to drink? What remains for us but while we weep to give thanks for the strokes of the scourge which we suffer for our iniquities. Our Creator is become our Father by the Spirit of adoption whom He has given to us: sometimes He feeds His sons with bread; sometimes He corrects them with the scourge; because He schools us by sorrows and by gifts for the unending inheritance.”
End of the Homilies on Ezechiel, tom. i.1430.
Note that even in the midst of unabating sorrow, Gregory I still recognized the hand of God in the suffering of the inhabitants of Rome. He refused to curse God or to charge God with mismanagement. Instead Gregory I confessed that God’s way are altogether just and saw all of God’s severe providence as training for the inheritance that was yet to come. Further, Gregory I refused to fault God because Gregory I understood that if man will sow the wind man will reap the whirlwind.
When Gregory I took office as Pope (or better, had office thrust upon him) he soon commented,
“Since, I submitted the shoulders of my spirit to this burden of the episcopal office, I can no longer collect my soul, distracted as it is on so many sides. At one time I have to consider the affairs of churches and monasteries, often taking into account the lives and actions of individuals. At another time I have to represent my fellow-citizens in their affairs. Again, I have to groan over the swords of barbarians advancing to storm us, and to dread the wolves which lie in wait for a flock huddled together in fear. Then, again, I must charge myself with the care of public affairs, to provide means even for those to whom the maintenance of order is entrusted, or I must patiently endure certain depredators, or take precautions against them, that tranquillity be not disturbed.”
In another place Gregory I says:
“Daily I feel what fulness of peace I have lost, to what fulness of cares I have been exalted. If you love me, weep for me, since so many temporal businesses press on me that I seem as if this dignity had almost excluded me from the love of God. Not of the Romans only am I bishop, but bishop of the Lombards, whose right is the right of the sword, whose favour is punishment. The billows of the world so surge upon me, that I despair of steering into harbour the frail vessel entrusted to me by God, while my hand holds the helm amid a thousand storms.”
And Again, in his synodical letter announcing his accession to the patriarchs, he says:
“Especially, whoever bears the title of Pastor in this place is grievously occupied by external cares, so that he is often in doubt whether he is executing the work of a Pastor or that of an earthly lord”.
Gregory I teaches us that faithfulness does not always equate to glory, standing, and luxury. Too often today Pastors are in it for the adulation. There will be times when pillory is more the fare to be expected.
We remain confident in the ongoing flowering of the postmillennial Kingdom. Gregory I reminds us that through many trials we all must enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
4 thoughts on “Gregory I and the Burden of Leadership in Dark Times”
Encouraging post, thank you.
I like it. this is your youngest student.
Thank you Edward.