Gregory the Great on good bishops and bad schisms

Everyone who reads Gregory the Great’s letters — showcased by me here — will be drawn to different things. Social history, life in Sicily, Lombards, political history, and so forth. Because of my research interests (papal letters in Late Antiquity & Leo the Great in particular), I was drawn largely to things he had to say pertaining to canon law as well as to the Istrian Schism (on which, see below).

In Leo, we read about the preparation for consecrating a bishop as well as the necessity of the combined choice being made by people and clergy. Gregory talks about these things, but he also has beautiful things to say about what a good bishop is in Ep. 1.24, which is kind of refreshing:

I consider indeed that one must be vigilant and take all care that a bishop (rector) is pure in thought, outstanding in action, discrete in silence, useful with his speech, very close to individuals with compassion, more uplifted in contemplation than all others, allied with those doing good through humility, but upright with the zeal of justice against the vices of wrong-doers.

… Again, when I bring myself to considering what sort of bishop he should be with regard to compassion and what sort with regard to contemplation, I consider that he should be both very close to individuals in compassion and elevated before all thers in contemplation.

… For of course good preachers not only seek through contemplation the holy head of the Church up above, that is the Lord God, but by showing pity they also descend down below to its limits.

… the highest position is well-governed when the person in charge controls vices rather than his brethren. A person controls the power he has received well who knows both how to hold and condemn it. He controls it well, who knows how to rise above sins with it, and how to be made equal to others with it. (Trans. John R. C. Martyn)

This is Letter XXV in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation if you wish to read the whole thing. Later in the same letter, Gregory brings up the ecumenical councils — which brings me to schism. Gregory says that he adheres to and follows the four councils — Nicaea, Constantinople, the First of Ephesus, and Chalcedon. The Second of Constantinople is not mentioned. He writes:

These four I embrace with total devotion and I guard with purest approbation, because in them the structure of the holy faith rises up as if built on a square stone, and whoever does not uphold their solidity, whatever his life and works may be, even if he appears to be of stone, yet he lies outside the building. I also venerate equally the fifth council, in which are refuted …

Gregory then describes the ‘Three Chapters’. I’ve discussed these here before — they are a letter by Ibas of Edessa, passages of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and passages from Theodoret of Cyrrhus that Justinian proclaimed heretical first by edict then by council at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. Because Pope Vigilius ended up subscribing to the condemnation of the Three Chapters, a schism resulted between Rome and many of the churches of northern Italy. It is often called the Istrian Schism.

So it’s important that Gregory gives a long, big build up about the importance of the four councils and how he venerates them, etc, before saying, ‘Also, the Fifth.’ In later letters, in fact, he would studiously avoid mentioning the fifth council depending on his recipient when writing to people in northern Italy. In Ep. 4.37, Gregory tells his recipient to keep his focus on Chalcedon and the support for it, and then argues:

as for that synod which was held afterwards in Constantinople, which many call the fifth, I want you to know that it established and decided nothing contrary to the fourmost sacred synods. Indeed, nothing was done in it about the Christian faith, but only about persons, and about those person who are not mentioned in the council of Chalcedon.

This I am unsure what to do with, since two out of three persons mentioned in the Three Chapters were explicitly at Chalcedon, discussed, and reinstated into their bishoprics. Indeed, this is the nub of the issue in the Istrian Schism. If we reject the teachings of Theodoret and Ibas, are we rejecting Chalcedon?

The best is 4.33, though:

We also delcare that whosoever thinks other than these four synods did, is an enemy of the true faith. And we condemn whomsoever they condemn, and whomsoever they absolve, we too absolve. We strike down under the imposition of anathema anyone who presumes to add or substract from the faith of these same four synods, but especially the Chalcedonian, over which doubt has arisen in the minds of ignorant people.

In other letters North, Gregory pleads for the bishops to return to communion with Rome.

Schism and heresy are diseases to Gregory. As a good shepherd, he needs to root them out for the healing of his flock, as he says in Ep. 4.35 about Donatists in North Africa.

From these passages and many others, I believe that Gregory tried to be a good bishop, a shepherd overseeing his flock — a man of compassion and contemplation. I thank the Lord for men like him in whose spiritual tradition I stand, even if I am wounded by the pain of schism.

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Christmas: The Leonine Sacramentary (and Leo the Great!)

Fourth-century nativity, Palazzo Massimo, Rome
Fourth-century nativity, Palazzo Massimo, Rome

Merry Christmas! (Don’t worry about my celebrations, I’m writing this post in advance!! Skip ahead to the prayers I’m talking about if you like.)

This Advent I explored the collects for the season from the Sarum Missal,1 taking us on a journey of expectation, calling upon the Lord to come down into our lives and stir up our own souls to do good deeds as well as to succour us in the midst of our own sinfulness. My original plan had been to approach Advent from the angle of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, as I’d been posting about Late Antique and Early Medieval liturgy in November,2 but I discovered that those liturgical books I have easiest access to give us nothing for Advent. But Christmas is a different story.

I turn our attention now to the Leonine Sacramentary. This liturgical book is not, technically speaking, a sacramentary. Sacramentaries are precursors to missals and have in them all the things you need for the feasts of the liturgical year and the saying of the Mass. The Leonine Sacramentary, ms Verona lxxxv, of the seventh century, is a collection of prayers to be said at Mass, arranged by the secular year, and does not include the actual liturgy of the Mass. The manuscript is damaged and begins in April.

It was initially imagined to be by Leo the Great because of how old it seems to be, and because Leo is said to have made some modifications to the Roman liturgy. The collection is texts is now thought to be later than Leo but likely draws upon much fifth- and sixth-century manterial. From what I understand, it is a ‘pure’ ‘Roman’ form of the liturgy, from a time before the West was engaged in a lot of cross-pollination between Frankish Gaul/Germany and Italy, or the Eastern Mediterranean and Italy.

Let’s look at the text.

Using the Ballerini edition of the 1750s (because it’s right beside me, repr. Migne, Patrologia Latina 55), we can see a nice variety of prayers for ‘VIII KALENDAS JANUARII’ — that is, 25 December. The first immediately catches my eye:

God, who wondrously established and more wondrously reformed the dignity of the human substance, grant, we beseech Thee, to us that we may be sharers in the divinity of Jesus Christ your Son, who was judged worthy to participate in our humanity. Through …

Frankly, this prayer is more than enough for a blog post!

Could anything me more Leonine? The balancing of ‘wondrously’ (mirabiliter) with ‘more wondrously’ (mirabilius) is a strikingly Leonine parallel, as when this great pope speaks in his Tome (Ep. 28) of Christ’s birth that was singularly wondrous and wondrously singular. At a deeper level, the issue of ‘human substance’ is itself a deeply ‘Leonine’ theological concern (I refer the reader to J Mark Armitage, A Twofold Solidarity: Leo the Great’s Theology of Redemption) — Jesus Christ is consubstantial with us through his birth through St Mary the Virgin and with God the Father through being God, the Word, Incarnate.

This double consubstantiality is essential for salvation, and it is what is at stake in Leonine Christology when Leo begins arguing about ‘two natures’. If you read the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, this is what the Council Fathers were very concerned about as well — that Christ took on full human flesh from His Mother and was thereby fully human. It is a concern that, in these terms, reaches back to the First Council of Ephesus in 431, but goes even farther to the fourth-century argument against Apollinaris of Laodicea who maintained that Jesus did not have a human soul. As St Gregory of Nazianzus famously put it (Ep. 101):

What has not been assumed has not been healed.

Through Jesus Christ’s participation in our humanity (to return to the text of the prayer), God has ‘more wondrously reformed the dignity of the human substance’. As I say, the thoughtworld is deeply, inescapably Leonine here. I am revelling in it as I type.

And what is the actual petition in this collect? ‘That we may be sharers in the divinity of Jesus Christ your Son’.

This, my friends, is Theosis. We, as the adopted children of God, enjoy by grace what Christ enjoys by nature. He was a participant in humanity. We can participate in divinity. He became man that man might become God (St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54.3).

Quick closing musings. We should not be surprised that a Veronese liturgical codex of the 600s has such strong Leonine influences, especially on its Christmas prayers. Christmas is when Leo is most quoted. Furthermore, I think that Verona is in that part of Italy that entered in to schism with Rome over the ‘Three Chapters’ following the Council of Constantinople in 553 (the Istrian Schism) — the final reconciliation did not occur until during the pontificate of Pope Sergius in 700. The ‘Tricapitoline’ Christians in northern Italy were hardline, conservative followers of Leo and Chalcedon who felt that the council of 553 had abrogated Chalcedon, and therefore Leo the Great. Leo, as a result, was very close and very dear to their hearts. That his theology would penetrate a Veronese codex, then, is no issue.

As you reflect on these rich theological truths, rooted in Scripture and tradition, I hope that the joy of Christ’s Nativity will fill hearts with joy!

Merry Christmas! Christus natus est!


1. These posts are: Advent 1, Sarum: Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord; Advent 2, Sarum: More Stirring up!; Advent 3, Sarum: Give Ear to Our Prayers; Advent 4, Sarum: Raise up Thy Power and Come
2. Ancient and Early Medieval Prayer 1: An Invitation; 2: Why; 3: Sources