Happy Feast of St Gregory the Great

With my office under two minutes’ walk from the tomb of the Venerable St Bede, my mind tends towards thinking of Gregory the Great (Bishop of Rome, 590-604) as the man who sent missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons in 597. This, indeed, was one of the many ways in which St Gregory is a major figure of his day. Through the mission of Augustine and his comrades at Canterbury, the Christianisation of southern England and its Anglo-Saxon inhabitants began. Britain was reconnected much more strongly with the Mediterranean world than hitherto. Anglo-Saxon culture began to take on its great fusion and synthesis that makes it so attractive, bringing with it elements of its own Germanic origins, the Mediterranean culture of the Roman missionaries and Roman Christianity, and the Celtic culture of its own neighbours and their missionaries who would become settled more permanently in English soil in a few years.

This triple fusion is, in my opinion, eminently demonstrated in the Lindisfarne Gospels (715-720).

This alone would make St Gregory great and worthy of recognition.

My research, on the other hand, makes me turn to Gregory’s voluminous correspondence. At a conference in honour of his retirement, early medieval scholar Tom Brown (author of Gentlemen and Officers), said that the first task he was assigned as a graduate student was the study of Gregory’s correspondence. Here he found a window into the social world of the Early Middle Ages unparalleled anywhere else. Indeed, Gregory the Great has over 800 surviving letters, more than any preceding pope. The greatest corpus of papal letters before Gregory is Leo the Great with 173.

In his letters we gain access to the workings of the papal machinery, to the growth and development of canon law, to the theological issues of the day, to early Byzantine politics, to the world of Byzantine Italy and the Lombard invasions. Worth reading, indeed.

My interest in Benedict, of late, makes me think on St Gregory’s life in two further ways. One, of course, is the second of his Dialogues, our only near-contemporary life of St Benedict, upon which we rely for any details about the author of the Rule and founder of Montecassino. The other is Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule, which details the ideal bishop but could easily be applied to an abbot or parochial priest — anyone with the care of souls.

Elsewhere, Gregory shows us the union of the active and contemplative lives, drawing on ideas expounded by Julianus Pomerius a century before. He praises the usefulness of images for instructing the illiterate. He sought to reform the singing of the liturgy in Rome, whereby a Sacramentary and a style of plainchant now bear his name (even if they are not, properly speaking, his).

He is worth knowing, this (potential) last of the Latin Fathers, latest of the Four Great Doctors of the Western Church, poised between antiquity and the Middle Ages.

I don’t know where to direct you first in this exhortation, though. Perhaps Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, for those with time to read a whole book! Here’s the most ancient life of St Gregory. Enjoy.

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.

Initial reflections on Volume 1 of Gregory the Great’s letters

The top of St Gregory's crozier
The top of St Gregory’s crozier

This morning I finished reading the first volume John R C Martyn’s translation of Gregory the Great‘s letters. This covers Books 1-4. Gregory the Great was Bishop of Rome 590-604, and he left behind a significant corpus of writings — sermons, The Book of Pastoral Rule, the Dialogues (which are hagiographical), and letters. The Pastoral Rule is one of the few Latin patristic texts both translated into and widely read in Greek from a very early age.

Over 800 of Gregory’s letters survive. This is considerably more than any previous pope. Indeed, one of my catch-lines about Leo the Great (pope 440-461) is that more letters survive from him than from any other pope before Gregory, and for Leo we have a corpus of ~170 items. Unfortunately, I am not clear about how Gregory the Great’s epistolary corpus stacks up against later popes in terms of quantity. My apologies.

As a result of this massive corpus of missives, we have a much better sense of who Gregory is than of the other incumbents of the Roman see. We have many more avenues to access his thought on a range of issues. We see what sorts of things he was interested in, we see what sorts of things he believed, we see what sorts of people he knew. Gregory thus stands in sharper relief than any other Late Antique Bishop of Rome.

Now, when we say these things, we have to remember that, while Gregory undoubtedly unique and had his own strengths, it is not necessarily the case that his correspondence was unique as a body of documents. The mediaeval papacy was not suddenly born in the year 590. Gregory is but one step in a long process; what makes his letters unique is their quantity, not necessarily their concerns or outlook.

Not always, anyway.

One final preliminary issue. The sorts of papal letters I read for my own research tend to be of interest primarily or only as sources for canon law. Although I believe that canon law, and papal letters in particular, is an often overlooked source for social history, it is still the case that the explicit interest of the pope at hand is canon law, and very often in broad terms. That is, Innocent I is interested in discussing monks and nuns who leave their monasteries whereas Gregory is interested in this one particular story about this one particular nun who got pregnant. Gregory’s letters, then, are universally recognised by historians as a major source for the history of the Early Middle Ages, in a way, sadly, that a lot of other papal letters are not always.

Gregory’s main correspondents are clergy — mostly bishops, but sometimes also deacons and priests — and officials or aristocrats. In Books 1-4, he writes to the Lombard Queen Theodelinda, for example, as well as the Byzantine imperial daughter Constantina. He writes to the deacon who manages the church’s landholdings and financial affairs in Sicily quite often. He writes to secular officials in Dalmatia and Africa.

His correspondents are in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Dalmatia, and North Africa, only occasionally in Gaul, although Frankish lands will feature more prominently in later books of the correspondence.

He writes about ecclesiastical abuses, about who is fit to be a cleric, about allowing Jews freedom of worship, about not allowing Jews to own Christian slaves or buy property from churches, about evangelising Sardinian pagans, about schism, about theology, about monks and nuns, about misbehaving sons of clerics, about people trying to sell off church plate, about people trying to found monasteries and how that’s a good thing, about people alienating property from its rightful heirs — about the range of human existence, basically.

I will go into some of the moments that piqued my interest next time. But it was worth the read, and I will get around to the next two volumes some day.