Gregory the Great – Last of the Romans, and First Great Founder of Christian Culture

Gregory the Great - Last of the Romans, and First Great Founder of Christian Culture
Pope Saint Gregory the Great 540-604

Blessed reflected upon the life and significance of Pope Saint Gregory the Great during the last years of his pontificate and we now may see a parallel as to his own merit to be designated “John Paul II the Great.” (See the talk here)

John Paul II remarks how deeply “Roman” was this great Pope Gregory, the “son of an old Roman family which had long been Christian. The atmosphere of his home and the education he received enabled him to become familiar with the heritage of the different branches of knowledge and of classical literature.” He witnessed first hand the on-going destruction of the ancient civilization. Citing Ezekiel he proclaimed “Of this city it is well said ‘ the meat is boiled away and the bones in the midst thereof’ . . . for where is the senate? where is the people? The bones are all dissolved, the flesh is consumed, all the pomp of the dignities of this world is gone. The whole mass is boiled away.” (Homily on Ezekiel, II. vi, quoted in Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe, p, 191) Dawson, like John Paul II, credits Gregory with the transformation of the Roman ideal into its true spiritual seed, i.e., Roman Catholicism,  which becomes spread and planted abroad to fructify throughout the world. Indeed, we in America are the beneficiaries of his great vision and initiatives. As John Paul II said of the work of Gregory the Great — “Motivated by exemplary zeal to spread the Gospel, he encouraged an intense missionary activity which expressed a Roman spirit purified and inspired by the Gospel, no longer concerned with asserting political power but keen to bring the saving message of Christ to all peoples.” Through the pitiless crowbar of events, Rome as a civilization was shattered; but the learning, the spirit of law, and the primacy of the spiritual was released for future growth and inculturation. Dawson expresses it this way — the very indifference to temporal results gave the “papacy the power to become the rallying point for the forces of life in the general decadence of civilization.” (p 192) John Paul II also rallies the “forces of life” in the face of decadence when he says: “he realized that the patrimony of classical antiquity, in addition to that of the Christian heritage, was a valuable basis for subsequent scientific and human development. Still today, his insight has retained its full value for the future of humanity and, especially, of Europe. Indeed, it is impossible to build the future by ignoring the past. That is why, on various occasions, I have urged the competent Authorities to appreciate the rich classical and Christian ‘roots’ of European civilization as they deserve, to pass on their sap to the new generations.”

At the heart of this Catholic vision lies the truth of the dignity of the human person, created and redeemed by the Blessed Trinity. Thus John Paul II praises St Gregory the Great for “his commitment to shedding light on the primacy of the human person, considered not only in his physical, psychological and social dimensions but also in constant reference to his eternal destiny. This is a truth on which today’s world should focus greater attention if it wishes to build a world with deeper respect for the multiple needs of every human being.” The pontificate of John Paul II the Great is marked by his first encyclical, The Redeemer of Man, as meditation upon the core truths enunciated in Gaudium et spes, that “Christ reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” Dawson explains that Gregory the Great embodied the deep vision of Augustine, the City of God, seeing man as a pilgrim, in via, his “patria was heavenly and eternal.” In a fundamental respect, Dawson explains, Gregory saw as keenly as Augustine that “the only reality worth striving for is that which is eternal – the heavenly Jerusalem.” This too is the message of John Paul II — we must seek God above all and strive for the life of contemplation. At heart, John Paul II the Great was a mystic, a man of deep prayer, a pilgrim Pope in many respects.

Finally, Gregory the Great, for his utter dedication to the city of God, was keenly aware of the need to go forth and to engage the world and cultures beyond Rome, to be a missionary. Blessed John paul II says of him: “The great Pontiff’s inner disposition is evident in the directions he carefully imparted to the Abbot Augustine, whom he sent to Britain: he explicitly asked him to respect the customs of those peoples, as long as they did not conflict with the Christian faith. Thus, Gregory the Great, in addition to fostering the missionary concern that was inherent in his ministry, made a crucial contribution to the harmonious integration of the various peoples of Western Christendom.” Gregory is the proto-type of Cyril and Methodius, the apostles to the slavs, co-desiganted as Patrons of Europe by John Paul II because of their love of Christ and . Indeed, St Benedict is the first patron of Europe. And Gregory the Great is the true partner of this patronage of Benedict; as Dawson says “The beginning  of this Benedictine world mission was due to the action of St. Gregory, himself a Benedictine monk.” Sending out St Augustine to convert England, we credit him for establishing at Canterbury “the starting point of a movement of religious organization and unification which created a new centre of Christian civilization in the West.” (Making, pp. 205-206)

The message of John Paul II the Great on that day was to recall us to our precious life giving roots, and to bid us to put out into the deep of the new millennium with the same saving message: “the witness of this distinguished Pontiff lives on as an example for us too, Christians of today who have only recently crossed the threshold of the third millennium and look confidently to the future. To build a future of serenity and solidarity, it is right to turn our gaze to this true disciple of Christ and to follow his teaching, courageously presenting anew to the contemporary world the saving message of the Gospel. Indeed, it is only in Christ and in him alone that human beings of every epoch can find the secret to the total fulfilment of their most essential aspirations.”

By those deep affinities that marked the life of Blessed John Paul II, we may discover a connection between St Gregory the Great and Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe. I discovered in a homily that he gave early in his pontificate upon a visit to the Roman parish of Gregory the Great in Magliana (read it here) this declaration of St Maximilian as  the great apostle of the century. “I would like to tell you my joy in knowing that in your parish there is a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Maximilian Kolbe, the great apostle of our century.” Hohn Paul II will declare him the saint of the new millennium. For who else but Kolbe observed what Gregory observed as the extreme misery and decadence of a once great civilization? “What mutilations, what cruelties have we seen inflicted upon men!” Gregory cried out. He prophetically portends the melt down of all that was great – “Rome is, as it were,  empty and burning. . . . Already the pot itself is being consumed in which were first consumed the flesh and the bones.” Oh, what Maximilian saw at Auschwitz, and what his confreres saw at Nagasaki! And yet he lived out that “Love in action,” “a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Thus love and hope rose triumphant in Kolbe, and in Mother Teresa, in Dorothy Day, in Pier Giorgio Frassati, Maria Goretti, and onward. Even in a dry season, the seed of Christian culture fructifies beyond measure for it is germinated from above.


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