The photographs of the little candidates were taken before the Mass in the sanctuary, but I was still able to undertake my personal preparation for the Eucharist by reading, as I customarily do, the second of the two readings from the day’s Office of Readings. The Office of Readings, one of the “hours” in the Liturgy of the Hours, consists of three psalms and two lengthy texts. The first text is drawn from the Hebrew or Christian Scripture. The second reading, however, is taken from the rich treasury of sermons and writings of saints and doctors of the Church. Privately I think of this text as “the official sermon of the day.” For April 26 the second text is a sermon on the Good Shepherd by one of the Church’s great shepherds himself, Pope Gregory I, who in fact is known as St. Gregory the Great.
In his sermon on the Good Shepherd we get a glimpse of a very worthy imitator. While 95% of sermons preached around the world in churches today will probably address the dangers of sheep herding at the time of Jesus, the office of Bishop of Rome was a nightmare in the late 500’s A.D. In talking about today’s Gospel, Gregory passes immediately to his own personal ordeals: “My dear brethren, you have heard the test we pastors have to undergo.” Gregory turns the sheep image on its head: “Ask yourself whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds.” Gregory, it would seem, is counting heads to see who would stand with him in time of trial.
Gregory grew up in what would have been a noble Roman family a few centuries before, but the sixth century was not kind to Rome. The seat of the empire had long since moved to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and the Italian peninsula was ravaged by invaders from several directions. In one episode the city of Rome was actually depopulated. Gregory, in spite of this, received a significant private education, but he was also attracted to one of the few institutions thriving in his day, monasteries.
Not surprisingly Gregory would ultimately become a highly respected abbot, and would have preferred to continue this life uninterrupted. However, in an age where gifted souls were few, he was asked to serve as diplomat for Church and civil matters to Constantinople. A sign of the times: Gregory received this appointment though he neither spoke nor read Greek, the language of the Eastern Church and Empire. He served somehow for seven years but returned home to retire to his monastery. However, he was acclaimed pope in 590 for what would be a fourteen year tenure as Bishop of Rome.
To understand his challenges, remember that what we would call today “infrastructure” was in serious decay in Gregory’s time. The office of the papacy, for all practical purposes, was a civil as well as an ecclesiastical position, as it was one of few centralized institutions functioning with any sense of vision and organization. Gregory would complain to his sister that he had to conduct more business as bishop than was ever required of him as a layman. To another retired bishop he would write, perhaps enviously: “I am being smashed by so many waves of affairs and afflicted by the storms of a life of tumults, so that I may rightly say, ‘I am come into deep waters where the floods overflow me.’ (Psalm 69:2). And so, you who stand on the shore of virtues, stretch out the hand of your prayer to me in my danger.”
What were his turmoils? Gregory found the Roman Church to be somewhat doctrinally disorganized; the Roman Latin west was still making sense of the Christological teachings of the Greek councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, and a variety of “local heresies” existed throughout the Italian peninsula. As Gregory did not read Greek, he manfully did his best to defend and clarify the statements of the Nicene Creed. His greater strength, however, appeared to be his ability to draw from his monastic roots in his enrichment of the pastoral life in biblical commentaries and sermons. He reformed the order of Mass and placed the Our Father in its present day location before the breaking of the bread and holy communion.
He was one of the first popes to understand the vision of a unified Church in the modern sense, and despite troubles at home, he never lost sight of the critical need for missionary work. He dispatched missionaries to faraway England; legend has it that he encountered an English slave in Rome and told him: “You are an Angle, but I will make you an angel.” History has generally looked to Gregory as the inspiration of the universal ministry of the Bishop of Rome, though it would be some centuries before a successor would achieve his power and esteem.