Today is the annual commemoration of one of the truly extraordinary figures of ancient Latin Christianity. Gregory’s ministry as Bishop of Rome had so many lines of influence in liturgy, pastoral practice, ecclesiastical organization, mission, and spirituality that it would be hard to list them even cursorily.
As a parish priest, however, I tend to think of St. Gregory with special reference to his book on the pastoral life, usually called Pastoral Care, though its author referred to it as The Book of the Pastoral Rule. Gregory’s methodical mind, perhaps influenced by monastic rules, seems to have conceived this highly-influential work as a rule for parish clergy in maintaining a skilled and effective level of pastoral care.
While St. Gregory’s vision for pastoral care is a very exacting document from many centuries ago, much of it is based on relatively simple precepts that remain stable, wise, and applicable. The opening of this book suggests one of these precepts: humility. Without this key virtue, the pastor will inevitably fail to listen to the flock and to Christ the Great Shepherd of our Souls. This leads to all sorts of neglect, damage, and scandal.
Gregory also makes clear that even those ordained to pastoral ministry, while bearing the outward sign of authority, lack all true spiritual authority as pastors if their actions are inconsistent with their words. He shows that Early Christian gift of holding ecclesiastical structures in a creative tension with a living faith.
The Book of the Pastoral Rule makes clear a heavenly mandate for the pastoral care offered by the clergy. As in the ancient Church, so it is today: holiness in life is not an option for the Christian—it is evidence of a true commitment to know Christ and make him known. If the Church allows itself to be conformed to the “spirit of the age,” no amount of popular success or approval will reverse God’s judgment on so craven and bankrupt a lapse.
No one ventures to teach any art unless he has learned it after deep thought. With what rashness, then, would the pastoral office be undertaken by the unfit, seeing that the government of souls is the art of arts. For who does not realize that the wounds of the mind are more hidden than the internal wounds of the body? Yet, although those who have no knowledge of the powers of drugs shrink from giving themselves out as physicians of the flesh, people who are utterly ignorant of spiritual precepts are often not afraid of professing themselves to be physicians of the heart, and though, by divine ordinance, those now in the highest positions are disposed to show a regard for religion, some there are who aspire to glory and esteem by an outward show of authority within the holy Church. They crave to appear as teachers and covet ascendancy over others, and, as the Truth attests: They seek the first salutations in the market place, the first places at feasts, and the first chairs in the synagogues.
These persons are all the more unfitted to administer worthily what they have undertaken, the office of pastoral care, in that they have attained to the tutorship of humility by vanity alone; for, obviously, in this tutorship the tongue purveys mere jargon when one thing is learned and its contrary taught. Against such as these the Lord complains by the mouth of the Prophet: They have reigned not by me; they have been princes and I knew not. These reign by their own conceit, not by the will of the Supreme Ruler; they are sustained by no virtues, are not divinely called, but being inflamed by their cupidity, they seize rather than attain supreme rule.
Yet the Judge within both advances and ignores them, because those whom He tolerates on sufferance, He actually ignores by the sentence of His reprobation. Therefore, even to some who come to Him after having worked miracles, He says: Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity, I know you not. This unfitness of pastors is rebuked by the voice of the Truth, through the Prophet, when it is said: The shepherds themselves knew no understanding. Again, the Lord denounces them, saying: And they that held the law knew me not. Therefore, the Truth complains of not being known by them, and protests that it does not know the high office of leaders who know Him not, because they who do not know the things that are the Lord's, are ignored by the Lord, as Paul says: But if any man know not, he shall not be known. This unfitness of the pastors does, in truth, often accord with the deserts of their subjects, because, even if the former have not the light of knowledge through their own fault, it is due to a severe judgment that through their ignorance they, too, who follow, should stumble.
It is, therefore, for this reason that the Truth in person says in the Gospel: If the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit. Consequently, the Psalmist in his ministry as Prophet, but not as expressing a wish, says: Let their eyes be darkened that they see not, and their back bend down Thou always. For those persons are "eyes" who, set in the forefront of the highest dignity, have undertaken the duty of showing the way, while those who follow on and are attached to them are termed the "back." When, then, the eyes are blinded, the back is bent, for when those who go before lose the light of knowledge, certainly those who follow are bowed down in carrying the burden of their sins.
Chapter 1 of the Regula Pastoralis of St. Gregory the Great
As translated by Henry Davis, S.J.
Collect for St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome
Almighty and merciful God, you raised up Gregory of Rome to be a servant of the servants of God, and inspired him to send missionaries to preach the Gospel to the English people: Preserve in your Church the catholic and apostolic faith they taught, that your people, being fruitful in every good work, may receive the crown of glory that never fades away; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.