September 3rd is the feast of St. Gregory the Great – greatest of the popes, many say. Saints are usually honored on the day of their death; Gregory’s remembered the day he became pope, September 3, 590, which probably was the day he thought himself condemned to death.
Years ago, I lived across the street from Gregory’s home on the Celian Hill in Rome. On my way to school, I would peek through the doors of the library of Pope Agapitus, a relative of Gregory’s, where archeologists were at work learning about what was once the largest Christian library in Rome. Barbarian tribes later plundered the place on one of their regular sweeps through the city.
They were bad times. Gregory was called from his monastery, not just to be pope, but to lead a city under siege. He was never healthy and never had much support. Most of Rome’s leading families moved to safer parts; the imperial government relocated in Milan. The burden of the city and the church fell on him.
Called to a position he didn’t want, Gregory drew wisdom and strength from the scriptures, especially figures like Job and Paul the Apostle, who taught him that riches are found in the weakness of “earthen vessels”.
In his Commentary on Ezechiel, Gregory describes what he went through. Like Ezechiel, he was appointed the city’s watchman. He was to go up to the heights and see what’s coming,
But “I’m not doing this very well, ” Gregory says.
“I do not preach as well as I should nor does my life follow the principles I inadequately preach.
“I don’t deny my guilt, I get tired and negligent. Perhaps by recognizing my failure I’ll win pardon from a sympathetic judge. When I lived in the monastery I was able to keep my tongue from idle topics and give my mind almost continually to prayer, but since taking on my shoulders the burden of pastoral care, I can’t keep recollected, with my mind on so many things.
“I have to consider questions affecting churches and monasteries and often have to judge the lives and actions of others; I have to take part in certain civil affairs, then I have to worry about barbarians attacking and wolves menacing the flock in my care; I have a political duty to support those who uphold the law; I have to put up patiently with thieves and then I have to confront them, in all charity.
“My mind is torn by all the things I have to think about. Then I have to put my mind on preaching. How can I do justice to this sacred ministry?
“Because of who I am I have to associate with all kinds of people and sometimes I say too much. But if I don’t talk to them the weaker kind of people wont come near me, and then we wont have them when we need them. So I have to listen to a lot of aimless chatter.
“But I’m also weak myself and I can get drawn into gossiping and then find myself saying the same things I didn’t care to listen to before.
“Who am I — what kind of watchman am I? I’m not standing on the heights, I’m down in the depths of weakness. And yet the creator and redeemer of all can give me, unworthy as I am, the grace to see life as it really is and power to speak effectively of it. It’s for love of him that I do not spare myself in preaching him.”
You have to admire Gregory. Weak as he feels himself to be he’s a watchman caring for his city and his church. Weakness doesn’t prevent him from serving or being far-sighted. From the Celian Hill Gregory sent monks to England, to the ends of the world, to found the church there.
On his tomb in the Vatican is the simple inscription that describes him so well. “Servant of the servants of God.”