Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On the Thought of Gregory the Great
"Holiness Is Always Possible, Even in Difficult Times"
H.H. Benedict XVI
June 4, 2008
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I return today, in this our Wednesday meeting, to the extraordinary
figure of Pope Gregory the Great, to glean additional light from his
rich teaching. Despite the many commitments connected with his work as
Bishop of Rome, he has left us numerous works, which in succeeding
centuries the Church has received with open hands.
Beyond the conspicuous collection of letters -- the Register to which I
referred in the last catechesis contains an additional 800 letters -- he
left us letters written primarily in an exegetic character, outstanding
among them is the "Moral Commentary on Job" -- known under the Latin
title of "Moralia in Iob." He also left the Homilies on Ezekiel, and the
Homilies on the Gospel.
There is moreover an important work of hagiographic character, the
"Dialogues," written by Gregory for the Lombard Queen Theodolinda. The
principal and best known work is without a doubt the" Pastoral Rule,"
which the Pope wrote at the beginning of the pontificate with a clearly
In wishing to consider these works briefly, we must note, however, that
in his writings, Gregory never seems concerned to delineate "his"
doctrine, his originality. Instead, he seeks to echo the traditional
teaching of the Church, he wishes simply to be the mouth of Christ and
of his Church on the way that must be followed to reach God.
Exemplary in this respect are his exegetical comments. He was a
passionate reader of sacred Scripture, which he approached not only with
speculative understanding. He thought that from sacred Scripture, the
Christian must distill not just theoretical knowledge, but also daily
nourishment for his soul, for his life as a man in this world.
In the Homilies on Ezekiel, for example, he energetically underlines
this function of the sacred text: To approach Scripture simply to
satisfy one's desire to know means to give in to the temptation of pride
and thus expose oneself to the risk of falling into heresy. Intellectual
humility is the main rule for one who seeks to penetrate supernatural
realities flowing from the sacred book.
Humility, obviously, does not exclude serious study; but in order to
make this result in spiritual profit, consenting to truly enter into the
profundity of the text, humility remains indispensable. Only with this
interior attitude does one finally truly hear and perceive the voice of
God. Moreover, when it is a question of the word of God, understanding
is nothing if the comprehension does not lead to action.
Found also in these homilies on Ezekiel is that beautiful expression
according to which "the preacher must dip his pen into the blood of his
heart; thus he too will be able to reach his neighbor's ear. Reading
these homilies of his, one sees that Gregory has really written with the
blood of his heart and, consequently, speaks to us also today.
Gregory develops this discourse, also, in the "Moral Commentary on Job."
In keeping with the patristic tradition, he examines the sacred text in
the three dimensions of its meaning: the literal dimension, the
allegorical dimension and the moral. These are dimensions of the
singular meaning of sacred Scripture. But Gregory attributes a clear
prevalence to the moral meaning.
In this perspective, he proposes his thought through some significant
binomials -- know how-do, speak-live, know something-act -- in which he
evokes the two aspects of human life which should be complementary, but
which often end up by being antithetical. The moral ideal, he comments,
consists in achieving always a harmonious integration between word and
action, thought and commitment, prayer and dedication to the duties of
one's state: This is the road to attain that synthesis thanks to which
the divine descends into man and man is raised to identification with
The great Pope thus traces, for the authentic believer, a complete plan
of life. Because of this, in the course of Medieval times, the "Moral
Commentary on Job" was seen as a sort of "Summa" of Christian morality.
The "Homilies on the Gospel" are also of noteworthy relevance and
beauty. The first of these was delivered in St. Peter's basilica during
Advent in 590, and therefore, a few months after his election to the
pontificate. The last was given in St. Lawrence's Basilica on the second
Sunday after Pentecost in 593. The Pope preached to the people in
churches where "stations" were celebrated -- particular ceremonies of
prayer at intense times in the liturgical year -- or the feasts of
The inspirational principle, which links together the various addresses,
is summarized in the word "praedicator": Not only the minister of God,
but also every Christian, has the duty to make himself a "preacher" of
what he has experienced in his own interior, following the example of
Christ who became man to take to all the proclamation of salvation. The
horizon of this commitment is eschatological: The expectation of
fulfillment in Christ of all things is a constant thought of the great
Pontiff and ends by being the inspirational motive of his every thought
and activity. From here flow his incessant calls to vigilance and
commitment to good works.
Perhaps the most organic text of Gregory the Great is the "Pastoral
Rule," written in the first years of his pontificate. In it Gregory
intends to delineate the figure of the ideal bishop, teacher and guide
of his flock. To this end he illustrates the gravity of the office of
pastor of the Church and the duties it entails: Therefore, those who are
called to such a task were not called and did not search for it
superficially, those instead who assume it without due reflection feel
arising in their spirit an onerous trepidation.
Taking up again a favorite topic, he affirms that the bishop is above
all the "preacher" par excellence. As such, he must be above all an
example to others, so that his behavior can be a reference point for
all. Effective pastoral action requires therefore that he know the
recipients and adapt his addresses to each one's situation. Gregory
pauses to illustrate the different categories of faithful with acute and
precise annotations, which can justify the appraisal of those who have
seen in this work a treatise of psychology. From here one understands
that he really knew his flock and spoke about everything with the people
of his time and of his city.
The great Pontiff, moreover, stresses the daily duty a pastor has to
acknowledge his own misery, so that pride will not render vain -- before
the eyes of the supreme Judge -- the good he accomplished. Therefore,
the last chapter of the rule is dedicated to humility. "When one is
pleased about having attained many virtues it is good to reflect on
one's own insufficiencies and humble oneself. Instead of considering the
good accomplished, it is necessary to consider what one has failed to
All these precious indications demonstrate the very lofty concept St.
Gregory had of the care of souls, defined by him as "ars artium," the
art of arts. The rule had great success to the point that, something
rather rare, and it was soon translated into Greek and Anglo-Saxon.
Significant also is the other work, "The Dialogues," in which to his
friend and deacon Peter, convinced that the customs were now so corrupt
so as not to allow for the emergence of saints as in past times, Gregory
demonstrates the contrary: Holiness is always possible, even in
He proves it by recounting the life of contemporary and recently
deceased persons, who can well be considered saints, even if not
canonized. The account is accompanied by theological and mystical
reflections that make the book a singular hagiographic text, able to
fascinate whole generations of readers.
The material is drawn from the living traditions of the people and has
the objective of edifying and forming, attracting the attention of the
reader to a series of questions such as the meaning of miracles, the
interpretation of Scripture, the immortality of the soul, the existence
of hell, the representation of the above -- all topics that were in need
of opportune clarification.
Book II is entirely dedicated to the figure of Benedict of Nursia, and
is the only ancient testimony on the life of the holy monk, whose
spiritual beauty appears in the text in full evidence.
In the theological design that Gregory develops through his works, past,
present and future are relativized. What counts most of all for him is
the entire span of salvific history, which continues to unravel through
the dark meanderings of time. In this perspective, it is significant
that he inserts the announcement of the conversion of the Anglos right
in the middle of the "Moral Commentary on Job." To his eyes the event
constituted an advancement of the kingdom of God which Scripture
addresses. With good reason, therefore, it is to be mentioned in the
commentary on a sacred book.
According to him, the leaders of the Christian community must be
committed to reread events in the light of the word of God. In this
respect, the great Pontiff felt the need to guide pastors and faithful
in the spiritual itinerary of an illumined and concrete "lectio divina,"
placed in the context of their lives.
Before concluding, it is only right to say a word on the relationship
that Pope Gregory cultivated with the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria
and Constantinople. He was always concerned with acknowledging and
respecting their rights, allowing himself no interference that would
limit their legitimate authority.
If, however, in the context of his historical situation, St. Gregory was
opposed to the title "ecumenical" on the part of the patriarch of
Constantinople, he did not do so to limit or deny this legitimate
authority, but because he was concerned about the fraternal unity of the
universal Church. He did so above all by his profound conviction that
humility should be the fundamental virtue of every bishop, even more so
of a patriarch.
Gregory remained a simple monk in his heart and that explains why he was
decidedly opposed to great titles. He wished to be -- this is his
expression -- "servus servorum Dei." This word, coined by him, was not a
pious formula in his mouth, but the true manifestation of his way of
living and acting. He was profoundly impressed by the humility of God,
who in Christ made himself our slave, he washed and washes our dirty
Therefore, he was convinced that, above all, a bishop must imitate this
humility of God and, for love of God, be able to make himself the
servant of all in a time full of tribulations and sufferings, to make
himself the "servant of the servants." Precisely because he was this, he
is great and shows us also the measure of true greatness.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Pope then greeted those present in several languages. In English,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In today's audience we return to the writings of Pope Saint Gregory the
Great, whose constant aim was to present the Church's teaching on the
ways that lead to the contemplation of God. His Homilies on Ezekiel and
his Moral Commentary on Job present a model of spiritual life which
integrates prayer and action. In his Homilies on the Gospels Saint
Gregory explained how the preacher's own spiritual experience of Christ
should form the basis of his exhortations. The Pastoral Rule describes
the ideal Bishop as a teacher and guide who leads by example and adapts
his preaching to the specific background of those he addresses. The
Dialogues, a work full of rich theological and spiritual insights,
describe the lives of the saints of Gregory's epoch. In all things he
insists on intellectual humility as a key to the meaning of Scripture,
and proposes to Pastors and the faithful alike, the continual practice
of lectio divina in order to better understand and follow God's will.
Pope Gregory defended the prerogatives of the See of Rome, but with
humility as the servant of the servants of God, and respected the rights
of other Pastors, especially the Patriarchs of Constantinople and
Alexandria. May the life and teaching of Saint Gregory guide and inspire
us on our way to the joyous contemplation of God in eternity!
I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors
here today, including the groups from England, Australia, Japan, the
Philippines, Vietnam, Canada and the United States. I extend special
greetings to the group of Episcopalian pilgrims from Jerusalem, and to
the many student groups present at this audience. May God bless you all!
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