Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences

General Audience
On Gregory the Great
"He Was a Man Immersed in God"
H.H. Benedict XVI
May 28, 2008

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

Last Wednesday I spoke about a Father of the Church little known in the West -- Romanus the Melodius. Today I wish to present the figure of one of the greatest fathers in the history of the Church, one of the four doctors of the West, Pope Gregory, who was bishop of Rome between the years 590 and 604, and who merited on the part of tradition the title "magnus" -- great.

Gregory was truly a great Pope and great doctor of the Church! He was born in Rome, around 540, of a rich patrician family of the "gens Anicia," which was distinguished not only for its nobility of blood, but also for its attachment to the Christian faith and for the services rendered to the Apostolic See. Two Popes proceeded from this family: Felix III (483-492), great-great grandfather of Gregory, and Agapitus (535-536).

The house where Gregory grew up was built on the "Clivus Scauri," surrounded by the majestic building that attested to the greatness of ancient Rome and the spiritual strength of Christianity. To inspire him with lofty Christian sentiments he counted, moreover, with the examples of his parents, Gordian and Sylvia, both venerated as saints, and those of his paternal aunts Emiliana and Tarsilia, who lived in the house as consecrated virgins in a shared journey of prayer and ascesis.

Gregory soon entered an administrative career, which his father had also followed, and in 572 he reached the top, becoming prefect of the city. This office, complicated by the sadness of that time, allowed him to apply himself to a vast range of administrative problems, gleaning from them light for his future endeavors. In particular, a profound sense of order and discipline were instilled in him. When he became Pope, he would suggest to bishops to take as model in the management of ecclesiastical affairs the diligence and respect of the laws proper to civil employees.

That life did not satisfy him, and it was not long before he decided to leave all civil posts to retire to his home and begin the life of a monk, transforming the family home into the monastery of St. Andrew in Celio.

From this period of monastic life, a life of permanent dialogue with the Lord and listening to his word, there remained in him a constant nostalgia which repeatedly and increasingly appears in his homilies. In the midst of relentless pastoral concerns, he would recall it several times in his writings as a happy time of recollection in God, of dedication to prayer, and of serene immersion in study. He was thus able to acquire that profound knowledge of sacred Scripture and of the Fathers of the Church of which he was to make use later in his works.

However, Gregory's cloistered retirement did not last long. The valuable experience that matured in civil administration, at a time weighed down by problems, the relationships he had developed with the Byzantines, the universal esteem he had won, led Pope Pelagius to appoint him deacon and to send him to Constantinople as his "apocrisiario" -- today we would say apostolic nuncio -- to help overcome the last remains of the monophysite controversy, and above all to obtain the emperor's support in the effort to contain the Lombard invaders.

His stay in Constantinople, where he again took up the monastic life with a group of monks, was most important for Gregory, as it allowed him to gain direct experience in the Byzantine world, as well as to address the problem of the Lombards, which would later acutely test his ability and energy in the years of his pontificate.

After some years, he was recalled to Rome by the Pope, who appointed him his secretary. They were difficult years: constant rains, rivers bursting their banks and famine afflicted many areas of Italy and Rome itself. In the end, the plague was unleashed, which caused numerous victims, among them also Pope Pelagius II. The clergy, the people, and the Senate were unanimous in electing Gregory as Successor to the See of Peter. He tried to resist, even seeking to flee, but it was all to no avail: In the end, he had to give in. It was the year 590.

Recognizing in all that had happened the will of God, the new Pontiff began to work immediately with determination. From the beginning he revealed a singularly lucid vision of reality against which he should be measured, an extraordinary capacity for work in addressing both ecclesial as well as civil issues, a constant balance in his decisions, including the difficult ones that his mission imposed on him. An ample documentation is kept of his governance thanks to the Register of his letters -- approximately 800 -- which reflect the daily confrontation of complex questions that arrived on his desk. They were questions that came from bishops, from abbots, from clergymen, and also from civil authorities of all orders and degrees.

Among the problems that afflicted Italy and Rome at that time there was one of particular relevance in both the civil as well as ecclesial ambits: the Lombard question. To it the Pope dedicated all possible energy in the hope of a truly peaceful solution. Unlike the Byzantine emperor, who began from the assumption that the Lombards were only rude and predatory individuals who had to be defeated or exterminated, St. Gregory looked on these people with the eyes of the Good Shepherd, concerned about proclaiming to them the word of salvation, establishing with them relations of fraternity oriented toward a future peace founded on reciprocal respect and peaceful coexistence among Italians, imperalists and Lombards. He was concerned with the conversion of young peoples and immigrants in Britain and the Lombards were the privileged beneficiaries of his evangelizing mission. Yesterday we celebrated the liturgical memorial of St. Augustine of Canterbury, leader of a group of monks whom Gregory sent to Britain to evangelize England.

To obtain an effective peace in Rome and Italy, to which the Pope was fully committed -- he was a real peacemaker -- he undertook a close negotiation with the Lombard King Agilulfo. This conversation led to a period of truce that lasted some three years -- 598-601 -- after which it was possible to stipulate in 603 a more stable armistice. This positive result was achieved thanks also to parallel contacts that, in the meantime, the Pope maintained with Queen Theodolinda, who was a Bavarian princess and, unlike the heads of other German peoples, was a Catholic -- profoundly Catholic.

Preserved is a series of letters of Pope Gregory to this queen, in which he expresses his esteem and friendship to her. Theodolinda succeeded, little by little, in directing the king toward Catholicism, thus preparing the way to peace. The Pope also took the trouble to send her the relics for the basilica of St. John the Baptist, which she had built in Monza, and did not fail to send her congratulations and precious gifts for the same cathedral of Monza on the occasion of the birth and baptism of her son, Adaloaldo. This queen's vicissitude constitutes a beautiful testimony of the importance of women in the history of the Church.

In the end, the objectives on which Gregory constantly focused were three: to contain the expansion of the Lombards in Italy, to remove queen Theodolina from the influence of schismatics, and to reinforce the Catholic faith, as well as to mediate between the Lombards and Byzantines in the hope of an agreement that would guarantee peace in the peninsula and consist at the same time of an evangelizing action among the Lombards themselves. Therefore, his constant orientation in the complex situation was twofold: to promote agreements on the diplomatic-political level, and to spread the proclamation of the true faith among the peoples.

Along with his purely spiritual and pastoral action, Pope Gregory was also an active protagonist of a multi-faceted social activity. With the income of the conspicuous patrimony that the Roman See had in Italy, especially in Sicily, he purchased and distributed wheat, assisted those in need, helped priests, monks and nuns who lived in indigence, paid the ransom for citizens who had been made prisoners of the Lombards, and obtained armistices and truces. Moreover, he carried out -- both in Rome as well as in other parts of Italy -- a determined effort for administrative reorganization, giving precise instructions so that the goods of the Church, useful for its subsistence and evangelizing work in the world, could be managed with absolute rectitude and according to the rules of justice and mercy. He demanded that tenant farmers be protected from the abuses of the managers of lands that were the property of the Church and, in case of fraud, that they be speedily indemnified, so that the face of the Bride of Christ not be contaminated with dishonest profits.

Gregory carried out this enormous activity despite his delicate health, which often obliged him to stay in bed for long days. The fasts he engaged in during the years of monastic life had caused him serious digestive problems. Moreover, his voice was very weak, so much so that he often had to entrust the deacon with the reading of his homilies so that the faithful of the Roman basilicas could hear him. In any case he did everything possible to celebrate the "Missarum sollemnia" on feast days, that is, solemn Mass, and then he would meet personally with the people of God, who greatly appreciated him because they saw in him the authoritative reference to obtain certainty: It was no accident that he was soon attributed the title "consul Dei." Despite the most difficult conditions in which he had to act, he succeeded in winning, thanks to the holiness of his life and his rich humanity, the trust of the faithful, obtaining for his time and for the future truly great results.

He was a man immersed in God: The desire for God was always alive in the depth of his soul and precisely because of this he was always very close to his neighbor, to the needs of the people of his time. During a disastrous and desperate time, he was able to create peace and hope. This man of God shows us the true fonts of peace, from which true hope comes, and so becomes a guide also for us today.

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the Audience, the Pope greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In today's catechesis we turn to Pope Saint Gregory the Great, who governed the Church of Rome at the end of the sixth century and is venerated as a Doctor of the Church. Born of a noble Roman family, Gregory entered the civil service, in which he rose to the dignity of Prefect of the City, and then embraced the monastic life. Gregory's learning and experience, and his outstanding personal gifts, led to his appointment as the papal representative to the imperial court in Constantinople, and then as the Pope's secretary. In the year 590, Gregory was elected Pope. His papal ministry was marked by tireless energy and a clear vision of the grave problems facing civil society and the Church. Gregory made every effort to contain the Lombard invasion, to provide for the evangelization of that people, and to establish peace throughout Italy. In addition to his preaching, teaching and pastoral activity, he also reorganized the management of the Church's goods and ensured a more effective administration of her charitable works. At a time of great social instability, and despite his frequent ill health, Gregory proved an effective, prudent and saintly pastor, whose life and teaching continue to inspire us today.

I offer a warm greeting and prayerful good wishes to the participants in the Christian-Hindu symposium being held these days in Castel Gandolfo. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims, especially those from England, Scotland, Sweden, Australia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Canada and the United States, I cordially invoke God's blessings of joy and peace.

© Copyright 2008 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Look at the One they Pierced!

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