In AD 590, when a man named Gregory—the abbot of St. Andrew’s Monastery in Rome—was called upon to serve as Bishop of Rome, he responded with an open letter to the Church: "Pastoralis curae me pondera fugere" — “I have thought to flee from the burdens of pastoral care.” In essence, Gregory pleaded to be spared the heavy and awesome responsibility of the office of bishop. His letter formed the opening lines of his work Pastoral Care (Regula Pastoralis), one of our church’s greatest works of pastoral theology by one of our church’s greatest shepherds. Interestingly, we celebrate Pope St. Gregory the Great’s feast on September 3, the day he was consecrated pope — not the anniversary of the saint’s death, as per usual — perhaps as a testament to the light of personal holiness and institutional reform that he exhibited during the dark days, literally the historical “Dark Ages,” of the church when he was elected.
Though primarily addressing his soon-to-be brother bishops in Pastoral Care, St. Gregory’s words resonate with all those who exercise leadership and responsibility in ministry, especially in light of the painful days in which our church now finds herself. In times of turmoil, St. Gregory believed that God calls all the baptized faithful — laity and clergy, women and men, young and old — to the task of renewal in the apostolate.
St. Gregory did not mince words when he called out leaders “who aspire to glory and esteem by an outward show of authority within the holy Church,” and as a result, “when those who go before lose the light of knowledge, certainly those who follow are bowed down in carrying the burden of their sins” (Pastoral Care, I.1). He observed, “For no one does more harm in the Church than he, who having the title or rank of holiness, acts evilly” (Pastoral Care, I.3).
St. Gregory’s great handbook on pastoral care challenges the core values and virtues that ought to shape our Christian life and community. In aspiring to roles of leadership, Gregory makes the striking remark that “whosoever was set over the people was the first to be led to the tortures of martyrdom” (Pastoral Care, I.8). In other words, Gospel ministry in the footsteps of Jesus, especially for those serving in leadership, is a laying down of one’s life — one’s time, talent, treasures — so that the power of the crucified and risen Christ may live in us. The result is not necessarily “success,” but joy and salvation. In imitation of Jesus, true pastoral care conquers the love of power with the power of love.
In calling others to holiness, what made Gregory truly “great” was that in spite of his strengths, he never lost sight of his own weaknesses, sins, failures, and need for constant conversion. He ends his work by stating:
“I, miserable painter that I am, have painted the portrait of an ideal man; and here I have been directing others to the shore of perfection, I, who am still tossed about on the waves of sin. But in the shipwreck of this life, sustain me, I beseech you, with the plank of your prayers, so that, as my weight is sinking me down, you may uplift me with your meritorious hand.” (Pastoral Care, IV)
In short, we Christian brothers and sisters need each other more than ever. We need each other to offer joy, consolation, encouragement, and a helping hand to one another. That is what makes ministry not only possible, but even worth doing. We hold out hope that our God never ceases to call forth church leaders and Christ followers like Gregory to lead us through the Dark Ages, in whatever age they seem to be dawning.
The first time chant roused my senses occurred on a 5 day Ignatian Silent retreat. I remember being entranced by the music—the repetition, the words, the rhythm. We were allowed to sing only for Mass and during the Stations of the Cross. It was a small chant from the ecumenical Taizé community that mesmerized me as we walked in the candlelit night from station to station. I remember singing it to myself over our winter break and in the weeks after.
What was this Taizé community? I researched Taizé online and, to my surprise, was bombarded with YouTube videos and hundreds of songs from the community located in the Burgundy region of France. I ordered two of their CDs online and soon listened to nothing else.
I grew more and more in my love for anything monastic: silence, routine prayer, chant, the Divine Office. I began starting my days with silent prayer, going to daily Mass and listening to chant rather than my usual list of Top 40 Hits. The music had a way of easing my heart, elevating my soul, transporting me to a higher world. I remember telling my bewildered roommate once as I got ready for the day, “You just don’t hear music like this anymore. This brings you to contemplate something bigger than yourself!”
I continued to intersperse monastic spirituality into my days throughout the rest of my college experience and thereafter. While in Paris the summer after graduation, I stopped into the Church of St. Gervais for evening vespers and got lost in the beauty of the chanting of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem, an order which entered the old church in white robes that glimmered underneath the stained glass windows. From there, I spent a week at the Taizé community I had come to love. My spiritual quest continued that summer after I flew back to the United States and spent a month at a Benedictine monastery who chanted the Divine Office in Latin. The music became the breath and heartbeat of my prayer life, an easy medium through which I could converse with God. The chants enabled me to praise and thank God with phrases that frequently came straight from Scripture, giving me words often better than my own and breathing new life into Word of God.
Gregorian chant takes its name from Pope St. Gregory the Great, whose feast we celebrate today. Though historians argue over his precise role in the history of chant, Gregory the Great has been named a Doctor of the Church—joining St. Augustine, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome. Gregory, who entered a Benedictine monastery in Rome and eventually became an abbot, was the first pope to be elected from a monastery. During his life, he founded 6 monasteries on his estate. Though Gregory’s association with Gregorian chant is disputed, his love of the monastic life cannot be. (American Catholic)
I can’t help but connect with Gregory’s monastic background; and I understand his love of it. I spent much of my summer after graduation as a pilgrim or guest at several spiritual havens because my soul yearned to spend time with God amidst nature, the sacraments and routine prayer. The music and chant were the glue that held these beautiful pieces together during my journeys—adding an almost mystical quality to my prayer life. As a result, I learned what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “pray without ceasing.”(1 Thess. 5:17). The words of chant often stuck in my head, I learned how to sing, to pray, unceasingly without ever having to open my mouth. Chant has a way of ingraining itself into your very heartbeat.
We can learn much from the monastic life, which has guided thousands of men and women like Pope Gregory the Great towards holiness. By incorporating silent prayer into our days, we are better able to dialogue with God. I invite you this week to start or end your day with 5 minutes of silence in the presence of the Trinity. Rather than asking God for anything, try instead to simply thank, praise or accompany Him. Below is a link to one of my favorite songs from the Taizé community. May it help you in your journey towards praying unceasingly.
It was a decision I had been dreading for weeks. The secretary at our local parish had been calling me for days to tell me my response was overdue. Our youth minister had lent me numerous books to aid in my decision. Even my family tried to help by offering their opinions. It was May of my sophomore year of high school and I had to choose who would be my Confirmation saint.
While I think half of my Confirmation class probably just picked a name that they liked (or wished their parents had named them) and hoped there happened to be a saint with the same name, I wanted to choose a name that had significance. I wanted to be able to envision myself having a lot in common with my chosen saint, so much so that we could sit down and strike up a conversation.
After much trial and tribulation in this selection process (or so it seemed at the time), I finally came across the story of a man whose life stood out to me. One day, in frustration over my lack of ability to pick a saint, I randomly flipped through the pages of one of the books on the lives of the saints, which my youth minister lent to me and I came across the story of St. Gregory the Great. Today he is remembered not only in his sainthood but also as one of the Church’s great leaders in the medieval papacy and as a Doctor of the Church. I was struck by the way St. Gregory the Great stood out as a humble leader during this time in history, which saw many Church leaders that didn’t hesitate to make their clerical ambitions known. During his pontificate, Gregory was credited with beginning the practice of using the title “Servant of the Servants of God,” which continues to this day. As a student leader in my school, I saw this saint as someone I could look to and attempt to emulate in my life. At the time I was a high school chorus nerd too, so it helped that Gregory was credited with reforming Gregorian chant.
Fast forward five years to the present day and it’s odd how despite my difficulty in picking a Confirmation saint, he’s not someone I think of very often. I didn’t even know that today (September 3) was his feast day until I noticed it last year and thought to mark it on my calendar. Although perhaps it was providential that as I selected the date for which I would write this blog post, September 3 was available. I saw the note on my calendar and thought this could be a way of reacquainting myself with St. Gregory the Great.
My hunch is that there are many like myself that have forgotten about a saint that once had some kind of meaningful impact on their lives. Perhaps a long lost Confirmation saint or even poor St. Anthony, who only receives attention in dire situations. As this Year of Faith draws to a close in the coming months, let us all take time to remember the holy men and women who have gone before us and devoted their lives, in faith, to Jesus Christ and his Church.
St. Gregory the Great, pray for us.
David Burkey is the Communications Coordinator at the Catholic Apostolate Center.