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.