They left everything and followed him
Jesus was standing one day by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the crowd pressing round him listening to the word of God, when he caught sight of two boats close to the bank. The fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats – it was Simon’s – and asked him to put out a little from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
When he had finished speaking he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch.’ ‘Master,’ Simon replied, ‘we worked hard all night long and caught nothing, but if you say so, I will pay out the nets.’ And when they had done this they netted such a huge number of fish that their nets began to tear, so they signalled to their companions in the other boat to come and help them; when these came, they filled the two boats to sinking point.
When Simon Peter saw this he fell at the knees of Jesus saying, ‘Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man.’ For he and all his companions were completely overcome by the catch they had made; so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were Simon’s partners. But Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch.’ Then, bringing their boats back to land, they left everything and followed him.
1 Corinthians 3:18-23
The wisdom of the world is foolishness to God
Make no mistake about it: if any one of you thinks of himself as wise, in the ordinary sense of the word, then he must learn to be a fool before he really can be wise. Why? Because the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As scripture says: The Lord knows wise men’s thoughts: he knows how useless they are; or again: God is not convinced by the arguments of the wise. So there is nothing to boast about in anything human: Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life and death, the present and the future, are all your servants; but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.
The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness.
The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness,
the world and all its peoples.
It is he who set it on the seas;
on the waters he made it firm.
The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness.
Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?
Who shall stand in his holy place?
The man with clean hands and pure heart,
who desires not worthless things.
The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness.
He shall receive blessings from the Lord
and reward from the God who saves him.
Such are the men who seek him,
seek the face of the God of Jacob.
The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness.
Source: Jerusalem Bible
Catechism of the Catholic Church
“A God merciful and gracious”
210 After Israel’s sin, when the people had turned away from God to worship the golden calf, God hears Moses’ prayer of intercession and agrees to walk in the midst of an unfaithful people, thus demonstrating his love. When Moses asks to see his glory, God responds “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name “the LORD” [YHWH].” Then the LORD passes before Moses and proclaims, “YHWH,
YHWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”; Moses then confesses that the LORD is a forgiving God.
21 The divine name, “I Am” or “He Is”, expresses God’s faithfulness: despite the faithlessness of men’s sin and the punishment it deserves, he keeps “steadfast love for thousands”. By going so far as to give up his own Son for us, God reveals that he is “rich in mercy”. By giving his life to free us from sin, Jesus reveals that he himself bears the divine name: “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will realize that “I AM”.”
God alone IS
212 Over the centuries, Israel’s faith was able to manifest and deepen realization of the riches contained in the revelation of the divine name. God is unique; there are no other gods besides him.
He transcends the world and history. He made heaven and earth: “They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment….but you are the same, and your years have no end.”
In God “there is no variation or shadow due to change.” God is “HE WHO IS”, from everlasting to everlasting, and as such remains ever faithful to himself and to his promises.
213 The revelation of the ineffable name “I AM WHO AM” contains then the truth that God alone IS. the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and following it the Church’s Tradition, understood the divine name in this sense: God is the fullness of Being and of every perfection, without origin and without end. All creatures receive all that they are and have from him; but he alone is his very being, and he is of himself everything that he is.
The exact date of Gregory‘s birth is uncertain, but is usually estimated to be around the year 540, in the city of Rome. His parents named him Gregorius, which according to Ælfric of Abingdon in An Homily on the Birth-Day of S. Gregory, “… is a Greek Name [sic], which signifies in the Latin Tongue, Vigilantius, that is in English, Watchful….” The medieval writer who provided this etymology did not hesitate to apply it to the life of Gregory. Aelfric states, “He was very diligent in God’s Commandments.”
Gregory was born into a wealthy patrician Roman family with close connections to the church. His father, Gordianus, who served as a senator and for a time was the Prefect of the City of Rome, also held the position of Regionarius in the church, though nothing further is known about that position. Gregory’s mother, Silvia, was well-born, and had a married sister, Pateria, in Sicily. His mother and two paternal aunts are honored by Catholic and Orthodox churches as saints. Gregory’s great-great-grandfather had been Pope Felix III, the nominee of the Gothic king, Theodoric. Gregory’s election to the throne of St Peter made his family the most distinguished clerical dynasty of the period.
The family owned and resided in a villa suburbana on the Caelian Hill, fronting the same street (now the Via di San Gregorio) as the former palaces of the Roman emperors on the Palatine Hill opposite. The north of the street runs into the Colosseum; the south, the Circus Maximus. In Gregory’s day the ancient buildings were in ruins and were privately owned. Villas covered the area. Gregory’s family also owned working estates in Sicily and around Rome. Gregory later had portraits done in fresco in their former home on the Caelian and these were described 300 years later by John the Deacon. Gordianus was tall with a long face and light eyes. He wore a beard. Silvia was tall, had a round face, blue eyes and a cheerful look. They had another son whose name and fate are unknown.
Gregory was born into a period of upheaval in Italy. From 542 the so-called Plague of Justinian swept through the provinces of the empire, including Italy. The plague caused famine, panic, and sometimes rioting. In some parts of the country, over 1/3 of the population was wiped out or destroyed, with heavy spiritual and emotional effects on the people of the Empire. Politically, although the Western Roman Empire had long since vanished in favour of the Gothic kings of Italy, during the 540s Italy was gradually retaken from the Goths by Justinian I, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire ruling from Constantinople. As the fighting was mainly in the north, the young Gregory probably saw little of it. Totila sacked and vacated Rome in 546, destroying most of its population, but in 549 he invited those who were still alive to return to the empty and ruined streets. It has been hypothesized that young Gregory and his parents retired during that intermission to their Sicilian estates, to return in 549. The war was over in Rome by 552, and a subsequent invasion of the Franks was defeated in 554. After that, there was peace in Italy, and the appearance of restoration, except that the central government now resided in Constantinople.
Like most young men of his position in Roman society, Saint Gregory was well educated, learning grammar, rhetoric, the sciences, literature, and law, and excelling in all. Gregory of Tours reported that “in grammar, dialectic and rhetoric … he was second to none….” He wrote correct Latin but did not read or write Greek. He knew Latin authors, natural science, history, mathematics and music and had such a “fluency with imperial law” that he may have trained in it “as a preparation for a career in public life.” Indeed, he became a government official, advancing quickly in rank to become, like his father, Prefect of Rome, the highest civil office in the city, when only thirty-three years old.
The monks of the Monastery of St. Andrew, established by Gregory at the ancestral home on the Caelian, had a portrait of him made after his death, which John the Deacon also saw in the 9th century. He reports the picture of a man who was “rather bald” and had a “tawny” beard like his father’s and a face that was intermediate in shape between his mother’s and father’s. The hair that he had on the sides was long and carefully curled. His nose was “thin and straight” and “slightly aquiline.” “His forehead was high.” He had thick, “subdivided” lips and a chin “of a comely prominence” and “beautiful hands.”
In the modern era, Gregory is often depicted as a man at the border, poised between the Roman and Germanic worlds, between East and West, and above all, perhaps, between the ancient and medieval epochs.
On his father’s death, Gregory converted his family villa into a monastery dedicated to the apostle Saint Andrew (after his death it was rededicated as San Gregorio Magno al Celio). In his life of contemplation, Gregory concluded that “in that silence of the heart, while we keep watch within through contemplation, we are as if asleep to all things that are without.”.
It seems to some that Gregory was not always forgiving, or pleasant for that matter, even in his monastic years. For example, a monk lying on his death bed confessed to stealing three gold pieces. Gregory forced the monk to die friendless and alone, then threw his body and coins on a manure heap to rot with a curse, “Take your money with you to perdition”. Gregory believed that punishment of sins can begin, even on one’s deathbed. However, at the monk’s death Gregory offered 30 Masses in his remembrance to assist his soul before the final judgment. Eventually, Pope Pelagius II ordained Gregory a deacon and solicited his help in trying to heal the schism of the Three Chapters in northern Italy. However, this schism was not healed until well after Gregory was gone.
Gregory had a deep respect for the monastic life. He viewed being a monk as the ‘ardent quest for the vision of our Creator.’ His three paternal aunts were nuns renowned for their sanctity. However, after the two eldest died after seeing a vision of their ancestor Pope Felix III, the youngest soon abandoned the religious life and married the steward of her estate. Gregory’s response to this family scandal was “many are called but few are chosen.” Gregory’s mother Silvia herself is a saint.
In 579, Pelagius II chose Gregory as his apocrisiarius (ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople), a post Gregory would hold until 586. Gregory was part of the Roman delegation (both lay and clerical) that arrived in Constantinople in 578 to ask the emperor for military aid against the Lombards. With the Byzantine military focused on the East, these entreaties proved unsuccessful; in 584, Pelagius II wrote to Gregory as apocrisiarius, detailing the hardships that Rome was experiencing under the Lombards and asking him to ask Emperor Maurice to send a relief force. Maurice, however, had long ago determined to limit his efforts against the Lombards to intrigue and diplomacy, pitting the Franks against them. It soon became obvious to Gregory that the Byzantine emperors were unlikely to send such a force, given their more immediate difficulties with the Persians in the East and the Avars and Slavs to the North.
According to Ekonomou, “if Gregory’s principal task was to plead Rome’s cause before the emperor, there seems to have been little left for him to do once imperial policy toward Italy became evident. Papal representatives who pressed their claims with excessive vigor could quickly become a nuisance and find themselves excluded from the imperial presence altogether”. Gregory had already drawn an imperial rebuke for his lengthy canonical writings on the subject of the legitimacy of John III Scholasticus, who had occupied the Patriarchate of Constantinople for twelve years prior to the return of Eutychius (who had been driven out by Justinian). Gregory turned himself to cultivating connections with the Byzantine elite of the city, where he became extremely popular with the city’s upper class, “especially aristocratic women”. Ekonomou surmises that “while Gregory may have become spiritual father to a large and important segment of Constantinople’s aristocracy, this relationship did not significantly advance the interests of Rome before the emperor”. Although the writings of John the Deacon claim that Gregory “labored diligently for the relief of Italy”, there is no evidence that his tenure accomplished much towards any of the objectives of Pelagius II.
Gregory’s theological disputes with Patriarch Eutychius would leave a “bitter taste for the theological speculation of the East” with Gregory that continued to influence him well into his own papacy. According to Western sources, Gregory’s very public debate with Eutychius culminated in an exchange before Tiberius II where Gregory cited a biblical passage (“Palpate et videte, quia spiritus carnem et ossa non-habet, sicut me videtis habere”) in support of the view that Christ was corporeal and palpable after his Resurrection; allegedly as a result of this exchange, Tiberius II ordered Eutychius’s writings burned. Ekonomou views this argument, though exaggerated in Western sources, as Gregory’s “one achievement of an otherwise fruitless apokrisiariat”. In reality, Gregory was forced to rely on Scripture because he could not read the untranslated Greek authoritative works. Gregory left Constantinople for Rome in 585, returning to his monastery on the Caelian Hill. Gregory was elected by acclamation to succeed Pelagius II in 590, when the latter died of the plague spreading through the city. Gregory was approved by an Imperial iussio from Constantinople the following September (as was the norm during the Byzantine Papacy).
Controversy with Eutychius
In Constantinople, Gregory took issue with the aged Patriarch Eutychius of Constantinople, who had recently published a treatise, now lost, on the General Resurrection. Eutychius maintained that the resurrected body “will be more subtle than air, and no longer palpable”. Gregory opposed with the palpability of the risen Christ in Luke 24:39. As the dispute could not be settled, the Byzantine emperor, Tiberius II Constantine, undertook to arbitrate. He decided in favor of palpability and ordered Eutychius’ book to be burned. Shortly after both Gregory and Eutychius became ill; Gregory recovered, but Eutychius died on 5 April 582, at age 70. On his deathbed Eutychius recanted impalpability and Gregory dropped the matter. Tiberius also died a few months after Eutychius.
Although Gregory was resolved to retire into the monastic lifestyle of contemplation, he was unwillingly forced back into a world that, although he loved, he no longer wanted to be a part of. In texts of all genres, especially those produced in his first year as pope, Gregory bemoaned the burden of office and mourned the loss of the undisturbed life of prayer he had once enjoyed as a monk. When he became pope in 590, among his first acts was writing a series of letters disavowing any ambition to the throne of Peter and praising the contemplative life of the monks. At that time, for various reasons, the Holy See had not exerted effective leadership in the West since the pontificate of Gelasius I. The episcopacy in Gaul was drawn from the great territorial families, and identified with them: the parochial horizon of Gregory’s contemporary, Gregory of Tours, may be considered typical; in Visigothic Spain the bishops had little contact with Rome; in Italy the territories which had de facto fallen under the administration of the papacy were beset by the violent Lombard dukes and the rivalry of the Byzantines in the Exarchate of Ravenna and in the south.
Pope Gregory had strong convictions on missions: “Almighty God places good men in authority that He may impart through them the gifts of His mercy to their subjects. And this we find to be the case with the British over whom you have been appointed to rule, that through the blessings bestowed on you the blessings of heaven might be bestowed on your people also.” He is credited with re-energizing the Church’s missionary work among the non-Christian peoples of northern Europe. He is most famous for sending a mission, often called the Gregorian mission, under Augustine of Canterbury, prior of Saint Andrew’s, where he had perhaps succeeded Gregory, to evangelize the pagan Anglo-Saxons of England. It seems that the pope had never forgotten the English slaves whom he had once seen in the Roman Forum. The mission was successful, and it was from England that missionaries later set out for the Netherlands and Germany. The preaching of non-heretical Christian faith and the elimination of all deviations from it was a key element in Gregory’s worldview, and it constituted one of the major continuing policies of his pontificate.
In his official documents, Gregory was the first to make extensive use of the term “Servant of the Servants of God” (servus servorum Dei) as a papal title, thus initiating a practice that was to be followed by most subsequent popes.
Alms in Christianity is defined by passages of the New Testament such as Matthew 19:21, which commands “…go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor … and come and follow me.” A donation on the other hand is a gift to some sort of enterprise, profit or non-profit.
On the one hand the alms of Saint Gregory are to be distinguished from his donations, but on the other he himself probably saw no such distinction. The church had no interest in secular profit and as pope Gregory did his utmost to encourage that high standard among church personnel. Apart from maintaining its facilities and supporting its personnel the church gave most of the donations it received as alms.
Gregory is known for his administrative system of charitable relief of the poor at Rome. They were predominantly refugees from the incursions of the Lombards. The philosophy under which he devised this system is that the wealth belonged to the poor and the church was only its steward. He received lavish donations from the wealthy families of Rome, who, following his own example, were eager, by doing so, to expiate their sins. He gave alms equally as lavishly both individually and en masse. He wrote in letters:
“I have frequently charged you … to act as my representative … to relieve the poor in their distress ….”
“… I hold the office of steward to the property of the poor ….”
The church received donations of many different kinds of property: consumables such as food and clothing; investment property: real estate and works of art; and capital goods, or revenue-generating property, such as the Sicilian latifundia, or agricultural estates, staffed and operated by slaves, donated by Gregory and his family. The church already had a system for circulating the consumables to the poor: associated with each parish was a diaconium or office of the deacon. He was given a building from which the poor could at any time apply for assistance.
The state in which Gregory became pope in 590 was a ruined one. The Lombards held the better part of Italy. Their predations had brought the economy to a standstill. They camped nearly at the gates of Rome. The city was packed with refugees from all walks of life, who lived in the streets and had few of the necessities of life. The seat of government was far from Rome in Constantinople, which appeared unable to undertake the relief of Italy. The pope had sent emissaries, including Gregory, asking for assistance, to no avail.
In 590, Gregory could wait for Constantinople no longer. He organized the resources of the church into an administration for general relief. In doing so he evidenced a talent for and intuitive understanding of the principles of accounting, which was not to be invented for centuries. The church already had basic accounting documents: every expense was recorded in journals called regesta, “lists” of amounts, recipients and circumstances. Revenue was recorded in polyptici, “books”. Many of these polyptici were ledgers recording the operating expenses of the church and the assets, the patrimonia. A central papal administration, the notarii, under a chief, the primicerius notariorum, kept the ledgers and issued brevia patrimonii, or lists of property for which each rector was responsible.
Gregory began by aggressively requiring his churchmen to seek out and relieve needy persons and reprimanded them if they did not. In a letter to a subordinate in Sicily he wrote: “I asked you most of all to take care of the poor. And if you knew of people in poverty, you should have pointed them out … I desire that you give the woman, Pateria, forty solidi for the children’s shoes and forty bushels of grain ….” Soon he was replacing administrators who would not cooperate with those who would and at the same time adding more in a build-up to a great plan that he had in mind. He understood that expenses must be matched by income. To pay for his increased expenses he liquidated the investment property and paid the expenses in cash according to a budget recorded in the polyptici. The churchmen were paid four times a year and also personally given a golden coin for their trouble.
Money, however, was no substitute for food in a city that was on the brink of famine. Even the wealthy were going hungry in their villas. The church now owned between 1,300 and 1,800 square miles (3,400 and 4,700 km2) of revenue-generating farmland divided into large sections called patrimonia. It produced goods of all kinds, which were sold, but Gregory intervened and had the goods shipped to Rome for distribution in the diaconia. He gave orders to step up production, set quotas and put an administrative structure in place to carry it out. At the bottom was the rusticus who produced the goods. Some rustici were or owned slaves. He turned over part of his produce to a conductor from whom he leased the land. The latter reported to an actionarius, the latter to a defensor and the latter to a rector. Grain, wine, cheese, meat, fish and oil began to arrive at Rome in large quantities, where it was given away for nothing as alms.
Distributions to qualified persons were monthly. However, a certain proportion of the population lived in the streets or were too ill or infirm to pick up their monthly food supply. To them Gregory sent out a small army of charitable persons, mainly monks, every morning with prepared food. It is said that he would not dine until the indigent were fed. When he did dine he shared the family table, which he had saved (and which still exists), with 12 indigent guests. To the needy living in wealthy homes he sent meals he had cooked with his own hands as gifts to spare them the indignity of receiving charity. Hearing of the death of an indigent in a back room he was depressed for days, entertaining for a time the conceit that he had failed in his duty and was a murderer.
These and other good deeds and charitable frame of mind completely won the hearts and minds of the Roman people. They now looked to the papacy for government, ignoring the rump state at Constantinople, which had only disrespect for Gregory, calling him a fool for his pacifist dealings with the Lombards. The office of urban prefect went without candidates. From the time of Gregory the Great to the rise of Italian nationalism the papacy was most influential presence in Italy.
John the Deacon wrote that Pope Gregory I made a general revision of the liturgy of the Pre-Tridentine Mass, “removing many things, changing a few, adding some”. In letters, Gregory remarks that he moved the Pater Noster (Our Father) to immediately after the Roman Canon and immediately before the Fraction. This position is still maintained today in the Roman Liturgy. The pre-Gregorian position is evident in the Ambrosian Rite. Gregory added material to the Hanc Igitur of the Roman Canon and established the nine Kyries (a vestigial remnant of the litany which was originally at that place) at the beginning of Mass. He also reduced the role of deacons in the Roman Liturgy.
Sacramentaries directly influenced by Gregorian reforms are referred to as Sacrementaria Gregoriana. Roman and other Western liturgies since this era have a number of prayers that change to reflect the feast or liturgical season; these variations are visible in the collects and prefaces as well as in the Roman Canon itself.
Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches, Gregory is credited as the primary influence in constructing the more penitential Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, a fully separate form of the Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite adapted to the needs of the season of Great Lent. Its Roman Rite equivalent is the Mass of the Presanctified used only on Good Friday. The Syriac Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts continues to be used in the Malankara Rite, a variant of the West Syrian Rite historically practiced in the Malankara Church of India, and now practiced by the several churches that descended from it and at some occasions in the Assyrian Church of the East.
The mainstream form of Western plainchant, standardized in the late 9th century, was attributed to Pope Gregory I and so took the name of Gregorian chant. The earliest such attribution is in John the Deacon’s 873 biography of Gregory, almost three centuries after the pope’s death, and the chant that bears his name “is the result of the fusion of Roman and Frankish elements which took place in the Franco-German empire under Pepin, Charlemagne and their successors”.
Gregory is commonly credited with founding the medieval papacy and so many attribute the beginning of medieval spirituality to him. Gregory is the only pope between the fifth and the eleventh centuries whose correspondence and writings have survived enough to form a comprehensive corpus. Some of his writings are:
Commentary on Job, frequently known in English-language histories by its Latin title, Magna Moralia, or as Moralia on Job. This is one of the longest patristic works. It was possibly finished as early as 591. It is based on talks Gregory gave on the Book of Job to his ‘brethren’ who accompanied him to Constantinople. The work as we have it is the result of Gregory’s revision and completion of it soon after his accession to the papal office.
Liber regulae pastoralis (Book of Pastoral Rule / The Rule for Pastors), in which he contrasted the role of bishops as pastors of their flock with their position as nobles of the church: the definitive statement of the nature of the episcopal office. This was probably begun before his election as pope and finished in 591.
Dialogues, a collection of four books of miracles, signs, wonders, and healings done by the holy men, mostly monastic, of sixth-century Italy, with the second book entirely devoted to a popular life of Saint Benedict.
The sermons include the 22 Homilae in Hiezechielem (Homilies on Ezekiel), dealing with Ezekiel 1.1–4.3 in Book One, and Ezekiel 40 in Book 2. These were preached during 592–3, the years that the Lombards besieged Rome, and contain some of Gregory’s most profound mystical teachings. They were revised eight years later.
The Homilae xl in Evangelia (Forty Homilies on the Gospels) for the liturgical year, delivered during 591 and 592, which were seemingly finished by 593. A papyrus fragment from this codex survives in the British Museum, London, UK.
Expositio in Canticis Canticorum. Only 2 of these sermons on the Song of Songs survive, discussing the text up to Song 1.9.
copies of papal letters were made by scribes into a Registrum (Register), which was then kept in the scrinium. It is known that in the 9th century, when John the Deacon composed his Life of Gregory, the Registrum of Gregory’s letters was formed of 14 papyrus rolls (though it is difficult to estimate how many letters this may have represented). Though these original rolls are now lost, the 854 letters have survived in copies made at various later times, the largest single batch of 686 letters being made by order of Adrian I (772–95). The majority of the copies, dating from the 10th to the 15th century, are stored in the Vatican Library.
Gregory wrote over 850 letters in the last 13 years of his life (590–604) that give us an accurate picture of his work. A truly autobiographical presentation is nearly impossible for Gregory. The development of his mind and personality remains purely speculative in nature.
Opinions of the writings of Gregory vary. “His character strikes us as an ambiguous and enigmatic one,” the Jewish Canadian-American popularist Cantor observed. “On the one hand he was an able and determined administrator, a skilled and clever diplomat, a leader of the greatest sophistication and vision; but on the other hand, he appears in his writings as a superstitious and credulous monk, hostile to learning, crudely limited as a theologian, and excessively devoted to saints, miracles, and relics”.
Identification of three figures in the Gospels
Gregory was among those who identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, whom John 12:1–8 recounts as having anointed Jesus with precious ointment, an event that some interpret as being the same as the anointing of Jesus performed by a woman that Luke (alone among the synoptic Gospels) recounts as sinful. Preaching on the passage in the Gospel of Luke, Gregory remarked: “This woman, whom Luke calls a sinner and John calls Mary,I think is the Mary from whom Mark reports that seven demons were cast out.”Today Biblical scholars distinguish the three figures, but they are all still popularly identified.