From a sermon by Fr. Nicholas Alford delivered at St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church.
Our parish is named for St. Gregory the Great, whose feast day is March 12th. Gregory was born about the year 550 to a well-to-do family. His great-grandfather was Pope Felix III. Gregory received the best education of the day and, by the time he was 23 years old, he was Prefect of the city, the highest civil dignitary in Rome, president of the senate with supreme civil jurisdiction within a hundred miles of Rome, in charge of grain supplies, aqueducts, sewers, and finance. The following year his father died and Gregory decided to leave his office to become a monk and (in Gregory’s own words) to follow “the grace of conversion that he had put off for a long time.” He turned his family home on the Coelian Hill into a monastery dedicated to St. Andrew, provided for six monasteries to be built on family land in Sicily, and gave the remainder of his inheritance to the poor. He spent his time as a simple monk, devoted to prayer, meditation, and study and acquired a profound knowledge of scripture and the writings of the Latin fathers. He often spoke of this time as the happiest period of his life.
This period of reflective solitude was not to last for long, however, as four years later, Pope Pelagius II called Gregory out of the monastery, ordained him as a deacon and sent him as papal representative to the Imperial Court in Constantinople for seven years. Gregory took a group of monks with him and they lived as a western monastic community in Constantinople. He was recalled to Rome in 586 and he served as counselor to the Pope until Pelagius died four years later in a terrible epidemic. Gregory, although a deacon at the time, was elected pope by popular acclaim. His first act was to organize a three day penitential procession, asking God, in his mercy, to end the plague which was killing thousands of people. He showed a strong fatherly concern which lifted the spirits of the people and he turned their minds and hearts to God. When the procession arrived at the church of St. Mary Major, the plague ended. Then, according to legend, Gregory – reluctant to assume the papal office – tried to leave town by hiding in a basket, but to no avail.
With the Emperor’s approval, Gregory was consecrated as pope, bishop of Rome, successor to Peter, one of the greatest men to hold that office. When the Lombards threatened Rome and the secular authorities failed to act, Gregory negotiated for peace and saved the city, and from this time on, the people of Rome looked to the pope as their protector. In administrating the lands owned by the papacy, Gregory insisted upon fairness, saying that the purse of the church was “not to be polluted by sinful gain.” Gregory used this wealth to help the poor, the destitute, those displaced by war, and to ransom captives. Gregory said that he was not dispensing his own property, but the property of the poor, that the goods belonged to St. Peter, who was caring for his flock through Gregory.
He was a systematic and wise theologian, not especially creative, but explaining and passing on what he had received. He said that sometimes the meaning of a passage of scripture came to him while he was preaching, that God gave this revelation for the sake of the people, and that he himself was learning while he was preaching. And in artistic representations, Gregory is usually depicted as writing or dictating, with the dove, the symbol of the Holy spirit, speaking into his ear. Peter, the deacon of Rome, told others of watching this very thing happen.
More than 60 of Gregory’s sermons survive, as does a long theological commentary on the Book of Job, a Book on Pastoral Care, some 854 of his letters, and the Dialogues (a collection of stories about the holiness of the 6th century Italian saints). He took the liturgy of the Roman Church, which was already ancient, and gave it its current organization, and for this reason our liturgy is called the Liturgy of St. Gregory. He also added three petitions to the Canon of the Mass, asking God “to order our days in thy peace, to deliver us from eternal damnation, and to number us in the flock of thine elect.” And we will always be reminded of Gregory’s work to give order to the music of the Church, any time we sing Gregorian Chant. In the East, where he is called “Gregory the Dialogist,” he is remembered as the author of the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified which is offered on weekdays in Lent.
Although Gregory clearly held the Orthodox view concerning the papacy, that the bishop of Rome was to be first in honor among the bishops, he rejected the notion of universal supremacy for any bishop and chastised the Patriarch of Constantinople for using the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” which had been given to him by the Emperor. Gregory wrote directly to the Emperor to explain why it was wrong for any one bishop to claim to be above all others, saying “whoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others.” Sometimes Gregory is quoted out of context concerning the papacy, but when his writings are taken as a whole, he clearly did not believe in universal jurisdiction, but in all bishops being equal within their own territory. For the good order of the Church, the Bishop of Rome served as a sort of final court of appeal, but far from calling himself the “universal pontiff”, instead he referred to himself as “the servant of the servants of God.”
Before Gregory became Pope, he saw some blond haired children of fair complexion who were captives. Upon hearing that they were Angles he said that the Faith should be carried to their land, so that they could have fellowship with the Angels. Gregory himself wanted to go as a missionary to the Anglo-Saxon people, but circumstances prevented him, so in 597 he sent 41 monks from his own monastery, led by one we know as St. Augustine of Canterbury. Augustine was not enthusiastic about this task and Gregory wrote several letters of instruction and encouragement to the monks. Later that same year, King Ethelbert and his people were baptized. Because of his initiative and his perseverance, Gregory is called the “Apostle to the English.”
Gregory was a man of great humility, despite the power and prestige surrounding him. He was a man of prayer and believed strongly in the power of offering the Mass for those in need and for the departed. The wisdom shown in his pastoral writings became the standard guide for hundreds of years in the Western church. Despite chronic illness for the final years of his life, he was able to shape the way that people thought, prayed, and lived. He was proclaimed a saint by popular acclamation immediately after his death on the 12th of March in the year 604. He was a great man, a great teacher of the faith, a great sign for us of what it means to be a Christian. Gregory gave up all that he had to follow Christ – position, power, riches – he gave it all up to enter a life of quiet prayer and contemplation – he dearly loved this life, but gave it up as well, when God called him to a new work, to make use of his talents and abilities to care for God’s people. He was truly the servant of the servants of God.
What then, should all of this mean for a parish named in honor of St. Gregory? Yes, we should always make sure that the liturgy and music we offer to Almighty God in our worship are the very best we have to offer, and are offerings from the heart. Like Gregory, we must seek to put aside our own plans, our own agendas, and seek to know and do the will of God, no matter what the cost. We too must care for those in need, materially and spiritually. We must pray for all people, especially as we come to Christ’s table to receive the Holy Mysteries, remembering those in need and the departed. We too have an obligation to receive the treasures given to us, to cherish them, live by them, preserve them, and to pass them on to others. And finally, we clearly have an obligation to be missionaries, to take the good news of Christ with us out into the world, to share this gift with others, with friends, with family, with co-workers – to be willing to speak when the opportunity arises, trusting that God will use us for His work and provide all that is needed. When we offer ourselves to God, He will work through us, doing greater things than we could ask or imagine. We give thanks to God for the great life and witness of St. Gregory, may we have grace to follow his good example. Holy Gregory, pray for us!