Gregory the Great

For the past five years, on trips to Rome, I have been blessed by being able to stay in a friend's apartment on the Caelian Hill, rising to the East of the Colosseum. At the base of the hill is the magnificent church of San Clemente which I've mentioned on a previous post. At its summit is the strange medieval fortress that houses the church of the Santi Quattro Coronati with one of Rome's loveliest cloisters. (The August 19th issue of The Tablet had a short piece speaking of the diary of one of the Augustinian sisters of the Convent of Santi Quattro, dating from the early 1940s. In it she revealed that Pius XII had instructed the superior of the contemplative community to shelter Jews and others fleeing the Germans.)

But for me personally, the strongest spiritual resonance of the Caelian Hill is that here the future Pope Gregory founded a monastery on his family estates, today commemorated by the imposing church of San Gregorio Magno on the Caelian's Southwest slope.

Called from monastic seclusion, Gregory served as papal representative to the Emperor in Constantinople. Elected Pope himself, he labored to meet the temporal and spiritual needs of his people, not only in Rome, but throughout Italy. He, of course, sent Augustine and companions from his monastery on the Caelian to England, thereby establishing the close links between Rome and Canterbury that remain a point of commonality in Roman Catholic and Anglican relations. Summing up his treatment of Gregory in Saints&Sinners: A History of the Popes, Eamon Duffy writes:

Gregory was unquestionably the greatest Pope of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, and arguably the greatest Pope ever. His memory was venerated in the Anglo-Saxon world and the churches with whom the Anglo-Saxons had contact, as "the teacher of the English," "our Gregory." A tenth century Irish life of the Pope even claimed him as a Kerry-man [sic!], who had taught most of the Irish saints.

But, in many respects, Gregory was the teacher of the entire Middle Ages, a bridge between the classical world and the emerging Medieval culture. The mystical language Gregory forged provided Christians the vocabulary to articulate their deepest spiritual yearnings. After Augustine and Aristotle, he is the authority most quoted by Aquinas.

In preparation for his feast (September 3rd), I have cultivated the habit of re-reading the splendid study of Gregory that begins the second volume of Bernard McGinn's magnificent opus, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism. McGinn concludes his presentation thus:

It is easy to see why it is possible to think of Gregory the Great not only as the "Doctor of Desire," but also as the "Doctor of the Mixed Life."... [For Gregory] the monastic life is the figure of what humanity in Adam was originally created to enjoy: oneness of contemplative attention to God. But if the monk is the living imago of humanity's original condition, even monks no longer live in paradise. Though monks exist to remind us of what once was, and better yet, what is to come in heaven, in the present world, whose fallenness Gregory the Great felt so keenly, it is the preacher, living out his perilous vocation to keep both his eye on the goal and his heart with suffering humanity, who is the truest mystic -- the contemplative in action, like the great pope himself.

I'm sure Professor McGinn will not take it amiss if I extend his thought beyond "the preacher" to every committed Christian, convinced, with Karl Rahner, that "the Christian of the future will be a mystic ... or will not be."

I look forward to the remarks of Pope Benedict, Gregory the Great's successor, at tomorrow's "Angelus" on Gregory's feast.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is a longtime Commonweal contributor.

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