On September 3, 2020, the Solemnity of St. Gregory the Great, our resident chaplain, Fr. Warren Tanghe, gave a wonderful homily to celebrate our 11th anniversary of reception into full communion with the Holy See. We think this homily is well worth sharing and hope you will agree.
St. Gregory the Great: II Corinthians 4:1-2, 5-7 / Luke 22:24-30
Over the years, I’ve owned and sold a number of different homes. And each of the Realtors I’ve worked with said the same thing to me: there are three things that matter – location, location, location.
Rome’s Via di San Gregorio runs north between the Caelian and Palatine Hills from the east end of the Circus Maximus, under the Arch of Constantine, to the Colosseum. St. Gregory’s home was on the first lot on the Caelian side: in fact, two of its buildings, now chapels, still stand, alongside the medieval church of San Gregorio Magno. But look across the street, and you will be gazing at the ruins of various imperial palaces – that’s how the Palatine Hill got its name.
That location tells us a lot about who St. Gregory was. It speaks of power. It speaks of wealth. Our saint was the son of a patrician family, one of the few which remained in Rome as the seat of the empire shifted to Byzantium. The family was wealthy, with large holdings in Sicily, Rome’s “breadbasket”. Gregory’s father, Gordian, had held civic office, and it is no surprise that the son of such a family took up the career of a public official. By 568, when the Lombards first invaded Italy and threatened Rome, Gregory held Rome’s highest civil office, as was prefect of the city.
But Gregory’s family was as pious as it was civic-minded: it had given the Roman Church two of its sixth-century popes, Felix II and Agapitus I. Gregory, too, experienced god’s call: he resigned his office, gave away his riches, and turned his ancestral home on the Caelian Hill into a monastery, St. Andrew’s. He would describe the years he spent there, in obedience to abbot Valentius, as the happiest of his life.
But the needs of the Church pulled him from his monastic seclusion. He was ordained one of the seven deacons of the Roman Church, and sent as an ambassador from the Pope to the imperial court in New Rome, Constantinople. When he was recalled to Rome by Pope Pelagius II in 586, he happily returned to his monastery, where he was soon made abbot.
It was during this time that, having encountered some fair haired slaves on sale in the market, Gregory first attempted to lead a mission from his monastery to their people – but the effort collapsed when that provoked an outcry.
For Gregory was already marked for greater things: and when Pope Pelagius died of the plague in January or 590, Gregory was unanimously elected Pope. He quickly put his administrative talents to use: he reorganized the papal household, and likewise reformed the administration of the papal patrimony, the system of farms, ships and distribution centers which was the primary source of social welfare for the Roman people. And he again faced invading Lombards, this time not only inducing them to withdraw from the walls of Rome, but going on to negotiate a peace treaty.
St. Gregory the Great never forgot about the Angli. In 596, he sent forty monks from his monastery to evangelize England, led by the prior, Augustine. When clerics in France warned against this ventureand Augustine proposed to abandon it, Gregory gave him specific directions to proceed to the territory of Ethelbert, king of Kent – an Anglo-Saxon pagan married to a Frankish Christian. A Romano-British church in his capital, St. Martin’s in Canterbury, had been reactivated for the queen and her ladies, and it became the center for the mission. Ethelbert was baptized on Pentecost in 597, and most of his subjects on Christmas that same year.
Gregory was aware that Augustine was not the first to bring the Gospel to Britain. He charged Augustine to make contact with the remnants of the Romano-British church in Cornwall and Wales, and with the churches in the north founded by such as Cuthbert ad Aidan. And in giving Augustine guidance regarding his approach to these churches, Gregory declared the principle that the important thing was not uniformity with Roman practice, but unity with the Roman See. This is what Gregory wrote:
“Things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Therefore select from each of the Churches whatever things are devout, religious, and right; and when you have bound them, as it were, into a sheaf, let the minds of the English grow accustomed to it.”
Which brings us to us. For it was the recapturing of that priority at and after the Second Vatican Council which has made this feast of St. Gregory the Great not just another feast-day, but our feast-day, the anniversary for some of us of our reception into full communion with the Holy See, and for all of us, of the erection of the Society of the All Saints Sisters of the Poor as a community within the Roman Catholic Church. It was the priority of unity over uniformity which moved Pope Paul VI to create the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, in the hope that the two ecclesial bodies could be brought into full communion. When that possibility faded, it was the priority of unity over uniformity which moved Pope St. John Paul II to issue the Pastoral Provision, which not only allowed married Episcopal priests who converted to be ordained as Catholic priests, but also gave them permission to worship according to rites based on those of the Episcopal Church, the Book of Divine Worship. And it was the priority of unity over uniformity which moved Pope Benedict XVI to extend that provision to Anglicans worldwide, and to create a distinct structure in which they might live out that very substantial part of their patrimony – liturgical, spiritual, structural and theological – which is consonant with the faith and practice of the Catholic Church.
There is, of course, much more to St. Gregory the Great. I’ve said nothing, for instance, of his writings: his exposition of the Book of Job, the Moralia; his work on pastoral care, so foundational that for centuries every new bishop was given a copy at his consecration; his Dialogues, a collection of visions, prophecies and miracles which is, among other things, our chief source of the life of St. Benedict, and proved one of the most popular books of the middle ages. In St. Gregory the Great, God brought together the natural gifts of a born leader and the spiritual gifts fostered by the monastic life, to His glory, and the good of His Church, gifts which still keep on giving, gifts which have given good things to us.
Fr. Warren Tanghe
All Saints Priory September 3, 2020