The restored statue of Pope Gregory at St Gregory’s church.The restored statue of Pope Gregory at St Gregory’s church.

My first encounter with San Girgor (St Gregory) was when I started to attend the Catholic Action, and thence I became an altar boy. There was no statue of St Gregory. As teenagers, we imaged the saint as a stern, ascetic and rather pompous pope on a throne. We prayed to the Madonna and to our favourite saints but I do not recollect at that age ever praying to St Gregory.

As I grew in age I started reading about the life of St Gregory. When I went to Rome to study for the priesthood (1948-1955) I got to know the saint from close quarters. In many churches there were paintings and statues of St Gregory but I had a full immersion in my frequent visits to the church of San Gregorio al Celio. Here, my initial knowledge came from some monks and by reading some of this great Pope’s writings.

We do not have an autobiography of Gregory but there are 850 letters he wrote. The last 13 years tell us about his pontificate.

Gregory was born in Rome in AD540, where he lived for most of his life in a palace on Celio hill, the property of his noble family. Today on this hill there is a church dedicated to him, which was once also a monastery of the monks of Camaldoli. Today the Missionaries of Charity of Blessed Mother Teresa minister here to the poor, the needy and the homeless.

From 573 to 578 he was Prefect of Rome, a very important civil office. However, in 578, he felt the call of God. He gave up his career, riches and palaces to go and live in a monastery. As a monk he dedicated his time to prayer, study and apostolic work.

His solitude in the monastery was interrupted as Pope Benedict I nominated him deacon of one of Rome’s quarters. This responsibility did not last long, for Pope Pelagius II nominated him papal legate (apocrisario) to the emperor in Constantinople. He went on this mission with six monks, where he founded a small monastery and formed a community for prayer. Gregory remained in Constantinople for six years, and in 586, Pope Pelagius II recalled him to Rome, to assume the office of counsellor.

In 590, with the death of Pelagius II, Gregory was consecrated Bishop of Rome, alias Pope, on September 3. The Lateran palace, where the basilica of St John Lateran now stands, was then the residence of the popes. He went to live there with a community of monks and it is here that he died in 604.

When he was elected pope, he was quite upset. He felt he was not worthy and up to the new responsibilities. He really felt he was incapable and he hoped emperor Maurizio would not accept him as bishop of Rome. He said he “felt he was a monkey, obliged to play the part of a lion”. He felt he had “to take up many mundane preoccupations”. He asked himself “whether he was being a pastor or the administrator of temporal power”. However, with time, he assumed very ably his pastoral and temporal tasks.

In those times up to the Middle Ages, he was considered a teacher of spiritual life. This is evident from his Pastoral Rule, which he wrote at the beginning of his pontificate to guide bishops in their ministry, and which had an immediate popularity and was compared to the rule of St Benedict. This Rule, along with other writings, brings Gregory close to us also these days. Popes and bishops have found his Pastoral Rule a point of reference and learning in the ministry of their office.

Gregory knew how to talk to the hearts of his people. He succeeded to speak with joy, simplicity of heart, ardent like fire and precious as gold. This had its roots in his monastic holiness, his experience of contemplation and his vast culture. This contemplation made him a man of action for the glory of God.

Even as Bishop of Rome, Gregory remained a monk, a man of contemplation and a servant of God. To his charisma of contemplation, he had to add his responsibilities of administration and action. This made him a great pastor and Pope, when the Church “was like a fragile boat rocked by heavy tempests and close to being shipwrecked”.

His main spiritual and pastoral gifts were an expression of his interior life, as we see from two common expressions in his writings being: redire ad cor (return to the heart) and habitare secum (living with self).

This explains why Gregory had a genuine nostalgia for the silence of the monastery, as he wanted to escape from the frenetic and noisy world around him. He wanted to run away from “the branco (hound) of dogs we have around us”, to give more time to the lectio (prayer reading) and “rumination” (meditation on the Word of God). To his friends he always said “he wanted to stay with the Lord”, “to meditate the sacred pages in the interior cell of his heart”.

The word “heart” is often mentioned by Gregory. He says “we need to listen with the ears of the heart”, to contemplate “with the eyes of our heart” and “to speak with the language of the heart” to “look towards God with the face of the heart” to “thank with the wisdom of the heart” and “to face every problem with the interior cell of the heart”.

Centuries later, Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke of “the heart, talking to the hearts”. This phrase inspired both St John Paul II and the present Pope Francis, two pontiffs to speak to the hearts.

Pope Francis embracing a woman during a general audience at the Vatican. Photo: Reuters/Alessandro BianchiPope Francis embracing a woman during a general audience at the Vatican. Photo: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

It also explains why in his Pastoral Rule, he wrote that “governing the souls” (that is, the pastoral ministry) is an ars atrium (an art of all arts) and “a queen of the arts”. Even in this moment of renewal of the Church by Pope Francis, the Rules are also indispensible today for our bishops.

For Gregory, the “good pastor” has the gift of discretion and flexibility, while having a meek and joyful face, so much so that all will feel accepted, loved and heard. How true this is, even for all priests and educators! Often in the ministry or in parenting, we encounter people who lack flexibility, discretion and humanity.

This reminds us of the teaching of St Ambrose, the saint of Milan, who said “where there is misericordia (pity) there is Christ present, where there is rigour, His ministers are present, but He is absent”.

Isn’t this the pedagogy of Pope Francis? It is he who said: “Our Church is a Church of misericordia (divine pity).”

St Gregory wrote a lot on “teaching the Word of God, for through the Word we know the heart of God” (letter to his doctor Trodoro). How true, if before preaching, he says “we open our hearts to silence, so as to listen to God”. For Gregory, preaching “is the art of the arts, the governing of the souls and a pastoral ministry”. Priests are at the service of the Word, a thought dear also to the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Archbishop of Milan. The Word has to be first meditated in the heart and then preached.

He said: “The Word of the Spirit has to resound silently in the ears of our heart.” The lectio divine, made popular in our days by Martini, is a method to open hearts and minds to the Word of God.

A statue of St Gregory the Great outside the old church of St Gregory in Żejtun, the venue of a yearly traditional pilgrimage.A statue of St Gregory the Great outside the old church of St Gregory in Żejtun, the venue of a yearly traditional pilgrimage.

This explains why in sacred iconography, St Gregory the Great, as seen in the statue at his church in Sliema, is shown with a dove near his ears. In some famous frescos he has two or three doves, one near the ear, one near the mouth and one above his head. The dove represents the spirit of God.

Gregory warns us not to attempt to just try to grasp the literal meaning of the sacred texts, so as to stick to fundamental interpretations, for in this case (as regretfully happens with some sects, like the Jehovah Witnesses) the Bible sounds as cold as a stone.

For Gregory, the Word was a person, a person we get to know not just by reason, but per uiam amoris, through the way of love, of profound affection, of sincerity and transparency. Gregory adds that when we “listen to the Word, we have to listen with love. Then we understand God’s Word “for only he who loves, understands with “an understanding which runs to the very bone marrow”.

Even as Bishop of Rome, Gregory remained a monk, a man of contemplation

In brief, St Gregory encourages us to read the Word not just “to know more” but “to taste (gustare) more, not for more knowledge but to reflect more”.

The prophet, writes Gregory, is allowed to speak only after a long silence: “Before opening his mouth, he should open his ears to listen to the people, he should open the mouth of his heart to the voice of the Creator.” The preacher “should not dare to speak, before he heard his interior voice”.

The laity often complains about the content, the length and the communication of some homilies. The recommendations of Gregory are of benefit to both preachers and their listeners, for “in listening and in silence” we hear the voice of the Lord. The same thoughts have been expressed by Pope Francis when speaking to priests.

In his preaching, Gregory used the approach of a “family colloquoy” made with simplicity and clarity. Due to his weak health and voice, he often wrote his homilies. Then they were read out by others, but they still were very effective and down to earth.

Today we can compare his style to that of Pope Francis. However, Francis, like Gregory, with his simple style, teaches the heart and the mind. Both know how to adapt themselves to the people, and in Francis’s case, to the media.

Gregory affirms that “if a pastor is close to God in contemplation, he would be very close to the people through compassion”. He repeats this often in his Rule, especially when he writes about “the danger of pride”. In his time, around him and the clergy he saw a great deal of pride, ambition and power. Very similar thoughts have often been denounced by Pope Francis, when he spoke “of certain lobbies”, clergy “running after careerism” and “want for power”.

Gregory sees in all this the presence of the devil and recommends prayer to avert these temptations. It is these pitfalls which often make men and women lack true compassion, for this is the best way of pastoral work.

The “good shepherd” for Gregory is compassionate, meek and humble. “Blessed are the meek.” The pastor with a “compassionate heart”, as the Gospel says, is ready “to give his life” not just a part or for a while, but “a total giving of oneself”.

This is a virtue which may be applied to the relationship between husband and wife, parents and children, doctor and patient, and so forth.

To politicians and people in authority we may apply this thought of Gregory: “Many, as soon as they get power, yearn above all to oppress the faithful, they give way to arrogance and terror of their power, harming those they are called to help. Not having the sentiment of charity, they delight in considering themselves as padroni [bosses] and they do not seek in the least to be fathers...”

Gregory wanted to build a church of misericordia but the times wiped out this virtue. However, the spirit is now working through Francis to open up the Church to “the 99 outside the fold” and to remind us that “the misericordia of God, outweighs all the sins of the world”.

It is this pity, reconciliation and compassion from the “Church of Misericordia” that many “outside the fold”, like remarried divorcees and priests who left celibacy, and many others, are waiting for. The forthcoming Synod of Bishops may shed a ray of hope.

Gregory spoke of “the hope that comes from the Lord” founded on faith and the promise of God. We have to continue to hope in the surprises of God, like Abraham “who believed in hope against every chance of hope” (Rom 4, 18).

Gregory experienced this in his life as Bishop of Rome. When the barbarians invaded the city, all believed and feared it was the end of Rome. Not Gregory, who repeated the words of St Augustine: “total spes nostra in Christo est” (all our hope is in Christ). With the fusion of the Romans and the Longobardi “a new people of God” was born, which God united. Gregory became bishop of a “new people”.

This situation is similar to the one Europe is living, with the immigration of various people of different race, colour, religion and culture. People who are now living and working in European countries, “who in turn are to be seen as a resource” (Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan).

It is a challenge as it is causing a confrontation between Christianity and Islam, two very strong spiritual forces in the world today and of the future. Churches, synagogues, mosques and Buddhist temples are now present in our nations. They are to be accepted and taken as a sign of religious belief as in the times of Gregory.

This should open up the way of dialogue, and never of “wars in the name of religion” (St John Paul II).

It is “dialogue”, which brought peace in ancient Rome through the work of Gregory between the Romans and the Longobards.

Through dialogue, Gregory became a great missionary Pope. He sought to export the Gospel to the people of Britain, which was outside the confines of the emperor. He had been informed of the wish of the Anglo-Saxons to embrace the Christian faith. He felt the urge to evangelise the British.

In the fresco painted in 1951 on the apse of St Gregory church by the Italian artist Eliodoro Coccoli, we see Gregory sending on mission to England a group of monks from his former monastery on the Celio, led by their superior Augustine of Canterbury.

It was no easy ride to go to evangelise pagan Britain. Times and people were hard, but God made wonders and the “Gregorian mission­aries” made many conversions. Their task was easier when the king and queen were baptised and became converts. Hearing the news, Gregory exclaimed: “Here is the Lord who has penetrated in the hearts of nearly all the people.”

Francis, like Gregory, with his simple style, teaches the heart and the mind

Gregory also sought to bring “a new evangelisation” to those Catholics who had fallen into heresy. This was the case of the Visigoths in Spain and Arianism in the north of Italy. He was concerned and did not believe in “mass conversions” as was the case with King Clodoreo and his people in France, who after a time returned to paganism. Even North Africa, which at the time of St Augustine of Ippona was flourishing in faith, but when Augustine was dying in 430, the vandals invaded the land and the heresy of Donatism flourished.

Gregory sought the evangelisation of these people. He said: “The Church is fortified through truth, the more it suffers for truth.” He added: “The wrinkled face of the Church are those Christians who are not coherent with the faith.” For him, “more than being worried about the persecutors, the Church should be concerned about those Christians only in name or for the opportunity”. Pope Francis has more than once enounced this kind of faith, which he said cannot tolerate “part-time Christians”.

Gregory is considered as an “Evangelical Pope”. Pope John XXIII defined him a “true Christian who became pope”. He was a genuine “living icon of the Gospel” and his election to the papacy, like the case of Francis, a surprising great gift to the Church.

He incarnated in his person the Gospel. In him we find the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. Strictly speaking, only Christ embodied to perfection these Beatitudes, but Gregory sought to reach perfection by living the Beatitudes. Pope Francis also recommended that “we learn the Beatitudes by heart”.

He was humble till the end, because he was “poor in spirit”. Like Christ, he was meek and never arrogant or proud, and did not abuse the poor from his elevated position. Also like Christ, he was misericordia (merciful), with a heart to open like the heart of Christ (Familiaris Consortio).

He was also “an instrument of peace” for through dialogue he worked for the peace between men and their religions. In the fourth century, Rome was undergoing a very difficult moment, as a besieged city. His homilies on the Prophet Exechiele, also available as a book, were preached during the siege of the Longobards in the presence of the monks of the Celio, of the Lateran, of the Gianicolo and many refugee monks from various regions. They all focused on peace and goodwill.

Gregory was and is called Magnus (the Great). However, it was he who started to sign as “servant of the servants of God”. He shunned dignity, comfort and gold-embroidered vestments. He saw the papacy as “a fraternal service in communion and to communion”. He considered himself as “a humble successor of Peter”, adding: “Peter, the first in authority among the apostles, also in humility.”

He tried to twin the principle of “primacy of Peter” to the “principle of the synod”, always respectful to the bishops of the West and the Orient. He never accepted the title of “Ecumenical Patriarch”, which was usurped by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Once again, our vision goes to Pope Francis, who like Gregory, excels in humility, simplicity and a Franciscan way of life, while still being a Jesuit. Gregory, always in spirit, remained a monk, but he felt, like the Prophet Ezechiele, to be “a guard on the top of the mountain” to see far away whatever happens, or even to “see the sunrise”, which is the first sign of God’s coming. A guard, according to Gregory, must also be on top with his holiness of life.

Gregory is ‘great’ as a monk, as a pastor, a prophet and a pope. Not because of the offices he shouldered but because of likeness to Christ. A “good shepherd” and a true “Christian who became Pope”. As Tertallian said, “Christians are not born, they become”. We all, especially clergy and laymen and women of the parish of St Gregory the Great, become Christians not by birth, but like our patron saint, by living the Gospel in our daily lives.

Mgr Charles Vella celebrated his first solemn Mass at St Gregory’s church, Sliema, after being ordained in Rome on December 8, 1954. On December 8, 2014, he is planning to celebrate Mass in the same church to mark the 60th anniversary of priesthood.

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