Gregory the Great: (The SPOKE Remix)


(Latin: Gregorius I; c. 540 – 12 March 604)

It is humbling to read of “Gregory the Great” not for his great deeds, and certainly not his power. It is his humility which humbles – a humility so free from itself that it was free to act, for as limited as Gregory was by physical prowess, age and often tested by illness during his reign as the pope, the sheer amount of service he was able to render to the flock of Christ was nothing short of amazing both in worldly aid and spiritual comfort.[1]

It is, in fact, Gregory who, among the few, is able to not only critique the haughty, ambitious the proud in his book The Book of Pastoral Rule, but also take equal aim at those hiding from duty behind their humility and desire for contemplation as an ends and means of escaping service to others.

I know…we don’t know people like that really…but they do exist…somewhere.

Bruce Shelley, in his book Church History in Plain Language (516 pages of it), points out that Gregory stressed “that the spiritual leader should never be so absorbed in external cares as to forget the inner life of the soul, nor neglect external things in the care for his inner life.”[2]

It is in light of this dual aspect to his calling that Gregory wrote his book around 590, known also as Pastoral Care. This paper is a brief exploration of the dual nature of Gregory’s view of the calling to serve others.

Context: “Run away…run away!”

Gregory was no stranger to the desire to avoid serving and avoiding the limelight. Himself a monastic (Benedictine) he had to be ferreted out of the woods where he was hiding once it had been announced that he was the new Vicar of Christ. One may ask why he was hiding? Was it true humility, or was it the mirrored fear (which I think we can all understand) of Moses and others called who say “Who am I to speak your word?”

Be that as it may, Gregory, once installed, and constantly battling both enemies outside the Church (the vicious Lombards who could make crooked any street) and with his own physical (health) limitations did seek to serve with all that was within him.

As Shelley remarks,

“in time the Catholic Church added his name to those of Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome to speak of the Latin Fathers of the Church. In terms of intellectual powers alone Gregory probably doesn’t belong in such company. But he combined great executive ability with warm sympathy for human need.”[3]

It was perhaps this, combined with working under extreme circumstances which earned his title. As such, history has treated Gregory extremely well:

He is considered a saint in the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican Communion, and some Lutheran churches. Immediately after his death, Gregory was canonized by popular acclaim. The Protestant reformer John Calvin admired Gregory and declared in his Institutes that Gregory was the last good pope.[4]

That is no small feat – especially since Calvin would just as soon burn many a Protestant leader at the stake for failing to cross a “t” or dot an “i” his way  – not really a nice guy from many an account. I mean, I feel safe – now – but that’s only because there are centuries between us.

The title “the Great” was a title Gregory would not have liked (whereas other popes would have enjoyed such) – but came as recognition by those who came after him for his great love of God and God’s people for as Shelley summarizes “It was a singularly appropriate description of the man who had exerted himself to the utmost to be solely God’s while ruling church and world like a Roman statesman, the last of his line.”[5]

The Book of Pastoral Rule has, as its main bulk, part III consisting of detailed instructions – most often on how to admonish opposite “types” of cases within the congregants. The list is fairly comprehensive- and one which I will not  foist upon you here – but does exist in the paper I turned in (it is quite LONG).

Most all of the 30 some-odd categories are split into opposite categories for “admonition.”

“Admonish” is as admonition does. It can be a harsh legalism that deals with people like things to be processed; or on the other hand it can cull them like those who will produce money and goods for the church itself if not challenged (as Megachurches often do).

Gregory, being both a caretaker of the outward cares of humanity (once mayor of Rome at the age of 33 and in charge of all it’s vital commerce.)[7] and a Benedictine monk familiar with the care of souls –  Gregory demonstrated his deep knowledge of exactly how to “admonish for the good” in every circumstance.

One can pick at random any of the categories in his book for a thorough example.


Now I choose this one precisely because we do not use this at all in our culture – not physical ones anyway. We use different types of shaming and punishments– particularly in the Church- to our great condemnation – for we all know that Jesus said “Come all ye who are weary and heavy laden so we can pile a bunch of guilt, shame and new expectations on you!”


But Gregory does not “line up” with the scouraging as we might expect for a religious man in power. He deals with the reality that scouraging takes place in his culture. But his concern is first and foremost for the deep effects it had upon the heart.

His fear, for those who found its threat motivated them away from all sinning was that it left their heart untouched by a greater motive: the love of God and true freedom in Christ, for he says:

…they should dread eternal punishments; nor yet continue in this fear of punishments, but grow up by the nursing of charity to the grace of love.  For it is written, Perfect charity casteth out fear (1 Joh. iv. 18).  And again it is written, Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear, but the spirit of adoption of sons, wherein we cry, Abba, Father (Rom. viii. 15).  Whence the same teacher says again, Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2 Cor. iii. 17).  If, then, the fear of punishment still restrains from evil-doing, truly no liberty of spirit possesses the soul of him that so fears. [8]

Gregory is arguing beyond mere behavior to a spiritual freedom based in the love of God as motive – not the avoidance of punishment.

In his dealing with the more obstinate – those for whom a scourging is no longer a deterrent – his counsel is curious on the one hand – yet straight-forward on the other. He says “For generally they are to be disdained without disdain, and despaired of without despair, so, to wit, that the despair exhibited may strike them with dread, and admonition following may bring them back to hope. “[9]

The second part is straight forward enough. Their case is to be shown as one of unending despair in its current trajectory.

We understand this. We see a man or woman caught in an addiction and wanting it so. W cannot help but mirror back a certain despair at their plight – for to mirror back the lie that they will reform that very day when we know it is false is no favor to them. But show them disdain? I think not – not if we know our own faults and charity.

But one wonders at Gregory’s very choice of language in “disdained without disdain?” For later Gregory will add “It is, however, to be known that sometimes when they remain uncorrected amid the hardness of scourges, they are to be soothed by sweet admonition.  For those who are not corrected by torments are sometimes restrained from unrighteous deeds by gentle blandishments.”[10]

It is here that one begins to see (from both sides) how Gregory is attending the heart and final goal of each person’s heart with God. Gregory is a physician of the soul!

Forsaking and Bewailing

Another example picked at random, are the admonishment of those “who bewail misdeeds, yet forsake them not; and those who forsake them, yet bewail them not.”[11]

To the first he says:

Those who bewail transgressions, yet forsake them not, are to be admonished to acknowledge themselves to be before the eyes of the strict judge like those who, when they come before the face of certain men, fawn upon them with great submission, but, when they depart, atrociously bring upon them all the enmity and hurt they can.  For what is weeping for sin but exhibiting the humility of one’s devotion to God?  And what is doing wickedly after weeping but putting in practice arrogant enmity against Him to whom entreaty has been made?  This James attests, who says, Whosoever will be a friend of this world becomes the enemy of God (James iv. 4). [12]


Let us first admit that where Gregory speaks openly of transgression and sin we live in an age where this is unfashionable – until we start talking about other people in a popular way. Then we will find all manner of fault equally these two categories (easily).

When it comes to Gregory’s response let us first note that, like so many of the Fathers, he laces his reasoning liberally with scriptures as a matter of course. In fact, in an earlier place he has insisted that anyone who preaches be capable of answering any question at a moment’s notice from scripture. They must be that conversant and immersed in it – a test I would surely fail.

Gregory is not proof-texting (as if he had to go and look things up to prove a point), but rather simply and seamlessly allowing his knowledge of Holy Writ to flow into his instructions.Later, in his exploration of the Word and Church he will even be “at play” metaphorically.

Throughout his dual instructions to the opposite extremes, Gregory is looking not for some pacified middle ground but rather real advances beyond the limitations of the severe hindrances each situation inherently presents. In this case Gregory sees no real value in an outward show of repentance with no corresponding change in actions. He likens it both to “the dog returning to its own vomit” and the swine – once clean – returning to even greater defilement.[13]

\You go “Ew,” right before you turn on the latest episode of The Walking Dead. Go figure.

For those who seem to easily step away from the actual sin itself yet show no remorse or change of heart Gregory once again shows his pastoral concern:

those who forsake their transgressions, and yet mourn them not, are to be admonished not to suppose the sins to be already remitted which, though they multiply them not by action, they still cleanse away by no bewailings.  For neither has a writer, when he has ceased from writing, obliterated what he had written by reason of his having added no more:  neither has one who offers insults made satisfaction by merely holding his peace, it being certainly necessary for him to impugn his former words of pride by words of subsequent humility…”[14]

This guy is thorough…you gotta give him that.

While we may argue that said sins are “already remitted” and that there is no accountable “measure of tears” that corresponds to salvation within the biblical witness we all too easily disregard the spiritual value of what the Catholics refer to simply as “penance” which – at the root – is simply tied to the idea of heart-felt repentance.

We Protestants really do not get it a lot of the time. Seriously.

It is not primarily with the idea of “earning” anything – but as Gregory goes on to supply – a concern for true sorrow over sin to be joined to the avoidance of it in future actions.

In this area, Gregory fits well as one of those through the ages who were adept at the “cure of souls” (McNeil, 1977).


Gregory has a formula in his presentation – just a juxtaposition. There are many ways to frame it, but one easy way is to simply cast it in most cases (not all) in extremes. The one side is gregarious, pride-laden and bodily; the other ascetic, shy and austere. Both – in Gregory’s view – are in need of correction whether they land in overt arrogant rebellion or seemingly in humble submission of a kind. Gregory is concerned about the hearts of men and women being brought into true and rich communion with God.

More importantly, Christ is not seen as far off, abstracted or commemorative as has often been the case in both a modern and postmodern context whether conservative or liberal.


An example of one well-meaning abstraction that makes Jesus potentially formulaic.

While this postmodern writer demurs about whether he should capitalize “he” or “He” when referring to the Living One, Gregory the Great smoothly and regularly says things like “But the Truth in person says, ‘Broad and spacious is the way that leadeth to destruction’ (Matth. vii. 13),”[15]  and (among many other references)  “For hence in the Gospel the Truth says, ‘That they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven’ (Matth. v. 16).”[16]

Gregory is not as shy as we are. Of course he has the advantage of the papacy.

But not a pomp papacy. It was borne of the plague (his predecessor died in agony) and while Americans think it is the End Times because there is a black man in the oval office or (wait…I’m checking what it is this week…okay…global financial markets to be ruined any minute now and if we let Muslims into the country then in a matter of a few months there will be more of them than of us (like they multiply way faster than rabbits or even illegals from Mexico.)

Because, as we all know, America is really right in there in biblical prophecy and End Times stuff anyway. The pastor has a new book on it which you can pick up next to his wife’s recipe book on “Eating God’s Way,” in their megastore.

Back to a sane guy: Gregory – who just had to fight off the Lombards, be chief administrator for his country and be spiritual overseer for the world.  Yet  you  get a pervasive sense that, for Gregory, “the Judge is right at the door.” (Jas. 5:9). He was playing to an audience of One.

The book has come down to us with two different titles: The Book of Pastoral Rule and Pastoral Care. Once read, I can see the reason for both. For a pastor, I would place the first title right next to Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor as the two chief guides to that calling.

A good pastor  would welcome it all and already be doing most of it. It would put on paper years of what it took them to learn by painful experience.

A bad pastor? It wouldn’t make a lick of sense to him at all – particularly a Protestant “betterment” guy who only wants outward show and not true transformation.

(But no one will be reading them 15 years from now, not to speak of near 1,500 years from now).

But if not a pastor – if I was perhaps someone in the healing profession who dealt with the “cure of souls” more one on one– then I would buy a copy under the second title and use that alongside books by Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Larry Crabb and Thich Nhat Hanh who address more directly matters of the heart.

[1] Shelley, Bruce Church History in Plain Language, (Thomas Nelson, Nashville 1995) p. 166.

[2] Shelley, Ibid., p. 164.

[3] Shelley, Ibid., p. 164.

[4] Gregory the Great, Wikipedia article. as cited on December 14, 2015.

[5] Shelley, Ibid., p. 164.

[6] Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series II, Vol. I2 (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids, Il), the great Philip Schaff the original editor. P. 625-626.

[7] Shelley, Ibid., p. 165.

[8] Gregory the Great, Ibid., p. 651.

[9] Ibid., p. 651.

[10] Gregory the Great, Ibid., p. 652.

[11] Ibid., p.625.

[12] Ibid., p. 625.

[13] Ibid., p. 702.

[14] Ibid., P. 703.

[15] Gregory the Great, Ibid., p. 610.

[16] Ibid., p. 717


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