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St Gregory the Great
Pope, Doctor of the Church (entered heaven in 604)
I commend you on your Chapter Plan. It’s realistic, incisive, focused, and healthily ambitious. If every college had a Compass Chapter with such vision and determination, that country would turn around in just a few years.
But as you launch into your conquest of college culture this year, watch out for a subtle but debilitating virus – pride. Remember, as talented as you are, and as well-formed in your faith, your sweat and struggles will come to nothing if you neglect your soul. The Kingdom of Christ is like that; you can’t advance it in others if it hasn’t advanced in you. Or, as St Ignatius Loyola put it: “You wish to reform the world; reform yourself, otherwise your efforts will be in vain.” Today’s saint is a good example of that wise maxim.
Gregory was of patrician birth (that’s the high society of ancient Rome), and his family was devoutly Christian. Unfortunately, Rome (and the rest of the former Roman Empire in Western Europe) was in ruins by the time he became a young man. Barbarian invasions and plagues and widespread anarchy had reduced the “mistress of the world” to a broken down backwater.
Having received the best education available, Gregory took up a career in civil service, doing all he could to restore order and prosperity to the Eternal City and its surrounding townships. He rose quickly to the position of city prefect (i.e. mayor), and made solid progress. But soon the call to serve God alone became too strong to resist, so he gave his fortune to the city and retired to his family villa, which he turned into a monastery. He was happy there for three years, praying, studying, and disciplining his spirit and body in imitation of Christ. But he was soon brought back into public affairs, when the Pope sent him as ambassador to the Emperor’s court in Constantinople. Again his efforts met with success, but his heart remained in the cloister.
Upon returning to Rome, however, he was made a deacon, and given care of the Roman Churches. His zeal, intelligence, and charity made him the obvious choice for Pope, which he became in 590. His spiritual and practical leadership led the suffering city through plagues, invasions, and famines, while at the same time he turned the papacy into a rock of stability and order that would give Christendom a dependable foundation throughout the Middle Ages. He combined the prudence and shrewdness of an administrator with remarkable eloquence in both speech and writing. Above all, he strived to please and honor God by pouring himself out in service of his Kingdom. Indeed, it was Gregory the Great who coined the papal title still in use today, “servus servorum Dei” or “servant of the servants of God.” He never rested, he suffered from chronic health problems, and by the time his 13-year pontificate came to a close he looked more like a skeleton than a man. To the end, however, he remained the faithful pastor. One of his last actions was to send a heavy cloak to a poor bishop who had difficulty making it through the cold winters. His epitaph says it all: “After having conformed all his actions to his doctrines, the great consul of God went to enjoy eternal triumphs.”
And that’s the key: conforming your actions to your doctrines. And you can do it, just as St Gregory did, if you follow his itinerary, which prefaced his life of service with a life of prayer. Each day should be like that for you: go to the monastery of your soul first thing in the morning, and emerge into the field action afterwards. If you do, your Chapter Plan is sure to be fulfilled, and you, like Gregory, will be “Great” in the eyes of the Lord.
Your devoted uncle, Eddy