What made Saint Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) so great?
One could point to his many accomplishments. He was Benedictine, the first monk to be elected Pope, and during his fourteen years as pontiff he suffered many physical ailments. Despite his infirmities, he is credited with wise management of the papal holdings and distributing much of the increase to the poor. He also organized and codified the chant which still bears his name.
Above all, though, he strove to improve the "serve" of church leadership. His pastoral rule is renowned for its sensitivity to individual circumstance, as well as its high view of the pastoral office. It became the gold standard for clergy performance review throughout the early middle ages. Again and again, the Church would fall from this high standard, only to return again and again to this fountainhead. We are in the middle of another such cycle today.
Truly, as its own words advise, Gregory himself helped what he commanded to be done by showing it forth in his own life. Here are some translated excerpts from the Pastoral Rule, through which Gregory's spirit glows.
"The conduct of a prelate ought so far to be superior to the conduct of the people as the life of a shepherd is accustomed to exalt him above the flock. For one whose position is such that the people are called his flock ought anxiously to consider how great a necessity is laid upon him to maintain uprightness. It is necessary, then, that in thought he should be pure, in action firm; discreet in keeping silence; profitable in speech; a near neighbor to every one in sympathy; exalted above all in contemplation; a familiar friend of good livers through humility, unbending against the vices of evil-doers through zeal for righteousness; not relaxing in his care for what is inward by reason of being occupied in outward things, nor neglecting to provide for outward things in his anxiety for what is inward.
The pastor should always be pure in thought, inasmuch as no impurity ought to pollute him who has undertaken the office of wiping away the stains of pollution in the hearts of others also; for the hand that would cleanse from dirt must needs be clean, lest, being itself sordid with clinging mire, it soil all the more whatever it touches.
The pastor should always be a leader in action, that by his living he may point out the way of life to those who are put under him, and that the flock, which follows the voice and manners of the shepherd, may learn how to walk rather through example than through words.
For he who is required by the necessity of his position to speak the highest things is compelled by the same necessity to do the highest things. For that voice more readily penetrates the hearer's heart, which the speaker's life commends, since what he commands by speaking he helps the doing by showing."
May all our clergy, at every level, do as much. I know that many have been hurt by the harshness of clergy or by their leaders' failure to live up to the gospel standard of the Chief Shepherd.
The door through which many have left can also be the entry point through which they return. My prayer is that any and all who have had this experience may also encounter, in God's providence, those men of God who can bring them back once again into the One Fold.
Saint Gregory the Great, pray for us!