September 2, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The wisdom of the saints: St. Gregory the Great

John F. FinkSt. Gregory the Great, whose feast is on Sept. 3, was pope from 590 to 604. He held the civic office of prefect of Rome before giving up secular life, becoming a Benedictine monk and converting his home into a monastery. He also founded six monasteries on his estate in Sicily.

Ordained a priest, he represented the pope in Constantinople before being elected abbot and then pope. As pope, he conducted a massive reform of the clergy, reformed the liturgy—the Gregorian Chant is named after him—sent 40 monks to convert England, and concluded a peace treaty with the Lombards.

He is considered the last of the Fathers of the Church, and was one of the original four Doctors of the Church from the West. The others are Sts. Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome. He was a copious writer. His most important work was Pastoral Care, a book about the qualities and duties of a bishop, read for centuries after his death.

In one of his homilies, he spoke about our use of temporal goods. He advised those of us who cannot give up everything of this world, “at least keep what belongs to the world in such a way that you yourself are not kept prisoner by the world. Whatever you possess must not possess you; whatever you own must be under the power of your soul; for if your soul is overpowered by the love of this world’s goods, it will be totally at the mercy of its possessions.”

In other words, he said, we make use of temporal things, but our hearts must be set on what is eternal.

“Temporal goods help us on our way,” he said, “but our desire must be for those eternal realities which are our goal.”

We must utterly eradicate whatever is vicious, he said. “No carnal pleasure, no worldly curiosity, no surge of ambition must keep us from the Lord’s Supper. But further, our minds should merely skirt even the good deeds we perform in this life. In this way, the physical things which give us pleasure will serve our bodily needs without hindering the soul’s progress.”

He said that he dared not tell us to give up everything. However, he said, “you can give everything up even while keeping it, provided you handle temporal things in such a way that your whole mind is directed toward what is eternal.”

The secret is to not let external needs dominate our souls. For those who can do that, he said, “everything in this world is there for their use, not to be desired. Nothing should interfere with your soul’s longing. No created pleasure in the world should ensnare you.

“If the object of love is what is good, then the soul should take its delight in the higher good, the things of heaven. If the object of fear is what is evil, then we should keep before ourselves the things that are eternally evil. In this way, if the soul sees that we should have a greater love and a greater fear about what concerns the next life, it will never cling to this life.” †

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