If anyone knew firsthand what a civilization looks like after it collapses, it would certainly be Pope St. Gregory the Great. “When Gregory assumed the Supreme Pontificate the disorder in public affairs had reached its climax; the ancient civilization had all but disappeared and barbarism was spreading throughout the dominions of the crumbling Roman Empire,” said St. Pius X. The once great Roman Empire was no more by the time Gregory became pope (590 A.D.). Because he was inspired by the monastic life of St. Benedict, who had died in 542 A.D., he knew what it meant to be apart from the world, to judge it rightly and to set it on a better course. In his spiritual solitude, he was disciplined in prayer, meditation and self-denial. As such, he was destined to do great things for the Lord.
Pope Benedict XVI once said that "no great mission can fully ripen without contemplation, tranquility, and self-denial." Before any mission, God has to be encountered. His will must be sought after and loved above everything else; including the mission at hand. In doing this, the fear of adversity and hatred is much less likely to dissuade the Christian from carrying out God’s will. With this, he is better fit to lead others. “It is to be firmly held that nobody can rightly govern in earthly things, unless he knows how to treat divine things.”
Pope St. Gregory the Great was an important link between the ruins of ancient pagan civilization and the new Christian civilization that had yet to be born. But first, the Church needed to be reformed. In fact, it was Gregory's observation the Church was in desperate need of repair. He said, the Church is “an old ship woefully shattered; for the waters are entering on all sides, and the joints, buffeted by the daily stress of the storm, are growing rotten and herald shipwreck."
It just so happens that about every five hundred years the Mystical Body of Christ needs an infusion of new life. As for Pope St. Gregory the Great, “[H]e counted with unlimited confidence on the supernatural force given by God to the Church for the successful accomplishment of her divine mission in the world.” He knew that the sacraments had the power of infusing or increasing the life of the soul. Relying on these channels of grace, Gregory “restored Christian life in its entirety” just when the Church was in a position to begin renewing civilization again.
St. Gregory preferred to call himself the “Servants of the servants of God.” But as God’s servant, he also had to play the watchman when his flock was threatened. When circumstances warranted it, he publically opposed political rulers and public administrators. Writing to a deacon he said, "I am ready to die rather than permit that the Church degenerate in my days. And you know well my ways, that I am long-suffering; but when I decide not to bear any longer, I face danger with a joyful soul." And as for the derelict clergy who had contributed to the malaise of the Church, he exhorted them to be courageous and venture out to the streets in order to preach the Gospel.
St. Pius X said of him, “Gregory rebukes the bishop who, through love of spiritual solitude and prayer, fails to go out into the battlefield to combat strenuously for the cause of the Lord: ‘The name of bishop, which he bears, is an empty one.’” According to the St. Gregory, bishops and even priests had to be just as mission-oriented in their preaching and teaching to outsiders as they were pastoral to souls committed to their care.
And as for those heralds of the Gospel who deemed themselves unqualified- such as St. Augustine of Canterbury who was sent by the pope to England in order to evangelize it -he said the following: “To show the world that He [our Lord] wished to convert it, not by the wisdom of men, but by His own power, He chose unlettered men to be preachers to the world; and the same He has now done, vouchsafing to accomplish through weak men great things among the nation of the Angles [the English].”
In 1904, Pope St. Pius X wrote an encyclical dedicated to Pope St. Gregory the Great. Like in Gregory’s day, St. Pius took note that Europe was growing tired of Christianity. In fact, he had predicted World War I long before the first shot. Not only were the nations of Europe ten years shy from going to war with one another, but Christian civilization itself was giving way to secularism. At times, he feared for the Church.
He even said, “We have grounds for fear, with so many storms gathering on every side, with so many hostile forces massed and advancing against Us, and at the same time so utterly deprived are We of all human aid to ward off the former and to help us to meet the shock of the latter.”
However, in recalling the shining example of St. Gregory the Great, a great leader who lived amid in times of uncertainty, St. Pius X called on Catholics throughout the world in 1904 to have confidence in Divine Providence. He pointed to the immortality of the Church:
“Kingdoms and empires have passed away; peoples once renowned for their history and civilization have disappeared; time and again the nations, as though overwhelmed by the weight of years, have fallen asunder; while the Church, indefectible in her essence, united by ties indissoluble with her heavenly Spouse, is here to-day radiant with eternal youth, strong with the same primitive vigor with which she came from the Heart of Christ dead upon the Cross.”
Quite often throughout history God has chosen to do His best work when all seemed lost. When other nations and institutions had grown old, the Church’s
“eternal youth” was- and continues to be -sustained by men of great sanctity like Pope St. Gregory the Great.
But unlike other Saints, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of St. Gregory the Great, not on the day he died (which was March 12), but the day he was consecrated bishop and inaugurated pope. It was on that day, on September 3, 590 A.D., when it became apparent to the world why the Church would accord him the title, “the great.” He was the second pope in history to merit such a title.