by Gregory the Great
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“The consciousness of virtue is a pitfall for the soul.”
That’s an odd thing for a pope to say, but Gregory the Great was not your typical pope. When he was selected to succeed Pelagius II in 590, he earnestly asked that the church find a more worthy candidate. When he finally succumbed to the pressure to become the next pope he wrote that he “undertook the burden of the dignity with a sick heart.”
The archbishop of Ravenna gave him a tongue-lashing for his reluctance to assume office, which caused Gregory to defend himself by writing this treatise, Pastoral Care. This book begins with a discussion of all the burdens that a pastor must bear, and concludes with a heart-felt reminder that the shepherds of the flock need to remember their own weaknesses.
In many ways, then, Gregory was the ideal leader for the Catholic Church. He revered godly men who came before him, writing a biography of St. Benedict. His work promoting music in the church resulted in the plainsong Gregorian Chants bearing his name. He clearly understood the gospel, he did not aspire to power, he felt the weight of the responsibility of a pastor, and he was humble. According to one story, a leader of the church in Constantinople insisted that Gregory refer to him as the “universal patriarch,” which caused Gregory to request that he be known as servus servorum Dei—servant of the servants of God.
Unfortunately, many of the seeds for the mistakes and abuses of the Catholic Church can be found in Pastoral Care as well. Flashes of Gnosticism shine through Gregory’s theology (like many early Christians he has too low of an opinion of the physical world). Moreover, it’s already evident that he’s lost sight of the priesthood of all believers, assigning a special intercessory role to pastors.
Both Gregory’s strengths and weaknesses powerfully impacted succeeding generations. Thus, Pastoral Care might be the best book to read to understand the medieval Christian mindset, articulated by the man that was viewed as the archetypical Christian by the faithful throughout the Middle Ages.
by Jeff Baldwin