Thursday, September 3, 2015

Creating a Christian Civilization

Today the Church commemorates Pope Saint Gregory the Great (c.540 - 604), who became Pope on this day in 590, and who is buried in Saint Peter's Basilica (photo). Gregory came from a wealthy and prominent aristocratic Roman family and in 573 became Prefect of the City. He eventually became a monk, turning his family villa on the Caelian Hill into an urban monastery. One of the four great Doctors of the Western Church, Gregory profoundly influenced  the Latin Church's both theologically and liturgically. Gregory's combined Roman and monastic heritage highlights his formative role in the creation of the new Christian civilization of Europe which replaced the Western Roman Empire.

Gregory's rome was a desolate, depopulated city whose best days seemed behind it (perhaps a bit like the Bronx in the 1970s), reduced to a distant western province of the Eastern roman empire based in constantinople ("New Rome"). "In and around the Forum," wrote Peter Brown (The Rise of Western Christendom), "the occasional crash of falling masonry showed that Rome, the Rome of the pagan past, had not been levelled by invading barbarians. It had simply been allowed to fall down through neglect."

Gregory emerged from his monastic retreat to be ordained to the more public, civic responsibilities of a cleric, and was sent to the Imperial court in Constantinople as papal envoy in 579. While there, he wrote his famous Moralia, a book of spiritual guidance in the form of an allegorical exegesis of the old testament book of Job.

His immersion in worldly socio-political affairs became complete when he became pope and became responsible for feeding the ancient capital and helping to finance the new capital. Early in his papacy, his weighty new responsibilities produced another book, Regula Pastoralis, in which he sought to navigate the challenges of spiritual office's worldly responsibilities. Gregory's ideal pastor would be thus close to people in compassion while still somehow above it all in contemplation (Regula Pastoralis, 2,5). Peter Brown called Gregory's Regula Pastoralis his equivalent of the Rule of Saint  Benedict - a rule for bishops - and considered it "decisive for the entire future of Western Europe," a model lay as well as religious governance.

Gregory straddled the end of an ancient classical order and the birth of a medieval Christian civilization, as surely as he straddled the physical boundaries between the Eastern Empire and the patchwork of old and new social structures  and political regimes that was redefining Western Europe. Like the householder in the Gospel who brought both old and new from his storeroom (Matthew 13:52), Gregory drew on t he best from our roman and byzantine past and amalgamated it with what was actually in the making at the time to bring to birth a new, post-ancient Christian civilization.

The spirit of that impressive civilization served humanity very well for over a millennium until it too fell down through neglect in the dark age known as the enlightenment and the bloody wars and tyrannies that have been the Enlightenment's lasting legacy.

So, once again, the world awaits with anxious expectation post-modern Gregorys, rooted in the spiritual life of contemplation of the Truth and overflowing with compassion for a suffering humanity, in order to recreate a new civilization out of the human and cultural wreckage produced by modernity..

No comments:

Post a Comment