Make America Meek Again: The Legacy of St. Gregory the Great

On March 12, fourteen hundred years ago, Pope St. Gregory the Great died. As his honorary title proclaims, he was a great man and a great pope. But this greatness was his not because he wanted to make the Roman papacy great again—which he did. St. Gregory was called great because he was good—the servant of the servants of God, as he phrased it. His greatness was achieved in a spirit of humble reluctance to be great: a spirit of holy meekness. In fact, greatness was the very thing Gregory did not desire, and it was in that desire that he achieved greatness. On the anniversary of his death, the greatness of this champion of the Church provides weighty meditation material for American Catholics who are standing in the midst of a thundering swell to “Make America Great Again” in a sense that does not follow in the footsteps of St. Gregory the Great.

Though the concerns surrounding the great Donald Trump and his quest for greatness abound, along with other concerns and thoughts of this election, the matter takes on a new aspect of interest when compared to one who was indisputably great. St. Gregory was a man who lived in an age that was as chaotic and as dark—if not darker—as the current age. In his own day, St. Gregory was convinced that he was living in the end times. But the world is always coming to an end. There may not be marauding Lombards at large, but the fragments of modern civilization are under attack by a new breed of barbarians wielding cellphones. Given that a state of cultural crisis is common to both eras, the story of St. Gregory’s life has a direct applicability to what is transpiring in America today, and bears a lesson to be heeded when it comes to the question of achieving the greatness that is in so many American minds and mouths.

Gregory’s Italy was tottering under the failed conquests of the late Emperor Justinian, and reeling with famine, disease, bureaucratic corruption, devalued education, and a crumbling culture. Gregory prepared for his role in this ravaged world through the Liberal Arts and a thorough course in religious studies. His education led him to a Benedictine monastery, where he rejoiced in the order and rigor that informs that holy way of life. But Gregory could not hide from the world. Renowned for his wisdom and learning, Pope Benedict I compelled the happy monk to become a distracted deacon of Rome. Next, Pope Pelagius II sent the distracted deacon to Constantinople to be a flustered papal emissary. When the flustered emissary tried to slip back into his abbey to be a happy monk again, he was made into an overwrought papal secretary. When Pope Pelagius died, the overwrought secretary was pressed to become a reluctant pope. Though Gregory tried to avoid the holy office, appealing to the Byzantine Emperor and even fleeing Rome, Gregory could not escape. The people would not allow it—and neither would God. Gregory became pope, and though unwilling, he proved one of history’s most active, most influential, and most powerful popes and political leaders. Though disinclined to do great works, Pope Gregory’s unwavering devotion to do good works won him greatness.

This reluctance to be great is a mystery at the heart of St. Gregory the Great’s grudging yet accepting rise to papal power. It is a mystery to be embraced in following the standard of St. Gregory—and the teachings of Christ, for that matter. The reluctance to be great is a measure of both sanctity and sanity, and it is therefore a cause for greatness through the virtue of meekness. Meekness is not weakness. It is the noble desire to sit at the lowest place. It is strength. Though the meek do not resist evil with force, they overcome it with patient and enduring goodness. The meek are those whose reason guides impulse, restraining anger and passion. They are not free from anger or without passions, but have the will to control and master them. In this lies strength, virtue, and greatness.

St. Gregory’s greatness was rooted in this reluctance to be great and his dedication to self-discipline, humility, and meekness—qualities that are not the first ones to come to mind when considering most politicians. The general attitude of the current election campaigns is more barbaric than benevolent. The desire for greatness is the angry, aggressive epicenter of the current drive for the presidency among some. And America has heard this message loud and clear: this candidate would make a great president, he would be great for women, he has built a great company, he will build a great wall, he would be great for the economy, he would be great for immigration, he would make America great again.

History and reason tell that the best leaders are not those who have ambition for greatness, but rather those whose power in leadership lies in a quiet dedication that is not focused on being great. This is the secret of St. Gregory the Great, and it can only be wished that his papacy might inform the presidency.

The reluctance to be great is not necessarily a sign of laziness or selfishness or mediocrity. The reluctance of Gregory, and of every great man, is a sign of knowing oneself in relation to God, and embracing the humility that Christ taught us by becoming Man—even by His Own reluctance in the Garden of Gethsemane. St. Gregory was well used to worldly turmoil and the need to rebuild from the ruins, but he did not seek the glory that accompanies such tasks. The world is ever in need of reform and the re-establishment of faith. Gregory was the man to bring this to the world in his lifetime, and his example and leadership are not obsolete. The problems of a crumbling culture which he grappled with are still absolutely real and absolutely relevant. St. Gregory the Great could well stand to be the patron of the United States for he is an ancient saint for modern times, and one Americans should remember as the banner of greatness without meekness is being hoisted on high.

The campaign slogans we are always hearing of “greatness” should make Catholics wary. In meaning, it is the polar opposite of Blessed are the meek; for they shall possess the land. For people of faith, greatness should not be the stated goal. Greatness is the result of a very different goal. Catholics who are supporting or considering supporting any candidate should reflect on the implications and intentions of this movement toward so-called greatness in the light of St. Gregory the Great’s path to authentic greatness.

image: Fr James Bradley / Flickr

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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  • Denise Beaudoin

    True humility is service to others, service to a cause greater than your own personal ambition. True humility is not to denigrate oneself, appearing humble outside, and boasting Inside. Was King Cyrus boasting or a humble king when he fought Babylon, liberated the jews and helped to restore Israel?

  • White Rose

    This is about a Catholic saint. If you think your Führer is greater than the saints, come out and say it. You fascists were never a clever lot, so do yourself a favor and don’t try.

  • Denise Beaudoin

    Who am I to judge?

  • Judithaa

    This is such an absurd article. You need to write about making the Catholic Church great again starting with all the phony leaders we have now. I’m gong to amass right now and I’ll pray for you and the rest of them.

  • Denise Beaudoin

    Who do you think would be the best person in your opinion who would make America meek again?

  • White Rose

    Well, your Führer has already promised to make criticism of him illegal when he gets into power. Just wait a few months.

  • Carolyn Quigley

    I enjoyed this article. I very much understand the parallel you are drawing, and definitely the point about meekness and humility. Where can I find more information on how St. Gregory the Great overcame the turmoil of his time?

  • Carolyn Quigley

    He didn’t bash, he disagreed. This posting is most DEFINITELY appropriate! It is our obligation to point out what we believe to be morally wrong:
    https://www.openbible.info/topics/correcting_a_brother

  • Carolyn Quigley

    I completely agree. Our representatives should be representing US, should be voting according to how he believes the people he represents would vote, not just according to what would “make him look good” or according to the needs of the wealthy who supported his campaign. Same goes for the president! He needs to show true concern for the people and their causes, not just his own popularity and power.

  • Denise Beaudoin

    Dr. Ben Carson is a good example of a leader that can be meek and humble, and he endorsed this morning presidential candidate Donald Trump. Campaigns are like wars: they are bloody. But the winner can afford to be a meek and humble leader, and henceworth making America great again. Why not?

  • Denise Beaudoin

    You’re right. A meek and humble leader will protect its nation’s liberties and properties. What is meek and humble about President Merkel of Germany who do not protect her nation?

  • Sean P. Dailey

    “3 Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs.[1] 4 Blessed are the patient; they shall inherit the land. 5 Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for holiness; they shall have their fill. 7 Blessed are the merciful; they shall obtain mercy. 8 Blessed are the clean of heart; they shall see God. 9 Blessed are the peace-makers; they shall be counted the children of God. 10 Blessed are those who suffer persecution in the cause of right; the kingdom of heaven is theirs. 11 Blessed are you, when men revile you, and persecute you, and speak all manner of evil against you falsely, because of me. 12 Be glad and light-hearted, for a rich reward awaits you in heaven; so it was they persecuted the prophets who went before you.”

    As I see time and time again, to be a Trump supporter is to spit on the Beatitudes.

  • Denise Beaudoin

    Dr. Ben Carson just said that he endorsed Donald Trump to empower the people. Dr. Carson is not looking to be popular apparently. Dr. Carson wants to help to make America great, and it is a meed and humble desire.

  • Emma Fox WIlson

    1. I don’t understand how it is possible for a Christian to dismiss an article that is quietly stating extremely basic Christian doctrine as ‘absurd’.

    2. I also don’t understand why anyone would refer to praying for people in such tones that make the act of prayer sound like one of contempt rather than love.

  • Emma Fox WIlson

    1. I don’t understand how anyone could dismiss an article that gently states extremely basic Christian doctrine as ‘absurd’.
    2. I also don’t understand why it’s necessary to write about the act of praying for someone in such a tone that it sounds like an act of contempt rather than of love.

  • Denise Beaudoin

    My understanding is that following Beatitudes are to attain the kingdom of heaven, and not kingdom on earth. A Pope and a King who build wall against invasions can still follow the Béatitudes, so the kingdom of heaven is theirs too.

  • Emma Fox WIlson

    This article simply shows the differences between basic Christian teachings and the acts and words of someone who claims very publicly to be ‘the greatest representative’ of Christians in the world of politics. I don’t see why that is not appropriate for a Christian forum.

  • Sean P. Dailey

    Emma, “I’ll pray for you,” when said in Internet combines, is often thinly veiled code for “F you.”

  • Judithaa

    white rose – wow, you’re such a vicious person. You Can’t be of the Cathoic faith. I love Trump and voted for him and will vote for him. I believe what he says. And I’m Catholic. Now you go right ahead and bash me, Enjoy it.

  • White Veils

    Thank you for the line “But the World is always coming to an end”. I’m going to be praying on that one today. So many of our early saints believed the world was coming to an end, and I’ve always been confused by how they could be so wise and yet so foolish in some ways. But your line has me thinking about how the world is always changing, and that is why the world-that-was is always coming to an end as a requirement for the world-that-will-be. It has me realizing and empathizing more with those who live in fear of the end of the world, and to maybe better embrace the end of one world in the light of the new.

  • White Veils

    The best person would be the person that understands that to make America align even more with the values we believe she stands for, we will need each other and need to work together…that no one person alone cannot fix everything….or anything. It will take community and service to each other and an honest effort to understand each others’ views and draw on each others’ strengths. It will take compromise and vision and the ability to identify what our real problem is, and address the problems even at sacrifice of the self and the ego.

  • White Rose

    Right. You’re the one calling an article that preached a cherished virtue “absurd” and are planning on voting for an open racist who used to keep Hitler as his bedtime reading, but I’m somehow a “viscous person.” And, sure, I’ll bash you, because you fascist filth cannot be reasoned with. You’ve already shown how you twist logic. Be honest, though, are you only voting for Trump because he claimes that his genitalia is so yuge? Or do you secretly agree with the racism and can’t wait to chase brown people out of this country?

    Oh, and I see you liked your own comment. You must never heard of humility either.

  • Denise Beaudoin

    This best person in America and in all the Western World has to be strong and willing to defend Christianity against the traitorous globalist elite who want a one global world and one global religion and do not want nationalists leaders who will prefer to serve the interests of the nations instead of the interests of the international elite. I think Donald Trump by being very rich and not accepting money from those elite will have such freedom to make this struggle, and win the vote democratically. The globalists who are running the mainstream media are fighting hard to prevent his election. Once President and thinking first of protecting the nation, it will be a step (and probably in the last hour) in fighting this terrible threat to our judeo-christian civilization.

  • Denise Beaudoin

    Donald Trump never claimed what you wrote. Donald Trump showed his hands and asked “Are they small hands?” and referring to Marco Rubio who said that if you have small hands, something else is small, Donald Trump defense was “I guarantee you, there’s no problem”. Facts are important. I think Donald Trump is an Alpha male, which is a disappearing species. I hope you will be reassured one day also that there’s no problem for what matters to you most. I also have the same hope. In spite of misunderstandings, we can all be friends.

  • Carolyn Quigley

    I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just agreeing that a true leader needs to serve his people, not himself.

  • Carolyn Quigley

    Except that Trump has only ever served his own interests, and does not actually uphold any real Christian values.

  • Carolyn Quigley

    EVERYTHING Trump stands for is in opposition to the Beatitudes. Your actions here on earth are what speak for your readiness for heaven. Trumps actions spit on the Beatitudes. Trump leads the path to perdition. To support him is to follow him. An unwise choice in my opinion.

  • whitehawkd

    Is it necessary to use the beatitudes as a political weapon against any candidate? While I do not support Mr Trump, I find it odious th at you have chosen to do so. Shame on you!

  • Denise Beaudoin

    Trump has promised to serve our interests, as well as if it’s was his own, and to defend christianity in some many ways, it is astounding and amazing. Nobody has dared to offer so much to protect american christians. As for his own personal life, are we better christians? We all struggle to improve our spiritual life, with ups and downs, so can we really say another is less christian than us?

  • Denise Beaudoin

    President Merkel’s has not protected german people and the land, so where’s her meekness? She’s not serving or listening to her people. Where’s her humility as an elected leader?

  • Denise Beaudoin

    On the contrary, Donald Trump is bringing back freedom of speech by crushing political correctness. Donald Trump says what he thinks and means. He said that, if he’s elected, he would have mainstream media investigated not to stop them to have freedom of speech, but to stop them to prevent freedom of speech by supporting political correctness. This is my understanding.

  • Denise Beaudoin

    Since when do people follow their President or leader? A serious christian follow Our Lord Jesus Christ and never another man. The best leader is the one who protect christians in order that they are free to follow Jesus Christ. Donald Trump is not substituting himself to God, he’s only a candidate to be the leader of americans’ country and be surrounded by people who will also protect christians as seriously as their chief. Dr. Ben Carson will play an important part in President Trump’s administration, if it happens. Dr. Ben Carson is almost like a saint to me.

  • Adam Hovey

    That’s important to note because it is important to make the distinction that Catholics are not liberal or conservative democrat or republican we are Catholic before anything else

  • Denise Beaudoin

    It seems that the highly organized (and from high) have succeeded to stop a peaceful rally in Chicago for Trump and his supporters who seems to be the awakening silent marjority in America. Do you think that this will make America meek again? By silencing again the majority of americans? Or maybe people will vote for Trump anyhow? Jesus said “Blessed is the meek” and they’ll inherit the land. However, it seems that the violent inherit the land always.

  • Jaceczko

    Buy and read Adalbert de Vogüé’s translation and commentary of Gregory the Great’s Life of Benedict (http://www.amazon.com/Life-Saint-Benedict-Gregory-Great/dp/0932506771/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1457796336&sr=1-1&keywords=de+vogue+gregory+life+benedict). Changed my life permanently when I first read it about eight years ago.

  • sub

    You are right Denise, we should not judge who is or is not a good Christian or Catholic, nor should we insult each other on a discussion thread, so thank you for being so calm and clear on your position! Popes cannot and should not be compared to presidents or presidential candidates, especially in the US, because we support freedom of religion, and a Pope is the leader of an explicit religion, not a diverse country. Different leadership roles require different character and personality traits. There is nothing wrong with a candidate wanting to make the US economically and militarily great. If we weren’t the most powerful, generous country on planet earth, who would have saved the earth from world domination by the Nazis, Communist Russians, etc.? Can an economically weak country give 100’s of billions of dollars to poor countries annually? What an unfair and seemingly politically motivated article this seems to be.

  • Florian

    March 12: We, as Catholics, have a great responsibility to vote for a candidate with good moral character and integrity. Look behind the words; look at the pattern of the life that has been lived. As for Mr. Trump, we don’t have to look far because he has himself bragged about the fact that he seduces the wives of other men so he can have sex with them, before he discards them for another – his term is too vulgar to repeat. He has said he would date his own daughter because, again in his own words: “She’s hot!” What man, what father, says that about his own daughter? We have seen him set out to utterly destroy, in a most childish and unmanly, unChristian way, anyone who opposes him or disagrees with him. He brags about how he is able to buy people so he can use them to get what he wants; he brags about how he can change into any persona he wants, to say and do anything he needs to do in order to get what he wants. We have heard him raise his voice against immigration while hiring immigrants to build his casinos and palaces, while paying them very little and not even giving them the protective gear they need. He now says he is pro-life but a little while ago, in an interview, he declared that he is strongly pro-choice until the interviewer prompted him and then he kind of shrugged to say yeah, he’s pro-life. As he has himself said – he will say and do and be anything to win, to get what he wants. Believe him if you will – I will never believe him for he is a man of enormous ego, needing constant affirmation and attention and anyone who gives him what he craves, will be his friend…even if they are enemies of our country. He praises Putin because he is strong…but Putin is a bully just as Trump is. When the world stood in awe of those students in China, in Tiananmen Square, who were protesting for freedom even as the Chinese leaders sent out armed tanks against them, to crush them, Trump was praising the Chinese government for their show of strength…really? How much ‘strength’ does it take to send armed tanks against unarmed students? Trump, being a bully himself, admires other bullies…he is not fit for the Office of President of the United States. Let him stick with his casinos…and leave the rest of the world alone.

  • Florian

    Carson said he endorsed Trump because Trump promised him a place in his administration.

  • Denise Beaudoin

    Carson did not ask for any specified position but he would like to be involved in formulating the policies to provide economic stability but also to reach the right stance on the world stage.
    Carson prayed a lot and received a lot of indications as what direction to take. People called him saying “I had this dream about you and Donald Trump” and it was the most amazing thing, he said at the press conference.

    Carson feels Trump is willing to do what needs to be done to help the middle class and welcomed Carson as a person and his ideas.

    Carson said that he found it important to endorse a candidate as political activists are trying to manipulate the process and not letting the people to decide. He preferred Trump to Cruz because Trump is self-funded and attract people easily. Ben Carson said that when he visited Donald Trump, he found him nice, and open to his own ideas.

    Carson is certain Trump would be a good president. Carson thinks Trump will be an easy person to with. Carson said that Trump likes success and wants to be a successful president, and he will surround himself with highly qualified people.

  • Tati305

    I wonder if you ever wrote about Obama and his hope and change? Did you write about Obamacare and his forcing Catholic colleges and nuns to offer the abortion pill?? Maybe, yes we in America are tired, and angry because we are not being heard. I do believe that the meek shall inherit the earth. But if good men do nothing then are we not complicit??? I support Ted Cruz by the way.

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