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