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G. Ronald MurphyOctober 06, 2016
Gregory the Greatby George E. Demacopoulos

University of Notre Dame Press. 240p $28

The straightforward subtitle is a clear outline of the contents of the book. St. Pope Gregory the Great is treated in three sections: first as an ascetic theologian and monk, then as a pastor and selector of pastors and finally as a Roman prefect responsible for the welfare of the city of Rome. Demacopoulos’s aim is to erase the line that previous scholars have drawn between Gregory’s personal asceticism on the one hand and his work as pastor and Roman statesman on the other. Because of this synthetic focus, a reader expecting a detailed biographic account of the saint’s life in the chronological order of events will be disappointed. The book has a thesis and presents the argument for it in the order indicated above—namely, that rather than being an isolated and isolating part of his personality, Gregory’s personal asceticism actively informed both his pastoral and his Roman governmental work. This means that the book will be best read by readers who are already familiar with Gregory the Great and the controversial issues surrounding him.

First, Demacopoulos presents the traditional view and critique of Gregory as an ascetic and monk holding the ideal of the virtue of humility in tension with his inclination to Ciceronian-style public service as well as with the increasing claims of the papacy to ecclesiastical and Roman authority. He further addresses the degree to which Gregory was a derivative thinker, enjoying as he did a good education in Roman law and in the thought of Jerome, Augustine and Ambrose, which made him a kind of bridge between the ancient and medieval worlds. Many have seen Gregory’s shift from delving into this intellectual world coming from his predecessors to participation in his contemporary world of myth, saints, relics and demons as lamentable. The author, however, points out that “Gregory was able to synthesize a variety of ideas to produce his own creative adaptation of literary and theological traditions in response to the various needs of those with whom he interacted.” This will be important in Gregory’s approach to the barbarians and to the English mission. And it explains to some extent Demacopoulos’s approach to Gregory’s theology of salvation as being “participationist,” that is advocating simultaneously for the necessity of grace and human initiative.

Next, the tension between spirituality and pragmatism is explored in Gregory’s pastoral theology and activity. The author sees Gregory’s activity within this binary as being made possible by Gregory’s theology of humility and his arrival at a notion of the superiority of a “mixed” spiritual life. Whereas before Gregory had been torn between the active and the contemplative life and had decided in favor of retreat from the world in order to facilitate contemplation, when he was made a bishop he arrived at a combined notion that he would “pursue a life of active service without sacrificing the inner vision that derives from the contemplative life.” This notion of the superiority of the mixed life Gregory then used to persuade contemplative monks to accept the pallium and perform the service of the altar and the office of preaching and spiritual guidance as bishops. He then further expressed his view that the principal office of the clergy was to preach the good news of Christ. For Gregory this is not simply repeating what was found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but interpreting the whole of Scripture in a thoughtful way that would inspire the spiritual and moral reform of the audience. Gregory held that the conversion of a sinner through preaching is a more powerful miracle than “the miracle of bringing the dead back to life.”

Gregory also is revealed to be a practical clergyman. He interprets Christ’s need to wash the feet of his disciples as the result of having soiled themselves in service, it being impossible to engage in service without getting dirty. Once again it is the need for humility that seems to drive Gregory’s notion of what it means to be a good priest or bishop. When forced to remove a bishop, lack of humility is what seems to have gotten Gregory’s goat.

Finally, Demacopoulos deals with Gregory the Roman and civil servant. Gregory does not seem to care for the Gothic or Lombard “barbarians,” nor even for what he sees as the occasional foray by the emperor in Constantinople on his exarch in Ravenna. With humility, and expecting the same from others, he proudly defends the prerogatives of Peter’s see. Gregory saw no paradox here, nor does the author. When Aigulf and his Lombard army were at the gates of Rome, Gregory saw no gain in haughtiness and so humbly submitted to bribing Aigulf not to sack the city. He was successful because he may have paid as much as 500 pounds of gold. This was the value of a hefty fraction of the annual income from the papal plantations in Sicily. (Among Gregory’s unsought duties was managing the Roman grain supply coming from Sicily.) Disciples get their feet dirty.

Perhaps another echo of ancient Rome was Gregory’s treatment of clergy. As Caesar once forced Vercingetorix to bow his head and body and walk under the suspended Roman spear, and waited till he did it, so Gregory forced those who had been hostile or those who were being sent on missions outside Rome to descend to Peter’s tomb and there to swear an oath of loyalty as Gregory watched. Public submission, a Roman tradition.

For us in the English-speaking North, Gregory’s famous letter to Mellitus instructing him to tell Augustine how to deal with the English stands out. He lets them keep their temples, but removes their statues and altars and lets them have feasts, for their strong-minded souls will ascend to God better as one climbs a mountain—step by step, not by leaps and bounds. Without a complex, spiritual, humble and pragmatic pope, perhaps England might have had quite a different story of conversion. The author has done a good job of exposing the reader to complexities, even contradictions of a man worthy of being called great.

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