We like to put our leaders on pedestals, and we like knocking them off. Part of basic human nature, I guess. What cost does making admirable people larger than life? Rarely is the price worth the elevation, even in the case of a saint.
Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) was a towering figure in his time. The lasting effects of his papacy are reflected in many ways: canonization immediately after his death, the award the title of “Great” which is given only to two other popes, a management style that became a model for Popes that lasted more than a millennium, reverence by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican church, and most of the rest of Christendom. John Calvin called him the last good Pope. Like many saints, he left us with many different legacies both good and bad.
He was born into a prominent Roman family in the middle of the 6th century, a time of war, political upheaval, and famine for the Italian peninsula. His father was Prefect of Rome for a while, one of the most important local positions in the Imperial government that ruled from Constantinople. A brilliant young man, he was smart and extremely well educated in his time although he did not speak Greek. As a young man, Gregory held this office as well. When he was in his mid-30s and after his father died, he gave up everything to become a monk, founding a monastery in the family villa in Rome. His ambition was to devote his life completely to prayer and meditation.
Unfortunately, his talents were needed elsewhere. The popes at that time were not the rulers of Rome and had no army, their sole influence was through diplomacy and Gregory was called on many times to serve as an ambassador for the Pope both to the Lombards and the court in Constantinople. His service was so well known that one Pope Pelagius II died in 590, he was chosen to the papacy.
Pope Gregory the Great made many positive contributions as Pope. Concerned with pastoral practice, he wrote a Rule for Pastors as a practical guide of leadership that still has relevance today. His organization of the liturgy influences the celebration of the Mass today, and gave him such a reputation that he was credited as the composer of Gregorian Chant even though its development started 150 years after his death. Wanting to spread the Gospel, he organized a mission to England and sent instructions to them there are a model of evangelization today.
He spearheaded efforts to care for the sick when the plague struck Rome repeatedly, and from his personal resources organized food for the poor on a massive scale in time of war. It was said that Gregory refused to eat his supper until the Poor had been served theirs. Still a diplomat, he managed to keep Rome free from conquest by hostile powers when the city was a neglected outpost of an empire focused the other direction. His leadership of the city was so effective that it became the model for the Papal States, when the popes became the reigning monarchs of much of central Italy
His sermons and other writings were collected, preserved, and still provide much inspirational and spiritual reflection. In the course of one of his sermons, he connected Mary Magdalene with prostitution. It was the mistake of confusing her with both Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at a banquet. This connection stained a saint’s reputation and provided a basis of discrimination against women by the Church for centuries. It’s only been in the past 150 years this misconnection has been identified, yet it still influences many’s view of a woman who was the first witness to Jesus’ Resurrection and called “the Apostle to the Apostles.”
One of Gregory’s liturgical moves is still debated today. He moved to position of the Lord’s Prayer and the Sign of Peace from the end of the General Intercessions to after the Eucharistic Prayer. After Vatican II many liturgical scholars have argued this move should be undone, and based on scholarship and the placement of the Lord’s Prayer in the Divine Office, there is support for doing it.
So is Gregory all that great? There are many church fathers who have mixed legacies as well, John Chrysostom and Augustine in particular. The same could be said about the popes of the 20th century, any political leader of living memory, anyone we know, and even ourselves. How do we deal with someone who has both strong positives and strong negatives? If we throw away the negative, we are left with a figure on the pedestal, glorified and inhuman, with the rose-colored legacy that has the potential to lead us in the wrong direction if we’re not careful. If we throw away the positive, we annihilate a source of knowledge, wisdom, and divine inspiration who can offer us much in our life’s journeys, a resource for good if we have the wisdom to use it well.
I think the answer is to learn as much as we can. We take the good wherever we can find it, and apply it to our lives as best we can. We leave the bad, learning from the mistakes and misdirections, and remember we are called to celebrate the source of wisdom and not create idols with feet of clay. If we only listened to perfect teachers then there would be no teachers, no one deserves our perfect loyalty or commitment except God. The challenge isn’t to learn only from ideal teachers and role models, but to learn the positive from everybody, no matter how much we may have to dig to find the mother lode. It’s also a challenge to resist putting people on pedestals, or accept a place of one yourself.