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While Protestants are not prone to take advice from popes, they would do well to take heed of what Pope Gregory I had to say about the pastoral office. In fact, I find it amazing (and somewhat surprising) that I could be trained and ordained and never been required to read his Pastoral Rule.
What follows is a brief summary of Pope Gregory I, with some references from the Pastoral Rule (sometimes called Pastoral Care) that hopefully will inspire those training to be (or already serving as) pastors to spend a bit of time perusing the Pastoral Rule. After all, there are reasons why he is one of only two Popes officially called “Great.”
The first “Great Pope” was Pope Leo I (eventually called Leo the Great). He was pope from 440-461. More on him some other time.
The second “Great Pope” was Pope Gregory I (eventually called Gregory the Great), and he served as pope from 590-604. He was the son of a government official, but later sold his land and became a Benedictine monk. After serving in various roles in the church (ambassador to the royal court in Constantinople, abbot in Roman monastery) he returned to Rome.
At that time Rome was a shell of its former glory (the empire in the west had collapsed generations previously) and the city had sunk into serious disrepair and decay. Pope Pelagius had worked tirelessly to feed the poor and take care of the sick, and when Pelagius died Gregory was selected as his successor. That was good news for the city and good news for the church. But not good news for Gregory – he wanted the quiet life of a monk. However, once he was convinced to serve, Gregory zealously dedicated himself to repairing the city as well as instituting many religious reforms.
Pope Gregory was one of those unique human beings who could do more in a week than most people do in a year. His wide range of interests touched upon reform, missions, theology, liturgy, piety, preaching, prayer, and care for the destitute. His initiatives and theological contributions are simply too many to list here (note that some theological developments would be troubling for Protestants over a thousand years later). My interest in this blog is his desire to reform the pastoral office that had fallen into trouble and even disrepute.
To turn around the fortunes of the pastoral office, he wrote Pastoral Rule which was intended to set the standard of behaviour for church leaders. It was also intended to be a source of wisdom and advice for fledgling leaders. Its impact was immediate, and it quickly became the “most significant work for the formation of clergy in the early centuries of the Middle Ages.” It was also one of the most widely read books on the subject throughout the entire medieval period and became the “main textbook for most of the clergy.”
The outline of the book was fourfold. What follows are some choice quotations from each chapter to entice you to read further. Here is a link to an online version of the text.
“No one presumes to teach an art till he has first, with intent meditation, learned it. What rashness is it, then, for the unskillful to assume pastoral authority, since the government of souls is the art of arts!”
“Wherefore let every one measure himself wisely, lest he venture to assume a place of rule, while in himself vice still reigns unto condemnation.”
“The ruler should always be chief in action, that by his living he may point out the way of life to those that are put under him, and that the flock, which follows the voice and manners of the shepherd, may learn how to walk better through example than through words. For he who is required by the necessity of his position to speak the highest things is compelled by the same necessity to exhibit the highest things. For that voice more readily penetrates the hearer's heart, which the speaker's life commends, since what he commands by speaking he helps the doing of by showing.”
“But commonly a ruler, from the very fact of his being pre-eminent over others, is puffed up with elation of thought; and, while all things serve his need, while his commands are quickly executed after his desire, while all his subjects extol with praises what he has done well, but have no authority to speak against what he has done amiss, and while they commonly praise even what they ought to have reproved, his mind, seduced by what is offered in abundance from below, is lifted up above itself; and, while outwardly surrounded by unbounded favour, he loses his inward sense of truth; and, forgetful of himself, he scatters himself on the voices of other men, and believes himself to be such as outwardly he hears himself called rather than such as he ought inwardly to have judged himself to be. He looks down on those who are under him, nor does he acknowledge them as in the order of nature his equals; and those whom he has surpassed in the accident of power he believes himself to have transcended also in the merits of his life; he esteems himself wiser than all whom he sees himself to excel in power.”
“Supreme rule, then, is ordered well, when he who presides lords it over vices, rather than over his brethren.”
“Meanwhile it is also necessary for the ruler to keep wary watch, lest the lust of pleasing men assail him; lest, when he studiously penetrates the things that are within, and providently supplies the things that are without, he seek to be beloved of those that are under him more than truth.”
“Differently to be admonished are these that follow:
-Men and women.
-The poor and the rich.
-The joyful and the sad.
-Prelates and subordinates.
-Servants and masters.
-The wise of this world and the dull.
-The impudent and the bashful.
-The forward and the fainthearted.
-The impatient and the patient.
-The kindly disposed and the envious.
-The simple and the insincere.
-The whole and the sick.
-Those who fear scourges, and therefore live innocently; and those who have grown so hard in iniquity as not to be corrected even by scourges.
-The too silent, and those who spend time in much speaking.
-The slothful and the hasty.
-The meek and the passionate.
-The humble and the haughty.
-The obstinate and the fickle.
-The gluttonous and the abstinent.
-Those who mercifully give of their own, and those who would fain seize what belongs to others.
-Those who neither seize the things of others nor are bountiful with their own; and those who both give away the things they have, and yet cease not to seize the things of others.
-Those that are at variance, and those that are at peace.
-Lovers of strifes and peacemakers.
-Those that understand not aright the words of sacred law; and those who understand them indeed aright, but speak them without humility.
-Those who, though able to preach worthily, are afraid through excessive humility; and those whom imperfection or age debars from preaching, and yet rashness impels to it.
-Those who prosper in what they desire in temporal matters; and those who covet indeed the things that are of the world, and yet are wearied with the toils of adversity.
-Those who are bound by wedlock, and those who are free from the ties of wedlock.
-Those who have had experience of carnal intercourse, and those who are ignorant of it.
-Those who deplore sins of deed, and those who deplore sins of thought.
-Those who bewail misdeeds, yet forsake them not; and those who forsake them, yet bewail them not.
-Those who even praise the unlawful things they do; and those who censure what is wrong, yet avoid it not.
-Those who are overcome by sudden passion, and those who are bound in guilt of set purpose.
-Those who, though their unlawful deeds are trivial, yet do them frequently; and those who keep themselves from small sins, but are occasionally whelmed in graver ones.
-Those who do not even begin what is good, and those who fail entirely to complete the good begun.
-Those who do evil secretly and good publicly; and those who conceal the good they do, and yet in some things done publicly allow evil to be thought of them.But of what profit is it for us to run through all these things collected together in a list, unless we also set forth, with all possible brevity, the modes of admonition for each?”
[Gregory then went through point by point as to how each type of person was to be dealt with during pastoral care.]
“But since often, when preaching is abundantly poured forth in fitting ways, the mind of the speaker is elevated in itself by a hidden delight in self-display, great care is needed that he may gnaw himself with the laceration of fear, lest he who recalls the diseases of others to health by remedies should himself swell through neglect of his own health; lest in helping others he desert himself, lest in lifting up others he fall. For to some the greatness of their virtue has often been the occasion of their perdition; causing them, while inordinately secure in confidence of strength, to die unexpectedly through negligence. For virtue strives with vices; the mind flatters itself with a certain delight in it; and it comes to pass that the soul of a well-doer casts aside the fear of its circumspection, and rests secure in self-confidence; and to it, now torpid, the cunning seducer enumerates all things that it has done well, and exalts it in swelling thoughts as though superexcellent beyond all beside.”
“See now, good man, how, compelled by the necessity laid upon me by your reproof, being intent on showing what a Pastor ought to be, I have been as an ill-favoured painter portraying a handsome man; and how I direct others to the shore of perfection, while myself still tossed among the waves of transgressions. But in the shipwreck of this present life sustain me, I beseech you, by the plank of your prayer, that, since my own weight sinks me down, the hand of your merit may raise me up.”
 If you want to read about Pope Gregory the Great in the larger context of 2,000 years of theological education, see the excellent book entitled Justo L. González, The History of Theological Education (Abingdon, 2015).
 Justo L. González, The History of Theological Education (Abingdon, 2015), 26.
 Justo L. González, The History of Theological Education (Abingdon, 2015), 27.