In the Footsteps of Gregory the Great
Benedict XVI's humble mission in the Vatican Monastery of Mater Ecclesiae
The Pope is "the servant of the servants of God". St Gregory the Great chose this for his episcopal coat-of-arms because he felt called to be the humblest of the servants of God and of men. Humility was his identity card as priest, bishop and pope. Humility must be the attitude of a minister of God even before he is called to serve, "for one can by no means learn humility in a high place who has not ceased to be proud while occupying a low one" (Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule, I, 9). I seem to see in these words of Gregory the Great a portrait of Benedict XVI, who since the very day of his election has shown himself to be "a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord".
The Pope is the image of Christ who came down to earth "to serve and to give his life" and advised the Apostles: "let the greatest among you become as... one who serves" all (Lk 22:26). Mary of Nazareth thanks God in the Magnificat for "he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden" (Lk 1:48). Gregory the Great asked the Lord for the humility of the Apostle Peter before the centurion of Caesarea, who had welcomed Peter into his house with great honour: "Peter, possessing the primacy of Holy Church as willed
by God... refused to accept the immoderate veneration of another similar to himself' (Pastoral Rule, II, 6). Benedict XVI has shown his sincere humility by renouncing the papacy and upon receiving ashes on his head at the beginning of the Lenten journey, he said that Jesus "denounces religious hypocrisy, ways of acting meant to impress others and to garner applause and approval" (Homily at Ash Wednesday Mass, 13 February 2013).
The Pope was called to guide the "barque of Peter" by the Holy Spirit and perhaps he felt some of the bewilderment of Gregory the Great who, having just been elevated to the Chair of Peter, confided: "with the colours of episcopacy, I have been sent back to the world" (Registry of Letters, 1, 5), The holy bishop did not hide his concern from his friends, saying: "all of a sudden, on account of Holy Orders, I have found myself again in the tumult of secular affairs" and "I am so worn down by the waves of the world that I do not trust myself to lead this ship to port", yet he serenely placed his confidence in God by recognizing that everything "happened by divine disposition" (Letter to Bishop Leander I, 1; I, 41).
He noticed that "the care taken to rule often distracts the heart by various things" but he obeyed the will of God and he encouraged each minister of the Gospel, showing that the charismatic gifts "are granted not only for oneself, rather, one receives them for the sake of others" (Pastoral Rule, I, 4-5).
Benedict XVI humbly incarnated Gregory the Great's ideal as a minister of God: "in thought he should be pure, in action chief; discreet in keeping silence, effective in speech; a close neighbour to all in sympathy, exalted above all in contemplation; a familiar friend to those who live well in humility, unbending against the vices of evil-doers, in zeal for what is righteous; not relaxing in care for what is inward because of preoccupation with outward things, nor neglecting to provide for outward things in his care for what is inward" (ibid., II, 1). It did not happen to our Pope emeritus that he, "fearing to lose human favour, shrank timidly from freely saying the things that are right — in accordance with the voice of Truth" (ibid., II, 4). He frankly spoke out with words that echo the voice of Gregory the Great: "The Church suffers more on account of the bad example of her own than by the injuries received from those outside" (cf. Moralia in
Job 31, 37).
Benedict felt nostalgia for the desert as he experienced the fatigue of reconciling the active life with the
contemplative life, but he learned from Gregory the Great that true humility lies in "following the divine
when it orders one to be a leader of others" (Pastoral Rule, I, 6). Following in the footsteps of his early Predecessor, he had recourse to "inner penance in order to obtain the pardon of others with his cry" and he dwelled in his inner oasis, knowing that "it is incumbent upon him who has the duty to preach that he not remove himself from intense study of sacra lectio" (ibid., II, 10-11). He knew that the care of souls was the "art of arts" and that the "flock who hearkens to their pastor's voice and actions will more readily follow his example than his words" (ibid., I, 1; II, 3). Also, as an accomplished musician he knew the value of the wonder which follows upon prayerful chant: "When we sing to him, we prepare the path whereby he may come into our hearts, that the grace of his love may kindle us" (Homilies on Ezechiel, I, 1, 15).
"God is humble!" Gregory exclaimed (cf. Moralia, 34, 54). He asked himself: "[W]hat is more sublime than humility?" (Pastoral Rule, III, 17, 2). He also encouraged priests to have a "humble authority" and the faithful to have a "free humility" (cf. Homilies on Ezechiel, 1, 9, 12), thereby showing that in the humility and charity of ministers of the altar, God reveals the "depths of his loving self-abasement" (Pastoral
Rule, II, 5).
Artists have depicted Gregory with a dove. Benedict XVI seemed to us like a "dove". The unexpected action of "renouncing" the pontificate left many priests and faithful astonished and in tears, but at the same time Benedict showed his humility, reassuring all of the certitude that "the Church is Christ's" (General Audience, 13 February). In the harmony between fides et ratio, so strongly recommended to us by John Paul II, Benedict XVI has calmly reached the decision to serve the Church in silence and prayer, by listening to God's voice, which revealed to him the time for recognizing that leadership of the visible Church demands prime physical and mental energy. And so, like St Gregory the Great, he now asks his children to be sustained by the charity of prayer, for "he desires already to be present where he hopes to rejoice without end" (Homilies on the Gospels, II, 37, 1).
*Bishop emeritus of Nuoro, Sicily
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8 May 2013, page 8
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