Saint Gregory the Great: Heaven is Our True End

Following on from my post of yesterday, in which I discussed the Irenaean theodicy (a theory for which a consideration of the true end for which we are made is central), I would like to share a passage from Pope Saint Gregory the Great, whose feast day it is today, as in the passage in question he talks about our true end being eternal life in Heaven with God, and also discusses how this is an end that we should keep before us always, allowing it to form and guide our decisions and perspective in this life, and building its foundation, which is love, in the here and now.

Saint Gregory (540 – 604), one of the four great Doctors of the Western Church (along with Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose and Saint Jerome) was a native of Rome, and served there as chief civil magistrate for several years, during which time he gave away much of his wealth to a monastery, before becoming a monk himself at the age of thirty-five. From 579 to 585 he acted as a papal apocrisiarius – an ambassador to the Byzantine court at Constantinople, roughly equivalent to a papal nuncio today – before being elected pope in 590 (the first monk to be elected to the Chair of Saint Peter), where he continued in office until his death, and helped stabilise the Church during the chaos that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Gregory’s papacy was one filled with strife, with Italy suffering many attacks from the Lombards, and his administrative skill was very useful in that he was able to reform the Church’s estates in order to distribute funds to sufferers of the war and to ransom prisoners. His diplomatic experience also helped negotiate good relations with the Lombards, as well as the Franks and Visigoths, bringing stability to a time of great tumult, and he strengthened Rome’s authority in East and West. Furthermore, he authorised the famous mission to England, which re-evangelised that land, and was responsible for considerable work shaping the public worship of the Church, including its music – in particular, the fact that plainsong also bears the name of Gregorian chant shows the importance of his influence on it (although the exact extent of that influence is uncertain).

Another one of the many things Saint Gregory is most remembered for though, is his pastoral work. He wrote a highly influential piece called Regula Pastoralis (‘Pastoral Care’ which became a standard manual for bishops throughout Christendom (and which was deemed significant enough to be translated by Alfred the Great) and wrote over eight hundred letters counselling and guiding people in the Church. On top of this, many homilies of his have survived, and they display a deep concern for guiding the faithful into the safe waters of Church teaching and tradition. The following extract displays that same fatherly concern and solid presentation of the central truths of the Faith:

‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own – by which I mean, I love them – and my own know me. In plain words: those who love me are willing to follow me, for anyone who does not love the truth has not yet come to know it.

My dear brethren, you have heard the test we pastors have to undergo. Turn now to consider how these words of our Lord imply a test for yourselves also. Ask yourselves whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action. John the evangelist is my authority for this statement. He tells us that anyone who claims to know God without keeping his commandments is a liar.

Consequently, the Lord immediately adds: As the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep. Clearly he means that laying down his life for his sheep gives evidence of his knowledge of the Father and the Father’s knowledge of him. In other words, by the love with which he dies for his sheep he shows how greatly he loves his Father.

Again he says: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them; they follow me, and I give them eternal life. Shortly before this he had declared: If anyone enters the sheepfold through me he shall be saved; he shall go freely in and out and shall find good pasture. He will enter into a life of faith; from faith he will go out to vision, from belief to contemplation, and will graze in the good pastures of everlasting life.

So our Lord’s sheep will finally reach their grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity. These pastures are the spiritual joys of heaven. There the elect look upon the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for ever more.

Beloved brothers, let us set out for these pastures where we shall keep joyful festival with so many of our fellow citizens. May the thought of their happiness urge us on! Let us stir up our hearts, rekindle our faith, and long eagerly for what heaven has in store for us. To love thus is to be already on our way. No matter what obstacles we encounter, we must not allow them to turn us aside from the joy of that heavenly feast. Anyone who is determined to reach his destination is not deterred by the roughness of the road that leads to it. Nor must we allow the charm of success to seduce us, or we shall be like a foolish traveller who is so distracted by the pleasant meadows through which he is passing that he forgets where he is going.

from Homily 14, courtesy of The Crossroads Initiative.


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