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A True Papal Shepherd Once Reformed the Liturgy

The whole medieval period bears what may be called the Gregorian imprint; almost everything it had indeed came to it from the Pontiff – the rule of ecclesiastical government, the manifold phases of charity and philanthropy in its social institutions, the principles of the most perfect Christian asceticism and of monastic life, the arrangement of the liturgy and the art of sacred music (Pope St. Pius X, Iucunda Sane, 12 March, 1904).

Pope St. Gregory the Great

Born: 540
Died: 604
Proclaimed a Doctor of the Church: 1828 by Pope Leo XII
Feast Day (pre-1962 calendar): March 12th

Gregory was born in Rome in the middle of the 6th century and his family was quite wealthy and influential. His great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix II, who had been married and had two children before his rise to the papacy.

Gregory’s family battled through a plague and two barbarian invasions, yet were able to keep Gregory and his brother safe and well educated. He followed in his father’s footsteps to become a politician in Rome, but after his father died he converted some of the family land into a monastery and became a monk.

Pope Pelagius II asked Gregory to serve as his ambassador to Constantinople, but Pelagius soon died and in 590 Gregory became pope (somewhat begrudgingly, the story goes). His papacy was marked by an emphasis on mission work, especially in England, and an intense love of the poor. It is said that he used to invite the homeless people of Rome to dine with him at each meal.

Though we do not know too much more about his personal life, he was a prolific writer as well as a musician. His arrangement and composition of the musical settings at Mass that we now know as Gregorian Chant comprise the Church’s greatest artistic treasure, one that directly links us to our Old Testament forefathers who chanted the Psalms in the Temple. The haunting and mysterious beauty of Gregorian Chant has made it perhaps the most timeless artform.

Even the newest edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states the importance of Gregorian Chant in the Mass, quoting Vatican II:

All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.

Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, set to the simpler melodies.

In addition to the long standing musical tradition passed down from Gregory, over 100 of his epistles are still intact as well as his “Book of Pastoral Rule.” It is these copious writings along with his influence on the medieval church that have earned him his twofold title of “Great” and “Doctor,” honorary titles bestowed upon only Gregory, Leo, and Basil.

As with other great reforming doctors of the Church, Gregory was responsible for a complete ecclesiastic overhaul and was intensely focused on demanding holiness, piety, and an attitude of service from his clergy. Pope St. Pius X writes of him:

Gregory rebukes the bishop who, through love of spiritual solitude and prayer, fails to go out into the battlefield to combat strenuously for the cause of the Lord: ‘The name of bishop, which he bears, is an empty one.’ And rightly so, for men’s intellects are to be enlightened by continual preaching of the truth, and errors are to be efficaciously refuted by the principles of true and solid philosophy and theology, and by all the means provided by the genuine progress of historical investigation.

Another area of reform – one of particular interest today – that Pope St. Gregory the Great undertook was liturgical reform. As the expert liturgical historian Father Adrian Fortescute notes: “From roughly the time of St. Gregory we have the text of the Mass, its order and arrangement, as a sacred tradition that no one has ventured to touch except in unimportant details.”[1]

Michael Davies, another famed liturgical scholar and church historian, notes in his work A Short History of the Roman Mass, that the “reforms” of St. Gregory the Great were basically a codification and organization of the mass books that predated him, namely the Gelasian Sacramentary, one of the oldest sacramentaries we have, named for Pope Gelasius I who reigned in the 490s. This reform involved cutting things out, but not changing or adding things. Davies writes:

His reform consisted principally of the simplification and more orderly arrangement of the existing rite — the reduction of the variable prayers at each Mass to three [Collect, Secret, and Postcommunion], and a reduction of the variations occurring at that time within the Canon, prefaces and additional forms for the Communicantes and Hanc Igitur… His principal work was certainly the definitive arrangement of the Roman Canon. The Lectionary was also given a definitive form, but was still to undergo considerable change subsequently.

Many people argue that the Latin Mass has only been celebrated since 1570 with the Tridentine codification by Pius V, but Davies and Fortescue show that “The Order of Mass as found in the 1570 Missal of St. Pius [1566-1572], apart from minor additions and amplifications, corresponds very closely with the order established by St. Gregory.” This means that the Traditional Latin Mass is in the same basic form today that it was at the turn of the 6th century.

“The Mass of St. Gregory” – a common theme in western Catholic art

To further understand this great Doctor of the Church, we have to understand the nuance of the liturgical and ecclesiastical reform without significant or substantive change. He did not invent a new Mass or create a new role for his prelates. He simply codified and arranged what had been handed down in Tradition; he did not create something new. As Davies argues: “There have been revisions [to the mass]… but until the changes which followed Vatican II these were never of any significance.”

When we look at the Church today, we find innovations, novelties, and a complete straying from – if not a full reversal of – some of our most ancient teachings and traditions. For those that have been crying for change or reform in the Church, let us look to the example of St. Gregory the Great in how to conduct the reform. It is about returning to our tradition and clarifying it, not changing it or deviating from it entirely.

I would suggest that our pastors, bishops, cardinals, and Pope Francis himself revisit this great Doctor’s Book of Pastoral Care, wherein he outlines the selection of men for the clergy, how a pastor should live his life and conduct himself, how clergy can approach the various types of people they encounter in ministry, and how a priest should guard himself from pride and ambition.

I encourage everyone to read this work for himself, but will leave one quote from the introduction to chapter two, titled “Of the Life of the Pastor”:

The conduct of a prelate ought so far to transcend the conduct of the people as the life of a shepherd is wont to exalt him above the flock. For one whose estimation is such that the people are called his flock is bound anxiously to consider what great necessity is laid upon him to maintain rectitude. It is necessary, then, that in thought he should be pure, in action chief; discreet in keeping silence, profitable in speech; a near neighbour to everyone in sympathy, exalted above all in contemplation; a familiar friend of good livers through humility, unbending against the vices of evil-doers through zeal for righteousness; not relaxing in his care for what is inward from being occupied in outward things, nor neglecting to provide for outward things in his solicitude for what is inward.

No wonder St. Gregory was the pope to humble himself and say he was merely the “servant of the servants of God.” He himself lived this title.

May the Church look to St. Gregory the Great in a return to tradition, a true reform that refocuses the entire spiritual body on Christ. Let us pray that we, and the clergy of the entire Church, might be imbued by the Holy Spirit with the courage of St. Gregory, who wrote these words to Deacon Sabinian: “I am ready to die rather than permit that the Church degenerate in my days. And you know well my ways, that I am longsuffering; but when I decide not to bear any longer, I face danger with a joyful soul.”

Pope St. Gregory the Great, pray for us!


[1] Fortescue, Fr. Adrian. The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy. Originally published in 1912, reprinted by Angelus Press. p. 173.

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