Action Alert!

Fathers of the Church

Epistle LIII: to John, Bishop

Description

This epistle is from Book III of the Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great. Here Gregory is in some distress, having previously written to John regarding the beating of monks in his church, and having received a reply claiming ignorance of the event. Now Gregory attempts to give John the benefit of the doubt by assuming that the letter he received was written by someone other than John. However, he states in no uncertain terms that John must observe the statutes and canons of the Church and restore the injured persons to their positions.

Provenance

St. Gregory (b. 540 in Rome) was elected pope at the age of 50, serving from 590 to 604. In 14 years he accomplished much for the Church. England owes her conversion to him. At a period when the invasion of the barbarian Lombards created a new situation in Europe, he played a great part in winning them for Christ. At the same time, he watched equally over the holiness of the clergy and the maintenance of Church discipline, the temporal interests of his people of Rome and the spiritual interests of all Christendom. He removed unworthy priests from office, forbade the taking of money for many services, and emptied the papal treasury to ransom prisoners of the Lombards and to care for persecuted Jews and victims of plague and famine. Gregory also reformed the liturgy, and it still contains several of his most beautiful prayers. The name "Gregorian chant" recalls this great Pope's work in the development of the Church's music. His commentaries on Holy Scripture exercised a considerable influence on Christian thought in the Middle Ages. Following his death in 604, his numerous epistles, including the following letter, were compiled into the Papal Register of Letters.

by Gregory the Great in 590-604 | translated by James Barmby, D.d

Gregory to John, Bishop of Constantinople .

Though consideration of the case moves me, yet charity also impels me to write, since I have written once and again to my most holy brother the lord John, but have received no letter from him. For some one else, a secular person, addressed me under his name; seeing that, if those were really his letters, I have not been vigilant, having believed of him something far different from what I have found. For I had written about the case of the most reverend presbyter John, and about the questions of the monks of Isauria, one of whom, being in priest's orders, has been beaten with clubs in your church; and thy most holy Fraternity (as appears from the signature of the letter) has written back to me professing ignorance of what I wrote about. At this reply I was exceedingly astonished, revolving within myself in silence, if he speaks the truth, what can be worse than that such things should be done against the servants of God, and even he who was close at hand should not know? For what excuse can a shepherd have if the wolf devours the sheep and the shepherd knows it not? But, if your Holiness knew both what I referred to in my letter and what had been done, whether against John the presbyter or against Athanasius, monk of Isauria and presbyter, and wrote to me, I know not; what can I reply to this, since the Truth says through His Scripture, The mouth that lieth slayeth the saul (Wisd. i. 11)? I demand of thee, most holy brother; has that so great abstinence of thine come to this, that by denial thou wouldest hide from thy brother what thou knewest to have been done? Had it not been better that flesh should go into that mouth for food, than that falsehood should come out of it for deceiving a neighbour; especially when the Truth says, Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man (Matth. xv. 11)? But far be it from me to believe anything of the kind of your most holy heart. Those letters were headed with your name, but I do not think they were yours. I had written to the most blessed lord John; but I believe that that familiar of yours has replied,—that youngster, who as yet has learnt nothing about God; who knows not the bowels of charity; who in his wicked doings is accused by all; who daily lays snares against the deaths of divers people by means of concealed wills; who neither fears God nor regards men. Believe me, most holy brother, you must first correct this man, that from the example of those who are near to you those who are not near may be better amended. Do not give ear to his tongue: he ought to be directed after the counsel of your holiness; not your holiness swayed by his words. For, if you listen to him, I know that you cannot have peace with your brethren. For I, as my conscience bears me witness, wish to quarrel with no man; and with all my power I avoid it. And, though I desire exceedingly to be at peace with all mankind, it is especially so with you, whom I exceedingly love, if only you are yourself the person whom I knew. For, if you do not observe the canous, and wish to tear to pieces the statutes of the Fathers, I know not who you are. So act, then, most holy and most dear brother, that we may mutually recognize each other, lest, if the ancient foe should move us two to take offence, he slay many through his most atrocious victory. As for me, to shew that I seek to do nothing in a haughty spirit, if that youngster of whom I have before spoken did not hold the topmost place of evil doing with thy Fraternity, I could meanwhile have passed over in silence what is ready to my hand from the canons, and have sent back to thee with confidence the persons who came to me at the first, knowing that your Holiness would receive them with charity. But even now I say; Either receive these same persons, restoring them to their orders, and leaving them in quiet; or, if perchance thou art unwilling to do this, observe in their case the statutes of the Fathers and the definitions of the canons, putting aside all altercation with me. But, if thou shouldest do neither, we indeed are unwilling to bring on a quarrel, but still do not shun one if it comes from your side. Moreover your Fraternity knows well what the canons say about bishops who desire to inspire fear by blows. For we have been made shepherds, not persecutors. And the excellent preacher says, Argue, beseech, rebuke, with all longsuffering and doctrine (2 Tim. iv. 2). But new and unheard of is this preaching, which exacts faith by blows. But I need not speak at length by letter about these things, since I have sent my most beloved son, the deacon Sabinianus, as my representative in ecclesiastical matters, to the threshold of our lords; and he will speak with you about everything more particularly. Unless you are disposed to wrangle with us, you will find him prepared for all that is just. Him I commend to your Blessedness, that he at least may find that lord John whom I knew in the royal city.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (LNPF II/XII, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.