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Fathers of the Church

Epistle XXI: to Constantina Augusta

Description

This epistle is from Book V of the Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great. John, bishop of Constantinople, had taken for himself the arrogant title of "universal bishop". Despite this, Emperor Mauricius told Gregory that he wished him to make peace with John. Here Gregory expresses to the Empress how difficult it is to reconcile the Emperor's wish with this prideful act of John's. At the end of the letter he also mentions Maximus, who had forced others to ordain him and then dared to celebrate mass while excommunicated. See Epistles XVIII and XX, Book V for other letters regarding John, and Epistles XX and XLVII, Book IV for other letters about Maximus.

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 Constantina, &c.

Almighty God, who holds in His right hand the heart of your Piety, both protects us through you and prepares for you rewards of eternal remuneration for temporal deeds. For I have learnt from the letters of the deacon Sabinianus my responsalis with what justice your Serenity is interested in the cause of the blessed Prince of the apostles Peter against certain persons who are proudly humble and feignedly kind. And I trust in the bounty of our Redeemer that for these your good offices with the most serene Lord and his most pious sons you will receive retribution also in the heavenly country. Nor is there any doubt that you will receive eternal benefits, being loosed from the chains of your sins, if in the cause of his Church you have made him your debtor to whom the power of binding and of loosing has been given. Wherefore I still beg you to allow no man's hypocrisy to prevail against the truth, since there are some who, according to the saying of the excellent preacher, by sweet words and fair speeches seduce the hearts of the innocent,—men who are vile in raiment, but puffed up in heart. And they affect to despise all things in this world, and yet seek to acquire for themselves all the things that are of this world. They confess themselves unworthy before all men, but cannot be content with private titles, since they covet that whereby they may seem to be more worthy than all. Let therefore your Piety, whom Almighty God has appointed with our most serene Lord to be over the whole world, through your favouring of justice render service to Him from whom you have received your right to so great a dominion, that you may rule over the world that is committed to you so much the more securely as you more truly serve the Author of all things in the execution of truth.

Furthermore, I inform you that I have received a letter from the most pious Lord desiring me to be pacific towards my brother and fellow-priest John. And indeed so it became the religious Lord to give injunctions to priests. But, when this my brother with new presumption and pride calls himself universal bishop, having caused himself in the time of our predecessor of holy memory to be designated in synod by this so proud a title, though all the acts of that synod were abrogated, being disallowed by the Apostolic See,—the most serene Lord gives me a somewhat distressing intimation, in that he has not rebuked him who is acting proudly, but endeavours to bend me from my purpose, who in this cause of defending the truth of the Gospels and Canons, of humility and rectitude; whereas my aforesaid brother and fellow-priest is acting against evangelical principles and also against the blessed Apostle Peter, and against all the churches, and against the ordinances of the Canons. But the Lord, in whose hands are all things, is almighty; of Him it is written, There is no wisdom nor prudence nor counsel against the Lord (Prov. xxi. 30). And indeed my often before mentioned most holy brother endeavours to persuade my most serene Lord of many things: but well I know that all those prayers of his and all those tears will not allow my Lord to be in any thing cajoled by any one against reason or his own soul.

Still it is very distressing, and hard to be borne with patience, that my aforesaid brother and fellow-bishop, despising all others, should attempt to be called sole bishop. But in this pride of his what else is denoted than that the times of Antichrist are already near at hand? For in truth he is imitating him who, scorning social joy with the legions of angels, attempted to start up to a summit of singular eminence, saying, I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven, I will sit upon the mount of the testament, in the sides of the North, and will ascend above the heights of the clouds, and I will be like the most High (Isai. xiv. 13). Wherefore I beseech you by Almighty God not to allow the times of your Piety to be polluted by the elation of one man, nor in any way to give any assent to so perverse a title, and that in this case your Piety may by no means despise me; since, though the sins of Gregory are so great that he ought to suffer such things, yet there are no sins of the Apostle Peter that he should deserve in your times to suffer thus. Wherefore again and again I beseech you by Almighty God that, as the princes your ancestors have sought the favour of the holy Apostle Peter, so you also take heed both to seek it for yourselves and to keep it, and that his honour among you be in no degree lessened on account of our sins who unworthily serve him, seeing that he is able both to be your helper now in all things and hereafter to remit your sins.

Moreover, it is now even seven years that we have been living in this city among the swords of the Lombards. How much is expended on them daily by this Church, that we may be able to live among them, is not to be told. But I briefly indicate that, as in the regions of Ravenna the Piety of my Lords has for the first army of Italy a treasurer (sacellarium) to defray the daily expenses for recurring needs, so I also in this city am their treasurer for such purposes And yet this Church, which at one and the same time unceasingly expends so much on clergy, monasteries, the poor, the people, and in addition on the Lombards, lo it is still pressed down by the affliction of all the Churches, which groan much for this pride of one man, though they do not presume to say anything.

Further, a bishop of the city of Salona has been ordained without the knowledge of me and my responsalis, and a thing has been done which never happened under any former princes. When I heard of this, I at once sent word to that prevaricator, who had been irregularly ordained, that he must not presume by any means to celebrate the solemnities of mass, unless we should have first ascertained from our most serene Lords that they had ordered this to be done; and this I commanded him under pain of excommunication. And yet, scorning and despising me, supported by the audacity of certain secular persons, to whom he is said to give many bribes so as to impoverish his Church, he presumes up to this time to celebrate mass, and has refused to come to me according to the order of my Lords. Now I, obeying the injunction of their Piety, have from my heart forgiven this same Maximus, who had been ordained without my knowledge, his presumption in passing over me and my responsalis in his ordination, even as though he had been ordained with my authority. But his other wrong doings—to wit his bodily transgressions, which I have heard of, and his having been elected through bribery, and his having presumed to celebrate mass while excommunicated—these things, for the sake of God, I cannot pass over without enquiry. But I hope, and implore the Lord, that no fault may be found in him with respect to these things that are reported, and that his case may be term hated without peril to my soul. Nevertheless, before this has been ascertained, my most serene Lord, in the order that has been despatched, has enjoined me to receive him with honour when he comes. And it is a very serious thing that a man of whom so many things of such a nature are reported should be honoured before such things have been enquired into and sifted, as they ought in the first place to be. And, if the causes of the bishops who are committed to me are settled before my most pious Lords under the patronage of others, what shall I do, unhappy hat I am, in this Church? But that my bishops despise me, and have recourse to secular Judges against me, I give thanks to Almighty God that I attribute it to my sins. This however I briefly intimate, because I am waiting for a little while; and, if he should long delay coming to me, I shall in no wise hesitate to exercise strict canonical discipline in his case. But I trust in Almighty God, that He will give long life to our most pious Lords, and order things for us under your hand, not according to our sins, but according to the gifts of His grace. These things, then, I suggest to my most tranquil lady, since I am not ignorant with how great zeal for rectitude the most pure conscience of her Serenity is moved.

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.