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Fathers of the Church

Epistle VII: to Peter, Domitian, and Elpidius

Description

This epistle is from Book VII of the Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great. Gregory points out gently that although it is proper to rejoice in the ordination of Cyriacus, the addressees have been over-enthusiastic in their praise of the new bishop. He asks them to simply pray for Cyriacus, that he may continue as well as he has begun.

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 Chsdsristian 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 Peter, Domitian, and Elpidius, Bishops.

I rejoice exceedingly that you welcomed with great joy the ordination of the most holy Cyriacus, my brother and fellow-priest. And since we have learnt from the preaching of Paul the apostle that If one member rejoice, all the members rejoice with it (1 Cor. xii. 26), you must needs consider with how great exultation I rejoice with you in this thing, wherein not one member, but many members of Christ have rejoiced. Nevertheless, so far as I have been able to consider your Fraternity's letters on a cursory perusal, great joy has carried you away into immoderate praise of this my brother. For you say that he has appeared in the Church like the sun, so that you all cried out, This is the day which the lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it (Ps. cxvii. 24). Yet surely this is a promise of the life to come, seeing that it is said, The righteous shall shine forth as the sun (Matth. xiii. 43; Wisd. iii. 7). For, in whatsoever virtue any one may excel, how can he shine forth as the sun while still in the present life, wherein The corruptible body presseth down the soul, and the earthly tabernacle weigheth down the mind that museth upon many things (Wisd. ix. 15); wherein We see another law in our members warring against the law of our mind, and bringing us into captivity by the law of sin which is in our members (Rom. vii. 23); wherein Even in ourselves we have the answer of death, that we should not trust in ourselves (2 Cor. i. 9); wherein also the Prophet cries aloud, Fear and trembling are canto upon me, and darkness hath covered me (Ps. liv. 6)? For it is written also, A wise man abideth as the sun; a fool changeth as the moan (Ecclus. xxvii. 12); where the comparison of the sun is not applied to the splendour of his brightness, but to perseverance in well-doing. But the good beginning of his ordination could not as yet be praised by you with regard to perseverance. And as to your saying that you cried out, This is the day which the Lord hath made, you ought to have considered of whom this is said. For what comes before is this; The stone which the builders refused, the same is made the head-stone of the corner. This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes (Ps. cxvii. 22). And with regard to this same stone it is forthwith added, This is the day which the Lord hath made. For He who for strength of building is said to be a stone, for the grace of illumination is called the Day, being also made, because He became incarnate. In Him we are enjoined to rejoice and be glad, because He has overcome in us the darkness of our error by the light of His excellence. In praise of a creature, then, that expression ought not to have been used which is suitable to the Creator alone.

But why should I find fault with these things, knowing as I do how joy carries away the mind? For your charity engendered in you great gladness, which gladness of heart the tongue applauding followed. This being so, the praise which charity found to hand cannot now be called a fault. But to me concerning my most holy brother there should have been briefly said what I might accept with satisfaction, seeing that I knew him to be one who has long given to me especially this proof of his greatness; that, having been occupied in so many affairs of ecclesiastical administration, he has kept a tranquil heart in the midst of turbulent throngs, and always restrained himself with a gentle bearing. And this indeed is no small commendation of a great and unshaken mind, not to have been perturbed among the perturbations of business.

Furthermore, your Fraternity should be instant in continual prayers, that Almighty God may guard in our aforesaid brother and fellow-priest what has been well begun, and ever lead him on to what is better still. This should ever be the prayer of you, most holy ones, and of the people subject to him. For the deserts of rulers and peoples are so connected with each other that often the lives of subjects are made worse from tile fault of those who are over them, and often the lives of pastors fall off from the ill desert of peoples. For that the evil doings of one who is over others does very great harm to those who are under him the Pharisees are evidence, of whom it is written, Ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men. For ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in (Matth. xxiii. 13). And that the fault of peoples does much harm to the life of pastors we perceive in what David did (2 Kings ii. 24). For he, praised by the testimony of God, he, conscious of heavenly mysteries, being inflated by the turnout of hidden elation, sinned in numbering the people; and yet the punishment fell upon the people for David's sin. Why was this? Because in truth according to the desert of subject peoples are the hearts of rulers disposed. Now the righteous Judge rebuked the fault of the sinner by visitation on those on account of whom he sinned. But, because he himself, waxing proud of his own will, was not free from fault, he himself also received punishment of his fault. For the fierce wrath, which smote the people bodily, prostrated also the ruler of the people with inmost sorrow of heart. Consider therefore these things mutually; and, even as he who is put over you and over the people should intercede for all, so should all of you pray for his conversation and manners, that before Almighty God both you may profit by imitation of him, and he may be aided by your deserts. Further, let us all with one accord pray continually with great weeping to the utmost of our powers for out most serene lords and their pious offspring, that protecting heavenly grace may guard their lives, and subdue the necks of the nations to the Christian empire.

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.