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Fathers of the Church

Epistle XII: to John, Bishop of Syracuse

Description

This epistle is from Book IX of the Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great. Here Gregory refutes the claim that he has changed some liturgical practices by showing that what he does is traditional.

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, &c.

One coming from Sicily has told me that some friends of his, whether Greeks or Latins I know not, as though moved by zeal for the holy Roman Church, murmur about my arrangements [i.e. of divine service], saying, How can he be arranging so as to keep the Constantinopolitan Church in check, when in all respects he follows her usage? And, when I said to him, What usages of liners do we follow? he replied; you have caused Alleluia to be said at mass out of the season of Pentecost; you have made appointment for the sub-deacons to proceed disrobed, and for Kyrie Eleison to be said, and for the Lord's Prayer to be said immediately after the canon. To him I replied, that in none of these things have we followed another Church.

For, as to our custom here of saying the Alleluia, it is said to be derived from the Church of Jerusalem by the tradition of the blessed Jerome in the time of pope Damasus of blessed memory; and accordingly in this matter we have rather curtailed the former usage which had been handed down to us here from the Greeks.

Further, as to my having caused the sub-deacons to proceed disrobed, this was the ancient usage of the Church. But it pleased one of our pontiffs, I know not which, to order them to proceed in linen tunics. For have your Churches in any respect received their tradition from the Greeks? Whence, then, have they at the present day the custom of the subdeacons proceeding in linen tunics, except that they have received it from their mother, the Roman Church?

Further, we neither have said nor now say the Kyrie Eleison, as it is said by the Greeks: for among the Greeks all say it together; hut with us it is said by the clerks, and responded to by the people; and as often as it is said, Christe Eleison is said also, which is not said at all among the Greeks. Further, in daily masses we suppress some things that are usually said, and say only Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, so as to devote ourselves a little longer to these words of deprecation. But the Lord's prayer (orationem Dominicam) we say immediately after the prayer (mox post precem) for this reason, that it was the custom of the apostles to consecrate the host of oblation to (ad) that same prayer only. And it seemed to me very unsuitable that we should say over the oblation a prayer which a scholastic had composed, and should not say the very prayer which our Redeemer composed over His body and blood. But also the Lord's Prayer among the Greeks is said by all the people, but with us by the priest atone. Wherein, then, have we followed the usages of the Greeks, in that we have either amended our own old ones or appointed new and profitable ones, in which, however, we are not shewn to be imitating others? Wherefore, let your Charity, when an occasion presents itself, proceed to the Church of Catana; or in the Church of Syracuse teach those who you believe or understand may possibly be murmuring with respect to this matter, holding a conference there, as though for a different purpose, and so desist not from instructing them. For as to what they say about the Church of Constantinople, who can doubt that it is subject to the Apostolic See, as both the most pious lord the emperor and our brother the bishop of that city continually acknowledge? Yet, if this or any other Church has anything that is good, I am prepared in what is good to imitate even my inferiors, while prohibiting them from things unlawful. For he is foolish who thinks himself first in such a way as to scorn to learn whatever good things he may see.

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/XIII, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.