Fathers of the Church

Epistle CIX: to Brunichild, Queen of the Franks

Description

This epistle is from Book IX of the Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great. Here Gregory speaks of various problems in the Church: the ordination of laymen, the simonaical heresy, and the owning of Christian slaves by Jews. He asks Brunichild to watch her subjects carefully for these things, and to support Syagrius, in whose care Gregory has placed the synod that will condemn the abuses. See also Epistle CVI, Book IX for Gregory's initial letter to the bishops regarding the synod, and Epistle CVIII, Book IX for his letter placing the synod in Syagrius' care.

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 Brunichild, &c.

Now that your Excellency's royal solicitude is in all matters of government praiseworthy, you ought, for the increase of your glory, to show yourself more watchful, and careful not to allow those whom you rule with counsel outwardly to perish inwardly among themselves. So may you, through the fruit of your pious solicitude, after occupying this topmost height of a temporal kingdom, attain under God to kingdoms and joys that are eternal. And this we trust you will be able after the following manner to succeed in; if, among other good deeds, you pay attention to the ordination of priests; whose office, as we have learnt, has come in your parts to be such an object of ambition that priests are ordained all at once from being laymen. This is a very serious matter. For what can they effect, I what good can they do the people, who covet being made bishops, not for doing good, but for distinction? These, then, who have not yet learnt what they have to teach—what do they effect, but that the unlawful advancement of a few becomes the ruin of many, and that the observance of ecclesiastical government is brought into confusion, seeing the no regular order is observed? For whoso comes to the control thereof inconsiderately and hurriedly, with what admonition can he edify those who are put under him, his example having taught them, not reason, but error? It is a shame in truth, it is a shame, for one to command others what he knows not how to observe himself.

Nor do we pass over that other thing which in like manner requires amendment, but detest it as utterly execrable and a most serious matter; that in your parts sacred orders are conferred through simoniacal heresy, which was the first to arise against the Church, and was condemned with a rigorous malediction.

Hence, therefore, it is brought about that the dignity of the priesthood comes into contempt, and holy honour under condemnation. And so reverence perishes, discipline is destroyed, since he who ought to have corrected faults committed them; and by nefarious ambition the honourable priesthood is brought under censure and disparagement. For who will any more venerate what is sold, or not think worthless what is bought? Hence I am greatly distressed, and condole with that land; since, while they scorn to have as a divine gift, but compass by bribes, the Holy Spirit which Almighty God deigns to bestow on men through the imposition of hands, I do not think that the priesthood can long subsist there. For where the gifts of heavenly grace are sold, the life is not sought for God's service, but rather money is venerated in opposition to God. Seeing then that so great a wickedness is not only a danger to them, but also in no small degree injurious to your kingdom, greeting your Excellency with fatherly affection we beseech you to make God propitious to you by the correction of this enormity. And, that there may be henceforth no opportunity of committing it, let a synod be held by your order, at which, in the presence of our most beloved son, the abbot Cyriacus, it shall be interdicted strictly under pain of anathema that any one should dare to pass suddenly from a lay condition to the degree of the Episcopate, or any one whatever dare to give or receive anything for ecclesiastical orders; that so our Lord and Redeemer may so deal with the things that are yours as He shall see you to be solicitous with pious devotion in the things that are His. But we have taken special care to delegate the charge and management of this synod, which we have decided should be held, to our brother and fellow-bishop Syagrius, whom we know to be peculiarly your own; and we beg you to deign both to lend a willing ear to his supplication, and to support him by your aid; to the end that what may redound to your reward, namely a pious and God-pleasing ordination of priests, the contagion of this evil being removed, may take effect within all the limits of your jurisdiction.

To this our brother, in that he has shewn himself exceedingly devoted with regard to the mission which has been sent, under God, to the nation of the Angli, we have sent a pallium to be used in the solemnities of mass, so that, having given aid in things spiritual, he may find himself advanced by the favour of the Prince of the apostles in the spiritual order itself.

Furthermore, we have altogether wondered why in your kingdom you allow Jews to possess Christian slaves. For what are all Christians but members of Christ? And we all know that you sincerely honour the Head of these members. But let your Excellency consider how inconsistent it is to honour the Head and to allow the members to be trampled on by his enemies. And so we beg that your Excellency's ordinance may remove the mischief of this iniquity from your kingdom; so that you may prove yourself the more to be a worthy worshipper of Almighty God, in that you set his faithful ones free from His enemies.

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.