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Fathers of the Church

Epistle XIII: to Serenus, Bishop of Massilia (Marseilles)

Description

This epistle is from Book XI of the Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great. Gregory had previously sent Serenus a letter in which he praised him for his zeal against the adoration of images, but corrected him for breaking those images. Unable to accept this correction, Serenus wrote back accusing the bearer of Gregory's letter of substituting a false letter for the true one. Here Gregory states that the letter Serenus received was not false, and he reiterates the correction and the reasons behind it. Moreover, having heard that Serenus was close friends with a presbyter living in iniquity, he warns him not to receive this man, or any other bad man, into his favor. See also Epistle CV, Book IX, Gregory's first letter to Serenus.

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 Serenus, &c.

The beginning of thy letter so showed thee to have in thee the good will that befits a priest as to cause us increased joy in thy Fraternity. But its conclusion was so at variance with its commencement that such an epistle might be attributed, not to one, but to different, minds. Nay, from thy very doubts about the epistle which we sent to thee it appears how inconsiderate thou art. For, hadst thou paid diligent attention to the admonition which in brotherly love we gave thee, not only wouldest thou not have doubted, but have perceived what in priestly seriousness it was thy duty to do. For Cyriacus formerly abbot, who was the bearer of our letter, was not a man of such training and erudition as to dare, as thou supposest, to make up another, nor for thee to entertain this suspicion of falseness against his character. But, while putting aside consideration of our wholesome admonitions, thou hast come to be culpable, not only in thy deeds, but in thy questionings also. For indeed it had been reported to us that, inflamed with inconsiderate zeal, thou hadst broken images of saints, as though under the plea that they ought not to be adored. And indeed in that thou forbadest them to be adored, we altogether praise thee; but we blame thee for having broken them. Say, brother, what priest has ever been heard of as doing what thou hast done? If nothing else, should not even this thought have restrained thee, so as not to despise other brethren, supposing thyself only to be holy and wise? For to adore a picture is one thing, but to learn through the story of a picture what is to be adored is another. For what writing presents to readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read. Hence, and chiefly to the nations, a picture is instead of reading. And this ought to have been attended to especially by thee who livest among the nations, lest, while inflamed inconsiderately by a right zeal, thou shouldest breed offence to savage minds. And, seeing that antiquity has not without reason admitted the histories of saints to be painted in venerable places, if thou hadst seasoned zeal with discretion, thou mightest undoubtedly have obtained what thou wert aiming at, and not scattered the collected flock, but rather gathered together a scattered one; that so the deserved renown of a shepherd might have distinguished thee, instead of the blame of being a scatterer lying upon thee. But from having acted inconsiderately on the impulse of thy feelings thou art said to have so offended thy children that the greatest part of them have suspended themselves from thy communion. When, then, wilt thou bring wandering sheep to the Lord's fold, not being able to retain those thou hast? Henceforth we exhort thee that thou study even now to be careful, and restrain thyself from this presumption, and make haste, with fatherly sweetness, with all endeavour, with all earnestness, to recall to thyself the minds of those whom thou findest to be disjoined from thee.

For the dispersed children of the Church must be called together, and it must he shewn then by testimonies of sacred Scripture that it is not lawful for anything made with hands to be adored, since it is written, Thou shalt adore tire Lord thy God, and him only shalt serve (Luke iv. 8). And then, with regard to the pictorial representations which bad been made for the edification of an unlearned people in order that, though ignorant of letters, they might by turning their eyes to the story itself learn what had been done, it must be added that, because thou hadst seen these come to be adored, thou hadst been so moved as to order them to be broken. And it must be said to them, If for this instruction for which images were anciently made you wish to have them in the church, I permit them by all means both to be made and to be had. And explain to them that it was not the sight itself of the story which the picture was hanging to attest that displeased thee, but the adoration which had been improperly paid to the pictures. And with such words appease thou their minds; recall them to agreement with thee And if any one should wish to make images, by no means prohibit him, but by all means forbid the adoration of images. But let thy Fraternity carefully admonish them that from the sight of the event portrayed they should catch the ardour of compunction, and bow themselves down in adoration of the One Almighty Holy Trinity.

Now we say all this in our love of Holy Church, and of thy Fraternity. Be not then shaken, in consequence of my rebuke, in the zeal of uprightness, but rather be helped in the earnestness of thy pious administration.

Furthermore, it has come to our ears that thy Love gladly receives bad men into its society; so much so as to have as a familiar friend a certain presbyter who, after having fallen, is said to live still in the pollution of his iniquity . This indeed we do not entirely believe, since he that receives such a one does not correct wickedness, but rather appears to give licence to others to perpetrate the like things. But, lest haply by any subornation or dissimulation he should prevail on thee to receive him and keep him still in favour, it becomes thee not only to drive him further from thee, but also in all ways to cut away his excesses with priestly zeal. But as to others who are reported to be bad, study to restrain them from their badness by fatherly exhortation, and to recall them to the way of rectitude. But, if (which God forbid) you seem not to profit them at all by salutary admonition, these also thou wilt take care to cast aft far from thee, lest, froth their being received, their evil doings should seem not at all to displease thee, and lest not only they themselves should remain unamended, but others also should be corrupted in consequence of thy reception of them. And consider how execrable it is before men, and how perilous before the eyes of God, if vices should seem to be nurtured through him whose duty it is to punish crimes. Attend therefore to these things diligently, most beloved brother; and study so to act as both wholesomely to correct the bad and to avoid breeding offence in the minds of thy children by associating with evil men.

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.