Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Fathers of the Church

Epistle II: to Vitalis, Guardian (Defensorem) of Sardina


This epistle is from Book XIV of the Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great. Gregory discusses several matters with Vitalius regarding the government of his patrimony in Sardinia, including the neglect that the hospitals have fallen into and the lack of priests in some churches.


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 603 | translated by James Barmby, D.d

Gregory to Vitalis, &c.

From the information given us by thy Experience we find that the hospitals [or guest-houses, xenodochia] rounded in Sardinia are suffering from grievous neglect. Hence our most reverend brother and fellow-bishop Januarius would have had to be most strongly reprehended, did not his old age and simplicity, and the sickness which thou hast told us of coming on besides, keep us in check.

Seeing, then, that he is so situated that he cannot be fit to order anything, do thou warn the steward of that Church, and Epiphanius the archpresbyter, under our strict authority, that they themselves at their own peril endeavour themselves carefully and profitably to set those same hospitals (xenodochia) in order. For, if there should be any neglect there hereafter, let them know that they will not be able in any manner, or to any extent, to excuse themselves before us.

Further, since the proprietors of Sardinia have petitioned us that, seeing that they are afflicted by diverse burdens, thou mightest go to Constantinople for their redress, we grant thee leave to go. And we have also written to our most beloved son Boniface, desiring him to do his best to lend thee his aid in obtaining redress for that province.

Moreover, with regard to the Churches which thou hast informed us are without priests, we have written to our aforesaid most reverend brother and fellow-bishop Januarius, that he should supply them; yet so that all be not chosen for the episcopate from his own Church. For it becomes him so to supply other Churches as not to cause want in his own of persons who may be of advantage to it.

As to what thou hast told us of persons having been preferred to the government of certain monasteries who, while they were in a lower monastic order, had fallen into sin, they ought not indeed to have undertaken the office of abbot except after entire reformation of life and after due preceding penance. But since, as thou sayest, they have undertaken the office of abbots, heed must be given to their life, manners, and attention to duty. And, if their conduct should not be found inconsistent with their office, let them persevere in the order in which they are. Otherwise let them be removed, and others ordained who may profit the souls committed to them.

Furthermore, in the case of the monastery of Saint Hermas, which was founded by our brother in the house of the religious lady Pomponiana, inasmuch as it should be treated with tenderness rather than with strictness, let thy Experience endeavour to deal sweetly with the said lady, to the end that neither may she, to her own sin, disregard the will of the founder, nor thou fail to provide salubriously for the advantage of the monastery. Further, as to the girls of whom the aforesaid Pomponiana had formerly changed the religious dress, and converted them in the monastery, thou must by no means suffer them to be withdrawn from her, or disquieted; but let them continue, God protecting them, in the state of life in which they are.

With regard to the recovery of the property of Churches, or of monasteries, or any other devoted to pious uses, about which thou hast written, those who are interested must be admonished that it is for them to seek in all ways to recover it with thy support and aid. But, if they should haply prove negligent, or in any case if such as ought to recover it should not be found, then do thou search it all out and so get it back, when discovered, as not to appear to take legal action against any one with a high hand. As to what thou bast told us with respect to the hospitals (xenodochia) of Hortulanus and Thomas, we so far have no knowledge. Wherefore let thy Experience look diligently into the order of the Emperor so far given, and arrange all according to its tenour, and make known to us whatever thou hast done.

Concerning what thou hast written about our brother and fellow-bishop Januarius at the time when he celebrates the sacrifice often suffering such distress that he can hardly after long intervals return to the place in the canon where he has left off, and as to many doubting whether they should receive the Communion from his consecration, they are to be admonished to be in no alarm at all, but communicate with full faith and security, since a person's sickness neither alters nor defiles the benediction of the sacred mystery. Nevertheless our said brother should by all means be exhorted privately, that, as often as he feels any trouble coming on, he should not proceed to celebration, lest he thus expose himself to contempt, and cause offence to the minds of the weak.

Furthermore, the religious lady Pomponiana has complained to us that the inheritance of her late son-in-law Epiphanius—of which the said Epiphanius had appointed his wife Matrona, daughter of the aforesaid Pomponiana, to be usufructuary for the benefit of the monastery which he had directed to be founded in his house, and for its benefit also in all ways after the extinction of the usufruct—together with other things which are proved to belong to the same Matrona by right of possession, have been unjustly taken away by thy Experience and by our most reverend brother and fellow-bishop Januarius, and that nothing therefore has so far been paid to her daughter, or been of profit to the monastery. Now if the truth is so, and thou art aware of having done anything unbecomingly, without any delay restore what has been taken away; or at any rate, if thou thinkest it to be otherwise lest the opposite party should seem to be aggrieved prejudicially, by no means defer submitting the case to arbitrators chosen with her concurrence, that it may be declared by a definite decision whether her complaint be true and just.

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.

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