Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Fathers of the Church

Epistle XXIV: to John, Subdeacon of Ravenna


This epistle is from Book XII of the Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great. Among other things, Gregory discusses the election of a worthy abbot for a monastery.


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.

Some monks who came to me from the monastery of the late abbot Claudius have petitioned me that the monk Constantius should be constituted their abbot. But I was exceedingly set against them as touching their petition, because they appeared to me to be altogether of a worldly mind in seeking to have a very worldly man for their abbot. For I have learnt how this same Constantius studies to possess property of his own: and this is the strongest evidence that he has not the heart of a monk. And I have learnt further that he presumed to go alone, without any one of his brethren with him, to a monastery that is situate in the province of Picenum. From this proceeding of his we know that he who walks without a witness lives not aright: and how can he maintain the rule for others who knows not how to maintain it for himself?

Giving him up, therefore, they asked to have a certain cellarer, Maurus by name, to whose life and industry there are many testimonies, the late abbot Claudius also with certain others having spoken in his praise. Let thy Experience therefore make careful enquiry; and, if his life should be such as fit him for a place of government, cause him to be ordained abbot by our brother and fellow-bishop Marinianus. But, if there is anything decidedly against him, and they cannot find any suitable person in their own congregation, let them choose some one from elsewhere, and let him whom they may choose be made abbot. Further, take care by all means to tell our aforesaid brother and fellow-bishop to put down with the utmost earnestness the possession of property of their own by four or five of the monks of the monastery, which it has been found so far impossible to correct, and to make haste to cleanse this same monastery from such a pest; since, if private property is held there by monks, it will not be possible for either concord or charity to continue in this same congregation. What, indeed, is a monk's state of life but a despising of the world? How, then, do they despise the world who while placed in a monastery seek gold? Wherefore let thy Experience so proceed that neither the ordering of the place be deferred, nor any complaint reach us any more on this subject.

Furthermore, forasmuch as my late most dear son Claudius had heard me speak something about the Proverbs, the Song of Songs, the Prophets, and also about the Books of Kings and the Heptateuch, which on account of my infirmity I was unable to commit to writing, and he himself had dictated them for transcription according to his own understanding of their meaning, lest they should be forgotten, and in order that he might bring them to me at a suitable time, so that they might be more correctly dictated (for, when he read to me what he had written, I found the sense of what I had said had been altered very disadvantageously), it is hence necessary that thy Experience, avoiding all excuse or delay, should go to his monastery, and assemble the brethren, and that they should produce fully and truly whatsoever papers on divers Scriptures he had brought thither; which do thou take, and transmit them to me with all possible speed.

Further, about thy return, having learnt that thou hast incurred serious trouble, we will consider by and by. Further, I have not been pleased to hear what has been told me by certain persons; namely that our most reverend brother and fellows—bishop Marinianus causes my comments on the blessed Job to be read publicly at vigils; seeing that this is not a popular work, and engenders hindrance rather than advancement to rude hearers. But tell him to cause the comments on the Psalms to be read at vigils, which mould the minds of secular persons to good manners. For indeed I do not wish, while I am in this flesh, that what I may have said should be readily made known to men. For I took it amiss that Anatolius the deacon of most beloved memory gave to the lord Emperor, at his request and command, the book of Pastoral Rule, which my most holy brother and fellow- bishop Anastasius of Antioch translated into the Greek tongue. And, as I was informed by letter, it pleased him much; but it much displeased me that those who have what is better should be occupied in what is least.

Further, in the third part of the blessed Job, in the verse wherein it is written, I know that my Redeemer liveth, I suspect that my aforesaid brother and fellow-bishop Marianus has a corrupt copy. For in the copy in our book case this passage is given differently from what I find to be in the copies possessed by others; and consequently I have had this passage corrected, so that our often-named brother may have it as it is in our bookcase. For there are four words, the absence of which from the passage may cause the reader no little difficulty. Execute all these things thoroughly and speedily. And, if thou canst do nothing with the most excellent Exarch, shew thyself not to have neglected to do what is in thy power.

What shall I say concerning the place of Albinus, as to which the answer given us is plainly contrary to justice? Thou oughtest, however, to consider the case attentively. Furthermore, a little time ago we had enjoined thy Experience to treat with our most eminent son the praefect to the end that the care of the conduits (formatum) should be committed to Augustus the vicecount, in that he is in all respects a diligent and energetic man. And thou hast so far so put off the business as not even to inform us of what thou hast done. And so, even now, hasten thou with all earnestness to treat with the same our most eminent son, that the conduits may be entirely committed to the aforesaid most distinguished man, to the intent that he may to some extent succeed in repairing them. For these conduits are so scorned and neglected that, unless greater attention be given to them, within a short time they will go utterly to ruin. As thou knowest, then, how necessary this business is, and how advantageous to the general community, thou must use thy best endeavours that it may be committed, as we have said, to the aforesaid man for his careful attention. Given in the month of January, Indiction 5,

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.

To Fathers of the Church home page