Patristic Voices: Pastoral Rule – St. Gregory the Great

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By Tom Palanza, Jr.

Gregory the Great was bishop of Rome from 590 (elected when he was a stripling 50 years old) until his death in 604.  His superlative title is well earned; all denominations of Christians, from the rising of the sun to its setting, honor Gregory for his contributions to the liturgy, music, and missionary activity of the church.  Gregory is particularly well known for his many writings, one of the most popular of those being his Book of Pastoral Rule.  In this work, Gregory talks about almost everything that has to do with being a minister: the character and duties of a minister, how to solve particular problems, how to deal with other ministers, even how a person receives the call to ministry.  It is actually surprising how easily a contemporary reader can connect to the issues Gregory talks about.  The Pastoral Rule is a good reminder that as much as things change, they also stay the same.

While the whole of the Pastoral Rule is worth reading and serves as a good tool for ministers to keep themselves focused (as well as being a great asset for the laity to keep their ministers up to par!), the events of this past weekend when our own Deacon Matthew became Priest Matthew bring to mind especially Chapter Seven of the Rule where Gregory talks about the types of calls to ministry a person might experience.  Gregory talks about two types of calls: the call of desire and the call of necessity; “sometimes some laudably desire the office of preaching, yet others are as laudably drawn to it by compulsion” (Gregory, Rule: 7).

Gregory uses Isaiah and Jeremiah as examples of these two calls.  Isaiah embodies the type of person who is eager to be a minister.  “For Isaiah,” Gregory says, “when the Lord asked whom He should send, offered himself of his own accord, saying, ‘Here I am; send me’ (Isaiah 6:8).”  In other words, Isaiah is the person who, when they feel their conscience leading them to ministry, responds with a relieved/enlightened, “Yes!  This is exactly what I want to do!  Praise God, I’ve found my calling!”  On the other hand, Gregory presents Jeremiah as the type of person who, while feeling equally pulled by their conscience to ministry, hesitates to take up the role.  “But Jeremiah is sent, yet humbly pleads that he should not be sent, saying, ‘Ah, Lord God!  Behold I cannot speak: for I am a child’ (Jeremiah 1:6).”  In other words, Jeremiah is the person who, when they feel called to ministry, responds with an exasperated, “Oh, no, not this…”

It is important to note that, for Gregory, both of these types of calls are good.  No type of call to ministry is better than any other.  There are, however, normative characteristics that the person called should have (such as humility).  But the experience of being called by God to ministry is not uniform.  This makes sense given that this call happens in the person’s conscience, which the Church describes as “the most secret core and sanctuary of a human.  There they are alone with God, Whose voice echoes in their depths.  In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor” (Gaudium et Spes, 16).

It is, then, neither how one is called nor the reaction to the call that matters for Gregory, rather it is the source of the call.  Whether met with desire or hesitation, the call to ministry must come from the voice of God speaking in the person’s conscience, revealing to it that law of love of God and neighbor.  As Gregory explains it, “Lo, from these two men different voices proceeded outwardly, but they flowed from the same fountain of love… For there are two precepts of charity; the love of God and of our neighbor.  Wherefore Isaiah, eager to profit his neighbors through an active life, desires the office of preaching; but Jeremiah, longing to cleave sedulously to the love of his Creator through a contemplative life, remonstrates against being sent to preach… But this in both cases is to be nicely observed, that he who refused did not persist in his refusal, and he who wished to be sent saw himself previously cleansed by a coal of the altar; lest anyone who has not been purged should dare to approach sacred ministries, or any whom supernal grace has chosen should proudly gainsay it under a show of humility” (Gregory, Rule: 7).

What then can we take away from Gregory’s examination of the call to ministry?  I would suggest two things.  First, the less obvious thing: those who are responsible for seeking out, encouraging, and forming ministers should be aware and constantly remind themselves that the call to ministry comes in all kinds and can express itself so differently in people as to appear as presumption in some and revulsion in others.  We should not be too quick to judge the worth of a person as a minister based off of our presumptions of how the call to ministry should show itself in a person.  Layered under apparent enthusiasm or hesitancy, those in charge of finding and forming vocations to ministry must seek deeper to find the love of God and neighbor alive in a person and shaping their lives; the only font of life and love infinite enough to sustain such a life in ministry.

Secondly, the more obvious thing: those who feel the call to ministry growing in their consciences should not be deterred when they find that their reaction to that call differs from others.  Are you on fire with passion to do God’s work in the world?  Do you express your love through loving your neighbor?  Are you so consumed with love for God that you can’t help but lose yourself contemplating that love?  Do you express your love through loving your God?  To both of these Gregory affirms that God is calling each of them equally.  The two need not be like the other, but above and deeper than all differences they must both be in love.   As another patristic author said, “Love, and do what thou will… let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good” (Augustine, Sermon 7 on 1 John, par. 8).

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