Summary: Prayer is pre-eminent; the Word must inform our music; evangelization must be done, especially with the help of women.

September 3 2012

St. Gregory the Great

Verbum Domini

The Book of Genesis envisions the creation of the world as more of a birthing than a creatio ex nihilo. We know that God created everything, and created it from nothing. But when the author of Genesis began his narrative, he picks up at a later point: he shows the Spirit of God hovering over chaos and bringing it into order. On the sixth day, it is the breath of God, the Spirit of God, that enlivens the clay of the human body and makes man and woman in the image and likeness of God.

In a similar manner, as the Pope we celebrate today wrote, the Holy Spirit worked on human beings to bring forth the spoken and written Word of God. And, as we read Scripture, the Holy Spirit works in us to enliven the dead letter and make it alive. Pope Gregory said: “He [the Holy Spirit] himself created the words of the holy Testaments, he himself revealed their meaning”. That’s why it is important to pray before reading the Scriptures, and I have found the best way to pray beforehand is to pray the Divine Office, the official prayer of the Church, because it uses Scripture, the psalms, the readings, the canticles, as the matrix of prayer.

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of Jesus, and we ought to reflect that the spirit of Jesus caused him in his human nature to grow, as St. Luke puts it, “in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” (Lk 2:52) Since Jesus and Mary are the patterns of our lives, the spirit of Jesus intensely desires, as a mission, to help us to grow in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man. Now as we mature as Christians, we stretch our limited understanding and capacity. That’s one of the reasons for suffering. Suffering makes us stretch our minds and hearts so that the Holy Spirit can fill us more, make us more like Jesus. As we grow, we also think more with the Church. That enables us to understand the Word of God more completely, and that understanding makes us hunger for more growth. It’s what we might call a growth cycle. St. Gregory again says it succinctly: “The divine words grow together with the one who reads them”

When we think of Pope St. Gregory, we should remember that he was a great reformer, helping to rebuild Catholicism and Europe in the wake of the barbarian invasions. We have to remember that the Goths and their successors were Arians, people who did not believe in the Trinity or the fundamental divinity of Christ. Theirs was a mixture of Christian and pagan beliefs: to them, Jesus was a kind of super-man. England, France and Spain were overrun by these people, and these areas had to be converted all over again. The pagan Lombards were constantly afflicting Italy and persecuting Catholics, burning towns and churches. Gregory wrote of the forty Christians who refused to worship a goat’s head that had been consecrated to demons, and who were murdered for the faith.

In 596, Gregory was so burdened with sadness over the loss of England to the faith that he set off to reconvert the island himself. The people of Rome realized that his leadership was irreplaceable so they brought him back. Gregory then sent a fellow monk, Augustine, with a company of religious brothers to begin the reconversion of those isles.

His concern for the care and education of the clergy led him to write the Pastoral Rule for bishops, which was for centuries the guide for all bishops, and from which we still read often in the Office of Matins. His method of converting the Arian barbarian kings was to work through their queens. The Catholic queen would prayerfully work on their husbands, and thus was England and France and Italy gradually brought back to Christ the Lord.

We know Gregory had something to do with the chant. He founded a school of cantors, the true foundation of our scholae and choirs today. He did not write the chant–it was probably a thousand years old by his day, but he began its codification. He knew, as we now know, that music must be at the service of the word and sacrament. Thus the best of our music moves to its own internal rhythms; rhythm and melody are at the service of the Word of God.

There is much we can learn from the life of this man who did so much to convert a hostile culture to the Church of Christ. First, the pre-eminence of prayer. Second, the primacy of right worship with the Word informing its music. Third, the necessity of evangelization and the critical role of women in that mission. As we enter the year of faith very soon, we should reflect and act on these principles just as Pope St. Gregory did.

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