by Father James Thornton

Before we begin, let us consider the ecclesiastical title, "Pope." The English word "Pope" is derived from the word "Papa" - as everyone knows, a term of endearment applied to one who is a father. In the popular mind, the title "Pope" is today reserved for the head of the Roman Catholic Church, yet it is a fact that the Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria is also granted, from ancient times, the same title. He is thus officially "Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria." So even today this title survives in Orthodoxy. During the first Christian millennium, of course, the West was also Orthodox in its belief and, thus, in full communion with the Orthodox Church of the Eastern Empire. It follows, then, that the Saints of those centuries are Saints also of our Church, and that the early Popes of Rome were Orthodox Bishops of the then Orthodox Patriarchate and See of Rome.

Saint Gregory the Dialogist is known in the West as Saint Gregory the Great. He was born of a patrician Roman family around the year 540. His father, Gordianus, was a Senator and the Prefect of the City of Rome; his family was one of the wealthiest in Italy, owning vast agricultural tracts in Sicily. Saint Gregory's mother, Saint Silvia, also came from a prominent family. She is honored by the Church as a Saint, as are two of Saint Gregory's paternal aunts, Saint Tarsilla and Saint Emiliana. With his family background, it was said of Saint Gregory that in his rearing he was "a saint among saints."[1] Like most of the young men of the ruling aristocracy, Saint Gregory was schooled in grammar, rhetoric, the sciences, literature, and law, excelling in all. Upon completion of his studies, he entered public life as a government official, advancing quickly through the ranks and becoming, like his father, Prefect of Rome, the highest civil office in the city, and at only thirty-three years of age. He served as Prefect for only about a year, at which time he decided, after much deep prayer, to renounce the life of this world and to become a monk. His estates in Sicily he turned into monasteries, six of them. His grand mansion in Rome was likewise transformed into a monastery. Saint Gregory of Tours writes of Saint Gregory the Dialogist that "he who had been wont to go about the city clad in the trabea [a toga with purple trimming] and aglow with silk and jewels, now clad in a worthless garment served the altar of the Lord."[2] In his monastery in Rome, dedicated to Saint Andrew the Apostle, the Saint prayed and studied Holy Scripture.

In the year 579, Pope Pelagius II sent Saint Gregory to Constantinople as his Ambassador at the imperial court, a post at which he remained for six years. Not altogether at home in the splendor of court life, the Saint remained steadfast in his monastic discipline, spending as much time as possible praying and writing spiritual works. In 585, the Saint returned to Rome and was made Abbot of his Monastery of Saint Andrew. Under his exacting rule, the monastery produced many monks of great spiritual renown. Meanwhile, Saint Gregory's fame as an accomplished Spiritual Father spread throughout the Empire. In 589, Pope Pelagius II died. About who his successor would be, there was no doubt. The clergy and people of Rome insisted upon Saint Gregory, and thus he was elected. Saint Nicholas of Ohrid and Žiča relates in his Prologue that upon his election as Pope of Rome, Saint Gregory "fled from this honour and power and hid himself in the mountains and ravines; but God showed the people where to find him by making a fiery column, reaching from earth to heaven, appear at the place where Gregory was hiding."[3]

As Pope of Rome, the Saint worked assiduously, and this despite his serious ill health. Suffering from fevers, from digestive problems, from gout, and from other conditions all brought on by his stringent asceticism, especially in his younger years, he nonetheless labored without rest. Firstly, he labored for the spiritual health of the members of his flock, evidence for which is provided in his beautiful sermons. Secondly, he was responsible for the material needs of the poorer citizens of the city and its environs. Moreover, at that time, Italy was devastated by barbarian invasions, which brought huge numbers of impoverished refugees into the city, adding to the problem of provisioning the needy. Undaunted by the magnitude of the task, Saint Gregory organized shipments of grain from the Church's estates in Sicily, and with these he was able to feed the multitudes of the destitute. Saint Nicholas refers to this in his Prologue, where he says that the Saint "had a rare compassion, using all his income for the housing of the poor and on hospitality. He frequently brought the poor in and fed them from his own table."[4]

With regard to the claims made by later Popes of Rome to universal jurisdiction, Saint Gregory flatly denied that any Hierarch of the Church is a "universal Bishop." In a letter to Saint Maurice the Emperor, the Pope wrote bluntly, "Now I confidently say that whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest [i.e., Bishop] is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others."[5]

Saint Gregory reposed on March 12, 604. By popular acclamation, he was almost at once Glorified as a Saint of the Church. In the Eastern Empire, his reputation rested on his wondrous writings, particularly on his celebrated Dialogues, a collection of the lives of the great Saints of Italy. In addition, he is known for great collections of sermons. Still extant are forty sermons on the Holy Gospels, twenty-two on the Book of Ezekiel, and two on the Song of Songs. Still extant, too, are the Moralia in Job (a commentary on the Book of Job), The Pastoral Rule, and approximately 850 letters. To Saint Gregory is also attributed a reform of the Roman Liturgy, the plain chant known today as Gregorian chant (used in the Latin Church until Vatican II), and the composition of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, used to this day in the Orthodox Church during the weekdays of the Great Fast. It should be noted that despite this latter attribution, which is almost universal, Saint Gregory, although he may have revised an older Liturgy from which the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is taken, did not actually compose it.


One of Saint Gregory's extant sermons is on Saint Matthew 25:14-30, wherein a master departs for a foreign land and entrusts his three servants with talents to invest for him. Two of the servants invest wisely, yet the third servant merely buries the money committed to him in the ground. Upon the master's return, praise is given to the two that invested wisely, while the lazy servant is severely rebuked and thrown into the outer darkness. Saint Gregory comments as follows:

"In truth the Judge who is to come will exact from each of us as much as he gave. So that everyone may be free from anxiety about the account he must give for his talent when the Lord returns, let him consider daily, with trembling, what he has received. The time is now near when the one who set out for foreign parts [Christ] will return. He who departed far from this earth where he was born went away, so to speak, into foreign parts; but he will truly return to demand an accounting for his talents. If we are listless in performing good deeds he will judge us more severely concerning those gifts he has bestowed on us. Let us then bear in mind the things we have received, and be careful in trading with them. Let no earthly care deter us from our spiritual work, lest we provoke the talent's master to anger by hiding our talent in the earth. As the judge is now weighing his sins, the lazy servant digs up his talent from the earth, since there are many who withdraw themselves from their earthly desires and works when they are dragged to eternal punishment by the chastisement of the judge. Let us be watchful, then, before we must render an account of our talent, so that when the Judge is already approaching to strike us, the profit we have made may plead for us. May he who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever, grant us this."[6]

God gives each of us certain gifts when we come into this world. We are born with these. Later, as we pass through this life, we are given yet more gifts. Some have special gifts of intelligence, some great wealth, some gifts of singing or making music, some gifts of creating beautiful art, some sewing fine clothes, some cooking and baking, and some other gifts, gifts too numerous to mention here. Everyone has his gifts. To be sure, to some He has given more, and to some less. To those with more He will ask more, and to those will less, He will ask less. These gifts God has given for us to develop and to use for the sake of His Glory.

Should we, my beloved children in Christ, refuse to develop these gifts, should we ignore them, or should we develop them for less than honorable purposes, then, like the lazy servant, we will be judged severely by Christ upon His return, since His investment in us, through His gifts, was not a spiritually profitable one.

Should we, on the other hand, use our gifts wisely and for spiritual profit, then, as Saint Gregory writes, even in our sinfulness, "when the Judge is already approaching to strike us," the profit we have made - the spiritual profit - will "plead for us," and so impress the Judge, Christ God, that it will elicit His mercy and save our souls. May each of us give freely from our gifts to God's Glory, so that we may stand before Him with an abundance of the spiritual profits we have earned.


[1] G.Roger Hudleston, "Pope St. Gregory I ('the Great')," (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI New York, NY: Robert Appleton Co., 1909).

[2] Quoted ibid.

[3] Bishop [St.] Nikolai Velimirović, The Prologue from Ochrid: Lives of the Saints and Homilies for Every Day of the Year, trans. Mother Maria. Prologue, Vol. I, January, February, March (Birmingham, U.K.: Lazarica Press, 1985), p. 277.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Epistles of St. Gregory the Great VII.33.

[6] [St.] Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies, trans. Dom David Hurst (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1990), p. 132.

Article taken from Made Perfect in Faith (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2006), pp. 163-168. This superb book of homilies is highly recommended!

"Ours must be an orthodoxy of the heart, not just the mind."

-St.Tikhon of Zadonsk