My family, on my father’s side, is directly descended from the English. The family name (“Cawood”) can be traced back to the Island of Britton as far as the 1200’s. I have known this for many years but I did not consider it of much importance until I read the writings of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) and those of Bede the Venerable (672-735). Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People was especially noteworthy to me because he described the many proactive steps Pope Gregory took in sending missionaries to Britton. As a student of history I am used to learning about the names and deeds of people and considering how their lives impacted their own time as well as future generations. This study of church history led me to personally thank God for Pope Gregory the Great because his obedience to the Gospel contributed to my ancestors embracing the Gospel.
Pope Gregory 1st (later known as “the Great”) served during a time of extraordinary social change, political upheavals and economic depression. He had lived as a monk prior to his ordination as a deacon by Pope Pelagius II and in 578 he chose him as his ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople. Upon Gregory’s return to Rome, he returned to the monastery and likely served as secretary to the pope. He was by all accounts a gifted administrator and extremely devoted Church leader. In 590 Gregory was elected pope with overwhelming popular support.
At the time the city of Rome was in administrative shambles and the papacy was the only institution to provide order. Gregory took action independent of the secular authorities in Rome to make peace with the Lombards and appointed a tribune under his own authority to take command of Rome. These acts far exceeded what past Pope’s had done and was a direct challenge to the Exarch Romanus (in effect the Western Emperor at the time), but Gregory outlived him and the secular successors were more favorable to Gregory.
Gregory’s deferential correspondence with the Merovingian kings (particularly Childebert II) and later the Carolingians (in this case Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne) provided the foundation for an alliance with the Franks and provided a foothold for the Christian conversion of Europe. This allowed him to send missionaries (most notably Augustine of Canterbury) to Britain to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Thus he strategically sought to extend the authority of the Roman Church by sponsoring missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons in 597. Gregory has been especially venerated in Britain as its “apostle.”
(The interested reader can consult primary sources regarding Gregory’s persistent concern and advocacy for people to convert to faith in Christ in areas where it was not well established: See Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 12 [Hendrickson: 1994], Epistles of Gregory the Great, Book 4, Epistle 23; and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13 [Hendrickson: 1994], Book 9, Epistles 109, 110, 116, 122. He also demonstrated his passionate desire for missionary work in Britton in extant letters to Augustine: See Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13, Book 11, Epistles 28, 64, 65. Finally, see Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People [Penguin:1990], Book 1, chapters 23-32, pp.72-96; he summarizes Gregory’s persistent interest and official actions regarding Britton and re-establishing the Roman Catholic Church there.)
Here is one paragraph from a letter of Gregory to Edilbert, King of the Angli, regarding his rule and efforts to bring the conversion of his people to Christianity.
“Moreover, you have with you our most reverend brother, Augustine the bishop [not the famous Augustine of Hippo], learned in monastic rule, replete with knowledge of holy Scripture, endowed by the grace of God with good works. Listen gladly to his admonitions, follow them devoutly, keep them studiously in remembrance: for, if you listen to him in what he speaks in behalf of Almighty God, the same Almighty God will the sooner listen to him when he prays for you. For, if (which God forbid) you disregard his words, when will it be possible for Almighty God to hear him for you, whom you neglect to hear for God? With all your heart, therefore, bind ye yourselves in fervour of faith to him, and aid his endeavours by the power which he gives you from above, that He Whose faith you caused to be received and kept in your Kingdom may Himself make you partakers of His own Kingdom.” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 13, Book XI, Epistle 66, pp.81-82.)
I am at this point inclined to go further into more of the history of Pope Gregory’s activity and the work of the extraordinary men he sent as missionary Bishops to Britton. But that is not the primary purpose of this essay. Rather, I want to make a very basic point.
We Protestants have had a tendency to be dismissive of the Roman Catholic church, of the Popes, of the Catholic Religious Orders and of the contributions of the Roman Catholics in general. This comes from the awful and sometimes bloody history that developed after the stalemate between Protestants and the Popes (of the time) in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Protestants tend to cast their own leaders as the great hero’s of that story just as the Catholics tended to cast their leaders as the great hero’s in that struggle. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The whole story is complicated and there is plenty of blame to be assigned to both Protestants (starting with Martin Luther) and Catholics (starting with the Pope at that time). But that topic is for another essay!
I for one have great respect for these church leaders who led God’s Church in these early centuries. I can say that without having to agree with all the decisions they made or with everything they taught as Christian doctrine and praxis. I agree in most respects with the critique of the Protestants (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin) of Catholic doctrine and tradition but I am also deeply grateful to these servants of God with whom I do not agree.
Gregory the Great is an example of why I am so grateful. His persistent efforts are the reason, humanly speaking, that my ancestors eventually embraced Christian faith. And given that I was born into an American family with ancestral English roots his sacrifice and dedication contributed directly to my family being exposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The general lessons I have drawn from my studies of the life and work of Pope Gregory the Great are the following: That all parts of the historic Church have positively influenced each other and we who have come after them are indebted to their service. While it would be foolish to not critically evaluate the traditions of the past (or the present) it is also even more foolish to thoughtlessly negate the testimony of Christian leaders from past generations. We need to be grateful to God for the Church and his faithfulness to keep the witness of the Gospel alive in each and every generation. And especially when it has come through what we consider an imperfect presentation of the Gospel!
I for one know that I am indebted to the saints of old. And I know that there is much in the life and service of Pope Gregory the Great to be commended and imitated. And with that thought in mind, I will end this essay in the way he characteristically concluded his letters: Jason, the servant of the servants of God.