Preaching Gregory the Great’s Moral Sense of Scripture

Gregory’s Pastoral Rule offers the most extensive collection of his advice to preachers, but his letters to fellow bishops highlight his concern for the bishop as the moral leader of his flock. 

Pope St. Gregory the Great

“May the words of the gospel wipe away our sins.”  This prayer, whispered silently after the priest or deacon has proclaimed the Gospel, is a powerful reminder of the importance the Church attaches to the moral sense of the scriptures.  So, too, is the gesture accompanying the prayer, the kiss, which should be done with great love of the precious gifts contained in the gospel; among these being the call to holiness, which is the ultimate vocation of the Christian moral life.  Yet, how often, in recent decades, have preachers been reluctant to proclaim the moral lessons of the gospel to their flocks out of fear of offending them, and losing their favor?  The moral struggle today is complicated and deepened by a culture that has lost a sense of the reality of sin, of the dignity of human life, of the sacred character of sexuality, and of the dignity of marriage.  At a time when many of the faithful are in great need of hearing the fullness of the truth and moral calling as children of God—especially in these areas of modern moral challenge—too many pastors have retired from the lists, leaving the faithful without guidance in a deepening spiritual battle.

From the beginning of the proclamation of the gospel, in the life of the early church, one can see the lively awareness of the essential need for preaching the moral sense of scripture.  Indeed, the very essence of the gospel is to exhort “all the nations of the earth” to accept and follow the good news.  First, the good news must be heard.  But this can only happen if it is proclaimed, and the proclamation, once heard, is intended to excite the listener to action, to conversion of heart, to confession of sin, to amendment of life, and to the practice of a life of Christian virtue animated ultimately by the spirit of the New Covenant, summarized most beautifully by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount.  The call of the preacher today is no different than in those earliest days of Christianity, but the world we live in presents new challenges to having a “life in Christ.”  The need for moral preaching is not only for every age, but also for every person throughout their life, because life itself is a constant process of reform, spiritual labor and conversion of heart. 1 Today’s moral battles are fought by a flock afflicted with secular and sensual values where there is a pervasiveness of pornography, sexual libertinism, artificial contraception, and scientific manipulation of life, among many other evils. It is helpful, then, for us to realize that at other times of great difficulty, turmoil, and moral depravity, voices in the Church have called pastors to remember their primary responsibility of preaching the moral sense of the Gospel.  One such voice was that of Pope Saint Gregory the Great.

Gregory the Great: Life and Times
Gregory was born in 540 A.D. of a noble Roman family.  The Rome of his day was already a beleaguered and depopulated backwater under Ostrogothic rule, and soon would suffer further under the afflictions of war, insecurity, plague and famine. 2 Gregory’s family connections, education, and monastic vocation helped him to circulate in wider imperial circles, and to obtain a larger view of the world than many of his contemporaries, whose orbit of activity and awareness was often limited to the local exigencies of survival.  By the age of thirty, Gregory had risen through the local public offices to serve as prefect of Rome, the city’s highest, if no longer exalted, office.  But at that juncture, after much prayer, he entered religious life as a monk, giving over his properties to the formation of monasteries of the Benedictine Rule.  Gregory would leave us a biography of the great St. Benedict in the bargain.  In 578, Pope Pelagius II ordained Gregory as one of the seven deacons of Rome. He was soon posted to a diplomatic mission at the court of Byzantium for a term of six years, primarily with the task of securing assistance for Rome in the face of a Lombard invasion.  His work to this end was feckless, and he doubtless formed a conviction that Italy must learn to look after itself without imperial aid.  He subsequently worked as a close associate of Pelagius II, until the latter’s death in 590. Gregory was then elected by the clergy and Roman people, later being confirmed as pope by Emperor Maurice.  The legacy of Gregory’s papacy—which was decisive for the Church—the office of the papacy itself, missionary outreach to England, and the regulation of monastic and Episcopal relations, is beyond our purposes here.  It suffices to note that Gregory richly deserves the title “Great” for the energy and astuteness of his 14-year term as pope, during a time of great trial and tribulation. All of which would have given pause to any man elevated to papal authority. Indeed, Gregory’s reluctance to accept the Church’s highest office is legendary. It was recorded at the outset of his Regula Pastoralis or Pastoral Rule, an extended meditation on the need for humility as the basis of pastoral office.  In that great treatise, Gregory offered timeless wisdom and advice to his fellow bishops regarding the critical role of preaching in their office, as well as the centrality of the moral sense of scripture to preaching. 3

Gregory as Advocate of Preaching the Moral Sense of Scripture
Gregory’s Pastoral Rule offers the most extensive collection of his advice to preachers, but his letters to fellow bishops are also replete with exhortations on the importance of the bishop as the moral leader of his flock.  A sample of his epistolary exhortation on this subject is in order here.  To the clergy of Perugia in 591, he wrote: “a flock of sheep, left without the shepherd’s care, wanders from the true path . . . and falls more easily into the insidious snares of the enemy,” thus it is the minister’s duty to “show his flock the path whereby it may reach the heavenly fatherland.” 4 To the bishop of Terracina, he wrote in 592: “With your preaching, let those who are uneducated recognize what God commands.  In the fear of God, let your morality teach the people how they should live. Engage in good works, that you might teach and preach to your subjects.” 5 In 599, he exhorts Bishop Aregius in Gaul in these zealous words: “…let us hasten to profit those we can by reproving, by exhorting, by persuading, by soothing and by consoling.  Let our tongue be a nourishment for the good, and a sting for the wicked.  Let it restrain the proud, appease the angry, stir up the indolent, inflame the idle with encouragement, persuade those holding back, soothe the bitter, and console those despairing. . . .” 6 In 600, he wrote in like manner to the Bishop of Carthage: “Let your tongue restrain them more and more from the perpetration of wicked deeds, and let it make known the rewards for good deeds and the penalties for bad ones, so that those who are less fond of good deeds may at least be afraid of evil things. . . .” 7 The necessity of the bishops to preach the moral sense of scripture is apparent in Gregory’s letters to his brother bishops, throughout his papacy.

Gregory didn’t just insist to others the necessity of preaching the moral sense of scripture.  He did so himself in his own homilies, thus taking the advice he first laid out so systematically in his Pastoral Rule at the outset of his papacy.  In his first two years as pope, Gregory wrote forty homilies on the Gospels.  In one of his most memorable homilies of this period, Gregory reflected on the commission Jesus gave to the seventy-two when he sent them as harvesters into the harvest (cf. Lk 10:1-9).  This homily was delivered to a Pontifical Council at the Lateran Basilica by Gregory, and served to remind his fellow bishops and clergy of Christ’s words to his successor shepherds. 8 In it, Gregory roots preaching in charity, that is, in the love of one’s flock.  This love is expressed first in preaching, which in turn can only be accomplished after much prayer: “Pray then for us that we may have strength to labor for you as we ought, that our tongue may not be slack to exhort, and that, having undertaken the office of preaching, our silence may not prove our condemnation at the tribunal of the just Judge. For oftentimes, by reason of their own sins, the tongue of preachers is tied. . . .” 9  Such silence, Gregory observes, is hurtful to the pastor himself at times, “and to his flock at all times.”  Drawing on themes from his Pastoral Rule, Gregory reminds his brethren that: “the priest must needs take thought of what to say to each, how to admonish individuals, that all who approach him may, as it were, by the touch of salt, be seasoned with the savor of eternal life.”  He then adds: “but to preach virtue as we ought, our life should be an example of our preaching; and as we cannot pass through life without sin, we ought, with tears springing from divine love, to wash away the stains of our daily faults” through regular examination of conscience. 10 He concludes this homily with a final moral reflection: “Let us exhort the holy to advance in holiness, and the wicked to correct his vices, so that every man who comes in contact with the priest, may go away seasoned with the salt of his discourse.” 11 Clearly this important homily has a deep concern for conveying the moral sense of scripture to the faithful.

Indeed, even a cursory reading of Gregory’s homilies on Ezekiel, one of the two extant collections of Gregory’s actual preaching, indicates how prolific were his moral exhortations and interpretations from scripture to his own homiletic exertions.  Of the 22 complete homilies in this collection, perhaps the eleventh is most pertinent to our purposes. It is a reflection on Ezekiel 3:15-28, in which the prophet is cast as a watchman, and as a preacher who, for a time, is forced into silence.  Like Ezekiel, who suffered with his people, the pastor, Gregory observed, must live with and among his people to identify their suffering. 12 Ezekiel is sent to preach, but he is also a watchman. So, while he may suffer with his people, he also must be able to survey them and protect them from the heights of virtue, literally from the mountaintop.  Then, Gregory offers a brief reflection on how Ezekiel’s ministry speaks to his own trials as pope. Having formerly enjoyed the contemplative solitude of the monastery, and the fruits of frequent prayer, he must now expend himself in apostolic activity.  He laments:

But since I have submitted the shoulder of my heart to the pastoral burden, my spirit cannot assiduously collect itself to itself, because it is divided manifold.  For I am compelled to discuss causes, now of the churches, now of the monasteries, often to ponder the lives and actions of individuals.  Now, to bear certain troubles of the citizens, now to groan over the attacking swords of the barbarians, and fear the wolves lying in wait for the flock committed to me . . . . Therefore, when the torn and mangled mind is led to think of so many and such great matters, when may it return to itself, and collect the whole of itself in preaching, and not depart from the ministry of proffering the word? 13

What parish priest has not experienced something very much akin to this, and who among them has not lamented the weight of apostolic burdens on his life of prayer, and on his quality of preaching?  But when these burdens lead to the pastor’s silence from exhaustion or fear, it is deadly not just to the pastor, but also to the flock.  As Gregory observes, “we show ourselves to be defendants, we who are called priests, who above those sins which are our own, also add the deaths of strangers, because we kill as many as we, silent and indifferent, daily see go to their deaths.” 14 Gregory turns from this important personal reflection to questions regarding how pastors ought to preach to persons differently situated among their flock. Indeed, for a pastor who does not have time to read Gregory’s entire Pastoral Rule, Gregory’s eleventh homily on Ezekiel offers a wonderful summary of themes redolent in his longer work, to which I now turn.

Gregory’s Pastoral Rule and the Moral Sense of Scripture
The first part of Gregory’s Pastoral Rule is a personal meditation in which he reflects on his own struggle to fly from his call to papal authority, and the attendant burdens of episcopal responsibility.  It is a powerful reflection on the true character of humility, which does not oppose a divine call to service in favor of one’s own ease, but rather heeds and answers that call, even to one’s own discomfort, when called into the service of government in the church.  The one who is worthy of pastoral care should not be easily lifted up by flattery, motivated by pride, or ruled by the passion to dominate.

Thus, in the second part of the Pastoral Rule, Gregory insists that the one charged with government of the church, must be a man of prayer, who seeks the grace to overcome temptations to sin, and who can set a good example for others by his virtue, holy life, and apostolic service.  No preacher of the word can be effective unless the person he is, and the life he leads, exemplifies Christian virtue in meekness of heart, purity of thought, and charity of speech and action. He must be a friend of the humble, but a lion of strength, in reprimanding vicious pride.  But even in correction of evil, the pastor must convey that he is equal before God to all sinners. 15 He must guard his inner life with frequent prayer, never allowing apostolic service to crowd out his foremost obligation: being in frequent and prayerful communion with the Lord. 16 This prepares the ruler, as guardian of souls, to be a worthy confessor and spiritual director; a topic he addresses in chapters 8-11 of the Rule.  Having lived a moral life, and having advised others on the spiritual journey, the pastor is prepared, in his very being, to preach the moral law with effectiveness.

In part three of the Pastoral Rule, Gregory offers advice on how the pastor should teach and preach the moral life. Foremost in this recognition is that the pastor must know his audience, and the special needs of his particular flock.  The preacher should be aware of the best way to reach men and women, and the young and old, recognizing the capacity of each group to absorb and respond to the full gospel message.  He admonishes preachers that men should be challenged and provoked to action, while women should be moved by gentleness of tone.  Similarly, the older person is better able to handle reprimand than is the younger one, who needs “gentle remonstrance.” 17 Similarly, the poor and the rich, the joyful and sad, the subject and the superior, the slave and the master, must all be appealed to, given their variable stations and situations. A congregation consists, collectively, of many differences of mind, heart and soul, of strengths and weaknesses, and of specific characters.  These include, for example, the humble and the haughty, the healthy and the sick, the kindly and the envious, and the like.  Indeed, he identifies thirty-two different opposed states of being and spirit.  For each of the opposed states of being, he devotes a chapter on how best to preach, teach, and exhort.  He offers a veritable handbook on the moral states of the soul, and what advice the preacher could recommend to challenge and motivate conversion of heart and healing of soul.  In giving advice on how the preacher might address these various situations, Gregory makes 322 references to the scriptures, 167 to the Old Testament, and 155 to the New Testament. He supplies the preacher with a trove of passages and verses that best represent the moral and allegorical senses of the scriptures that apply to souls, dominated by one or another virtue or vice.  Thus, part three of the Pastoral Rule serves as a kind of preaching handbook, or homiletic resource, correlating scriptural references to the moral states of the soul. 18

An example of Gregory’s approach to the virtue of patience deserves our attention.  In his chapter on the joyful and the sad, Gregory says that the joyful should be “displayed the sad things that accompany punishment,” but the sad shown “the glad promises of the Kingdom.” 19 The joyful should learn from scripture: “Woe to you that now laugh, for you shall weep (Lk 6: 25).” But the sad should hear Christ’s promise: “I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you (Jn 16:22).” 20 In addressing the patient and the impatient, Gregory recommends that the preacher regard patience as an aspect of charity, and impatience as a symptom of pride.  Thus, the impatient should hear the words of Paul: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so you shall fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2),” and the words of Ecclesiastes: “the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit (6:8).”  Patient persons, by contrast, are to be warned not to allow their hearts to grow bitter under insults and burdens, lest malice overtake them.  The patient should hear Christ’s voice who calls them to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt 5:44),” and the words of Paul who proclaims in his great hymn that “love is patient and kind. . . enduring all things (1 Cor. 13:4-7).”  Therefore, a patient man who is able to bear an insult in the first place is preserved later from the sin of angry resentment and malice, by praying for the one who insulted him.  The patient man’s moral victory is won both over his persecutor and Satan, who will later tempt him to malice.  Gregory’s insight into the movements of the spiritual and moral life is keen, and everywhere he relies on the moral sense of scripture present in these insights, to a flock afflicted by scores of spiritual and moral illness.

As Gregory moves from one moral condition to another, he offers the preacher a gold mine of insights into the spiritual life, and scriptural references which support his exhortations.  There is much here for our modern situation, a veritable handbook on preaching the moral sense of the scriptures.  But as Gregory reminds us, every preacher “should make himself heard rather by deeds than by words, and that by his righteous way of life should {he} imprint footsteps for men to tread in, rather than show them by word the way to go.” 21 Yet, he must also preach the words, in and out of season, to both ready and reluctant hearers.  To remain utterly silent in the face of evils assailing the sheep, is to disobey the Good Shepherd himself, who commanded that the Gospel be preached, and that his apostles should seek and save the lost.  To abandon the preaching of the moral sense of scripture, is to disfigure the Gospel itself, which is imbued throughout with moral teaching essential to the life of beatitude, here on earth, and to the attainment of eternal beatitude in heaven.  Therefore, the pastor must not muzzle himself, nor grow faint of heart, in a world dazzled by the false glamour of evil.  He is to be a watchman, as Ezekiel prophesied, ever at his post, calling out when danger approaches, and entering into the midst of the spiritual battle, when the citadel of virtue has been attacked and stormed by the forces of vice.  If the officers in the army of Christ cower, retreat, or even defect as the enemy attacks, the casualties will mount and the cause of virtue will be lost.

The preacher must, then, be on guard for his flock, but also mindful of his own spiritual condition:

Now, seeing that often when a sermon is delivered with due propriety, and with a fruitful message, the mind of the speaker is exalted by joy, all his own, over his performance, he must needs take care to torment himself with painful misgivings: in restoring others to heath by healing their wounds, he must not disregard his own health and develop tumors of pride.  Let him not, while helping his neighbors, neglect himself, let him not, while lifting up others, fall himself. 22 

There is no place for spiritual pride and personal self-confidence.  The Seducer himself is the source of such conceited thought.  The only antidote to such a temptation to pride is a life of humility and prayer.  The preacher, Gregory asserts, must constantly examine his conscience, and perceive his weakness, and prostrate himself humbly before Almighty God for the graces of conversion, repentance, and perseverance in virtue and holiness.  Turning once again to the great prophet, Ezekiel, he reminds us:

That you may not proudly lift up your heart because of what you are to see, consider carefully what you are.  When you penetrate the sublimest things, remember that you are a man; for when you are enraptured above yourself, you will be recalled in anxiety to yourself by the curb of your infirmity. 23

The spiritual battle continues.  Whether it is more or less intense now, than in Gregory’s day, is known only to God.  But it is clear that the battle for our souls persists today in a culture that is saturated with values contrary to the Gospel.  In critical areas involving the sanctity of life, sexuality, and marriage, the pressures in our world are doubtless more intense.  Certainly, the advance of science and technology have opened up new concerns, utterly unknown to Gregory, in such matters as bioethics, the manipulation of genetic codes, in-vitro fertilization, and cloning.  However, the same tendencies to the deadly sins, and other diseases of the soul—such as fear, sorrow, self-loathing and despair— still remain.  The human soul itself has not changed, even in a time of instant and electronic communication.  The frontline in this battle continues to be in the confessional, and in the pulpit, where the preacher must direct those in his congregation, “on an inward journey of self-discovery, to find and explore the hidden recesses of the heart.” 24

Are we winning this battle of the heart?  The lines by the confessional suggest that we are losing, as people become indifferent to sin, and comfortable with their vices.  This suggests that the battle lines need to be extended to the pulpit, where the flock can be instructed with great charity, but also with great clarity, about the dangers of sin and vice, and the great call of the Master to the life of holiness and beatitude.  As the lines by the confessional lengthen, we might perceive a slow turning of the tide in the spiritual battle. This will happen only when the preachers of the word begin to unlock and proclaim the moral sense of the scriptures with greater regularity.  Pope Gregory was intensely aware of the power of the moral sense of Scripture, and of the pastor’s responsibility to proclaim it in obedience to Christ’s command. As we repair to the doleful state of the world in his day, we can understand why Gregory was so insistent on this point.  But, ours is a doleful situation, as well. Thus, St. Gregory’s advice serves as a reminder to preachers, in every age of their vocation, to admonish and guide.  Gregory’s obedience to Christ, in preaching and living the gospel, should remind us of our ongoing responsibility to preach, as he did, in a world starving for a full exposition of the moral riches of the Scriptures.   Why shouldn’t we expect that the preacher’s tender kiss, and sincere prayer, “may the words of the gospel wipe away our sins,” be answered in our own time, any less than it was in his own, with an outpouring of grace?

  1. Carole Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) 194.  Straw’s chapter on reform and the preacher is a fine summary of Gregory’s views on the preacher as the vehicle through which the uneducated are enlightened with a knowledge of scripture and of the moral life.
  2. R. A. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World. (Cambridge University Press 1997).
  3. I have relied on two translations of Gregory’s Regula Pastoralis.  The first is the James Barmby translation found in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 12, Second Series.  (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995) 1-72.  The second is the Henry Davis, SJ, translation found in Johannes Quasten and Joseph Plumpe. Ancient Christian Writers series, volume 11 (New York: Newman Press, 1978).  All citations to the Rule in this article are drawn from the Davis translation, which is generally more accessible to modern readers. However, I have taken the liberty to continue to use the title Pastoral Rule in this article, instead of the title “Pastoral Care” Davis preferred.  The term “rule” perhaps seems too regulatory, and the term “care” more sensitive, but Gregory himself used the term “rule,” and so I cleave to his usage.
  4. See John R. C. Martyn, vol. I (of 3 volumes). The Letters of Gregory the Great (Ontario, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004) 139.
  5. Ibid., 234.
  6. Ibid., volume II, 689.
  7. Ibid., volume III, 730.
  8. This homily is available in English translation by the Reverend Patrick Boyle, C.M., as A Homily of Saint Gregory the Great on the Pastoral Office. (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1908).  A copy of this translation with introduction can be obtained on line at:
  9. Ibid., 3.
  10. Ibid., 11.
  11. Ibid., 23.
  12. Theodosia Tomkinson, Homilies on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel by St. Gregory the Great. (Etna, Calif.: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2008) 214.
  13. Ibid., 218.
  14. Ibid., 219.
  15. Subsequent citations to the Pastoral Rule are taken from the Davis translation found in the Ancient Christian Writers series herein abbreviated ACW. See p. 64.
  16. ACW, 68ff.
  17. Ibid., 92.
  18. The extensive citation to the Scriptures is an important characteristic of the Pastoral Rule.  All but 15 books of the Old Testament are cited by Gregory in the Rule, about a dozen of those admitted being the historical books.  His citations to the Torah and Major Prophets are extensive.   In the New Testament, his citations to Matthew 23, to Mark 1, to Luke 22, and to John 4.  Among the most heavily cited epistles are those of Paul to the Romans (11), 1 Corinthians (22), 2 Corinthians (8), and Hebrews (7).  All but five books of the New Testament are cited by Gregory at some point in the Rule, making it a treasure trove of moral entry-points into the Holy Scriptures.
  19.  ACW, 95.
  20. Ibid., 95-96.
  21. Ibid., 232.
  22. Ibid., 234.
  23. Ibid., 236.
  24. Straw, Gregory the Great, 205.
Deacon Robert F. Gorman, PhD About Deacon Robert F. Gorman, PhD

In addition to his duties as University Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Texas State University, Deacon Gorman serves at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in New Braunfels, Texas, and also teaches government and theology at John Paul II Catholic High School.


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