Pope St. Gregory the Great thought he was living in the end times. Reigning at the turn of the seventh century, Gregory had served as the prefect for Rome in his early 30s, resigning after only a year to become a monk. Reluctantly elected pope at the age of 50, his writings give us a window into the widespread chaos of his era as he lamented political overthrows, flooding, plagues and pestilence on all sides.
Today, in our current worldwide crisis, priests can look to Pope St. Gregory for sage advice because he made it his work to prepare extraordinary priests to meet the extraordinary times in which they found themselves. He wrote The Book of Pastoral Rule, a manual used in the training of bishops and priests for the next thousand years. In it, he outlined his ideas on how pastors facing crisis can be “physicians of the heart” in their “cure of souls.”
Gregory’s teachings can be helpful for priests who may be struggling with the demands of serving their parishioners at a distance and also providing the sacraments to the very sick, while themselves facing their own personal trials, doubts and fears. His teachings can also be a source of consolation to the faithful to know of ways their pastors can be attending to them spiritually at such a time.
While priests may not be able to provide their parishioners with the sacraments at this time, there is much that they can do. Gregory, in fact, purposefully expanded his priests’ ministerial roles to become spiritual fathers in new ways.
Gregory has been called the “doctor of desire” because at the center of his teachings for priests was the notion of the heart yearning to be satisfied. Gregory wanted his priests to discern both the movements of the Holy Spirit and the spiritual needs of their charges in order to bring healing to their hearts. In today’s crisis, that is a tall order if pastors can only communicate with parishioners by phone or the internet. Or is it?
In a culture sympathetic to it, scholars have noted that the pastor’s role has migrated into becoming a therapeutic one, which, truth be told, can be exhausting, and really not possible given training and time constraints. While priests may be keeping in good contact with parishioners during this crisis, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to provide counseling to so many parishioners.
Gregory’s idea of spiritual fatherhood, however, bypassed the psychological model for the spiritual. Gregory’s pastors’ hearts longed for God and the discernment of God’s thoughts rather than enlightenment through human reason. Through prayer, Gregory felt, priests could learn what God had in mind for those in his charge.
Fast forwarding to today, keeping in touch with their spiritual children via email or phone, pastors may only be able to provide a few words of prayerful encouragement or advice, but these can and do mean a great deal. Importantly, priests can promise to take intentions to prayer and also share their own intentions for parishioners to pray for as well.
For Gregory, a pastor’s heart belongs to God. His priests were to spend time in meditation and contemplation before God. A very important icon for Gregory in this role of spiritual father was the Old Testament priest Aaron, who bore the burdens of the people on his breastplate as he entered to pray before the Holy of Holies. Gregory’s pastor was also to bear his spiritual children’s burdens on his heart.
Priests do this already, of course. But, Gregory’s teaching can help priests and laity better appreciate this sometimes underemphasized aspect of priestly identity — that of intercessor. Intercession is considered the greatest of charisms and one that the priesthood has in superabundance. At the holy sacrifice of the Mass and in personal prayer, the priest brings our petitions to God.
Spiritual Works of Mercy
Some priests might feel sidelined or out of action during quarantine, but nothing could be further from the truth. Gregory pointed his priests to the Rule of St. Benedict as a model to live a more monastic, ascetical lifestyle. It is also a rule proposing moderation, a key monastic virtue.
Gregory warned priests not be overcome with the excesses and cares of life. Gregory wanted his priests during momentous times to be a model for the laity to lead the kind of contemplative life that showed balance in judgment and balance between inner and outer lives.
The contemplation that Gregory urged of pastors also required the outward reach of mercy. If priests are prevented from performing many works of the corporal works of mercy at this time, they can focus on the spiritual works of mercy.
Pastors, of course, cannot give what they do not have. Returning frequently to the well of prayer and restful study is an antidote to overwork.
Gregory wanted pastors to be preachers, first and foremost. Because he thought it was the end of the world, Gregory thought that the evil one would be influencing learned men to be duplicitous and to give false teachings. So, he urged priests to focus on the study and preaching of the Bible.
With so many ways now to reach out to followers on the internet, pastors can continue to preach to and teach their parishioners in new ways, gaining assistance, if needed, by reaching out to tech-savvy parishioners to make that happen. Shorter online Masses can allow priests to devote themselves to longer sermons. Parishioners are hungry for the Word of God, and to see and hear their beloved pastors.
With the laity leading more cloistered lives at the moment, pastors could help us to grow in relationship with the Lord by giving advice on how to do so. One resource that I always recommend is the practice of lectio divina, that is, divine reading — simply reading and thinking about a scripture passage, letting the Lord speak to us in our hearts. Using each Sunday’s readings is a great way to do that. No books are needed, nor fancy meditation techniques required.
Leading parishioners daily online in the Liturgy of the Hours, Rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet may be other ways to serve and to stay connected, both as leaders and friends.
Lastly, Gregory always looked for signs of the Holy Spirit in his priests’ lives to determine where to send them to serve. If he saw a priest who had the gift of healing, he would send him to work with the sick. Times of crisis can bring out hidden gifts and purposes for the sake of others. God is pouring out His gifts and mercies even and especially in times like ours. Priests can ask themselves what is stirring in their hearts to do in this momentous time and bishops should be discerning that with them.
God gave us St. Gregory, the monk-pope, who is even now teaching priests, from across the centuries, how to face unprecedented challenges with mercy and wisdom for the sake of others. For just such a time as this, God has well prepared his priests to serve Him and His people. Like never before, they have new tools available to serve their parishioners as physicians of the heart. St. Gregory, pray for us.
Clare McGrath-Merkle, OCDS, DPhil, writes from Maryland.