This week's episode of Communio Sanctorum is titled, “God's Consul .”
One of the Roman Emperor Diocletian's most important contributions to the Empire was to divide the top-tier leadership up so that it could rule more efficiently. The Empire had grown too large to be governed by a single Emperor, so he selected a co-Augustus & divided their regions of oversight between Western & Eastern realms. Since the issue of succession had also been a cause for unrest in previous generations, Diocletian also provided for that by assigning junior Caesars for both himself & his co-Augustus. When they stepped down, there would be someone waiting in the wings, pre-designated to take control. The idea was then that when their successors stepped into the role of being co-Augusti – they'd appoint new junior Caesars to follow after them. It was a solid plan and worked well while Diocletian was the senior Augustus. When he retired to raise prize-winning cabbages, the other rulers decided they liked power & didn't want to relinquish it.
Over the years that followed, rule of the Empire alternated between a single Emperor & Diocletian's idea of shared rule. The general trend was for shared rule with the senior Augustus making his capital in the East at Constantinople. This left the weaker & subordinate ruler in the west with increasingly less power at the same time Germanic tribes pressed in from the North.
What eventually spelled doom for the Western Empire was that Rome had forged treaties with some of those Germanic tribes; turning them into mercenaries who were armed & trained in the Roman style of war. When Rome stopped paying them to fight FOR Rome against their Germanic brothers & the Goths, it was inevitable they'd join them to fight against the rich pickings of the decaying Empire who could no longer field armies against them.
We've seen previously, as the barbarians pressed into the Western Empire from the North & East, civil authorities had diminishing ability to do anything about them. People began looking to the Church to provide order. Because the Church was gifted with some remarkable leaders who genuinely cared about the welfare of the people, they managed to hold the decaying Empire together for a time. Pope Leo even managed to meet with the Hun leader Attila as he prepared to march on Rome. Leo persuaded the Huns to turn around, leaving the City intact. But Leo didn't have as much luck with the Vandals who arrived a few years later. He did manage to persuade them to limit their sack to plunder & pillage. The population was saved from death & rape. After a 2 week loot-fest, the Vandals boarded their ships & sailed away – leaving the city otherwise unmolested.
Historians mark the year 476 as the date when the Western Empire fell. It was then that the Goth leader Odoacer deposed the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus. Odoacer is called a barbarian, but he was, in fact, a military leader in the Roman army; a mercenary who led a revolt against the very people he'd once fought FOR. While historians mark 476 as the year of Rome's fall, for the people living at that time, they would not have seen much if any difference between the reign of Augustulus & Odoacer. Things carried on much as they had from the previous decades. Which is to say – it was a mess!
With the Fall of Rome, the Western Empire moved into what we know as the Middle Ages. This was a time when the Church played an ever-increasing role in society. The form that influence took varied over the centuries; sometimes being more religious & spiritual in nature, at other times being predominantly political. But there's no denying that in Europe during the Middle Ages, the Church played a major role.
During the 5th & early 6th Centuries, as civil society disintegrated, people looked to alternatives. Some found an answer in monastic communities. There'd been communes of Christians since the 3rd Century, but the number of monasteries began to grow during the 5th. Some were highly structured while others were more loosely organized.
The monastic movement took off due to the leadership of Benedict of Nursia whom we've already talked about. Benedict's early attempts at being the leader or abbot of a monastery didn't go so well; the monks tried to poison him. But as he matured, Benedict applied the lessons learned from his previous mistakes & founded a monastery on Monte Cassino in Italy that became the proto-typical monastery for years to come.
Benedict was a genius for administration and organization. He formulated a simple plan for monastic living that was easily transferred to other communes. Known as the Rule of St. The Rule held forth a daily routine of Bible reading, prayer, and work. Benedict's sister Scholastica adopted a similar formula for convents.
Monasteries became repositories & treasuries of the learning and scholarship of Greece and Rome. As the rest of Europe plunged into what some refer to as The Dark Ages, many monasteries remained places of scholarship. The monks read, studied and spent considerable time copying ancient texts of both scripture and classical antiquity. The Renaissance would eventually be fed by the work of those monks and their hundreds of years of work.
What we know about Benedict comes from his biographer, Gregory, known to us as Pope Gregory I, or Gregory the Great, a title conferred on him by the Church shortly after his death.
Gregory was born into a wealthy and ancient Roman senatorial family around 540. Following family tradition, he was trained for civil service. But the political landscape was uncertain. During his childhood, the rule of Rome passed through several different regimes. While in his mid-teens, control of Southern Italy was wrested from the Visigoths by the re-conquest of the Eastern Emperor Justinian. But it was only a few years till the Lombards began their campaign of terror. They burned churches, murdered bishops, plundered monasteries, and turned the verdant fields of Italy into a weed-strewn wilderness.
When he was 33, Justinian appointed Gregory as the Prefect of Rome, the highest political position in the territory. Gregory was responsible for the economy, food provisions, welfare of the poor, reconstruction of the now ancient and badly decayed infrastructure; things like baths, sewers, and streets. His appointment came in the same year both the pope and Imperial governor of Italy died.
A few years later Gregory resigned his office. It's rare when someone who wields great power walks away from it – but that's what Gregory did. The death of his father seemed to be the turning point. One wonders if it wasn't his father's dreams FOR his son that had moved Gregory into a political career to begin with. Once the father was gone, there was nothing holding him to his position and Gregory followed his heart, which was to become a monk. With his considerable fortune, he founded seven monasteries and gave what was left to the poor. He then turned his family's home into a monastery. As Bruce Shelly puts it, “He exchanged the purple toga for the coarse robe of a monk.” He embraced the austere life of a monk with full devotion to the Rule of St. Benedict.
As much as Gregory desired to dissolve into obscurity and live a life of humble devotion to God, his outstanding gifts as an administrator had fixed a reputation to him he was unable to dodge. In 579, Pope Pelagius II made him one of seven deacons for the church at Rome. He was then sent as an ambassador for the Pope to the imperial court in Constantinople. He returned to Rome in 585 and was appointed abbot of the convent that had once been his house.
Gregory was quite content to be an abbot and would aspire to no higher office, content to finish his sojourn on earth right there. But The Plague swept thru Rome, killing thousands, including the Pope. Unlike most monks who hid behind their commune's walls, Gregory went into the city to help the sick. This earned him great admiration. After Pope Pelagius died, it took church leaders six months to settle on Gregory to replace him. He balked and fled Rome to hide in the countryside. When he was eventually located they persuaded him to return and take up the Bishop's seat.
Gregory seemed ill-suited to the task. He was 50 and frail. 50 would be young for a pope today, but when the average life span was a mere 40 years, 50 was already an advanced age. Gregory's physical condition had been made worse by his extreme austerity as a monk. Drastic fasting had enfeebled him and contributed to the weakening of his heart. But what some might assume his main disqualification, was Gregory's lack of ambition for power. He simply did not want to be Pope. Coming to the belief it was God's will that he take up the task, it didn't take long for him to learn how to wield the influence his office. He began his term by calling for public demonstrations of humility of what was left of Rome's plague-decimated populace. His hope was to avert more disaster. And indeed, after a while the plague abated.
Gregory hadn't been Pope long when the Lombards laid siege to Rome. This was a time of chaos throughout Western Europe. Many otherwise cool heads thought it was the end times; Gregory was one of them. In a sermon he said,
Everywhere we see tribulation, everywhere we hear lamentation. The cities are destroyed, the castles torn down, the fields laid waste, the land made desolate. Villages are empty, few inhabitants remain in the cities, and even these poor remnants of humanity are daily cut down. The scourge of celestial justice does not cease, because no repentance takes place under the scourge. We see how some are carried into captivity, others mutilated, others slain. What is it, brethren, that can make us contented with this life? If we love such a world, we love not our joys, but our wounds.
It seemed every aspect of civilization was being shaken to ruins. The church at Rome was one of a few that survived the ordeals that came like hammer blows. Though Gregory saw his promotion to the papacy as punishment, he surrendered himself whole-heartedly to the task of keeping things together while everything else fell apart.
Pope Gregory I was a tireless leader. He accomplished the work of ten. His volume of work is all the more remarkable in that he was often confined to bed because of sickness brought on by his frailty and overwork. Seeing himself as genuinely the first among equals with the other bishops, he kept up a vast correspondence, making sure the lines of communication between the churches kept everyone abreast of Church affairs. That alone would have been a full-time pursuit. But Gregory did more.
He knew from both his time as a monk and in watching his brothers in the monastery, that the quality of one's work FOR God, is directly proportional to the heart's devotion TO Him. So in his book Pastoral Care, Gregory reminded spiritual leaders to never be so preoccupied with work that they forgot their own soul. But there was a much-needed counterpoint to that; they must also not become so internally focused that they neglected practical work. This was a point of balance rarely glimpsed in the Christianity of that age.
Gregory was also concerned for the quality of worship in the church and encouraged the use of music. Though he did not invent what is called plainsong or plainchant, he greatly encouraged its use. In honor of his patronage of this form of worship, it's known as Gregorian chant. Plainsong is a single melodic line without instrumental accompaniment. While a single singer may sing, it was usually sung by a chorus of voices in unison.