Cardinal Pell on Pope St Gregory the Great and the duties of bishops

Cardinal Pell on Pope St Gregory the Great and the duties of bishops

Cardinal George Pell

In 591 Pope Gregory the Great, who reigned from 590 to 604, wrote his classic work on the duties of bishops, Liber Regulae Pastoralis. His experiences entitled him to recommend that an office holder should have learnt the required virtues, such as humility, before assuming office. I am not sure how often this is achieved.

Many images have been used over the years to bring together the personal inadequacies of all bishops on the one hand and the high sacramental dignity, the mightily important works of service bishops must perform on the other. Jeremiah captures the competing imperatives: the duty to be a prophet to the nations, speaking God's word, and the realisation of personal inadequacy, inexperience and lack of eloquence.

Cardinal Ratzinger quotes St Augustine meditating on Psalm 72, and comparing his work as a rural bishop in Hippo to that of a beast of burden, an ox. The well-known Cardinal Sin of Manila has often publicly compared himself to the donkey Our Lord rode on his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

St Gregory thought that God leaves rulers imperfect so they will not inflate their own importance, not glory in their performances. He himself felt like a poor quality painter portraying a handsome man.

The bishop aspires to be a conduit, an open channel for the light and grace of the Son of God to flow through his works of sacrament, word and service. He aims neither to distort, nor to hinder this building up of the Body of Christ.

Many Australians think of the Catholic Church as a source of many things: nearly everything in fact except genuine religion - worship, prayer and spiritual wisdom. For too many, their instinct is to look elsewhere, e.g., to New Age trickery or Asia for such qualities.

Gregory was disconcertingly blunt about the bishop's obligations here. A man who is caught up in the darkness of everyday life and blind to the light of contemplation should not be a bishop. A person who is not in good standing with God can make the situation worse through his intercession, he claimed.

The Second Vatican Council describes the first duty of the good shepherd, bishop and priest, as teaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

Gregory understood this is no easy task and listed the characteristics of forty different types of person who had to be reached in different ways. He was a splendid psychologist.

Our task in this age of change, technology and advertising is to explain the apostolic tradition to an Australian society which yearns for the consolations of religion but is hesitant or hostile to restraint and sacrifice: to a society which still turns to the Church at times of tragedy and even at Christmas, but which is also partly tone-deaf to the call of the Spirit.

Bishops, priests and teachers also have to compete against an influential minority which either denies God's existence or denies the need for God if He happens to exist. With this cast of mind there is no possibility of truth, much less of revelation; certainly no need for redemption.

For them, all communities, and especially institutions, are reduced to exercises in power politics. Teaching is propaganda to protect the power brokers. The Church is not seen as a means to eternal life; the sacraments are not seen as worship of the Transcendent One, not seen as channels of spiritual energy for the worshippers, but as superstitions at best, or at worst as cynical and pretentious pageants.

None of this is entirely new, but there are contemporary particularities. Christian confidence has been weakened by the spread of irreligion, the decline of regular worship and clerical scandals.

Pope Gregory lived in a more confident Catholic age, despite its political turmoil. While he acknowledged that his listeners were like a harp which had to be played correctly he also warned that the bishop would be assailed by a lust for pleasing people; by a desire to put a cushion under every elbow. This was as objectionable to him as excessively rigid censures.

Cardinal Avery Dulles put the contemporary question very well: "In the face of dissent it might seem that the Magisterium should mute its voice. Does it not weaken its own authority when it teaches doctrines that many practising Catholics will predictably reject?"

His reply is uncompromising and encouraging to bishops. The Magisterium "would forfeit all credibility if it taught only what people wanted to hear. The first and indispensable task is to bear witness to the deposit of faith".

Clear beliefs

Pope Gregory believed that "the government of souls is the art of arts". Isn't it true that man's thoughts, sinful or mistaken, are more hidden than the sores in our bowels, he wrote. He laments how often spiritually ignorant men profess to be physicians of the human heart.

The idiom is not ours, and the language is self-confidently hierarchical. But all in all there is an important kernel of truth here. Even in the most healthy religious organisation leadership is not superfluous, and incompetent leaders can cause damage more easily than good leaders can encourage growth.

Every leader needs a clear set of beliefs; to know the direction in which he is heading. So does the bishop. Without these a bishop cannot inspire hope, encourage prayer, service, personal and community initiatives. In this way the young especially, but also outsiders as well as regular parishioners, will realise that the Church community is serious about its supernatural claims and hard at work.

This article is extracted from Archbishop George Pell's homily at the episcopal consecrations of Fr Julian Porteous and Fr Anthony Fisher OP at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on 3 September 2003, the Feast Day of Pope St Gregory the Great.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.