Pope St Gregory the Great's advice to bishops and priests

Pope St Gregory the Great's advice to bishops and priests

Pope St Gregory the Great

The following is an extract from Pope St Gregory the Great's Pastoral Rule and is used as a reading in the Divine Office. Saint Gregory, who reigned from 590 to 604, was the first pope to make clear to the world that he headed the entire Church and was the outstanding pontiff of the early medieval era, indeed one of the great popes of history. He cared for the poor of Rome and protected them from invaders, sent missionaries to England and across Europe, and made lasting contributions to the literature and liturgy of the Church. During his pontificate the liturgical chant that bears his name took definite form after centuries of development.

A religious leader should be careful in deciding when to remain silent and be sure to say something useful when deciding to speak. In this way he will avoid saying things that would be better not said, or leaving unsaid things that ought to be said. For, just as thoughtless remarks can lead people into error, so also ill-advised silence can leave people in their error, when they could have been shown where they were wrong.

Religious leaders who are negligent are often afraid to speak freely and say what needs to be said - for fear of losing favour with people. As Truth himself says, they are certainly not guarding their flock with the care expected of a shepherd but are acting like hirelings, because hiding behind a wall of silence is like taking flight at the approach of the wolf.


These are the people whom the Lord is reproaching through the prophet, when he says: 'They are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark.' And again he complains: 'You have not gone up into the breaches, or built up a wall for the house of Israel, that it may stand in battle in the day of the Lord.'

To go up into the breaches means to withstand the powers of this world and defend the flock by speaking out freely. And to stand in battle in the day of the Lord is to resist the forces of evil out of a love of justice.

If a religious leader is afraid to say what is right, what else can his silence mean but that he has taken flight? Whereas, if he stands firm in defence of his flock, he is building up a wall for the house of Israel against its enemies.

And so again the sinful people are told: 'Your prophets have seen false and foolish visions for you; they have not exposed your iniquity in order to provoke you to repentance.'

Sometimes holy Scripture calls the prophets teachers, who reveal what is to come while they point out the fleeting nature of the present. The word of God accuses them of having false visions because they flatter sinners with empty promises of safety but are afraid to correct their faults. They utterly fail to expose the wickedness of the sinners because they are not ready to take them to task.

Now the way to expose this sinfulness is to denounce it, because a word of reproof points out the sin that even the guilty party himself often fails to recognise.

Sound doctrine

So Paul says: 'He must be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it.' And Malachi says: 'The lips of a priest shall guard knowledge, and men shall seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.'

And so the Lord gives a warning in the words of Isaiah: 'Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voices like a trumpet.'

For it is a fact that anyone entering the priesthood accepts the office of herald and must by his words prepare the way for the terrible judgment of the one who follows.

If, then, the priest neglects his preaching, what sort of a warning cry can he, a dumb herald, give? That is why the Holy Spirit settled on the first religious leaders in the form of tongues: because those whom he fills he fills with his own eloquence.

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