Today we celebrate the Feast of Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604), one of only four pontiffs to receive the title “the Great.” St. Gregory, who is also a Doctor and Father of the Church, wrote several important works including Liber Regulae Pastoralis and the Dialogues, a collection of the lives of the saints. He revitalized the liturgy, helping to give us what has become known as “Gregorian Chant,” and supported many great missionaries including St. Columban and St. Augustine of Canterbury.
The other “Great” popes achieved similar accomplishments. Pope St. Leo the Great (400-461) fought many heresies, strengthened the Church, and met personally with Attila the Hun, persuading him not to attack Rome. Pope St. Nicholas the Great (800-867) was canonized by his successor for his great administrative reforms, defense of the Church from secular rulers, and his support of St. Ansgar in the missionary work to Scandinavia. In our own day, some people have called Pope St. John Paul II “the Great” in recognition of how he tirelessly traveled the world, preaching continuously in word, writing, and deed, and reformed and revitalized the Church through the implementation of the Second Vatican Council.
A few other saints have received the title, including St. Albert the Great and St. Gertrude the Great. St. Albert received the title during his lifetime for the extreme breadth of writings, which covered everything from Aristotle, astrology, and biology, to friendship, phrenology, theology, and zoology. St. Gertrude received the title from Pope Benedict XIV because of her spiritual and theological work, especially the devotion to the Sacred Heart, and to differentiate her from another Benedictine saint of the same name.
We recognize civil leaders with the same title for grand accomplishments, often uniting military victories with advancements in culture and the arts. Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world in ten short years. Alfred the Great and Cnut the Great were given the title for their unification of England. Similarly, Frederick the Great of Prussia united the country with stunning military victories and was also a great patron of the arts. In Russia, Ivan the Great (III), Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great all added substantive territory to Muscovy and the Russian Empire, and they also promoted the sciences and arts. Ivan IV could not receive the title because his grandfather already had it. Instead, he received “The Terrible,” a term which has a similar meaning—though with quite different moral overtones—to that of the power and awesomeness of God that we see in Psalm 66.
Heirs of great rulers often fall short of their fathers. Selim “the Sot” (the drunkard) was the heir to Suleiman the Magnificent in the Ottoman Empire. Louis the Pius, the son of Charlemagne, basically lost his father’s empire, but was spared a negative title because he supported the Church and the chroniclers writing the histories were monks.
Most of us are more like the heirs of great rulers than we are the “Great”s. We will not accomplish great things, build monuments, or write great works that will be revisited and remembered here on earth for centuries. Indeed, we may even destroy some of what the great rulers built. As Mother Teresa reminds us, most of us are not called to great things, but we can all do small things with great love. Doing great things may not lead us to fulfillment. Doing the task we are given by God well and with great love, no matter how small, will lead us to that happiness we so desire. In the end, the only title that ultimately matters is the one that we hope will precede our name: Saint.
Pope St. Gregory the Great, pray for us.
Image: Tony the Tiger