Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care (care of the soul) is one of the founding documents of Western civilization. He wrote the treatise around 590 A.D. at a time when Europe was engulfed in chaos, famine, ignorance, and disease. Life for most was a vapor, and justice was rare. Into this broken, violent world, Gregory shared his near complete understanding of the human condition, and did so with great compassion for humanity. Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, and Byzantium’s Maurice used the treatise to help wrestle Europe’s population into the Middle Ages. Cura Pastoralis is a work with few peers in terms of influence, beauty, and wisdom.
“Pastoral care” is a term of art in theology derived from the metaphor of a shepherd caring for a flock of sheep. Gregory, a gifted monastic, wrote the work about the time he was asked to become Pope. He initially refused the job, but later accepted the post. Why had he initially refused? Governing souls, the “art of arts,” was demanding and difficult, and its failures were and are costly.
Gregory believed, like Aristotle, that humans were meant to flourish. At the time of writing, Gregory’s view was wildly optimistic. The Lombard tribe was at Rome’s gates, people were starving, and refugees flooded the city. But Gregory had a moral imagination that even encompassed war, disease, and empty stomachs. He saw a future that could only be bridged when leaders actually cared for their people in a way that helped their followers develop better character, appropriate curiosity, and the courage to transform themselves and their society to reflect the love found at the heart of God. (Recall that Gregory was discussing the improvement of the character of migratory, plundering Germanic raiders.)
The work Pastoral Care is written as an open letter to a friend. He wrote it for leaders who might help him and realized they were an unevenly talented and motivated lot. Some were gifted people like St. Augustine of Canterbury. At the other end of the spectrum were people similar to Chaucer’s pardoner–the one described as having hair that hung in waxy driblets.
Gregory’s treatise was written in four parts. Parts I and II describe the characteristics of the person most capable of caring for people so that they are helped and not hurt. He was direct about his contempt for ill-prepared leaders:
“With what rashness, then, would the pastoral office be undertaken by the unfit, seeing that the government of souls is the art of arts! For who does not realize that the wounds of the mind are more hidden than the internal wounds of the body? Yet, although those who have no knowledge of the powers of drugs shrink from giving themselves out as physicians of the flesh, people who are utterly ignorant of spiritual precepts are often not afraid of profession themselves to be physicians of the heart…The unfitness of pastors is rebuked by the voice of Truth, through the Prophet, when it is said, Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity, I know you not. ”
The longest section of the treatise, Part III, is a practical compendium of advice. Each chapter illustrates how one must diagnose a person’s character before giving that person advice. For instance, Gregory examines the issue: “Should I tell the truth?” He then describes two types of people. Some lie and need to understand “how burdensome is the business of duplicity which they guiltily bear.”
However some are too blunt in their truth-telling, “seduced by their prudence.” This causes irrevocable damage. This situation happens often in end of life care in today’s modern world. Consider a doctor bluntly telling a patient, “You will die of your malady tomorrow.” The patient rebels: “Oh no I won’t! Inject me with experimental medicines or let me take a long trip to a different hospital.” 1,425 years after writing, Gregory’s advice to a sincere person to “not be seduced by their prudence,” is being taught at the best hospitals when working towards an optimal outcome, even in death. (The best modern day practice is, more often than not, to let a patient decide what information he or she wants, and to make sure the patient is not in pain.)
Part IV is a brief, breathtaking, and humble conclusion about the human condition. Gregory concludes this letter to his friend,
“I have tried to show you what a pastor should be like. I, miserable painter that I am, have painted the portrait of an ideal man; and here I have been directing others to the shore of perfection, I, who am still tossed about on the waves of sin. But in the shipwreck of this life, sustain me, I beseech you, with the plank of your prayers, so that, as my weight is sinking me down, you may uplift me with your meritorious hand.”
As a matter of historical record, Gregory’s work transformed culture, but it did not transcend the culture completely. He was at times blind to his age’s pseudoscience and bias. He describes leaders using physiognomy (scoliosis sufferers are hit hard), and he is thoroughly sexist. He accepts that slavery exists and does not say it is wrong. He does hold that masters and slaveholders are equal before God. (“/M/asters, ever …bear in mind their own nature, namely, that they have been created equal to their slaves.”)
Given Gregory’s thoughts and limits, how did he live his life after he became the Bishop of Rome (that is, the Pope)? That is, was he a hypocrite who told people to do one thing while he did another? Despite his own protests, his actions reflect deep compassion and his people, overall, loved him. In a land of war and famine, Gregory turned church property into vast community gardens to feed Rome. Here was a pope none too busy to chastise a church cleric for not helping enough:
“I asked you most of all to take care of the poor. And if you knew of people in poverty, you should have pointed them out … I desire that you give the woman, Pateria, forty solidi for the children’s shoes and forty bushels of grain ….”
As Pope, Gregory ate with 12 indigent people each day during a time of great famine. Because the sick could not receive free provisions from the Church, Gregory created a cadre of monks to go find and feed them. And he invented accounting procedures far advanced of his time for receiving donations and making sure those donations went to care for the poor, whose steward he believed the Church to be. He fired those under him who did not comply. When he saw English slaves for sale at the market, he famously said “non Angli, sed angeli,” or “They are not Angles but angels.”
Gregory life’s work took account of his limits. His life and work are grounded in grace–that unmerited favor free to all. It was a grace he shared freely with his work Cura Pastoralis, imbuing a broken world with hope and high governing standards.