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Posted August 6, 2004

Book: The Fisherman’s Net: The Influence of the Papacy on History
Author: Michael Collins
Columbia Press, Dublin, Ireland, pp.270

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

The papacy is the oldest non-hereditary monarchy in the world. Over its two thousand year history, it has influenced the lives of billions of people, Christian and non-Christian.

The influence of the papacy has by no means been limited to the religious sphere, however. Popes have been directly involved in setting up the Holy Roman Empire, the demise of paganism and global politics. As patrons of the arts, popes have commissioned some of the finest masterpieces, including the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. In the area of politics, Pope Alexander VI divided the map of the newly discovered territories of the Americas in the late fifteenth century. In the area of temporal calculation, a sixth-century pope changed the global calendar of Julius Caesar. From the earliest forays of the Muslim world westwards, the popes have launched crusades to stop their advance. Most recently, Pope John Paul II, in his 25-year pontificate, has raised the profile of the papacy immeasurably.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Gregory the Great

Waters swirled around the street corners. Citizens scrambled to the roofs of their houses. The muddy brown waters of the river Tiber had flooded Rome. Over one-and-a-half centuries had passed since the emperor had visited the city. The aqueducts had fallen into disrepair. The public fountains and monuments were badly neglected. Nobody seemed to care about the fate of the city, once hailed as center of the Roman universe.

The citizens flocked to their bishop n place of an imperial administrator. They turned to him for help in times of invasion, and invoked his assistance in repairing the water supply.

In Gregory, they found their best hope so far. Gregory was the great-grandson of Pope Felix III who had died in 492. He was also probably the nephew of Pope Agapetus who had died in 536. More important than family connections was his career prior to becoming pope.

Gregory was born in 540, into a wealthy patrician family. As a young man he enrolled in the civil service and quickly rose through the honorary ranks. In his late twenties he was appointed to the prestigious post of Prefectus Urbae, Prefect of the City. In modern-day terms, this would be something akin to being appointed Lord Mayor of New York. Democracy in those days was unheard of in the empire. In his early thirties he decided to resign and become a monk. His family home on the Caelian Hill was converted into a monastery and Gregory founded other monasteries on other family estates. However, he was not long retired from the world when Pope Pelagius asked him to leave the monastery and ordained him a deacon. The pope wanted him to go as his apocrisiarios, or ambassador, to the emperor’s court at Constantinople. Reluctantly he departed for the capital, determined never to learn Greek, and his contribution to court life was minimal. He was allowed to return to Rome in 586, where he was appointed Secretary of State to Pope Pelagius. On the latter’s death in 590, Gregory returned to his monastery. Less than three months latter, he was elected to succeed the pope, the first monk to become pope. It was a post he did not seek, nor want. In fact, he delayed for several months in sending the letter of request to the Emperor Maurice, without which his election as pope could not be confirmed.

Gregory turned out to be a wise ruler. His service as Prefect of Rome stood to him. He as able to deal effectively with the administration of the church. The new pope involved himself in everything, from corn prices in Africa to the appointment of bishops in neighboring sees. The archives of the Apostolic See contain scores of letters in which Gregory offers detailed advice. He also had a practical interest in the well-being of the city, and when plague and pestilence visited, he organized penitential processions to invoke God’s intervention. These were backed up by the distribution of food and clothes to victims of the plague.

An eighth-century Anglo-Saxon text records a story about Gregory, which is most probably apocryphal. It is worth repeating, however, as it allows us into the mind of the English in the Dark Ages.

While he was still abbot of the monastery on the Caelian Hill, he was walking through the market place with his secretary. They saw two fair-haired, blue-eyed youths in chains, waiting to be sold as slaves. Gregory, not perhaps used to seeing fair-complexioned youths among the swarthy Romans, asked his secretary from whence the boys may have come.

‘Angles sunt,’ came the reply, ‘They are from Anglia.”

‘Non angles, angeles sunt,’ quipped Gregory brightly, ‘They are not Angles, but angels!’

Taken aback by his superior’s benign observation, the secretary hastened to inform him that people that lived in Anglia, in present-day England, were pagans. Six years after his election as pope, Gregory may have remembered the event. He dispatched his secretary to England to convert the natives. ‘Destroy as few pagan temples as possible,’ he counselled his assistant. ‘Only destroy their idols, sprinkle them with holy water, build altars and put the relics in the buildings.’ His advice was well heeded, and may well have guaranteed the success of the mission. The obedient secretary is now venerated in England as St. Augustine of Canterbury, the monk who brought Christianity to the south of England.

Although at the beginning of his pontificate Gregory seemed ill at ease with his new responsibilities, gradually he came to assume the role with ease and confidence. In the face of civil unrest, he was forced to intervene on behalf of the population who regularly were subject to raids. Describing himself as the ‘servant of the servants of God,’ he oversaw with considerable success the pacification of Italy and the renewal of prosperity. His firm yet gentle administration enhanced the prestige of the bishops of Rome for centuries to come.

Upon his death, at the relatively young age of 46, he was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. On his tomb were incised the simple words, ‘The Consul of God’.

Table of Contents

1. St. Peter and the early bishops

2. The barque of Peter

3. Early one morning

4. The empire collapses

5. Gregory the Great

6. A fire from the east

7. Of kings and popes

8. For God wishes it thus

9. The great denial

10. Let the Heavens rejoice and the earth exult

11. The pope divides the world

12. The pope divides the world

13. A new era

14. From the rising of the sun

15. I have no money to bury the pope

16. If you want an honest man, elect me

17. ‘I am nothing but dust and ashes’

18. A prisoner in the Vatican

19. The world at war

20. A new spring

21. A man from afar