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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Gregory the Great's Concerns about the Papacy

In some traditions September 3 is St. Gregory the Great day. The Lutheran Service Book lists Gregory as a saint to be commemorated on this day but weakly gives him the title “pastor.” It is a shame that he doesn’t get wider attention among us not only because his preaching is very useful but also because of his liturgical influence and his resistance to a universal pope. For those who do want to commemorate Gregory with a Divine Service The Daily Divine Service Book provides propers. They are the propers common to a bishop with the following exceptional Collect:

O God, who didst grant the reward of eternal rest to Thy servant Gregory: grant us, oppressed by the weight of our sins, full pardon and peace and a joyful resurrection; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost: ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Gregory’s reign as the bishop of Rome is considered to be the beginning of the office in its current form. Yet he anathemizes the idea of a universal bishop, writing thus to John of Constantinople:

Now I confidently say that whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others. Nor is it by dissimilar pride that he is led into error; for, as that perverse one wishes to appear as God above all men, so whosoever this one is who covets being called sole priest, he extols himself above all other priests. (Gregory the Great, “Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great,” in Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. James Barmby, vol. 12b, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1895), 226.)

Of particular interest to us, this aspect of Gregory’s theology is cited by Luther in the Smalcald Articles: “Writing to the patriarch of Alexandria, Gregory objects to being addressed as universal bishop (SA XVIII 19 in Kolb-Wengert). Here is the fuller citation:

But I beseech your imperial Piety to consider that some frivolous things are very harmless, and others exceedingly harmful. Is it not the case that, when Antichrist comes and calls himself God, it will be very frivolous, and yet exceedingly pernicious? If we regard the quantity of the language used, there are but a few syllables; but if the weight of the wrong, there is universal disaster. Now I confidently say that whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others. Nor is it by dissimilar pride that he is led into error; for, as that perverse one wishes to appear as God above all men, so whosoever this one is who covets being called sole priest, he extols himself above all other priests (Gregory the Great, “Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great,” in Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. James Barmby, vol. 12b, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1895), 226.)

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