There are three popes whom history has designated as “The Great.” Troublingly, two of them, Gregory I and Gregory VII, have the same name, giving us two Gregories the Great. The Third is Leo the Great.
As I have mentioned before in this blog, Avery Dulles in his 1985 book, The Catholicity of the Church, speaks of the three millennia of the papacy. The first millennia was marked by an evangelical spread of the gospel; the second was marked by the rise of papal temporal power, and the third, Dulles anticipated, will be marked by the papacy putting itself—and the Church—at the service of human society.
Leo I (400-461, reigned 440-461) is considered by many non-Catholic historians to be the first pope because he consolidated and extended papal doctrinal authority to a level not before reached. In his reign Rome was acknowledged to be the first of the five patriarchal sees. At the Council of Chalcedon (451) when his famous Tome was read to the bishops outlining the precise terms of how the Divine and Human Natures were united in the One Person of Jesus Christ, the assembled bishops cried out “Peter has spoken through Leo.” With the support of the Emperor Valentinian Leo asserted papal authority over the Church of Gaul (modern day France) and would do the same for the Church in North Africa. This was not for Leo, as it would be for his successors eight centuries later, a matter of power but a matter of consolidating doctrine for the preaching of the Gospel. There was no attempt as yet by the popes to centralize papal power over local Churches. Administrative decisions were still exercised by local bishops who were, in turn, elected by their clergy and faithful. Leo’s aim was to clarify the evangelizing message by preserving a single orthodox faith against the threat of Arianism which was being spread by the Germanic tribes sweeping down from north of the Rhine and the Danube. He wanted to have a clear and universal doctrine that proclaimed Christ to be of the same Divine Nature as the Father and the same Human Nature as the Son. Many of the Germanic tribes running down through North Italy and Gaul into Spain and North Africa were Arians and spreading a gospel that made Jesus inferior in Divinity to the Father. Leo’s Chalcedonian faith would prevail in the Western Church and the Chalcedonian faith spread from Rome to Gaul. It would also eventually triumph over Arianism among the Visigoths of Spain, the Vandals of North Africa, and the Ostrogoths and Lombards in Northern Italy. The Christological faith held by the Catholic Church throughout its subsequent history is the faith that Leo defined.
Gregory I (540-604, pope 590-604) was also very interested in the evangelizing mission of the Church and in 595 sent the monk Augustine from Rome with a band of 40 monks on an evangelizing mission to the Saxon kingdom of Kent in today’s South-eastern England. While England had been Christianized in Roman times, the 5th and 6th century invasions of the Germanic Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians from across the North Sea had all but obliterated Christendom in most of England. Irish missionaries kept Christianity alive in the far north and in the west, but it was Gregory’s missionaries who would reintroduce the ancient faith to England and its recent immigrants. From England then Anglo Saxon missionaries would go out to what is today Holland, Germany, and Scandinavia.
Leo I and Gregory I very much epitomized the spirit of that first millennium of spreading the Gospel throughout the world known to them. Gregory VII, in his battles with the Salian Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, would capture the spirit of the second millennium—power. Gregory was anxious to establish the temporal power of the papacy in Italy to gain a political sovereignty for the papacy so that it would not devolve into the sort of pawn of Imperial politics in the West that the Constantinople Patriarchate (and later the Moscow Patriarchate) would in the East. While Gregory died in exile defeated by the Emperor, his insistence on the independence of the Church and its supremacy over the political power of the Emperor survived, permitting the papacy to outlast the fall of the Holy Roman Empire and become a major influence in world politics even when the papacy itself lost its temporal sovereignty in 1870 with the absorption of the papal states into the Kingdom of Italy.
These popes, Leo I, Gregory I, and Gregory VII each captured the zeitgeist of their particular age and expressed the mission of the papacy for their epoch. Other popes in the first millennium had a driving zeal for evangelizing. Other popes in the second millennium were anxious to extend the Church’s power into the political world. But Leo and the two Gregories were somehow symbolic of the Church’s defining mission in the two millennia, even archetypical of what the Church needed at its helm in their respective periods.
So now we enter into the third millennium—the one in which the papacy—and by extension, the Church—will supposedly give itself over to its servant mission. Will Francis someday be known as “The Great?” He has charted the new course with the same clarity as Leo, the same dedication as Gregory I, and the same stubborn opposition in the face of his enemies as Gregory VII. Only time will tell if he gets the appellation “Great.” It is never awarded during a pope’s lifetime; it takes decades and even centuries for its effects to be judged. What is remarkable is that we could not have foreseen, even in the heady years of Vatican II, the sort of papacy and the sort of Church which Francis would herald. What are Francis’s accomplishments to date that might win him the title?
1. he has changed the style of the papacy from the monarchial style of the Renaissance and Early Modern Period to the style of a pastor who is in touch with the reality of his parishioners.
2. He has changed the face of the Church from a moral judge to a reconciling community of forgiven believers
3. He has moved the teaching of the Church from ivory tower abstractions to concrete imperatives of our long-held moral principles
4. He has engaged the secular world on its own turf and applied the values of the Gospel to everyday life.
5. He has demanded of the institutional structures of the Church an integrity, a transparency, and a modernization that gives the Church a long-lost credibility in the contemporary world.
We will see the long-term effects of this papacy. Please God they will continue after Francis has vacated the Chair of Peter and please God they will take root not only in the policies of his successors but in the hearts of the faithful so that this will be an era of Reform such as the Church faced in the 12/13th centuries and again in the Catholic Reformation of the 16th century.