Although the popes preceding him were quite intellectual and accomplished in their activity (particularly St. Clement I and St. Leo the Great), the man we are about to discuss certainly stands out as one who left his mark on Western Civilization. Born as a Roman citizen in 540 AD, his parents named him Gregory a Greek name meaning “watchful”. This would prove prophetic. For Gregory would become a watchdog of the Church and a great defender of the truth in Europe. He was raised in an influential family belonging to the Patrician class of Rome. His father was well-respected in both secular and religious circles being appointed the Prefect of Rome. Gregory admired his father deeply and learned from him a staunch respect for the Church and her mission. The young boy received an outstanding education becoming especially adept in the realm of politics, law, science, music and literature. As such, Gregory had a limitless option of professions. Between his family’s affluence and his own academic gifts, no occupation was out of the young Roman’s reach. By the age of thirty-three, he had become a Prefect of Rome, following his father’s footsteps. Gregory had the world at his finger-tips, yet something was missing. For some time had heard the Lord calling him to the religious life. Thus, after his father’s death, Gregory abandoned his political career turning his family’s mansion into a monastery for monks where he himself lived for several years. He dedicated himself to prayer and study. But this did not last for long. Gregory’s talents for law were soon needed in the outside world. He was summoned by Pope Pelagius II to become the ambassador to Constantinople where he worked to ease political tensions between the Western and Eastern Empires. It was during this endeavor that Gregory began to create a name for himself. The whole Empire was now aware of his gifts. They were impressed that someone so skilled could also be humble and pious. As a result, Gregory was elected Pope in 590 AD at the age of fifty. He immediately began working on reorganizing the Church. At this time in history, the region of Gaul (France) was in upheaval and the British Isles had yet to be properly evangelized. Pope Gregory reigned in the French Church through legal restructurings while simultaneously creating a missionary campaign for the Anglo-Saxon tribes of Britain. It is thanks to these endeavors that the country of Britain is Christian today. Gregory also had a special love for the liturgy and music. The most significant outcome his reform in these areas was the development of “Gregorian” chants which remain the preferred music of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Splendor of our Faith
“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” These words spoken by our next intellectual of Church history capture the heart of his life and mission. Born 347 AD in modern-day Albania, Jerome grew up in a Catholic family. His parents provided him with a fine education in his youth and even sent him to Rome for further study in his young adult years. Jerome received the sacrament of Baptism in 366 AD at the age of 19 and began to live a life of intense study, fasting and prayer. He went to live with a group of Christians in Northern Italy before moving East where he became a hermit residing in the desert caves of Syria. It was during this time that Jerome, who had a natural gift for languages, learned Greek and Hebrew so as to transcribe ancient texts. The young Roman also focused much of his energies to prayer and repentance. In his earlier years, he struggled with several vices, not least of which was the sin of wrath. Jerome had a quick temper, sarcastic tone and would often curse or use foul words when angered. He also had little patience for stupidity or shallowness. This caused him to make a number of enemies throughout his life, particularly in Rome where he was disliked by both the clergy and pagan officials. To combat this sin of wrath, Jerome would carry a stone with him wherever he went. Anytime he cursed or committed a sin against charity, he would use the stone to beat his chest as penance for his actions. By the end of his life, his chest developed callouses and scars from the frequency of the thrashings. Jerome, and indeed every saint, was human. He had personal problems he had to overcome throughout his life. Yet, what made him a saint was not that he was sinless, but that he was a sinner trying his best. He recognized his shortcomings and sought constantly to improve them turning towards God in constant prayer, fasting and study. In 385 AD, the 38 year-old Jerome went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Egypt. The following year he visited the city of Bethlehem where he had a profound encounter with the Lord. The young priest decided to make Bethlehem his home. He lived there until his death in 420AD dedicating himself to what would become one of the most important task in Western history; the translation of the Bible into Latin. Until this point, the scriptures were in Greek and Hebrew making them inaccessible to many Christians. Jerome sought to remedy this issue by providing the world’s first translation of the Bible 1000 years before Martin Luther was even born. It is thanks to St. Jerome’s efforts that the European continent and eventually all of Western Civilization was able to read, teach and produce the Bible for the masses.
To continue our reflections on the Church’s great intellectuals, we turn to the brilliant and courageous Catherine of Alexandria. Born 287 AD in Egypt, Catherine was the daughter of a Roman governor who ruled over the region of Alexandria. At a young age, she devoted herself to intense study immediately being recognized for her talents in rhetoric, logic and philosophy. Before her eighteenth birthday, Catherine had already become an accomplished scholar. Although raised as a pagan, she converted to Christianity at the age of fourteen. In 305 AD, Emperor Maxentius began a vicious persecution of Catholics. Catherine decided to meet the emperor personally and condemn his actions. Maxentius saw Catherine’s visit as the perfect opportunity to embarrass the Christian religion and reveal its irrationality. He summoned 50 of the most educated scholars and scientists of the Empire to challenge Catherine in a debate. The 18 year-old young woman stood fearlessly before the Roman court. The Emperor had no idea who he was dealing with; this woman would not be intimated by his scholars or armies. She debated for hours. To the astonishment of the Emperor and the Roman nobility, this young woman proved more intelligent than any of the empire’s scholars. Catherine’s argumentation was eloquent, precise and rational. Soon enough, each of the 50 scholars publically admitted defeat, unable to compete with the young woman’s knowledge. Several of them also converted to Catholicism on the spot, admitting the truth of Christ. The Emperor, infuriated in humiliation, immediately ordered her to be tortured. Catherine was whipped until her flesh was nearly torn off and then thrown in prison where she remained for twelve days. During her imprisonment, some 200 people came to visit her for counsel and advice. Catherine was told by the Emperor to renounce her religion or suffer the pains of death. She refused. Maxentius mandated her execution by way of a spiked wheel which would crush her bones. But, when Catherine touched the wheel, it broke. She was then sentenced to execution by beheading. Catherine welcomed the executioner with a gentle smile submitting to his blade willingly. She died in 305 AD at the age of 18. Till this day, St. Catherine’s life remains an example of Catholic genius. The 50 scholars who challenged Catherine thought they were rational and educated men, much like many of the militant anti-Catholic atheists and agnostics of our day. Yet, in the end, their arguments are ultimately unsatisfactory. I pray that more Catholics will follow the lead of this young woman studying the brilliance of the Catholic faith. Militant atheists and irrational scientism cannot have the last word. Catherine did not allow it and nor should we.