Sept. 3 is the feast day of St. Gregory the Great. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Feast of St. Gregory also falls around the time when Americans make our national observance of Labor Day. While a shining example of Christian virtue, St. Gregory the Great also sheds light on the fuller value and purpose of labor and human work.
St. Gregory was born in Rome around 540 to a wealthy family, with several family members noted for holiness of life. He was raised and educated during times of great trial, both for the Church in general, and for Rome, a city besieged by several waves of barbarians.
Gregory was made prefect of Rome at a young age. He struggled with the call to give all in following Christ, but finally chose a monastic life, donating his estates to the founding of monasteries. His three years of monastic seclusion were some of the most enjoyable of his life.
Once Gregory was ordained as a deacon, he was sent to the Court of Byzantium as ambassador, where he struggled greatly with the court’s worldly atmosphere. Having provided, with some difficulty, six years of faithful service to the court, he was joyfully recalled to Rome. Gregory was appointed abbot of St. Andrew’s Monastery, which under his leadership, produced many monks who were later renowned for holiness of life. He was later chosen to be a missionary to England. This demonstrates how highly regarded Gregory must have been by this time, for after he was sent away, an uprising immediately arose among the populace of Rome. A team of messengers was then dispatched to bring him back, which they successfully did.
The death of Pope Pelagius II in 590 led to Gregory being immediately chosen by the clergy and people of Rome as the pope’s successor. Some sources suggest that Gregory was dragged from his bed, while others maintain that he fled from the city and hid for three days. Despite his initial unwillingness to accept the burden of the papacy, Gregory spent the final 14 years of his life devoting all of his energy towards his work as pope.
Gregory’s life produced fruit that would continue to mature for centuries to come — guidance for the care of souls, reformation of the liturgy, sending missionaries to spread faith abroad, and much more. He is arguably one of the greatest foundational supports of medieval Europe, and thus, of our own society today.
Americans celebrate Labor Day, the yearly tribute given to our country’s workers. The day’s purpose is to remind us of the real social and economic contributions made through the early Labor Movement, up to workers in the present day.
As Catholics, we can also celebrate Labor Day with a deeper Christian understanding of its purpose.
Jesus spoke often about “the Kingdom of God,” and He taught us that it is already here — however, not in its perfect, final form. Christians receive the Kingdom at baptism, and they also build it inside themselves through the varied ways of working to grow in personal holiness. They also work to build the kingdom, just as Gregory did, by offering Christ-like service in all areas of their lives. Thus, in our own Christian lives, we continue the same work that St. Gregory performed, and to which all of us are called, in the building of the Kingdom of God.