Aidan Bellenger Notebook
Catholics like to celebrate saints. The Church’s calendar reforms have failed, at least as far as I am concerned, to cut out Lenten feasts and replace them with a monochrome purple fast. As well as the solemnities of the Annunciation and St Joseph in the Universal Calendar, in my community we also keep the traditional dates for St Gregory the Great (March 12) and St Benedict (March 21). When it comes to heavenly birthdays monastics show a marked preference for Lent.
St Gregory has been my abbey’s patron since its foundation four centuries ago and he is one of those saints who has much more reason to be our national patron than St George. St Gregory, pope from 590 to 604, has always been seen as “the Apostle of England”, the Pontiff who sent (in 597) the reluctant missionary monk Augustine to Kent where he established his episcopal seat at Canterbury. The work of conversion he began continues to this day.
St Gregory, at first glance, may seem as remote from our present age and country as St George. More reflection might lead to a different conclusion. The city of Rome in Gregory’s time was past its best and so damaged by invasion and internal strife that imperial power had shifted to the New Rome of Constantinople. There seemed a real chance that Rome would fall permanently into the hands of the all-conquering Lombards. The Barbarians were truly at the gates of the city.
Gregory, a man of great insight as well as intellectual power, was all too aware, rather in the way that John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been, that he lived in an epoch of catastrophe, in a darkening age when the end of things as he had known them was in sight and in which the familiar and the comfortable could no longer be taken for granted. As he passed through Rome he could hear the cries of the prisoners lined up against the walls of the city ready to be taken into slavery.
The way in which the barbarians have penetrated the walls of our own cities is clear, not only in the coars ening and cheapening of our culture but in the lack of ethical standards within so many departments of our national life. It may be the time has come to turn Lombard Street into Gregory Street, removing its barbarian name and replacing it with that of a great and visionary saint.
Gregory’s response to his times was not to fiddle while Rome burned, nor to shrug his shoulders, nor to feel unequal to the task. It was, rather, to stand firm in his convictions and to realise that a time of crisis is a moment of opportunity. We have to face up to the challenges of our own times by remaining true to our vision. Standing back, accommodation, trying to hide in the shadows, will not prevent us sliding over the precipice. We should be as suspicious as Gregory was of the sinister power of moral indifference.
It is all too easy, with a pervading popular culture which is increasingly anti-Christian, to fall into bad habits and shoddy behaviour, confirming ourselves to the doubtful standards of much contemporary society. What Gregory beckons us to do, by his deeds as well as his words, is to build up a true Christian community in which morality and civility could transform society. We need to be both optimistic and firm in our convictions. The last days of Lent remind us that our redemption was bought at a great price.
The Rt Rev Dom Aidan Bellenger is Abbot of Downside