Pope St. Gregory the Great and the Marian Mold of the Church

In Mary, the Church finds its fundamentally feminine form as Virgin Bride and as Mother. For she, who is the archetype of the Church, is Virgin Bride because she “lets the divine Word become flesh in [her] own body.”[1] The fruit of her fiat is her Motherhood of God and of all believers who receive the fullness of their existence from her son. In this way, Mary is the anima ecclesiastica par excellence, revealing to her spiritual children the meaning of the Christian life: to receive the Incarnate Word as a faithful bride and to keep him as a mother. Insofar as the Church is “bride without spot or wrinkle” then, Mary is coextensive with the Church, for she embodies within herself the receptive posture that defines ecclesial life.[2] It is this Marian posture of active and gratuitous receptivity toward the divine life that Hans Urs von Balthasar identifies as the mold of the Church.

To further draw out this vision of the Church as Marian in mold, we will consider the ecclesial witness of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, first, as a humble “helpmate” of Christ who received and kept the Word of God in his own life as a Christian and as pope. The remaining bulk of the piece, then, will be spent following the theological and pastoral insight Gregory offers in his homily on John 20:11–18. In this homily, he examines Mary Magdalene and the witness of divine mercy that she offers Christians today through her conversion and her inflamed, spousal love for Christ. Gregory’s reflections on Mary Magdalene add depth and dimension to how we may understand the Marian shape of the Church. Using Mary Magdalene’s witness, Pope Saint Gregory the Great presents to Christians a vision of Marian love that can, in the hearts of believers, make room for the Incarnate mercy of God so that each believer may give birth to him in his or her life.

The Marian Character of Pope Gregory the Great

Before we consider the theological genius glimmering through our selected homily from Gregory the Great, we will sketch out his portrait, so we can get a sense of the kind of man that was responsible for such a work.[3] It seems that Gregory knew well the love that led Mary Magdalene to the tomb of Christ again and again.

Gregory was born into a wealthy Roman family and grew up in a home shaped by the pursuit of holiness, as his mother, Sylvia, and two of his aunts are saints. Environmentally, his home, Rome, was in ruins, having been besieged twice. It has been speculated that this experience of coming of age in a war-torn country may have given Gregory the melancholy and sensitivity we see reflected in his writings and leadership as pope. Around the age of thirty, Gregory becomes the Prefect of Rome, following in his father’s footsteps; however, he ends up abandoning his post to become a monk and embracing the monastic life instead. Over the course of several years, Gregory founded seven monasteries, six of which he built on his family’s properties in Sicily with the seventh being built in Rome. In the years following this, Gregory was called to leave and serve at the Court in Byzantium, which he disliked due to the pomp. He spent much of his time there reading Scripture and writing on it, developing several of his most famous works. Gregory was a lover of Scripture; he likened it to a kind of forest wherein the reader can enter a whole new world and walk among the cool of the trees and find interior refreshment. This peaceful, secluded view of Scripture, as a space wherein one may be nurtured, stands perhaps in contrast to what Gregory may have experienced in the world around him. 

Eventually, Gregory returns home to his monastery in Rome; soon thereafter, however, Rome experiences unprecedented flooding and the plague. The pope at the time dies and Gregory is forced to take the deceased pope’s place against his own will. Some legends say Gregory ran and hid in the forest for three days until he was found and dragged back to the papacy. In the first year of his papacy, however, he wrote the Book of Pastoral Care, recognizing his responsibility as pope to care for and serve the servants of God. This recognition of his vocation as “servant” comes to characterize his papacy, as he especially cares for the impoverished Christians living in a post-flood, post-plague Rome. He tends to their material and spiritual needs, giving all the funds and goods belonging to the estates of the Church to the poor, and spiritually, leading Christians on pilgrimage through Rome each Lent. Through the final fifteen years of his life, he worked tirelessly to preach to his people about God’s mercy and those who most aptly testify to it. Out of this project came our selected text: Gospel Homily 25.

Today, Gregory the Great stands before us as a witness of the divine mercy of God, particularly in the way he consistently denied worldly power and embraced the way of humility, tending to the materially and spiritually impoverished. His time wandering through the woods of Scriptures—resting beneath the trees therein, and learning the land of faith—brought forth heroic acts: using his family’s own property, he founded monasteries and, as pope, he used the Church’s property and treasure trove of spiritual riches to provide his people with signs of hope.

Gregory’s writings clue us in on what may have motivated this saint who once tried to deny becoming pope. In our selected text (which we will examine closely below), he demonstrates to listeners how our hearts are pierced by that same, everlasting love that destroys evil; this piercing, then, strengthens our longing and love for God, prompting us—for instance—to search for the empty tomb of Christ again and again, or to run to the “forest” of Scripture as a haven from worldly desires. Gregory exemplifies what Balthasar identifies as the preeminent feminine and preceding masculine dimensions of the Church. Balthasar describes this dynamic as such:

The Church is primarily feminine because her primary, all-encompassing truth is her ontological gratitude, which both receives the gift and passes it on. And the masculine office, which has to represent the true giver, the Lord of the Church (albeit within the Church’s feminine receptivity), is instituted in her only to prevent her from forgetting this primary reality, to ensure that she will always remain a receiver and never become self-assertive possessor and user.[4]

In this way, Gregory embodies the Marian mold of the Church; because he allowed the Word of God to penetrate him and take flesh in his heart, he, in turn, became that love he received to those whom he served.

“Because She Loved Much”: Mary Magdalene as an Ecclesial Soul

Gregory the Great’s reflections on Mary Magdalene (whom he writes about with such tenderness and admiration) presents her as an ecclesial soul who embodied the feminine character of the Church. We will now immerse ourselves in his accounting of the witness of Mary Magdalene during those heavy hours following Christ’s death expressed in John 20:11–18.

In this homily, Gregory seamlessly weaves the accounting of Mary Magdalene at Christ’s tomb with excerpts from the Song of Songs, portraying her as a bride relentlessly seeking him whom her soul loves.[5] This woman loved the Truth, and because she loved him so, her sins were forgiven—“burned irresistibly” by her inflamed love—and the stains of wickedness upon her were “washed away with her tears.”[6] Mary Magdalene is wholly in love with Jesus, her savior, who showed her boundless mercy—and it is this persevering, unto-the-end love for Truth that saves her.

Gregory guides the listener through the story. After Mary Magdalene first failed to find the body of Christ, she reported back to the disciples with this troubling discovery. They then came to the tomb to see for themselves what she had professed and thus believed what Mary Magdalene had told them. They, however, immediately returned home, leaving Mary Magdalene standing outside of Christ’s tomb, alone and empty-handed, weeping amidst the absence of her Beloved. Gregory invites his listeners to enter into the state of mind of Mary Magdalene; he notes that “a great force of love inflamed her,” and so, burning “with desire for him who she believed had been taken away,” “she sought for him whom she had not found” and would thus not depart from his tomb.[7] Mary Magdalene, overwhelmed with desire, would not settle for anything less than her Beloved; nothing would bring her heart “consolation in its sadness as long as the one it [desired was] not beheld.”[8] Even though she knew the tomb was empty, Mary Magdalene stooped down again to check. Why was she moved to take another look? Gregory knows the reason:

It is not enough for a lover to have looked once, because the force of love intensifies the effort of the search. She sought a first time and found nothing; she persevered in seeking, and so it happened that she found him. It came about that her unfulfilled desires increased, and as they increased they took possession of what they had found.[9]

As her reunion with her Beloved is delayed, and her longing and capacity for him are increased, Mary Magdalene stays and searches for him, waiting to receive her Beloved. In this way, she gives Christ her own kind of “fiat” that radiates the Marian femininity of the Church.[10] Her weeping at the absence of her Beloved and her seeking of him, again and again, are expressions of the bridal nature of the Church. By seeking him whom she could not immediately find, Mary Magdalene’s desire tore open for Christ, and she, as Gregory describes, is “wounded with love”—the love which first incinerated her sins and the love which led her to her Beloved’s grave.[11] Mary Magdalene’s wound of love is precisely what allows her to hold onto him for whom she was made in her heart even more intimately.[12]

“Witness of the Divine Mercy”

We will continue to follow Gregory’s account of this story. When Mary Magdalene finally sees Christ, she does not yet recognize him. In response, Christ asks this woman why she weeps and for whom she seeks, “to increase her desire [for him] so that when he asked whom she was seeking she might feel a more vehement love for him.”[13] Mary Magdalene, however, believes this figure before her to be the gardener of the grounds, and Gregory stresses here that perhaps she was less mistaken than she initially appeared to be: “Was he not spiritually a gardener for her when he planted the fruitful seeds of virtue in her heart by the force of his love?”[14] Finally, Christ reveals himself: “Jesus said to her: ‘Mary.’ After he had called her by the common name of ‘woman,’ he called her by her own name, as if to say, ‘Recognize him who recognizes you.’” After he makes himself known to Mary, he then gives her a mission.

Balthasar describes the dynamic we see here—of receptivity and convocation—in ecclesial terms. The more the Christian opens herself up to Christ—the more she “selflessly and unselfishly serves and commits [herself] to the work of God-in-Christ in the world”—the more she will make God’s existence “all the more spacious and universally accessible” in the world.[15] Thus, the deep, wounded love of Mary Magdalene not only allows her to receive Christ, on behalf of the Church, when he calls her name, but it also allows her to bear him forth into the world, as she is called to announce his Resurrection. Gregory highlights the gravity of this moment as it unfolds in human history, demonstrating how creation is coming full circle through the woman of Mary Magdalene:

In paradise a woman was the cause of death for a man; coming from the sepulcher a woman proclaimed life to men. Mary related the words of the one who restored her to life; Eve had related the words of the serpent who brought death. It is as if the Lord was telling the human race, not by words, but by actions, ‘Receive the draught of life from the hand of the one who offered you the drink of death.’[16]

Mary Magdalene—following the footsteps of Christ’s Mother—plays an integral role in restoring what Eve lost for humankind, for Mary Magdalene is the first to be commissioned by Christ to make his Resurrection known to others. As Mary of Nazareth received Christ at the moment of the Incarnation—and bore and labored him into the world, Mary Magdalene, in her laborious longing, receives and bears the good news of Christ’s Resurrection to the world. She radiates, in this way, ecclesial, Marian femininity “that does not put itself in the spotlight but that, through service”—and for Mary Magdalene, it is the service of announcing the good news—“prepares in hearts, in human society as a whole, a place where the Lord can lay his head.”[17]

Gregory calls Mary Magdalene a witness of divine mercy. From the moment she first encountered Christ—even amidst the cruelty of a Pharisee—she persevered in abandoning her sin and “sat at the feet of Jesus, and listened to the words of his mouth.”[18] She devotedly “clung to him when he was alive” and “sought him” at his tomb even “when he was dead.”[19] And what did she find there, in her perseverance?

She found alive the one she had sought when he was dead; and she found such a position of grace with him that it was she who brought the message to his apostles, who were themselves his messengers.[20]

Because she loved much, Mary Magdalene was made anew and remains, even still today, a witness to the resurrecting love of Christ. Gregory the Great encourages his listeners to recognize how God places before their eyes “those whom [they] ought to imitate” for God “provides at every turn examples of his mercy” like Mary Magdalene—and Gregory himself.[21] In each of their stories, we find but examples of the “boundless mercy of our Creator,”[22] to whose bosom the saints compel us to return and from which we may drink that divine kindness.[23]

Christians today who struggle with despair and doubt can find signs of God’s mercy in saints like Gregory and Mary Magdalene. Those who struggle with hopelessness can perhaps find in the humility of Gregory the Great or the persevering, spousal love of Mary Magdalene the readiness to return to the parts of their hearts that feel like tombs. There, they each may wait, as a bride with open hands like the Mother of God and with a tearing heart like that of Mary Magdalene. They ought not to be afraid to return there—again and again—seeking his presence until they hear him for whom their souls long, call them by name.

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Mary, the Church at the Source (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005), 139.

[2] Balthasar, Mary, 139.

[3] This section draws from Professor Katie Cavadini’s lecture “Intro to Pope St. Gregory the Great.”

[4] Balthasar, Mary, 140.

[5] Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies, (Cistercian Publications, 1990) 189.

[6] Gregory, Forty, 187.

[7] Ibid.,188.

[8] Ibid., 190

[9] Ibid., 188.

[10] Balthasar, Mary, 144.

[11] Gregory, Forty, 190.

[12] Ibid., 189

[13] Gregory, Forty, 192.

[14] Ibid., 192

[15] Balthasar, Mary, 135.

[16] Gregory, 195.

[17] Balthasar, Mary, 144.

[18] Gregory, 198.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Gregory, 199.

[22] Ibid., 198.

[23] Ibid., 199.

Featured Image: Ferrari, Gregorius Magnus, 16th century; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Corynne Staresinic

Corynne Staresinic is a writer and editor living in Northern Kentucky. She is the founder of The Catholic Woman, one half of The Staresinics, and a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame.

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