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Gregory the Great

Gregory the Great

Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome

George E. Demacopoulos

Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome from 590 to 604) is one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity. His theological works framed medieval Christian attitudes toward mysticism, exegesis, and the role of the saints in the life of the church. The scale of Gregory’s administrative activity in both the ecclesial and civic affairs of Rome also helped to make possible the formation of the medieval papacy. Gregory disciplined malcontent clerics, negotiated with barbarian rulers, and oversaw the administration of massive estates that employed thousands of workers. Scholars have often been perplexed by the two sides of Gregory—the monkish theologian and the calculating administrator.

George E. Demacopoulos’s study is the first to advance the argument that there is a clear connection between the pontiff’s thought and his actions. By exploring unique aspects of Gregory’s ascetic theology, wherein the summit of Christian perfection is viewed in terms of service to others, Demacopoulos argues that the very aspects of Gregory’s theology that made him distinctive were precisely the factors that structured his responses to the practical crises of his day. With a comprehensive understanding of Christian history that resists the customary bifurcation between Christian East and Christian West, Demacopoulos situates Gregory within the broader movements of Christianity and the Roman world that characterize the shift from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. This fresh reading of Gregory’s extensive theological and practical works underscores the novelty and nuance of Gregory as thinker and bishop.

This original and eminently readable interpretation will be required reading for students and scholars of Gregory and sixth-century Christianity, historians of late antiquity, medievalists, ecclesiastical historians, and theologians.

“Demacopoulos’ work on Gregory the Great seeks to balance our understanding of his theology and asceticism with that of his pastoral and administrative activity. This lively, well-written, original, and engaging treatment of one of Rome’s most significant bishops is a valuable contribution to research not only into Gregory himself but the papacy of late antiquity as well. Whether one is new to the world of early Christian studies or a veteran, this accessible book will be an indispensable guide to a transformative moment in Christian history.” — Geoffrey D. Dunn, Australian Catholic University

“In his previous monographs George Demacopoulos has distinguished himself as a careful and informed interpreter of ancient pastoral practice and the development of papal authority. These two concerns merge in his new study, Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome, in which Demacopoulos argues for an integrative approach to Gregory that links his ascetical and pastoral theologies to his public activities. This is an original and important book, based on the full range of Gregory’s writings and exhaustive examination of the secondary sources. It should be of interest to a wide audience of classicists, late-antique and medieval historians, and theologians.” — David G. Hunter, Cottrill-Rolfes Chair of Catholic Studies, University of Kentucky

“Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome has the potential to be the most important intellectual biography of Pope Gregory I to appear since the publication in 1988 of Carole Straw’s landmark study, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection. Demacopoulos proposes a new interpretive paradigm by insisting that the ‘problem of the two Gregories’ is not really a problem at all: Gregory’s ascetic and pastoral theology, he argues, informs and structures his administrative practices. This important insight will have significant impact on future research." — Kristina Sessa, Ohio State University

ISBN: 978-0-268-02621-9
240 pages
Publication Year: 2015

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George E. Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies at Fordham University. He is the author and editor of a number of books, including Five Models of Spiritual Direction in the Early Church (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).

“One puts this book down thinking about its subject in a new way, for Demacopoulos has been able to use the structure of Gregory’s thought to make sense of its author. Softening as he does the caesura of Gregory’s exchanging secular for religious life, Demacopoulos allows us to see his life as having been less disjointed than it has hitherto seemed to be, for the skills he had exercised in his early days as prefect of the city would be useful when he became pope.” — Marginalia

“[T]he book will be best read by readers who are already familiar with Gregory the Great and the controversial issues surrounding him. . . . The author has done a good job of exposing the reader to complexities, even contradictions of a man worthy of being called great.” — America

“Demacopoulos finds Gregory to be ‘a unique and nuanced theologian’ whose foundation was his commitment to asceticism. After a summary examination of Gregory’s understanding and asceticism as well as Gregory’s excellent preparation for governance of a city and a church, Demacopoulos guides the reader through many facets of Gregory’s pontificate, showing how all were informed by that theology. Gregory’s dealings with political and ecclesiastical leaders defy an easy dichotomy of ‘church’ and ‘state,’ but are a cogent whole, one based on Petrine authority but also one of pastoral and spiritual guidance.” — Catholic World Library

“Gregory’s administration and expansion of the Roman church is best understood, Demacopoulos argues, as an extension of his ascetic convictions; his desire to have ascetics in leadership, his emphasis on the virtue of humility and obedience, and his expression of Petrine supremacy are all rooted in his ascetic convictions. This book is an excellent contribution to the literature on Gregory’s pontificate.” — Choice

“Demacopoulos writes an important account of Gregory the Great (540-604), an important figure in Church history who was by turns theologian, pope, mystic, liturgical reformer, and benefactor. The author makes an argument for the deep intellectual and spiritual connections between two different aspects of Gregory: the theologian focused on asceticism and the shrewd administrator of the Church of Rome.” — Library Journal

“Demacopoulo’s aim is to erase the line that previous scholars have drawn between Gregory’s personal asceticism on the one hand and his work as pastor and Roman statesman on the other.” — America

“[Demacopoulos’] research is a welcome addition to scholarship on papal authority and politics in general, and Gregory I in particular. Moreover, the detailed scholarship . . . makes this volume suitable for advanced readers (scholars and graduate students), while the readable prose and clear narrative structure allow educated non-specialists to follow the argument. . . . Demacopoulos has created an important piece of scholarship that charts a new course in our understanding of Gregory the Great.” — Theological Studies

“By anyone’s account Gregory the Great is a seminal figure in Christian history. Straddling the fence between the late antique/patristic world and the early Middle Ages, Gregory is either the last great (pun intended!) early church father or the first great medieval theologian. Both perspectives are accurate and defensible, and George Demacopoulos tells us why and much more. . . Book teachers (and readers) now have an engaging, accessible, and well written introduction to the incomparable Gregory the Great.” — Comitatus

“It reminds one just how influential Gregory’s writings were in the Middle Ages. It also prods one to see the story of Benedict in the Dialogues in a different way. As Demacopoulos argues, Benedict is an example of an ascetic who gave up his solitude (more than once) to assume pastoral care for others.” — American Benedictine Review

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Gregory the Great

Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome

George E. Demacopoulos

 Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome
Paper Edition

Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome from 590 to 604) is one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity. His theological works framed medieval Christian attitudes toward mysticism, exegesis, and the role of the saints in the life of the church. The scale of Gregory’s administrative activity in both the ecclesial and civic affairs of Rome also helped to make possible the formation of the medieval papacy. Gregory disciplined malcontent clerics, negotiated with barbarian rulers, and oversaw the administration of massive estates that employed thousands of workers. Scholars have often been perplexed by the two sides of Gregory—the monkish theologian and the calculating administrator.

George E. Demacopoulos’s study is the first to advance the argument that there is a clear connection between the pontiff’s thought and his actions. By exploring unique aspects of Gregory’s ascetic theology, wherein the summit of Christian perfection is viewed in terms of service to others, Demacopoulos argues that the very aspects of Gregory’s theology that made him distinctive were precisely the factors that structured his responses to the practical crises of his day. With a comprehensive understanding of Christian history that resists the customary bifurcation between Christian East and Christian West, Demacopoulos situates Gregory within the broader movements of Christianity and the Roman world that characterize the shift from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. This fresh reading of Gregory’s extensive theological and practical works underscores the novelty and nuance of Gregory as thinker and bishop.

This original and eminently readable interpretation will be required reading for students and scholars of Gregory and sixth-century Christianity, historians of late antiquity, medievalists, ecclesiastical historians, and theologians.

“Demacopoulos’ work on Gregory the Great seeks to balance our understanding of his theology and asceticism with that of his pastoral and administrative activity. This lively, well-written, original, and engaging treatment of one of Rome’s most significant bishops is a valuable contribution to research not only into Gregory himself but the papacy of late antiquity as well. Whether one is new to the world of early Christian studies or a veteran, this accessible book will be an indispensable guide to a transformative moment in Christian history.” — Geoffrey D. Dunn, Australian Catholic University

“In his previous monographs George Demacopoulos has distinguished himself as a careful and informed interpreter of ancient pastoral practice and the development of papal authority. These two concerns merge in his new study, Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome, in which Demacopoulos argues for an integrative approach to Gregory that links his ascetical and pastoral theologies to his public activities. This is an original and important book, based on the full range of Gregory’s writings and exhaustive examination of the secondary sources. It should be of interest to a wide audience of classicists, late-antique and medieval historians, and theologians.” — David G. Hunter, Cottrill-Rolfes Chair of Catholic Studies, University of Kentucky

“Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome has the potential to be the most important intellectual biography of Pope Gregory I to appear since the publication in 1988 of Carole Straw’s landmark study, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection. Demacopoulos proposes a new interpretive paradigm by insisting that the ‘problem of the two Gregories’ is not really a problem at all: Gregory’s ascetic and pastoral theology, he argues, informs and structures his administrative practices. This important insight will have significant impact on future research." — Kristina Sessa, Ohio State University

ISBN: 978-0-268-02621-9

240 pages

“One puts this book down thinking about its subject in a new way, for Demacopoulos has been able to use the structure of Gregory’s thought to make sense of its author. Softening as he does the caesura of Gregory’s exchanging secular for religious life, Demacopoulos allows us to see his life as having been less disjointed than it has hitherto seemed to be, for the skills he had exercised in his early days as prefect of the city would be useful when he became pope.” — Marginalia

“[T]he book will be best read by readers who are already familiar with Gregory the Great and the controversial issues surrounding him. . . . The author has done a good job of exposing the reader to complexities, even contradictions of a man worthy of being called great.” — America

“Demacopoulos finds Gregory to be ‘a unique and nuanced theologian’ whose foundation was his commitment to asceticism. After a summary examination of Gregory’s understanding and asceticism as well as Gregory’s excellent preparation for governance of a city and a church, Demacopoulos guides the reader through many facets of Gregory’s pontificate, showing how all were informed by that theology. Gregory’s dealings with political and ecclesiastical leaders defy an easy dichotomy of ‘church’ and ‘state,’ but are a cogent whole, one based on Petrine authority but also one of pastoral and spiritual guidance.” — Catholic World Library

“Gregory’s administration and expansion of the Roman church is best understood, Demacopoulos argues, as an extension of his ascetic convictions; his desire to have ascetics in leadership, his emphasis on the virtue of humility and obedience, and his expression of Petrine supremacy are all rooted in his ascetic convictions. This book is an excellent contribution to the literature on Gregory’s pontificate.” — Choice

“Demacopoulos writes an important account of Gregory the Great (540-604), an important figure in Church history who was by turns theologian, pope, mystic, liturgical reformer, and benefactor. The author makes an argument for the deep intellectual and spiritual connections between two different aspects of Gregory: the theologian focused on asceticism and the shrewd administrator of the Church of Rome.” — Library Journal

“Demacopoulo’s aim is to erase the line that previous scholars have drawn between Gregory’s personal asceticism on the one hand and his work as pastor and Roman statesman on the other.” — America

“[Demacopoulos’] research is a welcome addition to scholarship on papal authority and politics in general, and Gregory I in particular. Moreover, the detailed scholarship . . . makes this volume suitable for advanced readers (scholars and graduate students), while the readable prose and clear narrative structure allow educated non-specialists to follow the argument. . . . Demacopoulos has created an important piece of scholarship that charts a new course in our understanding of Gregory the Great.” — Theological Studies

“By anyone’s account Gregory the Great is a seminal figure in Christian history. Straddling the fence between the late antique/patristic world and the early Middle Ages, Gregory is either the last great (pun intended!) early church father or the first great medieval theologian. Both perspectives are accurate and defensible, and George Demacopoulos tells us why and much more. . . Book teachers (and readers) now have an engaging, accessible, and well written introduction to the incomparable Gregory the Great.” — Comitatus

“It reminds one just how influential Gregory’s writings were in the Middle Ages. It also prods one to see the story of Benedict in the Dialogues in a different way. As Demacopoulos argues, Benedict is an example of an ascetic who gave up his solitude (more than once) to assume pastoral care for others.” — American Benedictine Review

2016 Catholic Press Association Book Award, Honorable Mention History