The Office of the Bishop is to Admonish Sinners

“This little work is the key to Gregory’s life,” says the Catholic Encyclopedia, meaning St. Pope Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Care. “For what he preached, he practiced. . . it remained for centuries the textbook of the Catholic episcopate, so that by its influence the ideal of the great pope has molded the character of the Church, and his spirit has spread into all lands.”

My title above overstates Gregory’s thesis, but only by a little bit.  Of the four “books” in this work, Book III is devoted solely to how a bishop is to admonish different classes differently: men from women, poor from rich, sincere from insincere, married from not married (much as you would expect).  But also, interestingly, he has chapters on how differently to admonish “those who have had experience of carnal intercourse” from “those who are ignorant of it,” and “those who are overcome by sudden passion,” from “those who are bound in guilt of set purpose.”

I said it was only by a bit that I overstated Gregory’s thesis, because Book III, on how to admonish, is almost three times longer than books I, II, and IV combined.  His book is, at bottom, about admonishment.

Our word “admonish” has harsher connotations than the Latin, admonere, which carries overtones of friendliness, wanting what is best for the other, and not wanting to humiliate or embarrass.  St. John Bosco, whose feast day was yesterday, was an expert at this kind of admonishment. “A word to the wise is sufficient” – that is, simply to indicate that something is to be done or avoided is sufficient “admonishment” to the wise.

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