Gregory and the Grasshopper
How one chance encounter changed the Catholic Church
For anyone who was with him on the grass that day, eating lunch, it probably seemed like an ordinary, natural occurrence. True, it was just a grasshopper which jumped onto his open Bible. But for Gregory, who had a sacramental imagination and holy disposition, it caused him to exclaim, “Locusta!” (Latin for locust). When he shouted 'Locusta' at the grasshopper, he heard in his own voice, the voice of God giving him an entirely different meaning to the three syllable sound. Immediately, this intellectual giant and saintly man drew the comparison to two other words, ‘loco sta’ (Latin for 'stay put'). It was a message that changed his plans, changed the direction of his life and changed the trajectory of the Catholic Church forever.
Gregory Really Was Great
Before Gregory became Saint Pope Gregory the Great, and one of four Senior Doctors of the Latin Church (the others being St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome), he felt called by God to become a missionary to the British pagans. This was at a sad time when Rome was suffering from the collapse of the Roman Empire and the stress of a barbarian invasion. At that time theological heresies continued to gain traction while floods, plagues and other natural disasters depopulated the land. Much like our current time of Western decline, Roman Catholics were in need of a strong leader to restore order and orthodoxy.
There was no one better suited for this task. Gregory was born into a wealthy yet humble and saintly family. He received the best education which blended well with the natural, tremendous gift of intellect. Called to become a monk, he converted his estate into a monastery and dedicated his days to prayer and study. He became a father figure for the Roman people and especially the poorr. As pope he ushered the Church out of the dark ages into the medieval period. He stabilized the liturgy and the priesthood, sent missionaries to England, converted many barbarians and other pagans and he gave us the foundations for Gregorian chant.
The Grasshopper Encounter
At the height of his popularity, with permission from the pope, Gregory and his missionary companions were three days into their journey to England when God intervened and re-directed Gregory back to Rome to eventually be elected as one of the most important pontiffs in Church history. Strangely, It all came down to the intersection in time and space of Gregory and that pesky grasshopper.
The way God works is amazing. Here are three accounts of this Gregory and the grasshopper incident that comes to us as an anecdote. They build in length and in the information they contain. They also overlap somewhat.
Here's the first and shortest account.
‘Gregory then persuaded the Pope to send missionaries to England, of whom he should be one. As they rested on their journey, three days from Rome, a locust jumped on to the book he was reading. “Rightly is it called locust,” he said, “because it seems to say to us, loco sta (locusta),—stay in your place;” and as he spoke, couriers arrived, commanding him to return to Rome.’(1)
In this second account, slightly longer, we see that it was the fourth day of the journey and the reason they stopped was to eat lunch. The book was a Bible and Gregory exclaims, “Locusta!’ which helps him to realize that the grasshopper was a sign from God and it came with a message to ‘Stay put’.
'Locusta, literally, "locust". However, the word sounds very much like "loco sta", meaning, "Stay in place!" Gregory himself wanted to go to England as a missionary and started out for there. On the fourth day of the journey, as they stopped for lunch, a locust landed on the edge of the Bible which Gregory was reading. He exclaimed, locusta! (locust). Reflecting on it, he understood it as a sign from Heaven whereby God wanted him to loco sta, that is, remain in his own place. Within the hour an emissary of the pope arrived to recall him.' (2)
In the third, more lengthy account of the monumental turning point in world history, we see that the motive for the Pope to recall Gregory was because the people began to revolt due to the pope allowing Gegory to leave them when they needed him most.
'Then therefore occasion having arisen to enkindle his desire, so yearningly he begged his forerunner in the pontificate, pope Benedict, to grant him leave, that he could not resist the urgency of his prayer, pleading that it were a miserable thing that hell should be stored with such beautiful vessels. Upon such and such speech, the pontiff gave him license to journey hither. At which license the Roman people were exceedingly sad. Whereupon it is said they did plan together to station themselves in three parties along the way by which the said pontiff took himself to Saint Peter's. Each party as he came along cried out thus: "Thou hast offended Peter. Thou hast destroyed Rome. Thou hast banished Gregory." He therefore, hearing thrice so fearful a saying, hastily sending messengers, caused him to return. Of which return he was aware beforehand, the Lord admonishing him with holy intent through a locust. For when they had journeyed three days and were resting after the manner of travelers in a certain place, a locust came to him as he was reading, Forthwith he took cognisance of its name, as though it said to him: stay in the place (Sta in loco). Nevertheless he speedily bade his companions make ready to depart. About which while he and they were busied, forestalled by the messengers, he was led back to Rome.' (3)
This was a divine coincidence, a fortuitous, kairos-like God-wink that changed the history of the world. The serendipitous meeting of Gregory and the grasshopper and especially the grasshopper's divine message to 'stay put' delayed his lunch long enough for the messengers to catch up with him and forcibly bring him back to Rome.
In hindsight, Gregory probably realized that it wasn’t God’s will, but his own fears that drove him to become a monk-missionary in England rather than stick around in Rome to be elected to the dreaded, public role of Supreme Pontiff. Instead of Gregory the missionary monk, he was now called to carry the heavy burden of being Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Catholic Church and the rest is history.
For that we owe our gratitude to the grasshopper sent by God.