Saint Gregory the Great: The Great Pope (540 – 604)

From the Editor’s Desk (Thursday, 09-03-2015, Gaudium Press) Because of the general breakdown of civil institutions resulting from the great migrations, the Church assumed an important role in the secular life of sixth-century Italy, particularly during the pontificate of Pope Gregory I, called “The Great.” It may be useful to dwell briefly on the historical events of the period preceding Gregory’s birth. The line of Western emperors had ended in 476, after which Italy was under the German Odoacer, who, at the head of a barbarian army, ruled from Ravenna, subject to the Eastern emperors at Constantinople. Another barbarian, the Ostrogoth Theodoric, at the bidding of the Emperor Zeno, overran Italy, captured Rome, and, in 493, Ravenna also.

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Theodoric installed himself in this city, and from there dominated the rest of Italy as vice-emperor. After his death in 526, Emperor Justinian, bent on reconquering the West, sent Greek armies under Belisarius. He first retook North Africa from the Vandals, who had captured it in St. Augustine’s time, and then gained possession of Italy. During this Italian war, which lasted from 535 to 553, Gregory was born, about the year 540, of one of the few patrician families left in Rome. As a boy he went through the horrors of a siege when Romans were reduced to eating grass and nettles. At this time, according to the historian Procopius, only five hundred persons remained alive in the city The Goths now advanced into Italy under a strong leader, Totila, who forced the sending of new armies from the East. During these years cities were taken and retaken, the farmlands were laid waste, and the people suffered from pestilence, famine, and looting.

The war was at length ended by Belisarius’ successor, Narses, and Italy was again subject to the Emperor, and ruled from Ravenna by an exarch. In addition to their other sufferings, the people were now preyed upon by tax-gatherers, who extorted all they could, with the right of retaining one-twelfth of whatever they collected. Rome, once the proud mistress of the world, was in a lamentable state throughout Gregory’s lifetime. Repeatedly besieged and sacked, the city was in ruins; the once fertile hinterland was almost a wilderness. No civil authority was left capable of dealing with the problems created by war and pillage, and to these recurrent evils were added fire, flood, and plague. The destruction of fine old buildings for the sake of their materials was so common that modern archeologists have found no structures erected later than the fourth century which were put up with newly quarried stone.

Gregory’s family, famed for its piety, had given two sixth-century popes to the Church. His father, Gordianus, a government official, was a wealthy man, the owner of great estates in Sicily and a fine house on the Coelian Hill; his mother, Sylvia, was later venerated as a saint. Gregory early gave evidence of a brilliant mind and had the best education obtainable. He studied law and prepared to follow his father into public life. Rising steadily in government service, at the age of thirty he was appointed prefect of Rome. In this office, which he filled capably, the importance of law, order, and respect for constituted authority was impressed upon him. These lessons he was soon to apply in the ecclesiastical sphere, for within the year Gregory had abandoned his career to devote himself to the service of God. He went first to Sicily, where he founded six monasteries; then returning to Rome, he made his own home into a Benedictine monastery under the patronage of St. Andrew. By this time his father was dead, and his mother had gone to live at Cella Nova, a conventual retreat outside the city. After giving the remainder of his extensive property to charity, Gregory settled at St. Andrew’s, as one of the monks.

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He was afflicted now and throughout most of his life by gastric disorders, probably brought on by excessive fasting. Still, the three or four years he spent in the cloister were relatively happy, and it was with regret that he received from Pope Pelagius II an appointment as deacon, which meant a more active life in the world. Rome was under siege by the Lombards, and the Pope decided to send an embassy to Constantinople, to congratulate the new Emperor Tiberias II on his accession and to beg for military aid for the city. Gregory was to accompany this embassy, bearing the title of , or papal ambassador.

Gregory found his position most uncongenial. There was a great contrast between the magnificence of Constantinople and the miseries of Rome. To avoid the intrigues and elaborate etiquette of the court, Gregory passed much of his time in seclusion, writing a
commentary on the Book of Job. The embassy itself was a failure; the Emperor claimed that he could render no aid since his armies were busy keeping off the Persians and other enemies. After six years, Gregory was recalled and he settled down in St. Andrew’s, where they elected him abbot.

One day, the story goes, Gregory was walking through the Roman slave market when he noticed three fair, golden-haired boys. He asked their nationality and was told that they were Angles. “They are well named,” said Gregory, “for they have angelic faces.” He asked where they came from, and when told “De Ire,” he exclaimed, “De ira (from wrath)-yes, verily, they shall be saved from God’s wrath and called to the mercy of Christ. What is the name of the king of that country?” “Aella.” “Then must Alleluia be sung in Aella’s land.” Some modern historians have viewed the tale skeptically, claiming that the serious-minded Gregory would not have descended to punning. However, it seems unlikely that anyone would have taken the trouble to invent this delightful anecdote. Gregory was so touched by the boys’ beauty, and by pity for their ignorance, that he resolved to go himself to preach the Gospel in their land. To this end, he obtained the consent of the Pope, and journeyed northwards with several monks. When the Roman people heard of this, they raised such an outcry at the loss of their favorite cleric that Pope Pelagius sent envoys to bring the party back. Later, when Gregory became pope, the evangelization of Britain became one of his most cherished projects.

The custom of offering Thirty Day Masses or Gregorian Masses for the Dead is said to have originated at this time. Justus, one of Gregory’s monks, while gravely ill, confessed to having secreted three golden coins, and the abbot forbade his brethren to communicate with the offender or to visit him on his deathbed. His body was denied burial in the monks’ burying ground and was interred under a dunghill, along with the gold pieces. Since he died repentant, the abbot had Mass offered for thirty days for the repose of his soul, and Gregory tells us that at the end the dead man’s soul appeared to Copiosus, a brother, and assured him that he had been in torment, but by grace of the Masses was now released.

A new outbreak of the plague carried off Pope Pelagius. By general consent Gregory was the candidate best fitted to succeed him, and, pending the arrival from the East of the Emperor’s ratification, he carried on the government of the Church. To implore God’s mercy he ordered a great processional litany through the streets of Rome. From seven of the more venerable churches streamed out seven columns of people, all to meet at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Gregory of Tours, a contemporary historian, heard the report of one who had been present, and gives a vivid picture: “While the plague still raged, the columns marched through the streets chanting , and as they walked people were seen falling and dying about them. Gregory inspired these poor people with courage, for he did not cease preaching and asked to have prayers made continually.” Following this, there was an abatement of the plague. During the crisis, Gregory devoted himself to the relief of the stricken. Yet his own preference was for the contemplative life, and he wrote privately to Emperor Maurioe, begging him not to confirm his election; and to friends at court, asking them to use their influence to the same purpose. His friends ignored his wishes, and the prefect of Rome not only intercepted Gregory’s letter to the Emperor, but sent him word that the popular vote for Gregory had been unanimous. The Emperor promptly ratified the election. Dismayed, the pope-elect meditated flight, but was seized and carried off to the basilica of St. Peter, and there consecrated to the pontifical office. This took place on September 3, 590.nonanglis 2.png

From the day he assumed office Gregory applied himself with vigor to his duties. He appointed a or overseer to look after the secular affairs and personnel of his household, and gave orders that only clerics should be attached to the service of the pope. He forbade the exaction of fees for ordination, for burial in churches, and for the conferring of the pallium.[1] Deacons were not to conduct the musical part of the Mass lest they be chosen for their voices rather than for their character. As a preacher Gregory liked to make his sermon a part of the sacred solemnity of the Mass, choosing as his subject the Gospel for the day. We possess a number of his homilies, ending always with a moral lesson.

In administering the great Patrimony of St. Peter,[2] Gregory showed a remarkable grasp of detail and administrative capacity. His instructions to his vicars in Sicily and elsewhere specified liberal treatment of tenants and farmers and ordered loans of money to those in need. This Pope was in fact the ideal landlord; tenants were content and revenues flowed into the papal coffers. Yet at his death the treasury was empty because of his huge charities, almost on the scale of state relief. He also spent large sums ransoming captives from the Lombards. Indeed he commended one of the bishops for breaking up and selling church plate for this purpose.

In anticipation of a threatened corn shortage, Gregory filled the granaries of Rome with the harvests of Egypt and Sicily; he had regular lists kept of the poor, to whom grants were periodically made. His conscience was so sensitive that once when a beggar died in the street, presumably of starvation, he pronounced an interdiction on himself and refrained for some days from performing his holy functions.

Gregory’s sense of justice showed itself in enlightened treatment of the Jews, whom he would not allow to be oppressed or deprived of their synagogues. When the Jews of Cagliari in Sardinia complained that their synagogue had been seized by a converted member of the race, who had turned it into a Christian church and set up in it a cross and an image of Our Lady, he ordered the cross and image to be reverently removed, and the building restored to its former owners.

From the outset Gregory had to face the aggressions of the Lombards, who, from three fortresses they held, made destructive raids on Rome. He organized the city’s defenses and even managed to send aid to other cities that were threatened. When in 593 King Agilulph with his Lombard army actually appeared before the walls, it was the Pope who went out to interview the invader. As much by his personality and prestige as by his promise of annual tribute, Gregory induced Agilulph to withdraw his army. For nine years he strove to bring about a political settlement between the Byzantine emperor and the Lombards, but when an agreement was at last arrived at, it was wrecked by the treachery of the Exarch. Then on his own account Gregory negotiated a truce for Rome and the surrounding districts. Agilulph’s wife, Theodelinda, a Bavarian princess, was a Catholic, and became Gregory’s powerful ally. She finally prevailed on the Lombards to give up the Arian creed which they had been taught and to accept the Catholic faith.

In the confusion and disorder of the times, Gregory must have turned with relief to his writing. Early in his pontificate he wrote the , or , in which he describes the bishop as a physician of souls, with a special duty to preach and to enforce Church discipline. This little work met with tremendous success. Emperor Maurice had it translated into Greek and Bishop Leander gave it circulation in Spain. Licinianus, bishop of Carthage, praised it but feared it set so high a standard that candidates for the priesthood might be discouraged.

Augustine took a copy to England, where three hundred years later King Alfred himself translated it into Anglo-Saxon. At a council summoned by Charlemagne all bishops were told to study it, and to give a copy to each new bishop as a part of the ceremony of consecration. For centuries Gregory’s ideals were those of the clergy of the West. His , a collection of contemporary visions, prophecies, and miracles, designed to comfort and hearten the Christian reader by showing him God’s mercy, became one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages. The stories in it were obtained from persons still living who in many cases had been eye-witnesses of the events described. However, Gregory’s methods were not critical, and the modern reader may often feel misgivings as to the reliability of his informants. In that credulous age any unusual happening was likely to be viewed as supernatural.

Gregory kept in touch with Spain chiefly through Bishop Leander of Seville. The Spanish Church governed itself, and, though loyal, had little to do with Rome. Gregory did much to extirpate the heresy of the Donatists[3] in Africa, while in Istria, a province on the Adriatic, he brought back certain schismatic bishops to the Catholic faith. In Gaul papal influence was not strong outside Provence, but through correspondence with King Childebert and with the Gallic bishops Gregory strove to correct abuses, especially simony and the placing of laymen in ecclesiastical offices.

Of all his work, that which lay nearest his heart was the conversion of England. It is probable that the first move towards the sending of a Roman mission to England was made by Englishmen themselves. News reached Gregory that they had appealed to the bishops of Gaul for preachers, and their appeals had been ignored. In 596 he began to make far-reaching plans. His first act was to order the purchase of some English slaves, boys of seventeen or eighteen, who might be educated in a monastery in Italy for service in their own land. Since he wished the work of conversion to proceed forthwith, from his own monastery of St. Andrew he chose a band of forty monks to proceed to England under the leadership of their prior, the saintly Augustine. The history of that mission is recounted later, in the life of .

During nearly the whole of his thirteen yeastgregorythegreat_by_raphael_sanzio.jpgrs as pope Gregory was in conflict with Constantinople, either with the Emperor or with the patriarch. He protested against the extortionate tax-collectors and against an imperial edict which forbade soldiers from becoming monks. With John Faster, bishop of Constantinople, he had a correspondence over the title of Ecumenical or Universal Patriarch, which John had assumed. The adjective had previously been applied only to a general council of the church. Gregory charged that the title savored of arrogance. John claimed that he used it in the limited sense of archbishop over many bishops. Gregory himself bore only the proudly humble title of , servant of the servants of God, which is still retained by his successors.

In 602 Emperor Maurice and his family were killed after a revolt led by the centurion Phocas, who on seizing power sent his portrait and that of his wife to Rome. The people and senate, cowed and abject, received them with acclamations. Gregory himself wrote a tardy and diplomatic letter to the murderous usurper, an act which has exposed him to criticism. In his defense it may be said that the letter consisted largely in hopes for peace; with the people defenseless, Gregory could scarcely risk denunciation. Phocas proved himself incapable of governing and was deposed after a few years.

Gregory never rested and wore himself down almost to a skeleton. Even as death drew near, he directed the affairs of the Church and continued his literary labors. He died in 604, and was buried in St. Peter’s Church. The list of his achievements is a long one. He is credited with the compilation of the Antiphonary,[4] the introduction of new styles in church music, the composition of several famous hymns, and the foundation of the Schola Cantorum, the famous training school for singers. Only a small part of so-called Gregorian music dates from his time, but the type of chanting was fixed then for centuries to come. Gregory defined the calendar of festivals and the service of priests and deacons, enforced the celibacy of the clergy, and in general strengthened the papacy. He is venerated as the fourth Doctor of the Latin Church. In his homilies he popularized the great St. Augustine of Hippo, and until the medieval scholars went back to study Augustine himself, Gregory’s was the last word on theology; he formulated several doctrines which had not previously been satisfactorily defined. Milman, in his , writes: “It is impossible to conceive what would have been the confusion, the lawlessness, the chaotic state of the Middle Ages without the medieval papacy; and of the medieval papacy, the real father is Gregory the Great.” In art Gregory is usually represented in a tiara and pontifical robes, carrying a book or musical instrument, or sometimes bearing a staff with a double cross; his symbol is the dove which his deacon Peter said he once saw whispering in his ear. END

Source EWTN

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