Rome had once been the powerful center of the civilized world. It’s monuments attested to the military victories and political will of its leaders to expand their empire and protect and defend their holdings at any cost necessary. But that was all in a historic past that was growing dimmer and dimmer with every year. Rome the city was still standing and was an important symbol at least in people’s collective memories, but by now it stood alone, vulnerable, and unprotected by what remained of its own empire.
Into this time was Gregory born in the palace on the Caelian hill that had belonged to his aristocratic family for generations. His family was well-connected to the wealth and power that remained in Rome, his father being a senator (which must have been more like a town council by this time) and his mother a part of the highest social circles. Gregory’s family was also Christian and had been so for some time. In the past, the family had produced two popes, but Gregory had been carefully educated in law and was prepared for a career as a public servant. By his thirties he had reached the pinnacle of success attaining the office of prefect of Rome which was the highest authority in the city.
But as history has its turning points, often these same events become personal turning points as well. Shortly before Gregory had become prefect of Rome, northern Italy had been invaded by a people known as the Lombards. The Lombards were a group from Scandinavia who had been migrating south for centuries prior. They were a Christianized people and had lived within the borders of the Roman empire for so long that they had even adopted parts of Roman culture. But need and opportunity came together and in 568 they began to conquer and take the Italian peninsula for themselves. Although Italy still belonged to the Roman Empire which was now situated to the east in Constantinople, they were ill-prepared to defend this territory and little resistance was able to be made against this warring people. This problem doesn’t touch Rome or Gregory directly for nearly a decade, but year by year it draws closer and nothing seems to be able to stop it.
In the meantime, when Gregory is in his forties, his father dies and he inherits the family’s great wealth and landholdings. As he considers the turmoil of his times and watches the great cities of Italy fall to siege, famine, and plague, he makes a rather bold decision: he decides to retire from public life and become a Christian monk. Since a vow of poverty was part of being a monk, part and parcel with this decision was to take the family wealth and endow 6 new monasteries dedicated to St. Andrew. Having done this, Gregory retires to the monastery in Rome and embarks on his new vocation of religious life pursuing a life of worship, prayer, contemplation, and acts of charity in preparation for eternal life. It should be known that Gregory thought the end of the world might be near (a thought many Christians leaders have had during times of social upheaval and catastrophe) and if Christ was to return soon he wanted to be found doing the business of the kingdom of God rather than planning a better sewer and water system for Rome.
Gregory pursued his life as a monk with great enthusiasm and unfortunately, like many man in this career, undermined his health by over rigorous fasting and sleep deprivation; something that would plague him greatly in later years. Soon Gregory was elected by his fellow monks to be their abbot or spiritual leader and as his reputation grew he was later ordained a deacon by the pope.
Later Pope Pelagius II asked him to be his representative at the Emperor’s court in Constantinople. This was a great honor but one in which Gregory was quite ‘tone deaf. He really never learned much Greek as Latin had by his day become the sole language of Rome and he didn’t care much for the pretensions of the Byzantine world. That to say, being a diplomat was not a good match Gregory, but in this time as he frequently corresponded with the pope, his writing skills were noticed and upon his recall to Rome, he was asked to become the papal secretary and in this he served with great distinction.
|Gregory encounters Angle children|
It is during this time that Gregory and two brother monks have an encounter that was to have an impact on the future history of Europe. As they were passing by a slave market (and yes, slavery was still practiced in the day) Gregory was impressed with the beauty of some children that were being sold there. Having never seen people of this race he enquired of one of his companions where they were from. Upon being told they Angles (English), Gregory was said to have famously replied: “Indeed they would not be Angli, but Angels if they were Christian.” Later when he became pope he promoted and supported missions to many groups of people, but closest to his heart were the English and the mission he sent there took hold and firmly tied the Christians of England to Rome for the next thousand years until King Henry VIII made his famous break with the papacy.
In the course of time as Gregory neared his 50th birthday, a terrible plague struck the city of Rome taking as one of its victims pope Pelagius II. Following his death, a papal election was held and the people and clergy of Rome called on Gregory to take the office of St. Peter. Gregory at first resisted but saw the need and in 595 AD became the first monk ever elected to the papacy.
|Castel San Angelo today|
One of Gregory’s first acts was to hold a public procession of humility and repentance before God in hopes of staying the plague that was continuing to rage in the city. As the procession neared the tomb of Hadrian a vision of the archangel Michael was seen there putting his sword of destruction back in its sheath. Hadrian’s tomb, now known as the Castel San Angelo, is decorated on top with a beautiful statue of an archangel to commemorate this event. Surely it is only a pious legend but it is an amazing coincidence that the plague did stop that very day.
As pope, Gregory was an able administrator, tireless worker, and visionary, bringing his monastic viewpoint to bear on the life of the church as well as a mind that had been disciplined in prayer and contemplation. His pontificate lasted just short of 14 years but in that short span, he put an impress on the church that it was hold throughout the Middle Ages and arguably in some ways still holds. Let me share some concrete examples.
|A great influence on music|
Although he did not invent Gregorian chant, Gregory was a hymn writer and poet and wrote in a metered style that was easily chanted and sung by choirs. Some of hymns are still sung in Catholic liturgy and were made part of the mass.
The Latin mass was largely shaped by Gregory I. The theology of the Eucharist being an un-bloody but actual repetition of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world precedes his day but Gregory fills the idea with even greater meaning. When it is served there is a reconciliation of heaven and earth, time and eternity and a spiritual benefit is conferred upon the living and the pious dead in a communion of the church.
In the early church there had long been the belief and practice of offering prayers for the dead. But in the Christian east purgatory was unknown. In the west it was an idea that was embellished and came to blossom under Gregory. To his mind, purgatory was a foregone conclusion. As each of the Christian faithful died there were remaining sins and infirmities that needed purging before entrance into glory. Gregory promoted the ideas of saying 30 masses exclusively for the benefit of dead Christians as well as adding almsgiving as an efficacious means of reducing your purgatory time or that of a loved one. The provision for this eventuality in the life of every Catholic unfortunately degenerated into a form of Holy Fire Insurance over the next millennium.
|Dante was famous for his book on Purgatory|
Although Gregory would disclaim any jurisdiction over other bishops around the Christian world he definitely held the view that the Bishop of Rome has the commission of Peter and is above all other bishops in Christendom as a first among equals. He certainly advised other bishops, churches, kings, queens, and nobles, as if he had jurisdiction over them and sometimes this was not greatly appreciated. Gregory also acted as a head of state. As Italy’s civil government continued to suffer neglect and further barbarian attacks, Pope Gregory more or less made the church the government. He organized social welfare and military protection. He also governed well the many papal lands around Italy, Europe, and North Africa. This action set the stage for the development of the later Papal States which were their own country with the Pontiff as the governmental head. Having actual territory under papal governance was a good thing under Gregory as he used the lands to finance and provide food for the poor of Rome, but later popes would become quite distracted with maintaining control of this property to the point of abandoning their spiritual mission altogether. The point is Gregory may have disclaimed being a monarchial pope in his writings and words, but is betrayed by his actions despite his protestations.
Gregory was a prolific writer and promotes monasticism as the biographer of St. Benedict of Nursia. He also writes a book that directs priests in their spiritual ministry called the Pastoral Rule. This book was very insightful and for centuries the textbook on the care of souls. Gregory is also the person who articulated the idea of the 7 deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, sloth or apathy. Although he borrowed the idea from the early church, he promoted it and transmitted in his writing to future generations.
|Papal throne of Gregory I in Rome|
Pope Gregory was untiring in his service to the poor caring for thousands in Rome. He stood up for the rights of widows and orphans. When he sat down to a meal, it was never before taking the food prepared for him off the table and giving it to the hungry. He even sold expensive chalices and sacred vessels belonging to the church to help Rome’s impoverished. Gregory personally punished himself if anyone died of starvation in his city. Although some later popes were very much guilty of indulging their pleasures, this pattern of charity for the most part has remained a tradition within the papacy.
|Gregory I tomb in St. Peter's today|
Upon his death in 604, Gregory was immediately beatified (made a saint by the church) by popular acclamation. In the 11th century the church began referring to him as “the Great” a title that has only been applied to one other pope in the entire history of the church. In the 13th century Gregory I was declared a Doctor of the Latin Church in 1298 by then Pope Boniface VIII (one of the few things he did right). “Doctor” in Latin means a teacher and so this classification denotes an important contribution was made to the teaching of the church in their lifetimes or through their writings. The Protestant 19th century historian Philip Schaff sums up his life well: “Goodness is the highest kind of greatness, and the church has done right in according the title of great to him rather than other popes of superior intellectual power.”
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