Gregory the Great, the first monk to become a bishop of Rome, is also known as Pope Gregory the first, and the last of the great Latin doctors (others were Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine). He is one of only two popes who have been recognized as "great", the other being Leo who preceded him. He is certainly one of the most notable figures of the Western Church, with his influence on doctrine, organization, liturgy and discipline of the Catholic Church. He was also a prolific writer, much of which also influenced the Western Church, especially on the pastoral role of bishops.
His election by the Roman people as their bishop coincided with a new wave of barbaric invasions throughout Europe, including the Italian states which were ravaged by the Lombards. As the civil authorities were unable to provide security of any kind for its peoples, the Church for the first time assumed this role under Gregory. Using the skills he had acquired while Prefect of Rome, he concluded an agreement with the Lombard Duke of Spoleto, which stopped the ravaging of the territories and provided a certain amount of peace and security.
Gregory was born c. 540 to Gordianus, a wealthy patrician, probably of the famous gens Amicia, and Silvia who is also honoured as a saint on 3rd November. The family owned large estates in Sicily and a mansion on the Caelian Hill in Rome, the ruins of which, apparently in a wonderful state of preservation, still await excavation beneath the Church of St. Andrew and St. Gregory.
There are no details of his education but he must have studied Law. Not least among the educating influences was the religious atmosphere of his home. He loved to meditate on the Scriptures and to listen attentively to the conversations of his elders, so that he was "devoted to God from his youth up". His rank and prospects made him a natural for a public career. The young patrician acquitted himself so well that at 33 he was appointed prefect of the city of Rome. Although shorn of much of its old magnificence, this office still remained the highest civil dignity in the city.
However a year later after long prayer and inward struggle Gregory gave up this prestigious position to become a monk. He turned his own home into the monastery of St. Andrew, and founded six monasteries on the Sicilian estates. Thus "he who had been wont to go about the city clad in the trabea and aglow with silk and jewels, now clad in a worthless garment served the altar of the Lord." It has often been assumed that Gregory adopted the Benedictine Rule for St. Andrew, but this is not certain.
In 578, Pope Benedict 1 ordained him, much against his will, as one of the seven deacons (regionarii) of Rome. The period was one of acute crisis with the quickly advancing Lombards and the only chance of safety seemed to be in obtaining help from the Emperor Tiberius at Byzantium. The new pope, Pelagius II dispatched a special embassy to Tiberius, and sent Gregory along as his apocrisiarius, or permanent ambassador to the Court of Byzantium in the spring of 579 an appointment lasting about six years. Nothing could have been more uncongenial to Gregory than the worldly atmosphere of the brilliant Byzantine Court, and to counteract its dangerous influence he followed the monastic life so far as circumstances permitted. This was made easier by the fact that several of his brethren from St. Andrew's accompanied him to Constantinople. With them he prayed and studied the Scriptures, from which came his "Morals", or series of lectures on the Book of Job, composed at the request of St. Leander of Seville, whose acquaintance Gregory made during his stay in Constantinople.
In 586 Gregory was recalled to Rome, his mission politically a failure and so with great joy he returned to St. Andrew's, where he soon became abbot. The monastery grew famous under his energetic rule, producing many monks who won renown later, and many vivid pictures of this period may be found in the "Dialogues". Gregory gave much of his time to lecturing on the Holy Scriptures and expounding to his monks the Heptateuch, i.e. Books of Kings, the Prophets, the Book of Proverbs, and the Canticle of Song.
To this period of Gregory's life probably belongs his encounter with "Angles", not the traditional slave boys as Bede stated but as free men visiting England as expressed in the St. Gall manuscript. Gregory expressed a desire to meet them, and afterwards was so fixed with desire to convert the Angles that he obtained permission from Pelagius II to go in person to Britain with some of his fellow-monks as missionaries. The Romans, however, were greatly incensed at the Pope's act, and demanded angrily Gregory's recall. Messengers were at once dispatched to bring him back to Rome, if necessary by force. When they caught up with the little band of missionaries Gregory offered no opposition, as he saw this as a sign from heaven that his enterprise should be abandoned.
The year that the Pope died was one of major flooding. Farms and houses were carried away by the floods, even the granaries of the Church with all the store of corn. Pestilence followed and Rome became a city of the dead. Business was at a standstill, and the streets were deserted save for the wagons carrying countless corpses for burial in common pits beyond the city walls. In such a situation the clergy and people of Rome elected Gregory as his successor. Despite his feelings of inadequacies, he was consecrated Pope on this day in 590. With the plague continuing Gregory called upon the people to join in a vast sevenfold procession which was to start from each of the seven regions of the city and meet at the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin, all praying the while for pardon and the withdrawal of the pestilence. This was accordingly done, and the memory of the event is still preserved by the name "Sant Angelo" given to the mausoleum of Hadrian from the legend that the Archangel St. Michael was seen upon its summit in the act of sheathing his sword as a sign that the plague was over.
Fourteen years of life remained to Gregory, and into these he crowded years. He worked enough to have exhausted the energies of a lifetime. What makes his achievement more wonderful is that he was constantly plagued by ill-health. At the very outset of his pontificate Gregory published his "Liber pastoralis curae", or book on the office of a bishop. The bishop was pre-eminently the physician of souls, and so he had to be adequate for such an office. Hence only one skilled already as a physician of the soul is fitted to undertake the "supreme rule" of the episcopate. This meant that his own life had to be in order so he could teach and admonish those under him, but always conscious of his own weaknesses. This little work is the key to Gregory's life as bishop of Rome, for what he preached he practised. So one of his first acts was to banish all the lay attendants, pages etc., from the Lateran palace, and substitute clerics in their place.
There was now no magister militum living in Rome, so the control even of military matters fell to Gregory. The ravages of the Lombards had filled the city with refugees, who were looked after by the various ecclesiastical districts, each of which had its deaconry or "office of alms" distributing corn, which came chiefly from the estates of the Church in Sicily. As well as meeting the temporal needs of his people Gregory provided also for their spiritual wants. He preached unceasingly to them in simple sermons, most of which were exposition on the Scriptures. He always had a regular supply of anecdotes to illustrate the point in hand, in which respect he paves the way for the popular preachers of the Middle Ages.
Gregory also undertook the managing of the Church's estates which by his time were immense, with land in Campania, Africa, Sicily and Rome itself. In this he displayed a skill in finance and estate management where the management of each patrimony was carried out by a number of agents of varying grades and duties under an official called the rector or defensor of the patrimony. Previously the rectors had usually been laymen, but Gregory established the custom of appointing ecclesiastics to the post. Thus examples may be found of such rectors being commissioned to undertake the filling up of vacant sees, holding of local synods, taking action against heretics, providing for the maintenance of churches and monasteries, rectifying abuses in the churches of their district, with the enforcing of ecclesiastical discipline and even the reproof and correction of local bishops. Still Gregory never allowed the rectors to interfere in such matters on their own responsibility. In the minutiae of estate management nothing was too small for Gregory's personal notice, from the exact number of sextarii in a modius of corn, or how many soluli went to one golden pound, to the use of false weights by certain minor agents. He finds time to write instructions on every detail and leaves no complaint unattended to, even from the humblest of his multitude of tenants. Throughout the large number of letters which deal with the management of the patrimony, the pope's determination to secure a scrupulously righteous administration is evident. As bishop, he is the trustee of God and St. Peter, and his agents must show that they realize this by their conduct. Consequently, under his able management the estates of the Church increased steadily in value, the tenants were contented, and the revenues paid in with unprecedented regularity. The only fault ever laid at his door in this matter was that by his boundless charities he emptied his treasury.
Missionary work was another of Gregory's concern. He never forgot the Angles and in 596 sent Augustine with other monks from his monastery of St. Andrew to convert the English. Hence Gregory is also known as the Apostle to the English. He also made every effort to eradicate paganism from Gaul, Donatism in Africa, and the Schism of the Three Chapters in North Italy and Istria. In his treatment of heretics, schismatics, and pagans his method was to try every means persuasions, exhortations, threats before resorting to force; but, if gentler treatment failed, he had no hesitation in accordance with the ideas of his age, in resorting to compulsion, and invoking the aid of the secular arm therein. It is curious, therefore, to find him acting as a champion and protector of the Jews against compulsory baptism and there are many instances in which he insists on their right to liberty of action, so far as the law permitted, both in civil affairs and in the worship of the synagogue.
Monasticism was also encouraged by Gregory. As already mentioned his own home was converted to a monastery, and he urged other wealthy people to do likewise. He wrote many letters to correct abuses and enforce discipline, especially those two stressed by Benedict, stability and poverty to monks. Important too was his line of action in the difficult question of the relation between monks and their bishop. All attempts on the part of a bishop to assume new powers over the monks in his diocese were condemned, while at times he issued documents, called Privilegia, in which he defined those areas where monks were exempt from episcopal control
Much controversy still exists as to the exact extent of Gregory's reforms of the Roman Liturgy. It is certain that he did make the following modifications in the pre-existing practice:
In the Canon of the Mass he inserted the words :
* "diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum jubras grege numerari";
* he ordered the Pater Noster to be recited in the Canon before the breaking of the Bread;
* he provided that the Alleluia should be chanted after the Gradual out of paschal time, to which period, apparently, the Roman use had previously confined it;
* he prohibited the use of the chasuble by subdeacons assisting at Mass;
* he forbade deacons to perform any of the musical portions of the Mass other than singing the Gospel.
And what of music? Most of us have grown up at least hearing of Gregorian chant. But what we know as Gregorian chant is not what Gregory used. Although he promoted chanting, what he sung is now known as Old Roman, and what we call Gregorian chant is really Carolingian chant as it was the chant adapted from what was in use in Rome c. 800 by Charlemagne.
The last years of Gregory's life were filled with every kind of suffering. His mind, naturally serious, was filled with despondent forebodings, and his continued bodily pains were increased and intensified. His "sole consolation was the hope that death would come quickly", which it did on 12 March, 604 when his body was laid to rest in front of the sacristy in the portico of St. Peter's Basilica. Since then his relics have been moved several times, the most recent translation being that by Paul V in 1606.
By the time of his death the Church of Rome had established close relations with the church in Spain, Gaul, Africa, Illyricum, and was beginning its influence in England. Undoubtedly Gregory brought the Church of Rome into the mainstream of European history and gave it political power as well as spiritual. The wisdom of this will always be a subject of debate. Yet Gregpry will foremost be known as as a man of prayer, who even when Pope and had so many decisions to make, wished he could haved been back in his monastery, undistracted by worldly events.