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Pope Saint Gregory I the Great

Updated: Nov 1, 2023


 

DW | Holy Saints


Pope Saint Gregory the Great was the Pope of the Catholic Church between 590 and 604 A.D. An Anglican historian stated: “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.”


 
 

1.1 – Early Years (540-574)

 

Gregory's birth took place around 540 in Rome, which had recently been reconquered by the Eastern Roman Empire from the Ostrogoths. He was born into a prosperous noble Roman family that had strong connections to the Church.


His father, Gordianus, held the prestigious positions of senator and Prefect of the City of Rome. He also had a role in the Church as a Regionarius, although not much information is available about that particular position.


Gregory's mother, Silvia, came from a respectable background and had a sister named Pateria, who was married and lived in Sicily. Both his mother and two paternal aunts are revered as saints in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Gregory's great-great-grandfather, Pope Felix III, belonged to a time when clergy members were not bound by celibacy vows. As a result, Gregory's election to the papal throne established his family as the most distinguished clerical dynasty during that era.


The family resided in the suburban villa situated on the Caelian Hill in Rome. Their villa faced the same street, now known as Via di San Gregorio, as the former palaces of Roman emperors on the Palatine Hill. The northern part of the street led to the Colosseum, while the southern part led to the Circus Maximus. During Gregory's time, these ancient buildings were in ruins and privately owned. The area was mostly covered with villas.


Gregory's family also owned productive estates in Sicily and in the vicinity of Rome. Centuries later, John the Deacon described fresco portraits of Gregory and his family, which were found in their former home on the Caelian Hill. According to the description, Gregory's father, Gordianus, was tall with a long face, light eyes, and a beard. Silvia, on the other hand, was tall with a round face, blue eyes, and a cheerful expression. The family had another son, but there is no information available about his name or fate.


Gregory was born during a turbulent period in Italy. The Plague of Justinian, which began in 542, spread throughout the empire, including Italy. The plague led to famine, panic, and even riots. In some parts of the country, more than a third of the population perished, resulting in profound spiritual and emotional effects on the empire's inhabitants. While the Western Roman Empire had already vanished, replaced by Gothic kings ruling over Italy, Justinian I, the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople, gradually regained control of Italy during the 540s. As most of the fighting occurred in the north, it is likely that the young Gregory had limited exposure to it.


In 546, the Gothic king Totila sacked and abandoned Rome, causing significant destruction and loss of life. However, in 549, he invited the remaining survivors to return to the empty and ruined city. It is speculated that Gregory and his parents may have retreated to their Sicilian estates during this interim period before returning in 549.


By 552, the war in Rome had ended, and a subsequent Frankish invasion was defeated in 554. Italy enjoyed a period of peace and restoration, although the central government now resided in Constantinople.


Being born into Roman society's privileged class, Gregory received a comprehensive education. He excelled in grammar, rhetoric, the sciences, literature, and law. According to Gregory of Tours, France, he was unparalleled in grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. He had a firm grasp of the Latin language but was not proficient in Greek. Gregory was familiar with Latin authors, natural science, history, mathematics, and music. His knowledge of imperial law was so extensive that he might have received training in it as preparation for a career in public service.


Indeed, Gregory pursued a career in government and quickly rose through the ranks. At the young age of thirty-three, he became Prefect of Rome, the highest civil office in the city, following in his father's footsteps.


After Gregory's passing, the monks of the Monastery of St. Andrew, which he established at the family's ancestral home on the Caelian Hill, created a portrait of him. Centuries later, John the Deacon had the opportunity to see this portrait and described Gregory as a man who was somewhat bald with a tawny beard resembling his father's. His facial features were a blend of his mother's and father's, with a high forehead, a thin and straight nose, and subdivided lips. He had a prominent chin and the sides of his hair were long and carefully curled.


In modern times, Gregory is often depicted as a figure straddling the borders between the Roman and Germanic worlds, between the East and the West, and representing a bridge between the ancient and medieval eras.

 
 

1.2 – Monastic Life (574-579)

 

In 574, after his father passed away, Gregory made a significant decision to convert his family villa into a monastery dedicated to Andrew the Apostle. Later, the monastery was renamed San Gregorio Magno al Celio in his honor. Embracing a life of contemplation, Gregory reached the conclusion that true inner silence and watchfulness of the heart allow one to become oblivious to external distractions.


Gregory held a profound admiration for the monastic lifestyle, particularly emphasizing the virtue of poverty. When it came to light that a monk, lying on his deathbed, had stolen three gold pieces, Gregory administered a disciplinary punishment. He ordered the monk to die alone, and upon his passing, the body and stolen coins were thrown onto a manure heap with a condemning remark, "Take your money with you to perdition."


Gregory believed that the consequences of one's sins could commence even before death in this earthly life. However, he did not abandon the deceased monk entirely. After the monk's death, Gregory arranged for 30 Masses to be offered for the salvation of his soul before the final judgment.


Gregory regarded the life of a monk as a passionate pursuit of the vision of the Creator. Notably, three of his paternal aunts were esteemed nuns known for their holiness. However, after the elder two, Trasilla and Emiliana, passed away following a vision of their ancestor Pope Felix III, the youngest aunt relinquished her religious calling and married the steward of her estate. Gregory's response to this scandal within his family was that "many are called but few are chosen." It is worth mentioning that Gregory's mother, Silvia, is also recognized as a saint.


Eventually, Pope Pelagius II ordained Gregory as a deacon and sought his assistance in resolving the schism of the Three Chapters in northern Italy. However, it took considerable time for this schism to be fully resolved, extending beyond Gregory's lifetime.

 
 

1.3 – Ambassador to the Imperial Court (579-585)

 

In 579, Pelagius II appointed Gregory as his apocrisiarius, which entailed serving as an ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople. Gregory held this position until 586. In 578, Gregory was part of a delegation, consisting of both lay and clerical representatives, that traveled to Constantinople with the aim of requesting military aid against the Lombards. However, due to the Byzantine Empire's focus on Eastern affairs, these appeals proved unsuccessful.


In 584, Pelagius II wrote to Gregory in his capacity as apocrisiarius, describing the difficulties Rome was facing under Lombard rule and urging him to implore Emperor Maurice to send a relief force. However, Emperor Maurice had already chosen to employ diplomacy and intrigue, rather than direct military intervention, against the Lombards, especially by pitting the Franks against them. It became apparent to Gregory that the Byzantine emperors were unlikely to dispatch such a force, given their more immediate challenges with the Persians in the East and the Avars and Slavs in the North.


According to Ekonomou, Gregory's main responsibility of advocating for Rome's interests before the emperor diminished once imperial policy towards Italy became clear. Representatives of the Pope who pressed their claims too forcefully risked becoming a nuisance and being excluded from the imperial presence altogether. Gregory had already received criticism from the emperor for his extensive canonical writings regarding the legitimacy of John III Scholasticus, who held the Patriarchate of Constantinople for twelve years before Eutychius's reinstatement.


In response, Gregory began cultivating relationships with the Byzantine elite in the city and gained popularity among the upper class, particularly the aristocratic women. Ekonomou suggests that while Gregory may have become a spiritual mentor to a significant and influential segment of Constantinople's aristocracy, this relationship did not significantly advance Rome's interests before the emperor. Despite claims made by John the Deacon that Gregory diligently worked for the relief of Italy, there is no evidence that his tenure achieved much progress towards Pelagius II's objectives.


While in Constantinople, Gregory found himself in disagreement with the elderly Patriarch Eutychius of Constantinople regarding the General Resurrection. Eutychius had published a treatise, which is now lost, stating that the resurrected body would be "more subtle than air" and no longer tangible. In contrast, Gregory argued for the palpability – the real, solid, presence of the risen Christ, referencing Luke 24:39. “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”


As the dispute remained unresolved, the Byzantine emperor, Tiberius II Constantine, intervened to arbitrate the matter. After careful consideration, he ruled in favor of palpability and ordered the burning of Eutychius' book. Shortly thereafter, both Gregory and Eutychius fell ill. Gregory managed to recover from his illness, but Eutychius, at the age of 70, passed away on April 5, 582. On his deathbed, Eutychius recanted his belief in impalpability, and Gregory chose to drop the contentious issue.


In 585, Gregory left Constantinople and returned to his monastery on the Caelian Hill in Rome. In 590, upon the death of Pelagius II due to the plague ravaging the city, Gregory was elected as his successor by acclamation. The following September, Gregory received the imperial confirmation from Constantinople, as was customary during the Byzantine Papacy.

 
 

1.4 – The Papal Years (590-604)

 

Gregory had a strong inclination towards the monastic lifestyle of contemplation and expressed his longing for the undisturbed life of prayer he had previously enjoyed as a monk. Upon assuming the papacy in 590, one of his initial actions was to write a series of letters renouncing any ambition for the throne of Peter and extolling the contemplative life of monks.


During that time, the Holy See had not effectively exercised leadership in the West since the pontificate of Gelasius I. The bishops in Gaul were closely tied to prominent territorial families, as exemplified by Gregory of Tours. In Visigothic Spain, the bishops had limited contact with Rome, while in Italy, the territories under papal administration faced challenges from violent Lombard dukes and Byzantine competition.


Pope Gregory held steadfast convictions regarding missions and believed that good men in positions of authority were entrusted by God to bestow His blessings on their subjects. He is renowned for revitalizing the Church's missionary efforts among non-Christian peoples in northern Europe. Gregory's most notable achievement was sending Augustine of Canterbury, who may have been his successor at Saint Andrew's monastery, on a mission to evangelize the pagan Anglo-Saxons in England.


The pope's motivation may have been rooted in his recollection of encountering English slaves in the Roman Forum. The Gregorian mission proved successful, and subsequent missionaries from England journeyed to the Netherlands and Germany.

Gregory viewed spreading the non-heretical Christian faith and eliminating deviations from it as crucial aspects of his worldview, which he consistently pursued throughout his pontificate. Additionally, he emphasized the importance of bodily care and hygiene, urging his followers on the value of bathing as a physical necessity.


Gregory instituted a compassionate approach towards caring for the poor. He instructed his clergy to personally go out into the streets and attend to the needs of the impoverished. Clergy members who were unwilling to engage in this charitable work were replaced. Church assets were liquidated to generate funds for alms. The clergy involved in this work were paid quarterly and received a gold coin as a form of bonus.


During a famine in Rome in the 590s, Pope Gregory directed the Church to utilize its assets to provide food for the needy. Instead of selling the produce from the Church's vast land holdings, he ordered it to be shipped to Rome and distributed for free. Through this action, he saved thousands of lives from certain death. Pope Gregory himself refrained from eating until his monks returned from their efforts of distributing food. Furthermore, he made it a point to dine with twelve impoverished individuals at each meal.


Pope Gregory is often credited with the establishment of "cantus planus," which is known in English as plainchant. This style of singing is widely recognized today as Gregorian Chant and is closely associated with medieval monasteries. The melodic and monophonic nature of Gregorian chant has become emblematic of the Church's musical tradition.


It is remarkable that this style of music has survived in its original form, with some compositions dating back to the centuries immediately following Gregory's death. However, the extent of Pope Gregory's direct involvement in the development of this musical style remains a subject of debate. Some music historians argue that the credit for its creation should be attributed to his less renowned successor, Gregory II, who lived a century later.


In his official documents, Gregory was the first to extensively use the title "Servant of the Servants of God" (Servus Servorum Dei) as a papal designation, establishing a practice that would be adopted by most subsequent popes.

 
 

1.5 – Death and Legacy

 

Pope Gregory suffered from arthritis in his last years. He died on March 12, 604 AD. and was immediately proclaimed a saint by means of popular acclaim.


Saint Gregory's relics remain in St. Peter's Basilica to this day.


His book, Pastoral Care, on the duties and qualities of a bishop, was read for centuries after his death. He described bishops mainly as physicians whose main duties were preaching and the enforcement of discipline. In his own down-to-earth preaching, Gregory was skilled at applying the daily Gospel to the needs of his listeners. Called “the Great,” Gregory has been given a place with Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, as one of the four key doctors of the Western Church.


In 1969, the Second Vatican Council moved Saint Gregory's feast day from March 12 to September 3 so it would not fall during Lent. During Lent, there are no obligatory memorials. The Eastern Orthodox Church also venerates Saint Gregory, honoring him on March 12.


Both Anglican and Lutheran Christians also venerate Pope Saint Gregory.

He is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers.


Pope Gregory once wrote:


"For the place of heretics is very pride itself...for the place of the wicked is pride just as conversely humility is the place of the good."

 

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