“The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things. But when love ceases to act, it ceases to exist.” St Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor
Today is the Feast of St. Gregory the Great. It is a special day for me as it reminds to be grateful to my parents as they named their oldest child (yours truly) after St. Gregory the Great. (To have a clearer separation between this blog and my “day job”, I have chosen the pseudonym William Ockham, after the great medieval theologian and philosopher).
Pope Gregory I (c. 540 – 12 March 604), commonly known as Saint Gregory the Great, was the Pope from September 590 to his death in 604. Gregory is well known for his writings, which were more prolific than those of any of his predecessors as pope. Throughout the Middle Ages he was known as “the Father of Christian Worship” because of his exceptional efforts in revising the Roman worship of his day.
He was the first of the popes to come from a monastic background. Gregory is a Doctor of the Church and one of the Latin Fathers. He is a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican Communion, and some Lutheran churches. Immediately after his death, Gregory was canonized by popular acclaim.The Protestant reformer John Calvin admired Gregory and declared in his Institutes that Gregory was the last good pope. He is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers.
Gregory was born about 540, the son of a Roman senator and, as a young man, became a servant of the state. In 573 he sold off his considerable properties and, with the money, founded six monasteries in Sicily and another in Rome as well giving generously to the poor. In 574 he entered his own monastery of St Andrew’s on the Celian Hill. Here he led an austere life which he looked back on with pleasure in later years but which was also the cause of constant health problems later in life.
Pope Benedict I called him from the monastery to be one of the seven deacons of Rome, while the next pope, Pelagius II, made him apocrisiarius (or ambassador) in Byzantium. Six years later, Gregory returned to Rome and became abbot of St Andrew’s monastery of which he had been the founder. He apparently believed that the future of Christianity lay with the monastic style of life as he watched the Eastern Roman Empire in decline. However, he would not be able to continue following this way of life. In a well-known story he one day saw Anglo-Saxon slaves on sale in Rome. On being told they were ‘Angli’, he replied, “Non Angli, sed angeli” (Not Angles but angels). They inspired him with a desire to go as a missionary among them. However, during an outbreak of the plague he was elected pope. He was at once faced with major problems – floods, famine, plague, a Lombard invasion of papal territory. There were also problems arising from the role of Byzantium in Church affairs and the need for missionary work among the so-called ‘barbarians’ coming down from the north.
In 592-593 he made peace with the Lombards. He appointed governors to Italian towns, administered the vast properties of the Church with prudence and skill. Also, following the breakdown of civil order with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the pope and the clergy had to assume many of the secular roles of a civil society.
Gregory, as mentioned, was very keen on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. It was he who sent St. Augustine of Canterbury and his monks on this potentially dangerous mission. However, as the mission succeeded, Gregory continued to give advice when Augustine was not sure how to proceed.
He was able to pass on to the Christianized ‘barbarians’ the learning of the Greek and Latin Fathers. He did this especially through his Homilies on the Gospels and his Moralia on the Book of Job. His works on pastoral care had a deep influence on bishops of the Middle Ages. Gregory understood that Christianity was a universal religion and for new “pagan” converts, it was important for them to maintain as much of their traditions as possible and Christianity to adapt to local customs:
“Destroy as few pagan temples as possible. . . If the temples have been well built, you are simply changing their purpose, which was the cult of demons, in order to make a place where from henceforth the true God will be worshiped. Thus, the people, seeing that their places of worship have not been destroyed, will forget their errors and having attained knowledge of the true God, will come to worship Him in the very places where their ancestors assembled. . . There is no need to change their customs at festivals. Thus, on the feast of dedication or on the feasts of martyred saints whose relics have been placed in the church, they should build booths out of branches round the church as they used to round pagan temples, and celebrate the festival with religious banquets.” — St. Gregory, Letters, 56
His 854 letters are of particular interest to historians as they reveal his wisdom, prudence, and preoccupation in dealing Church and State problems. This included monastic issues, the missionary role of the Church, the integrity of Church teaching and the reproof of senior clerics who liked to use impressive titles. He himself liked to be referred to as the ‘servant of the servants of God’, a title still used by popes today.
Gregory is also remembered for his interest in the development of the liturgy. Many prayers in the Roman liturgy reflect his ideas, if not actually composed by him. He moved the Pater Noster (Our Father) to its present position immediately after the Eucharistic Prayer. He also added material to the Hanc igitur (Father, accept this offering…) in the First Eucharistic Prayer (also known as the Roman Canon). He also introduced the nine-fold Kyrie at the beginning of the Mass, as it still is in the Tridentine Rite. His name has also long been linked with Church music and especially by the Chant which bears his name.
Although his own monastery did not follow the Benedictine rule, Gregory wrote a life of Benedict and he was seen as embodying the Benedictine spirit. Few had more influence on medieval monastic life.
Although he was pope for just 13 years, his influence on the development of the Church and of the papacy in the Middle Ages was regarded as far-reaching. He certainly earned the title of ‘Great’ given to him.
During much of his life he suffered from gout and digestive problems but was intellectually active to the end. He is believed to have been 65 and 70 when he died in 604 and was soon acclaimed a saint.
The earliest pictures of Gregory show him as pope, writing, with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove dictating what he should write. Later he figures as one of the Four Latin Doctors (with SS. Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine). Later again the pictures stress his role as teacher of the efficacy of prayer.