Saint Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor

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. 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 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. Later popes continued this policy so that England in some ways was closer to the papacy than Gaul. And it was in England that the first biography of Gregory was written. In time, with more attention being given to St Augustine and also to St Aidan, Gregory’s role as pioneer and support of the mission was partially forgotten.

Gregory is also remembered for his writings both in quantity and quality and in their accessibility both to contemporary and later readers. He was able to pass on to the Christianised ‘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. 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. It is believed he was much involved in the development of a number of forms of plainchant.

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 Sts Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine). Later again the pictures stress his role as teacher of the efficacy of prayer and the Mass in freeing souls from the pains of Purgatory. He introduced the custom of having 30 Masses for a deceased person, still known as Gregorian Masses.

Gregory was also highly regarded in the East and in Ireland, where he was even provided with an Irish royal genealogy!

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