St. Gregory I

(540? – 604)

Most human beings are endowed with average gifts. Once in a while we encounter a man or woman clearly outstanding. Pope St. Gregory I, for instance, was one of these first-class personalities.

Gregory was born around 540 into a patrician Roman family that had already given two popes to the Church. His family trained him for civil service. Roman civil service had always been a distinguished career. Able civil servants were all the more necessary in the sixth century when Italy was being overrun by barbarian invaders. Around 570, when aged thirty, he was named prefect (governor) of Rome, with the duty of defending, financing, provisioning and policing the Eternal City. He proved more than equal to the task.

After his father’s death in 575, however, as the result of a religious “conversion,” Gregory decided to become a monk. For himself and a group of like-minded men, he turned his family home into a monastery, and set out on a program of prayer and study. But he was too able a man for the popes to leave in the cloister. Four years later he was put in charge of one of Rome’s regional deaconries, and ordained a deacon. Before long he was sent on a mission to the Roman Emperor in Constantinople as an aposcrisiarius (papal ambassador). If he had to leave the monastery, he at least took along the monastic life. A number of his monks went with him, and they set up a temporary monastic house in Constantinople. During the mission he pleaded with the Emperor to send troops to protect Italy from invaders, but the short-sighted emperor was not persuaded.

Returning to Rome in 586, Deacon Gregory became an advisor to Pope Pelagius II. In 589 Rome was stricken by a terrible epidemic, of which the Pope himself was one of the victims. Gregory was chosen by acclamation to succeed him as bishop of Rome. While waiting patiently for the Emperor’s permission for his consecration, the pope-elect organized a massive penitential procession in Rome to beg divine intervention. Tradition says that when St. Michael the Archangel appeared, sheathing his sword, on the top of the Mausoleum of Hadrian, the plague ceased.

The new pope truly regretted being permanently called out of the cloister, but he accepted the call as a divine assignment and began his energetic rule.

First, he gradually became the real ruler of most of Italy. When Emperor Maurice refused to send protective troops, Italy turned more and more to the popes for leadership. Gregory prevented the Lombards from invading Rome, not by arms but by paying them a large sum and promising them an annual tribute thereafter. Not the noblest method perhaps, but one that prevented further war. Popes after him eventually became rulers of the “Papal States.”

Second, he acknowledged the administrative division of Christianity into five patriarchates: Constantinople, occupying the post of honor over the eastern patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem; and Rome, ruling the West. But he also maintained the Petrine authority of the bishops of Rome by insisting that appeals could be made from the Patriarch of Constantinople to that of Rome. Gregory was no swaggerer as pope, however. He signed himself “Servant of the Servants of God.”

As Patriarch of the West, he attended carefully to his duties in Italy, Africa, Gaul (France), and Spain. It was he, too, who sent a mission to England to preach the gospel to the pagan Anglo-Saxons, after the British Christians refused to lift even a finger to save the souls of these invaders.

As a monk and lover of scripture, Gregory did much to regularize the Latin Liturgy. For instance, the Roman Canon of the Mass (Eucharistic Prayer I) clearly derives from the Sacramentary that he approved. “Gregorian Chant” more likely developed in the ninth century, but he also contributed to that development.

The turbulence of his era demanded clear and forthright doctrinal statements. Gregory as a writer spoke to the man-in-the-street. His Moralia, based on the Book of Job, was a popular treatise on moral theology; his Pastoral Care, on the duties of bishops and priests; his Dialogues, on holiness, death and the afterlife. The homilies he delivered are more profound. The 800 remaining letters he wrote show the man himself, confessedly imperfect yet wonderfully wise. This literary output caused him to be early ranked with SS. Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome, as one of the four pioneer “Doctors of the Western Church.” Learning and good deeds further merited for him the title of “Great” that posterity has wisely conferred on him.

One admonition, by the way, that Pope Gregory earnestly addressed to Christians of his day and to us as well, is this: Don’t forget to have masses offered for the poor souls in purgatory.

Do our dear ones deserve to be left stranded halfway to heaven?

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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