St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome,
also known as Gregory the Dialogist
Born in Rome, Italy, c. 540; died there March 12, 604. His major feast
day is March 12. The Feast today commemorates the day he was chosen as
Bishop of Rome.
"The Holy Bible is like a mirror before our mind's eye.
In it we see our inner face. From the Scriptures we
can learn our spiritual deformities and beauties. And
there too we discover the progress we are making and
how far we are from perfection."
Where does one begin to recite the glories of a man who excelled at many
things in so many ways? His greatness is emphasised by contrast with the
time in which he lived, when everything was in decline. He was prefect
of Rome when he wrote:
"Everything is at the mercy of the barbarians, the cities are
undermined, the citadels are destroyed, the provinces are depopulated,
there are no more farmers in the country. And every day the idolaters
exert their power and gratify their rage by assassinating the faithful.
We see what has become of her who once appeared as mistress of the
world. She is broken by all she has suffered from immense and manifold
misfortunes. . . . We, the few who are left, are menaced every day by
the sword and innumerable trials. . . ."
Saint Bede described Gregory as the man England "may and ought to call
our Apostle, because he made our nation, till then given up to idols,
the Church of Christ," and Gregory's tomb in Rome bears the inscription:
"He taught the Christian truth to English Saxons."
He was a distinguished Roman, born of a senatorial Christian family, and
owed much to his mother, Saint Sylvia and two of her sisters who are
regarded as saints. His father, Gordianus, who was descended from an
earlier pope, was a lay administrator of one of the seven archdeaconries
of Rome. Trained in Rome as a lawyer, by 571 (age 30) he had become its
prefect. He seems to have acquitted himself well in that post, despite
his tendency toward austerity. Historians refer to the splendour of his
robes in contrast with the habit he wore in later years.
On the death of his father, he gave most of his inheritance to the poor
and the Church, which included the founding of six monasteries in
Sicily. About 574, he converted his family mansion on the Caelian Hill
into the monastery of Saint Andrew, placed it under the direction of
Valentius, and resigned his office to become a monk. Gregory mitigated
the characteristic Eastern ascetic practices, which made the rule more
acceptable to Western conditions.
At this time, there was an impermeable boundary between monks and
priests; a priest who became a monk was expected to cease his priestly
ministry because priests were viewed as worldly; monks, other-worldly.
Gregory's later determination to free monks from episcopal control was
definitely contrary to tradition. The Council of Chalcedon (451) had
ordered monks to remain under obedience to their bishops. Gregory,
however, in the Lateran Council of 601, caused a decree to be issued to
all bishops exempting monks from their authority. Part of the reason for
this was to keep monks in their monasteries and prevent them from
wandering from place to place.
Pope Gregory wrote to Bishop Castorius of Ariminum:
"On the death also of an abbot, let not the bishop on any pretext
intermeddle in the scheduling or taking charge of the property of the
monastery, acquired, or given, or to be acquired. We also entirely
forbid public Masses to be celebrated by him in a convent, lest in the
retreats of the servants of God and their places of refuge any
opportunity for a popular concourse of women should ensue, which would
be by no means of advantage to their souls. Nor let him dare to place
his episcopal chair there, or have any power whatever of command, or of
holding any ordination, even the most ordinary, unless he should be
requested to do so by the abbot of the place."
Gregory remained in his monastery about three years and then was
ordained by Pope Pelagius II as one of the seven deacons of Rome in 578.
He was too active by temperament for a contemplative life and, five
years after retiring from public affairs, he was appointed as legate
(579-585) to Constantinople, a post for which he was well-equipped and
which he filled with great distinction; but he still maintained the
simple habits of a monk and he turned part of his embassy into a
monastery. This was a time when the Roman Empire had been reconstituted
with its headquarters in Constantinople. The pope had sent him to enlist
the aid of the emperor against the Lombards; in this he was
In 586, Gregory was recalled to Rome and became abbot of his monastery,
while acting as papal secretary. There is a story that Gregory
entertained the idea of himself preaching the Gospel in England, and
even set out for that country, but was recalled to Rome by the pope at
the insistence of the people when plague struck Rome in 589-590.
Pope Pelagius contracted the disease and died. Gregory was consecrated
pope on September 3, 590--the first monk to hold that office. It is said
that Gregory tried every means possible to avoid taking the papal
office, including writing to Emperor Maurice in Constantinople to ask
that he not be given imperial confirmation. The letter was intercepted
by the prefect of Rome and another substituted from the Senate, clergy,
and people that asked for Gregory's appointment. At the arrival of the
emperor's response, the saint fled Rome. When he found that he could not
refuse the office in good conscience.
It was a time of famine, flood, and plague, and Gregory called for
litanies, processions, and unceasing prayer for God's help. These
expressions of faith were rewarded by the rapid diminution of the
infestation. During one procession, Gregory saw an angel above Hadrian's
Arch sheathing his sword--an incident from which the Castel Sant'Angelo
derives its name
As pope, he became the strongest figure in Italy, the exarch of Ravenna
dimmed in comparison to Gregory. Beside him the Western emperor was but
a pale and feeble shadow, and soon the power of his strong personality
and benevolent influence was felt throughout Europe. The attacks of the
barbarians had further increased the importance of the Church because
they had destroyed many of the pagan temples and driven the patrician
families, who preserved the old state religion, out of Rome.
As a preacher he had great ability. In the field of liturgy he
introduced the Gregorian chant (in response to the congregational and
antiphonal singing that Saint Ambrose introduced in Milan and which he
viewed as flippant and irreverent), and established a choir school in
conjunction with an orphanage. He also excelled as a statesman. Indeed,
in every branch and aspect of Church life he showed both genius and
authority, and more than any other he gave shape and direction to the
Medieval Church. In his days, we are told, the see of St. Peter stood
out in Western Europe like a lighthouse in a storm.
Gregory was instrumental in settling difficulties with the Lombards who
besieged Rome several times during his pontificate, and with whom he
personally negotiated treaties. They continued to be troublesome. In
593, he persuaded the invading Lombards under Agilulf to spare Rome, and
he negotiated a peace with the Lombard king--an unprecedented move that
effectively set aside the authority of the Byzantine emperor's
representative, the exarch of Ravenna. Gregory was responsible for all
the relief work in the distressed areas, including redeeming captives
who had been enslaved. For this purpose, Gregory urged bishops to go so
far as to sell their sacred vessels. He did conclude a temporary truce
with the Lombards in 603.
He appointed governors of the Italian cities, provided them with war
materials, and denounced the heavy taxes levied on
Italians by Byzantine officials. This was the beginning of the papal
exercise of temporal authority.
He had many troubles with which he had to deal, and he had few qualms
about using secular force to win adherents to the Church. The Donatist
controversy re-emerged in Africa and Gregory appealed to the emperor to
enforce the pre-existing law against their worship. He encouraged the
Frankish kings to coerce their subjects into the true faith, and on his
own possessions in Italy, he ordered the Manichaeans to be compelled to
accept orthodox catholicism. On the other hand, he was especially
tolerant to the Jews and urged that they should not be harshly treated.
He went so far as to say that, in the case of the Jews, conversions
wrought by force are never sincere.
One of the great successes of the period was the conversion of the Arian
king of Spain, Reccared, who renounced his heresy and converted to the
true faith under the influence of Gregory's greatest friend, Saint
Leandro. Gregory responded to Leandro's letter by sending him part of
his commentary on the Book of Job, which the two had begun together when
they were stationed at Constantinople.
Gregory used the granting of the pallium as a means of extending his
authority. Originally, this was a scarf given by emperors to their
friends and officers that they especially wanted to honour. It came to
be used by the popes as a means of signifying a metropolitan (i.e.,
archbishop or patriarch), although in some instances it was conferred on
a diocesan bishop where there was no metropolitan.
Although Gregory took away the authority of the bishops over monks, he
protected and augmented their rights in other areas. He separated the
clergy from secular courts and forbade them to appeal to lay tribunals.
He also refused the annual presents that suffragan bishops traditionally
brought to Rome or any fee for the granting of the pallium, and
abolished clerical fees for burials and ordinations. He restored
ecclesiastical discipline, removed unworthy clerics from office, and was
prodigious in his charity.
But most conspicuous and far-reaching was his missionary vision. He had
a lifelong interest in the conversion of England, where the Roman rule
had come to an end under the battering of the barbarians, and the
Romano-British Church had been driven into the provinces of Cornwall,
Wales, and Cumbria, while the new Saxon and heathen kingdoms rose and
rivalled one another until King Saint Ethelbert of Kent managed to
exercise authority over much of the country.
Even before Gregory was pope, when walking in the market-place of Rome,
he had noticed the fair-haired Saxon boys offered for sale as slaves and
had made his famous pun: "Not Angles, but angels!" adding, still
humorously, that "Alleluia shall be sung in Aella's land." Until he was
able to carry out his plan for evangelization, he would buy young
English boys in the
slave market and give them a good education with the view of sending
them home as missionaries.
A better opportunity arose when King Ethelbert of Kent married the
Christian princess, Bertha of Gaul. She had been allowed to bring her
chaplain with her to England for her own chapel. Gregory recognised the
opportunity this presented. Thus, he decided to dispatch Saint Augustine
and a small band of monks to bring the Gospel to those shores. Several
times the daunted monks wanted to give up the project, but Gregory
continually encouraged them to press on. The missionaries finally landed
on the Isle of Thanet in May 597. Ethelbert received them courteously
and eventually was baptized. The mission was so prosperous that
Augustine went to Gaul to be consecrated bishop at the hands of the
bishop of Arles.
When questions arose in England, Augustine would write to Gregory. One
letter concerned the division of offerings because Augustine was a monk
living in community and shared all things in common. The normal custom
was to divide any offering equally between the bishop, the clergy, the
poor, and the parish for maintenance. Then there was a question of
liturgical custom: should they follow that of Rome or of Gaul? The
answer was that Augustine should adapt to what is practical for the
particular time and circumstances. There were other questions about
marriages, ordinations, and the position of bishops. In all matters,
Gregory shows himself to be a practical man tempering law with charity.
For example, when Augustine asked about
episcopal ordinations, which require at least three consecrating
bishops, Gregory responded that since Augustine was the only bishop in
the region he must consecrate alone, unless he could get bishops to come
Gregory had conceived England as it was under Roman rule. He had planned
to have a metropolitan established at York and another at London, and
each should have 12 suffragans. York was to be dependent on London only
during Augustine's lifetime and upon Augustine's death was to be
independent. Gregory does not seem to have realised the pre-existing
bishops had little interest in converting their Anglo-Saxon conquerors.
Gregory also wrote to Saint Mellitus to remind Augustine not to destroy
the pagan temples, but rather to appropriate and consecrate them for
Gregory relates his view of the English mission in his letter to Bishop
Eulogius of Alexandria:
"While the nation of the Angli, placed in a corner of the world,
remained up to this time misbelieving in the worship of stocks and
stones, I determined, through the aid of your prayers for me, to send
it, God granting, a monk of my monastery for the purpose of preaching.
And he, having with my leave been made bishop by the bishops of Germany,
proceeded, with their aid also, to the end of the world to the this
nation; and already letters have reached us telling us of his safety and
his work; to the effect that he and those that have been sent with him
are resplendent with such great miracles in the said nation that they
seem to imitate the powers of the apostles in the signs which they
display. Moreover, at the solemnity of the Lord's Nativity which
occurred in the first indication, more than 10,000 Angli are reported to
have been baptized by the same our brother and fellow- bishop."
During all his activities, Gregory never stopped writing--his homilies,
his celebrated Dialogues, and many other writings, including over 800
letters and epistles that have survived. The Dialogues, full of
marvellous tales about the visions, prophecies, miracles and lives of
monks and saints of Italy, provided his age with its pious reading and
impressed upon it the underlying, essential truths of religion.
Gregory wrote Pastoral Care (Liber regulae pastoralis) in order to
explain his position. It is an exposition of episcopal duties. (The fact
that it was one of the first books to be translated into English attests
to its importance.) In Gaul (France), it was handed to all bishops at
their consecration. Emperor Maurice had it translated into Greek so that
it could be used in the East as well. Most of the book deals with how a
preacher should adapt his teaching to each of several classes of people.
Gregory was not a great or creative thinker, but was more like the
practical Romans of his time. The custom of saying 30 successive Masses
for those who have died is named after Saint Gregory. It derives from
his Dialogues (Book 4, c. 40) which relates that a monk named Justus had
received three pieces of gold which he kept for himself--an offence
against poverty. The gold was discovered and Justus excommunicated. Soon
after he died and was buried in unconsecrated ground with the three gold
pieces. Time repaired the scandal and the abbot, moved by compassion for
the soul of Justus, arranged for the Sacrifice each morning for 30 days.
As Mass ended on the 30th day, Justus appeared to a brother named
Copiosus, saying, "Bless God, my dear brother, today I am delivered and
admitted into the society of saints."
This pope is also considered the originator of the Mass of the
Presanctified, which continues to be celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox
Churches during their time of the 40 days of fasting which precede
Easter. He himself tells us that he changed the place of the Lord's
Prayer and added it to the Prayer of Consecration. He also added some
petitions to the prayer Hanc igitur, thus giving its final touch to the
His labours were immense. No task was too great, no service too humble,
for this gifted and versatile follower of Christ, who delighted to call
himself "the servant of the servants of God." One of many stories told
of him is that a beggar presented himself repeatedly at the monastery
gate asking for alms, and each time Gregory gave to him, until, one day,
having no money left to give, he gave him his silver porringer, a gift
from his mother.
As bishop of Rome, Gregory continued to live the monastic life as far as
he was able. He retained the habit and lived with his clergy under a
strict discipline. After he became pope, it was his custom to entertain
every evening at his own table twelve poor men, one for each of our
Lord's disciples. One night he counted thirteen present and, calling his
steward, enquired the reason. "Holy Father," replied the steward, after
counting them over, "you are mistaken; there are but twelve." But
Gregory still counted thirteen, and after the meal called to his
unbidden guest: "Who are you?" The guest replied, "I am the poor man
whom you formerly relieved, and through Me you shall obtain whatever you
shall ask of God." Then Gregory knew that he had entertained our Lord.
Gregory continued his apostolic labours for another seven years after
sending Augustine to England. His delicacy increased and he had to work
in the midst of intense pain from chronic gout. He gradually became
weaker. During the latter part of his life, he was in close
correspondence with Queen Theodolinda of the Lombards to try to win her
and her people into the
Christian fold. Her son had been born and baptized in the Church, just
before Gregory's death. During his last illness, he wrote to
congratulate her on the birth of her son
In art, Saint Gregory is often portrayed with the four Latin Fathers of
the Church: Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome.
The image may show Gregory (1) with a book, a dove at his ear; (2) with
a book and ceremonial umbrella or canopy, sometimes held over his head;
(3) with the bull of Saint Luke supporting his book; (4) with the soul
of a king rising at his side;
As a Father of the Church, Gregory is generally portrayed at his writing
desk with the papal insignia near him and a dove at his ear to inspire
him as in the image contained in John of Berry's Petit Heures. He may
also be shown (1) as a bearded early Christian priest by a writing desk,
with the dove at his ear; (2) as the early priest with a pen and book,
candle and tiara with a peacock above him; or (3) occasionally with a
bull of Saint Luke
Gregory is the patron of fringe makers, masons, musicians, scholars,
singers, students, and teachers. He is invoked against gout, plague, and
Icons of St. Gregory
Troparion of St Gregory
Thou didst excellently dispense the Word of God,
endowed with discretion of speech, O Hierarch Gregory:
for by thy life thou didst set the virtues before us,
and dost radiate the brightness of holiness.
O righteous Father, pray to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.
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