Gregory worked in the background of much that we have already covered, but his life provides us a rich tapestry of life in Rome around the 6th century, as well as shedding light on the general position and functioning of Christianity in society at that time.
Unlike Benedict, Gregory in the end he accepted a call to leave the monastery and take a place in the public square.
Gregory came from a wealthy Roman family. His father was a senator. His mother, Silvia, and two of his aunts (Tarsilla and Emiliana) were eventually canonized saints, prompting an early biographer, to refer to Gregory’s early education as that “of a saint among saints.”
In Gregory’s time, control of Rome shifted back and forth between the various invaders and sackers and the Eastern Empire. When Gregory was a child, for example, the Ostrogoth chieftain Totila sacked Rome and massacred everyone left in the city. The boy saw nothing of this because Emperor Justinian, based in Constantinople, sent troops to the north of Italy, giving Romans time to flee. Gregory’s family moved to their estate in Sicily and only returned in 549 when the city was still in ruins but control from Constantinople was reestablished.
As a young man he was a distinguished student in the academy, learning Latin grammar, rhetoric, the sciences, literature and law, by contemporary accounts he excelled at all. He became a government official and rose very young to prefect of Rome—more or less mayor—at the age of 30.
When his father died, however, he converted his family villa into a monastery dedicated to St. Andrew. The monastery was posthumously named San Gregorio Magno al Celio (St. Gregory the Great in Heaven); it still exists today at the same site, although the present structure was designed in the 17th century.
Gregory lived there in seclusion for three years. He is known for being a bit harsh and for flights of temper—a relief to me to know that even temperamental people can be saints.
The story is told that when a monk lying on his deathbed confessed to stealing three gold pieces, Gregory had the man shunned, then threw his body and coins on a manure heap to rot with a curse, “Take your money with you to perdition.” Gregory did so in the belief that the punishment would spur the monk to repent, which in fact he did. After the man’s death Gregory offered 30 masses to assist his soul before the final judgment, and the monk was said to have appeared to his brother, saying he’d been released from punishment and was in heaven.
In 578, the pope insisted on ordaining him one of the seven deacons, or regionarii, of Rome. Gregory’s father had been a regionarius (the clergy could still marry then, as Catholic deacons have since 1969). This was an administrative position in the Church unconnected to the patriarchal see or to any church congregation. The regional deacon was charged with the care of the poor, the maintenance of churches and other duties pertaining to deacons in one of the seven administrative districts into which the city was divided.
This was the start of Gregory’s clerical career, which ended in the chair of Peter, as pope. Barely a year after being appointed regionarius, Pope Pelagius III dispatched Gregory along with it as his permanent ambassador to Emperor Tiberius.
This was, of course, a far cry from the leanings of the man who had sought to be a monk in solitude. To counteract the intrigues and temptations of such a setting, Gregory brought along with him companion monks from the St. Andrews monastery, with whom he regularly prayed and studied scripture. At the request of Leander of Seville, later a saint, whom he met while in Constantinople, he wrote a commentary on Job.
Gregory was, nonetheless, a well-mannered patrician who endeared himself to his peers in the city, “especially aristocratic women” according to one account. He might have succeeded at pursuing Pelagius’ agenda in Constantinople, except for two drawbacks. One was that although he was a Latin scholar, he never quite mastered Greek, the language of the court.
Unfortunately also, he entered into a very public controversy with Eutychius, Patriarch of Constantinople, on the subject of the resurrection. In the classic overreach we have seen in the councils of the era, Eutychius wrote a treatise maintaining that the risen bodies of the elect would be “impalpable, more light than air.” Gregory objected, noting how the risen Christ had appeared, particularly before Thomas in John 20:25-27, where Jesus Christ says: “Put here your finger and behold my hands; and reach here your hand and thrust it into my side: be not faithless, but believing.”
The emperor intervened, summoning both to a private audience. Thereafter, the emperor ruled in Gregory’s favor and ordered Eutychius’ book burned. The patriarch, who became ill from the disputation (as did Gregory, but less gravely), recanted his error on his death bed.
From the Western perspective, this was seen as a great theological victory in an otherwise fruitless service. The less flattering view is that Gregory had to rely on Latin versions of the Bible, probably the famous Vulgate, because he could not read the learned Greek sources Eutychus cited in his defense.
The experience left Gregory with a “bitter taste for the theological speculation of the East,” according to one biographer. The whole idea of princely courts and potentates never had much of an appeal to him, anyway, so it was with great relief that in 585 or 586 he was recalled to Rome and rushed back to St. Andrew’s monastery, which had begun to become well known.
It is in this period that Gregory came across the Angle youths in the slave market, as reported earlier in Christianity spreads north and west, and became interested in going to evangelize to Britain. When the mission left with Pelagius’ blessing, however, the people of Rome were so incensed about Gregory being allowed to leave that the pope was forced to send messengers recalling the mission. By then, Gregory was a beloved saintly figure of Rome.
Then came a year of unprecedented flooding in Italy. In Rome, the Tiber overflowed its banks, destroying buildings, among them the granaries of the Church with all the store of corn. Famine and disease followed and many died in Rome. It is said that activity came to a standstill and streets were empty save for the wagons with corpses being taken for burial in pits beyond city walls. The following year, 590, Pelagius died.
In those days the choice of a successor of Peter lay with the clergy and people of Rome. The beloved Abbot of St. Andrew's was elected unanimously, to Gregory’s enormous and repeatedly expressed chagrin. He didn’t want to leave the life of the cloister. The appointment, which included a secular civil role as well as ecclesiastical, had to be confirmed by the emperor. Gregory appealed personally by letter to Emperor Maurice, but Germanus, prefect of the city, suppressed this letter, and sent only the formal election papers.
In the next 14 years, Gregory became the great organizer of the Church in a way that suited the medieval times best, despite suffering almost continually from indigestion, attacks of slow fever and gout.
At the outset, Gregory wrote his Liber pastoralis curae, a work on the office of bishop that became a textbook on the subject; in it he lay down his own episcopal duties: to be a “physician of souls,” leading the Church; to lead a life ordered from a spiritual point of view; to teach and admonish; to bear in mind his own weaknesses.
Much like Pope Francis today, Gregory strove to live in monastic simplicity. One of his first acts as pope was to banish all the lay attendants and pages from the Lateran palace. The palace was a donation to the Church by Constantine, named after the pre-Christian owners of the land, the Laterani family, a patrician family believed to have been among the plotters of Nero’s demise.
The pope then was a secular as well as religious leader. There was no magister militum (literally, “master of the soldiers”) to command troops in Rome, so the role fell to the pope. At this time the Lombards were attacking northern Italy, and penniless refugees were flooding into the Eternal City. As a former regional deacon, Gregory was able to press the Church’s existing structures to the task of distributing corn that came chiefly from the estates of the Church. At about this time, the Church possessed land estimated at between 1,300 to 1,800 square miles, much of it in the Italian peninsula, Sicily and Africa. Gregory was also charged with administering these possessions—with great skill, it is said.
Politically, the pope as Roman ruler was nominally still under the legal jurisdiction of Constantinople, but as the empire’s ability to assert power in the West declined, Rome did pretty much what it wanted. During Gregory’s papacy, the imperial delegate to the West was a man named Romanus, who established his court in Ravenna, which was closer to the danger of the moment, the Lombards. The distance allowed Gregory a fair amount of latitude.
In his religious role, Gregory did not shy away from asserting primacy, as is evidenced by his criticism of the Constantinople patriarch’s adoption of the title Ecumenical Bishop (ecumenical meaning universal), but he was also the first pope to adopt the title “Servant of the Servants of God,” still a papal title today, and generally declined to interfere in the matters of other bishops.
Perhaps his major and longest-lasting reform was what came to be known as the Gregorian Sacramentary. A sacramentary was a medieval book for the priest celebrating the Mass and other services. Gregory’s sacramentary became the basis for the Roman Missal, which gradually took over as the normative form of the liturgy (Gk. litourgeia, or “work of the people in worship”) of the entire western Church. At this time the Eucharist service had become known as the Mass, from the concluding words in Latin, Ite missa est (literally, “go, you are sent”).
Specifically, Gregory ordered
- the insertion in the Canon, the part of the service between the Sanctus and the Consecration of the Bread and Wine, of the words “diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum jubeas grege numerari” (Dispose our days in Thy peace; command that we be saved from eternal damnation and numbered among the flock of Thy elect);
- the recital of the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) in the Canon before the breaking of the Host;
- the chanting of Alleluia all year round, rather than just at Easter;
- that subdeacons not wear a chasuble, an outer and colorful vest, while assisting at Mass;
- deacons not to perform any musical portion of the Mass, other than singing the Gospel.
I have already noted two of his major works, the Commentary on Job and The Rule for Pastors. He also put together his Dialogues, a collection of works on holy men of the epoch, including St. Benedict (a source for the previous entry), a collection of 22 sermons on Ezekiel, 40 sermons on the gospels and sermons on the Song of Songs, of which only two survive. In addition to that are 854 letters that survive in the Vatican library.
Gregory died on March 12, 604. Today he is revered as a saint in the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communions and also by some Lutheran churches; even Reformer John Calvin admired him as “the last good pope.”