Pope Gregory the Great
Who was Pope Gregory the Great?
Pope Gregory I (540 –604), commonly known as Saint Gregory the Great, was Pope from September 3, 590 until his death. 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 is also known as St. Gregory the Dialogist in Eastern Orthodoxy because of his Dialogues. For this reason, English translations of Orthodox texts will sometimes list him as "Gregory Dialogus". 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 considered 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.
The exact date of Gregory's birth is uncertain, but is usually estimated to be around the year 540, in the city of Rome. His parents named him Gregorius, which according to Aelfric in An Homily on the Birth-Day of S. Gregory, "... is a Greek Name, which signifies in the Latin Tongue Vigilantius, that is in English, Watchful...."
The medieval writers who give this etymology do not hesitate to apply it to the life of Gregory. Aelfric, for example, goes on: "He was very diligent in God's Commandments."
When Gregory was a child, Italy was retaken from the Goths by Justinian I, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire ruling from Constantinople. The war was over by 552. An invasion of the Franks was defeated in 554. The Western Roman Empire had long since vanished in favor of the Gothic kings of Italy. After 554 there was peace in Italy and the appearance of restoration, except that the government now resided in Constantinople. Italy was still united into one country, "Rome", and still shared a common official language, the very last of classical Latin.
From 542 the so-called Plague of Justinian swept through the provinces of the empire, including Italy. The plague caused famine, panic, and sometimes rioting. In some parts of the country, over 1/3 of the population was wiped out or destroyed. This had heavy spiritual and emotional effects on the people of the Empire.
As the fighting had been mainly in the north, the young Gregorius probably saw little of it. Totila sacked and vacated Rome in 547, destroying most of its ancient population, but in 549 he invited those who were still alive to return to the empty and ruinous streets. It has been hypothesized that young Gregory and his parents, Gordianus and Silvia, retired during that intermission to Gordianus' Sicilian estates, to return in 549.
Gregory had been born into a wealthy noble Roman family with close connections to the church. The Lives in Latin use nobilis but they do not specify from what historical layer the term derives or identify the family. No connection to patrician families of the Roman Republic has been demonstrated.
Gregory's great-great-grandfather had been Pope Felix III, but that pope was the nominee of the Gothic king, Theodoric. Gregory's election to the throne of St Peter made his family the most distinguished clerical dynasty of the period. The family owned and resided in a villa suburbana on the Caelian Hill, fronting the same street, now the Via di San Gregorio, with the former palaces of the Roman emperors on the Palatine Hill opposite.
The north of the street runs into the Colosseum; the south, the Circus Maximus. In Gregory's day the ancient buildings were in ruins and were privately owned. Villas covered the area. Gregory's family also owned working estates in Sicily and around Rome.
Gregory's father, Gordianus, held the position of Regionarius in the Roman Church. Nothing further is known about the position. Gregory's mother, Silvia, was well-born and had a married sister, Pateria, in Sicily. Gregory later had portraits done in fresco in their former home on the Caelian and these were described 300 years later by John the Deacon. Gordianus was tall with a long face and light eyes. He wore a beard. Silvia was tall, had a round face, blue eyes and a cheerful look. They had another son whose name and fate are unknown.
The monks of St. Andrew's (the ancestral home on the Caelian) had a portrait of Gregory made after his death, which John the Deacon also saw in the 9th century. He reports the picture of a man who was "rather bald" and had a "tawny" beard like his father's and a face that was intermediate in shape between his mother's and father's.
The hair that he had on the sides was long and carefully curled. His nose was "thin and straight" and "slightly aquiline." "His forehead was high." He had thick, "subdivided" lips and a chin "of a comely prominence" and "beautiful hands."
Gregory was well educated, with Gregory of Tours reporting that "in grammar, dialectic and rhetoric ... he was second to none...." He wrote correct Latin but did not read or write Greek. He knew Latin authors, natural science, history, mathematics and music and had such a "fluency with imperial law" that he may have trained in law, it has been suggested, "as a preparation for a career in public life."
While his father lived, Gregory took part in Roman political life and at one point was Prefect of the City.
In the modern era, Gregory is often depicted as a man at the border, poised between the Roman and Germanic worlds, between East and West, and above all, perhaps, between the ancient and medieval epochs.
“Gregory had a deep respect for the monastic life. He viewed being a monk as the 'ardent quest for the vision of our Creator. 'His three paternal aunts were nuns renowned for their sanctity. However, after the two eldest passed away after seeing a vision of their ancestor Pope Felix, the youngest soon abandoned the religious life and married the steward of her estate. Gregory's response to this family scandal was “many are called but few are chosen."
Gregory's mother Silvia herself is a saint. On his father's death, he converted his family villa suburbana, located on the Caelian Hill just opposite the Circus Maximus, into a monastery dedicated to the apostle Saint Andrew. After his death it was rededicated as San Gregorio Magno al Celio. In his life of contemplation, Gregory concluded that “in that silence of the heart, while we keep watch within through contemplation, we are as if asleep to all things that are without."
It seems to some that Gregory was not always forgiving, or pleasant for that matter, even in his monastic years. For example, a monk lying on his death bed confessed to stealing three gold pieces. Gregory forced the monk to die friendless and alone, then threw his body and coins on a manure heap to rot with a curse, “Take your money with you to perdition”. Gregory believed that punishment of sins can begin, even on one's deathbed.
However, this was done to help the monk to repent of his sin, and not out of a misplaced anger. The penance from St Gregory did in fact help him to repent, and afterwards St Gregory offered 30 Masses to free the monk from Purgatory. He later appeared to his brother and said that he has been released and is in Heaven.
Eventually, Pope Pelagius II ordained him a deacon and solicited his help in trying to heal the schism of the Three Chapters in northern Italy. However, Italy was not healed until well after Gregory was gone.
In 579, Pelagius II chose Gregory as his apocrisiarius (ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople). Gregory was part of the Roman delegation (both lay and clerical) that arrived in Constantinople in 578 to ask the emperor for military aid against the Lombards.
With the Byzantine military focused on the East, these entreaties proved unsuccessful; in 584, Pelagius II wrote to Gregory as apocrisiarius, detailing the hardships that Rome was experiencing under the Lombards and asking him to ask Emperor Maurice to send a relief force. Maurice, however, had long ago determined to limit his efforts against the Lombards to intrigue and diplomacy, pitting the Franks against them.
It soon became obvious to Gregory that the Byzantine emperors were unlikely to send such a force, given their more immediate difficulties with the Persians in the East and the Avars and Slavs to the North.
According to Ekonomou, "if Gregory's principle task was to plead Rome's cause before the emperor, there seems to have been little left for him to do once imperial policy toward Italy became evident. Papal representatives who pressed their claims with excessive vigor could quickly become a nuisance and find themselves excluded from the imperial presence altogether".
Gregory had already drawn an imperial rebuke for his lengthy canonical writings on the subject of the legitimacy of John III Scholasticus, who had occupied the Patriarchate of Constantinople for twelve years prior to the return of Eutychius (who had been driven out by Justinian).
Gregory turned himself to cultivating connections with the Byzantine elite of the city, where he became extremely popular with the city's upper class, "especially aristocratic women". Ekonomou surmises that "while Gregory may have become spiritual father to a large and important segment of Constantinople's aristocracy, this relationship did not significantly advance the interests of Rome before the emperor".
Although the writings of John the Deacon claim that Gregory "labored diligently for the relief of Italy", there is no evidence that his tenure accomplished much towards any of the objectives of Pelagius II.
Gregory's theological disputes with Patriarch Eutychius would leave a "bitter taste for the theological speculation of the East" with Gregory that continued to influence him well into his own papacy.
According to Western sources, Gregory's very public debate with Eutychius culminated in an exchange before Tiberius II where Gregory cited a biblical passage ("Palpate et videte, quia spiritus carnem et ossa non habet, sicut me videtis habere") in support of the view that Christ was corporeal and palpable after his Resurrection; allegedly as a result of this exchange, Tiberius II ordered Eutychius's writings burned.
Ekonomou views this argument, though exaggerated in Western sources, as Gregory's "one achievement of an otherwise fruitless apokrisiariat". In reality, Gregory was forced to rely on Scripture because he could not read the untranslated Greek authoritative works. Gregory left Constantinople for Rome in 585, returning to his monastery on the Caelian Hill.
Gregory was elected by acclamation to succeed Pelagius II in 590, when the latter died of the plague spreading through the city. Gregory was approved by an Imperial iussio from Constantinople the following September (as was the norm during the Byzantine Papacy).
Amid all his burdens and anxieties, it seems that the Pope had never forgotten the English slaves whom he had once seen in the Roman Forum. Pope Gregory had strong convictions on missions. "Almighty God places good men in authority that He may impart through them the gifts of His mercy to their subjects.
And this we find to be the case with the British over whom you have been appointed to rule, that through the blessings bestowed on you the blessings of heaven might be bestowed on your people also.”
Although Gregory was resolved to retire into the monastic lifestyle of contemplation, he was unwillingly forced back into a world that, although he loved, he no longer wanted to be a part of. In texts of all genres, especially those produced in his first year as pope, Gregory bemoaned the burden of office and mourned the loss of the undisturbed life of prayer he had once enjoyed as a monk.
When he became Pope in 590, among his first acts was writing a series of letters disavowing any ambition to the throne of Peter and praising the contemplative life of the monks. At that time, for various reasons, the Holy See had not exerted effective leadership in the West since the pontificate of Gelasius I.
The episcopacy in Gaul was drawn from the great territorial families, and identified with them: the parochial horizon of Gregory's contemporary, Gregory of Tours, may be considered typical; in Visigothic Spain the bishops had little contact with Rome; in Italy the territories which had de facto fallen under the administration of the papacy were beset by the violent Lombard dukes and the rivalry of the Jews in the Exarchate of Ravenna and in the south.
Gregory is credited with re-energizing the Church's missionary work among the non-Christian peoples of northern Europe. He is most famous for sending a mission, often called the Gregorian mission, under Augustine of Canterbury, prior of Saint Andrew's, where he had perhaps succeeded Gregory, to evangelize the pagan Anglo-Saxons of England.
The mission was successful, and it was from England that missionaries later set out for the Netherlands and Germany. The preaching of the Catholic faith and the elimination of all deviations from it was a key element in Gregory's worldview, and it constituted one of the major continuing policies of his pontificate.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he was declared a saint immediately after his death by "popular acclamation".
In his official documents, Gregory was the first to make extensive use of the term "Servant of the Servants of God" (servus servorum Dei) as a papal title, thus initiating a practice that was to be followed by most subsequent popes.
- "Pope Gregory the Great." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (with minor edits), under GFDL.