Feast Day – 12 March
He was born in Rome about 540 A.D., the son of aristocratic, senatorial family with a tradition of public service. He began a very promising political career as an urban prefect at age 30 years old only to be convicted of the need to reform his life after his father’s death. When he did so, he renounced all his worldly goals, sold all his possessions in 574 and distributed the proceeds to the poor and still had enough remaining for the construction of seven monasteries. Six were built on his family’s estates in Sicily and the seventh was dedicated to St. Andrew and established on Mt. Celio in Rome. This latter dedicated to the rule of St. Benedict is the one he joined and practiced an aesthetical lifestyle so rigorous that it ruined his health and actually endangered his life.
He was called from the monastic life he loved to serve Pope Benedict I as a regional deacon in 577 and was sent by Pope Pelagius II in 578 or 579 to the Court of Tiberius II in Constantinople as a kind of papal nuncio. He brought some of his beloved monks with him to keep him in the ascetic lifestyle and they prevailed upon him to begin his great commentary on the book of Job, some 35 volumes, entitled Magna Moralia (An Extensive Consideration of Moral Questions) not completed until 595. While in Constantinope Gregory became involved in a controversy with the Patriarch of Constantinope, Eutychius, who wrongly claimed that the bodies of men after the Resurrection would be “impalpable, more light than air” but Gregory argued that they would be as papable as that of Christ’s risen body. Gregory’s view prevailed in an audience before the Emperor and Eutychius was forced to burn his book proclaiming this view and subsequently recanted his error on his death bed.
In 585 he returned to his beloved monastery, where he was soon named abbot. He obtained permission to go to Britain to convert the population there with some of his monks, but was immediately recalled when the people found out what happened by the Pope, showing the impact of his ministry in the city was already great. But when Pope Pelagius died in February 590 of the plague that was sweeping the city which had also been suffering from flooding, Gregory, who had been serving as his chief adviser and perhaps secretary, found that he was unanimous choice of the Roman clergy, senate and people to become his successor.
Like his notable predecessor, Leo I (440-461), he would be the only other early pope named “the Great.” Leo earned the honor by exercising the authority of St. Peter, even getting the emperor to recognize papal supremacy in an imperial edict in 445 A.D. Gregory, had been reluctant to become pope wrote the Emperor Maurice requesting he withhold his consent but to no avail. While awaiting the Emperor’s decision and ruling in conjunction with several other high officials, Gregory called for the people to join in a vast procession from the seven hills of the city and march together, praying all the while for pardon and relief from the pestilence, to the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin, and thereafter the plague abated and conditions were transformed. Gregory’s letter to the Emperor had not been stopped short by the prefect of Rome and he was confirmed as pope.
According to a well known Protestant historian Frederick H. Dudden, “In his dealings with the Churches of the West, Gregory acted invariably on the assumption that all were subject to the jurisdiction of the Roman See”(Gregory the Great, I, 475) He was the first pope to use the phrase speaking “ex cathedra,” meaning with the full weight and authority of the office of Peter. Thus, not surprising, he opposed the use of the title Ecumenical Bishop assumed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, John the Faster, at a synod held in 588. Gregory objected, and after a long controversy, the issue was still around when Gregory died.
On the other hand he habitually referred to himself as the “servant of the servants of God.” As the first monk to become pope, he did much to foster the spread of monasticism. He reorganized the scattered papal estates (exceeding a thousand square miles) so that the poor of the city could be fed during the famine which was raging when he took office. His own version of “meal on wheels,” was his sending out of food daily to the sick and infirm. He used papal funds to pay for the defenses of Rome in the absence of the necessary imperial troops and twice bribed the Lombards to cease their destructive siege of the city in 591, in the absence of imperial concern for Rome by the Emperor in Byzantium. The Emperor finally sent forces but then withdrew them, forcing Gregory to again negotiate with the Lombards in 593, meeting with their warrior leader Agilulf, much as St. Leo had met with Attila the Hun. He struggled against the Donatist heresy’s resurgence in Africa and sent the Prior of his Roman monastery, Augustine, with other monks to convert the Anglo-Saxons of England.
He set the tone of moral leadership in his book, The Rule of the Shepherd (591), in which he set rules for the conduct of his fellow bishops and did not hesitate to discipline clerics who failed to maintain the high moral tone of their office. He enforced clerical celibacy, which had been the rule for bishops, priests and deacons since the reign of pope Siricus (384-399) and for sub-deacons since the rule of Leo I.. A man of many letters, we have 854 of his letters extant in 14 volumes as well as his Homilies and his work, Dialogues, which is quoted in the section on Purgatory in paragraph 1031 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He repeatedly intervened in the management of the church lands throughout Italy to insure the welfare of peasants on that land against greed, exploitation or oppression. Perhaps his papal style is best captured by his work entitled Pastoral Care, which spends much ink on the role of the teacher, which he notes, “the unlearned are not to presume to take” for mere prestige when souls are at stake. He constantly quotes the Scriptures for the principles he espouses, displaying the wisdom therein for all to see. Of him the St. Bede the Venerable wrote, “The extent of his writings is a source of amazement when one considers that throughout his youth he was often in agony from gastric pain, and frequently troubled by a slow fever. But in all these afflictions he reflected that holy scripture says: ‘The Lord scourgeth every son that He receiveth’, and the greater his worldly sufferings, the greater his assurance of eternal joy.’ ”
Finally, we must note his impact on the liturgy. He was responsible for many reforms of the liturgy, instituting the “Stations,” decreeing that the Holy Father and his clergy and people should each day of Lent and go in procession to one of the Churches in Rome to celebrate Mass with special solemnity. He is responsible for some of the changes in the liturgy of the Mass and the a sacramentary compiled shortly after his death, the Hadrianum, contains 8 prayers of which he is said to be the author. The Gregorian chant, which has more “individuality and characteristic expression” is attributed to Gregory as well, though some scholars apparently dispute his authorship.
Gregory’s theology is not considered as elevated as Augustine’s, for example, or as speculative, but since he is the linchpin between the ancient and medieval papacy and times, it need not be. From what I have read there is much to love in his writing. For example, he notes:
I confess that I receive and revere, like the four books of the holy Gospel, four Councils, to wit: that of Nicaea, in which the perverse doctrine of Arius [i.e., Arianism] is destroyed; that of Constantinople, also in which the errors of Eunomius and Macedonius [bishop who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit] is overthrown; the first also at Ephesus, in which the impiety of Nestorius [taught Christ had two natures and denied Mary was the mother of God] is judged; and that too of Chalcedon, in which the wickedness of Eutyches [denied Apostolic Tradition believing as do Protestants that the faith must be derived from Scripture] and Dioscurus [the real founder of Monophysitism [who held Christ’s divine and human nature had merged into a single nature with properties of both], is reproved. These Councils I embrace with full devotion and I keep to them with fullest approval; for on them as on a cornerstone rises the structure of the holy faith, and whoever does not hold fast to their solidarity, whatever else his life and conduct may be, even if he is seen to be a stone, still he lies outside the building. The fifth Council too, I equally venerate, in which a letter said to be of Ibas, full of error is reproved . . .Whoever, therefore deems otherwise, let him be anathema.
In his letter to Eulogius, Patriarch of Alexandria in 660 A.D., he argued that Christ as God certainly knew the day and the hour, noting,
“the Almighty Son says He does not know the day which He causes not to be known, not because He himself does not know it, but because He does not permit it to be known at all…. Whence this can be understood in a more subtle way, that the Only-begotten, incarnate and made perfect Man for us, did indeed in His human nature know the day and the hour of the judgment, but nevertheless did not know from His human nature.” He reminded the noble patriarch of the scripture that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was, in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him.” He concludes, “If all things, then without a doubt even the day and hour of the judgment.”
In a Letter to Theoctista, Sister of the Emperor Maurice he notes:
If they say that marriages ought to be dissolved for the sake of religion, it must be known that even if human law allowed this, divine law has nevertheless forbidden it. For Truth Himself says, ‘What God has joined together, let man not put asunder.’ He also says, ‘It is not permitted to dismiss a wife, except for reason of fornication.’ Who then can contradict the heavenly Legislator?
In the same letter he draws a parallel reminding us of the typological interpretation of Scripture of the Early Church Fathers:
Who, therefore, says that sins are not entirely forgiven in Baptism, let him say that the Egyptians did not really die in the Red Sea. But if it be admitted that the Egyptians were really dead, it must necessarily be admitted that sins die entirely in Baptism, because the truth surely avails more in our absolution than does the foreshadowing of the truth.
My personal favorite of his is the 35 volume work on Moral Teachings Drawn from Job begun in 578 and completed in 595, which is, in effect, the first book on moral and ascetic theology. For example, he writes:
It would certainly be a vain enterprise to ask who wrote the Book of Job, since in any case the Author of the book is believed, in the Faith, to be the Holy Spirit. He therefore wrote this book, who dictated what was to be written. He wrote it, who is both the Inspirer of him who did the work of writing, and who transmitted to us, by the word of the writing, the facts that were to be presented . . . . But when we know thing itself and hold firmly that the Holy Spirit is its Author, and yet inquire after its writer, what else are we doing but questioning about the pen which inscribed the words we read?
Of Christ’s role as the second Adam he notes:
If the first man had not sinned, the Second would never have come to the insults of the Passion . . . . If the first Adam had not by his voluntary sin dragged in death for the soul, the Second Adam would not, without sin, have come to a voluntary death of the flesh . . . . Our Mediator could not be punished on His own account because He had done no moral wrong. But if He not accepted what He did not deserve, He would never have freed us from a death that was deserved. The Father, therefore, being just, disposes all things justly when He punishes the Just One, for He justifies all creation by condemning on behalf of sinners Him that is without sin.
I love also his explanation of the anthropomorphic qualities that are given to God, when he notes:
God is called jealous, angered, repentant, merciful and foreknowing. These simply mean that because He guards the chastity of every soul, He can, in human fashion, be called jealous, although He is not subject to any moral torment. Because He moves against faults, He is said to be angered, although He is moved by no disturbance of equanimity. And because He that is immutable changes what He willed, He is said to repent, although what He changes is a thing and not His counsel. And when He remedies our misery He is called merciful, although He can remedy miseries, but can never have a commiserating heart. And because He sees those things that are future to us, but which to Him are always present, He is called foreknowing, although He in no way foresees a future; for what He sees is present. Moreover, whatever things are, are not seen in His eternity because they are; rather, they are, because they are seen.
Finally, he notes:
The good we do is both of God and of ourselves. It is God’s through prevenient grace, ours through obedient free will. For if it is not God’s, why do we give thanks to Him in eternity? And again, if it is not ours, why do we hope that a reward will be given us? It is not improper that we give thanks; for we know that we were anticipated by God’s gift. And again, it is not improper that we seek a reward, because we know that by obedient free will we chose to do what is good.