Who is St. Gregory the Great?
Gregory was the son of a wealthy Sicilian who owned large estates in Sicily and a mansion in Rome. It is reported that Gregory was the best student of grammar, logic, and dialectic in the city of Rome and also did a course in legal studies.
Gregory was always devoted to the Lord from his youth, coming from a religious home. He meditated on Sacred Scripture often and listened to the elders in the Church as they discussed theology and philosophy.
Gregory was a phenomenal administrator. Before the age of 30, he was appointed as prefect of Rome. This position, at the time, was one of great dignity.
He resigned his post, founded monasteries, and became a monk. He lived at a monastery for about three years and loved it. Much to his protest, the pope called him back to Rome and ordained him as one of the seven deacons of Rome. In 579, in a time of crisis, the Pope sent him to Byzantium as a permanent ambassador.
The East and Gregory
His time in Constantinople was seen as a failure by Rome. He never learned Greek in the six years that he was there, preferring the use of an interpreter. And he did not secure help. He was then recalled to Rome. However, he learned an important lesson: if Italy or Rome was to be saved, it would have to be done by those in the area.
Back to Rome
In 586 A.D., he was made abbot of St. Andrew’s monastery. He was ecstatic about this. Four years later, Rome was in trouble. Italy saw floods that carried away farms and houses. The Tiber River overflowed and destroyed numerous buildings, including the Church’s granaries. Then pestilence struck. The plague did not relent and Rome was filled with the stench of the dead and decaying bodies of the illness’ victims.
Then, in February of 590 A.D., Pope Pelagius II died. The people cried out at once for Gregory to be made pope. At that time, the papacy was to be confirmed by the Byzantine emperor. Gregory sent letters pleading with Emperor Maurice to not confirm the nomination. The prefect of Rome at the time, Germanus, suppressed the letter. He was carried off and made Pope.
What Gregory Did as Pope
The title of this section “What Gregory Did as Pope” is laughable because there is far too much to be contained in this short article. However, I will try my best to summarize and do justice to his great accomplishments.
Gregory added the following words permanently to the Roman Canon: “order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.”
He made sweeping liturgical reforms in order to make the Mass more uniform. While it is not confirmed without a doubt, the Gregorian Sacramentary and Gregorian Chant seems to have been given by Pope Gregory or at least ascribed to him for his great importance in their genesis.
As a skilled administrator, Pope Gregory also executed the business affairs of Rome with great acumen. He held the temporal and spiritual authority granted to him in a fruitful tension. The only thing that he is faulted for, in the historical record, is that he emptied his treasury to assist the poor.
He also was adept in ensuring that the clergy in various areas under his control did not misuse their power and that they were faithful to their vows. Acknowledging his universal jurisdiction in the Apostolic See of Peter, Gregory also made appeals to the patriarchs and bishops of the Eastern Churches. Even so, he did not overstep his bounds, careful not to hinder the canonical rights of the patriarchs and bishops.
As a statesman, he also proved himself with the Lombards and the Franks. He also was engaged in a balance of power with the imperial government in Constantinople. He believed in the political authority of the emperor, while maintaining spiritual authority as the Apostolic See. These lines were not always clear, but Gregory was careful to see the Church and the State as a united whole, not as separate.
Mission Work and Monasteries
Preaching the Gospel and preserving the Faith in prayer was essential to Gregory. He expanded the amount of monasteries and sent missionaries in various foreign locales, especially in what is now the British Isles. Of course, as the first monk to become pope, Gregory was very convinced of the value of the monastery system in the life of the Church.
As the law of the land allowed, he was also sensitive to the Jews. He was even seen as a protector of the Jews, out of respect for law and justice. At the time, for example, he was dealing with the practice of baptizing Jews against their will, which he denounced.
What Can We Learn Today from Gregory?
Certainly Pope Gregory I deserved the title Great. He was adept in spiritual and temporal matters, in the explication of the Faith, in the proclamation of the Gospel, and in the political order. I think that it is this broad diversity that we can glean. Let us look at four main areas: 1) Church and State, 2) Zeal for Souls, 3) Importance of a Monastic Mindset, and 4) Love of Tradition.
Church and State
The State cannot be absolutely separate from the Church. And the Church cannot be aloof from the State. There is a fruitful tension in these interactions, a dance, if you will. The State must be respected as having authority from God. But the State cannot compel anyone to sin. There the Church must speak truth and assert the authority of Jesus Christ in a prudent way. May God grant us the wisdom to prudently act for the good of man and the glory of God in the secular order. St. Gregory the Great, pray for us.
Zeal for Souls
Like Gregory, we must be zealous for the conversion of souls. We must desire that all come to a knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, wherever they are. We must reach out, in generosity, and provide for the physical and spiritual needs of those around us. For a greater share of the virtue of generosity, St. Gregory the Great, pray for us.
Importance of a Monastic Mindset
Gregory was a monk, through and through. Even in the opulent Byzantine Court for six years, he practiced asceticism and a monastic rule of life and prayer routine. We must aspire to be a saint, and nothing less. In the West, we have the precepts of the Church as the bare minimum. In the Eastern Traditions, there are no precepts. The goal is to be as monastic as possible, even for a layperson. That the life of the Church and a zeal for prayer may enrapture our souls, St. Gregory the Great, pray for us.
Love of Tradition
Finally, St. Gregory the Great had a great love for Tradition. A respect and love for the Sacred Scriptures was ever-present in his preaching. His devotion to the Sacred Liturgy is still appreciated 1,400 years later. The Latin Rite is largely unchanged in its constituent elements since Gregory. For a greater devotion and love of the Sacred Traditions to which the Lord commands us to hold fast, St. Gregory the Great, pray for us.