The Life of Saint Gregory the Great
Pope and Doctor of the Church
Feast Day: September 3
540 A.D. – 604 A.D.
An Anglican historian has written: “It is impossible to conceive what would have been the confusion, the lawlessness, the chaotic state of the Middle Ages without the medieval papacy; and of the medieval papacy, the real father is Gregory the Great.”
St. Gregory was born in Rome about the year 540 into one of the last of the old Roman families illustrious for generations of noble achievement. His was, an even more lasting conquest, a family of Saints. Pope Saint Felix III was his ancestor, and both Gregory’s parents, renouncing their immense fortunes and vast estates, consecrated themselves to God, to spend their last years in the service of His Church. His father, Gordianus, a wealthy senator at the height of his renown when he retired to enter religion, and to become eventually one of the seven cardinal-deacons in charge of the poor and the suffering in the hospitals of Rome. Gregory’s mother, Sylvia, left him to enter a small oratory near Saint Paul’s in Rome, where she led a life of such austerity and holiness was constant edification to the Catholics of Rome during her lifetime, and was canonized by the church after her death. The feast of Saint Sylvia is celebrated every year on November 3. Besides his mother, two of Saint Gregory’s aunts were canonized. They are his father’s sisters, Saints Tarsilla and Aemiliana, of whom Pope Gregory often speaks in his writings.
Gregory’s youth, however, was a sad one. He tells us himself that for all of his boyhood Rome was under siege by one barbarian conqueror after another. Within a period of less than twenty years, the suffering city was taken and retaken six times. Roman senators and people alike were massacred The terrible Lombard nation, which for over two hundred years would plaque the church, surpassed in cruelty all the conquerors who had come before it. The Lombards laid waste the cities, despoiled the towns and villages, burned the churches, tore down the monasteries, and desolated the farms.
Saint Gregory at the age of thirty, after completion of his law studies, accepted the Prefecture of Rome, the highest civil dignity in the city. The people came eventually to know and to love him, and to depend on him for their safety.
The Prefect Gregory, like his parents, disposed of his goods and dedicated himself to the service of his Lord as a Benedictine monk. His place on the Caelian Hill he tuned into the Monastery of Saint Andrew. His large estates in Sicily he gave as sites for six other monasteries, each of which he carefully endowed before he turned over the remainder of his fortune for the care of the poor.
He entered Saint Andrew’s Monastery and for three years lived a life of retirement. He spoke later of these years as “the happiest portion of my life.” He counted as nothing his sever austerities, his many enforced hours without sleep, and his long fasts, although these have been said to have been the cause of the great physical infirmities he endured for all the rest of his life. He was obliged often, when he was Pope, to spend parts of each day in bed; sometimes he was not able to rise for several days. The thought of becoming Pope was farthest from Saint Gregory’s mind at this time. He asked for nothing more than to be allowed to spend the rest of his life in the monastery on the Caelian Hill.
But it soon become clear, after his third year at Saint Andrew’s, that days of quiet prayer and contemplative work were not to be Gregory’s portion for much longer. In 578, quite against his will, Pope Benedict I made him one of the seven deacons of Rome. And a little later on, when word was received that the Lombards were again advancing on the city and the only chance of possible help against them lay with the Emperor of the East, Pope Pelagius II sent Deacon Gregory as his permanent ambassador to the Byzantine court, at Constantinople. Saint Gregory remained at Constantinople for six years.
Saint Gregory was recalled to Rome in 586. Greatly rejoicing, he returned to his monastery, to be acclaimed its abbot. In 589, the rains and the floods which deluged Italy threatened once and for all to submerge the peninsula. Pestilence then stalked the streets of Rome, and the corpses of the dead piled up in the silent thoroughfares. (The custom of saying “God bless you” when someone has sneezed, and the making of the Sign of the cross on the mouths of those who yawn, goes back to the days of Saint Gregory and the Roman plague. The dread disease always ended in a spasm of sneezing or yawning and the pontiff ordered the phrase and action for those who sneezed or yawned.) When things were at their darkest, at the very height of the misery, word came that Pope Pelagius had fallen victim of the dread plague. After the shock of the Pope’s death, the eyes of the Romans turned to Gregory. At that time it was within the power of the clergy, the senate, and the people to elect a new pope. They chose Gregory — much to his consternation.
On the third day of September in 590, after he had first been ordained a priest, Saint Gregory was consecrated Pope and Bishop of Rome, in Saint Peter’s Basilica. He was the first monk to become Pope.
On the first of each month, and on the holydays in between, the Pope would assist and oversee the distribution of meat, fish, vegetables, what, corn, oil, cheese, wine and clothing. He forced from the vast papal lands every morsel of food and every bit of wood which could possibly be gathered together to provide for the needs of his impoverished people.
Pope Gregory’s constant care was for his bishops and priests. Early in his pontificate, he published his Pastoral Rule, on the duties of a bishop.
In 593, Saint Gregory wrote the four books of Dialogues, which, together with the Pastoral Rule, were the two works most universally read and prized throughout the Middle Ages. The Dialogues provide an excellent history of the times.
Through Saint Leander and his brother, Saint Isidore of Seville, as well as the martyr Saint Hermenegild, Saing Gregory recovered Spain from the Arians. Through Queen Theodelinda, the wife of the Lombard King Agilulf, he was able to begin the conversion of the Lombard nation and the tempering of their ferocious and cruel natures. He won France back and began conversions in England. Saint Gregory was, above all else, a vigilant guardian of the Church’s doctrine, always the mark of a holy Pope. He ordained, early in his pontificate that the first four Ecumenical Councils of the Church should be treated with the respect given to the four Gospels. He worked unceasingly to stamp out heresy. He ordered that at the beginning of Lent the blessed ashes should be placed on the foreheads of the faithful, instead of only the head of the Pope — as had been the custom up to that time — and that the priest should repeat to each one, “Remember man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return”.
He is known for his magnificent contributions to the Liturgy of the Mass and Office. The “Gregorian Chant” is named in honor of Saint Gregory’s patient labor in restoring the ancient chant of the Church and in setting down the rules to be followed so that Church music might more perfectly fulfill its function.
Saint Gregory the Great died on the twelfth of March, 604, at the age of sixty-four. He was canonized immediately after his death. Later, because of the volume, the extraordinary insight and the profundity of his writings, the depth and extent of his learning, and the heroic holiness of his life, the Church gratefully placed him beside Jerome and Ambrose and Augustine. Saint Gregory the Great became the fourth of the Church’s four great Doctors of the West.
[excerpted in part from an article by Sister Catherine Goddard Clark, M.I.C.M. at http://www.catholicism.org/pages/greg.htm]