Remembering Gregory the Great

From the old Martyrology:

Romae sancti Gregorii Primi, Papae, Confessoris, et Ecclesiae Doctoris eximii; qui, ob res praeclare gestas atque Anglos ad Christi fidem conversos, Magnus est dictus et Anglorum Apostolus appellatus.

At Rome, the memorial of Saint Gregory I, Pope, Confessor, and eminent Doctor of the Church; who, for his luminous deeds and for converting the English to faith in Christ, is called ‘Great’ and ‘Apostle to the English’.

In the old Calendar and Martyrology, the Feast of Gregory the Great falls on 12 March, the day of his death. Since this date always falls during Lent, in which there are no obligatory memorials, the feast was moved in the reformed Roman Calendar of 1969. Thus, in the Novus Ordo, the Church celebrates this great Pope on 3 September, the anniversary of his episcopal consecration. Since Gregory was a mere monk at the time of his election to the Petrine See, he did not enjoy the full rights and prerogatives of the Papal office until he became a bishop; 3 September is therefore the start date of his pontificate.

Born into a noble family around 540 in Rome, Gregory enjoyed the finest education in his early years, and the talents he developed would serve well not only himself, but the entire Church at large. By the age of 33, he had risen through the Roman nobility and become Prefect of Rome like his father before him, utilizing his formidable intellect and encyclopedic knowledge of law to effectively administer the City. Around the time of his father’s death in 574, however, Gregory became disillusioned with his life of privilege and decided to become a monk, likely according to the Rule of St. Benedict. He transformed his family’s villa on the Caelian Hill into a monastery dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle; today, a Benedictine monastery still stands on that site, today called Santi Andrea e Gregorio Magno al Monte Celio in recognition of both the original title and of the future Pope who established the monastery.

For the first three years of monastic life, Gregory remained in seclusion on the Caelian Hill. However, in 578, Pope Pelagius II (not to be confused with Pelagius the heretic) summoned Gregory to a more public role in the Church. At the time, many sees in Lombard-ruled northern Italy (Aquileia, Milan, Liguria, Aemelia, Grado) had fallen victim to Monophysite-Arian tendencies and broke communion with Rome and Constantinople. Lombard armies began to approach Rome, and Pope Pelagius enlisted Gregory’s help to help quell the crisis. Against his will, Gregory was ordained a deacon by Pelagius, and as a deacon, he carried out the traditional role of administering a diaconia, or a place from which goods were distributed to the people of the Church. When the Lombard threat became more dire, Pelagius needed to send to the Emperor in Constantinople for help. In 579, he dispatched a delegation to the imperial court and appointed Gregory as apocrisiarius, or permanent papal legate (nuncio), to the Emperor. He disdained the ostentatious splendor of courtly life and adhered to Benedict’s rule as much as possible while continuing to study and write on Scripture and theology. He remained in Constantinople until 585, after which he returned to his monastery on the Caelian Hill and became abbot. The help that Pelagius needed from Constantinople never came; this cemented the idea in Gregory’s mind that in times of crisis, Rome must act swiftly and boldly on her own, an idea that would deeply inform Gregory’s pontificate.

In February 590, Pelagius II died; almost immediately, the people and clergy of Rome acclaimed Gregory as Pope. The abbot was hesitant to leave his position for he desired nothing more than the monastic life. In those days, the Byzantine Emperor would customarily confirm the election of the Roman Pontiff; Gregory dispatched a letter to Constantinople, begging Emperor Maurice not to confirm him. Germanus, Prefect of Rome, intercepted the letter and sent in its place the announcement of Gregory’s election. Six months later, the letter of confirmation arrived in Rome. Gregory, who considered fleeing the City, was forcibly carried by the Romans into St. Peter’s Basilica and consecrated as bishop on 3 September 590.

In fourteen years as Pope, Gregory undertook significant reforms of the Church. This was not “reform” in the modern liberal sense of the word (a la Paul VI), but a true instauratio, a restoration of Evangelical vigor and a reaffirmation of traditional doctrine. He strenuously upheld the discipline of the clergy, insisting on clerical celibacy and depriving from office those clerics found guilty of scandalous offenses. He worked tirelessly in fostering communion throughout the Church, providing ministers for the orthodox faithful in the territories of Arian bishops. If some corrupt, immoral, or unorthodox men became bishops, Gregory did not hesitate to depose them and command that a new bishop be elected. In addition to administering the Church, he also wrote unceasingly. When he died on 12 March 604, he had bequeathed to the world hundreds of letters, sermons, Scriptural commentaries, and various other works, making him one of the most prolific Church Fathers. His accomplishments are too great to enumerate here; we will focus on three.

1.  Liturgy

Saint Gregory is most associated with the liturgy. After a program of codification of the Roman Rite by Pope Damasus (+384) and a later one under Pope Leo I (+461), Gregory once more standardized the liturgy into a more coherent form. The so-called Gregorian Sacramentary, obviously attributed to him, was in turn a codification of the so-called Gelasian Sacramentary of the 5th century, whose content in turn actually predates its namesake Pope Gelasius (+496) by a significant period of time. Through this massive program of standardization, the ancient Roman chants of the psalms began to spread outside of Rome itself and into other sees of the Patriarchate of the West. These Roman chants, which spread to Gaul in the 8th century, was through Carolingian influence infused with traces of Gallican chant, which produced the genre today known as Gregorian chant. Through Pope Gregory did not literally compose the chants, his systematic compilation of the chanted psalms certainly played a significant role in its development.

As obvious from the Gelasian Sacramentary, before Gregory’s pontificate, the Lord’s Prayer used to be sung before the Canon (Eucharistic Prayer). He moved the Lord’s Prayer to its present position (that is, after the Canon and before the fraction), claiming an old tradition from the time of the Apostles, and arguing that the Prayer is most fittingly recited in the presence of its Composer. He instituted the ninefold Kyrie as it is still done in the Traditional Latin Mass (Kyrie eleison x 3, Christe eleison x 3, and Kyrie eleison x 3). Some interpret this as an elucidation of the mystery of the Trinity, in which the penitent triply begs each Person of the Thrice-holy God for forgiveness (the first set of Kyries being addressed to the Father, and the final set being addressed to the Holy Spirit).

Ever the rhetorical master, Gregory also added to the Canon itself: to the section Hanc igitur he added the delightfully musical phrase diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum iubeas grege numerari (“order our days in your peace, and deliver us from eternal damnation, and deign to number us among your chosen flock”).

These are some of the few liturgical aspects that we are sure bear Gregory’s mark.

2.  Doctrine

While the entire corpus of Gregory’s work is replete with many fine points of doctrine, we will limit ourselves to one. During his period as apocrisiarius in Constantinople, the future Pope became involved in a dispute with Eutyches, Patriarch of Constantinople. Eutyches, a champion of the faith throughout his life, came to be convinced that, after the resurrection of the body, the body itself would be “impalpable, lighter than air”, as if the body would be sublimated beyond the trappings of corporeality. Many orthodox clerics, including Gregory, thought this a heretical opinion, for it seemed to argue for a dualistic opposition between matter and spirit, a dualism which had given rise to the great Christological heresies of the previous centuries. The dispute carried on in public until the Emperor Tiberius, weary of the rift, summoned Gregory and Eutychius together for a final debate on the matter. Eutyches held his position; Gregory cited Luke 24:38-40, which relates one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples:

And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet.

The words of Christ convinced the Emperor, who then ordered Eutyches’ works on the matter destroyed. Later, the old Patriarch came to repent on his deathbed; minutes before his passing, he pointed to the skin of his hand, saying, “I confess that in this flesh we shall rise again”. Both Eastern and Western Christianity revere Eutychius of Constantinople as a saint.

3.  Conversion of the English

According to a story told by St. Bede the Venerable in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, one day the future Pope encountered some slaves from England being sold in the Forum. Astonished by their pale complexion, so different from the swarthier skin of Mediterranean peoples, Gregory was supposed to have said, non Angli sed angeli sunt— “they are not Angles but angels”. This is a poetic paraphrase; his actual words were more likely Angelicum habent faciem et tales angelorum in caelis decet esse consortes— “they have an angelic face and it is fitting that such should be co-heirs of the angels in heaven”. Of course, we know that the Angles which Gregory met were not slaves but an actual delegation visiting Rome. In any case, the foreign appearance of these Angles inspired in Gregory the desire to evangelize these people who, being so far from Roman civilization, had certainly not yet known the Gospel.

Aethelbert, the pagan King of Kent, had married a Frankish Christian princess named Bertha. Under her influence, Aethelbert and his court wrote to Rome that the Pope might send missionaries to England. Augustine, a Roman monk at Gregory’s monastery on the Caelian Hill, was tasked by the Pope to lead such a group, which later became known as the Gregorian Mission. Arriving in 595, Augustine made good relations with both Aethelbert and Bertha, baptizing the king and many of his subjects. Augustine, by now consecrated as bishop by Aetherius (Archbishop of Arles), established his episcopal see at Durovernum Cantiacorum (a Latinized Old English toponym meaning “stronghold of the Kentish people”), or what today we call Canterbury; thus today we know him as St. Augustine of Canterbury. Once Augustine had firmly established the Church, including two more bishoprics at London and Rochester, Gregory sent him the liturgical books of Rome for use in England, but encouraged Augustine to adapt certain practices to the sensibilities of the locals. The liturgy remained in Latin and was largely Roman in form, with but with enough peculiarities so as to be able to speak of “an English use of the Roman Rite”. (This liturgy disappeared after the Norman Conquest, which brought with it the Carolingian-influenced Roman liturgy in use in both Gaul and Italy by the 11th-12th century.) In any event, the Gregorian Mission was a successful enterprise, and although the conversion of the Angles was accomplished in large part through Augustine’s personal efforts, the baptism of England began in Rome when Gregory resolved to bring the Gospel to the fair-skinned races of Britain.


It is for good reason that few Popes merit the title “Great”. Their contributions to the Church must be extraordinary, above and beyond the accomplishments of other Popes, even of those raised to the altars. For centuries, the only other “Great” pontiff was St. Leo I, although in recent years, it has become fashionable to refer to St. John Paul II with the same honor. (In Italian, however, Benedict XVI and Francis have used the general term grande and not the more honorific magno, as is used to describe the aforementioned Leo and Gregory, as well as Alexander of Macedon and Charlemagne). In any case,  Leo I and John Paul II stand as towering examples of outstanding Popes, whose pontificates were far more notable those of their canonized counterparts in the Roman See. This short blog post cannot do justice to the immensity of Gregory’s import. Through his prolific writing, his efficient administration of the Church, his generous almsgiving, his liturgical reforms, his reform of the clergy, his impulse to convert the Angles, his monastic simplicity (he was the first Pope to adopt the title “servant of the servants of God”), and his doctrinal clarity, Gregory certainly merits an especially revered place in the chronicles of the Church. Despite the triumphalist tone so characteristic of its era (or perhaps because of it), the old Catholic Encyclopedia beautifully encapsulates why this servus servorum Dei, immediately acclaimed as a saint by East and West after his death, will forever be known as Gregorius Magnus.

In the history of dogmatic development he is important as summing up the teaching of the earlier Fathers and consolidating it into a harmonious whole, rather than as introducing new developments, new methods, new solutions of difficult questions. It was precisely because of this that his writings became to a great extent the compendium theologiae or textbook of the Middle Ages, a position for which his work in popularizing his great predecessors fitted him well. Achievements so varied have won for Gregory the title of “the Great”, but perhaps, among our English-speaking races, he is honoured most of all as the pope who loved the bright-faced Angles, and taught them first to sing the Angels’ song.

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