SAINT GREGORY THE GREAT
Our holy patron, Pope St. Gregory the Great, was a Roman’s Roman. Related to Pope Felix III (483-492) and probably Pope Agapetus I (535-536), he was was born around 540. By the time he was in his early 30’s he was responsible for the finances, public buildings, monuments and the food supply for the city of Rome. Given the Roman proclivity for “bread and circuses” this can have been no small job. It is not surprising that by 578 we find Gregory becoming a monk and establishing a monastery — St. Andrew’s — on his family estate on the Cœlian Hill. His own instinct was for fuga mundi, which is constantly reflected in his preaching. Several of his aunts and his own widowed mother became nuns, and Gregory seems to have devoted a great deal of his own private wealth to founding and endowing monasteries. After being ordained a deacon by Pope Benedict I, Gregory is made the Pope’s apocrisarius, or papal ambassador to the imperial court at Constantinople. Here he would have observed first hand a Christian world that was slowing pulling apart both culturally and intellectually and eventually even religiously.
Pope St. Gregory has not been particularly well served by biographers, though it is curious and telling that the earliest biography we have of him was written in England, probably in the first quarter of the 8thcentury. However we are more than amply supplied with Pope Gregory’s own copious writings, including some 850 letters written by or on behalf of the pope during his pontificate. These along with his homilies and biblical commentaries, particularly his magnum opus the Moralia on Job give us unique insight into his thought. His Regula Pastoralis, which used to be given to each newly ordained bishop during the ordination ceremonies, until just recently, show that he was a man of great versatility, balance and human kindness. In the East, St. Gregory is also known as “Gregory Dialogus” because of his Dialogues. This work is especially dear to Benedictines, because in Book II, on the Life and Miracles of St. Benedict, we learn almost all we know about our Holy Father St. Benedict.
This reluctant pope was elected, practically by acclamation, and clearly against his will in 590 reigned for twelve years, dying exhausted by his labors in 604. He is rightly called ‘The Great’, being one of three popes so honored (Pope St. Nicholas I (858–67), Pope St. Leo I (440–61), and Pope St. Gregory I (590–604).
The aspect of St. Gregory’s pontificate that he took the most joy in was the Mission to the English. As Sr. Catherine Goodard Clark, MICM, as written of this “The enormous success of this mission earned for England, in the long Catholic centuries before the Protestant revolt, the exquisite honor of being called the land which was “Our Lady’s Dowry.” It earned for Gregory the title of Apostle to the English, and for the Italian Monk, Augustine, it earned the distinction of being known forever in Heaven and on earth as Saint Augustine of Canterbury!” St. Gregory believed, in as far as such belief was compatible with his conviction the world was nearing its end, that the future belonged to the peoples of what we now call Europe, and it was to Europe that St. Gregory sent his missionary-monks. It has been rightly said that Gregory and the Middle Ages were born on the same day.
Pope St. Gregory is a good patron for the Church in our day, since in many ways, our world today doesn’t seem that remote from the 6th century. He himself tells us himself that he assumed the direction of the Church, when it resembled an old ship, flooded on all sides by the waves, and the timbers of which, battered by unceasing storms, proclaimed only too loudly that the vessel was on the verge of shipwreck. Italy was in political and cultural chaos and the Church was divided by heresy and schisms. Today there are large parts of the so-called “Christian” world that seem to have grown cold toward not just Christianity, but even their own culture. A worthy successor of St. Gregory has called for a “new evangelization” of Europe and this is going to involve a renewed and even rediscovered appreciation of the Mass as the source of life in the Church. Our own, beloved Holy Father Pope Benedict reminded us in Summorum Pontificum, that it was St. Gregory who more than any other pontiff enriched the Church’s liturgical life and mission:
“Among the pontiffs who showed that requisite concern, particularly outstanding is the name of St. Gregory the Great, who made every effort to ensure that the new peoples of Europe received both the Catholic faith and the treasures of worship and culture that had been accumulated by the Romans in preceding centuries. He commanded that the form of the sacred liturgy as celebrated in Rome (concerning both the Sacrifice of Mass and the Divine Office) be conserved. He took great concern to ensure the dissemination of monks and nuns who, following the Rule of St. Benedict, together with the announcement of the Gospel illustrated with their lives the wise provision of their Rule that ‘nothing should be placed before the work of God.’ In this way the sacred liturgy, celebrated according to the Roman use, enriched not only the faith and piety but also the culture of many peoples. It is known, in fact, that the Latin liturgy of the Church in its various forms, in each century of the Christian era, has been a spur to the spiritual life of many saints, has reinforced many peoples in the virtue of religion and made fruitful their piety.”
We are fortunate in the Historia of St. Bede to have a record of St. Gregory’s letters to St. Augustine, which form the foundation of Bede’s narrative and are quoted verbatim forming a unique historical record. The most famous of these what are called the libellus responsorium in Book I Chapter 27. Here St. Bede records the pastoral directives Pope St. Gregory sends back in answer to questions St. Augustine has about specific problems faced on the Mission to the Anglo-Saxons. St. Gregory gives a blueprint for what will later be called ‘inculturation’. The policy outlined was that the missionaries must strive to win souls over rather than constrain them, wisdom which of course, echoes that of the St. Paul in Acts of the Apostles.
St. Gregory’s feastday is kept on 12 March in the Traditional Calendar. A second feast on 3 September, which is the anniversary of his episcopal consecration is kept in the Reformed Calendar.
Pope St. Gregory the Great, Pray for us!
“He who would climb to a lofty height must go by steps, not leaps.”
— Pope St. Gregory the Great in a letter to St. Augustine
Books about St. Gregory
- A Life of St. Gregory the Great written by A Monk of the Monastery of Whitby — Download PDF version.
- St. Gregory the Great his Work and his Spirit by Abbot Snow, OSB — Download PDF version.
Books Written by St. Gregory
- Registrum epistolarum or collection of his official letters. — Download PDF version.
- The Life and Miracles of St. Benedict edited by Dom Edmund Luck, OSB — Download PDF version.
- S. Gregorii Magni Regulae pastoralis liber — Download PDF version.
- The Little Flowers of Saint Benet gathered from the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. — DownloadPDF version.
- The Dialogues of Gregory The Great Translated into Angl0-Norman French — Download PDF version.