Pope St. Gregory the Great
Pope St. Gregory the Great was born around the year 540 in the city of Rome. His father was named
and was a wealthy aristocrat who owned a large estate on the
Caelian Hill in Rome
. His mother,
, similarly, was from a high family. Gregory was born into an obviously devout family for his mother is honored as a saint (Nov. 3) and two of Gordianus’ sisters, Tarsilla and Æmiliana, were similarly canonized.
At the time of Gregory’s birth, the city of Rome was in great decay having been repeatedly sacked, occupied, and even rocked by earthquakes for the past two centuries. No one had cared to restore the damage from any of these unfortunate events. Gregory, despite all of this, received the best possible education offered and became quite distinguished. Such was Gregory’s reputation for learning that by 568 it is recorded that he was exercising the highest civil office in the city of Rome, Prefect of the City. He was about thirty years old.
Gregory, however, had long prayed and pondered the possibility of a higher vocation and it was around 574 that he decided to retire from public life and found a monastery wherein he and others could live a contemplative life according to the
Rule of St. Benedict
. He converted his house on the
, adjacent to his childhood home, into a monastery and placed it under the patronage of St. Andrew.
St. Gregory of Tours records that "he who had been wont to go about the city clad in the
and aglow with silk and jewels, now clad in a worthless garment served the altar of the Lord" (
Gregory of Tours
, X, i).
As a monk, Gregory dedicated himself to serious ascetic practices of fasting and penance. He enjoyed the contemplative isolation of the cloister for about three years before his talents were again called upon; this time, in service of the Church.
In 578, over Gregory’s protests, the pope ordained him as one of the
seven deacons (regionarii) of the city of Rome
. This was a major office in the city as, at this time, the deacons of the city were responsible for matters of civil order, charitable care, and even the defense of the city against various barbarian invasions.
These invasions were increasing in their frequency and ferocity. In an appeal for aid,
Pope Pelagius II
dispatched a special delegation to the Emperor Tiberius in
. Gregory accompanied this delegation as the papal ‘
or permanent ambassador to the Byzantine court. Gregory was to remain in Constantinople for the next six years (579-586). It was while he was in Constantinople that he began his famous commentary on the Book of Job which is known as the
In about 586 Gregory was recalled to Rome and returned to St. Andrew’s monastery where was soon elected abbot. At this time Gregory first encountered some men or boys from
—the stories vary—and began a life-long concern for the English people. A great desire arose within him to go and preach the Gospel to the people of England and he petitioned Pope Pelagius II for permission to go. It was granted and Gregory set off with a band of monks from St. Andrew’s. The people of Rome, however, regretting their loss, demanded that Gregory turn back and threatened to retrieve him with force should it be necessary. Gregory relented and returned to Rome, but his desire that the Gospel be preached to England remained so deep within him that later he would commission the great mission of
to preach the Gospel to the English.
In the year 589 several plagues, a lost harvest, and a series of severe floods all conspired to give the city of Rome a disastrous year. In 590 this series of disasters was crowned with the death of Pope Pelagius II, another victim of the plague. At this time, the election of the pope was undertaken by the clergy and the citizens of Rome. Gregory was unanimously elected. Gregory, however, had no desire to be pope and even less desire to leave the peace of the cloister of St. Andrew’s monastery and so he wrote to the Emperor Maurice asking him not to confirm the election
While waiting for the emperor’s reply, Gregory was nevertheless responsible for the welfare of the city of Rome. As the plague that had killed Pope Pelagius II was still raging, Gregory ordered that there be a
of the people of Rome to do penance, beg pardon from God, and pray for the end of the plague. As a result, seven simultaneous immense processions wound through the streets of Rome and converged on the
Basilica of St. Mary Major
on the Esquiline Hill. Gregory preached throughout and urged on the people’s devotion. A legend records that the
appeared atop the
mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian
and sheathed his sword signifying the end of the plague. Thus, the mausoleum is today known as Castel Sant’ Angelo (Holy Angel Castle).
After six months of waiting, the Emperor’s reply came; Gregory was confirmed as pope. Although he contemplated fleeing, he remained and the people seized upon him and carried him into St. Peter’s Basilica where he was consecrated pope on 3 September 590.
Gregory was to reign as pope for fourteen years. His papacy could be said to have been typified by several themes:
Governance and Preaching
Gregory had a great zeal for governance. He was strict and uncompromising, readily deposing those whom he found to be unfit.
Similarly, his zeal extended to his preaching. Several of his
have come down to us today. They regularly end with a moral lesson for his audience to apply to their own lives.
In order that his preaching might be heard by a greater number of people, Pope Gregory established the tradition of “
” which persists, albeit in a much-curtailed fashion, down to our own day.
and the defense of the City of Rome
From the very moment of his consecration, Gregory was faced with the threat of continued Lombard invasions of Rome. The weak
in Constantinople was of no use in supplying assistance to preserve Rome from invasion. In one particular incident in 593 Pope Gregory left the city to personally intervene with the invading
and negotiate a peace settlement that spared the city of Rome.
The Dialogues and other Writings
Pope Gregory was a prolific writer. In 593 he published his
which was a collection of visions, prophesies, and miracles gathered from eye-witnesses. It was to become one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages and would affect the spiritual lives of many of the faithful.
Similarly popular was Gregory’s
Liber pastoralis curae
which, for centuries, was the ‘handbook’ of bishops describing their duties and prescribed manner of life. In this work, Gregory describes the ideal bishop as a “physician of souls” and “guardian of the truth”.
Gregory was also a prolific correspondent and
many of his letters
, official and personal, are available even today,
Many people are familiar with the image of Gregory with a dove near his shoulder. The origin of this image is related to Gregory’s role as an author and commentator on Scripture. The Catholic Encyclopedia recalls the story: “A dove is his special emblem, in allusion to the well-known story recorded by
Peter the Deacon
(Vita, xxviii), who tells that when the pope was dictating his homilies on Ezechiel a veil was drawn between his secretary and himself. As, however, the pope remained silent for long periods at a time, the servant made a hole in the curtain and, looking through, beheld a dove seated upon Gregory's head with its beak between his lips. When the dove withdrew its beak the holy pontiff spoke and the secretary took down his words; but when he became silent the servant again applied his eye to the hole and saw the dove had replaced its beak between his lips. The miracles attributed to Gregory are very many, but space forbids even the barest catalogue of them.”
As was said above, Gregory long maintained a determined will to ensure that the Gospel was preached to England. He corrected the bishops of northern France and Germany for neglecting the inhabitants of the islands off their coasts for even in faraway Rome he had received word that they wished to hear the Gospel. Pope Gregory dispatched forty monks from his own monastery of St. Andrew under the leadership of St. Augustine. They are revered to this day as the ones who first brought the Gospel to England. The great Englishman,
says: “If Gregory be not an apostle to others, he is one to us, for we are the seal of his apostleship in the Lord.”
St. Gregory left a deep mark on the liturgy of the Church. He is credited with “the completions of the
, the revision and rearrangement of the system of church music, the foundation of the famous
Roman schola cantorum
, and the composition of
several well-known hymns
Similarly, it is to him that we owe the rubric that “Alleluia” must be sung before the Gospel throughout the whole year (except Lent).
Pope Gregory died on 12 March 604. His body was laid to rest in St. Peter’s Basilica. He was canonized at once by popular acclaim and devotion to him has survived, although very soon after his death there was some reaction against him borne out of resentment for his holiness and the zeal of his preaching and administration of the Church. His epitaph fittingly refers to him saying: “after having conformed all his actions to his doctrines, the great Consul of God went to enjoy eternal triumphs.”
St. Gregory the Great is patron of educators/teachers, students/scholars, musicians, masons/stonecutters, West Indies, and he is an intercessor against gout (which he suffered), and fever and plagues (he held processions and chants to hold back a great plague in Rome). We celebrate his Feast Day on September 3rd.
The remains of Pope Saint Gregory the Great are interred below one of the side altars of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Above the altar is a magnificent mosaic from 1772 by Alessandro Cocchi and Vincenzo Castellini which is based on a 1625 painting by Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661). Here is an explanation of the image:
"The painter depicted the Miraculous Mass of St. Gregory, also known as the Miracle of the Corporal. In response to a request from the Emperor Constance for an authentic relic, Gregory gave the emperor's representative a cloth that had previously been used to wrap the bones of certain martyr saints (according to another version of the legend, it was the cloth with which Gregory had wiped the chalice after dispensing the sacrificial wine during the mass). When the representative rejected the cloth as a paltry and worthless thing, Gregory, after first saying mass, took it and stabbed it with a sharp blade, causing it to bleed. The miracle was one of the most famous involving St. Gregory and was especially popular during the Catholic Reformation, when it was cited in support of the Catholic position on the mystical power of relics." (Rice, Louise. The Altars and Altarpieces of New St. Peter's. 1997.)
Photo Credit: Rev. Kevin Kimtis
For more information on our church design, including our stained glass windows featuring St. Gregory the Great, click here.