Gregory (The Great) I, St. Pope
GREGORY (THE GREAT) I, ST. POPE
Pontificate: Sept. 3, 590, to March 12, 604; Doctor of the Church; b. Rome, c. 540.
Early Years. The son of Gordian, a minor official in the Church, and Sylvia, Gregory belonged to a patrician family that had ties to the papacy. felix iii (483–492) was Gregory's grandfather, and Gregory may also have been related to Pope agapetus (535–536). Considering the tumultuous nature of his time, Gregory received an excellent education, especially in law. Gregory of Tours said that he was dedicated to God from his youth; and his Christian alignment was fostered by the holiness of his mother and two aunts, Aemiliana and Tharsilla. Having entered the civil service, Gregory was prefect of the city by 573. In this position he provided for the defense, food supply, finances, and policing of Rome, as well as handling judicial matters for member of the Senatorial order (the Senate having ceased to function by this time). The experience thus garnered gave him a knowledge of business affairs as well as a sense of responsibility and a respect for authority. He had been in office for only a short while when his father died and he decided to become a monk and follow "the grace of conversion that he had put off for a long time." Soon after 573 he turned his family home, on the Clivus Scauri of the Coelian Hill, into a monastery dedicated to St. Andrew and provided for the founding of six monasteries on
his family's property in Sicily. By meditation and study he acquired a wide knowledge of the Latin Fathers and a profound acquaintance with the Scriptures. His excessive fasting undermined his health and brought on the stomach trouble that remained a lifelong trial for him.
Apocrisiarius in Constantinople. Gregory was called back to public life in the service of the Church. Between 575 and 578 he was ordained a regionary deacon by either Benedict I (575–8) or by Pelagius II (578–590). In 579 he was sent to Constantinople as apocrisiarius, the papal representative at the Byzantine court under the emperors Tiberius II and Maurice. While the extent of his knowledge of Greek learned here is debated, he did acquire wide experience of the problems both political and ecclesiastical then troubling the empire, vainly sought Byzantine military aid against the Lombards who had invaded Italy, and made the acquaintance of many outstanding personalities of the time, including leander of seville, John the Faster (patriarch of Constantinople) and Anastasius (ex-patriarch of Antioch). He had acquaintances in the royal court and served as godfather to Emperor Maurice's eldest son. During this time, he also entered into a theological debate with the patriarch Eutychius over the nature of the resurrection body. It seems that Eutychius held an Origenistic understanding of the subtlety of the resurrection body, which Gregory found unorthodox. In Constantinople Gregory lived a monastic life with the monks he had brought with him. At their request he delivered a series of conferences in the form of a commentary on the Book of Job. These conferences were later developed into his largest work, the Moralia.
Return to Rome. Gregory was recalled to Rome c. 585/6, and while it seems that he did not assume direction of the monastery of St. Andrew, as deacon of the Roman Church he served as counselor to Pope Pelagius II. He was involved in the effort to heal the schism between Rome and the bishops of Istria, which had endured since the condemnation of the Three Chapters by Pope Vigilius I at the Council of Constantinople II (553). During 587 the tenuous peace held with the Lombards was broken and war ensued. This was followed in 589 by an overflow of the Tiber that brought a new outbreak of the plague during which Pelagius II died (January 590). Gregory was elected as his successor by popular acclaim, but he insisted upon waiting for the approval of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice before being consecrated. Gregory dedicated himself to the people, who were dying off as though they were "shot down by arrows from the sky." He organized a three-day penitential procession in which the clergy and laity, arranged in seven groups, met at designated churches, then, under the leadership of the clergy of the seven regions, marched "to meet together at the basilica of the Blessed Mother." Gregory suggested to
the people that the plague was a divine affliction that they should accept as a means of turning to God, and with fatherly encouragement he raised their panic-stricken spirits. His reluctance to assume the papal office gave rise to legends, particularly the story of an attempt to flee Rome hidden inside a basket. With the emperor's approval Gregory was consecrated. His early letters as pope betray his acute consciousness of the oppression he experienced in leaving the safety of life as a contemplative monk and being preoccupied with business matters and the care of the whole Church, which he felt had been entrusted to so weak an agent. In the language of the times, however, he confessed that he "obediently followed what the merciful hand of the Lord had been pleased to bring about in his regard," and sent his synodical letter to the patriarchs of the East, together with a brief profession of faith. Gregory's letter was addressed to considerations of the pastoral and priestly office, enunciating a concerted program of high ideals for the universal Church.
The Lombards. Italy had been invaded by the Lombards in 568; they set up their kingdom in the north and succeeded in establishing duchies near Rome in Spoleto and Benevento. The territory embracing Rome and Ravenna, in which the exarch (the emperor's representative) lived, was still an imperial possession. While Emperor Maurice did not send help, he refused to enter a truce lest this legalize the presence of the barbarians, and the exarch was entrusted with this unrealistic policy. After vain representations, Gregory made a truce with Ariulf of Spoleto, who threatened an invasion of Rome in 592. When the Byzantine exarch broke this agreement, Agilulf, the Lombard king, descended on Rome from Turin bent on destroying the city (593). Gregory rallied the defenders and personally dealt with Agilulf. He saved Rome by paying out a large sum of money and agreeing to a yearly tribute. Intent on achieving a general peace, Gregory appealed to the exarch, who turned a deaf ear to the pope's plans and wrote a critical report to the emperor. Maurice replied in what has been termed the "Fool" letter. Under the euphemistic word "simple" (fatuus ), Gregory claimed, Maurice had called him a fool, and in return he sent off a letter "such as few emperors had ever received from one of their subjects" (Dudden 2.26). The pope admitted he was a fool for staying at his post and suffering "amid the swords of the Lombards." But he defended his work "for my country," and informed the emperor that his trust was in the mercy of Jesus Christ at His coming, rather than in the justice of the emperor. The restoration of peace had to wait until 598. Gregory's dealing with the Lombards led to important consequences. The people thereafter looked to the pope as their true protector since he had recognized the failure of the civil government and had saved Italy by personally assuming responsibility. This action made him a de facto, but not de jure, civil ruler and constituted one of the steps leading to the creation of the Papal States when the pope became a de jure temporal ruler.
The Papal Patrimony. The papal patrimony consisted of lands in Italy, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Gaul, Africa, and Illyricum. The pope was the landlord of these properties, whose revenues were used for the many needs of the Church. Each patrimony was controlled by a rector appointed by the pope. With his fine sense of justice as an administrator, Gregory rebuked agents who enlarged the estates by ruthlessly disregarding the rights of others or who kept back goods in time of plenty to sell them at a higher price in time of need, and he insisted that the purse of the Church was "not to be polluted by sinful gain." The patrimonies were Gregory's means of helping the poor, the destitute, and families displaced or separated by war. Upon his appointment, Gregory had admonished each rector "to care for the poor," and "to promote not so much the worldly interests of the Church but the relief of the needy in their distress." Gregory insisted that he was dispensing not his own property, but the property of the poor, that the goods belonged to St. Peter, who was caring for his flock through Gregory. The papal treasury was used to ransom captives and restore them to their families and to buy peace by paying off the Lombards. In this respect, he ironically called himself the paymaster of the Lombards and the Emperor's paymaster.
The Liturgy. Gregory's contributions to the liturgy have been extremely difficult to assess. His involvement in the Gregorian Sacramentary continues to be hotly debated. The Gregorian Sacramentary, basically a modification of the Gelasian Sacramentary, was continually worked and reworked until the ninth century thus making any definitive statements very difficult. Gregory seems to have been involved in a revival of the station churches as is seen in his ordering of a penitential procession upon Pelagius' death and his election. At various times it has been posited that he was perhaps responsible for standardizing the practice of having the Kyrie Eleison and the Christe eleison sung alternately by the clergy and laity; decreeing that the Alleluia should be used throughout the entire year except on penitential days; limiting the deacons to the singing of the Gospel; stressing the importance of the homily; and adding to the Hanc igitur these words: "Dispose our days in your peace. Also, save us from eternal damnation and command that we be numbered in the flock of your Elect." The present position of the Pater Noster is most likely his work. Others have also asserted that many of the prayer texts in use today stem from Gregory, for example, the Christmas Preface, the Oration for Epiphany, and the Prefaces of Easter and Ascension [J. A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite 2 v. (New York 1951–55) 1:63].
Gregory and the East. The synodical letter to the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem indicates that Gregory accepted the precedence of the sees, ranking Constantinople first. From at least the fourth century, ecclesiastical union was achieved among the sees by the acceptance of such letters, and each patriarch ruled in his own jurisdiction. Gregory continued this custom and would not directly contact the bishop of another patriarchate without going through the patriarch. However, the right of appeal over the patriarch to Rome was generally recognized, and Gregory did reverse the decision against two priests handed down at Constantinople. Friction between Rome and Constantinople was occasioned by John IV the Faster's use of the title "ecumenical patriarch." Pelagius II had refused to acknowledge a council held at Constantinople in 587 since it was held without his authorization and because in the acts of the council the patriarch was called ecumenical. Great import was attached to the title since the council had cited the patriarch of Antioch to appear before it. Actually, the title was not new. It had been used by the Constantinopolitan patriarchs during the Acacian Schism (484–519) and the reign of Justinian I (527–565). In 595 Gregory received an appeal from two priests condemned at Constantinople. In the acts he saw that "practically on every page the patriarch of Constantinople was designated as ecumenical." His opposition to the term was not mere ecclesiastical sensitivity, but reflected pastoral and ecclesiological concerns. Gregory appears most of all to have been upset by the "pride" he felt was entailed in the title. In apocalyptic tones he compares this title to the "name of blasphemy" (Ep. V.37; cv V.44). Gregory taught that all bishops were in one sense "ecumenical" and that the use of this term to refer to a specific bishop was "robbing" another of his due. In response to the Patriarch of Constantinople who, in calling Gregory 'universal pope' had misunderstood Gregory's problem with the term, he wrote, "I am correctly honored when each is not denied the honor due him; for if you call me 'universal pope,' you deny that you are what you call me universally" (Ep. VIII. 29). In his counterclaim he asserted the universal jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome, but made it clear that this should be used with humility, and he referred to himself constantly as the Servant of the Servants of God. Although not new, this title was typically Gregorian and was incorporated into the list of titles of the popes. As Servant of the Servants of God, Gregory taught that the Apostolic See is "the head of all the churches." It is the See of Peter "to whom was committed the care and primacy of the whole Church"; as such it is the caput fidei. Gregory asserted that "the See of Constantinople is subject to the Apostolic See," and that there was no bishop who was not subject to the See of Rome, "which is set over all the churches." He also recognized the fact that other churches had their own accepted territories of jurisdiction. If he defended his own rights, he was careful "to observe the rights of the different churches." The jurisdiction of each of his brother bishops had to be safeguarded, otherwise "the ecclesiastical order is destroyed by us through whom it ought to be preserved." Gregory further contended (and has been quoted with satisfaction by Pope Paul VI): "My honor is the honor of the universal Church. It is also the solid authority of my brothers. I am truly honored only when the honor due to each and every one of them is not denied to them."
Gregory and the West. As Patriarch of the West, Gregory's jurisdiction embraced the three prefectures of Italy, the two Gauls, and Eastern Illyricum. In this vast territory, his jurisdiction was complicated by the civil rule of the Byzantine exarch in Africa and by the independent kingdoms resulting from the barbarian nations who invaded Gaul and elsewhere. He met this challenge generally by acting through the metropolitans, whom he recognized as adequate in their proper jurisdictions.
Italy and Africa. As Bishop of Rome and metropolitan of the suburban regions, Gregory had immediate ecclesiastical control of all Italy from Tuscany south. He looked to the canonical regularity of the election of bishops, who were then consecrated in Rome; he supervised their lives, championed their rights, and helped them in need. Charges against bishops were judged in Rome by the pope, usually during their annual assembly in Rome on the feast of St. Peter. The bishops from Sicily came every three years; aware of the difficulties of traveling such a distance, Gregory changed this to every five years. The other Italian metropolitan sees were Ravenna, Milan, and Aquileia. Aquileia called for special attention. Istrian bishops in that province were still in schism because of the condemnation of the Three Chapters. By insisting that the belief of Rome was the teaching defined at Chalcedon and that the Council of Constantinople II did not reverse the work of Chalcedon, Gregory succeeded in winning over some of these bishops, but the schism was finally healed only after his death. In his dealings with Africa Gregory acceded to the request of the bishops of Numidia that their local customs be maintained, and insisted only that no convert from Donatism be made primate. Regarding ecclesiastical privileges, he informed Donatus of Carthage that the pope not only defends his own rights but respects those of others. His aim was "to honor my brothers" and "to maintain the honor of each one, provided there is no conflict." Letters to Africa were frequent and called for episcopal vigilance, the holding of councils, and the help of civil and church leaders in curbing the troublesome Donatists.
Spain, Gaul, and England. To Gregory, the conversion of the Arian Visigoths in 589 was "a great miracle." Relations with Spain had been delicate because of Visigothic nationalism and the token of Byzantine power in the south. But with St. Leander as bishop of Seville, Gregory found the Church in Spain in good hands. A request from Gaul in 593 to restore the papal vicariate at Arles was well received by Gregory, who "was glad of the opportunity to extend his influence in the kingdom of the Franks, and too clever not to profit by it" (Batiffol, 203). The Merovingians had split the kingdom into separate units, and each ruler looked upon the Church as "his church." In restoring the vicariate, Gregory linked the Church in Gaul with Rome and the Church universal. Numerous letters were sent to the vicar, bishops, and rulers denouncing simony, lay interference, and ordinations of laymen without the proper preparation. Gregory called for a council to carry out Christian renewal. The council, held in 614, ten years after his death, reflected Gregory's program for reform and peace, even though the Merovingians kept their hold over the episcopate of each kingdom. The mission to the Anglo-Saxons was inaugurated when Gregory discovered that these invaders had not been evangelized by the native clergy of Britain. Stirred to action, he decided to use monasticism in furthering the missionary projects of the papacy. From his monastery of St. Andrew he sent St. Augustine of Canterbury and 40 monks to carry out his project. The work began in 597 and was helped by Bertha, the Catholic wife of King Ethelbert and a descendant of Clovis. In time, Celtic monks from Iona joined in the evangelization being carried on by the Benedictine monks from Rome, and the Byzantine Theodore of Tarsus was sent from Rome in 668 to reorganize the mission.
Gregory as a Writer. In a period of decline, Gregory stands out as the proclaimer of the Christian message accommodated to every situation and class. He is a bridge over which the wisdom and culture of the past were passed on and preserved. To have done this in an age of chaos is a significant achievement. In a special way he was the expounder of the Christian way of life, reaching to the heights of mysticism and contemplation. He presented his teaching not in a speculative or theoretical manner, but in the existential setting of the concrete human person with his immediate capacity for greatness and smallness, for response and refusal.
Scriptural Homilies. Gregory's textbook was the Bible, and many of his writings are scriptural homilies or conferences. The 40 Homilies on the Gospel, delivered in 590–592, show the importance of the homily in the liturgical celebrations of Sundays and feasts. These are pastoral talks in which he often introduces stories to make the doctrine graphic. In this he is a pathfinder. The historical conditions in which he lived, with wars and plagues as constants, explain his stress on the end of the world, death, hell, and heaven. His aim was to have the people constantly ready to meet their Judge. The 22 Homilies on Ezekiel (592), revised eight years later, are much more profound. Based on the first four and the fortieth chapters of Ezekiel, these sermons contain sublime passages dealing with Christ, the Church, the active and contemplative life, suffering, ideals of the priesthood, and the Christian life as rooted in faith, hope, and charity. They contain precious historical eyewitness accounts of Italy and the Lombards. The concluding passage is a literary masterpiece. With Agilulf's army at the gates of Rome, Gregory dispensed with instruction and turned to comfort his terrified people, urging them to give thanks even in the midst of their tears and sorrows, "for He who created us has also become a Father to us by the spirit of adoption that He gave us." The Homilies on the Canticle of Canticles are now generally agreed to be genuine, although only a portion of the work seems to have survived. (See Ep. XII. 6) This work is similar to the Moralia in tone and, like it, seems to have been compiled as spiritual reflections to be delivered to a monastic audience. It most likely dates from just prior to his pontificate to shortly thereafter (593–597). There is another work titled Expositions on the First Book of Kings which is most likely Gregorian, although its authenticity has recently been questioned. This work seems to date from the middle period of his pontificate. It was revised by the Abbot Claudius as well as retouched again by Gregory toward the very end of his life.
Moralia. Gregory's longest work is the Book of Morals, an exposition of the Book of Job. The text was begun during or shortly after 579 in Constantinople, but not completed until at least 595 when Gregory sent an early copy to his friend Leander of Seville. The work must have been revised again after this time as well because the final edition of the work in 35 books mentions the Augustinian mission to England which was not begun until 596. Begun as conferences to the monks when Gregory was in Constantinople, the work opens with the literal meaning of the Scriptures, delves most liberally into the mystical and allegorical interpretation, and then points out moral applications. Although it is not strictly a work of scriptural exegesis by today's standards, it is impossible to follow it without constant reference to the Book of Job. The texts are used as starting points for spiritual conferences. It is a summa or storehouse of dogma, moral asceticism, and mysticism. It deals with the totality of Christian doctrine from God the Creator to God the Rewarder. These truths are not treated in a topical and unified manner; nevertheless there is unity in the work because moral teaching and asceticism are not fragmented disciplines but vital parts of the one, undivided science of theology, whose object is God. As a storehouse of theology, the Morals was a vade mecum for the later centuries.
Pastoral Care. In the Pastoral Care, written in the first months of his pontificate, Gregory defended his attempt to escape the papacy by setting forth his ideas on the office of bishops and the care of souls. In four books he delved into (1) the type of person and the proper motives for the pastoral office, (2) the virtues required in a pastor, (3) the manner of preaching to different types of people (40 types in all, described with psychological acumen), and (4) the need for an examination of conscience so that the pastor will not neglect himself in caring for others. During Gregory's lifetime this book was translated into Greek. Under King Alfred the Great it was translated (901) into Old English (West Saxon). During the Middle Ages Gregory's Pastoral was for bishops and priests what the Rule of St. Benedict was for monks. The Pastoral parallels the Dialogues, for the Dialogues were to the simple and uneducated people what the Pastoral was for bishops and priests.
Dialogues. The authenticity for the dialogues has been recently brought into question by Francis Clark, however, most scholars are comfortable in maintaining Gregorian authorship. In 593–594 Gregory wrote The Four Books of Dialogues on the Life and Miracles of the Italian Fathers [i.e., Saints] and on the Immortality of Souls. In the form of a conversation between Gregory and Peter the Deacon, the first three books detail, with emphasis on the miraculous, the holiness of sixth–century saints. The entire second book deals with the greatest of them all, St. Benedict. Gregory insisted that the true value of life is measured in virtue and not in miracles and that there are saints who, even if they do not work miracles, are just as good as those who do (Dial. 1.12). In these stories he shows that holiness is not confined to the days of old, that God is wonderful in His saints, and that the intercession of holy people is powerful with God even to the working of miracles. The fourth book, on the immortality of the soul, treats of death, purgatory, heaven, and hell. This book is important both psychologically and doctrinally. To the simple-minded people, driven to despair regarding not only this life but also the next, Gregory insisted upon the immortality of the soul and life everlasting by vividly describing the death scenes of the wicked surrounded by devils and of the good surrounded by saints and angels. Visions of saints point to the immortality of the soul in everlasting happiness. His goal was to encourage people to bear the trials of life and to fix their sights on heaven. Gregory's doctrine on heaven is important because he was the first to teach categorically the possibility of the immediate entrance of the soul into heaven. For him there was no intermediate stage where saintly souls wait to enter heaven only on the last day. For those not yet ready to behold God face to face after death, there is purgatory. Gregory explained this very clearly and pointed out the value of the Eucharistic Sacrifice in helping these souls to attain heaven more speedily. Frequently misinterpreted as oversimplifications and miracle-filled legends, the Dialogues are basically a literary genre in which Gregory used stories to give doctrinal information and moral and ascetical stimulation to the simple and uneducated. The stories show that God is still with His own, always present and helpful, despite human wickedness and opposition. "The Dialogues were The City of God rewritten for the simple" (Batiffol, 182).
Letters. The 14 books of Gregory's Letters are a source of information of the first order for his pontificate. They deal with the Church, the empire, the Germanic invaders, bishops, monasticism, and the missionary and social aspects of the Church, and are a rich source for an understanding of the theology, liturgy, history, psychology, and sociology of the age. The letters reveal Gregory as a capable administrator and throw light on his teachings as they were applied to particular persons and situations. Most of all, they reveal Gregory in his accomplishments and failures, his talents and limitations; they portray the sixth–century Roman who became the saintly man of God. It should be cautioned, however, that the papal scrinium, which was responsible for the correspondence of the popes, had established a system for writing "form letters" and one must be careful in teasing out any great doctrinal or spiritual truths from a few letters.
History. By his position as the bridge between the ancient and the medieval world, Gregory was an instigator of the Anglo-Saxon and the Carolingian culture. The Benedictines looked to Gregory as their own and gave his works worldwide diffusion. To the Middle Ages he was the mouthpiece of the Christian way of life and was a first-class authority in moral, ascetical, and mystical theology. In moral theology Gregory is the most frequently cited of the Latin Fathers. In 242 articles of the second part of the Summa theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas cited him 374 times; and Gratian showed the influence of Gregory in the field of Canon Law. Gregory was officially named among the "great Doctors of the Church" by Boniface VIII in 1298. Gregory's influence continued in the age of the German and Spanish mystics and on through the Enlightenment and declined only in the 19th century, with its emphasis on nationalism in historical method and research. The rediscovery of Gregory was a phenomenon of the 20th century. In 1904 Pope (St.) Pius X wrote an encyclical to commemorate the 13th centenary of Gregory's death. Gradually, deconfessionalized research recaptured the mentality of the ages that called him great. H. Marrou remarked: "We can understand why writers in the Middle Ages…accorded him a place beside and equal to St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine as one of the four Doctors of the Latin Church…. Only in our own day are we beginning torecognize the truth of this judgment."
Art. The representation of Gregory in art continues a tradition widespread in the Middle Ages that he received his teachings directly from the Holy Spirit. He is usually pictured as writing or dictating to Peter the Deacon, with a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, resting on his head, and its beak in his mouth. Peter the Deacon of Rome affirmed that he saw this happen. A passage in Gregory's Homilies on Ezekiel (2.2.1) supplied a further basis for this tradition. He said there that often the meaning of a scriptural text came to him while he was actually preaching, that God gave it to him for the sake of the people, and that he himself was learning while he was teaching.
Feast: March 12.
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