Reigned as Pope 590 – 604
The only pope, apart from Leo I, to be called “the Great” came from a wealthy and aristocratic Roman family. We know little about his early years, but he was well-educated; his writings reveal a keen interest in natural science and a knowledge of history, Classical literature, and music. His Latin was ﬂuent but — in spite of his spending several years in Constantinople — he never learned Greek; a telling indicator of how far apart the West and East were drifting.
After a secular career in urban administration, culminating in the Prefecture of the City of Rome, Gregory became a monk (about the year 574) and turned his family home into a monastery. There he entered upon a rigorous regime of prayer and fasting which he would continue all his life, and which would play a part in undermining his constitution. In about 579 he was sent to Constantinople by Pelagius II as a papal representative and there got to know the principal power-brokers of the Eastern Empire. In about 585 he was recalled to Rome to act as an advisor to Pope Pelagius, especially in a delicate matter involving the schism of certain Italian bishops. When Pelagius died the papal electors unanimously cast their votes in Gregory’s favor; he was horriﬁed, and wrote to Emperor Maurice (582–602) asking him to withhold his consent. Imperial conﬁrmation of his election arrived, however; and Gregory was consecrated Pontiff on September 3, 590 — the ﬁrst monk to occupy the Throne of Saint Peter.
He wrote the Emperor: “Under the pretense of being made a bishop, I have been brought back into the world, and I devote myself to the interests of secular things to a much greater extent than I recall even having done when I was a layman. I have lost the deep joy of my peace and quiet, and while I seem outwardly to have risen, inwardly I am in a state of collapse…Behold, my Most Serene Lord the Emperor has ordered a monkey to become a lion. But while a lion it may be called at his command, a lion it cannot become. Therefore he must assign the blame of all my faults and negligences, not to me, but to his kindly feeling which led him to commit the exercise of power to a fragile man.” [Gregory, Registrum Epistularum 1.5]
After expressing his initial reluctance at being elected Pope, however, Gregory set about his duties with vigor. First he had to deal with the current starvation in Rome, and in the course of providing relief he also reorganized the management of the large, widely-scattered Papal estates so that money would be reliably available to the Holy See to help to feed people in any time of crisis. In the absence of sufficient Imperial forces to protect Rome against incursions from the north, Gregory saw to its defenses, paid for troops, and, in 591 and 593, even bribed the Lombards to call a halt to their depredations. But Emperor Maurice, who should have been grateful for these efforts, merely grumbled about what he saw as interference and received a well-deserved Papal rebuke in return for his captiousness.
The famine dealt with, Gregory proved himself a shepherd to his Roman ﬂock and, in particular, a champion of the City’s poor: “On the ﬁrst day of every month he distributed to the poor in general that part of the Church’s revenues which was paid in kind. Grain, wine, cheese, vegetables, bacon, meat, ﬁsh, and oil were individually doled out, each according to its season, by this head of the Lord’s family…Every day he sent out, through the streets and lanes of all the city districts, duly appointed messengers with cooked provisions for the sick and inﬁrm. To those of more delicate sensibilities, he used to send a dish from his own table, before he himself started to eat, to be delivered at their doors as a blessing from the Apostle Peter. Thus absolutely no one was excluded from the kindness of this most compassionate of providers.” [John the Deacon, Vita Sancti Gregorii Magni 2:26;28]
Outside Italy, too, there was much to claim the Pope’s attention: Africa, for example, was seeing a resurgence of the fourth-century Donatist heresy (which maintained that its clerics alone could validly confer the Sacraments) and the pope sought to contain this rise and turn the heretic tide. With Spain and Gaul, however, he was able to establish amicable relations; and to England he sent the prior of his Roman monastery, Augustine, in 596, to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity; while with Constantinople he kept up the lengthy disagreement over the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” which had exercised his predecessor, Pelagius II.
Such domestic and foreign problems, however, were not the Pope’s only concerns. Gregory also had to deal with discipline within the Church, and, spurred by a conviction that the world would soon come to an end, he set about preparing souls for the Second Coming. Thus, in a book which was to prove lastingly inﬂuential, The Rule of the Shepherd (c591), he laid down rules for the election and proper conduct of Bishops; and degraded, without hesitation, clerics who failed to maintain the high moral standards he expected. In particular he enforced clerical celibacy, which had been obligatory for Bishops, priests, and deacons since the reign of Siricius (384–399) and for subdeacons since that of Leo I (440–461).
Further writings poured from his pen. Various Homilies provided comment both on the Gospels and on selected books of the Old Testament; his Dialogues, which relate the lives and miracles of some of the Saints, were produced in about 593; and Magna Moralia (An Extensive Consideration of Moral Questions), an exposition of the Book of Job in thirty-ﬁve volumes, and perhaps his best-known work, appeared in 595. It was much admired but considered far too long even then, and was excerpted almost at once for greater accessibility. Finally, we have 854 of his Letters gathered into fourteen books, which provide invaluable insights into Gregory’s character, his reaction to the checkered events of his reign and the increasingly complex and varied range of papal responsibilities.
All this took its toll; in February 601 Gregory had written to Marianus, Bishop of Arabia “It is now a long time since I have had the strength to rise from my bed. For at one time the pain of gout tortures me, and at another a ﬁre (of what kind I do not know) spreads itself with pain through my whole body. Usually at one and the same time a painful, burning heat afflicts me. I am unable to count how many other great distresses of illness are visited upon me in addition to those I have mentioned. In a few words, however, I can say that the infection of a poisonous humor drinks me up to such an extent that it is a punishment for me to live, and I look longingly for death which I believe is the only thing which can provide a cure for my groans.” [Gregory, Registrum Epistularum 11.20]
By 604 Gregory was worn out. Once again the Lombards were preparing to strike and, as it had been in 590 when he ascended the papal throne, Rome was in the grip of a dreadful famine. The people, panic-stricken, turned against him for want of someone else to blame. When he died in March, 604, this alienation showed: the East revered him as a Saint; Spain as a great writer; England as its true Apostle; only Rome more-or-less ignored him, an injustice which would not be rectiﬁed until the ninth century. There is, however, a story (related ﬁrst by John of Salisbury) that Gregory was ﬁercely hostile to astrologers and not only had them banished from the papal court but also burned the contents of the Palatine Library, which had been one of the glories of pagan Rome. Such vandalism seems unlikely; although it is true that Gregory set little store by literature for its own sake, and repudiated the Latin classics because they were heathen writings. But his legacy was rich and could not be passed over: the transmission of a venerable tradition of exegetical literature; the development of a popular homiletic preaching; the promotion of monasticism in the West; a more effective papal administration; and the conservation of a particularly Roman view of what constitutes order under law. No wonder, then, his epitaph called him “God’s Consul.” Gregory himself, however, adopted a less exalted title: his self-description has been used by all later Popes: “Servant of the Servants of God.”
Gregory the Great in Summary
Nationality: Italian; from Rome
Family background: Wealthy
Early Career: Prefect of Rome, c572–574; after his father’s death he became a monk; then a deacon
Elected Pope: September 3, 590
Died: March 12, 604
Length of Pontiﬁcate: 13 years, 6 months, 8 days
Feast Day: September 3
Notable features: First monk to become Pope; one of only two Popes to be called “The Great;” coined the title “Servant of the Servants of God;” ﬁrst Pope to speak “ex cathedra” (from the throne [of Peter])
Notable fallacies: Although universally credited with the creation of the corpus of liturgical chant bearing his name until very recently, Gregory the Great could not have been responsible. (very likely the name refers to Pope Gregory II, who reigned about 125 years later). The reputation of Gregory I was so great, however it became accepted he was the Gregory intended; this is still very widely believed.
Physical description: “He was of ordinary height and well proportioned…He was rather bald, so that in the middle of his forehead he had two small neat curls, twisted towards the right…His cheeks were well shaped, and his chin protruded in a comely fashion from the limit of his jaws. His color was swarthy and full of vital force, not pale and sickly, as it afterwards became.” —John the Deacon, Vita Sancti Gregorii Magni, 4.84
The above has been lightly adapted from the section on Gregory the Great in P.G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Chronicle of the Popes: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Papacy from Saint Peter to the Present, London and New York; Thames and Hudson, 1998 ISBN 0-500-01798-0. This well-designed and richly-illustrated volume, although not a Catholic publication — indeed, Dr. Maxwell-Stuart is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Reformation Studies at the University of St. Andrews! — is refreshingly even-handed in its presentation of papal history. It ends with John Paul II’s papacy in full swing, of course (he who bids fair to become the third “Great” Pope and who, in the mouth of the people, already is); but even so, I can think of no better one-volume reference to this important aspect of the structure, history, and culture of the Catholic Church. Highly recommended.