Note: Below are selected passages relating to St. Gregory the Great from the Historiae Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) of the Venerable Bede (completed circa 731).
BOOK II, CHAPTER I
In the year of our Lord 605, having ruled the apostolic Roman Church most illustriously for thirteen years, six months, and ten days, the blessed Pope Gregory died and was taken up to his eternal home in heaven. And it is fitting that he should receive special mention in this history, since it was through his zeal that our English nation was brought from the bondage of Satan to the Faith of Christ, and we may rightly term him our own apostle. For during his pontificate, while he exercised supreme authority over all the churches of Christendom that had already long since been converted, he transformed our still idolatrous nation into a church of Christ. So we may rightly describe him as our own apostle, for while others may not regard him in this light, he was certainly an apostle to our own nation, and we are the seal of his apostleship in the Lord.
Gregory was Roman-born, son of Gordian, and came of a noble and devout family. Felix, once bishop of the same apostolic see, a man of high distinction in the Church of Christ, was one of his ancestors, and Gregory maintained this family tradition by the nobility and devotion of his religious life. By God’s grace, he employed his recognized worldly position solely to win the glory of eternal honor, for he soon retired from secular life and sought admission to a monastery. There he entered upon a life of such perfection in grace that in later years he used to recall with tears how his mind was set on high things, soaring above all that is transitory, and how he was able to devote himself entirely to the spiritual life. Remaining in the body, he could yet transcend its limitations in contemplation, and looked forward to death, which most men regard as a punishment, as the gateway to life and reward of his labors. He used to mention this, not in order to call attention to his increase in virtue, but lamenting the loss of virtue sustained in his spiritual life through his pastoral responsibilities. One day, in conversation with his deacon Peter, Gregory described his former spiritual state, then sadly continued: “My pastoral responsibilities now compel me to have dealings with worldly men, and when I recall my former peace, it seems that my mind is bespattered with the mire of daily affairs. For when I am wearied by attention to the worldly affairs of numberless people and wish to meditate on spiritual things, I seem to approach them with unmistakably lessened powers. So when I compare what I now endure with what I have lost, and when I weigh that loss, my burden seems greater than ever.”
Holy Gregory spoke in this way from deep humility, yet we cannot help but feel that he lost none of his monastic perfection through his pastoral cares, and gained greater merit by his labors for the conversion of souls than in his former peaceful life, especially since, even when he became Pope, he ordered his house as a monastery. When he was first summoned from his monastery, ordained to the ministry of the altar, and sent to Constantinople as representative of the apostolic see, he never abandoned his spiritual exercises, although compelled to mix with people of the Imperial court. For some of his fellow-monks were so devoted to him that they accompanied him to the Imperial city, and he began to maintain a regular religious observance with them. In this way, as he records, their example proved an anchor-cable that held him fast to the peaceful shore of prayer while he was tossed on the restless waves of worldly affairs, and his studies in their company enabled him to refresh a mind distracted by earthly concerns. He was not only strengthened against the temptations of the world by their fellowship, but inspired to ever greater spiritual activity.
When these companions urged him to write a mystical commentary on the often obscure book of Job, he could not refuse a task imposed on him by brotherly affection, which would be of help to many people. So he first gave a clear exposition of its literal meaning in thirty-five sections, and followed by showing how the book refers to Christ and the sacraments of the Church, and in what sense it applies to all the faithful. He began this work when Papal representative in the Imperial city, and completed it in Rome after he became Pope. It was during his stay in Constantinople that Gregory, a mighty champion of Catholic truth, suppressed at its birth a new heresy about our state at the resurrection. For Eutyches, bishop of that city, taught that our bodies will then be impalpable, more intangible than wind and air: but when Gregory heard this, he quoted the example of our Lord’s Resurrection, and showed logically how this opinion was utterly opposed to the orthodox belief. For the Catholic belief is that the body is transfigured in the glory of immortality and refined by the operation of spiritual power, but remains palpable by reason of its nature. This is exemplified in our Lord’s risen body, of which he said: “Touch Me, and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see Me have.” In defense of the Faith, our venerable father Gregory contested this rising heresy so effectively that, with the help of the devout Emperor Tiberius Constantine, it was entirely suppressed, and no one has since been found to revive it.
Gregory also wrote a notable book, The Pastoral Office, in which he describes in clear terms the qualities essential in those who rule the Church, showing how they should live; how they should carefully instruct all their people; and how they should always bear in mind their own frailty. He also compiled forty Homilies on the Gospel, which he divided into two volumes. He wrote four books of Dialogues, in which at the request of his deacon Peter, he included the lives of the saints of Italy to serve as patterns of holy life for posterity. So whereas in his Commentaries he showed what virtues are necessary, in describing the miracles of the saints he made clear the potency of those virtues. In twenty-two homilies he also revealed the profound teaching latent in the early and latter parts of the prophet Ezekiel, which had hitherto remained very obscure. Further, he compiled a book of answers in reply to the questions of Saint Augustine, first bishop of the English nation….In conjunction with the bishops of Italy he also compiled the short Synodical Book, which deals with the administration of the Church. He also wrote a large number of personal letters. The extent of his writings is a source of amazement when one considers that throughout his youth he was often in agony from gastric pain, and frequently troubled by a slow fever. But in all these afflictions he reflected that holy scripture says: “The Lord scourgeth every son that He receiveth,” and the greater his worldly sufferings, the greater his assurance of eternal joy.
Much might be said of his imperishable genius, which was unimpaired even by the most severe physical afflictions; for while other popes devoted themselves to building churches and enriching them with costly ornaments, Gregory’s sole concern was to save souls. He regularly gave whatever money he had to relieve the poor, in order that “his righteousness might remain for ever, and his horn be exalted with honor.”…In addition to his deeds of kindness and justice, we should remember with gratitude how Gregory saved our nation from the grasp of the ancient Enemy by the preachers whom he sent us, and brought it into the abiding liberty of God. He was full of joy at its conversion and salvation, as he mentions in his Commentary on Job: “The Britons, who formerly knew only their own barbaric tongue, have long since begun to cry the Hebrew Alleluia to the praise of God. The once restless sea now lies quiet before the feet of His saints, and its ungovernable rages, which no earthly princes could tame by the sword, are now quelled at the simple word of His priests in the fear of God. Heathen nations who never trembled before armed hosts now accept and obey the teachings of the humble For now that the grace of the knowledge of God has enlightened them and they see His heavenly truths and mighty wonders, the fear of God restrains them from their former wickedness, and they desire with all their hearts to win the prize of eternal life.” Gregory also tells how the holy Augustine and his companions guided the English nation to knowledge of the truth both by their preaching and their miracles.
Among many other matters, blessed Pope Gregory decreed that Mass should be said over the tombs of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul in their churches. He also introduced into the Canon of the Mass three excellent and valuable petitions: Order our days in Thy peace, preserve us from eternal damnation, and number us in the flock of Thine elect, Through Christ our Lord.
Gregory ruled the Church during the reigns of the Emperors Maurice and Phocas, and in the second year of the latter’s reign he passed from this life and entered the true life of heaven. His body was laid to rest on March the fourth in the church of Saint Peter the Apostle before the sacristy, whence he will one day rise in glory with other shepherds of Holy Church. On his tomb was inscribed this epitaph:
Receive, O earth, the body that you gave,
Till God’s life-giving power destroy the grave.
His heaven-bound soul no deadly power, no strife
Can harm, whose death is but the gate of life.
The tomb of this high Pontiff, now at rest,
Recalls his life and deeds for ever blest.
He fed the hungry, and he clothed the chill,
And by his message saved their souls from ill.
Whate’er he taught, he first fulfilled in deed,
And proved a pattern in his people’s need.
To Christ he led the Angles, and by grace
To Faith and Church he added a new race.
O holy pastor, all your work and prayer
To God you offered with a shepherd’s care.
High place in heaven is your just reward,
In triumph and in joy before the Lord.
I must here relate a story which shows Gregory’s deep desire for the salvation of our nation. We are told that one day some merchants who had recently arrived in Rome displayed their many wares in the crowded market-place. Among other merchandise Gregory saw some boys exposed for sale. These had fair complexions, fine-cut features, and fair hair. Looking at them with interest, he enquired what country and race they came from. “They come from Britain,” he was told, “where all the people have this appearance.” He then asked whether the people were Christians, or whether they were still ignorant heathens. “They are pagans,” he was informed. “Alas!” said Gregory with a heartfelt sigh: “how sad that such handsome folk are still in the grasp of the Author of darkness, and that faces of such beauty conceal minds ignorant of God’s grace! What is the name of this race?” “They are called Angles,” he was told. “That is appropriate,” he said, ‘for they have angelic faces, and it is right that they should become fellow-heirs with the angels in heaven. And what is the name of their Province?” “Deira,” was the answer. “Good. They shall indeed be de ira, saved from wrath and called to the mercy of Christ. And what is the name of their king?” he asked. “Aella,” he was told. “Then must Alleluia be sung to the praise of God our Creator in their land,” said Gregory, making play on the name.
Approaching the Pope of the apostolic Roman see for he was not yet Pope himself Gregory begged him to send preachers of the word to the English people in Britain to convert them to Christ, and declared his own eagerness to attempt the task should the Pope see fit to direct it. But this permission was not forthcoming, for although the Pope himself was willing, the citizens of Rome would not allow Gregory to go so far away from the city. But directly Gregory succeeded to the Papacy himself, he put in hand this long cherished project and sent other missionaries in his place, assisting their work by his own prayers and encouragement. And I have thought it fitting to include this traditional story in the history of our Church.
BOOK I, CHAPTER XXIII
HOW POPE GREGORY SENT AUGUSTINE, WITH OTHER MONKS, TO PREACH TO THE ENGLISH NATION, AND ENCOURAGED THEM BY A LETTER OF EXHORTATION, NOT TO CEASE FROM THEIR LABOR. [A.D. 596.]
In the year of our Lord 582, Maurice, the fiftyfourth from Augustus, ascended the throne, and reigned twentyone years. In the tenth year of his reign, Gregory, a man renowned for learning and behavior, was promoted to the apostolical see of Rome, and presided over it thirteen years, six months and ten days. He, being moved by Divine inspiration, in the fourteenth year of the same emperor, and about the one hundred and fiftieth after the coming of the English into Britain, sent the servant of God, Augustine, and with him several other monks, who feared the Lord, to preach the word of God to the English nation. they having, in obedience to the pope’s commands, undertaken that work, were, on their journey, seized with a sudden fear, and began to think of returning home, rather than proceed to a barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation, to whose very language they were strangers; and this they unanimously agreed was the safest course. In short, they sent back. Augustine, who had been appointed to be consecrated bishop in case they were received by the English, that he might, by humble entreaty, obtain of the Holy Gregory, that they should not be compelled to undertake so dangerous, toilsome, and uncertain a journey. The pope, in reply, sent them a hortatory epistle, persuading them to proceed in the work of the Divine word, and rely on the assistance of the Almighty. The purport of which letter was as follows:
“Gregory, the servant of the servants of God, to the servants of our Lord. Forasmuch as it had been better not to begin a good work, than to think of desisting from that which has been begun, it behooves you, my beloved sons, to fulfill the good work, which, by the help of our Lord, you have undertaken. Let not, therefore, the toil of the journey, nor the tongues of evil speaking men, after you; but with all possible earnestness and zeal perform that which, by God’s direction, you have undertaken; being assured, that much labor is followed by an eternal reward. When Augustine, your chief, returns, whom we also constitute your abbot, humbly obey him in all things; knowing, that whatsoever you shall do by his direction, will, in all respects, be available to your souls. Almighty God protect you with his grace, and grant that I may, in the heavenly country, see the fruits of your labor. In Inasmuch as, though I cannot labor with you, I shall partake in the joy of the reward, because I am willing to labor. God keep you in safety, my most beloved sons. Dated the 23rd of July, in the fourteenth year of the reign of our pious and most august lord, Mauritius Tiberius, the thirteenth year after the consulship of our said lord. The fourteenth indiction.”
ST. AUGUSTINE, BEING MADE BISHOP, SENDS TO ACQUAINT POPE GREGORY WITH WHAT HAD BEEN DONE, AND RECEIVES HIS ANSWER TO THE DOUBTS HE HAD PROPOSED TO HIM. [A.D. 597.]
In the meantime, Augustine, the man of God, repaired to Arles, and, pursuant to the orders received from the holy Father Gregory, was ordained archbishop of the English nation, by Ætherius, archbishop of that city. Then returning into Britain, he sent Laurentius the priest, and Peter the monk, to Rome, to acquaint Pope Gregory, that the nation of the English had received the faith of Christ, and that he was himself made their bishop. At the same time, he desired his solution of some doubts that occurred to him. He soon received proper answers to his questions which we have also thought fit to insert in this, our history:
Augustine’s Second Question. —Whereas the faith is one and the same, why are there different customs in different churches? and why is one custom of masses observed in the holy Roman church, and another in the Gallican church?
Pope Gregory answers. —You know, my brother, the custom of the Roman church in which you remember you were bred up. But it pleases me, that if you have found anything, either in the Roman, or the Gallican, or any other church, which may be more acceptable to Almighty God, you carefully make choice of the same, and sedulously teach the church of the English, which as yet is new in the faith, whatsoever you can gather from the several churches. For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Choose, therefore, from every church those things that are pious, religious, and upright, and when you have, as it were, made them up into one body, let the minds of the English be accustomed thereto.
Augustine’s Seventh Question. —How are we to deal with the bishops of France and Britain?
Gregory answers. —We give you no authority over the bishops of France, because the bishop of Aries received the pall in ancient times from my predecessor, and we are not to deprive him of the authority he has received. If it shall therefore happen, my brother, that you go over into the province of France, you are to concert with the said bishop of Aries, how, if there be any faults among the bishops, they may be amended. And if he shall be lukewarm in keeping up discipline, he is to be corrected by your zeal; to whom we have also written, that when your holiness shall be in France, he may also use all his endeavors to assist you, and put away from the behavior of the bishops all that shall be opposite to the command of our Creator. But you, of your own authority, shall not have power to judge the bishops of France, but by persuading, soothing, and showing good works for them to imitate; you shall reform the minds of wicked men to the pursuit of holiness; for it is written in the Law, “When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbors, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbors’ standing corn. For thou mayest not apply the sickle of judgment in the harvest which seems to have been committed to another; but by the effect of good works thou shalt clear the Lord’s wheat of the chaff of their vices, and convert them into the body of the Church, as it were, by eating. But whatsoever is to be done by authority, must be transacted with the aforesaid bishop of Aries, lest that should be omitted, which the ancient institution of the fathers has appointed. But as for all the bishops of Britain, we commit them to your care, that the unlearned may be taught, the weak strengthened by persuasion, and the perverse corrected by authority.
A COPY OF THE LETTER WHICH POPE GREGORY SENT TO THE ABBOT MELLITUS, THEN GOING INTO BRITAIN. [A.D. 601.]
The aforesaid messengers being departed, the holy father, Gregory, sent after them letters worthy to be preserved in memory, wherein he plainly shows what care he took of the salvation of our nation. The letter was as follows:
“To his most beloved son, the Abbot Mellitus; Gregory, the servant of the servants of God. We have been much concerned, since the departure of our congregation that is with you, because we have received no account of the success of your journey. When, therefore, Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined upon, viz., that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavors to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. Thus the Lord made Himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt; and yet He allowed them the use of the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the Devil, in his own worship; so as to command them in his sacrifice to kill beasts, to the end that, changing their hearts, they might lay aside one part of the sacrifice, whilst they retained another; that whilst they offered the same beasts which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to God, and not to idols; and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices. This it behooves your affection to communicate to our aforesaid brother, that he, being there present, may consider how he is to order all things. God preserve you in safety, most beloved son.
“Given the 17th of June, in the nineteenth year of the reign of our lord, the most pious emperor, Mauritius Tiberius, the eighteenth year after the consulship of our said lord. The fourth indiction.”
POPE GREGORY, BY LETTER, EXHORTS AUGUSTINE NOT TO GLORY IN HIS MIRACLES. [A.D. 601.]
At which time he also sent Augustine a letter concerning the miracles that he had heard had been wrought by him; wherein he admonishes him not to incur the danger of being puffed up by the number of them. The letter was in these words:
“I know, most loving brother, that Almighty God, by means of your affection, shows great miracles in the nation which He has chosen. Wherefore it is necessary that you rejoice with fear, and tremble whilst you rejoice, on account of the same heavenly gift; viz., that you may rejoice because the souls of the English are by outward miracles drawn to inward grace; but that you fear, lest, amidst the wonders that are wrought, the weak mind may be puffed up in its own presumption, and as it is externally raised to honor, it may thence inwardly fall by vainglory. For we must call to mind, that when the disciples returned with joy after preaching, and said to their heavenly Master, ‘Lord, in thy name, even the devils are subject to us;’ they were presently told, ‘Do not rejoice on this account, but rather rejoice for that your names are written in heaven.’ For they placed their thoughts on private and temporal joy , when they rejoiced in miracles; but they are recalled from the private to the public, and from the temporal to the eternal joy, when it is said to them, ‘Rejoice for this, because your names are written in heaven.’ For all the elect do not work miracles, and yet the names of all are written in heaven. For these who are disciples of the truth ought not to rejoice, save for that good thing which all men enjoy as well as they, and of which their enjoyment shall be without end. It remains, therefore, most dear brother, that amidst those things, which through the working of our Lord, you outwardly perform, you always inwardly strictly judge yourself, and clearly understand both what you are yourself, and how much grace is in that same nation, for the conversion of which you have also received the gift of working miracles. And if you remember that you have at any time offended our Creator, either by word or deed, that you always call it to mind, to the end that the remembrance of your guilt may crush the vanity which rises in your heart. And whatsoever you shall receive, or have received, in relation to working miracles, that you consider the same, not as conferred on you, but on those for whose salvation it has been given you.”