The Papacy: Gregory the Great (590-604)

The future Gregory “The Great” descended from a rich and well-established Roman family (he was the great-great-grandson of Pope Felix III, the chosen leader of the church by Theodoric the Goth). His father was a senator and Prefect of Rome. Early in his career, Gregory was enmeshed in civic life. Coming from a patrician dynasty which had long ingratiated itself with the absolute rule of the church, Gregory’s family owned a palatial villa in Rome upon Caelian Hill, near the Colosseum and Palatine Hill where the palaces of the former Emperors once lay. Like his father, Gregory pursued a career in government and eventually he rose to the position of Prefect of Rome at the young age of thirty-three. However, when his father died, Gregory’s life took a turn. He immediately began remodeling his family’s vast estates in Rome and Sicily, transforming them into Christian churches and monasteries. In quiet contemplation, Gregory lived like a monk for years, an ascetic period he would later describe as the happiest in his life.

Gregory was a deep believer in the monastic life. With the decline of the old order in the West came a new form of monasticism founded by St. Benedict, and Gregory was deeply impacted by Benedict’s movement. He much preferred the ascetic life to the whims of politics, however Pope Benedict I soon appointed Gregory to a deaconship which sent him eastward to Constantinople (his appointment was extended under Pope Pelagius II, as well). While despising his time in Constantinople (and refusing to learn Greek) Gregory nevertheless ingratiated himself in the court of the Byzantine Emperor.

In AD 590, Pope Pelagius II died of the plague and there were few suitable successors to the Papal See aside from Gregory. Thus Gregory was hailed back to Rome from Constantinople, which began a consequential 14-year reign as head of the church.

At the time, the Italian peninsula was decimated by war, famine, and plague. The old order of Rome was unraveling while a collection of strongmen ruled the countryside. There was widespread acceptance of magical thinking –from miracles and prophecies to exorcism, sainthood, and relic-worship. Gregory’s early efforts were to better organize the church’s economic bureaucracy (an inheritance of Rome). He made the management of the Italian landed estates more efficient by cleaning up the papal chancery, civil service, and military. Meanwhile, Gregory faced political hostilities from the Byzantines, and more immediate threats of invasion from the Lombards in the north. Against the wishes of Constantinople, Gregory managed to negotiate a peace treaty with the Lombards, and he also made huge efforts to “Christianize” greater Europe –Visigothic Spain, Frankish Gaul, and Anglo-Saxon Britain (Gregory was the lead proponent behind St. Augustine of Canterbury’s famous visit to Kent which ultimately converted the British isle to Christianity).

Gregory was immensely popular because he stood for strength, peace, law, and order. He orchestrated the Patrimony of Peter, a charitable fund to benefit the poor, he became the namesake for the plainsong “Gregorian Chant,” and he was the first to refer to himself as the “Servant of the servants of God” (servus servorum Dei). His extensive writings –including both dialogues and theological exegeses– were widely popular in his day. Alongside St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome, Gregory was named has been dubbed one of the four “Doctors of the Church.” He wrote an immense body of work, and to this day, he is the only pope between the fifth and eleventh centuries whose writings have survived in somewhat complete form. These writings include works on the Book of Job, Pastoral Care (Liber regulae pastoralis), dialogues on miracles and healings performed by holy men in the sixth century, sermons, commentaries, epistles, and a biography of St. Benedict.

In closing, I offer the last word on Gregory The Great to John Julius Norwich: “Amid the general dégringolade, the figure of Gregory the Great shone out like a beacon. He stood for integrity, for order, and for the Christian faith, which alone offered hope for a better and happier world. At heart, nevertheless, he remained a humble monk, crying on the traditions of his hero, St. Benedict, in every way he could. It was perhaps because of this humility -for no man was ever less spoiled by power- that he was genuinely loved, so much so the he was hardly in his grave before his people demanded that he should immediately be made a saint. The title of ‘The Great’ came later; both were abundantly deserved” (50).

For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

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