St. Gregory the Great:
Father of the Eternal City
By Gabriel Blanchard
It is almost never true that anyone singlehandedly saved a whole community; it might be true of Gregory the Great.
The sixth century was a time of chaos. Rome was no longer a capital; that now lay over eight hundred miles away at Byzantium. Moreover, under the pressure of repeated invasions by the Goths, the West Roman Empire had collapsed. The Byzantines had swept out to reclaim the overrun territories, with just enough success to turn much of Italy, Iberia, and the Maghreb into realms neither power could securely keep; but the East had its own problems. Theological disputes about the nature of Christ had fractured the Church, especially in Egypt and Syria (provinces coveted by Persia), and the emperors’ many attempts to achieve reunion had proven disastrous. A pandemic struck in 541, the first eruption of bubonic plague, which crept westward the next year, bringing famine in its train. Rome, once the queen of the Mediterranean, had become a ghost town.
It was into this world that Gregory was born. His family, the gens Anicia, were prominent in the affairs of both state and Church: on the one side, for hundreds of years, they had produced many senators and officials (like Boëthius); on the other, they had been among the first noble families in Rome to embrace Christianity, and Gregory was himself the great-great-grandson of Pope Felix III.* Gregory was highly educated for his day, and served as the prefect of Rome, an office then more or less equivalent to governorship, when he was only in his early thirties.
After his father’s death, Gregory became a monk, selling the family’s property in Sicily and converting their Roman villa into a monastery. (What monastic rule he and his little community followed is not known for certain, but it is widely thought that it must have been St. Benedict‘s, which he would later promote.) There he might have remained to the end of his days, if not for Pope Pelagius II,** who ordained him a deacon and enlisted him as his apocrisiary—a kind of ecclesiastical diplomat in the imperial court at Byzantium. In 579, Gregory duly sailed eastward, bringing word from the Pope beseeching the emperor to send aid to Italy against the invading Lombards. The appeal was unsuccessful, and Gregory, who did not even speak Greek, seems to have become convinced that Rome could expect nothing from the Roman emperors in future. He kept himself busy writing a commentary on the Book of Job, often called the Moralia; this voluminous work (his longest) showed the patristic style of commentary, interpreting the text on multiple levels throughout.
By 586, Gregory had been recalled to Rome. It was probably around this time that he had a famous encounter in the Forum. He noticed a group of young men who had striking golden hair (St. Bede reports that they were slaves, but earlier tellings suggest they were free visitors), and asked who they were; on being told that they were Angli, Angles, the saint replied that they should instead be called Angeli, angels. Corniness aside, he conceived an intense desire to evangelize the people, and received permission from Pelagius II to go to Britain and found a mission. However, only a few days after Gregory’s departure, the Roman populace learned of it and were outraged—they would not be deprived of his talented leadership again, and they chased him down and brought him back to the city.
It may have disappointed him, but it was a good move for the Romans. More disasters struck the city in 589, including unprecedented floods and, perhaps thanks to a consequent insect bloom, another epidemic. Pelagius II died of it the following year. The custom at the time was that the people of the city chose their bishop, who would later be confirmed by the emperor in Constantinople; the man they chose was Gregory. Horrified at the prospect of permanently losing the peace of his monastic life, he wrote to the emperor, imploring him not to confirm the election; however, the prefect of Rome apparently just quietly suppressed the letter and sent the normal announcement to Byzantium instead! The emperor assented, and Gregory thus became Pope Gregory I, later named “the Great.”
Reluctant though he was, he proved as energetic as ever. On assuming the Petrine throne, he began a massive overhaul of the Church’s charity, introducing a system of accounting that could accommodate the extremely diverse donations received from the wealthy (including money, food, personal property, and real estate) and help streamline the relief already offered by the Church. Nor did Gregory expect systems alone to do the work: he actively pursued those in need of aid and expected his subordinates to behave the same way, rebuking them tartly for any sluggishness and replacing them if the problem continued; for those who were homeless or not healthy enough to collect the alms they qualified for, he sent agents out on a daily basis to bring them food. It is even reported that for those “genteel poor” who were in need despite living in inherited finery, he would sent food as a gift in order to spare them embarrassment.
Nor was assiduous, and administratively streamlined, charity Pope Gregory’s only interest. He instituted major reforms in the Roman liturgy, most of which are still in place today, even after further changes in the sixteenth and twentieth centuries; he also composed most of what is now known as the Liturgy of the Presanctified, a rite used frequently in Lent in the Orthodox Church. It is also for him that “Gregorian chant” is named (although he did not originate it). And he followed up on his old ambition to evangelize the Angles by commissioning a Benedictine monk named Augustine to travel to the Anglian part of Britain—or, as it was known to its natives, Engla-land—and preach the Christian faith to them.
But all this shows St. Gregory to be merely a great man; the world abounds in great men, albeit it has much larger helpings of the other sorts. He finds his place on our Author Bank thanks to his writings. We have already mentioned the Moralia, and his sermons on the book of Ezekiel and on the Gospels are celebrated patristic works as well. His Dialogues were extremely popular, and he is known in some places as “Gregory the Dialogist”: they are a compendium of the reputed miracles of many holy men, especially St. Benedict.
However, his greatest work was doubtless Regula Pastoralis.† This was a guide to the qualifications and duties of a bishop, and set its standards exceedingly high; ironically, given the saint’s own incapacity with Greek, Emperor Maurice was so impressed with the work that he had it translated from Latin and distributed throughout the East Roman Empire. It was also among the books that the mission to the Angles carried with them; nearly three hundred years later, it was still so influential that King Alfred the Great translated it into Anglo-Saxon. It is a work of incisive wisdom, as even its chapter titles can show: Chapter 9 of Book I is on how “the mind of those who wish for pre-eminence for the most part flatters itself with a feigned promise of good works,” and the whole of Book III describes how to shepherd and, when necessary, rebuke people in different circumstances or with different temperaments. The moral and spiritual subtlety of his work is of value not only as a piece of history, but as a guide to present maturation.
*There were of course many historical popes who were dubiously celibate (which occasionally resulted in pontifical “dynasties”); however, it is only fair to note that Felix was not one of them. Clerical celibacy was not mandatory at the time in any case, and Felix was a widower with two children when he was elected Pope.
**Neither Pope of this name should be confused with the infamous moralist combatted by St. Augustine of Hippo. The name Pelagius was not uncommon at the time, being in fact the Latin equivalent of the Welsh name Morgan.
†This title is a bit fiddly: it was also called Liber Regulæ Pastoralis or Cura Pastoralis, with translations ranging from “Pastoral Care” to “The Book of Pastoral Rule.”
Gabriel Blanchard (a sinner) is CLT’s editor-at-large. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, consider repenting of your sins; additionally, you might enjoy these profiles of David Hume and Albert Camus, or these pieces from our “Great Conversation” series on the ideas of change and the world. And be sure to check out CLT’s official podcast, Anchored.
Published on 14th November, 2022.