Pope St. Gregory the Great — (†604 AD) said, “Learn of the Heart of God in the words of God so that you may ardently long for eternal things.”
The Life of Saint Gregory the Great
By Sister Catherine Goddard Clark, M.I.C.M.
Pope Saint Gregory the Great not only saved the Church, in times so frightful that the men who lived in them were sure that the end of the world was come, but he founded the great civilization which has lasted down to our day and of which we are part, Western Civilization. All alone, in the midst of famine and pestilence, floods and earthquakes, endangered by Greeks and barbarians alike, and abandoned by the Emperor, Pope Gregory, frail and ailing in body but strong and undaunted in spirit, succored and saved his people, his city, his country, and the whole of Christendom.
The great Roman Empire which for three hundred years had persecuted the Christians and driven them underground to the catacombs, had for all of that time been in the process of decay. In 476, the thing was completed. The Empire in the West fell. It fell to the barbarian invaders not as the outcome of a great battle, but as the inglorious petering out of something that had been worse than dead for a long, long time.
There came to replace the soft and decadent, overrefined and grossly weak civilization of Rome, the rude and uncouth, unmannerly and brutal, but also strong and virile and young and convertible German nations, which for two centuries had been on the march, mysteriously moving as without purpose, on the one hand, and as if in response to a divine summons on the other. History calls it the "migration of nations." In wave after wave, invasion after invasion, they streamed across Europe. They thundered down from the North, came up from the South, across from the East, and one by one they stormed the gates of Rome.
They were a strange mixture, these nations, of good and bad, gentle and rapacious, but their lives were distinguished by a purity more vigorous than the Romans' and their respect and treatment of women, despite their rude manners and coarse living, far exceeded the Romans'. It is true of them that:
". . .The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner. By the Lord this has been done; and it is wonderful in our eyes.
"Therefore I say to you, that the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and shall be given to a nation yielding the fruits thereof." (Matt. 21: 42, 43.)
The Graeco-Romans had had their chance and, like the Jews, the first chosen people, they had failed. Centuries of patient labor on the part of the Church would pass before the wild tribes who replaced the "stone of the corner" could be taught and tamed and civilized, but once the long work was accomplished, Christ the King and His Queen Mother would be given the generous, glorious, unselfish ages of chivalry, the Crusades, and -- the Thirteenth Century. The world would have known Gregory the Great, Leo III, Gregory VII, Innocent III, Boniface VIII, Bede, John Damascene, Peter Damian, Anselm, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Gertrude, and a thousand others.
Pope Saint Gregory's boyhood was laden with the catastrophes which followed one upon the other as the aftermath of the fall of Rome to the barbarians in 476. It is true that Saint Gregory was not born until 540, but so without violence had been the surrender of the mighty city whose legions had once been the terror of the world, that for some time after 476 Rome went on almost as usual, almost without knowing that the Empire had been destroyed. The full impact of the revolution was not felt until the next century.
The first barbarian ruler of Italy, Odoacer, actually ruled in a more orderly and gentle fashion than the last of the weak and depraved Roman Emperors. The Church was comparatively unmolested during the reign of Odoacer, even though he was an Arian. For not only had Arianism not died out, despite the Church's pronouncements against it council after council, but two hundred years after its beginning we find it flourishing in the West. It was, ironically, introduced into the West in full force by the invading barbarians, who had been converted not to orthodox Christianity during their sojourns in the East, but to Arianism.
The Arian barbarians, wildly loyal to their strange mixture of heretical Christianity and leftovers from their former nature worship, fiercely hated the one true Church of Jesus Christ. Saint Gregory of Tours describes the Visigothic King Euric: "This King of the Goths began a grievous persecution of the Christians in Gaul. Everywhere he beheaded those who would not conform to his perverse doctrine. He cast priests into prison, the doors of the holy churches he ordered to be blocked with briers, that only a few might enter and the Faith might pass into oblivion. . . ."
This being everywhere the case, Europe, by the beginning of Pope Saint Gregory's century, inundated by six barbarian nations, had seen its orthodox Catholicism replaced by the cults of the pagan Anglo-Saxons in Britain, the pagan Franks in Northern France, the Arian Visigoths in Southern France and Spain, the Arian Ostrogoths in Italy, the Arian Vandals in North Africa, and the Arian Burgundians in Eastern France. And from what happened in these nations, it would seem as if heresy were more distasteful to God than sheer paganism. For the pagan can, after all, be converted to pure Catholicism, whereas the heretic, perversely holding that what he has is the Faith, puts himself forever beyond its reach.
This is most clearly to be seen in the two nations, France and England, which were conquered by pagans. France, brought again to the Faith through the conversion of its King, Clovis, became the "eldest daughter of the Church." England, its reconversion begun through Pope Gregory's commission of Saint Augustine of Canterbury to the English in 596, provided one of the greatest consolations of the holy Pontiff's life. Arianism, on the other hand, so weakened Spain that for eight hundred years it became prey to the Moors. The Arian Goths in Italy and the Arian Burgundians in Eastern France delayed the progress of the lands they had conquered. All their plans failed, lacking the blessing of God; they became a spiritless people, and finally died out.
Pope Saint Gregory -- who would not only bring order out of all this, but would, as well, lay the foundation for the great Middle Ages -- was born around the year 540 of the last of the old Roman families illustrious for generations of noble achievement. His was, an even more lasting conquest, a family of saints. Pope Saint Felix III was his ancestor, and both Gregory's parents, renouncing their immense fortunes and vast estates, consecrated themselves to God, to spend their last years in the service of His Church. Pope Gregory's father, Gordianus, was a Roman senator and at the height of his renown when he retired to enter religion, and to become eventually one of the seven cardinal-deacons in charge of the poor and the suffering in the hospitals of Rome. Gregory's mother, Sylvia, left him to enter a small oratory near Saint Paul's in Rome, where she led a life of such austerity and holiness that she was a constant edification to the Catholics of Rome during her lifetime, and was canonized by the church after her death. The feast of Saint Sylvia is celebrated every year on November 3. And that is not all. Besides his mother, two of Saint Gregory's aunts were canonized. They are his father's sisters, Saints Tarsilla and Aemiliana, of whom Pope Gregory often speaks in his writings.
Gregory's youth, however, was a sad one. He tells us himself that for all of his boyhood Rome was under siege by one barbarian conqueror after another. Within a period of less than twenty years, the suffering city was taken and retaken six times. Roman senators and people alike were massacred. The terrible Lombard nation, which for over two hundred years would plague the Church, surpassed in cruelty all the conquerors who had come before it. The Lombards laid waste the cities, despoiled the towns and villages, burned the churches, tore down the monasteries, desolated the farms and left the entire countryside destitute of inhabitants, with none to till the soil, care for the starving animals, or work upon the land.
Nowhere any longer, over the once gay and happy Italian countryside, could there be heard the cry of a child; nowhere any longer could there be seen the bent forms of the aged praying in their chairs in the sun. Saint Gregory writes of the terrible massacre by the Lombards of the forty Christian prisoners who refused to adore a goat's head which had been consecrated to the devil. He tells of the sacrifice to the Lombard gods of steadfast Italian peasants who refused to eat the food which had been the previous sacrifice, and which was set before the poor Catholics in sheer mockery of their own adorable Blessed Sacrament.
And all the while, as the barbarians ravaged even the great Monastery of Monte Cassino, which Saint Benedict had built and in which he had lived, as plagues devastated the people and the peasants died of hunger in their huts, and wild animals came down from the hills to devour the unburied dead, the agents of the Greek Emperor in the East -- supposed, since Justinian's defeat of the Goths in 553, to be the protectors of the city -- conducted a "black market" in food and supplies. They had seized the food solely for the purpose of forcing from the famished people impossible prices for barely enough to keep life in their bodies.
It is not surprising, therefore, with these sad memories never far from his mind that Saint Gregory should, at the age of thirty, after the completion of his law studies, accept the Prefecture of Rome, the highest civil dignity in the city. From this vantage point, he reasoned, he could himself protect the people, and himself administer the seven sovereign hills, as his ancestors had done before him. The people came eventually to know and to love him, and to depend on him for their safety.
But even the consciousness of great public service performed after the manner of noble family tradition did not satisfy Gregory's soul. His must be a complete giving, a full surrender, and charity to his neighbor was not enough. Such a pouring out of oneself upon one's fellow man can only be spiritually effective, he had come to learn, when it is done from a heart utterly given first to God, and when the love expended is Jesus' love, coming from the mortified, consecrated hands of his religious. And so the day came when, after much prayer and inward struggle, he "who had been wont to go about the city clad in the trabea and aglow with silk and jewels, now clad in a worthless garment served the altar of the Lord."
The Prefect Gregory, like his parents, disposed of his goods and dedicated himself to the service of his Lord in poverty, chastity and obedience. He became a Benedictine monk. His place on the Caelian Hill he turned into the Monastery of Saint Andrew. His large estates in Sicily he gave as sites for six other monasteries, each of which he carefully endowed before he turned over the remainder of his fortune for the care of the poor.
He entered Saint Andrew's Monastery, and for three years lived a life of retirement. He spoke later of these years as "the happiest portion of my life." He counted as nothing his severe austerities, his many enforced hours without sleep, and his long fasts, although these have been said to have been the cause of the great physical infirmities he endured for all the rest of his life. He was obliged often, when he was Pope, to spend parts of each day in bed; sometimes he was not able to rise for several days.
Once, when Saint Gregory was at Saint Andrew's, the news of his illness reached the ears of his mother, Sylvia, in her convent close by. That practical and holy woman immediately betook herself to the convent garden, where she gathered some tender young vegetables, which she washed and prepared for him, herself. When they were cooked, as a final token of her love, she placed them in the silver dish which was the very last of all her tremendous possessions, and thus she sent them off to him. Years later, this dish was to figure in one of the many miraculous happenings which filled the life of Pope Gregory, purchased not only by his heroic sufferings, but also by his mother's sacrifices, constant and unending, for the love of Jesus Christ.
However, the thought of becoming Pope was farthest from Saint Gregory's mind at this time. He asked for nothing more than to be allowed to spend the rest of his life in the monastery on the Caelian Hill, "in contemplation above all changeable and decaying things, and think of nothing but the things of Heaven," as he later wrote in his Dialogues. "How my soul, though pent within the body, soared beyond its fleshly prison and looked with longing upon death itself as the means of entering into life!"
But our ways are not God's ways, and it soon became clear, after his third year at Saint Andrew's, that days of quiet prayer and contemplative work were not to be Gregory's portion for much longer. In 578, quite against his will, Pope Benedict I made him one of the seven deacons of Rome. And a little later on, when word was received that the Lombards were again advancing on the city and the only chance of possible help against them lay with the Emperor of the East, Pope Pelagius II sent Deacon Gregory far away from Rome. He sent him as his permanent ambassador to the Byzantine court, at Constantinople.
Saint Gregory remained at Constantinople for six years. And nothing could be less to his liking than the brilliant, protocol-heavy, worldly court of the Emperor Tiberius; and no post was more important. During the tedious time of his nunciature, Saint Gregory came by a knowledge of the situation in the East which stood him in good stead years later in the papacy, and solved for him many a problem which otherwise might have been a serious stumbling block to him. He was unable, during these years, to obtain help for Rome, but he learned the lesson that never could help be expected from Constantinople as long as it remained as it was, and he saw no hope of its changing.
It was all too apparent to the holy Benedictine monk that the Empire in the East was hopelessly the slave of its passions, hopelessly enmeshed in waste and greed and luxurious living, its forces dissipated and its vision fearfully dimmed. He was sick for the plight of the land from which the twelve Apostles had gone out, without scrip or staff or bread or money, to conquer the world for Jesus Christ; sick for the land which had felt the spatter upon it of the blood of the martyrs, who thought life little enough to pay for one Holy Communion; sick for the land which had known the presence of Jerome, the voice of Chrysostom, the song of Ephrem, the austerities of Anthony and his army of holy men who dwelt solitary and alone in the desert so that, undisturbed by the world, they might hold sweet converse with Jesus.
Saint Gregory found the subservience of the bishops -- and in particular of the Patriarch of Constantinople -- to the person of the Emperor, begun in the days of Constantine, grown until, under Tiberius and Maurice it reached a point of servility which offered a serious indignity to God. It could truthfully be said that the Emperor drew the Patriarch of Constantinople in his train, the Patriarch drew all the bishops of the East in his train, and the whole episcopal body came justly by its sad title of "the Emperor's Episcopate."
Saint Gregory, as nuncio, was obliged to live in the Emperor's palace. He had there ever before him the sickening spectacle of the Patriarch and the bishops perpetually bowing to the wishes of the Emperor, or of the Empress, and fulfilling to the letter everything they asked of them. He saw with his own eyes, too, how deeply the heresies fostered within the Eastern Church had wounded the Faith and sapped the once vigorous life of the Church. And he was filled with alarm at the stubborn straining of each succeeding Patriarch to be independent of the Bishop of Rome.
The claims of the Bishop of "New Rome" -- Constantinople -- to the honors of the Bishop of ancient Rome scandalized Gregory, especially since the Patriarchs based their claims not upon Jesus Christ nor Saint Peter, but upon the residence of the Emperors in their city. It may be that Gregory foresaw the great schism of Patriarch Photius, still three hundred years away. He certainly clearly discerned the danger to the Church, and there is no doubt but that the foreboding was heavy upon him that one day the teeming center of Christian life would pass from the proud Emperor-worshiping, fawning East. That he himself would unwittingly be the one forced to inaugurate it, he had no way then of knowing.
In the hope of preserving as much of his monastic life as possible, in the midst of the clamor of the Greek court, Saint Gregory had brought with him from Saint Andrew's a little band of monks. As often as he could, he withdrew with them and with his friend, Leander of Spain, to pray and meditate upon the Holy Scriptures. From the conferences which he gave in these peaceful hours came the indescribably beautiful Book of Morals on Job, Saint Gregory's first book, dedicated to Leander, Archbishop of Seville, who was to work so closely with when he became Pope and whom the Church honors on her altars as Saint Leander, of Seville.
It was while he was in Constantinople that Saint Gregory came to grips with the heresy of Eutychius (not to be confused with Eutyches, the father of the Monophysite heresy, who held that there is but one nature in Jesus). Eutychius was, as might be expected, the Patriarch of Constantinople. His heresy, and he had even gone so far as to write a book setting forth his views, concerned the resurrection of our bodies on the last day of the world -- their appearance and the powers which glorified bodies will have. After the resurrection he said, our restored bodies will be "impalpable, more light than air." They will, he explained, be intangible; barely able to be seen, much less touched. They will be visible as air is visible, nothing more.
Saint Gregory tried to reason with Eutychius, but it was of no use. Vainly, he pointed out to him the Church's dogma of the resurrection of the flesh. Vainly, he implored him to remember that Jesus Himself had made the doctrine perfectly clear when He said to His Apostles, after His Resurrection: "See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. See that I am He. Touch and see (palpate et videte) because a spirit flesh and bones does not have, as you see Me to have." (Luke 24:39)
So long did the controversy rage, and so bitter did it become, that the Emperor finally intervened. He decided that Gregory was right, and Eutychius wrong, and he ordered Eutychius to burn his book. However, the strain had so worn out the combatants that both fell ill, and Eutyches died. On his deathbed, the Patriarch became contrite. He took hold of the skin of one of his arms and in a voice that all could hear, he cried, "I profess that we will all rise in this flesh!"
It is true Catholic doctrine, of course, that our glorified bodies shall have astounding qualities of agility and clarity that will make them, for any needs, lighter than air or swifter than light. Our Lord, after His Resurrection, appeared in the midst of His Apostles even though the doors were closed, and as suddenly He disappeared, when He had finished talking with them, without the Apostles having seen whence He had come or whither He had gone. But it will not be for the sake of destroying it as a body that these new qualities will be given. Indeed, it is of the Catholic Faith that we shall arise in the same body in which we died, and to deprive that body of the visibility and tangibility required for its glory, its triumph and its love, was the clear intent of the heresy of Eutychius, who wanted to turn it into an unincarnational spirit for the sake of his own proud desires.
We will one day, so our infallible Church assures us, see our loved ones once again in the flesh. We will be able once more to talk with them, to hear them speak, to hold their hands, as Jesus walked and talked with His loved ones after His Resurrection; as He holds converse now with His Blessed Mother and, undoubtedly, with Saint Joseph, as they await us in their glorified bodies in the Kingdom of Our Father.
Saint Gregory was recalled to Rome in 586. Greatly rejoicing, he returned to his monastery, to be acclaimed its abbot. He found Rome again beset with calamities. The hand of God still lay heavy upon it. Floods and tempests battered it, and earthquakes rocked it. But worst of all, to Gregory, the spirit of the world had crept, in his absence, into his monastery. He took sad note, not of any scandalous irregularities, but of a general relaxing of the holy detachment from the goods of the world which had been a pledge, in the early days, of the continued holiness of Saint Andrew's.
Finally, to his relief, it all came to a head. One of the monks confessed to his assembled brothers, as he lay dying, that he had concealed in his bed three gold coins. This violation of holy poverty so shocked and so grieved Gregory that he decided to punish the erring monk in such a way that the rest of the monastery would not soon forget "the heinousness of a sin that recalled that of Judas." And so he ordered that when Brother Justus was dead, his body should lie, not in the little cemetery of Saint Andrew's, but "should be put in a dunghill together with the three crowns," and all the monks were to cry with one voice as it was being let down to the earth, "Thy money be with thee unto perdition!"
Now, Saint Gregory tells us in his Dialogues that the monk died contrite and penitent and he, out of compassion for his soul, offered up thirty consecutive Masses. On the thirtieth day, Brother Justus appeared to one of his brothers and told him that he was delivered from Purgatory. The joy of the chastened monastery knew no bounds. And God was so pleased with the discipline and charity of his servant Gregory that we find the story preserved down to our own time in the well-known "Gregorian Masses," said on thirty consecutive days for the repose of the souls of the loved ones for whom we continue, to this day, to request them.
It was while he was at Saint Andrew's for the second time that Saint Gregory's famous meeting with the English slaves took place, in the Roman Forum. He came upon the tall, blond youths as they were being sold, and he asked from whence they had come.
"They are Angles, " he was told.
"Angles?" he exclaimed. "Say rather they are angels! What a pity that God's grace does not dwell within those beautiful brows!"
He purchased all of the handsome slaves, brought them back with him to the monastery, cared for them, and instructed and baptized them. He was, finally, so taken with them that he burned to be off on a mission to convert their whole country. And he actually was able to win the permission of Pope Pelagius II to set out with some of his monks for England, and this in spite of the fact that he was of invaluable service to the Pope, having been for some time Pelagius' chief adviser and, for all practical purposes, his secretary.
When the people of Rome, however, learned that Gregory had left them, they were both inconsolable for his loss and angry with the Pope for allowing him to go. They indignantly demanded that he be recalled, and they would not rest until they were assured that messengers had been sent to bring him back, by force if necessary. The papal messengers overtook the little party when they were three days out on the road, and they not only persuaded Gregory to return, but bore him back to Rome in triumph.
It would, alas, be necessary for Saint Gregory to think of another way to evangelize the Angles and Saxons and induce them to substitute for their pagan gods the one true Faith of Jesus Christ, which they had all but wiped out in England during their invasion of it. But to those who love God, all things conspire to the good. Saint Gregory never forgot his young English sons, and one of the most notable acts of his pontificate was the sending, in 596, of the prior Augustine and forty of his monks from Saint Andrew's to preach the Faith to the English. The enormous success of this mission earned for England, in the long Catholic centuries before the Protestant revolt, the exquisite honor of being called the land which was "Our Lady's Dowry." It earned for Gregory the title of Apostle to the English, and for the Italian Monk, Augustine, it earned the distinction of being known forever in Heaven and on earth as Saint Augustine of Canterbury!
In 589, the rains and the floods which deluged Italy threatened once and for all to submerge the peninsula. Homes, farms, government houses were carried off in the raging waters, to be dashed to pieces in the headlong rush and float as driftwood out into the sea. The Tiber River next overflowed its banks, and in the twinkling of an eye, the great Church granaries bulging with corn were filled with water, and the precious food hopelessly destroyed.
Pestilence then stalked the streets of Rome, and the corpses of the dead piled up in the silent thoroughfares, to await common burial in the pits outside the walls. When things were at their darkest, at the very height of the misery, a blow more devastating than all the rest descended upon the prostrate Romans. Word came that Pope Pelagius had fallen victim of the dread plague. The Church was left without a head, and Rome without a protector. After the first shock of the Pope's death, the eyes of the Romans turned to Gregory. At that time it was within the power of the clergy, the senate, and the people to elect a new Pope. And this they did without any hesitation. They chose Gregory -- much to his consternation.
Saint Gregory strove to escape the honors and the burdens of the papacy not from any lack of supreme reverence for the holy office of Christ's Vicar, but undoubtedly because he felt his own inadequacy for the sublime mission, and because he believed that the surest way to obtain help and healing for the sick and shaken world around him was by prayer and mortification. He was first of all a monk, and his was a monk's reaction to the glare of the world and the undertaking of immense burdens which would consume precious hours hitherto spent in prayer and union with God. Under his inspiration and guidance, the monks of Saint Andrew's had become renowned for holiness, learning, and untiring charity, and he knew that it is by such means that mountains are moved and empires turned to love of God.
Saint Gregory's letters, of which we have, fortunately, eight hundred and fifty preserved for us in fourteen books, give, of course, the best possible account of his thoughts. He poured his heart out to Saint Leander on the subject of his leaving his monastery.
"Following the way of my Head," he wrote, "I had resolved to be the scorn of men, the outcast of the people. But the burden of this honor weighs me down; innumerable cares pierce me like swords. There is no rest of the heart. I was tranquil in my monastery. The tempest arose; I am in the waves, suffering with the loss of quiet a shipwreck of mind. The gout oppresses you; I also am terribly pained by it. It will be well if, under the strokes of the scourge, we perceive them to be gifts, by which the sense of the flesh may atone for sins which delights of the flesh may have led us to commit. . . The shortness of my letter will show how weak and occupied I am, who say so little to one I love so much."
Saint Gregory wrote to the Emperor Maurice, begging him not to confirm his election. The Prefect of the city intercepted the letter and substituted for it one of his own, in which he, in his turn, begged Maurice to confirm the election at once. In the meantime, the clergy and the people prevailed upon Gregory to take charge of the affairs of the Holy See until the traditional formality of asking the Emperor's confirmation was complied with, and word received in reply from Maurice.
The pestilence increased in intensity. When the people seemed unable to bear it any longer, Saint Gregory mounted the pulpit of Saint Peter's, and despite an almost overpowering illness and his inability to ever raise his poor, weak voice above a certain pitch, he preached a sermon so comforting and so reassuring that the hearts of the people were raised to hope. He promised that the whole stricken city would so bombard heaven with prayers that God and His Mother would find it impossible to resist them. To this end, he asked that the people join in a huge procession, to set out from each of the seven regions of Rome and all to come together at the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They were to storm Heaven with their prayers on the way, to entreat God to lift from their afflicted city the terrible plague which He had allowed to come upon it, and to ask Him to forgive them their sins.
The great procession set out, each of the seven divisions from its appointed place. There marched: the clergy of Rome, the monks, the nuns, the children, the laymen, the widows, the married women, each group led by a priest from one of the seven areas of the city. And as they wended their dolorous way, eighty of the marchers fell dead of the plague.
It must have been a moving sight even for the august court of Heaven, to look down upon this slow advance of desperately praying people, holding lighted tapers and chanting with feverish voices the Kyrie eleison. It must have looked, from Heaven, as if a great seven-branched candlestick were ablaze upon one whole corner of the earth. And the ancient cry of the Kyrie eleison -- "Lord have mercy" -- which had so often assailed the ears of Jesus as He passed healing down the streets of Palestine, must still have had the power to move His Sacred Heart