chapter twenty

The Gregorian Era - Pope Saint Gregory the Great

    Born in Rome in 540 to a Roman Senator, Pope Saint Gregory the Great began his career following in the footsteps of his father by becoming prefect of Rome from 573-578. After the death of his father, Gregory gave it all up for God. He gave everything he had to an assortment of monasteries, building six monasteries in Sicily and even turned his own palatial home in Rome into a monastery. In 579 Pope Pelagius II ordained Gregory a deacon, sending him as an emissary to Constantinople amid the opulence in the court of the Emperor there. But Gregory disdained these perks, opting to continue living the monastic way of life while still carrying out his duties. In 586 Pope Pelagius recalled him to Rome where Gregory was given the position of abbot of St. Andrew's Monastery, while performing the full time duties of the Holy Father's Secretary. It was an important step in his grooming for four years later he was chosen to succeed Pelagius who had died from the plague on February 7, 590. Seven months later on September 3, 590 Gregory became Pope. This Benedictine was the first monk in the history of the Church to be elevated to pontiff and continued his contemplative ways while still maintaining a busy, active schedule as the leader of his people, calling himself the "Servant of the servants of God." His first official act was forming penitential processions to the seven churches in Rome to petition God to end the deadly plague ravaging the city. Gregory's and the people's prayers were answered as the plague was diminished. Gregory knew this from the vision he received of an angel in a castle at the Vatican which, from that time on, became Castel Sant'Angelo near the river Tiber.

    During his fourteen year reign Gregory reaffirmed the civil authority of the pope, thus beginning the "temporal power." He was a pope who called for great reform within the Church unifying her with disciplinary measures necessary to expand the mission of the Church. That mission included England, France, Spain and Africa where he sent numerous missionaries to evangelize the true faith. Gregory was creative and original in his administration as Pope and his actions became the benchmark for how the Holy Father would rule from the Vatican to the entire world. He became an ideal role model for priests, bishops, religious and lay people throughout the world. Gregory also revised the Sacramentary and the liturgy of the Mass, introducing chants in the Mass which would become the celebrated Gregorian Chant.

    The same barbarian ransacking that Saint Augustine of Hippo in the early 400's revisited in the early 600's while Pope Saint Gregory the Great was guiding Holy Mother Church as the 64th successor of Saint Peter. Most of Europe was in a state of confusion and peril. The Lombards had claimed much of Italy and were a constant thorn in Rome's side. The city and surrounding area had been plundered by invasions, pillaging and earthquakes dating back to the late 5th Century. With the Byzantine Emperor situated in the East the forces in Rome were weakened and ripe for a takeover. Gregory, like his predecessor Pope Saint Leo the Great, he prayed for an answer to thwarting the Barbarian quest. Because Gregory had been the prefect under Pope John III, he knew the procedures for dealing in politics and diplomacy. Realizing a great sum of money from the income on property throughout Italy and nearby islands that had been donated to the Church, Gregory, being a great statesman knew there was enough in the coffers to bribe, if you will. the Lombard king. Thus Gregory gathered the "ransom" and paid the king an agreed-upon sum. To seal the deal he signed a treaty with the Lombard leader King Agilulf to spare the city. His actions not only diminished the authority of the Byzantine Emperor in Rome, but allowed enough funds left over to repair the Roman walls that had been attacked. Because of Gregory's saving action he became not only the spiritual ruler of Rome but the temporal one as well, being called upon to recruit and train troops as well as passing fair laws that ensured the proper treatment of slaves.

    Pope St. Gregory's great zeal for helping people, his extreme fairness to all peoples, his leadership abilities, and, above all his holiness and spiritual guidance were factors in Pope Gregory's great success in such a short time. He is truly the one responsible for establishing Catholicism in western Europe for he was instrumental in the conversion to Catholicism of the Visigoths in Spain who had previously been Arians as well as eliminating all paganism on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. His peace initiative towards the Lombards made great strides in laying the foundation for the conversion of the Lombards who had also been followers of Arianism. He is also known for bringing the True Faith to England. Being a Benedictine himself, when he became Pope he gathered 40 monks from his monastery of St. Andrew's and placed Saint Augustine of Canterbury in charge of the missionary expedition to England in 597. On their journey there they traveled through Gaul where great horror stories abounded about how cruel the Anglo-Saxons were. Many of the monks became discouraged and were about to turn back, but Gregory sent letters of encouragement which spurred them on. Once they arrived, Ethelbert, the King of Kent met the missionaries and, to their delight, gave them total liberty to preach the Gospel whereever they wanted to on the British Isles. One reason for his leniency was that he was married to a Frankish princess who was already Catholic. The King soon joined her by being baptized along with thousands of his subjects. From there word spread of this new faith and countless conversions took place throughout Britain. In 600 Augustine returned to Gaul and the Bishop of Arles consecrated him a bishop at the Pope's decree. So pleased was Gregory that he sent a second wave of missionaries in 601 to meet Augustine in Gaul before going on to England. Once there Augustine was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and two other bishops were approved for London and Rochester respectively. Through their efforts and the constant prayers of Catholics everywhere, monasteries became plentiful throughout England planting the seeds of great vocations for centuries to come. From one of these monasteries would come Saint Boniface who would become the "Apostle of Germany" in converting this northern country to the Roman faith. By the time Augustine died in 605 Catholicism was deeply rooted in British soil.

    On the Eastern front, the split with the Byzantine Emperor was further magnified when Gregory gained the upper hand, so to speak, on three occasions. The first of course was the great leadership he exhibited in saving Rome from the Lombard invasions and his subsequent study and recourse of how to eliminate the taxes levied on Italians by the Byzantine Emperor. The second event, the Empress of Constantinople had asked for the relics of Saint Peter and Saint Paul to be placed in the great church there. Gregory gave the Empress' ambassador a cloth that had been touched to the saints' graves. The imperial ambassador felt short-changed and complained that this was just a token and not worthy of being given to the Empress. Though the ambassador was seething, Gregory invited him to attend a Mass at the Altar of the Apostles. During the Mass the Holy Father requested the ambassador bring him the cloth. The ambassador thrust it at the pontiff in disdain and Gregory pierced the cloth with a knife that had been laying on the altar. Immediately drops of blood poured forth. The ambassador was in awe and humbly asked forgiveness and took the miraculous cloth back to Constantinople to tell of the phenomenon he had witnessed though the event had implanted on his heart and mind that the Pope was truly the leader and the Byzantine rulers were beholden to him. The third occasion occured when the Patriarch of Constantinople tried to use the title "Ecumenical Patriarch" and Gregory denounced him in defending the supreme authority of the Church as coming from Rome and the Apostolic succession of Peter. Gregory dubbed himself the "Servant of the Servants of God" which to this day the pontiffs still use.

    was given the moniker "Great" seven hundred years later by Pope Boniface VIII and was proclaimed one of the great Doctors of the Church along with Saints Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine...all from the same era of the early centuries. Like our Holy Father Pope John Paul II today, the Canticle of Mary responsory proclaims that "Gregory put into practice all that he preached so that he might be a living example of the spiritual message he proclaimed." He was a great preacher and wrote numerous treatises and papal letters. Most notable is his Dialogues which incorporated accounts of visions, prophecies, miracles and the lives of Italian saints. He also wrote an important Apostolic Exhortation on the duties of bishops entitled Liber Regulae Pastoralis in addition to countless homilies and letters. Gregory compiled the Schola Cantorum and became known as the last of the traditional Latin Doctors of the Church. He is still remembered today as the founder of the medieval papacy. On March 12, 604 in Rome this great pontiff and saint passed on to his Heavenly reward, leaving behind a legacy rich in tradition that is still an integral thread in the Church fabric today.

    He was canonized on September 3rd that same year by public acclamation ten days before the next Vicar of Christ Pope Sabinian would be selected as the 65th successor in the line of Peter. In the next issue we shall begin the 7th Century which covers 19 Popes who followed St. Gregory the Great in a century that would spawn the beginning of Mohamedanism - the curse of the infidel that would hound Christianity for centuries to come.