Feast Day : September 3
Also known as: Gregory the Great
Patronage: musicians; popes; singers; teachers
Gregory I is one of only two popes called “the Great”; the other is Pope Leo I (r. 440–461). Gregory was the first monk to become pope. His reign is distinguished by his statesmanship, his writings, and his encouragement of the monasteries, as well as his miracles. He is considered one of the four great Latin fathers of the Church. Gregory was born in 540 in Rome to a patrician family. His father, Gordianus, owned large estates in Sicily. His mother, Silvia, is recognized as a saint, and two of his aunts, Tarsilla and Aemilians (Emiliana), were canonized. Little is known of his early years. He was drawn to the religious life and spent long hours meditating on the Scriptures. In 573 he became the prefect of Rome, but a year later abandoned the job to become a monk. He turned his home into a monastery under the patronage of St. Andrew, and turned his six Sicilian estates into monasteries. For about three years, Gregory lived in happy retirement from the world, probably following the Rule of Benedict, and practicing severe austerities that weakened his health for the rest of his life. He suffered chronic gastrointestinal problems and a “slow fever.” In 579, with the Lombards threatening Rome, Pope Pelagius II (r. 579–590) sent Gregory to Constantinople to be permanent ambassador to the court of Byzantium. Several of Gregory’s brothers from St. Andrew’s went with him. Gregory disliked court life and, with his fellow monks, adhered to monastic life as much as possible. During the six years he was in Constantinople, Gregory played the key role in suppressing a heresy by Eutychius, the patriarch of Constantinople, that held that Christ’s risen body had no substance, but would be “more light than air.” Gregory and Eutychius engaged in such a battle that the health of both was impaired. The emperor supported Gregory and ordered Eutychius’s book to be burned. Crushed and in failing health, Eutychius took to his deathbed, recanting his error just before he expired. Gregory was recalled to Rome in 585 or 586. He returned to St. Andrew’s and became abbot. He wrote and preached, and his reputation grew. After meeting some pagan Englishmen (or boys), Gregory was inspired to evangelize in Britain. The English were either men visiting Rome, or, according to the Venerable Bede, young boys being sold in Rome as slaves. Pope Pelagius II granted Gregory permission to go to Britain, but the Roman people, with whom he was supremely popular, demanded his return. Gregory was stopped in mid-journey and recalled. Back in Rome, he served as the pope’s chief adviser and assistant. In 590, Pelagius II died on the heels of two years of flood, famine and disease. Gregory was immediately elected his successor. He attempted to demur, but Emperor Maurice confirmed the election. Gregory thought about fleeing, but he was seized and brought to St. Peter’s Basilica and was confirmed on September 3, 590. For the next 14 years, Gregory kept an exhausting schedule of administrative duties and writing. He preached to huge crowds. He expanded the power and authority of his office and established it on an equal footing with the imperial government. He expanded the Church’s missionary efforts throughout the world, including Britain; he is recorded in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He supported the monasteries, enforced discipline, and encouraged the wealthy to establish more monasteries. Personally, he lived as simply as possible. During his last years, Gregory suffered deteriorating health and depression. He died on March 12, 604, and was buried the same day in St. Peter’s Basilica. He was canonized by popular acclaim immediately. His relics were moved several times, the last occurring in 1606 when Pope Paul V (r. 1605–21) moved them to the chapel of Pope Clement V (r. 1305–14). In art he is shown dressed as a pope with tiara, carrying the double-barred cross. Sometimes he is shown seated at a desk or at an altar; a dove also is sometimes shown with him. Among Gregory’s most important works are the Liber Regulae Pastoralis (Book of pastoral rules), guidelines of religious practice; four Dialogues, collections of saints’ lives and their miracles; the Magna Moralis, a mystical commentary on the Book of Job; and homilies. Of his letters, 850 are extant. Gregory is credited with creating Gregorian chant, a form of musical worship with Jewish, Palestinian and Syrian roots. Gregory ordered this music to be collected and preserved. Gregorian chant grew over the centuries and now numbers about 3,000 chants. Numerous miracles are attributed to Gregory. Best known is the story of his writing of his homilies on Ezekiel, around 593. He dictated to a secretary, who was seated on the other side of a veil. He would remain silent for long periods of time. Once during one of these silences, the curious secretary made a hole in the veil and peeked through. He saw a white dove seated upon the pope’s head with its beak between his lips. When the dove withdrew its beak, the pope began to speak. During another silence, the secretary again saw the dove with its beak between the pope’s lips. Another story from tradition involves a woman at Communion who did not believe in the host as the true body of Christ, for she had made the bread herself. Gregory placed the bread upon the altar, and it began to bleed. .