One of the most important bishops of Rome and most influential writers of the Middle Ages, Gregory the First is one of only two popes (the other being Leo the First), to have been given the epithet “the Great”. Born around 540, Gregory was the son of a Roman senator and entered the service of the state as a young man. In 573, after he had served as Prefect of Rome, he sold his substantial properties, giving generously to the poor and founding six monasteries in Sicily and a seventh in Rome. The following year he retired to a monastic life in his own foundation of Saint Andrew’s on the Caelian Hill. There he became distinguished for the austerity of his life. Pope Benedict the First called him out of the monastic life to serve as one of the seven deacons of Rome, and in 579 Benedict’s successor, Pelagius the Second, appointed him apocrisiarius (ambassador) in Constantinople. After six years of distinguished service during which he learned of the larger affairs of the Church, Gregory returned to Rome to become abbot of Saint Andrew’s. Apparently convinced that the future of Christianity lay with monasticism and not with the declining Eastern Roman Empire, he hoped to lead a group of missionaries in taking the Gospel to the Anglo-Saxons in Britain after seeing English children or youth on sale as slaves in the Roman market around the year 573. He is said to have remarked on their beauty as being like that of angels, whereupon he was told that they were in fact Angles – causing him to say, Non Angli, sed angeli: “Not Angles, but angels.” But this was not to be his ministry. Shortly after he returned home from Constantinople, Pope Pelagius died of the plague, and in 590 Gregory was elected his successor. Reluctantly he accepted and was confirmed Bishop of Rome by the emperor in Constantinople.
During his pontificate he faced a number of crises: floods, famine, plague, and a Lombard invasion. There were also the overarching matters of the dominance of Constantinople of church affairs and the need of the barbarian peoples (the Germanic invaders and those beyond the remnants of the Western empire) to hear the Gospel. He fed the Roman populace with food from the papal granaries. He organized the defense of the city of Rome against the Lombard invaders, and in 592-3 he concluded a peace with the Lombards, separate from the Eastern Empire, virtually ignoring the Exarch of Ravenna, the Byzantine emperor’s representative in Italy. Gregory appointed governors to Italian towns, administered with prudence the vast estates of the Church of Rome, and assumed many of the roles of a civil ruler in the absence of imperial authority in Italy.
One of Gregory’s most notable achievements was the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. He personally took the lead in the whole process, sending Augustine, prior of his own monastery of Saint Andrew’s on the Caelian Hill, and a number of fellow monks to southeastern Britain, to the Jutish kingdom of Kent, where they achieved within a few years the conversion of the people and of their king, Ethelbert. Gregory continue personally to guide the mission in matters that perplexed Augustine by sending a supporting group of missionaries, along with liturgical vessels, books, and vestments, in 601; and by writing to Ethelbert and his Christian queen, Bertha on various matters. The close relationship between Rome and the English Church was continued by Gregory’s successors, and in many ways the Church in England was closer to the papacy than the Church in Gaul was. The first Life of Gregory was written in England, and from the biographies written by the Venerable Bede, Aldhelm, and the anonymous biographer of Whitby come eulogies of Gregory as “the apostle of the English”, “our father and apostle in Christ”, and “he from who we have received the Christian faith, he who will present the English people to the Lord on the Day of Judgment as their teacher and apostle”.
Gregory’s writings are remarkable for their volume and their quality. His principal achievement was to pass on to succeeding generations the wisdom of the Fathers of the Graeco-Roman world, such as Origen, Augustine of Hippo, and Ambrose of Milan, in such works as his Homilies on the Gospels and the Moralia on the Book of Job. His Pastoral Care, a classic on the work of the ministry, formed the medieval episcopate more deeply than any other book and was translated into English at the behest of the West Saxon king Alfred the Great. Both the Pastoral Care and the Dialogues, or Lives of the saints, were standards works in most early English libraries, and their popularity did not cease with the Norman conquest of England. Gregory’s letters (some 854 in all) reveal his wisdom, prudence, and preoccupation with problems both civil and ecclesiastical, including monasticism, the missionary role of the Church, the legitimacy of icons, the integrity of catholic doctrine, and the reproof of prelates who gave themselves grand titles. He himself preferred to be known as the “Servant of the servants of God”, a title preserved by his successors in the see of Rome to this day.
His role in the development of the Roman liturgy and its chant was considerable, though the extent of his role is disputed. He certainly modified various minor features and composed a number of prayers which formed the nucleus of the Gregorian Sacramentary, though this work reached its final form after his death. Many prayers in the sacramentary, if not actually written by him, were inspired by his through and phraseology. Since the tenth century his name has been associated with “Gregorian” chant: while the chant bearing his name arose from a later Carolingian synthesis of Gallican and Roman chant, he probably played a role in the gradual codification and adaptation of several preexisting forms of plainsong.
During much of his life he suffered from both gout and gastritis, but he seldom allowed these ailments to affect his work. Even when reduced to ill health just before his death, he still dictated letters and cared for the needs of the churches. He died, probably in his mid-sixties, in 604. He was soon declared a saint, and his feast on March 12 was given a high rank from early times and was universally celebrated, along with feasts of his translation (removal of his relics) on September 3 and the anniversary of his ordination on March 29. Some thirty-two ancient churches in England are dedicated to him, and he was highly esteemed in the East (where he is known as Gregory Dialogos on account of his Dialogues) and in ancient Ireland, where he was even given an Irish royal genealogy. This “Apostle to the English” is commemorated in the Calendar of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and in all subsequent Anglican sanctoral calendars.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
Almighty and merciful God, you raised up Gregory of Rome to be a servant of the servants of God, and inspired him to send missionaries to preach the Gospel to the English people: Preserve in your Church the catholic and apostolic faith they taught, that your people, being fruitful in every good work, may receive the crown of glory that never fades away; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The icon of Saint Gregory was written by and is © Aidan Hart, and is reproduced here with his generous permission.
The propers for the commemoration of Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, are published on the Lectionary Page website.