August 7, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: Why Pope Gregory I was called ‘the Great’

John F. Fink(Eighteenth in a series of columns)

Since I wrote about Pope Leo the Great last week, it seems proper for me to write about the only other pope called “the Great”—Gregory I. He was pope from 590 to 604, roughly 150 years after Leo the Great.

Pope Gregory the Great set the form and style of the papacy that prevailed throughout the Middle Ages. He exerted great influence on doctrine and liturgy (Gregorian Chant is named after him), became involved in temporal matters, and was a voluminous writer. His Pastoral Guide, on the responsibility of bishops, was read for centuries. In the ninth century, Charlemagne ordered all bishops to study it.

When the first Doctors of the Church were named, there were four from the West and four from the East. Those from the West were Gregory, Augustine, Jerome and Ambrose. Those from the East were John Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen and Athanasius.

Gregory was born into a wealthy family that owned estates in Sicily, as well as a magnificent home on the Caelian Hill in Rome (where the Church of St. Gregory stands today). But Rome, once the greatest city in the world, was a mess after having been conquered four times in 20 years. According to the historian Procopius, at one point only 500 people lived in the city, and there was anarchy.

At age 30, Gregory was appointed prefect of Rome. But then his father died, and his mother retired to a convent. Gregory resigned as prefect, went to Sicily where he turned his estates into six monasteries, and made his home in Rome into a Benedictine monastery under the patronage of St. Andrew. He became one of the monks there.

That lasted for only three or four years before Rome was being besieged again, this time by the Lombards. Pope Pelagius II sent Gregory to Constantinople to beg for military aid from Emperor Tiberius II. The emperor refused because he was too busy fending off the Persians. Gregory returned to his monastery.

After plague broke out in Rome and Pope Pelagius was one of its victims, Gregory was unanimously elected pope. He was about 50, and the first monk to be elected pope. But he was also the civil ruler of Rome, negotiating treaties, paying troops and appointing generals.

To feed the starving Romans, he reorganized what was known as “the patrimony of Peter,” the vast estates owned by the papacy in Italy, Sicily, Dalmatia, Gaul and north Africa. In doing so, he laid the foundations for the future papal state.

He negotiated a truce with Lombard King Agilulph. When Agilulph broke the truce, Gregory rallied the troops and saved the city.

Gregory was responsible for the conversion of England, sending monks from his former monastery. Before becoming pope, he tried to lead monks to England himself, but the people of Rome forced him to return.

As did his predecessors, Gregory fought strongly for the primacy of Rome in ecclesiastical affairs against the claims of the patriarch of Constantinople. It was a battle that continued long after Gregory’s death. †

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