Doctor of the Church; born at Rome about 540; died 12 March 604. Gregory
is certainly one of the most notable figures in Ecclesiastical History. He has exercised in many respects a momentous influence on the doctrine, the organization, and the discipline of the Catholic Church. To him we must look for an explanation of the religious situation of the Middle Ages; indeed, if no account were taken of his work, the evolution of the form of medieval Christianity would be almost inexplicable. And further, in so far as the modern Catholic system is a legitimate development of medieval Catholicism, of this too Gregory may not unreasonably be termed the Father. Almost all the leading principles of the later Catholicism are found, at any rate in germ, in Gregory the Great. (F.H. Dudden, "Gregory the Great", 1, p. v).
This eulogy by a learned non-Catholic writer will justify the length and elaboration of the following article.
I. FROM BIRTH TO 574
Gregory's father was Gordianus, a wealthy patrician, probably of the famous gens Amicia, who owned large estates in Sicily and a mansion on the Caelian Hill in Rome, the ruins of which, apparently in a wonderful state of preservation, still await excavation beneath the Church of St. Andrew and St. Gregory. His mother Silvia appears also to have been of good family, but very little is known of her life. She is honoured as a saint, her feast being kept on 3 November. Portraits of Gordianus and Silvia were painted by Gregory's order, in the atrium of St. Andrew's monastery, and a pleasing description of these may be found in John the Deacon (Vita, IV, lxxxiii). Besides his mother, two of Gregory's aunts have been canonised, Gordianus's two sisters, Tarsilla and ∆milians, so that John the Deacon speaks of his education as being that of a saint among saints. Of his early years we know nothing beyond what the history of the period tells us. Between the years 546 and 552 Rome was first captured by the Goths under Totila, and then abandoned by them; next it was garrisoned by Belisarius, and besieged in vain by the Goths, who took it again, however, after the recall of Belisarius, only to lose it once more to Narses. Gregory's mind and memory were both exceptionally receptive, and it is to the effect produced on him by these disasters that we must attribute the tinge of sadness which pervades his writings and especially his clear expectation of a speedy end to the world. Of his education, we have no details. Gregory of Tours tells us that in grammar, rhetoric and dialectic he was so skilful as to be thought second to none in all Rome, and it seems certain also that he must have gone through a course of legal studies. Not least among the educating influences was the religious atmosphere of his home. He loved to meditate on the Scriptures and to listen attentively to the conversations of his elders, so that he was "devoted to God from his youth up". His rank and prospects pointed him out naturally for a public career, and he doubtless held some of the subordinate offices wherein a young patrician embarked on public life. That he acquitted himself well in these appears certain, since we find him about the year 573, when little more than thirty years old, filling the important office of prefect of the city of Rome. At that date the brilliant post was shorn of much of its old magnificence, and its responsibilities were reduced; still it remained the highest civil dignity in the city, and it was only after long prayer and inward struggle that Gregory decided to abandon everything and become a monk. This event took place most probably in 574. His decision once taken, he devoted himself to the work and austerities of his new life with all the natural energy of his character. His Sicilian estates were given up to found six monasteries there, and his home on the Caelian Hill was converted into another under the patronage of St. Andrew. Here he himself took the cowl, so that "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" (Greg. Tur., X, i).
II. AS MONK AND ABBOT (C. 574-590)
There has been much discussion as to whether Gregory and his fellow-monks at St. Andrew's followed the Rule of St. Benedict. Baronius and others on his authority have denied this, while it has been asserted as strongly by Mabillon and the Bollandists, who, in the preface to the life of St. Augustine (26 May), retract the opinion expressed earlier in the preface to St. Gregory's life (12 March). The controversy is important only in view of the question as to the form of monasticism introduced by St. Augustine into England, and it may be said that Baronius's view is now practically abandoned. For about three years Gregory lived in retirement in the monastery of St. Andrew, a period to which he often refers as the happiest portion of his life. His great austerities during this time are recorded by the biographers, and probably caused the weak health from which he constantly suffered in later life. However, he was soon drawn out of his seclusion, when, in 578, the pope ordained him, much against his will, as one of the seven deacons (regionarii) of Rome. The period was one of acute crisis. The Lombards were advancing rapidly towards the city, and the only chance of safety seemed to be in obtaining help from the Emperor Tiberius at Byzantium. Popo Pelagius II accordingly dispatched a special embassy to Tiberius, and sent Gregory along with it as his apocrisiarius, or permanent ambassador to the Court of Byzantium. The date of this new appointment seems to have been the spring of 579, and it lasted apparently for about six years. Nothing could have been more uncongenial to Gregory than the worldly atmosphere of the brilliant Byzantine Court, and to counteract its dangerous influence he followed the monastic life so far as circumstances permitted. This was made easier by the fact that several of his brethren from St. Andrew's accompanied him to Constantinople. With them he prayed and studied the Scriptures, one result of which remains in his "Morals", or series of lectures on the Book of Job, composed during this period at the request of St. Leander of Seville, whose acquaintance Gregory made during his stay in Constantinople. Much attention was attracted to Gregory by his controversy with Eutychius, Patriarch of Constantinople, concerning the Resurrection. Eutychius had published a treatise on the subject maintaining that the risen bodies of the elect would be "impalpable, more light than air". To this view Gregory objected the palpability of Christ's risen body. The dispute became prolonged and bitter, till at length the emperor intervened, both combatants being summoned to a private audience, where they stated their views. The emperor decided that Gregory was in the right, and ordered Eutychius's book to the burned. The strain of the struggle had been so great that both fell ill. Gregory recovered, but the patriarch succumbed, recanting his error on his death bed. Mention should be made of the curious fact that, although Gregory's sojourn at Constantinople lasted for six years, he seems never to have mastered even the rudiments of Greek. Possibly he found that the use of an interpreter had its advantages, but he often complains of the incapacity of those employed for this purpose. It must be owned that, so far as obtaining help for Rome was concerned, Gregory's stay at Constantinople was a failure. However, his period as ambassador taught him very plainly a lesson which was to bear great fruit later on when he ruled in Rome as pope. This was the important fact that no help was any longer to be looked for from Byzantium, with the corollary that, if Rome and Italy were to be saved at all, it could only be by vigorous independent action of the powers on the spot. Humanly speaking, it is to the fact that Gregory had acquired this conviction that his later line of action with all its momentous consequences is due.
In the year 586, or possibly 585, he was recalled to Rome, and with the greatest joy returned to St. Andrew's, of which he became abbot soon afterwards. The monastery grew famous under his energetic rule, producing many monks who won renown later, and many vivid pictures of this period may be found in the "Dialogues". Gregory gave much of his time to lecturing on the Holy Scriptures and is recorded to have expounded to his monks the Heptateuch, Books of Kings, the Prophets, the Book of Proverbs, and the Canticle of V+Canticles. Notes of these lectures were taken at the time by a young student named Claudius, but when transcribed were found by Gregory to contain so many errors that he insisted on their being given to him for correction and revision. Apparently this was never done, for the existing fragments of such works attributed to Gregory are almost certainly spurious. At this period, however, one important literary enterprise was certainly completed. This was the revision and publication of the "Magna Moralia", or lectures on the Book of Job, undertaken in Constantinople at the request of St. Leander. In one of his letters (Ep., V, liii) Gregory gives an interesting account of the origin of this work. To this period most probably should be assigned the famous incident of Gregory's meeting with the English youths in the Forum. The first mention of the event is in the Whitby life (c, ix), and the whole story seems to be an English tradition. It is worth notice, therefore, that in the St. Gall manuscript the Angles do not appear as slave boys exposed for sale, but as men visiting Rome of their own free will, whom Gregory expressed a desire to see. It is Venerable Bede (Hist. Eccl., II, i) who first makes them slaves. In consequence of this meeting Gregory was so fixed with desire to convert the Angles that he obtained permission from Pelagius II to go in person to Britain with some of his fellow-monks as missionaries. The Romans, however, were greatly incensed at the pope's act. With angry words they demanded Gregory's recall, and messengers were at once dispatched to bring him back to Rome, if necessary by force. These men caught up with the little band of missionaries on the third day after their departure, and at once returned with them, Gregory offering no opposition, since he had received what appeared to him as a sign from heaven that his enterprise should be abandoned. The strong feeling of the Roman populace that Gregory must not be allowed to leave Rome is a sufficient proof of the position he now held there. He was in fact the chief adviser and assistant of Pelagius II, towards whom he seems to have acted very much in the capacity of secretary (see the letter of the Bishop of Ravenna to Gregory, Epp., III, lxvi, "Sedem apostolicam, quam antae moribus nunc etiam honore debito gubernatis"). In this capacity, probably in 586, Gregory wrote his important letter to the schismatical bishops of Istria who had separated from communion with the Church on the question of the Three Chapters (Epp., Appendix, III, iii). This document, which is almost a treatise in length, is an admirable example of Gregory's skill, but it failed to produce any more effort than Pelagius's two previous letters had, and the schism continued.
The year 589 was one of widespread disaster throughout all the empire. In Italy there was an unprecedented inundation. Farms and houses were carried away by the floods. The Tiber overflowed its banks, destroying numerous buildings, among them the granaries of the Church with all the store of corn. Pestilence followed on the floods, and Rome became a very city of the dead. Business was at a standstill, and the streets were deserted save for the wagons which bore forth countless corpses for burial in common pits beyond the city walls. Then, in February, 590, as if to fill the cup of misery to the brim, Pelagius II died. The choice of a successor lay with the clergy and people of Rome, and without any hesitation they elected Gregory, Abbot of St. Andrew's. In spite of their unanimity Gregory shrank from the dignity thus offered him. He knew, no doubt, that its acceptance meant a final good-bye to the cloister life he loved, and so he not only refused to accede to the prayers of his fellow citizens but also wrote personally to the Emperor Maurice, begging him with all earnestness not to confirm the election. Germanus, prefect of the city, suppresses this letter, however, and sent instead of it the formal schedule of the election. In the interval while awaiting the emperor's reply the business of the vacant see was transacted by Gregory, in commission with two or three other high officials. As the plague still continued unabated, Gregory called upon the people to join in a vast sevenfold procession which was to start from each of the seven regions of the city and meet at the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin, all praying the while for pardon and the withdrawal of the pestilence. This was accordingly done, and the memory of the event is still preserved by the name "Sant' Angelo" given to the mausoleum of Hadrian from the legend that the Archangel St. Michael was seen upon its summit in the act of sheathing his sword as a sign that the plague was over. At length, after six months of waiting, came the emperor's confirmation of Gregory's election. The saint was terrified at the news and even meditated flight. He was seized, however, carried to the Basilica of St. Peter, and there consecrated pope on 3 September, 590. The story that Gregory actually fled the city and remained hidden in a forest for three days, when his whereabouts was revealed by a supernatural light, seems to be pure invention. It appears for the first time in the Whitby life (c. vii), and is directly contrary to the words of his contemporary, Gregory of Tours (Hist. Franc., X, i). Still he never ceased to regret his elevation, and his later writings contain numberless expressions of strong feeling on this point.