Pope Saint Gregory the Great
According to legend, one day as Pope Gregory was singing Mass in Rome, a picture of the suffering Savior appeared standing on the altar after the consecration, therefore, the strengthening of the entire world of faith in the word of Christ, that He transforms himself into the Host during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Pope Saint Gregory the Great not only saved the Church, in times so frightful that the men who lived in them were sure that the end of the world was come, but he founded the great civilization which has lasted down to our day and of which we are part, Western Civilization. All alone, in the midst of famine and pestilence, floods and earthquakes, endangered by Greeks and barbarians alike, and abandoned by the Emperor, Pope Gregory, frail and ailing in body but strong and undaunted in spirit, succored and saved his people, his city, his country, and the whole of Christendom.
The great Roman Empire which for three hundred years had persecuted the Christians and driven them underground to the catacombs, had for all of that time been in the process of decay. In 476, the thing was completed. The Empire in the West fell. It fell to the barbarian invaders not as the outcome of a great battle, but as the inglorious petering out of something that had been worse than dead for a long, long time.
There came to replace the soft and decadent, over refined and grossly weak civilization of Rome, the rude and uncouth, unmannerly and brutal, but also strong and virile and young and convertible German nations, which for two centuries had been on the march, mysteriously moving as without purpose, on the one hand, and as if in response to a divine summons on the other. History calls it the “migration of nations.” In wave after wave, invasion after invasion, they streamed across Europe. They thundered down from the North, came up from the South, across from the East, and one by one they stormed the gates of Rome.
They were a strange mixture, these nations, of good and bad, gentle and rapacious, but their lives were distinguished by a purity more vigorous than the Romans’ and their respect and treatment of women, despite their rude manners and coarse living, far exceeded the Romans’. It is true of them that:
. . .The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner. By the Lord this has been done; and it is wonderful in our eyes.
Therefore I say to you, that the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and shall be given to a nation yielding the fruits thereof. (Matt. 21: 42, 43.)
The Greco-Romans had had their chance and, like the Jews, the first chosen people, they had failed. Centuries of patient labor on the part of the Church would pass before the wild tribes who replaced the “stone of the corner” could be taught and tamed and civilized, but once the long work was accomplished, Christ the King and His Queen Mother would be given the generous, glorious, unselfish ages of chivalry, the Crusades, and — the Thirteenth Century. The world would have known Gregory the Great, Leo III, Gregory VII, Innocent III, Boniface VIII, Bede, John Damascene, Peter Damian, Anselm, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Gertrude, and a thousand others.
Pope Saint Gregory’s boyhood was laden with the catastrophes which followed one upon the other as the aftermath of the fall of Rome to the barbarians in 476. It is true that Saint Gregory was not born until 540, but so without violence had been the surrender of the mighty city whose legions had once been the terror of the world, that for some time after 476 Rome went on almost as usual, almost without knowing that the Empire had been destroyed. The full impact of the revolution was not felt until the next century.
The first barbarian ruler of Italy, Odoacer, actually ruled in a more orderly and gentle fashion than the last of the weak and depraved Roman Emperors. The Church was comparatively unmolested during the reign of Odoacer, even though he was an Arian. For not only had Arianism not died out, despite the Church’s pronouncements against it council after council, but two hundred years after its beginning we find it flourishing in the West. It was, ironically, introduced into the West in full force by the invading barbarians, who had been converted not to orthodox Christianity during their sojourns in the East, but to Arianism.
The Arian barbarians, wildly loyal to their strange mixture of heretical Christianity and leftovers from their former nature worship, fiercely hated the one true Church of Jesus Christ. Saint Gregory of Tours describes the Visigothic King Euric: “This King of the Goths began a grievous persecution of the Christians in Gaul. Everywhere he beheaded those who would not conform to his perverse doctrine. He cast priests into prison, the doors of the holy churches he ordered to be blocked with briers, that only a few might enter and the Faith might pass into oblivion. . . .”
This being everywhere the case, Europe, by the beginning of Pope Saint Gregory’s century, inundated by six barbarian nations, had seen its orthodox Catholicism replaced by the cults of the pagan Anglo-Saxons in Britain, the pagan Franks in Northern France, the Arian Visigoths in Southern France and Spain, the Arian Ostrogoths in Italy, the Arian Vandals in North Africa, and the Arian Burgundians in Eastern France. And from what happened in these nations, it would seem as if heresy were more distasteful to God than sheer paganism. For the pagan can, after all, be converted to pure Catholicism, whereas the heretic, perversely holding that what he has is the Faith, puts himself forever beyond its reach. This is most clearly to be seen in the two nations, France and England, which were conquered by pagans. France, brought again to the Faith through the conversion of its King, Clovis, became the “eldest daughter of the Church.” England, its reconversion begun through Pope Gregory’s commission of Saint Augustine of Canterbury to the English in 596, provided one of the greatest consolations of the holy Pontiff’s life. Arianism, on the other hand, so weakened Spain that for eight hundred years it became prey to the Moors. The Arian Goths in Italy and the Arian Burgundians in Eastern France delayed the progress of the lands they had conquered. All their plans failed, lacking the blessing of God; they became a spiritless people, and finally died out.
Pope Saint Gregory — who would not only bring order out of all this, but would, as well, lay the foundation for the great Middle Ages — was born around the year 540 of the last of the old Roman families illustrious for generations of noble achievement. His was, an even more lasting conquest, a family of saints. Pope Saint Felix III was his ancestor, and both Gregory’s parents, renouncing their immense fortunes and vast estates, consecrated themselves to God, to spend their last years in the service of His Church. Pope Gregory’s father, Gordianus, was a Roman senator and at the height of his renown when he retired to enter religion, and to become eventually one of the seven cardinal-deacons in charge of the poor and the suffering in the hospitals of Rome. Gregory’s mother, Sylvia, left him to enter a small oratory near Saint Paul’s in Rome, where she led a life of such austerity and holiness that she was a constant edification to the Catholics of Rome during her lifetime, and was canonized by the church after her death. The feast of Saint Sylvia is celebrated every year on November 3. And that is not all. Besides his mother, two of Saint Gregory’s aunts were canonized. They are his father’s sisters, Saints Tarsilla and Aemiliana, of whom Pope Gregory often speaks in his writings.
Gregory’s youth, however, was a sad one. He tells us himself that for all of his boyhood Rome was under siege by one barbarian conqueror after another. Within a period of less than twenty years, the suffering city was taken and retaken six times. Roman senators and people alike were massacred. The terrible Lombard nation, which for over two hundred years would plague the Church, surpassed in cruelty all the conquerors who had come before it. The Lombards laid waste the cities, despoiled the towns and villages, burned the churches, tore down the monasteries, desolated the farms and left the entire countryside destitute of inhabitants, with none to till the soil, care for the starving animals, or work upon the land. Nowhere any longer, over the once gay and happy Italian countryside, could there be heard the cry of a child; nowhere any longer could there be seen the bent forms of the aged praying in their chairs in the sun. Saint Gregory writes of the terrible massacre by the Lombards of the forty Christian prisoners who refused to adore a goat’s head which had been consecrated to the devil. He tells of the sacrifice to the Lombard gods of steadfast Italian peasants who refused to eat the food which had been the previous sacrifice, and which was set before the poor Catholics in sheer mockery of their own adorable Blessed Sacrament.
And all the while, as the barbarians ravaged even the great Monastery of Monte Cassino, which Saint Benedict had built and in which he had lived, as plagues devastated the people and the peasants died of hunger in their huts, and wild animals came down from the hills to devour the unburied dead, the agents of the Greek Emperor in the East — supposed, since Justinian’s defeat of the Goths in 553, to be the protectors of the city — conducted a “black market” in food and supplies. They had seized the food solely for the purpose of forcing from the famished people impossible prices for barely enough to keep life in their bodies.It is not surprising, therefore, with these sad memories never far from his mind that Saint Gregory should, at the age of
thirty, after the completion of his law studies, accept the Prefecture of Rome, the highest civil dignity in the city. From this vantage point, he reasoned, he could himself protect the people, and himself administer the seven sovereign hills, as his ancestors had done before him. The people came eventually to know and to love him, and to depend on him for their safety.
But even the consciousness of great public service performed after the manner of noble family tradition did not satisfy Gregory’s soul. His must be a complete giving, a full surrender, and charity to his neighbor was not enough. Such a pouring out of oneself upon one’s fellow man can only be spiritually effective, he had come to learn, when it is done from a heart utterly given first to God, and when the love expended is Jesus’ love, coming from the mortified, consecrated hands of his religious. And so the day came when, after much prayer and inward struggle, 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.”
The Prefect Gregory, like his parents, disposed of his goods and dedicated himself to the service of his Lord in poverty, chastity and obedience. He became a Benedictine monk. His place on the Caelian Hill he turned into the Monastery of Saint Andrew. His large estates in Sicily he gave as sites for six other monasteries, each of which he carefully endowed before he turned over the remainder of his fortune for the care of the poor.
He entered Saint Andrew’s Monastery, and for three years lived a life of retirement. He spoke later of these years as “the happiest portion of my life.” He counted as nothing his severe austerities, his many enforced hours without sleep, and his long fasts, although these have been said to have been the cause of the great physical infirmities he endured for all the rest of his life. He was obliged often, when he was Pope, to spend parts of each day in bed; sometimes he was not able to rise for several days.
Once, when Saint Gregory was at Saint Andrew’s, the news of his illness reached the ears of his mother, Sylvia, in her convent close by. That practical and holy woman immediately betook herself to the convent garden, where she gathered some tender young vegetables, which she washed and prepared for him, herself. When they were cooked, as a final token of her love, she placed them in the silver dish which was the very last of all her tremendous possessions, and thus she sent them off to him. Years later, this dish was to figure in one of the many miraculous happenings which filled the life of Pope Gregory, purchased not only by his heroic sufferings, but also by his mother’s sacrifices, constant and unending, for the love of Jesus Christ.
However, the thought of becoming Pope was farthest from Saint Gregory’s mind at this time. He asked for nothing more than to be allowed to spend the rest of his life in the monastery on the Caelian Hill, “in contemplation above all changeable and decaying things, and think of nothing but the things of Heaven,” as he later wrote in his Dialogues. “How my soul, though pent within the body, soared beyond its fleshly prison and looked with longing upon death itself as the means of entering into life!”
But our ways are not God’s ways, and it soon became clear, after his third year at Saint Andrew’s, that days of quiet prayer and contemplative work were not to be Gregory’s portion for much longer. In 578, quite against his will, Pope Benedict I made him one of the seven deacons of Rome. And a little later on, when word was received that the Lombards were again advancing on the city and the only chance of possible help against them lay with the Emperor of the East, Pope Pelagius II sent Deacon Gregory far away from Rome. He sent him as his permanent ambassador to the Byzantine court, at Constantinople.
Saint Gregory remained at Constantinople for six years. And nothing could be less to his liking than the brilliant, protocol-heavy, worldly court of the Emperor Tiberius; and no post was more important. During the tedious time of his nunciature, Saint Gregory came by a knowledge of the situation in the East which stood him in good stead years later in the papacy, and solved for him many a problem which otherwise might have been a serious stumbling block to him. He was unable, during these years, to obtain help for Rome, but he learned the lesson that never could help be expected from Constantinople as long as it remained as it was, and he saw no hope of its changing.
It was all too apparent to the holy Benedictine monk that the Empire in the East was hopelessly the slave of its passions, hopelessly enmeshed in waste and greed and luxurious living, its forces dissipated and its vision fearfully dimmed. He was sick for the plight of the land from which the twelve Apostles had gone out, without scrip or staff or bread or money, to conquer the world for Jesus Christ; sick for the land which had felt the spatter upon it of the blood of the martyrs, who thought life little enough to pay for one Holy Communion; sick for the land which had known the presence of Jerome, the voice of Chrysostom, the song of Ephrem, the austerities of Anthony and his army of holy men who dwelt solitary and alone in the desert so that, undisturbed by the world, they might hold sweet converse with Jesus.
Saint Gregory found the subservience of the bishops — and in particular of the Patriarch of Constantinople — to the person of the Emperor, begun in the days of Constantine, grown until, under Tiberius and Maurice it reached a point of servility which offered a serious indignity to God. It could truthfully be said that the Emperor drew the Patriarch of Constantinople in his train, the Patriarch drew all the bishops of the East in his train, and the whole episcopal body came justly by its sad title of “the Emperor’s Episcopate.”
Saint Gregory, as nuncio, was obliged to live in the Emperor’s palace. He had there ever before him the sickening spectacle of the Patriarch and the bishops perpetually bowing to the wishes of the Emperor, or of the Empress, and fulfilling to the letter everything they asked of them. He saw with his own eyes, too, how deeply the heresies fostered within the Eastern Church had wounded the Faith and sapped the once vigorous life of the Church. And he was filled with alarm at the stubborn straining of each succeeding Patriarch to be independent of the Bishop of Rome.
The claims of the Bishop of “New Rome” — Constantinople — to the honors of the Bishop of ancient Rome scandalized Gregory, especially since the Patriarchs based their claims not upon Jesus Christ nor Saint Peter, but upon the residence of the Emperors in their city. It may be that Gregory foresaw the great schism of Patriarch Photius, still three hundred years away. He certainly clearly discerned the danger to the Church, and there is no doubt but that the foreboding was heavy upon him that one day the teeming center of Christian life would pass from the proud Emperor-worshiping, fawning East. That he himself would unwittingly be the one forced to inaugurate it, he had no way then of knowing.
In the hope of preserving as much of his monastic life as possible, in the midst of the clamor of the Greek court, Saint Gregory had brought with him from Saint Andrew’s a little band of monks. As often as he could, he withdrew with them and with his friend, Leander of Spain, to pray and meditate upon the Holy Scriptures. From the conferences which he gave in these peaceful hours came the indescribably beautiful Book of Morals on Job, Saint Gregory’s first book, dedicated to Leander, Archbishop of Seville, who was to work so closely with when he became Pope and whom the Church honors on her altars as Saint Leander, of Seville.
It was while he was in Constantinople that Saint Gregory came to grips with the heresy of Eutychius (not to be confused with Eutyches, the father of the Monophysite heresy, who held that there is but one nature in Jesus). Eutychius was, as might be expected, the Patriarch of Constantinople. His heresy, and he had even gone so far as to write a book setting forth his views, concerned the resurrection of our bodies on the last day of the world — their appearance and the powers which glorified bodies will have. After the resurrection he said, our restored bodies will be “impalpable, more light than air.” They will, he explained, be intangible; barely able to be seen, much less touched. They will be visible as air is visible, nothing more.
Saint Gregory tried to reason with Eutychius, but it was of no use. Vainly, he pointed out to him the Church’s dogma of the resurrection of the flesh. Vainly, he implored him to remember that Jesus Himself had made the doctrine perfectly clear when He said to His Apostles, after His Resurrection: “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. See that I am He. Touch and see (palpate et videte) because a spirit flesh and bones does not have, as you see Me to have.” (Luke 24:39)
So long did the controversy rage, and so bitter did it become, that the Emperor finally intervened. He decided that Gregory was right, and Eutychius wrong, and he ordered Eutychius to burn his book. However, the strain had so worn out the combatants that both fell ill, and Eutyches died. On his deathbed, the Patriarch became contrite. He took hold of the skin of one of his arms and in a voice that all could hear, he cried, “I profess that we will all rise in this flesh!”
It is true Catholic doctrine, of course, that our glorified bodies shall have astounding qualities of agility and clarity that will make them, for any needs, lighter than air or swifter than light. Our Lord, after His Resurrection, appeared in the midst of His Apostles even though the doors were closed, and as suddenly He disappeared, when He had finished talking with them, without the Apostles having seen whence He had come or whither He had gone. But it will not be for the sake of destroying it as a body that these new qualities will be given. Indeed, it is of the Catholic Faith that we shall arise in the same body in which we died, and to deprive that body of the visibility and tangibility required for its glory, its triumph and its love, was the clear intent of the heresy of Eutychius, who wanted to turn it into an unincarnational spirit for the sake of his own proud desires.
We will one day, so our infallible Church assures us, see our loved ones once again in the flesh. We will be able once more to talk with them, to hear them speak, to hold their hands, as Jesus walked and talked with His loved ones after His Resurrection; as He holds converse now with His Blessed Mother and, undoubtedly, with Saint Joseph, as they await us in their glorified bodies in the Kingdom of Our Father.
Saint Gregory was recalled to Rome in 586. Greatly rejoicing, he returned to his monastery, to be acclaimed its abbot. He found Rome again beset with calamities. The hand of God still lay heavy upon it. Floods and tempests battered it, and earthquakes rocked it. But worst of all, to Gregory, the spirit of the world had crept, in his absence, into his monastery. He took sad note, not of any scandalous irregularities, but of a general relaxing of the holy detachment from the goods of the world which had been a pledge, in the early days, of the continued holiness of Saint Andrew’s.
Finally, to his relief, it all came to a head. One of the monks confessed to his assembled brothers, as he lay dying, that he had concealed in his bed three gold coins. This violation of holy poverty so shocked and so grieved Gregory that he decided to punish the erring monk in such a way that the rest of the monastery would not soon forget “the heinousness of a sin that recalled that of Judas.” And so he ordered that when Brother Justus was dead, his body should lie, not in the little cemetery of Saint Andrew’s, but “should be put in a dunghill together with the three crowns,” and all the monks were to cry with one voice as it was being let down to the earth, “Thy money be with thee unto perdition!”
Now, Saint Gregory tells us in his Dialogues that the monk died contrite and penitent and he, out of compassion for his soul, offered up thirty consecutive Masses. On the thirtieth day, Brother Justus appeared to one of his brothers and told him that he was delivered from Purgatory. The joy of the chastened monastery knew no bounds. And God was so pleased with the discipline and charity of his servant Gregory that we find the story preserved down to our own time in the well-known “Gregorian Masses,” said on thirty consecutive days for the repose of the souls of the loved ones for whom we continue, to this day, to request them.
It was while he was at Saint Andrew’s for the second time that Saint Gregory’s famous meeting with the English slaves took place, in the Roman Forum. He came upon the tall, blond youths as they were being sold, and he asked from whence they had come.
“They are Angles, ” he was told. “Angles?” he exclaimed. “Say rather they are angels! What a pity that God’s grace does not dwell within those beautiful brows!”
He purchased all of the handsome slaves, brought them back with him to the monastery, cared for them, and instructed and baptized them. He was, finally, so taken with them that he burned to be off on a mission to convert their whole country. And he actually was able to win the permission of Pope Pelagius II to set out with some of his monks for England, and this in spite of the fact that he was of invaluable service to the Pope, having been for some time Pelagius’ chief adviser and, for all practical purposes, his secretary.
When the people of Rome, however, learned that Gregory had left them, they were both inconsolable for his loss and angry with the Pope for allowing him to go. They indignantly demanded that he be recalled, and they would not rest until they were assured that messengers had been sent to bring him back, by force if necessary. The papal messengers overtook the little party when they were three days out on the road, and they not only persuaded Gregory to return, but bore him back to Rome in triumph.
It would, alas, be necessary for Saint Gregory to think of another way to evangelize the Angles and Saxons and induce them to substitute for their pagan gods the one true Faith of Jesus Christ, which they had all but wiped out in England during their invasion of it. But to those who love God, all things conspire to the good. Saint Gregory never forgot his young English sons, and one of the most notable acts of his pontificate was the sending, in 596, of the prior Augustine and forty of his monks from Saint Andrew’s to preach the Faith to the English. The enormous success of this mission earned for England, in the long Catholic centuries before the Protestant revolt, the exquisite honor of being called the land which was “Our Lady’s Dowry.” It earned for Gregory the title of Apostle to the English, and for the Italian Monk, Augustine, it earned the distinction of being known forever in Heaven and on earth as Saint Augustine of Canterbury!
In 589, the rains and the floods which deluged Italy threatened once and for all to submerge the peninsula. Homes, farms, government houses were carried off in the raging waters, to be dashed to pieces in the headlong rush and float as driftwood out into the sea. The Tiber River next overflowed its banks, and in the twinkling of an eye, the great Church granaries bulging with corn were filled with water, and the precious food hopelessly destroyed.
Pestilence then stalked the streets of Rome, and the corpses of the dead piled up in the silent thoroughfares, to await common burial in the pits outside the walls. When things were at their darkest, at the very height of the misery, a blow more devastating than all the rest descended upon the prostrate Romans. Word came that Pope Pelagius had fallen victim of the dread plague. The Church was left without a head, and Rome without a protector. After the first shock of the Pope’s death, the eyes of the Romans turned to Gregory. At that time it was within the power of the clergy, the senate, and the people to elect a new Pope. And this they did without any hesitation. They chose Gregory — much to his consternation.
Saint Gregory strove to escape the honors and the burdens of the papacy not from any lack of supreme reverence for the holy office of Christ’s Vicar, but undoubtedly because he felt his own inadequacy for the sublime mission, and because he believed that the surest way to obtain help and healing for the sick and shaken world around him was by prayer and mortification. He was first of all a monk, and his was a monk’s reaction to the glare of the world and the undertaking of immense burdens which would consume precious hours hitherto spent in prayer and union with God. Under his inspiration and guidance, the monks of Saint Andrew’s had become renowned for holiness, learning, and untiring charity, and he knew that it is by such means that mountains are moved and empires turned to love of God.
Saint Gregory’s letters, of which we have, fortunately, eight hundred and fifty preserved for us in fourteen books, give, of course, the best possible account of his thoughts. He poured his heart out to Saint Leander on the subject of his leaving his monastery.
“Following the way of my Head,” he wrote, “I had resolved to be the scorn of men, the outcast of the people. But the burden of this honor weighs me down; innumerable cares pierce me like swords. There is no rest of the heart. I was tranquil in my monastery. The tempest arose; I am in the waves, suffering with the loss of quiet a shipwreck of mind. The gout oppresses you; I also am terribly pained by it. It will be well if, under the strokes of the scourge, we perceive them to be gifts, by which the sense of the flesh may atone for sins which delights of the flesh may have led us to commit. . . The shortness of my letter will show how weak and occupied I am, who say so little to one I love so much.”
Saint Gregory wrote to the Emperor Maurice, begging him not to confirm his election. The Prefect of the city intercepted the letter and substituted for it one of his own, in which he, in his turn, begged Maurice to confirm the election at once. In the meantime, the clergy and the people prevailed upon Gregory to take charge of the affairs of the Holy See until the traditional formality of asking the Emperor’s confirmation was complied with, and word received in reply from Maurice.
The pestilence increased in intensity. When the people seemed unable to bear it any longer, Saint Gregory mounted the pulpit of Saint Peter’s, and despite an almost overpowering illness and his inability to ever raise his poor, weak voice above a certain pitch, he preached a sermon so comforting and so reassuring that the hearts of the people were raised to hope. He promised that the whole stricken city would so bombard heaven with prayers that God and His Mother would find it impossible to resist them. To this end, he asked that the people join in a huge procession, to set out from each of the seven regions of Rome and all to come together at the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They were to storm Heaven with their prayers on the way, to entreat God to lift from their afflicted city the terrible plague which He had allowed to come upon it, and to ask Him to forgive them their sins.
The great procession set out, each of the seven divisions from its appointed place. There marched: the clergy of Rome, the monks, the nuns, the children, the laymen, the widows, the married women, each group led by a priest from one of the seven areas of the city. And as they wended their dolorous way, eighty of the marchers fell dead of the plague.
It must have been a moving sight even for the august court of Heaven, to look down upon this slow advance of desperately praying people, holding lighted tapers and chanting with feverish voices the Kyrie eleison. It must have looked, from Heaven, as if a great seven-branched candlestick were ablaze upon one whole corner of the earth. And the ancient cry of the Kyrie eleison — “Lord have mercy” — which had so often assailed the ears of Jesus as He passed healing down the streets of Palestine, must still have had the power to move His Sacred Heart to pity.
For the story is told that as Saint Gregory was passing over the bridge of Saint Peter’s, a heavenly vision consoled the long line of the faithful. The Archangel Saint Michael was seen over the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian, sheathing his flaming sword in token that the pestilence was over. And at the same moment, Saint Gregory heard angelic voices singing the antiphon, “Queen of Heaven, rejoice!” The great monk made answer, “Pray for us to the Lord, alleluia.”
To this day, the tomb of Hadrian in Rome is called the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, in memory of the visitation of Saint Michael and his angelic choristers, and of the miraculous deliverance of the city from plague. A marble angel was placed on the tomb and remained there for centuries until Pope Benedict XIV replaced it with a bronze one.
The custom of saying “God bless you” when someone has sneezed, and the making of the Sign of the Cross on the mouths of those who yawn, goes back to the days of Saint Gregory and the Roman plague. The dread disease always ended in a spasm of sneezing or yawning, and the holy Pontiff ordered that “God bless you” should be said to those who sneeze, and the blessing of the Sign of the Cross should be put on the mouths of those who yawned.
The post was very slow in those days, and the confirmation of the Emperor Maurice did not reach Rome until six months after Saint Gregory’s election. But arrive it did, and when the news was brought to Gregory, he fled! The city gates were guarded, but he persuaded some merchants to cover him up in a wicker basket and thus carry him, along with their various wares, unnoticed out of the city. Once outside the city limits, he hid himself in the woods, and so made his way into the mountains.
For three days his people fasted and prayed, that he might be discovered and again brought back to them. And at the end of the third day, the searchers found him. This time he came back never to leave again; on the third of September, in 590, after he had first been ordained a priest, Saint Gregory was consecrated Pope and Bishop of Rome, in Saint Peter’s Basilica. He was almost fifty years old. He was wan and tired and ill, but for fourteen years, in sheer love of God and conformity to His Holy Will, he was to do the work of ten strong men; and this in spite of continual indigestion, slow fevers and frequent attacks of gout. The problems of the world, as he had been given so thoroughly to know them, pressed upon him in all their gravity as he set out upon his pontificate. The heresy of Nestorius still persisted in the East, Monophysitism still tore at the heart of the Church in Egypt, Arianism still remained to be given the death blow in Spain, and the Lombards forever threatened Rome.
“Where, I pray you,” he asked his people in one of his sermons in Saint Peter’s shortly after his accession, “is any delight to be found in this world? Mourning meets us everywhere; groans surround us. Ruined cities, fortresses overthrown, lands laid waste, the earth reduced to a desert. The fields have none to till them. There is scarcely a dweller in the cities. Yet even these poor remnants of the human race are smitten daily and without ceasing. The scourge of Heaven’s justice strikes without end, because even under its strokes our bad actions are not corrected. We see men led into captivity, beheaded, slain before our eyes. What pleasure, then, does life retain, my brethren? If yet we are fond of such a world, it is not joys but wounds which we love. We see the condition of that Rome which anon seemed to be mistress of the world: worn down by sorrows which have no measure, desolate of inhabitants, assaulted by enemies, filled with ruins. . . . What remains for us but while we weep to give thanks for the strokes of the scourge which we suffer for our iniquities. Our Creator is become our Father by the Spirit of adoption whom He has given to us: sometimes He feeds His sons with bread, sometimes He corrects them with the scourge; because He schools us by sorrows and by gifts for the unending inheritance.”
Saint Gregory thought that the end of the world was coming, and, “so thinking and so saying, he founded Western Christendom.” He called himself not ecumenical bishop, as did the proud Patriarch of Constantinople, John “the Faster,” but “servant of the servants of God.” Saint Gregory had years before, in the East, seen through John’s affectation of shabby clothes and advertised charities and fasts, and he had said of him, “Would it not be better for him to eat meat than to soil his lips with falsehood? Of what use is it to fast, if one is puffed up with pride; or to dress shabbily, if one is clothed in vanity; or to appear like a lamb, if one really has the teeth of a wolf?”
Gregory called himself the “servant of the servants of God,” in rebuke to the grasping Patriarch’s appropriation of the title of ecumenical, for he knew that John was using ecumenical in the sense of universal, in another attempt to take for the Bishop of Constantinople the prerogatives of the Bishop of Rome, the universal Father of Christendom. And when John’s friends tried to justify him and accused Pope Gregory of making too much of a “mere question of words,” the Pope answered them: “A mere affair of a title, a simple question of words! That is easily said! When Antichrist calls himself God, then dare to say: A mere affair of a title, a simple question of words!”
“For all who know the Gospel,” he wrote the Emperor Maurice, “it is common knowledge that the charge of the whole Church was entrusted by the voice of the Lord to the holy Apostle Peter, chief of all the Apostles. . . . Peter received the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, the power of binding and loosing, the charge of the whole Church, the Principate over it; yet he is not called the universal Apostle; and John as bishop endeavors to be called universal bishop!
“All things in Europe are delivered over to the power of barbarians. Our cities are destroyed, our fortresses overthrown, our provinces depopulated. The ground remains untilled. Day by day idolaters exercise their rage upon the faithful, who are cruelly slaughtered; and bishops who should lie in dust and ashes seek for themselves vanitous names: glory in new and profane titles. . . .
“We know indeed that many bishops of Constantinople have fallen into the gulf of heresy; have become not only heretics but heresiarchs. Thence came Nestorius, who, deeming Jesus Christ, the Mediator of God and man, to be two persons, because he did not believe that God could become man, went even to the extent of Jewish unbelief. Thence came Macedonius, who denied the Godhead of the Holy Spirit, consubstantial with the Father and the Son. . . . “For I am the servant of all bishops so long as they live like bishops. But whoever, through vainglory and contrary to the statutes of the Fathers lifts his neck against Almighty God, I trust in Almighty God that he will not bend me even with the sword.”
Every Pope who came after him took for his own and affixed to his title Gregory’s beautiful “servant of the servants of God,” the while each of them maintained that, in straight line from Peter, he was: the “Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province and (since 1929) Sovereign of the State of the City of the Vatican.” Saint Gregory was the first monk to become Pope. He had feared, with characteristic humility, that in the life of the papal court his monastic spirit might be lost. But he need not have worried. Years before, in Constantinople he had acquired the holy art of doing two things at once, of giving his mind to the work at hand and of keeping his heart at the same time fixed upon his Lord. And so it transpired that it was rather the sweet odor of monastic sanctity which pervaded the halls where diplomatic concourse held sway, and where the business of a temporal as well as a spiritual kingdom must needs be the order of the day.
For Saint Gregory was not only faced with the saving of Rome, he was obliged to “create her anew.” The ancient city would have ceased to exist but for the “imperishable life which did not come from her but was stored up in her.” Under the guarding and administering hand of Gregory, the Rome of the Popes rose up from the ruins of the Rome of the Emperors. Because of the sheer inability of the rulers of the Eastern Empire to assert any civil authority over Italy, and because there was no longer any military authority left in Rome, Pope Gregory was compelled to assume both offices, along with his own universal spiritual responsibilities. And assume them he did. His letters give the best realization of the almost overwhelming situation.
“At one time,” he wrote, “I have to consider the affairs of churches and monasteries, often taking into account the lives and actions of individuals. At another time I have to represent my fellow citizens in their affairs. Again I have to groan over the swords of the barbarians advancing to storm us, and to dread the wolves which lie in wait for a flock huddled together in fear. Then, again, I must charge myself with the care of public affairs, to provide means even for those to whom the maintenance of order is entrusted, or I must patiently endure certain depredators, or take precautions against them, that tranquility be not disturbed. . . . If you love me, weep for me, since so many temporal businesses press on me that I seem as if this dignity had almost excluded me from the love of God. Not of the Romans only am I bishop, but bishop of the Lombards, whose right is the right of the sword, whose favor is punishment. The billows of the world so surge upon me that I despair of steering into harbor the frail vessel entrusted to me by God, while my hand holds the helm amid a thousand storms.”
He surrounded himself with the holiest and most learned of his monks, whose advice he could trust, and he set himself to organize again the seven districts of Rome with their deacons, and to administer food, clothing and shelter for the multitudes of homeless, starving, “displaced” families who had flocked to Rome to seek his protection against the Lombards. The almsgivers whom he organized went up and down the streets every day, bringing food and medicine to the hungry and the sick.
On the first of each month, and on the holydays in between, the Pope would assist and oversee the distribution of meat, fish, vegetables, wheat, corn, oil, cheese, wine and clothing. He forced from the vast papal lands — acquired over the centuries by the donations of the faithful — every morsel of food and every bit of wood which could possibly be gathered together to provide for the needs of his impoverished people. He raised up a great army of workers whom he called “soldiers of Saint Peter,” whose main duty, along with administering the papal land, was to assist the poor and place homeless families on farms, which were leased to them for three generations.
Saint Gregory admonished his rectors that the papal patrimonies were the goods of the poor, that the thing most to be sought after was not gold, but eternal justice, and that the treasure of the Church was not to be used for selfish ends. By his boundless charities and the extraordinary burden put upon them, he finally emptied his treasury. But this he thought was only as it should be. Every day, he fed at his own table twelve poor pilgrims, whom he insisted on serving himself. We are told that one day when he entered the dining room he saw not twelve men, but thirteen. He inquired of his steward why there was an extra guest, but the astonished steward maintained that they had only the usual number. “I am sure I see thirteen!” the Pope insisted.
As the meal progressed, Saint Gregory noticed that the countenance of one of his guests kept changing from time to time. Now he would find himself looking into the face of a handsome young man, and again his gaze would fix itself on the same face become suddenly old and venerable. When he could stand the mystery no longer, Pope Gregory drew the strange man aside. “What is your name?” he asked him.
“Do you not remember,” his guest replied, “the merchant who came to you one day at Saint Andrew’s Monastery and told you that he had lost all his possessions in a shipwreck, and whom you gave twelve pieces of money and the silver dish which was your treasured remembrance of your beloved mother? I am the merchant to whom you gave your mother’s dish. Rather, I am the angel whom God sent to you to prove your charity. Now, do not fear,” he added, seeing Saint Gregory’s trembling amazement, “it is for the alms of that silver dish that God has given you the Chair of Saint Peter. And behold, God has sent me to be your guardian as long as you remain in this world. Whatever you ask will be granted you through me.” “If,” said the Pope in humble and happy wonderment, “for my little alms God has made me Supreme Pastor of His holy Church, and has sent me an angel to help me, what will He not grant me if I set to work to perform with my whole strength whatever He wishes of me!”
His burdens seemed to bear less heavily upon Saint Gregory after that. And he accomplished even more extraordinary things. He dispensed the goods of the estates of the Church throughout southern Italy, Sicily, Africa, France and Illyricum with such wisdom, bounty and command that historians trace to Gregory the Great the beginning of that temporal sovereignty which lasted down to the nineteenth century, until, under Pope Pius IX, the enemies of Christianity at last succeeded in wrenching from the Popes the lands which in their hands had been used for the succoring and saving of Christendom many, many times down the ages.
Pope Gregory’s constant care was for his bishops and priests. Early in his pontificate, he published his Pastoral Rule, on the duties of a bishop. This celebrated book, which for centuries remained the textbook of the clerical life, he divided into four parts. The first part treats of the fact that only one who already is skilled as a physician of the soul is fitted to undertake the supreme task of bishop. The second part describes the ordering of a bishop’s life to the end that he might be a good pastor. The third part sets down rules for the teaching and admonishing by the bishop of those under him. And the fourth part tells the bishop that, in spite of the good works he may have done, he must ever bear in mind his own weakness, since the better his work the greater his danger of falling through self-confidence.
It is said of the Pastoral Rule that by its influence Saint Gregory’s ideal of the perfect bishop molded the whole character of the episcopacy, and spread into every land the heavenly stimulus of his own sublime spirit. In 593, Saint Gregory wrote the four books of Dialogues, which, together with the Pastoral Rule, were the two works most universally read and prized throughout the Middle Ages. The Dialogues provide an excellent history of the times. The second of its books is given over entirely to a wonderful life of Saint Benedict, while the other three books contain, in many cases, the only accounts we have of the virtuous lives and the deeds of extraordinary holiness of the courageous and suffering Catholics of those days.
The secret of Saint Gregory’s power to lift the mind of his reader above the earth into the celestial air of Heaven, and to leave him with an ecstatic hunger for heavenly things, is revealed in a story told by Peter the Deacon, one of his biographers. It seems that when the Pope was dictating his homilies on Ezechiel, a curtain was drawn between him and his secretary. When, one morning, a good deal of time had passed and the secretary had heard no word from the Pope, he made a hole in the curtain and peeked through. He beheld Saint Gregory sitting in rapt attention, as if listening to someone. A dove hovered before his face, its beak inserted between his lips. When at last the bird withdrew its beak, the Pope spoke, and the secretary, full of wonder, took down the words. And when once again the Pope became silent, and once more the secretary peered through the hole in the curtain, he saw that the dove had replaced its beak between the lips of the Pontiff, and was engaging him anew, in sacred colloquy. And eagerly and in awe, after that, he awaited each fresh outcome of the heavenly conversation.
This exquisite evidence of the divine help of the Holy Spirit accounts for the great number and the miraculous nature of the extraordinary works and writings of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, the effects of which are, as one would expect, beyond counting.
Through Saint Leander and his brother, Saint Isidore of Seville, as well as the martyr Saint Hermenegild, Saint Gregory recovered Spain from the Arians. Through Queen Theodelinda, the wife of the Lombard King Agilulf, he was able to begin the conversion of the Lombard nation and the tempering of their ferocious and cruel natures. He won France back from the sorry spiritual state into which the country had fallen in the years which followed the death of King Clovis. For five years, he fought Emperor Maurice’s attempt to enforce an edict forbidding any official or soldier of the Empire from entering either the priesthood or the religious life, and in the end, the Pope triumphed.
Saint Gregory persuaded Queen Brunhilde of Austrasia to assist in the work of reforming the French clergy. His trust and praise of Brunhilde for centuries confounded historians, who professed to know her only as cruel, ambitious, murderous, scheming and wholly without virtue. Recent researchers, however, not content simply to copy facts which historians before them had copied from historians before them — and making use of the Vatican archives which Pope Leo XIII opened for just such study — portray Brunhilde in a new light. They reveal her as a noble ruler and above reproach in her private life, and this clearly was the Queen Brunhilde whom Saint Gregory knew.
It would seem as if Divine Providence had disposed the queens of Europe for the holy use of Pope Gregory in the conversion of the barbarian nations and the founding of Western civilization. For it was another queen, the Catholic Queen Bertha, who gave the impetus, under Saint Augustine of Canterbury, to the conversion of her husband, the English King Ethelbert of Kent. Ethelbert, in his turn, brought with him into the safe harbor of the Faith a host of his subjects.
The chief concern of the great Pontiff, throughout the fourteen years of his pontificate, was that not only should his people receive the Faith, but that they should progress in it. He demanded that his priests be learned as well as holy. “If you require such learning of priests,” a bishop once wrote him, “we shall never find any candidates!” But the Pope would not be deterred. He not only made learning a requirement, he himself set the example. It came to be said of him that “he possessed doctrine, learning and eloquence superior to those of the time in which he lived. . . He had not a single servant who had not received a good education, and whose words were not worthy to be heard around the ancient throne of the Latin language. . . .”
The beloved Saint Ildefonsus of Spain, Archbishop of Toledo — who defended the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary against the Helvidians, and to whom Our Blessed Lady appeared and gave a chasuble — said of Pope Saint Gregory the Great that “he excelled Anthony in holiness, and Augustine in knowledge.” The Anthony to whom Saint Ildefonsus refers is, of course, Saint Anthony of the Desert, for Saint Anthony of Padua would not be born for almost another six hundred years. Saint Ildefonsus himself was not born until three years after Saint Gregory’s death, but he knew and loved Pope Gregory through Saint Isidore of Seville, his teacher, and he had made a careful and loving study of his life and writings.
Saint Gregory was, above all else, a vigilant guardian of the Church’s doctrine, always the mark of a holy Pope. He ordained, early in his pontificate that the first four Ecumenical Councils of the Church should be treated with the respect given to the four Gospels. He worked unceasingly to stamp out heresy. He ordered that at the beginning of Lent the blessed ashes should be placed on the foreheads of the faithful, instead of upon only the head of the Pope — as had been the custom up to that time — and that the priest should repeat to each one, “Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
Saint Gregory was the first Pope to use the phrase, “to speak ex cathedra.” He reorganized the “stations,” still mentioned in the Roman Missal, especially in the Lenten Masses. It was then the custom for a part of the clergy to walk with the people in procession to whatever church was the “station” for the day, and there together they would hear Mass. The Pope would preside at the Mass, and, on most occasions, he would preach. Saint Gregory preached as often as his failing voice would let him.
Somehow, in the midst of his weighty burdens and his constant ill-health, Saint Gregory managed to compile a volume of the prayers, or collects, said in the Mass, and this he called the Sacramentary. He insututed, at Rome, a school of chanters, the famous schola cantorum, about which we hear so much today. For the schola cantorum, he built two houses, one near the Basilica of Saint Peter and the other near the Church of Saint John Lateran. John the Deacon gives us an interesting sidelight on the healthy educational methods of a saint when he tells us, in his narration of the two houses which sheltered the schola cantorum, that in them “we find preserved, with proper veneration, the authentic Antiphonary, the couch on which he used to chant, and the rod with which he disciplined the boys.”
There has been a revival also in our day of the beautifully reverent “Gregorian Chant,” named in honor of Saint Gregory’s patient labor in restoring the ancient chant of the Church and in setting down the rules to be followed so that Church music might more perfectly fulfill its function. Pope Gregory held that the place of Church music was a subordinate one. It should never provide, he said, anything more than a background for the sacred reenactment of Calvary. It should never draw attention to itself, and away from the Holy sacrifice of the Mass. It should, while disposing the minds of the faithful to profound reverence of God, and making more ardent the love of their hearts for Him, never become an end in itself.
And so the amazing Holy Father found time to perfect the chant of the Church and to train his school of chanters. And when his lessons were forgotten over the ages, and the incongruity of operatic music had long plagued and distracted the faithful during Mass, a Pope after Saint Gregory’s own heart, Pope Saint Pius X, would have but to turn back from the twentieth century to the sixth, to find the inspiration and confirmation for his Motu Proprio on sacred music. And both Gregorian chant and the schola cantorum would become part of the education, once again, of Catholic children.
Saint Gregory the Great died on the twelfth of March, 604, at the age of sixty-four. He was canonized immediately after his death, by the unanimous acclaim of his people. Later, because of the volume, the extraordinary insight and the profundity of his writings, the depth and extent of his learning, and the heroic holiness of his life, the Church gratefully placed him beside Jerome and Ambrose and Augustine. Saint Gregory the Great became the fourth of the Church’s four great Doctors of the West.
Since the words we would most like to leave with our reader are Saint Gregory’s own, maybe we will be forgiven for choosing those which he wrote to Theodelinda, the Christian Queen of the Lombards. They are words singularly precious to the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who, by God’s grace, have been given the sweet privilege of keeping fresh in the hearts and minds of their fellow Catholics in the twentieth century what all the Popes have taught in every century and what Pope Saint Gregory the Great so beautifully and courageously told the Queen whose husband held in his cruel keeping the life and death of the people of Italy.
“Since,” the Pope wrote Theodelinda, “since, then, by my own public profession you know the entireness of our belief, it is fitting that you have no further scruple concerning the Church of Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles. But persist in the true Faith, and ground your life on the rock of the Church, that is, in his confession: lest your many tears and your good works avail nothing, if they be separated from the true Faith. For as branches wither without a root, so works, however good they seem, are nothing if separated from the solidity of the Faith.” Sr. Catherine Goddard Clark, M.I.C.M.