Millstatt Sacramentary,
ca. 1170, Klagenfurt


GREGORY
the GREAT
(ca. 540-604)

Pope 590-604

 

 

BMM S0321-Moralia c. 1190


GREGORY the Great, Pope from 590 to 604.  He was the fourth and last of the traditional Latin ‘Doctors of the Church’ and the father of the medieval Papacy.  The son of a senator, he became prefect of the city (Praefectus Urbi) in 573, but, like many of the finer men of the age, he sold his vast property and devoted the proceeds to the relief of the poor.  He founded seven monasteries, six in Sicily and one in Rome, which last he himself entered as a monk c. 574.  After a few years of a very austere life, the Pope compelled him to leave the cloister, creating him regionarius, i.e. one of the seven deacons of Rome.  Soon afterwards (c. 578) Pelagius II made him ‘apocrisiarius’ at the Imperial court of Constantinople.  His experiences there, which convinced him that no help was to be expected from the struggling Eastern Empire, largely influenced his future course of action as Pope.  About 585 he returned to Rome and became abbot of his former monastery (St. Andrew’s). To this period probably belongs the famous story, related by Bede, of his encounters with the fair Saxon slaves in the market (‘Non Angli, sed angeli’).

  On his accession to the Papacy, accepted only after a severe interior struggle, Gregory found Italy in an alarming state.  The land was devastated by inundations, famine, pestilence, and the invasion of the Lombards, and the position of the Church threatened by the claims of the Imperial power at Constantinople.  It was owing to Gregory, in whom firmness and strength of character were tempered by gentleness and charity, that many of these evils were conquered.  Of particular significance were his relations with the Lombards, with whom he concluded, in 592–3, what amounted to a separate peace.  By this unprecedented step he set aside the authority of the exarch of Ravenna, the Emperor’s representative.  Throughout this period of unrest, aggravated by the weakness and treachery of the Byzantine authorities, he followed a course of independent action, appointing governors to the Italian cities and providing war materials, and thus establishing the temporal power of the papacy.  In his administration of the vast estates of the Church, in which he spent great sums on works of charity, he showed conspicuous ability.  In his frequently strained relations with the East he upheld the supremacy of the Roman see and refused to recognize the title of ‘Oecumenical Patriarch’, adopted by the Patriarch of Constantinople.  One of the greatest successes of his pontificate was the conversion of England, for which task he selected St. Augustine, later of Canterbury, with about 40 missionaries from his own monastery.  He also intervened with great effect in strengthening the Church in Spain, Gaul, and Northern Italy.

  Gregory was a very fertile author, of a practical rather than speculative bent of mind.  His  ‘Liber Regulae Pastoralis’ (c. 591) sets out the directives for the pastoral life of a bishop, whom he regards first as a shepherd of souls.  The book, which was translated by King Alfred, became the textbook of the medieval episcopate.  The ‘Dialogues’ (c. 593), which told the lives and miracles of St. Benedict and other early Latin saints, reflect the uncritical credulity of the age; they served as a model to most medieval hagiographers. His ‘Expositio in Librum Iob, sive Moralium Libri XXV’ is an exegesis of the Book of Job in the threefold literal, mystical, and moral sense, with special emphasis on the last.  The ‘Homilies on the Gospels’ were sermons preached on texts from the Gospels; they were much drawn on as lessons for the third Nocturn in the Breviary of 1570.  There is also a collection of 854 of Gregory’s letters, which are of extreme interest for the information they supply on the Pope’s character and multifarious activities.

  St. Gregory was an ardent promoter of monasticism.  By granting the monks ‘privilegia’, which partly restricted episcopal jurisdiction, he laid the foundations of the later exemption of religious orders that brought them under direct Papal control.  In his theology he did not aim at originality, but followed the teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo, whose ideas he accommodated to the minds of his contemporaries.  He developed esp. the doctrine of Purgatory, teaching that the pains of the souls detained there may be relieved by the Sacrifice of the Mass, and popularized the mystical doctrines of St. Dionysius the Ps.-Areopagite, esp. his angelology. He encouraged the veneration of relics if authentic.  He made important changes in the liturgy, and some of the prayers in the Gregorian Sacramentary are his, though the Sacramentary as a whole is a later compilation.  He fostered the development of liturgical music, and, though his exact share in its codification is disputed, his name has been so closely linked with plainsong that it is commonly known as the ‘Gregorian Chant’; he gave to the Roman ‘schola cantorum’ its definite form.  His pontificate and personality did much to establish the idea in men’s minds that the Papacy was the supreme authority in the Church, and his achievement was the more impressive in that (as is reflected in the title ‘servus servorum Dei’, which he applied to himself) he had great personal humility.  He was canonized by popular acclamation


CPG (CCSL 1995 pp. 552-559) Designations of Gregory's Works:

10) 1708 Moralia siue Expositio in Job

20) 1709 Homiliae ii in Canticum Canticorum

30) 1710 Homiliae in Hiezechielem

40) 1711 Homiliae xl in Euangelia

50) 1712 Regula Pastoralis

60) 1713 Dialogorum libri iv

70) 1714 Registrum Epistularum


Gregory the Great as Model

“The Life of the Pastor Must Be a Balanced Synthesis”
Pope Benedict XVI

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, SEPT. 3, 2006 (ZENIT.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today before reciting the midday Angelus with crowds at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

Today the Roman calendar remembers St. Gregory the Great, Pope and doctor of the Church (about the years 540-604). His singular figure, I would say almost unique, is an example that must be presented both to pastors of the Church as well as public administrators: In fact, first he was prefect and later Bishop of Rome.

As an imperial official, he was outstanding for his administrative capacity and moral integrity, to the point that, when only 30 years old, he held the highest civil office of “prefect of the city” (“Praefectus Urbis”).

Meanwhile, maturing in his interior was the vocation to the monastic life which he embraced in the year 574, when his father died. Thereafter the Benedictine Rule became the foundation of his life. Even when he was sent by the Pope as his representative to the emperor of the East, he had a monastic, simple and poor lifestyle.

When being called back to Rome, though he lived in a monastery, he was a close collaborator of Pope Pelagius II, and, when the latter died, victim of a plague epidemic, Gregory was acclaimed by all as his successor.

He tried in every way to avoid the appointment, but in the end had to give in and, leaving the cloister with regret, dedicated himself to the community, aware that he was doing his duty and that he was a simple “servant of the servants of God.”

“He is not really humble,” he wrote, “who understands that he must be leader of others by decree of the divine will and yet disdains this pre-eminence. If on the contrary he submits to divine dispositions and does not have the vice of obstinacy and is prepared to benefit others with those gifts, when the highest dignity of governing souls is imposed on him, he must flee from it with his heart, but against his will, he must obey” (“Pastoral Rule,” I, 6).

These words are as a dialogue with himself. With prophetic vision, Gregory intuited that a new civilization was dawning with the meeting between the Roman heritage and the peoples called “barbarians,” thanks to the force of cohesion and the moral loftiness of Christianity. Monasticism was becoming a richness not only for the Church, but for the whole of society.

Of frail health but strong moral stature, St. Gregory the Great carried out intense pastoral and civil action. He left a very large collection of letters, admirable homilies, a famous commentary on the Book of Job and writings on the life of St. Benedict, as well as numerous liturgical texts, famous for the reform of chant, which, due to his name, was called “Gregorian.”

However, his most famous work, without a doubt, is the “Pastoral Rule,” which had the same importance for the clergy as St. Benedict's Rule for the monks of the Middle Ages. The life of the pastor of souls must be a balanced synthesis between contemplation and action, animated by love “which reaches the loftiest heights when it bends down with mercy to the profound ills of others. The ability to bend down to the misery of others is the measure of the force of one's self-giving to others” (II,5). In this teaching, always timely, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council were inspired to describe the image of the pastor of our times.

Let us pray to the Virgin Mary that the example and teaching of St. Gregory the Great may be followed by the pastors of the Church and also by leaders of civil institutions.


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