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SAINT GREGORY THE GREAT

Pope, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church, c.540-604

"SIGHTS and sounds of war meet us on every side. The cities are destroyed; the military defenses wiped out; the land is devastated; the earth depopulated. No one remains in the country; scarcely any inhabitants are left in the towns; yet even the poor remains of humankind are still attacked daily and without intermission. Before our eyes some are carried away captive, some are mutilated, some murdered. Rome herself, who once was mistress of the world, we behold worn down by many and terrible distresses, the anguish of citizens, the attack of foes, the repetition of defeats."

Writing in the last years of the sixth century, this is how Saint Gregory the Great describes the terrible situation at the time in Italy, and in its chief city, Rome. The devastation he describes was being wrought by the barbarian tribes, whose savage attacks had by this time destroyed the greater part of Roman civilization. It was a period of violent change and destruction, coming between the death of one civilization and the birth of another, and Saint Gregory himself was one of those most responsible for bringing a new order of things into existence. He was pope from September 3, 590, to his death on March 12, 604, only a little over thirteen years, but his reign was one of the most important in the history of the Church.

He had been born about 540, of one of the few wealthy families left in Rome, and grew up watching the city fall into ruin before his eyes. During his early years he evidently spent his time in some kind of civic activity designed to improve the city's wretched condition, and he must have done well, since we find that, at thirty, he was appointed to the highest civil office in Rome--prefect of the city. A short time later, however, he gave up the position, as well as the vast wealth he had inherited from his father, in order to seek fulfillment of what had always been his first desire, the religious life. He entered a monastery by the simple method of turning his palatial home into one and joining the group of monks he had invited to live there.

In the monastic life Gregory found the kind of order all men--not only monks--needed in their lives. He worked to establish similar order in the society of his time. More important, he helped Christians in general to become more aware of the essential role played by the Church in creating this order among men. He made Christians see the necessity of the Church to be efficiently organized, its teaching authority respected, and the pope's leadership unquestioned. Gregory knew what the world needed because he had discovered what he himself needed, which was to live his life fully, developing a true sense of humility, making no plans for the future, moment by moment perfecting himself as a monk. God had His own plans for this humble man who was wise enough to know where he belonged.

Gregory was soon removed from the monastery by his predecessor as pope, Pelagius II, who assigned the monk to Church affairs, first as papal ambassador to the imperial court at Constantinople and later as private secretary to the pope himself. When Pelagius died during a plague that struck Rome in 590, no time was lost in choosing Gregory for the office. Gregory was anything but happy at the selection. He was horrified, in fact, and tried to avoid it, An appeal for aid to the emperor at Constantinople brought nothing but his congratulations on the good choice that had been made, and an attempt at flight from Rome was foiled by Gregory's being seized, taken to Saint Peter's, and consecrated pope before he could resist any further.

Gregory ceased to complain and began to work. The barbarians were the most trying problem and missionaries were the answer. The best known of them, Saint Augustine of Canterbury, went to the Angles and Saxons in Britain; others went to the Gauls and Franks in northern Europe and to the Lombards in Italy itself. Nor did Gregory neglect the spiritual welfare of those who already possessed the faith. Through constant writing and preaching, he kept before the clergy and the laity the ideal of the good Christian life; a life dedicated to the love of God aid by discipline and obedience, particularly obedience to the pope as the supreme head of the Church. Reform of clerical abuses, revision of the Church's music and liturgy, reorganization of the Church's administrative system--these are a few of the measures undertaken by Gregory, a man whom no detail escaped. Gregory also conducted the business of the civil government of Rome, since no one else was willing or capable enough to do it. This involved him in such activities as organizing a relief system for the starving population of the city and making treaties with the barbarians who always stood ready to overrun Rome, as they had done so often in the past. A last fact that might help to indicate something of Gregory's claim to the title "the Great" is that for most of his reign as pope he was a desperately sick man; racked with pain, he gave orders from his bed much of the time.

After Gregory's death, Europe looked much the same as it had before he began his reign as pope. The barbarians were still barbarians, society was still in a state of near-chaos, and the Church was still struggling to make its own state more secure. Yet things were not the same: the seeds of faith, planted in countless places by the missionaries, were slowly growing in the midst of the barbarian masses; the Church had been organized in a manner that would enable it to meet the demands of the future; and society itself was becoming aware of the Church for what it was, the institution by which men are saved. The Christian culture of the Middle Ages was to be built on this foundation and Gregory was the man who had laid it.

 

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