Against the backdrop of a tumultuous time, which saw barbarians conquer the seemingly invincible Roman Empire, emerged Pope Gregory the Great, a man who, according to church historian Bruce Shelly, was an “unlikely candidate for greatness” yet is seen by some as ushering in the start of the Middle Ages.

Gregory was born around 540 AD into a family characterised by its wealth, imperial service and religious piety. He boasted a papal ancestry - not only was his great-great grandfather Pope Felix III, Gregory was also related to Pope Agapetus. 

PAPAL AUTHORITY: The Vatican, home of the Popes, today. Known as "the Great" after his death, Pope Gregory I greated enhanced papal authority. PICTURE: Elvis Santana (www.sxc.hu).


"Gregory would resolutely set about to take hold of a society in crisis. For him, the new role was both contemplative and active in its response; a lifestyle he believed was modelled on Jesus’ own life which included both prayer and practically caring for the needs of others."

Seeking a career in the public service, Gregory rose to become the mayor of Rome by the age of 30. His time in public service, however, proved short with Gregory resigning and pursuing a call as a monk. His inherited wealth lent itself to him establishing seven monasteries as well as financing the needs of the poor.

By 577, the ruling Pope at the time, Pelagius II, appointed Gregory as one of the seven deacons of the Roman Church and in 579, Gregory was sent on a diplomatic assignment to Constantinople where he engaged people on a political and ecclesiastical level. 

On returning to Rome in 585, he resumed a monastic life and embraced the study of God’s Word and other spiritual disciplines, undertaking the role as the abbot of his monastery in 586.

When Pope Pelagius II died in 590, Gregory succeeded him, becoming the first monk to be elected a Pope. As Gregory ascended into the papal office he was confronted with a society marked by much political, economic and social instability. 

Ivor Davidson, professor of theology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, writes that it was “a dreadful time to assume office”. 

“Not only was there a war with the Lombards; disease and famine were also rife...and heavy rains had caused the river Tiber to flood, causing considerable devastation,” he says. “Civil government was in ruins, and the task of becoming bishop was a calling to far more than the leadership of a church, even of a church at the heart of its society; it was an obligation to take on the job of holding together a disintegrating social and economic world.”

Gregory would resolutely set about to take hold of a society in crisis. For him, the new role was both contemplative and active in its response; a lifestyle he believed was modelled on Jesus’ own life which included both prayer and practically caring for the needs of others.

The pope assumed a secular role in the areas of education, care for the poor, raising up armies and appointing heads of cities. He successfully negotiated a peace deal with the Lombards, which church historians suggest was due to his previous experience in diplomacy and government service.

However it was his benevolent work which stands out as his greatest achievement.

Davidson writes that Pope Gregory “spent little money on building new churches in Rome but gave very large sums to welfare programs”

“(H)is church paid for grain for general distribution among the populace in times of serious food shortage, fed and looked after the vulnerable, ransomed prisoners and sent impromptu donations to a range of causes.”

From a spiritual perspective, Gregory was heavily influenced by the Church Fathers, especially Augustine. He advocated the veneration and collection of the remains of saints and martyrs (suggesting that such items contained great spiritual power), the doctrine of purgatory, penance and, in the taking of communion, Gregory taught that the body and blood of Christ was literally present in the bread and wine. The Gregorian Chant was attributed to him. 

Gregory encouraged the use of images and aids for worship as long as they did not become a source of worship in themselves. He also authored many works including a book called Pastoral Rule, which set down principles for Christian ministry. 

"In one famous illustration of his passion for missions, the story goes that, on a visit to a slave market, Gregory’s attention was captured by some fair-haired, blue-eyed youths. Told they were Angles from the Kingdom of Deira in Britain, Gregory is said to called them “angels” and on hearing that their king was Aella, is said to exclaimed that 'Alleluia be sung in Aella’s land' and apparently decided to send missionaries to England."

Gregory was passionate about missions. In one famous illustration of this passion, the story goes that, on a visit to a slave market, Gregory’s attention was captured by some fair-haired, blue-eyed youths. Told they were Angles from the Kingdom of Deira in Britain, Gregory is said to called them “angels” and on hearing that their king was Aella, is said to exclaimed that “Alleluia be sung in Aella’s land” and apparently decided to send missionaries to England - indeed, notes Shelly, the next 300 years would see the re-establishment of Christianity in England.

In his book, Medieval Christianity, Philip Schaff describes Gregory’s character as "monastic, ascetic, devout and superstitious, hierarchical, haughty and ambitious, yet humble before God".

Gregory was known as “the servant of servants” , a claim that future popes would assume and one which seems paradoxical given that Gregory assumed the claim of being a successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ on earth. Yet when confronted another title of “universal pope” Gregory apparently responded with indignation , saying “Away with words which inflate pride and wound charity”.

Poor health seemed to constantly pursue Gregory, perhaps as a result of the little attention he gave to his personal well-being while living a busy lifestyle. Gregory himself wrote of his physical ailments, saying he was “tormented by the pains of gout, a kind of fire seems to pervade my body: to live is pain and I look forward to death as the only remedy”.In fact, Shelly suggests that fatigue as a result of years of faithful devotion was a contributing factor to his death in 604.

Gregory’s 14 year rule (from 590 to 604) has been described as a remarkable achievemen but it was only after his death that he became known as Gregory the Great among the churches, with papal authority being greatly enhanced through his leadership.


SOURCES
Shelly, Bruce L. - 'Church History in Plain Language' (Dallas, Word Publishing: 1982)
Renwick, A.M. and Harman, A.M.  - 'The Story of the Church' (Leicester, England, Inter-Varsity Press:1999)
Davidson, Ivor J. - “A Public Faith.” in 'The Monarch History of the Church Vol. 2' (Grand Rapids, Monarch Books: 2005).
Kuiper, B.K. - 'The Church in History' (Grand Rapids, WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. : 1978)
'The History of Christianity' (England, Lion Publishing: 1990, p.230)
Akers, J.N. - “Gregory 1, the Great” in 'Evangelical Dictionary of Theology'. Ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Baker Books: 1996, p.485-486)