Without St. Gregory the Great, it’s hard to imagine medieval Christendom as we know it.
Such, at least, has been the judgment of historians.
Gregory, whose feast day is this week, took office as pope in the late 500s, barely more than a century after the official fall of the Roman Empire. In a world marked by disintegration and disorder, he laid the foundations for the social and spiritual order of the Christendom that rose from the ashes of the Roman Empire.
“Living as though there might be no tomorrow, he built for eternity,” writes Catholic historian Warren Carroll in his Christendom series. “And, if that were not enough, he built also for his own day and for a thousand years to come the foundations of the Papal state, the temporal authority of the Pope in central Italy which alone, in the absence of any other authority, could preserve its people and the city of Rome from anarchy and destruction.”
Another historian, James Barmby, wrote, “It is impossible to conceive what would have been the confusion, the lawlessness, the chaotic state of the Middle Ages without the medieval papacy; and of the medieval papacy, the real father is Gregory the Great.” Likewise, Anglican historian Frederick Homes Dudden concluded that “the form of medieval Christianity would be almost inexplicable” without him.
The reluctant pope
From medieval monasticism and the form of the liturgy to the primary of the pope and his temporal powers, the influence of Gregory was felt centuries after his death. But had he had his way, none of it would have happened.
Gregory was born around 540 into one of the old wealthy Roman families, which lived in a palatial villa on one of the famed Seven Hills of Rome. Amid imperial decline and barbarian invasions, the family had retained both its prestige and wealth: his father served as a senator and the family’s holdings included spacious estates in Sicily.
Gregory wanted none of it. After a brief stint as the prefect of Rome in the 570s, he resigned to become a monk. He turned the family villa into a monastery and built six more monasteries on the family lands in Sicily. When Pope Pelagius II made him a deacon and dispatched him to Constantinople as a papal ambassador, Gregory did his best to maintain the austere lifestyle of a monk. Such was his isolation from the surrounding society that he never even learned Greek, even though he spent six years in the city.
As soon as his mission ended, Gregory hurried back into the monastery, becoming an abbot.
But four or five years later, after Pelagius II died in a plague in 590 AD, Gregory was elected his successor on a near-unanimous vote.
Gregory was not interested. He sent a letter to the Eastern Emperor, begging him not to recognize the election. But the Roman prefect intercepted it. After six months of silence from the emperor, Gregory considered fleeing the city. In fact, one account says that he went through with this plan, but his escape was foiled when his hiding place was revealed by some sort of a supernatural light. The flight-and-light story is a legend, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, but it certainly is a testament to Gregory’s deep-seated reluctance about becoming pope.
Either way, he was consecrated on September 3, 590. Gregory would serve 14 years, into which he “crowded work enough to have exhausted the energies of a lifetime,” as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it. All the while, he constantly battled ill-health, including gout so severe that he could not even walk in his later years.
Dining with the poor, dealing with barbarians
Given his attachment to the life of the monk, it’s to be expected that Gregory lent the weight of his office to spreading devotion to St. Benedict and promoting the monastic rule named after him. He authored a classic biography of the monastic saint, the Life of Benedict, and his enthusiastic support for the Rule of St. Benedict is credited with helping it to spread throughout Europe. While this is not surprising, it certainly does not diminish the importance of Gregory’s contribution to the development of Western monasticism.
What is surprising is that Gregory also turned out to be a skillful administrator. By his time, the large donations of wealthy estates had boosted the papal land holdings to as much as 1,800 square miles, which generated about $1.5 million in annual income, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. “The land lay in many places—Campania, Africa, Sicily, and elsewhere—and, as their landlord, Gregory displayed a skill in finance and estate management which excites our admiration no less than it did the surprise of his tenants and agents, who suddenly found that they had a new master who was not to be deceived or cheated,” the Encyclopedia says.
As one who had renounced worldly wealth and prestige, Gregory understood the true value of money and property. He organized a system of social services in the city of Rome and kept a list of every poor person in the city and the amount of food due to them. An estimated 3,000 persons a day reportedly lived off these food provisions, according to Jesuit historian John O’Malley.
Gregory maintained a personal touch: he is said to have invited many of the poor to dine with him and he took an interest in individual cases of those in need of the Church’s help. In one case, he wrote to a local bishop urging him to intervene in the sale of a Christian slave woman in order to prevent her family from being separated, according to Carroll.
“The only fault ever laid at his door in this matter is that, by his boundless charities, he emptied his treasury. But this, if a fault at all, was a natural consequence of his view that he was the administrator of the property of the poor, for whom he could never do enough,” the Catholic Encyclopedia says.
But Gregory was more than mere administrator. At times, it seems like he was the de facto governor of Rome.
Gregory paid for maintenance and other civic services out of papal accounts—so much so that he referred to himself as the city “treasurer,” according to O’Malley. And, as there was no longer a magister militum—the Latin term for the most senior military commander—in Rome, it was up to the pope to supervise the military, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. He even signed a peace treaty with the barbarian Lombards to protect Rome—the imperial government in Constantinople apparently had become so irrelevant that the treaty was effected without any involvement from its local representative, known as the exarch.
Conversion and reform, from Britain to Asia
None of his involvement in temporal affairs came at the expense of the spiritual.
Gregory orchestrated one of the great missions of the early Church, dispatching 40 monks from his old monastery to Britain in 596. He rebuked the patriarch of Constantinople for infringing on papal primary by calling himself the “ecumenical patriarch” and chastised the Eastern emperor for meddling in Church affairs. He maintained vigilance against heresies, urging the (same) Eastern emperor to enforce laws against the Donatists in Africa and advised the patriarch of Georgia on how to deal with the Nestorian and Monophysite heresies.
Gregory also left a lasting impression on the very liturgical and ecclesiastic structure of the Church for centuries to come.
He made a number of reforms to the liturgy whose significance can be gauged from the fact that the traditional plainchant used in the liturgy was named after him. And, he authored a book on how to be a bishop that became the standard guidebook into the 1200s and 1300s. The text, Pastoral Care, also is considered one of the all-time greatest treatises on preaching.
Gregory also left about 850 letters, a series of 40 gospel homilies, another set of 22 homilies on Ezekiel, his Dialogues which include the Life of Benedict, and at least two commentaries, including one on Job that O’Malley describes as a “mystical rumination.” His theological achievements alone have earned him status as one of the Doctors of the Church.
Few men in history have ever merited being described as “the great” as much as Gregory. Perhaps because so few have wanted it as little as Gregory did.