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Monday, 27 April 2015

Pope Gregory I

Pope Gregory I (c. 540 – 604), commonly known as Saint Gregory the Great, was Pope from 590 to his death in 604.


Gregory's father was Gordianus, a wealthy patrician, probably of the eminent patrician family of the gens Anicia , who owned large estates in Sicily and a mansion on the Caelian Hill in Rome.

His mother Silvia appears also to have been of good family, but very little is known of her life. She is honoured as a saint, her feast being kept on November 3rd.

His great-grandfather was Pope Felix III, who reigned 483-492.

Of Gregory's early years we know very little, except how he loved to meditate on the Scriptures and to listen attentively to the conversations of his elders, so that he was "devoted to God from his youth up".

Of Gregory's education, we have few details. Gregory of Tours tells us that in grammar, rhetoric and dialectic he was so skillful as to be thought second to none in all Rome, and it seems certain also that he must have gone through a course of legal studies. Not least among the educating influences was the religious atmosphere of his home.


In 573 Gregory was elected Prefect (or Mayor) of Rome. However he preferred the solitude of a Benedictine monastic cell to worldly power and resigned the following year selling his vast property and giving the proceeds to the poor.

Gregory spent five years as an emissary to the imperial court at Constantinople between 579-584. Then he devoted himself to teaching and literary work.

On his father's death, Gregory converted his family mansion at Caelian Hill, which he had inherited as part of a large paternal fortune, into a monastery dedicated to the apostle Saint Andrew. He then utilized his entire estate for the establishment of six additional monasteries on his other holdings in Sicily.

Gregory received  permission in 587 to lead a mission to Britain. The invading Anglo Saxons there had almost completely eradicated Christianity in the eastern half even though the Celtic Church in the western half remained strong. After the group has travelled a little way a sign halted Gregory. It was a locust, which had dropped onto the Bible he was reading. "Locusta" he exclaimed meaning "Locostat" the Latin for "remain in your place."  Gregory and his team immediately returned to Rome.


On September 3, 590 Gregory was elected pope by the church leaders but he refused the office and fled from Rome. Gregory hid in the forest until he was found and was hauled back to the city where he reluctantly agreed to take the post. Gregory had no craving for the position and was so upset that he could barely speak.

Gregory was the first monk to be elected pope and his elevation to the papacy marked a triumph for the Benedictine order.

At the time of Gregory's elevation to the papacy, Rome was in the midst of a plague epidemic to which Gregory's predecessor, Pelagius had been a victim. Gregory's first act as pope was to order a sorrowful procession through the city. The plague subsided.

It was said that Pope Gregory originated the usage of the phrase "God Bless You", when someone sneezes, at a time when sneezing was a mortal symptom because of the plague.

Pope Gregory I's successful negotiation of treaties in 592 with the Lombards who had been devastating northern Italy, magnified the authority of the papacy in secular politics.

By Meister des Registrum Gregorii. - Trier, Stadtbibliothek, Hs. 171/1626, 

In 595 Pope Gregory spotted some pale skinned boys from the British Isles who who been bought to Rome. On being told they were pagan "angli" the pope exclaimed "They are not Angles but Angels".
Inspired Gregory instructed the respected abbot, Augustine, to lead a mission to convert Britain. "Certainly do not destroy the temples of the idols that the English have", he wisely recommended, "sprinkle them with holy water and let altars be constructed."

On their way to England, Augustine and his party of 40 read the terrifying stories of the cruelty and barbarity of their future hosts. By the time they reached Aix-en-Provence in France, the stories had become so frightening that  sent Augustine back to Rome to request papal permission to return.

Gregory refused and sent Augustine back with letters encouraging the missionaries to persevere.
In his capacity of pope Gregory reformed the estates of the Roman church and from their income spent large sums on the relief of sufferers from war, pestilence and famine.

Gregory's aesthetic background did influence him into preaching a Gospel of works. He taught that after baptism any sin required penance such as alms giving or 24-hour praying.

Gregory encouraged many doctrines that later became prevalent in the Roman Catholic church such as the belief in the power of saints and relics, purgatory and transubstantiation in communion.

He introduced the Catholic custom of placing ashes on the forehead as a sign of penitence from which Ash Wednesday originated.

Among Pope Gregory's legacies were Pastoral Care, a writing on the office and duties of the Bishop. Also Dialogues related the miraculous doings and visions of north Italy and instructed the spiritual leader not to neglect either the inner life of the soul, or external matters.


Gregory suffered almost continually from indigestion and, at intervals, from attacks of slow fever. His unceasing fasting and rigid asceticism played havoc with his health. Gregory was often confined to bed with gout and heart problems in his later years and towards the close of his life arthritis caused him to be almost totally lame.

Pope Gregory I died on March 12, 604 worn out by a lifestyle of praying on the mountains and ministering in the cities. He had called himself "The servant of the servants of God" and when given higher titles he said "God resisteth the poor but giveth grace to the humble."

Tomb of St. Gregory

He was declared a saint immediately after his death by popular acclamation.

Pope Gregory XVI established the Order of St. Gregory the Great on September 1, 1831 to recognize high support for the Holy See or for the Pope.

Sources Encyclopedia Britannica, Penguin Dictionary of Saints

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