September 3: Saint Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor—Memorial
Patron Saint of choir boys, educators, masons, musicians, popes, students, and singers
Invoked against gout and the plague
Declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Boniface VIII in 1295
Liturgical Color: White
No one presumes to teach an art till he has first, with intent meditation, learned it. What rashness is it, then, for the unskilful to assume pastoral authority, since the government of souls is the art of arts!…And yet how often do men who have no knowledge whatever of spiritual precepts fearlessly profess themselves physicians of the heart, though those who are ignorant of the effect of drugs blush to appear as physicians of the flesh! But because, through the ordering of God, all the highest in rank of this present age are inclined to reverence religion, there are some who, through the outward show of rule within the holy Church, affect the glory of distinction. They desire to appear as teachers, they covet superiority to others, and, as the Truth attests, they seek the first salutations in the market-place, the first rooms at feasts, the first seats in assemblies Matthew 23:6–7, being all the less able to administer worthily the office they have undertaken of pastoral care, as they have reached the magisterial position of humility out of elation only. ~Saint Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule, Book I
Saint Gregory the Great was born in the city of Rome into an aristocratic family whose members filled political and religious offices. Gregory’s father was a senator and later became the Prefect of Rome, similar to the role of mayor. His mother, Silvia, was a virtuous woman who was later recognized as a saint, as were two of his aunts. Thus, Gregory’s influential, wealthy, and saintly family provided him with a stellar education and nurtured him in the Catholic faith from a young age.
During the first fourteen years of his life, Gregory witnessed war and disease ravage the city of Rome. The Ostrogoths had ruled Rome since 479, but from 535–554, the Eastern Roman emperor waged war in an attempt to reclaim control. The war caused significant destruction in Rome and resulted in many deaths. Gregory and his family may have even had to flee for a time. Once peace was restored in 554 and Italy came under the control of the Eastern Roman emperor, people began to return to Rome, rebuild the city, and reestablish order.
From 554–574, Gregory followed in his father’s footsteps, assuming various civil leadership roles. Around the year 573, he was elected to the same position his father had held earlier: Prefect of Rome. However, not long after Gregory assumed this role, his father passed away, prompting Gregory to make a major shift in his life. He resigned as Prefect, turned his family home into a monastery, and took monastic vows. That time of deep prayer was invaluable to him and would prepare him for the important tasks God would later entrust to him.
As a monk, Gregory spent the next four years immersed in quiet prayer and study. These years were some of the happiest of his life. In 578, Pope Pelagius II ordained Gregory as one of the seven deacons of Rome and sent him to Constantinople a year later as his apocrisiarius, or papal ambassador. Despite the challenges of his six years there, Deacon Gregory maintained his monastic life of prayer and study while fulfilling his duties at the imperial court. During this time, Deacon Gregory began writing his famous commentary on the Book of Job, which provided teachings on the nature of God, the problem of evil, the Christian understanding of human suffering, and the virtue of patience.
After completing his service in Constantinople, Deacon Gregory returned to Rome, was chosen as the abbot of his monastery, and enjoyed several more years of peaceful monastic life. In 590, Pope Pelagius II died, and the people of Rome chose Gregory as his successor. He accepted this responsibility, albeit reluctantly. He was the first monk to be elected pope.
Over the next fourteen years, despite constant ill health, Pope Gregory I established himself as one of the most consequential popes in history. Among his accomplishments, he implemented significant reforms in the Church’s administration and liturgy. Administratively, he reformed how the Church’s property and finances were managed. He implemented strict guidelines to ensure the responsible use of these resources, put measures in place to prevent abuses such as nepotism, increased transparency, and greatly expanded charitable works, to the point of emptying the papal treasury. He also forged important strategic military and political alliances that strengthened the papacy and ensured the safety and betterment of those under his care. Many civil leaders even turned to him for guidance.
Liturgically, Pope Gregory contributed to the standardization of the Liturgy by offering clear guidelines and rubrics. He established prayers, the flow of the Mass, and the liturgical year, and helped develop liturgical chant, which came to be known as “Gregorian Chant.”
Pope Gregory also demonstrated his missionary spirit. Most notably, he initiated a mission that began the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon peoples in England. It’s said that Pope Gregory once encountered some slave boys in the Roman market. He asked where they were from and was told they were Angles from England. Gregory replied that the boys were angels. Seeing the boys being sold as slaves planted a desire in Gregory’s heart to convert that pagan nation and a resolve to send missionaries to the Angles and Saxons in England. These missions were ultimately very successful through the efforts of Saint Augustine of Canterbury and forty of his brother monks, who were sent from Pope Gregory’s own monastery.
In addition to his commentaries on Scripture, Pope Gregory authored the “Pastoral Rule” (Regula Pastoralis), an influential guide for bishops and other church leaders. It outlined their pastoral responsibilities and the conduct expected in their personal and public lives. His “Dialogues” are a collection of inspiring visions, miracles, and stories of the lives of the saints, including an early biography of St. Benedict. Pope Gregory’s approximately 800 letters offer a valuable insight into the ecclesiastical, social, and political landscape of his time. These letters contain practical theological and pastoral advice that has formed an enduring legacy and significantly influenced Church leadership throughout the centuries.
Enduring legacies cannot be fabricated, purchased, or contrived. They are the result of true leadership and the profound impact one leaves behind. Pope Gregory I is now known as Saint Gregory the Great. He is “great” because he not only had a major influence upon the people of his time, both religiously and politically, but also because his influence and writings solidified the direction that the Church would take after him. His first loves were of Christ and the monastic way of life. God used Gregory’s humble way of life as a foundation upon which He would continue to build His Church.
As we honor this great pope, ponder the importance of making your life a foundation upon which others will grow and flourish. We establish a firm foundation for our spiritual lives and for the lives of others around us only when we make prayer and union with God our primary mission. Saint Gregory did this well, and God used him in glorious ways. May the same be said of each one of us.
Saint Gregory the Great, your first desire was to love God, to come to know Him through prayer and study, and to serve Him with all your heart. God took what you gave and transformed it into a solid foundation upon which He would continue to grow His Church. Please pray for me, that my life will always be grounded upon a solid faith so that God can use me in any way He chooses for His glory and the salvation of souls. Saint Gregory the Great, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.