A lot of people’s epithets tell you about what they did. William was a conqueror. Ivan did some bad stuff. Casper was amicable, for a ghost. But sometimes we run into a character with a title like “the Great,” and it’s not always obvious what got them that title. Today we’re going to look at what made Pope Gregory I “great” and what this late patristic era figure can tell us about the church and Christian life.
Born in 540 to a wealthy patrician family in Rome, Gregory found himself at one of the major centers of religious and political importance –– second only to Constantinople. For all historical characters, time matters as much as place, and the late sixth century was a happening time for the church.
A few decades before Gregory was born, a distinct style of monasticism in the West developed with the Rule of St. Benedict at Monte Cassino, fewer than 100 miles from Rome. The Benedictine Rule, a manual for communal monastic living, would dominate Christian religious life in the emerging medieval era. It would also shape Gregory himself, for Gregory would become the first monk to be elected to pope, a post he only accepted with great reservation.
Given his family’s record in religious vocations (at least one pope and multiple beatified saints), it is not surprising that Gregory found his ultimate vocation as a monastic bishop. The monastic life was not the initial path Gregory pursued, however. His early career was devoted to civil service, giving him administrative skills that characterized his leadership in Rome.
Looking at the church more broadly, not everyone was in pursuit of communal life. Some were still trying to figure out the basics. The controversies settled at earlier church councils continued to crop up throughout the empire, and Emperor Justinian desired a unified church. Justinian addressed this when he called in the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, which condemned once more heresies regarding the two natures of Christ.
Gregory would become the first monk to be elected to pope, a post he only accepted with great reservation.
The Great Schism was still half a millennium away, but controversies tugged at the seams of an imperial church divided by religious and political realities.
Amidst these theological developments, Rome remained a stronghold of the faith, if a beleaguered one. The center of Roman political power firmly rested in Constantinople since the sack of Rome in 410. By the late sixth century, Rome was still fighting off Gothic invasions from the Lombards, and it found little aid from its Byzantine overlords.
Thus, in this time of tragedy and tension, Gregory pursued the religious life. He founded a monastery in Rome that he then entered in 574, and he would go on to establish six more on the island of Sicily.
Gregory’s fame traveled widely, eventually earning him a diplomatic post at the imperial court, where he served on behalf of Pope Pelagius II. Historian Kevin Madigan reminds us that “educated men with practical administrative skill were very rare” at that time, so it is not surprising that Gregory was chosen.
He was unsuccessful in this post, where he attempted to secure military aid for Rome. A Gothic tribe called the Lombards brutally raided parts of the Italian peninsula, including the monastery at Monte Cassino, which the original Benedictines ultimately abandoned.
In addition to his ambassadorship, Gregory also found time to write in Constantinople. The most famous work he composed in this period was a commentary, Moralia in Job. Scholars consider this work to be a departure from the patristic style, that Gregory placed a greater emphasis on the interior life in his “desire to weave the doctrinal and ascetic wisdom of the patristic age into a sustained account of the Christian’s spiritual experience.”
In this way, Gregory is a bridge between the patristic age and the medieval. Steeped in the Roman political tradition and supported by the writings of earlier church fathers like Cyprian and Augustine of Hippo, Gregory united these strains to lay the foundation for the medieval papacy.
Gregory only served six years as a papal ambassador before returning to Rome to become the abbot of the monastery he established. Unfortunately, this post would be short-lived as Pelagius II died in 590, and Gregory was elected to replace him.
The monastery was where Gregory felt truly at home, and assuming the papacy at this juncture was not an attractive option. Rome continued to languish from Gothic attacks. A plague struck the city, killing many, including Pelagius II. Refugees poured into Rome, adding to the number of souls under Gregory’s care.
From this setting, Gregory penned another influential book, Pastoral Care which went through topics such as pastoral conduct, how to interact with parishioners, and who is eligible for the office. The book became an instant success as earthly powers had copies sent to bishops around the empire.
Indeed, the papacy’s relationship with earthly powers transformed under Gregory, setting the tone for the next thousand years of papal-king relationships.
Narrowly speaking, Gregory wielded substantial secular powers as the bishop of Rome. One might be tempted to claim ambition, but we do well to remember that the Rome of Gregory’s day lacked strong leadership. The challenges listed throughout (plague, invaders) remained. When all other avenues of defense failed, Gregory raised an army and settled refugees in what would become known as the “Papal States” in central Italy. He used his and the church’s financial resources to pay for these ventures.
More broadly, Gregory’s papacy saw widespread evangelization of northern European kingdoms. While missionary work in Gothic lands and beyond had been going on, Gregory’s authorization as pope of a missionary venture became the standard operating procedure for the church. Moreover, Gregory set the standard of sending monks as missionaries, most famously Augustine of Canterbury, whose work helped Christianize England.
Unfortunately for Gregory, his ascetic lifestyle and the stresses of leadership took their toils on his earthly body. He died on March 12, 604.
Memory has treated Gregory well in the short and long term. The church canonized him immediately, and he became one of four patristic “doctors of the church.” By the ninth century, he had taken on the epithet “the Great,” becoming one of only two popes with the title.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Gregory’s writings were quoted by most everyone – eventually becoming some of the first printed works on Gutenberg’s printing press. The ubiquity of Gregory’s writings in the late Middle Ages earned him a few references in the Book of Concord, and his legacy continues today in his feast days on the Roman, Eastern, and confessional Protestant church calendars.
The breadth of circles who commemorate him reminds me of the value of looking at figures from so far ago.
I often hang my historian’s hat in the eighteenth century but researching and writing on Gregory has reminded me that to neglect the ancients is to starve the mind and spirit of communion with those in Christ who have gone before us. The cloud of witnesses has gone before us to remind us of God’s faithfulness to sinners like us and to serve as examples of ways we can love and serve our neighbors –– and what an example we have with Pope Gregory.