Gregory the Great (540-604)

3rd September
"Servant of the servants of God"

Gregory was one of those rare people who managed to achieve great things in the political world as a statesman and in the life and growth of the church as a great bishop, to the lasting benefit of both. He also managed to combine an active and effective public life while maintaining a distinct preference for a life of inner contemplation. Admittedly he did start with some worldly advantages, coming from a wealthy patrician family and being related to a previous Pope.

Gregory was born in Rome in 540 and started a career in government, becoming the head of civil administration as Chief Prefect of Rome at the age of 34. On the death of his father two years later he became a monk and used much of his inheritance to establish other monasteries in Rome and Sicily. His personal life was dominated by the discipline of reading and meditation, vocal as well as visual, from which he gained a vast knowledge of the Bible and an interest in music that helped the meaning sink deeply into the mind.

From 579 to 558 he was the papal agent at Constantinople, where he managed to maintain and enhance relations between the eastern and western branches of Christianity - even though his knowledge of Greek was very limited. In 590 he became the first monk to be elected Pope, a position he only accepted reluctantly after much persuasion.

This was a time of great disorder and political turmoil as the Roman empire disintegrated, with Lombard invasions devastating northern Italy and other countries, even affecting Constantinople. Somehow Gregory managed to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Lombards, Franks and Visigoths and then used vast amounts of church wealth to bring relief to people whose lives had been devastated by war, pestilence and famine and to ransom prisoners. He also reformed church administration and found time for writing and teaching much to improve the spiritual quality of monastic life (over eight hundred of his letters and sermons still survive). While Gregory was responsible for significant liturgical developments during his papacy, and had a personal interest in and use for music, it is uncertain how much he was responsible for codifying and establishing what became known as Gregorian Chant. Perhaps it was inspiration rather than his own actions that added to his reputation.

Having helped bring some political stability to Italy, France and Spain, strengthening the position of the church there and in the East, one of Gregory’s most far-reaching actions was to send Augustine, together with forty monks from his own monastery, to re-establish Christianity in England; prompted, so some report, by the sight of fair-haired Saxon youths for sale as slaves in the Roman slave-market.

In what some describe as an epoch-making pontificate, Gregory was certainly a power in European history and his life and ideals were for centuries an inspiration and guide for clergy in western Christendom. Described as the father of the medieval papacy (fifteen popes have followed with the name of Gregory) his influence helped to limit the chaos following the collapse of Rome and set a course to establish the character of the early middle ages.

While few of us may manage to change the world as he did, there is much we can learn from the example of St Gregory: efficient administration, diplomacy, active concern for the vulnerable and damaged in society, and working for peace. Not least perhaps, from his example and teaching, an encouragement to find a balance between the inner life and our daily responsibilities. A balance that is needed today as much as it ever has been.

Jim McLean
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 15th September 2001