Patron of Teachers, Scholars, Musicians and Singers
He had everything many young men of his day wanted: wealth, prestige, education, a promising political career; but he gave it all away to be the “servant of the servants of God.”
Born around 540, Gregory’s father, Gordianus, was a Roman senator who was very rich and owned large pieces of land with many homes on them. As a child, Gregory was prepared by his education and lifestyle to follow his father’s footsteps as a politician and landowner. But he felt that God was calling him to a simpler way of living.
After Gordianus died, Gregory left the political scene and sold all of his family’s material possessions. He used the money to feed the poor people of Italy. He opened monasteries on six of the family estates in Sicily. In Rome, the family home became St. Andrews, a monastery where Gregory himself lived.
Gregory was very happy with his quiet and prayerful life as a monk. He was so strict in his discipline as a monk including severe fasting, that his health was not good for much of his later life. In 578 he was ordained as a priest and served as the Pope’s deacon in Rome. Eventually he returned to the monastic life at St. Andrews where he was appointed Abbott. He wasn’t there long, however, because he was called to evangelize the people of England. At that time, the ideas of Christianity had not reached that far away country. The work of Gregory and the missionaries among the Anglo-Saxons was succeeding very well, but Gregory was called home urgently by Pope Pelagius II. There was a crisis in Rome.
Actually, there were several crises in Rome, but the most demanding at the time was the outbreak of the plague (a terrifying epidemic of a disease carried by rats that killed many people) in 589 that continued into 590. Unfortunately the Pope was one of the plague’s victims, and Gregory was unanimously elected as the next Pope. He was not very enthusiastic about taking on this new job and coined the phrase still used by popes today. He called himself “the servant of the servants of God.”
At the beginning of his papacy, Gregory faced some huge problems including severe flooding, famine (which resulted from the flood’s ruined crops), the plague continued, severe splits and differences between the Church in the East (Greece) and the West (Rome). There was a constant threat of Lombard invasions. The Lombards, from the area we know as Austria today, soundly ended the Roman Empire a century before. They continued to work their way through Italy conquering and taking over the lands and people.
Gregory knew it was time for change. He cleaned house and thus began a new era of reform. First, he reorganized the people of the Church and got rid of any priests who were unworthy of their ordination. He improved the discipline among those who remained. Before Gregory was in charge, the priests demanded large sums of money for doing their job, such as burying people and ordaining new priests. Gregory put a stop to this. He improved the organization of granaries and fed victims of the famine. He ignored the Roman political leaders and went directly to the King of Lombard with whom he negotiated a peaceful relationship. He continued his work of converting the people of England to Christianity.
Many letters and sermons remain that Gregory wrote. From them we learn many of his ideas. One important thought was that we can only know the heart of God through the Word of God. The Word grows within anyone who reads or hears it, but we can’t learn it by ourselves. According to Gregory we must learn from one another.
Gregory was also responsible for reforms in the liturgy. There are three changes he made that we can still recognize today. He added the words “grant us peace to our days,” in the Mass. He also declared that the people would sing “Alleluia” throughout the year and not just during the Easter Season. (In Gregory’s day and in our own, we do not sing “Alleluia” during the penitential season of Lent.) The third change Gregory made was to include a uniform reciting of the “Our Father” during the Mass.
Gregory was a humble and prayerful man but achieved great things nonetheless. He is known today as one of the four key Fathers of the Western Church, along with Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome. He is an example to us of what can be accomplished through the love of God. He hoped to live a simple life, but it was this very simplicity that made him great . . . Gregory the Great.
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