Gregory I, “The Great”
b. c. 540, Rome
d. March 12, 604 Rome; feast day in West, Sept. 3 (formerly March 12, still observed in the East)
Pope from 590 to 604, Gregory was a reformer and excellent administrator; “founder” of the medieval papacy exercising secular as well as spiritual power. His epithet, "the Great" reflects his status as a writer as well as a ruler. As the fourth and final of the traditional Latin “Doctors of the Church,” Gregory is the first exponent of a truly medieval, sacramental spirituality.
Historical Context and Early Career
Gregory was born and lived in troubled times. Cities and commerce had declined, cycles of famine and the plague had depopulated the countryside in the wake of Justinian’s reconquest. The Lombard invasion of 568 triggered decades of war. Centralized bureaucratic civil administration fragmented and local strong men arose, holding power at the expense of the civilian senatorial aristocracy. Usurpations of the property, rights, authority and even the regalia of others marked this fluid society. The church could compete as a check to this new military aristocracy-- in Rome, the Senate was defunct and the Papacy came to assume civic responsibilities--or the church could be used by men with secular ambitions with their patronage networks, corruptions Gregory fought tirelessly.
Gregory was well placed in society. His family held the Caelian Hill in Rome, properties outside Rome and estates in Sicily. Like many, Gregory may have shared distant links to gens Anicia. His ancestors had held ecclesiastical positions: Felix III (pope 483-492) was his great-great grandfather; and Pope Agapetus (535-6) may have been a relative. Gregory’s father, Gordianus, held an office, possibly defensor. Gregory’s mother, Silvia, took vows on the death of her husband, and three of his aunts entered religious life, though one left to marry.
No record of secular office exists for the family before Gregory held the Urban Prefecture in 573. A distinction is now made between Palatinus, a brother with whom correspondence is documented, and Germanicus, who was possibly Gregory’s brother. Germanicus succeeded Gregory as Urban Prefect, an office that fell into desuetude after him.
Well-educated for the times, Gregory may have had legal training before entering public service. His conversion to monastic life in 574 was not sudden, but grew from a lifelong conflict between his personal desire for contemplative purity and the public duty to serve others in the “pollution” of worldly affairs. Gregory established a monastery on the Caelian Hill dedicated to St Andrew. The “rule” followed there cannot be identified as that of St. Benedict, nor does evidence exist that Gregory became abbot, although the Dialogues may give this impression. Gregory founded six more monasteries on family estates in Sicily, but retained sufficient property to make later endowments to the church (cf. MGH 2, Ep. Append. 2).
In 579, Pope Pelagius II made Gregory deacon, sending him as apocrisiarius (legate) to Constantinople. There Gregory lobbied for aid against the Lombards, but remained ignorant of Greek. In 585-86, Gregory returned to Rome and St. Andrews, resuming the office of deacon. In 590, a plague swept through Rome, taking Pope Pelagius. Gregory was elected to succeed him, taking office unwillingly in 590. According to tradition, Gregory led a penitential procession to St Maria Maggiore during that plague; a vision of the archangel Michael atop Hadrian’s Tomb convinced him Rome would be spared. Today, a statue on the Castel Sant’Angelo depicts Michael replacing his sword in its scabbard. The Seven Penitential Psalms associated with this procession date from the twelfth century and are incorrectly ascribed to Gregory (PL 79, 549-658).
Accomplishments as Pope
Byzantine strategies were designed to protect Ravenna at the expense of Rome Both Lombards and Byzantines posed threats: the sedition of imperial soldiers was as troubling as the swords of the Lombards (cf. Ep. 1.3). Forced to orchestrate an independent policy, Gregory saw himself the “treasurer” who paid the daily expenses of Rome (Ep 5.39), and “paymaster” of the Lombards whose swords were held back only by daily ransom from the Church (Ep. 5.39). Conducting war, he planned strategies, funded soldiers, and directed diplomacy, twice preventing Rome from being sacked by the Lombards. He also ransomed hostages, supported refugees, secured the grain supply, and repaired aqueducts.
Realizing he could not defeat the Lombards militarily, or continue a cycle of warfare and ransom, Gregory repeatedly sought peace. However, Rome’s possible alliance with the Lombards (and Gauls) would have threatened Ravenna, so Byzantine policy continually undermined peace. Rapprochement with the Lombards came quite independent of imperial policies. Through Gregory’s cultivation of Agilulf’s wife, Theodelinda, Catholics became welcome at court. After 600, relations between Lombard and Roman Italy improved greatly. Friendship and patronage accomplished a social and cultural change where military strategy and imperial policies had failed.
Problems with the Lombards underscore tensions between Rome and the East and also illuminate traditional administrative jurisdictions between the north, Italia annonaria, dominated by the sees of Milan, Aquileia, and eventually Ravenna, and the south, Italia sububicaria, led by Rome, including Sicily and islands under the exarch of Africa. A fierce opponent of any practice smacking of simony or other forms of corruption, Gregory rebuked offenders vigorously, but often to little effect, because of the limits of his authority within Italy and the Empire as a whole.
Gregory felt part of a Christian Empire, a “holy commonwealth” headed by the Emperor. Ideally, the Emperor deferred to Church (though generally he did not), even as the Church recognized him as a power ordained by God (for good or evil). Ambivalence dictated discretion: Gregory would execute obnoxious laws (such as Maurice’s prohibition of monastic life to state employees), while issuing moral protests: “I have thus done my duty on both sides. I have obeyed the emperor, and yet have not restrained what ought to be said on God’s behalf” (Ep. 3.61). He often protested Maurice’s policies vis à vis the Lombards and the Church; his dislike of Maurice explains his warm welcome to the bloody usurper Phocas in 602.
This tension between Rome and Constantinople is revealed again in policies regarding the church. In the late sixth century, the Catholic church did not have a cogent hierarchical order headed by Rome and no evidence exists that Gregory held such a vision. While Gregory asserted Rome’s right to judge on certain moral issues (for Peter was first among the apostles), he made no claims of Roman primacy, as the term is later understood. Bishops were subject to Rome when they had committed a fault, but otherwise “when no fault exacts this submission all are equal by the law of humility” (Ep. 8.29).
The dispute over the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” illuminates the widening distance between Rome and the East. Traditionally, the Patriarch of Constantinople represented Imperial orthodoxy encompassing the universality of the Christian empire, and thus he was entitled to the title “Ecumenical.” To Gregory, the title offended the equity of all bishops and ignored Rome’s primacy as heir of Peter, whose moral power was needed to ratify councils and discipline others. Nor could Eastern bishops be trusted to define orthodoxy. The title was pride anticipating the Anti-Christ. True holiness lay in humility, thus Gregory called himself “servant of the servants of God.” Despite Maurice’s commands to desist, Gregory protested (but continued to have relations with the patriarch). A decline in Rome’s prestige might mean further neglect of Rome and the West. By ignoring Gregory, emperors implicitly supported the patriarch, and the see of Constantinople came to be supreme in the eastern Empire in rivalry with Rome in an implicitly divided Empire.
In the wider Church, respect for Rome’s moral leadership was similarly difficult to secure. When possible, Gregory tried to enlist secular authorities to further his aims (for both papacy and Empire stood for orthodoxy), though this often led to frustration. Gregory was most successful closer to Rome. The further away, the weaker was his power, the less accurate his control of the situation, despite his use of informants. Adding to Gregory’s difficulties was the schism dating from 533 over the Three Chapters (certain writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa). Here Rome actually supported imperial policy which declared these chapters to be Nestorian, while western churches were at odds with the papacy.
However, imperial policy did little to support Rome. In Africa, Gregory fought a losing battle against the so-called Donatists who opposed the papacy’s position on the Three Chapters, excommunicating the Pope in 550. Gregory tried to suppress the Donatists, complaining to the exarch of Africa and asking him to institute a persecution. The Byzantine government wanted to keep the peace and ignored Gregory. While a council at Carthage condemned Donatists in 594, the imperial edict issued to suppress them was not enforced. After a final complaint to the emperor in 596, Gregory let the matter drop.
Dalmatia was similarly on the outer reaches of Rome’s effective power and could play East against West. Gregory’s attempt to secure upright candidates to the see of Salona was undercut by bribery paid to the East. While his interference with the see of Salona ended in a face-saving compromise, he was unable to brook imperial power which supported corrupt bishops in Thessalonica and Prima Justiniana, and presumed to act against Rome in a jurisdictional dispute with the Bishop of Corfu.
In effect two territorial churches emerged in Italy because of political divisions. Dissent survived in areas occupied by the Lombards The northern churches of Aquileia and Milan broke off communion, rejecting Rome’s position on the Three Chapters and were intent on maintaining independence of Roman jurisdiction. In 591, Gregory sent in troops under the command of a tribune and an imperial guardsmen to the Patriarch of Aquileia, Severus, to rebuke the Istrian’s apostasy and summon Severus to a synod at St. Peter’s. The Istrians appealed to the emperor, threatening to ally with Gaul if Rome pressed conformity. Such an alliance was a continual anxiety and the Emperor ordered Gregory to desist. Typically, Gregory complied but continued to complain; on Maurice’s death, he called upon Phocas to repress schismatics. His willingness to use force against schematics and heathens allowed him to be misused as a model for those advocating “holy war” in the high middle ages (e.g., Gregory VII, Alexander II).
Circumstances, however, did allow the pope some intervention in the areas under imperial control in the North of Italy. Ravenna remained the mainstay of imperial orthodoxy in Italy, and it was under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Milan. Gregory found a wedge to gain some influence because the bishop of Milan had been forced to live in Genoa to escape the Lombards. Gregory asserted his right to confirm the election of the Bishop of Milan, and drew closer to Ravenna when John, to whom Gregory had dedicated his Pastoral Rule became its bishop. Gradually, Ravenna grew closer to the papacy, even though Gregory fought to dampen the bishops’ claim to the privileges of regalia (imperial symbols now appropriated by the papacy): wearing the pallium (a stole with hanging strips) and using special saddle cloths (mappulae). Ravenna was the imperial capital; Gregory was forced to compromise.
Gregory adopted the Byzantine view that divine providence had subjected Germanic kingdoms to the Christian emperor. His energetic pastoral care heightened Rome’s visibility. To Leander of Seville, who linked him with the Spanish court, Gregory sent the pallium, though Gregory kept his distance from Toledo’s royal councils of kings and bishops. Letters to women particularly allowed Gregory to cultivate Catholic Frankish kingdoms: Brunhilda was critical to the reform of simony. In letters to Gallic bishops, Gregory called for reform councils, advising bishops also on the suppression of paganism. Gregory solicited Franks, such as Brunhilda, Theuderic and Thedebert to support Augustine of Canterbury’s mission to Kent. After visiting numerous courts in Gaul, they met the Frankish queen Bertha, wife of Aethelberht of Kent. When Gregory sent Mellitus and Lawrence as reinforcements, they extended contacts in Gaul before joining Augustine. Gregory seems to have envisioned a cooperation of English and Frankish churches that would have fostered reform and renewal.
While Gregory believed that the Gospel message was meant to be “preached to all parts of the world” (HEz. 1.3.7), his first concern was the Roman see and southern Italy where he was powerful enough to effect reform. Papal administration was “monasticized”; Gregory continued to live as a monk; monks and trusted clerics replaced the entrenched Lateran clergy. His one synod, held at St. Peter’s in 595, validated these and other reforms, but highlighted the limits of his power: only bishops from the south attended. He consolidated as many as 42 vacated episcopal sees vacated in the south (Lucania, Apulia and the Picene area) where Lombards had wrought particular devastation.
Papal patrimony lay in the south and Gregory’s efficient and just administration of estates brought revenue to support extensive alms in Rome, where systematic records were kept in the Lateran of charitable expenditures. In governing the patrimony, his goal was “not so much to promote the worldly interests of the Church as to relieve the poor in their distress and especially to protect them from oppression” (Ep. 1.53). Gregory established colleges of rectores or defensores with staffs of tonsured agents to send out, manage estates, and render justice on site. This meant especially protecting peasants from unfair practices. For the future, Gregory’s most important reform was making land inheritable, for this encouraged peasants to remain and cultivate the land, as did his concern for justice. Gregory tolerated slavery as a fact of God’s dispensation on humanity after the Fall; humble obedience was required by God.
His concern for justice toward Jews was limited. While he insisted that Jewish creditors were not to be defrauded (Ep. 1.42), nor oppressed or vexed unreasonably as they were protected by Roman law (Ep.. 2.45), he believed Biblical prophecy foretold their conversion and adopted polices of “persuasion” that adversely affected Jews economically. A synagogue was moved because it was in the hearing of Christians; slaves of Jews could claim freedom if they converted to Christianity; their masters could not sell them; escaped slaves could not be returned. Rural pagans fared worse, ruthless measures forced them to abandon their cults. He advised Brunhilda to use armed force (Ep. 8.4), and the coloni in Sardinia were to have their dues increased until starvation forced them to submit (Ep. 4.26).
Remembered generous donor and friend of the needy, his biographers record that Gregory left the papal treasury nearly bankrupt. Such criticism may reflect the embittered clerical reaction to Gregory “monasticization” that arose with the next pope.
Gregory’s moral theology shaped medieval spirituality; his Moralia on Job (579-596), his Dialogues (before 594), and his handbook for rulers, Pastoral Rule (591) were extremely popular. His Homilies on the Gospel (593) were preached to the people, while his Homilies on Ezechiel (591-93) explained the mysterious symbolism of the temple of Jerusalem to monastic audiences. Surviving are fragments of his exegesis of the Song of Songs (594-98), as redacted by Claude of Ravenna. His exegesis of Kings is now recognized to be from the pen of Peter of Cava in the 12th century. Nearly 900 letters survive documenting his papacy. No trace of his preaching on Proverbs, the Prophets, or the Heptateuch survives.
Gregory read Augustine, but he was also deeply influenced by the ascetic tradition of Cassian, the Desert Fathers, and Jerome and helped make monastic ideals more flexible and applicable to the church as a whole. Every Christian had a place in the concord of Gregory’s church, from contemplatives to laity. Deeply influenced by Stoicism, he adapted ideals of discretion and moderation show how all Christians can and must love their neighbor as well as God to the best of their ability. Gregory addressed timeless themes: the mystery of suffering, the failure of virtue despite one’s will; the conflict between contemplative purity and the dangers of public duties. He supplied a way for Christians to deal with life’s “adversities” and “prosperities”, teaching that both could be signs of either God’s grace or wrath. Life was a trial one could manage only by offering one’s life as a sacrifice and performing continual penitence, whether one enjoyed good or bad fortune, virtue or sin. One never knew the severity of God’s judgment. Gregory’s ideal was the just penitent, one who is guiltless, but still repentant. Though life was a mysterious trial, Gregory emphasized the need to act, age quod agis, “Do what you can.”
Gregory stressed how this world and the next are joined in various forms of mediation, be they God’s visitations of grace or wrath, or offerings of humanity to God. The mediation of the sacraments is central. As the Eucharist is offered, so one offers one’s life in sacrifice at the Mass. The Mass and the Eucharist have supernatural powers that human beings can use to effect change, to heal the sick and raise the dead. This is the medieval world, alive with demons, where the spiritual can be visible, where sins are counted and penance calibrated in appropriate compensation, where suffering and sacrifice in this life earn rewards in the next. The Church and its sacraments provided a safe path to salvation in a troubled world, and the centrality Gregory placed on the Eucharist defines the medieval church. This will be underscored in the Counter Reformation when Gregory’s view of the Church, emphasizing penance, works, and the sacraments is re-emphasized against Protestant reformers.
Claude Dagens, Saint Grégoire le Grand. Culture et expérience chrétiennes (1977); Grégoire le Grand, edd. Jacques Fontaine, Robert Gillet, and Stan Pellistrandi (1982); Gregorio Magno e il suo Tempo, ed. Vittorio Grassi (1991; Gregory the Great: A Symposium, ed. John Cavadini (1995); Robert Godding, Bibliografia di Gregorio Magno (1890-1989) (1990); Robert Markus, Gregory the Great and his World (1997); Jeffrey Richards, Consul of God (1980); Carole Straw, Gregory the Great. Authors of the Middle Ages IV, 12 (1996); Carole Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection (1988); Leonard Weber, Hauptfragen der Moraltheologie Gregors des Grossen (1947).