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St. Gregory the Great

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Everyone in the Roman nobility is coming to the great palace of the city’s urban praetor. It is the feast of congratulations, when eight days after birth, family and friends come with gifts and well wishes for the mother who has just brought a new member into the world and the family.

The mansion on the Caelian Hill is filled with illustrious matrons who have come to meet the child and congratulate Senator Gordianus and his wife Silvia, a family of patricians with deep Christian roots. It is the year 540. They named him Gregory and he counts Pope Felix III among his ancestors, while two of his religious aunts and his mother would reach the honor of holiness recognized by the Church.

The young man grows in a cultured environment and receives a profoundly classical training: grammar, dialectics, rhetoric and law. He was named praefectus urbi (prefect of Rome) at the age of 32, a position to which he resigned in order to embrace monastic life. With this goal, he transforms his own home into a monastery, where he embraces the rule of St. Benedict. He turns seven other properties inherited from his family in Sicilian territory into small Benedictine monasteries.  

Gregory is well known and appreciated in the Roman city for being a personal and very close collaborator to Pope Pelagius II, who confers on him the diaconate and sends him to the imperial court of Constantinople as his personal ambassador. Gregory spent six years at the empire’s Eastern see where he learned in depth the spirituality of Eastern monasticism. There he develops a deep piety, acquires a greater knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures and understands in an experiential way all the political dynamics of this dimension of imperial power. He discovers and develops a special ability to write that will accompany him productively throughout his life. On his return to Rome, he becomes advisor to Pope Pelagius, a position he will occupy until the death of the pontiff during the great epidemic of 590. That year, with uncommon unanimity, the clergy, the senate and the people elected him pope.

Small in stature and in poor health, he does not hesitate to undertake all the necessary and urgent reforms to transform the Church administration and eliminate the corruption of ecclesiastical and secular officials. He dismisses Lawrence, archdeacon of Rome, for his exaggerated craving for profit, and focuses his efforts on bishops who respond to the dignity of their vocation: “Be careful not to abuse those whom God has placed in your care. Put your effort on being more useful to their needs than into inspiring fear in them. Have a heart for charity so as not to fall into the temptation of believing that you are masters, when you are only fathers. Always rely on humility and never in pride or in the desire to dominate.”

In many speeches, Gregory urged the clergy to “serve before commanding.” For him, primacy always had to be exercised not in domination, but in service. The one who governs the Church serves the community of the faithful in the name of the Lord.

The tradition of using the title of “Servant of the Servants of God,” proper to the Roman pontiffs, began with Pope Gregory and continues to the present day. Convinced that evangelization should respect the culture of those being evangelized, he advocated, preached and authorized a broad criterion so that the language and formulation of the treasure of faith was understandable to the people who embraced Christianity. To do this, he sends forth 40 monks with the task of working for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. As much as possible, the missionaries should seek a way to fill the traditions and customs of the people with a Christian spirit, as opposed to eliminating them.

The Pope is convinced that people cannot be led to conversion by force: “The temples of those peoples should not be destroyed; suppress their idols and build altars and place on them relics of St.s and martyrs.” St. Augustine, Bishop of Canterbury, wrote to him asking if it was correct to continue with the custom of sacrificing oxen, as it was done in the past in front of idols during a feast. The pope replied that “if cattle are killed on the occasion of the dedication of a temple or the feast of a martyr or a patron St., let them eat it for the greater glory of the Most High God.”

Gregory I never hesitates to say what he thinks he should say at a particular moment. As a matter of internal order, he writes in this tone to the archbishop of Constantinople, John IV Nesteutes, whom they called “the Faster” for his publicly austere life: “Would it not be better if you allow food to enter your mouth instead of letting out falsehoods destined to deceive your neighbor? Our bones are dry from fasting, but the spirit is filled with pride; we cover ourselves with ashes while continuing to aspire to greatness; we hide our wolf teeth under lamb skin.” The poor, the weak, the homeless and the needy were always his biggest concern.

The work of Gregory I as a writer is enormous; his writings make him the great teacher of the Middle Ages. His letters, more than 850, address all the issues that concern and preoccupy him: ecclesial, social, family, military, political affairs. He is a pope who strives to reach everyone. He wrote several sacramentaries (predecessors of the missal) and reorganized the old Roman chant, which thereafter, in his honor, was converted into the official chant of the Church and will be called “Gregorian” chant.

St. Gregory I, St. Gregory the Great, died May 12 in the year of Our Lord 604 and was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica, just at the entrance to the sacristy. He was a pontiff with his feet on the ground, with a clear understanding of the problems and needs of his time, a bold pope who spared no effort to find a solution to the challenges of his time. The legacy of St. Gregory the Great could not be surpassed, nor matched, by his immediate successors.

Boniface VII declared him Doctor of the Church September 20, 1295.

Comments from readers

Joaquin Rodriguez - 05/20/2019 08:16 PM
Cuánta historia en un artículo tan breve! Una vida admirable la de San Gregorio I Magno y un ejemplo perenne para los hombres de Iglesia y, también, para los de gobierno en cualquier oficio y nivel. Si no conocemos la historia, podemos repetir lo peor y dejar de imitar lo bueno y realizar lo mejor, que siempre es posible. La Iglesia tiene mucho que dar y la historia lo demuestra. Bendiciones. P. Joaquín
James - 05/20/2019 01:30 PM
Whilst fasting can cometh many benefits on more than one level. Thank you for the article which points out speaking words of grace and not perverse gossip. Now, on another note, I fasted from food on and off for 4 months. My longest fast was for 67 hours. I’ve lost 40 pounds. FACT! Blessings,

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