St. Gregory the Great was one of the greatest popes in Christian history, yet he called himself servant of the servants of God. He began his life as an affluent Roman on the island of Sicily, son of a Senator and another saint, St. Silvia, who is honored as the patron saint of women in childbirth. St. Gregory the Great went to the best schools, became a lawyer and a Roman Senator. Then he changed courses — radically.
He decided to give up his seat at the Forum and his place in Roman society. He took seriously Jesus’ call to give all your possessions to the poor (Luke 12:33). After giving all his possessions to the poor, he became a monk and founded a monastery in his home, under the patronage of St. Andrew. What a telling patron, for Gregory was to become a great fisher of men!
He founded six more monasteries in Sicily. His work caught the notice of the papacy, and St. Gregory was conscripted into the inner work of the secular clergy and civic duties. Gregory’s work for the papacy was critical.
Let’s set the stage: The Roman Empire in the west was collapsing under persistent (and varied) attacks from Germanic tribes from the North. These had been going on for centuries, and the Emperor Constantine had already moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the East in 313 (to Byzantium, which Constantine renamed Constantinople). Constantine sought to shore up what he could hold of his empire. Rome and the Western Empire was left to crumble.
But a surprising thing happened when the barbarians bashed the gates of Rome: Most did not touch the churches or those who sought shelter there. This was because the missionaries had great success sharing Christianity in Northern Europe. They held the Church as sacred. So, while political order collapsed, religious order held sway.
The Roman Empire had officially “fallen” to the barbarians in 476. Nearly 100 years after the fall of Rome, St. Gregory was appointed Prefect of the City of Rome in 573, by the Emperor Justin the Younger. Perhaps the Emperor Justin the Younger appointed the holy monk, Gregory, to be Rome’s Prefect in recognition that religious power was the only authority that held sway with the overpowering Germanic tribes. Over time, the Germanic tribes did not refrain consistently from attacking Christians. St. Gregory was said to have emptied the Church’s coffers to pay ransom for those captured by the Lombards, and to help Jews and victims of plague. So your picture of this holy man, powerful writer and leader should be set in the contrast of a war-torn, insecure, terrorizing time in western history.
Eventually, after a brief stint in civic leadership in Constantinople, St .Gregory the Great returned to his monastery in Sicily. He told his monks: Whoever wishes to hold the fortress of contemplation must first of all train in the camp of action. He was the first pope who was called to the office from his monastery, a trend the Church followed, especially in times of turmoil. He was elected unanimously by the bishops, and he reigned as Pope from 590-604.
He led the Church amidst terrorist attacks. He served as a diplomat to negotiate peace treaties. He combined religious and civil leadership that spanned the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. He established a network of monasteries. He disciplined wayward priests and bishops, and established firm adherence to faith and worship standards. He wrote prolifically, and was honored as a doctor of the Church. Oh, and in his spare time he composed music, whose form bears his name: Gregorian Chant.
He is a saint whose service was prolific and whose intercession is powerful. Pray for the intercession of St. Gregory when you lament what you hear in the news and when you pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
St. Gregory, pray for us!