Gregory the Great and the Fall and Rise of Rome

St. Gregory the Great (540-604, feast: Sept. 3) lived his whole life in the shadow of intense suffering.

Rome, his birthplace, was sacked by barbarians when he was only six years old, and barbarian raids around the Italian countryside brought throngs of dirt-poor refugees flooding into Rome, carrying with them a plague that wiped out a third of the region’s population. Gregory was himself constantly sick from fever, indigestion, and gout, and in his last years claimed that his only consolation was the hope that death might come soon.

Yet Gregory knew that difficult times call for heroic activity. His family’s noble background (his father was a senator) marked him out for a brilliant political career, but after a brief stint as Rome’s governor he renounced public office and entered a monastery, where he spent what he later called “the happiest years” of his life. When the reigning pope was struck down by the plague, however, the city’s populace elected Gregory pope against his will, disrupting his plans to flee the city and intercepting his letter of refusal. (Forcible ordinations were not unusual in this period, as odd as they sound to modern ears.)

As the first pope from a monastic background, Gregory brought an intense spirituality to that office.

It was Gregory who first conceived of a global plan of spreading the Gospel to the empire’s barbarian conquerors, sending St. Augustine of Canterbury, the prior of his former monastery, to England as the head of a mission team. He organized the first universal system of relief for the poor in Rome, harvesting produce from the Church’s lands and sending teams patrolling the streets to distribute prepared food to the indigent refugees.

Gregory’s revisions of the Mass (later incorporated into the Gregorian Sacramentary) and fondness for liturgical chant (later known as Gregorian chant) so influenced the universal Church that he became known as the “father of Christian worship.”

Meanwhile, his immense corpus of writings (854 letters survive!) inevitably led to his being named a Doctor of the Church. Perhaps the most influential writing was the only contemporaneous biography of St. Benedict, a monk whose life he desired to imitate.

Gregory is of significant historical importance because of his westward reorientation of European Christianity.

With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, most Christians in the West continued to look to the East for their inspiration, where a thriving and materially successful Roman Empire still flourished in Byzantium. Having spent eight years as the papal ambassador to Constantinople, where his mission of securing military aid for Rome from the emperor proved fruitless, Gregory returned to the West somewhat disillusioned with the great Eastern hope.

If Western Christianity were to survive, it had to find its own independent basis, and Rome was as good a basis as any other. (His successors would also look to the great Frankish kings, such as Charlemagne, for military aid.) Gregory worked hard, therefore, to elevate the significance of Rome in the West, encouraging churches throughout Western Europe — including those in mission lands — to take their cues from Rome rather than Constantinople.

He did not hesitate to venture even into political affairs to protect the city of Rome: When the political office of Rome fell vacant as a result of the endless wars and violence in the region, Gregory himself — he had, after all, once been governor! — took charge o the city’s defenses, carried out diplomacy, maintained relief of the poor, and established treaties with the barbarian tribes in the countryside.

It was thanks to Gregory’s tireless efforts that Rome, the Eternal City, would emerge from the ashes to become the center of a new, Christian civilization in Western Europe.

Excerpted from Positively Medieval: The Surprising, Dynamic, Heroic Church of the Middle Ages by Dr. Jamie Blosser.
Image: Gregory the Great depicted at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

Jamie Blosser