A great Gregory

St Gregory the Great, was Pope from 590 to his death in 604. He was born in about 540 into a wealthy Rome family. His father served as a Senator and became Prefect, the highest civil office in the city, and his mother was Silvia, also honoured as a saint. It was a period of upheaval when the plague caused famine, panic, and rioting. In some parts, over 1/3 of the population was wiped out. Totila sacked Rome in 546, but an invasion of the Franks was defeated in 554. After that, there was peace, except that the central government now resided in Constantinople.

Gregory was well educated, and became a government official, advancing quickly to become, like his father, Prefect of Rome at 33 years old. Yet on his father’s death, Gregory converted his family villa into a monastery dedicated to St Andrew (but now rededicated to St Gregory himself). In 579 the Pope chose him as his unwilling ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople.

He was elected Pope in 590, and re-energized the Church’s missionary work, especially among the non- Christian peoples of northern Europe. He is famous for sending a mission, under Augustine of Canterbury, prior of Saint Andrew’s, to evangelize the pagan Anglo-Saxons of England. He had never forgotten the English slaves whom he had once seen in the Roman Forum.

He made a revision of the liturgy of the Mass. For example, he established the nine “Lord have mercy” at the beginning of Mass, added material to the Eucharistic Prayer and moved the Our Father to its current position. Gregory is the only Pope between the fifth and the eleventh centuries to leave a large number of writings, including several books, many sermons and 854 letters. The main form of plainchant was attributed to him, so took the name of Gregorian chant, but was in fact only standardized in the late 9th century.

Gregory was the first to make use of the title “Servant of the Servants of God”. He is known for his charitable relief of the poor. He believed that the wealth belonged to the poor and the church was only its steward. These and other good deeds won the hearts and minds of the people, who started to look to the papacy for their government. Gregory is commonly credited with founding the medieval papacy, and many attribute the beginning of medieval spirituality to him. He was declared a saint immediately after his death by popular acclamation and we celebrate his feast on 3rd September.

Fr Matthew