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St. Gregory the Great, pope and Doctor of the Church

St. Gregory the Great (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) St. Gregory the Great (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana)  (© Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana)

From prefect to monk

Gregory was born around 540 A.D. into worldly prestige – his family belonged to the Roman nobility and his father was prefect, or mayor, of the city. He was also heir to a Christianity profoundly lived, for his mother and aunt are saints. The city into which he was born, however, was suffering. In 542, the plague wiped out a third of the Italian population. Barbarian invasions followed. The tumult notwithstanding, Gregory received an excellent education. So talented an administrator was he that by thirty, he had become prefect, governing the vast city.
Yet the highest civil office in Rome proved not enough for this son and nephew of saints. “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor,” the Lord had said, and Gregory heard that voice penetrating his own heart. The prefect of Rome turned his family’s villa on the Caelian hill into a monastery, left the office of prefect and became a monk renowned for his love of poverty. As he put it, he kept watch in the “silence of the heart.”

A pope for a dire time

Gregory had too many talents for others to forget, however. In 579, Pope Pelagius II asked him to become the papal ambassador to the Emperor in Constantinople. Reluctantly, Gregory agreed. When he returned home six years later, he found Rome in a dire state. In 589, a flood destroyed the city’s granaries. Refugees were pouring in from invasions to the north. People were starving, and with hunger came plague, which struck even the Pope. Pelagius died, and the desperate people elected their former prefect Pope by popular acclaim.
Gregory again showed his talent for administration, coupled with a heart for the suffering and deep faith. The plague had to be dealt with first: the new Pope organized pilgrimages through the city to implore the help of the Mother of God. It is said that as he accompanied the people on foot near Hadrian’s mausoleum (now Castel Sant’Angelo), he looked up and saw a vision of St. Michael the Archangel sheathing his sword. God had seen his people’s affliction; the plague would end.
Then Gregory had to deal with famine. He was convinced that everything the Church possessed belonged to the poor: “I hold the office of steward to the property of the poor.” He organized priests who would go through the city to care for the poor, and ensured that all the produce from the Church’s agricultural lands was distributed for free. Gregory had grown up wealthy and knew that some noble families were going hungry, but were too ashamed to beg. To these he sent food from his own table, not as “alms” but as a “gift” from the pope.

A missionary heart

The Pope who had a heart for the suffering had a heart wide open to those who did not yet know God. Before he was Pope, Gregory had once passed through the marketplace and seen some fair-skinned, fair-haired young slaves. Struck by their appearance, he asked where they were from. “They are Angles,” he was told, from Britain. “Not Angles but angels!” he exclaimed, who should sing the praises of God. He did not forget them. Convinced that their people had its place in the multitude that stands before God’s throne, Gregory sent forty monks from his own monastery, led by a monk named Anselm (St. Anselm of Canterbury) to bring the light of the Gospel to that far-away land.

Servant of the servants of God

Gregory’s heart for the suffering did not disappear with the end of the famine. The Pope was known to invite the poor regularly to his own table, sharing his meals with them. The Church’s lands at the time generated considerable revenue, and Gregory kept meticulous track of it – so that he could give it all away.
For the spiritually poor, he preached, going from church to church in the city (the “station churches” still observed during Lent). He revised the Order of Mass and encouraged sacred music. Tirelessly, he admonished priests and bishops to give their very selves to their people. The bishop, like the priest, was in his eyes a servant, and he was a servant humbler still. The “servant of the servants of God,” he called himself – a title and a measure that remained for every Pope after him.
When he died in the year 604, the people made known what they thought of their “servant”: this Pope was not Gregory, but “Gregory the Great,” proclaimed a saint by popular acclaim.