Gregory Was a Reluctant Pontiff

Dan Graves, MSL

Gregory Was a Reluctant Pontiff

If you have ever been pushed forward to speak for a group when you just wanted to sit back, you have an idea how Gregory felt on this day, February 3, 590. Bishop Pelagius II was dead. Who should replace him? All eyes turned to one man: Gregory.

Now if there was anything Gregory did not want, it was to be bishop of Rome. He had experience in governing men, and the job looked impossible to him. The government of Rome was a one-legged sort of thing and civil responsibilities were falling on the church.

Famine, plague, and war raged in the countryside. Lombards, Franks, and Imperial troops pillaged the starving land. Gregory believed that the four horsemen of the apocalypse were riding over Italy. The end of the world was near. Who in his right mind would want to deal with that? Legend says he tried to escape from Rome by hiding in a basket.

If Gregory had had his way, he would not even have been in Rome when Pelagius died. Born into a noble family around 540, he served as a prefect of Rome. As prefect, he presided over the senate and provided for the city's defense, food supply, and finances. Later, he became one of the seven cardinal deacons of the church. Pelagius made him nuncio to the imperial court of Constantinople, where Gregory met Maurice, the future emperor. On his return to Rome, Gregory saw fair-haired Saxon lads being sold as slaves in the market. Told they were "Angles" he replied, "not Angles--angels!" He obtained papal permission to carry the gospel to Britain and slipped out of town. Riots resulted. He was recalled, Pelagius died soon afterward, and Gregory was thrust into his place.

Gregory still had one hope of squirming off the hook. The emperor had to approve his election and might veto it. The emperor approved. On September 3, 590, Gregory was consecrated pope. All winter long, his letters grumbled at the heavy load that had been piled upon his unwilling back.

The job was every bit as hard as he expected. He had to feed starving Rome. It was he, not the Italian civil leaders, who negotiated with the Lombard invaders. Because the church was the biggest landlord in Italy, Gregory had to spend much precious time reforming the practices that prevailed on these lands both to make them more profitable and to relieve the peasants who were often badly treated. His strong sense of justice caused him to protect their rights although he must have been sorely tempted to wring every possible coin from them because the papal estates provided the revenues from which he funded his widespread assistance to the needy and paid off attacking armies. Perhaps it was with all this work in mind that Gregory nicknamed himself "Servant of the servants of God."

Time reconciled him to his task. He became one of the most notable medieval men and his books helped form the mindset of the Middle ages. By means of scripture studies and popular works, he urged men to contemplate eternity. His Pastoral Care became a textbook for kings and bishops. Alfred the Great of England not only followed its teachings, but translated it into the Saxon tongue.

Alfred felt he owed a great debt to Gregory. In the midst of all his cares, Gregory did not forget the Saxons. He sent the monk Augustine as a missionary to them and centuries later, Alfred reaped the inheritance of Christianity.

Gregory's name is often associated with the arts, especially plain song, which is called Gregorian chant because he standardized it. He encouraged art in the church in order to portray the story of Christ for people who could not read.

When the Patriarch of Constantinople adopted the title "ecumenical patriarch" Gregory objected. To elevate one bishop over all others was to degrade the others, he said.

Gregory's certainly allowed nothing to degrade the office of the Bishop of Rome. His energy and wisdom greatly strengthened the western church.

Bibliography

  1. Brusher, Joseph Stanislaus. Popes through the Ages. Princeton, N. J.: Van Nostrand, 1959.
  2. De Rosa, Peter. Vicars of Christ; the dark side of the papacy. Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 2000.
  3. Lea, Henry C. Studies in Church History. Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea; London: Samson, Low, Son, & Marston, 1869.
  4. New Catholic Encyclopedia.
  5. Richards, Jeffrey. Consul of God; the life and times of Gregory the Great. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.
  6. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated May, 2007.

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