St. Gregory the Great is one of the most remarkable figures in Ecclesiastical History. He had in many respects a tremendous influence on the doctrine, organisation, and discipline of the Catholic Church. The saint was born in Rome about 540 and died the 12th March 604. He was raised in a pious Patrician family, and as a young student so excelled in grammar, rhetoric and dialectic as to be thought foremost in these disciplines in Rome. He very likely studied law as well.
In adulthood, he performed well as a civil servant, a normal occupation for a young member of the upper class. In 573, he began to sense that he was called to the exclusive service of God. A sustained period of prayer ensued, followed by the difficult decision to leave all to become a monk around 574. He took to religious life as a Benedictine with his great natural reserve of energy and zeal and practiced great austerities. He was relentless in correcting abuses and enforcing discipline, in particular regarding the vows of stability and poverty.
Then in 578, Gregory was drawn out of his beloved monastery when the pope decided to ordain him, much against his will, as one of the seven deacons of Rome. The period was one of terrible crisis, including the Lombard sieges and a terrible pestilence. In the year 586 he returned with great joy to his monastery and was named abbot shortly thereafter.
In February 590 Pope Pelagius II died, adding to the misery already caused by the pestilence and other disasters ravaging the city. Without any hesitation by clergy or people, the holy abbot Gregory was elected as the next Supreme Pontiff. In spite of their unanimity, he nevertheless refused the dignity offered, for he knew that its acceptance meant a final good-bye to the cloistered life he loved.
The saint finally and with great difficulty accepted the will of God as manifested in his election, and he was consecrated pope on the 3rd September 590. Fourteen years of life remained to Gregory, and in these he accomplished more than many do in an entire lifetime. Even more wonderfully, he did so despite his constant ill-health, including indigestion, fevers, and gout. In spite of these ever-increasing infirmities, he was always at work, and in many and varied domains.
As pope Gregory lived with monastic simplicity, and he saw the care of souls and their instruction in the Faith as his first duty. He was renowned for his sermons, which were simple expositions of the Sacred Scriptures well-adapted to ordinary listeners.
His influence on the Roman Liturgy should not be discounted either. The saint instituted the “stations” listed in the Roman Missal. The Station Masses proceeded as follows: the pope would meet the clergy and people at a chosen church, and all together processed to the church of the station, where Mass was celebrated and the pope preached. Among other contributions to the Mass, he ordered the “Pater Noster” to be recited before the breaking of the Host. He also ordered that the “Alleluia” should be chanted after the Gradual out of paschal time, to which period, apparently, the Roman use had until that point limited it.
With regard to discipline the saintly pope was especially strict in enforcing the Church’s laws on the celibacy of the clergy, the exemption of clerics from lay tribunals, and the deprivation of all ecclesiastics guilty of criminal or scandalous offences. St. Gregory claimed for the Apostolic See and for himself as pope, a primacy not just of honour but of supreme authority over the entire Church. This is indeed his lasting legacy; he impressed upon the minds of all to a degree unprecedented the fact that the See of Peter was the one, supreme and decisive authority in the Catholic Church. At the same time the pope was careful to respect the legitimate canonical rights of the other patriarchs and bishops.
The reign of Gregory the Great marks an epoch in papal history, especially in his attitude towards the imperial Government at Constantinople. Gregory saw the Church and the State as forming a united whole, which acted in two distinct dominions, ecclesiastical and secular. Gregory held that it was the duty of the secular ruler to protect the Church and preserve the “peace of the faith,” for example in the suppression of heresy.
The saint’s missionary zeal for the conversion of the heathen is legendary. He made every effort to root out paganism in Gaul and the Donatist heretics in Africa. In his treatment of heretics, schismatics, and pagans his method was to try every means — persuasions, exhortations, threats — before resorting to the force of the state, as was the prevailing custom of the age. He was also a champion and protector of the Jews, against the injustices such as forced baptisms that they were at times subjected to. In religious and sacred art, the great pope is usually shown in full pontifical robes with the tiara and double cross. A dove is his special insignia, in allusion to the popular tradition according to which when the pope was dictating his homilies on the prophet Ezechiel, a veil stood between his secretary and himself. As however the pope remained silent for long periods at a time, the servant made a hole in the curtain and, peering through, saw a dove seated upon Gregory’s head with its beak between his lips. When the dove withdrew its beak, the holy pontiff spoke and the secretary recorded his words; but when he became silent the servant again looked through the hole and saw the dove had once again put its beak between his lips. The miracles attributed to Gregory are very many. Indeed, it would seem their number rivals the scope of the pontiff’s lasting influence on the culture, administration, teaching, and liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church.