February 590 A.D. Gregory
the 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
Gregory's certainly allowed
nothing to degrade the office of the Bishop of Rome. His energy and wisdom
greatly strengthened the western church.
Brusher, Joseph Stanislaus. Popes through
the Ages. Princeton, N. J.: Van Nostrand, 1959.
De Rosa, Peter. Vicars of Christ; the dark side of the papacy. Dublin:
Poolbeg Press, 2000.
Lea, Henry C. Studies in Church
History. Philadelphia: Henry
C. Lea; London: Samson, Low, Son, & Marston, 1869.
New Catholic Encyclopedia.
Richards, Jeffrey. Consul of God; the life and
times of Gregory the Great. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,
Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated May,
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