1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gregory (Popes)/Saint Gregory
Saint Gregory, surnamed the Great (c. 540–604), the first pope of that name, and the last of the four doctors of the Latin Church, was born in Rome about the year 540. His father was Gordianus “the regionary,” a wealthy man of senatorial rank, owner of large estates in Sicily and of a palace on the Caelian Hill in Rome; his mother was Silvia, who is commemorated as a saint on the 3rd of November. Of Gregory’s early period we know few details, and almost all the dates are conjectural. He received the best education to be had at the time, and was noted for his proficiency in the arts of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic. Entering on a public career he held, about 573, the high office of prefect of the city of Rome; but about 574, feeling irresistibly attracted to the “religious” life, he resigned his post, founded six monasteries in Sicily and one in Rome, and in the last—the famous monastery of St Andrew—became himself a monk. This grateful seclusion, however, he was not permitted long to enjoy. About 578 he was ordained “seventh deacon” (or possibly archdeacon) of the Roman Church, and in the following spring Pope Pelagius II. appointed him “apocrisiarius,” or resident ambassador, at the imperial court in Constantinople. Here he represented the interests of his church till about 586, when he returned to Rome and was made abbot of St Andrew’s monastery. His rule, though popular, was characterized by great severity, as may be inferred from the story of the monk Justus, who was denied Christian burial because he had secreted a small sum of money. About this time Gregory completed and published his well-known exposition of the book of Job, commenced in Constantinople: he also delivered lectures on the Heptateuch, the books of Kings, the Prophets, the book of Proverbs and the Song of Songs. To this period, moreover, Bede’s incident of the English slave-boys (if indeed it be accepted as historical) ought to be assigned. Passing one day through the Forum, Gregory saw some handsome slaves offered for sale, and inquired their nation. “Angles,” was the reply. “Good,” said the abbot, “they have the faces of angels, and should be coheirs with the angels in heaven. From what province do they come ?” “From Deira.” “Deira. Yea, verily, they shall be saved from God's ire (de ira) and called to the mercy of Christ. How is the king of that country named?” “Ælla.” “Then must Allelulia be sung in Ælla’s land.” Gregory determined personally to undertake the conversion of Britain, and with the pope’s consent actually set out upon the mission, but on the third day of his journey he was overtaken by messengers recalling him to Rome. In the year 590 Pelagius II. died of the plague that was raging in the city; whereupon the clergy and people unanimously chose Gregory as his successor. The abbot did his best to avoid the dignity, petitioned the emperor Maurice not to ratify his election, and even meditated going into hiding; but, “while he was preparing for flight and concealment, he was seized and carried off and dragged to the basilica of St Peter,” and there consecrated bishop, on the 3rd of September 590.
The fourteen years of Gregory’s pontificate were marked by extraordinary vigour and activity. “He never rested,” writes a biographer, “he was always engaged in providing for the interests of his people, or in writing some composition worthy of the church, or in searching out the secrets of heaven by the grace of contemplation.” His mode of life was simple and ascetic in the extreme. Having banished all lay attendants from his palace, he surrounded himself with clerics and monks, with whom he lived as though he were still in a monastery. To be spiritual needs of his people he ministered with pastoral zeal, frequently appointing “stations” and delivering sermons; or was he less solicitous in providing for their physical necessities. Deaconries (offices of alms) and guest-houses were liberally endowed, and free distributions of food were made to be poor in the convents and basilicas. The funds for these and similar purposes were supplied from the Patrimony of St Peter—the papal estates in Italy, the adjacent islands, Gaul, Dalmatia and Africa. These extensive domains were usually administered by specially appointed agents,—rectors and defensors,—who resided on the spot; but the general superintendence devolved upon the pope. In this sphere Gregory manifested rare capacity. He was one of the best of the papal landlords. During his pontificate the estates increased in value, while at the same time the real grievances of the tenants were redressed and their general position was materially improved. Gregory’s principal fault as a man of business was that he was inclined to be too lavish of his revenues. It is said that he even impoverished the treasury of the Roman Church by his unlimited charities.
Within the strict bounds of his patriarchate, i.e. the churches of the suburbicarian provinces and the islands, it was Gregory’s policy to watch with particular care ever the election and discipline of the bishops. With wise toleration he was willing to recognize local deviations from Roman usage (e.g. in the ritual of baptism and confirmation), yet he was resolute to withstand any unauthorized usurpation of rights and privileges. The following rules he took pains to enforce: that clerics in holy orders should not cohabit with their wives or permit any women, except those allowed by the canons, to live in their houses; that clerics accused on ecclesiastical or lesser criminal charges should be tried only in the ecclesiastical courts; that clerics in holy orders who had lapsed should “utterly forfeit their orders and never again approach the ministry of the altar”; that the revenues of each church should be divided by its bishop into four equal parts, to be assigned to the bishop, the clergy, the poor and the repair of the fabric of the church.
In his relations with the churches which lay outside the strict limits of his patriarchate, in northern Italy, Spain, Gaul, Africa and Illyricum and also in the East, Gregory consistently used his influence to increase the prestige and authority of the Roman See. In his view Rome, as the see of the Prince of the Apostles, was by divine right “the head of all the churches.” The decrees of councils would have no binding force “without the authority and consent of the apostolic see”: appeals might be made to Rome against the decisions even of the patriarch of Constantinople: all bishops, including the patriarchs, if guilty of heresy or uncanonical proceedings, were subject to correction by the pope. “If any fault is discovered in a bishop,” Gregory wrote, “I know of no one who is not subject to the apostolic see.” It is true that Gregory respected the rights of metropolitans and disapproved of unnecessary interference within the sphere of their jurisdiction canonically exercised; also that in his relations with certain churches (e.g. those in Africa) he found it expedient to abstain from any obtrusive assertion of Roman claims. But of his general principle-there can be no doubt. His sincere belief in the apostolic authority of the see of St Peter, his outspoken assertion of it, the consistency and firmness with which in practice he maintained it (e.g. in his controversies with the bishops of Ravenna concerning the use of the pallium, with Maximus the “usurping” bishop of Salona, and with the patriarchs of Constantinople in respect of the title “ecumenical bishops”), contributed greatly to build up the system of papal absolutism. Moreover this consolidation of spiritual authority coincided with a remarkable development of the temporal power of the papacy. In Italy Gregory occupied an almost regal position. Taking advantage of the opportunity which circumstances offered, he boldly stepped into the place which the emperors had left vacant and the Lombard kings had not the strength to seize. For the first time in history the pope appeared as a political power, a temporal prince. He appointed governors to cities, issued orders to generals, provided munitions of war, sent his ambassadors to negotiate with the Lombard king and actually dared to conclude a private peace. In this direction Gregory went farther than any of his predecessors: he laid the foundation of a political influence which endured for centuries. “Of the medieval papacy,” says Milman, “the real father is Gregory the Great.”
The first monk to become pope, Gregory was naturally a strong supporter of monasticism. He laid himself out to diffuse the system, and also to carry out a reform of its abuses by enforcing a strict observance of the Rule of St Benedict (of whom, it may be noted, he was the earliest biographer). Two slight innovations were introduced: the minimum age of an abbess was fixed at sixty, and the period of novitiate was prolonged from one year to two. Gregory sought to protect the monks from episcopal oppression by issuing privilegia, or charters in restraint of abuses, in accordance with which the jurisdiction of the bishops over the monasteries was confined to spiritual matters, all illegal aggressions being strictly prohibited. The documents are interesting as marking the beginning of a revolution which eventually emancipated the monks altogether from the control of their diocesans and brought them under the direct authority of the Holy See. Moreover Gregory strictly forbade monks to minister in parish churches, ordaining that any monk who was promoted to such ecclesiastical cure should lose all rights in his monastery and should no longer reside there. “The duties of each office separately are so weighty that no one can rightly discharge them. It is therefore very improper that one man should be considered fit to discharge the duties of both, and that by this means the ecclesiastical order should interfere with the monastic life, and the rule of the monastic life in turn interfere with the interests of the churches.”
Once more, Gregory is remembered as a great organizer of missionary enterprise for the conversion of heathens and heretics. Mose important was the two-fold mission to Britain—of St Augustine in 596, of Mellitus, Paulinus and others in 601; but Gregory also made strenuous efforts to uproot paganism in Gaul, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, Arianism in Spain, Donatism in Africa, Manichaeism in Sicily, the heresy of the Three Chapters in Istria and northern Italy. In respect of the methods of conversion which he advocated he was not less intolerant than his contemporaries. Towards the Jews, however, he acted with exceptional lenity, protecting them from persecution and securing them the enjoyment of their legal privileges. The so-called “simoniacal heresy,” particularly prevalent in Gaul, Illyricum and the East, he repeatedly attacked; and against the Gallican abuse of promoting laymen to bishoprics he protested with vigour.
The extent and character of Gregory’s works in connexion with the liturgy and the music of the church is a subject of dispute. If we are to credit a 9th century biographer, Gregory abbreviated and otherwise simplified the Sacramentary of Gelasius, producing a revised edition with which his own name has become associated, and which represents the groundwork of the modern Roman Missal. But though it is certain that he introduced three changes in the liturgy itself (viz. the addition of some words in the prayer Hanc igitur, the recitation of the Pater Noster at the end of the Canon immediately before the fraction of the bread, and the chanting of the Allelulia after the Gradual at other times besides the season of Easter) and two others in the ceremonial connected therewith (forbidding deacons to perform any musical portion of the service except the chanting of the gospel, and subdeacons to wear chasubles), neither the external nor the internal evidence appears to warrant belief that the Gregorian Sacramentary is his work. Ecclesiastical tradition further ascribes to Gregory the compilation of an Antiphonary, the revision and rearrangement of the system of church music, and the foundation of the Roman schola cantorum. It is highly doubtful, however, whether he had anything to do either with the Antiphonary or with the invention or revival of the cantus planus; it is certain that he was not the founder of the Roman singing-school, though he may have interested himself in its endowment and extension.
Finally, as Fourth Doctor of the Latin Church, Gregory claims the attention of theologians. He is the link between two epochs. The last of the great Latin Fathers and the first representative of medieval Catholicism he brings the dogmatic theology of Tertullian, Ambrose and Augustine into relation with the Scholastic speculation of later ages. “He connects the Graeco-Roman with the Romano-Germanic type of Christianity.” His teaching, indeed, is neither philosophical, systematic nor truly original. Its importance lies mainly in its simple, popular summarization of the doctrine of Augustine (whose works Gregory had studied with infinite care, but not always with insight), and in its detailed exposition of various religious conceptions which were current in the Western Church, but had not hitherto been defined with precision (e.g. the views on angelology and demonology, on purgatory, the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and the efficacy of relics). In his exposition of such ideas Gregory made a distinct advance upon the older theology and influenced profoundly the dogmatic development of the future. He imparted a life and impulse to prevailing tendencies, helping on the construction of the system hereafter to be completed in Scholasticism. He gave to theology a tone and emphasis which could not be disregarded. From his time to that of Anselm no teacher of equal eminence arose in the Church.
Gregory died on the 12th of March 604, and was buried the same day in the portico of the basilica of St Peter, in front of the sacristy. Translations took place in the 9th, 15th and 17th centuries, and the remains now rest beneath the altar in the chapel of Clement VIII. In respect of his character, while most historians agree that he was a really great man, some deny that he was also a great saint. The worst blot on his fair fame is his adulatory congratulation of the murderous usurper Phocas; though his correspondence with the Frankish queen Brunhilda, and the series of letters to and concerning the renegade monk Venantius also present problems which his admirers find difficult of solution. But while it may be admitted that Gregory was inclined to be unduly subservient to the great, so that at times he was willing to shut his eyes to the vices and even the crimes of persons of rank; yet it cannot fairly be denied that his character as a whole was singularly noble and unselfish. His life was entirely dominated by the religious motive. His sole desire was to promote the glory of God and of his church. At all times he strove honestly to live up to the light that was in him. “His goal,” says Lau, “was always that which he acknowledged as the best.” Physically, Gregory was of medium height and good figure. His head was large and bald, surrounded with a fringe of dark hair. His face was well-proportioned, with brown eyes, aquiline nose, thick and red lips, high-coloured cheeks, and prominent chin sparsely covered with a tawny beard. His hands, with tapering fingers, were remarkable for their beauty.
(F. H. D.)