Milpitas Christian Church

St. Gregory I "The Great" (c. 540-604)

Pope, reformer, sender of missionaries

The Gist

  • Most influential of the early popes, he transformed the office and acted as a bridge between the classical world and the emerging medieval world. With him, many of the classic Roman Catholic ideas about the papacy find their origin or first strong arguments

  • Highly principled and active reformer and administrator

  • Great writer as well as a ruler

  • Last of the traditional Latin Fathers of the Church

  • Bolstered Roman ideas about papal supremacy and the sacraments

  • Gregorian chants are named for him

  • Commissioned many successful missionaries

  • Protestant Reformers called him “the last good pope” (Calvin)

Historical context

  • The Eastern Roman Empire was at its height under Emperor Justinian I.

    • He rebuilt the Hagia Sophia, the main church in Constantinople, into the wonder of the medieval world that it is today

    • Justinian kept trying to reconquer Italy and reunite the old Roman Empire. During Gregory’s youth, Roman armies were marching up and down Italy, fighting against the Ostrogoths and Lombards

    • These wars depopulated Italy and brought famines and plagues

  • In the West, there is no longer any Roman empire

    • Maps: GeaCron (enter the year 590), year 600

    • Italy was split between several Lombard-ruled kingdoms in the north and center and territories ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire (including Rome and the south)

    • Spain is ruled by the Visigoths

    • Modern-day France and Germany are split between three Frankishkingdoms

    • Britain is a patchwork of different kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons, Welsh/British, and Celts

  • Most Germanic kingdoms gradually converted from Arianism to Nicene Christianity

  • The old imperial infrastructure that connected cities and encouraged trade was breaking down. City populations declined. Many wars, famines, and plagues.

  • The old bureaucracy that had kept order in the civil governments was breaking down all over the West, giving way to local strongmen

  • Rome itself had already fallen into disrepair from all the times it had been captured in war, and from the lack of good management and resources to repair it. The great classical buildings, the walls, the aqueducts and drainage systems were all falling apart!

  • The rule of law declined; corruption and abuse abounded

  • Church leaders increasingly took on civil responsibilities, as they were already organized into a network that was used to provide for large groups of people

    • But this led to more corruption in the church. Many bishops had become very rich. The Church had begun to acquire large plots of land

    • Sometimes the Church restrained the new military rulers, but other times she served them

    • Bishops and popes often intervened in political affairs to try to stop wars or invasions

Public Service or the Monastic Life?

  • 540 - Born in Rome to a wealthy, landholding family,Gregory was descended from at least one previous pope (Felix, r. 483-492), and in general, the family was very religious.

  • 545 - Ostrogothic king Totila captured Rome, but the Eastern Romans recaptured the city the next year.

  • As a young man, Gregory began working as a city official but was always conflicted over a sense of duty to help the crumbling society around him and his own personal desire to lead a contemplative religious life

  • 574 - in his early 30s, he left public service and established a monastery on his family property in Rome

    • No evidence that he followed the Rule of Benedict or even was Abbott himself, although he later founded more monasteries
  • 579 - one pope made him a deacon for the church in Rome, and the next one, Pope Pelagius II, sent him as a papal ambassador to Constantinople

  • 586 - Gregory finally was able to return home, where he went back to his monastery and became Abbott there

Pope Gregory, the Savior of Rome

  • 590 - another barbarian group, the Lombards, who were Arians, were preparing to attack Rome, and the Eastern Romans weren’t expected to help. Then disasters struck the city: floods destroyed food stores, and an epidemic ravaged the populace

    • Pope Pelagius II organized efforts to improve the city’s sanitation and the feeding of the hungry.

    • Gregory was involved in this work, and when Pelagius II died of the plague and the church elected Gregory pope

  • Nobody really wanted to be a pope in such circumstances. Gregory wrote to the emperor in Constantinople and asked him to annul the election, but his letter never made it

    • The emperor still officially had jurisdiction over the city, and it was the custom for Rome to request his approval for papal elections, as was the habit for Eastern patriarchs. But since the emperor never received Gregory’s letter, he didn’t intervene
  • So Gregory became pope. Then he set to work doing everything he felt the church and the city needed doing. The local secular government was almost non-existent, and the Eastern emperor had all but abandoned Italy.

    • The Lombards required regular payments, or else they would attack the city–and it fell to the church in Rome to pay, as the only representative group able to do so. Gregory oversaw these ransom payments as well as those for specific hostages

    • Twice he negotiated with the Lombards and prevented them from sacking the city

    • He organized food distribution and made trade agreements to continue the shipments of wheat from Sicily

    • He supervised the rebuilding of city infrastructure, including the aqueducts, which brought in drinkable water

    • He drilled the city’s garrison until their morale improved and some measure of public order was restored

    • He made arrangements for refugees

    • By default, people came to regard Gregory as the ruler of Rome and the surrounding area, which some called “Saint Peter’s Patrimony”

  • Gregory had so much success pursuing peace with theLombards that the Eastern emperor in Constantinople got jealous and worried that he would ally with theLombards and allow them to attack the remainingEastern Roman possessions in Italy. So theEastern Romans began working against Gregory, trying to undermine him

  • 600 - nonetheless, Gregory eventually secured a relatively stable peace between the city of Rome and the Lombards, helped in a great deal by the fact that he made friends with the Lombard queen, who was Roman Catholic

    • (I think it is now fair to begin referring to the Western Church as Roman Catholic, considering the increasing importance of the pope and the growing estrangement with the Eastern Church)
  • Yet technically, Rome remained under the jurisdiction of the emperor in Constantinople, and Gregory respected that when he could

    • Emperors would pass down laws, sometimes unfair and obnoxious ones, that put restrictions on the church or said that state employees couldn’t practice monasticism, and Gregory had a practice of executing the laws while protesting them strongly, so that he couldn’t be punished but was still making his opinion known

Reform and Papal Authority!

  • Saw himself primarily as a religious leader, preaching for renewed commitments to God and enacting various moral reforms in the church to combat sin and laziness that had become prevalent among the clergy

  • Promoted clerical celibacy – it was becoming normal for priests and monks in the West to be celibate and not marry, though this was not the case in the East

  • Sought to eliminate simony, the practice of buying and selling church offices

  • Replaced many of the “old guard” clergy in Rome with monks and clerics, because he trusted them to be more dedicated to honest piety and hard work

  • Asserted his right as the Roman pope to judge other bishops on certain moral issues, if they had committed some notable sin, BUT he notably did not claim universal authority over them in general

    • Pope Leo had earlier made such claims of universal papal supremacy, but Gregory did not continue in the same vein

    • Conflict with the Patriarch of Constantinople, who regarded himself as the leader of the entire church that was under the emperor’s authority. But Gregory disputed that, claiming that all bishops should be essentially equal and that the only special authority went to the Pope in Rome when it came to correcting moral problems and ratifying councils

      • Patriarchs were calling themselves “ecumenical patriarchs” to symbolize the authority they claimed, and Gregory warned that this sounded like the pride one should expect in the Antichrist! This is interesting in light of the way that many Protestant Reformers regarded the medieval popes as antichrists.
    • Gregory insisted that leaders should be humble, and called himself “the servant of the servants of God”

    • Nonetheless, Gregory’s practical actions had the effect of increasing his authority far more than Leo ever managed!

  • While Gregory’s influence increased around Rome, he struggled to exert it farther away

    • The North African church was leaning towards the Donatists again and didn’t like Rome telling them what to do. Gregory kept petitioning the Emperor in Constantinople to do something about them, but he was ignored until he eventually dropped the matter

    • Likewise, the Franks up north were now orthodox Christians but preferred to control their own churches, and they resisted Gregory’s efforts to influence them

    • There was also a frustrating schism in Italy itself, where various northern churches that were in Lombard territory took issue with some Roman teachings and politics and declared independence from the pope’s oversight. Gregory tried various tactics to suppress the schismatic churches, even attempting to get the emperor to use military force, but the emperor wasn’t interested, and Gregory lost

      • Later, Gregory was mistakenly called a military pope for this reason, even though he never intended for anything like the crusades
  • In central and southern Italy, he made many practical reforms

    • Efficient administration of church property brought in good revenue, which was used as alms for the poor

    • Established a well-trained and organized staff of agents who managed estates and traveled around administering justice, including protecting peasants from exploitation by nobles

    • He made land inheritable, which encouraged peasants to stay local and cultivate the land

  • He tried to be fair to the Jews, although some of his policies ended up harming them. He believed that the Bible foretold their complete conversion and that it was thus okay to pressure them to convert and treat them as second-class citizens!

  • He advocated the persecution of pagans

Gregory the Missionary

  • Wrote lots of letters to Spanish and Frankish kings and queens, which helped keep them in line with Roman Catholic teaching and practice; he may have influenced the Visigoths in Spain to convert from Arianism to Nicene Christianity

  • 599 - sent a missionary to England to convert the Angles who had conquered southern England from the old Romans. Eventually, the kingdom of Kent was converted, and the missionary, a different Saint Augustine, became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Christianity then spread to the other kingdoms in Britain

Major Writings

  • In general, he focused on practical wisdom and moral theology, endeavoring to be immediately useful to people rather than to speculate. Nonetheless, many of his ideas were rather speculative and ended up heavily influencing medieval theology

  • He wrote and published a lot more than the average pope

  • Wrote and preached many homilies that influenced medieval exegesis of Scripture

  • We have over 900 of his letters!

    Pastoral Rule (591)

    • A handbook for rulers

    Dialogues (before 594)

    • Contained a life of Benedict of Nursia, of whom Gregory was a big fan, that attributed various miracles to him

Theology of Gregory

  • Was a big fan of Augustine of Hippo, but was unable to understand Augustine’s nuances

    • The world and popular mindset of Augustine’s world was now extremely different from that of Gregory’s. Gregory’s world was already more superstitious and less well-read than the classics.

      So Gregory treated Augustine as an infallible teacher when that was the last thing Augustine would have wanted

    • For example, Augustine speculated about a place where those who died in sin might be able to be purified before going to heaven. Gregory turned this speculation into the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory

  • Gregory wasn’t interested in Augustine’s doctrines of predestination and irresistible grace, so he set them aside. He just wanted to know how to offer satisfaction to God for our sins. Augustine had talked about penance, so Gregory developed a whole system and made it normative for theRoman Catholic Church:

    • If you sin, you need to be sincerely contrite, confess the sin, and accept some kind of punishment for the sin

    • Then you need a priest to confirm that you’ve been forgiven by God

    • If you die a baptized, not-excommunicated Christian, but with sins that haven’t gone through this process of penance, then you go to purgatory to be fully purified.

    • The living can help those in purgatory by offering masses/communions in their favor

    • Gregory promoted the idea that mass/communion was sacrificing Christ again

  • The church at this time had become very superstitious and often claimed that things could be confirmed by strange miracles or visions of saints and angels. Gregory did this, too, giving papal authority to this mindset

  • Brought in a lot of ascetic ideas from the old Desert Fathers and Jerome, but adapted them to be more flexible for the average churchgoer

    • Promoted moderation and discretion as a way of loving one’s neighbor

    • In counseling people who were suffering in the wars, plagues, and famines, Gregory said that we must simply offer our lives as a sacrifice to God and adopt an attitude of continual repentance, even if you’re not conscious of a sin

  • The sacraments - particularly the Eucharist and the mass (the service at which the Eucharist is offered) – gained almost supernatural powers in his theology, as signs of God’s grace.

  • Gregory’s goal in all this was to make the church and the sacraments a safe path to salvation in the midst of a troubled and sinful world

Legacy of Gregory

  • Most of Gregory’s reforms and theology became standard in Roman Catholicism, especially during the medieval period. They were mostly rejected by the Protestant Reformers and re-emphasized by the Roman Catholics during their Counter-Reformation

  • He is largely responsible for Spain, France, and England becoming Christian, and especially Roman Catholic

  • His expanded control and effective administration over the city of Rome and surrounding areas established the areas that would become known as the Papal States, which popes ruled directly for centuries

  • Gregorian chants are named after him, as tradition says they were first collected and developed under his papacy. It’s unknown if this is true and if he had anything to do with it

Sources for Gregory

  • González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: HarperOne, 2010
  • St. Gregory the Great
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