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Pope Gregory I (The Great)


Pope Gregory was born circa 540, a member of a noble family. Gregory grew up in a Christian home with parents who were strong in the faith. He was the son of Gordianus, at that time, a wealthy Senator. His grandfather was Pope Felix. Gregory's mother is named as a saint in the Roman Martyrology His noble upbringing helped acquaint him with the difficulties in Roman government at the time. The Byzantine Empire changed emperors four times during his boyhood. The city of Rome itself was conquered in 546 by the Goths, who were very brutal. In 552, the Narses recaptured Rome, but were equally as troublesome to the Romans as the Goths who preceded them.  Finally, in 568, the Germanic Lombards began warring with Rome.

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At first it appeared Gregory was destined for politics. Having received a brilliant education, he attained high state offices. In AD 574 and only thirty-four years of age, Emperor Justin the Younger appointed him prefect of Rome, or Chief Magistrate, to deal with financial affairs, help in the security of the city, and preside over the Senate (573 AD). But a life of politics was not for him. As he was growing up, St. Gregory always meditated on the Scriptures. He was said to have been devoted to God from his youth. Leading a God pleasing life, he aspired to monasticism with all his soul. So after the death of his father and after long prayers and struggles, he decided to give up all that he had inherited and become a monk. He spent his entire fortune plus his Sicilian house to build six monasteries. He also had his tiny cell-like home on Caelian Hills in Rome converted into a monastery. It was here that he lived as a monk for three years. Then Pope Pelagius II named him as one of the seven deacons of Rome. From there, Pope Pelagius II sent St. Gregory to Constantinople on a papal mission for six years. There he wrote his "Commentary on the Book of Job."

When he was called back to Rome, Gregory returned to the Monastery of St. Andrew, where he became an abbot. After the death of Pope Pelagius II, he was elected to be the successor unanimously by the people of the church and the people of Rome. Upon confirmation by the Emperor, Gregory considered going into hiding, because did not want to leave his private life as a monk. However, Gregory was actually captured and brought to St. Peter's and there he became Pope in AD 590. He was pope for fourteen years.

Gregory was confirmed at a perilous time in Rome’s history. The Tiber River had overflowed its banks, destroying much of the city and bringing with it disease. The Lombards were also posing a great threat as well. Facing these perils, the people of Rome needed a strong leader to help Rome through such a difficult time. Gregory wrote the emperor and expressed his concern that the emperor should be doing more for the people of Rome. He felt it was the duty of the secular part of the Empire to protect the church, especially in times of trouble. The emperor was in Constantinople, and at this time, the Byzantine Empire could not come to the aid of Rome. Noting the apparent lack of leadership amidst chaos, Gregory was forced to give himself some sort of temporary control. When the Lombards descended on Rome, Gregory created a tribune and took control of the city. To some, this was considered a move for independence. Yet without a true governmental leader at the head of Rome, Gregory was able to maintain an on-and-off peace with the Lombards.

Besides his work in defending Rome, Gregory is also noted for his work in Church reform. He is known for his magnificent contributions to the Liturgy of the Mass and Office. He was distinguished by his love for the poor. He could never do enough to help the people of the poor. He was a great preacher and his sermons drew large crowds. His writings of the life of St. Benedict of Russia brought him popularity.

Gregory also had a great influence on the missions to Western Europe, especially England, where he sent St. Augustine of Canterbury in 596. He saw the people of England as "a people to be won over" to Christ. By 598 there had been a reported 10,000 converts. But he is perhaps best remembered for laying the foundations for later claims to papal absolutism. As bishop of Rome, he was really the only effective local administration. He led the defense of Rome from the Lombards, appointed local officials and even directed generals in war. While nominally subject to the emperor, Gregory asserted the independence and dignity of the papacy.

Gregory died on March 12, 604, and was canonized immediately.


Hudelston, G. Roger, "Pope St. Gregory I (Gregory the Great)" In: Catholic Encyclopedia.

Chapin, John, ed., "St. Gregory the Great by St. Bede The Venerable" In: Treasury of Catholic Reading.

Gregory the Great by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby.

Edited by: Jeremy Vreeman
Researched by: Stephen Sharkey
Written by: Nate Windt
Additional Material by Andrew Taylor

16 September 1998
Revised 14 July 1999

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