Pope Gregory I

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Pope Gregory I
Name Gregory
Papacy began September 3, 590
Papacy ended March 12, 604
Predecessor Pelagius II
Successor Sabinianus
Born Circa 540
Place of birth Rome, Italy
Died March 12, 604
Place of death Rome, Italy

Pope Saint Gregory I or Gregory the Great (ca. 540March 12, 604) was pope of the Catholic Church from September 3, 590 until his death. He is also known as Gregory Dialogus (the Dialogist) in Eastern Orthodoxy) because of the Dialogues he wrote. He was the first of the popes from a monastic background, and he formulated the program that the papacy would follow over the next two centuries: independence of the Emperor and an alliance with the Benedictine abbots and with the Merovingian kingdoms of the Franks. Though he was not really a theologian, Gregory is considered a Doctor of the Church; he was the true founder of the Early Medieval papacy.

Gregory was born to a patrician and thoroughly Christian Roman family (father, Gordianus, and mother, Silvia) that owned latifundia in the south and a domus on the Caelian Hill, the foundations of which support the Church of St. Andrew and St. Gregory. He pursued a secular political career, which climaxed in the position of Prefect of Rome, the highest civil honor, before he entered a Benedictine monastery that he had founded. He was a member of the embassy sent by Pelagius to Constantinople, about 579, where he remained six years, making the acquaintance of Leander of Seville, the brother of Isidore of Seville.


Confrontation with Eutychius

In Constantinople, Gregory attracted attention in controversy with Patriarch Eutychius of Constantinople, who had published a dissertation on the corporeality of the imminent general resurrection, in which bodies would be incorporeal, to which Gregory contrasted the corporeality of the risen Christ. The heat of argument drew the emperor in as judge, Gregory using an interpreter, for he never learned the rudiments of Greek during his stay. Eutychius' treatise was condemned, and suffered the normal fate of non-orthodox texts, of being publicly burnt.

On Gregory's return to Rome he acted as first secretary to Pelagius, and was elected Pope to succeed him.

Gregory as pope

When he became pope in 590, among his first acts were writing a series of letters disavowing any ambition to the throne of Peter and praising the contemplative life of the Black monks. At that time the See had not exerted effective leadership in the West since the pontificate of Gelasius. The episcopacy in Gaul was drawn from the families of the great territorial families, and identified with them: the parochial horizon of Gregory's contemporary Gregory of Tours may be considered typical; in Visigothic Spain the bishops had control of the monarchs, with little contact with Rome; in Italy the papacy was beset by the violent Lombard dukes and the rivalry of the Byzantines in the Exarchate of Ravenna and in the south. The scholarship and culture of Celtic Christianity had developed utterly unconnected with Rome, and it was from Ireland that Britain and Germany were likely to become Christianized, or so it seemed.


Gregory's independent action in appointing governors to cities, providing munitions of war, giving instructions to generals, sending ambassadors to the Lombard king, and even negotiating a peace without consulting the Emperor's legate, Romanus, Exarch of Ravenna, mark the decisive acts that revealed the papacy as an independent temporal power. Gregory's childhood in the disasters of the Gothic War, his secular cursus honorum, his sojourn in Constantinople, and doubtless his personal assessment of the Exarch, convinced him that no help from the East was to be expected in the confrontations with the Lombards that began his pontificate. Within days of Gregory's consecration, the death of Authari, King of the Lombards, spawned the familiar violence of a Lombard succession. Authari's Queen, the famous Theodelinda, married Agilulf, Lombard dux in Turin, while the independent dukes Ariulf of Spoleto and Arichis of Benevento, threatened papal and imperial territories in the south.

Gregory expressed the difficulty and danger of his position in some of the earliest letters (Epistles I, iii, viii, xxx); but no actual hostilities began until the summer of 592, when a threatening letter from Ariulf of Spoleto was followed by the appearance of the Lombard before the walls of Rome. At the same time Arichis of Benevento advanced on Naples, which happened at the moment to have neither bishop nor any officer of high rank in command of the garrison. Gregory at once took the unprecedented step of appointing a tribune on his own authority to take command of the city (Epistles II, xxxiv), and of arranging a separate peace with the Lombards (Epistles II, xlv).

Gregory's independent action had the effect of rousing Romanus the exarch, who gathered his troops, attacked and regained Perugia, and then marched to Rome, where he was received with imperial honors. The next spring, however, he left the city and took its garrison with him. The exarch's campaign had roused Agilulf who marched on Rome, arriving there probably some time in June, 593. The terror of the moment is reflected in Gregory's homilies on the prophet Ezechiel, which were delivered at this time. The siege of the city was soon abandoned, however, and Agilulf retired; Gregory's confrontation with Agilulf on the steps of the Basilica of Saint Peter outside the walls of Rome, a favored subject of history painters, was the invention of a chronicler, however. In a letter (V, xxxix) Gregory refers to himself as "the paymaster of the Lombards", and apparently silver was the chief inducement to raise the siege.

The pope's urgent need now was to secure a lasting peace with the Lombards, which could only be achieved by a proper arrangement between the imperial authorities and the Lombard chiefs, with the Catholic Theodelinda as go-between. A year was passed in fruitless negotiations, when Gregory began once again to mediate a private treaty even without the consent of the Exarch Romanus. This threat was speedily reported to Constantinople and the Emperor Maurice responded with a violent letter, now lost, received in June 595. Luckily, Gregory's scathing reply has been preserved (Epistles V, xxxvi). Still, Gregory seems to have realized that independent action could not secure what he wished, and we hear no more about a separate peace.

Gregory's relations with the Exarch Romanus continued more and more strained until the latter's death in the year 596 or early in 597. The new exarch, Callinicus, was a skilled diplomat and official peace negotiations were pushed on; the peace agreement signed in 599, to Gregory's great joy, lasted only two years: in 601 the war broke out again through an aggressive act on the part of Callinicus, who was recalled two years later. His successor, Smaragdus, again made a peace with the Lombards which endured until after Gregory's death.

Servus servorum Dei

Gregory, among the first to assert the primacy of the papal office, though he did not employ the term "pope", summed up the responsibilities of the bishop of Rome in his official appellation, as "servant of the servants of God". As Benedict of Nursia had justified the absolute authority of the abbot over the souls in his charge, so Gregory expressed the hieratic principle that he was responsible directly to God for his ministry.

Gregory's pontificate saw the development of the concepts of penance that became institutionalized in the later Church, that the purifying penance that the soul was to undergo in Purgatory could be begun in this life, through good works, obedience and Christian conduct, making the travails to come lighter and shorter, for only saints were translated directly to heaven. It was an optimistic outlook, which could make the Christian feel more secure about his future.

Gregory's relations with the Emperor in the East were a cautious diplomatic stand-off. He concentrated his energies in the West, where many of his letters are concerned with the management of papal estates. His relations with the Merovingian kings, encapsulated in his deferential correspondence with Childebert II, laid the foundations for the papal alliance witrh the Franks that would transform the Germanic kingship into an agency for the Christianization of the heart of Europe consequences that remained in the future.

More immediately Gregory took in hand the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, where inaction might have encouraged the Celtic missionaries already active in the north of Britain. Sending Augustine of Canterbury to convert the Kingdom of Kent was prepared by the marriage of the king to a Merovingian princess who had brought her chaplains with her. By the time of Gregory's death, the conversion of the king and the Kentish nobles and the establishment of a Christian toehold at Canterbury were established.

Main article: Schism of the Three Chapters.

Gregory's chief acts as Pope include his long letter issued in the matter of the schism of the Three Chapters of the bishops of Istria. He is also known in the East as a tireless worker for communication and understanding between East and West. He is also credited with increasing the power of the papacy. Before his pontificate, the Pope was regarded as the foremost among other high-ranking ecclesiasts, but without any jurisdiction outside his own diocese.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he was declared a saint immediately after his death by "popular acclamation".


Illumination in a 12th century manuscript of a letter of Gregory's to Saint Leander, bishop of Seville (Bibl. Municipale, MS 2, Dijon).
Illumination in a 12th century manuscript of a letter of Gregory's to Saint Leander, bishop of Seville (Bibl. Municipale, MS 2, Dijon).

Gregory is the only pope between the 5th and the 11th centuries whose correspondence and writings have survived enough to form a comprehensive corpus. "His character strikes us as an ambiguous and enigmatic one," Norman F. Cantor observed (Cantor, 1993, p. 157). "On the one hand he was an able and determined administrator, a skilled and clever diplomat, a leader of the greatest sophistication and vision; but on the other hand, he appears in his writings as a superstitious and credulous monk, hostile to learning, crudely limited as a theologian, and excessively devoted to saints, miracles and relics"— like every European of his generation, one might add.

  • Sermons (forty on the Gospels are recognized as authentic, twenty-two on Ezekiel, two on the Song of Songs)
  • Dialogues on the life of Saint Benedict
  • Commentary on Job, frequently known even in English-language histories by its Latin title, Magna Moralia
  • The Rule for Pastors, in which he contrasted the role of bishops as pastors of their flock with their position as nobles of the church: the definitive statement of the nature of the episcopal office
  • Some 850 letters have survived from his Papal Register of letters. This collection serves as an invaluable primary source for these years.
  • In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Gregory is credited with devising the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. It is celebrated on certain nights during Great Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • Gregory introduced certain minor reforms into the Roman Liturgy.
Main article: Gregorian chant.

The Gregorian chant, a religious musical style of the Middle Ages, is named for Pope Gregory. Although he is not known to have written any chants himself—the majority of chants written during this time were published anonymously—his influence in the Church caused the style to be named after him.


The early vita of Gregory was written by John the Deacon.

  • Norman F. Cantor, 1993. The Civilization of the Middles Ages ((New York: Harper)
  • R.A. Markus. Gregory the Great and His World. Cambridge: University Press, 1997. ISBN 0521586089
  • F.H. Dudden, Gregory the Great

External links

Preceded by:
Pelagius II
Succeeded by:
Saint Sabinianus
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