By any account, 590 was a disastrous year in Rome. Plague had struck, sweeping through the homes of poor and wealthy alike. Even the pope was carried away by the fearsome disease. The spring floods were the worst in memory; the Tiber broke through its retaining walls, causing enormous damage.
The Lombards, a fierce barbarian tribe that had been invading Italy, were now threatening the city itself. Food was in short supply, civil government was breaking down, and there was little hope that the future would be better.
Rome, once the proud capital of an empire, could no longer defend itself. Even the bravest souls believed that the world was coming to an end.
In the spring and summer of 590, a fifty-year-old Roman monk by the name of Gregory had an additional anxiety. He was dreading the arrival of a letter from the emperor, who was then living in Constantinople, hundreds of miles to the east. Gregory hoped against hope that the letter would never come.
The Letter That Changed History. Descended from an ancient and powerful Roman family, Gregory had begun his career as a lawyer. In his early thirties, he was appointed city prefect, Rome’s most important public office. Within a year or two, however, he abandoned his career to pursue God’s call to monastic life. He was inspired by the example of St. Benedict, who died about the time Gregory was born, and also by his parents, who renounced their wealth and entered religious communities later in life.
Gregory established a small monastic community in the family home he had inherited and entered into what he would later call "the happiest years of my life." They were years of prayer and study—an escape, in his view, from the troubles and cares of the world. But this peaceful time with the Lord was all too short. In 578, the pope prevailed on Gregory to be ordained a priest, and also to become his representative to the imperial court.
Gregory spent the next six years in Constantinople, trying without success to secure the emperor’s promise to help the people of Italy. Afterwards, he eagerly returned to his monastery, where he soon became abbot. But again, his peace and seclusion would be short lived.
When the pope died during that bleak February of 590, Gregory was immediately elected to succeed him. Since emperors at the time claimed the right to approve Rome’s bishops, Gregory could not assume the position until the imperial letter of confirmation arrived. As he waited, he prayed that he might be rejected. He had made enemies at court, and he hoped they would oppose him. He had even written the emperor imploring him to withhold his approval (shrewdly, though, the mayor of Rome intercepted Gregory’s letter and destroyed it).
And so in August, to Gregory’s great dismay, the emperor’s letter arrived. He was consecrated pope on September 3.
Greatness Thrust upon Him. A common theme in biographies of saints who become bishops is their reluctance to accept that office. This was certainly true of Gregory. He later wrote that he entered the papacy "sick at heart," grieving over his lost monastic life and so sorrowful that he could hardly speak. Nevertheless, he was an obvious candidate for the position.
Gregory was, of course, a man of prayer. But he had also received an excellent education, which was increasingly rare in those troubled times. He had gained experience from managing his family’s estates. And his years at court had given him sharp insights into key personalities at the highest level of government—along with a sober understanding of how little the people of Italy could expect from the emperor.
This preparation was critically important, for few people had been asked to assume such a weighty responsibility under such difficult circumstances. The world that had shaped Gregory and in which he had lived his entire life was crashing to an end. Rome was no longer the center of an empire but had become a virtual outpost. Plague and natural disaster were decimating his people. Civilization was succumbing to barbarism, while a once-proud government seemed paralyzed and ineffective.
Your Will, Lord, Not Mine. Gregory was not at all attracted to these challenges. He wanted nothing more than to retire to his monastery and let the world fend for itself. Besides, he was in poor health; the rigors he had imposed on himself left him chronically ill, sometimes to the point of incapacity.
How did this peace-loving monk come to grips with the tensions between his longing for a quiet life and God’s calling to the papal office? Some of his writings indicate that he never quite became comfortable with his position. He wrote a commentary on the Book of Job and said he was well equipped to do so. But it is his insightful and influential book on the duties of bishops that offers a glimpse into his own inner struggles.
There, Gregory states that men of ability who refuse the burdens of a church office out of preference for a quiet life betray both their neighbors and the God who gave them their gifts. They should be judged in light of the souls lost because of their selfishness. By contrast, he commends those who overcome their reluctance and apprehensions, trusting that God’s strength will work through them to accomplish what they could not do alone. Here, it seems, Gregory was speaking from experience.
A Pope’s Pressing Problems. Upon assuming office, Gregory could see—and this is proof of his greatness—that old solutions would no longer work. New approaches were necessary, and the new approaches he took became the foundation for the Middle Ages in Western Europe.
One of the most urgent of the many problems he faced was posed by the Lombards, who now controlled much of Italy and were poised to overwhelm Rome. An especially brutal tribe with little respect for civilization, they had destroyed entire cities and reduced the populations to servitude and starvation. Gregory himself recorded stories of hundreds of Catholics murdered by Lombards for refusing to participate in pagan worship.
Knowing that Rome could expect neither mercy from the Lombards nor protection from the emperor, Gregory decided to use his authority as pope: He took matters into his own hands and negotiated peace with the Lombards, probably by buying them off. This saved the people but enraged the emperor, who recognized Gregory’s action as a step to limiting imperial power.
For nearly three hundred years, the papacy had been subordinated in many ways to the throne. Gregory changed the nature of this relationship. He asserted an authority parallel to the emperor’s and focused principally on spiritual matters. In doing so, he paved the way for the Western notion of a separation of spiritual and temporal powers.
It was not, of course, Gregory’s idea that religious matters be banned from public life. Rather, he laid the foundation for the idea of two great powers in society—spiritual and civil. The practical implications of this vision would be worked out, sometimes with great difficulty, over the following five hundred years and more.
Man of Many Gifts. Gregory did not stop with the Lombards. He reorganized the papacy as a whole, making it a much more effective instrument for governing the church. Hundreds of official letters from his office still survive, revealing how he encouraged and rebuked bishops and other church leaders whenever necessary.
Thanks to Gregory’s management, church revenues increased dramatically. As a result, he was able to do a great deal to help the poor, as well as support civil government. By the time of his death, the pope was not only a spiritual leader but also the most important civil leader in Italy.
Gregory also initiated much-needed liturgical reforms. Over time, liturgical practices had come to vary significantly from place to place. In some cases, they reflected heretical beliefs or obscured genuine Catholic teaching. Gregory took steps to standardize the liturgy, and the popes who followed him did the same. Though he is almost certainly not responsible for Gregorian chant, his sincere interest in music may have stimulated this later development.
In another activity that his successors would continue, he moved energetically to evangelize non-Christian parts of Europe. It was Gregory, for example, who first sent missionaries to England. Over the following centuries, the initiatives he launched resulted in the conversion of Europe and the creation of Christendom, a society of people diverse in language and nationality but united by a common faith.
Finally, Gregory wrote a great number of scriptural commentaries and homilies that were widely read during the Middle Ages. Along with Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, he is considered one of the great doctors, or teachers, of the ancient church.
Gregory "The Great." Though we think little about Gregory today, it would be hard to exaggerate his impact. Before him, the Roman church was weakened by a century of war and heresy. In the fourteen years of Gregory’s papacy, the church rebounded. It made peace (for a time) with warring powers and put its own house in order, both financially and theologically. Though the times were desperate, Gregory nourished a church that would prove able to meet the challenges of the coming centuries.
But what if Gregory had refused the papacy? In all likelihood, no other candidate of strength and ability could have been found. (Gregory’s immediate successors were not distinguished.) The Lombards might have conquered the whole of Italy and suppressed much that was Catholic. The human suffering that Gregory was able to alleviate would have been far worse. Certainly, the evangelization of England and the rest of Europe would have been postponed, perhaps by centuries.
The church in the West would also have been gravely disabled. Most likely, its bishops would have continued being subordinate to the emperor, as remained common practice in the East. A great deal of the vitality of the church in Europe during the Middle Ages was due to the independence from state control that it enjoyed as a result of Gregory’s bold actions. And his commitment to monastic life helped to make it a powerful influence—try to imagine a Europe without monasteries, monks, friars, and nuns.
In times of crisis, providence often places unlikely men and women in critical positions. Sometimes they are individuals of no particular talent or strength who nonetheless allow the power of God to work through them. At other times, they are very talented individuals who choose to take up the cross of Christ. Gregory was one of these.
Little surprise that, upon his death, the people of Rome immediately acclaimed Gregory for his holiness and his legacy to the church. As at another papal funeral not so long ago, they rose up and spontaneously acclaimed him "Great."
Robert Kennedy teaches at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.