Monday, September 03, 2007

Pope Saint Gregory the Great

Only thirty-three years after the death of St. Benedict, and almost exactly one century after the date of his birth, the Monastery of Monte Cassino was razed by the invading Lombards. According to tradition the resident monks fled to Rome and found refuge near the Lateran Basilica. Very possibly it was there that the future pope was first introduced to the Rule of St. Benedict.

Gregory I, pope from 590 to 604 and the last of the Latin Fathers of the Western Church, was born the scion of the patrician gens Anicia and the son of a Roman senator in 540. His family was devoutly Christian and had already produced two pontiffs. If further proof were needed as to their place in the Church, history could show that not only his own mother, Sylvia, but two of his father's sisters would eventually be canonized.

In 573, at the age of thirty-three, Gregory was appointed Praefectus Urbi (Prefect of the city of Rome), a position of considerable power, but resigned within a year to pursue monastic life. He founded with the help of his vast financial holdings seven monasteries, of which six were on family estates in Sicily. A seventh, which he placed under the patronage of St. Andrew and which he himself joined, was erected on the Clivus Scauri in Rome.

By 578 his reputation was such that Pope Benedict I appointed him one of the seven Regionarii (deacons) of Rome. In the following year he was dispatched by Pope Pelagius II as apocrisiarus (residential ambassador) to the Imperial court in Constantinople. The first of his monumental commentaries, MORALIA IN IOB was undertaken at this time. Initially intended as a series of conferences for monks, this reflection on the BOOK OF JOB would eventually grow to thirty-five volumes and was only completed many years later in Rome. The work begins with a discussion of the literal meaning of scripture, and then veers into allegorical and mystical interpretations. The author then presents the moral applications of these interpretations. MORALIA IN IOB, as intended by its author, would contemplate the totality of Christian doctrine and prove to be Gregory's longest work.

Upon his eventual return to Rome Gregory served as Abbot of St. Andrew's for about five years. However, in 590 his life was once again disrupted when Pelagius II died and he was unanimously chosen as his successor. With great reluctance he accepted, and was consecrated on September 3rd of that same year.

At the time he ascended to the papal throne, the Western world was in turmoil. The once-powerful empire had crumpled to its knees before the onslaught of the new barbaric kingdoms of Europe, who in turn were wrestling each other for the the remains. Italy was being ravaged by the Lombards, and confronted by this fury the Imperial Exarchate in Ravenna was helpless. Thus, since the temporal powers were unable to provide for the security of their citizens, the papacy, in the person of Gregory was forced to assume responsibility for the welfare of the people, a task not formerly under the jurisdiction of the Holy See. Using skills learned during his tenures as prefect and ambassador, he concluded an agreement in 598 between himself and the Lombard duke of Spoleto, thus halting the invasion and restoring some manner of peace and security to the country. He also reorganized the vast holdings of the Church, at the time extending from Tuscany to Sicily, into what was to become the Papal States. This badly needed unification and consolidation of the patrimony of St Peter further helped to stabilize Italian life by increasing the value of the Church's holdings and making it more responsive to the hungry and suffering.

His concern for the spiritual well-being of the Church, and the pastoral care he lavished upon it is shown in his work on behalf of stricter formation for priests and bishops, in his liturgical developments and reforms, and in his enthusiastic propagation and diffusion of monasticism, for which he is often called the co-founder of the Benedictine Order. A monk himself, the first to be elected pope, his Anglo-Saxon Mission under the leadership of St. Augustine of Canterbury, would eventually result in the conversion of England to Catholicism and the subsequent introduction of the Rule of St. Benedict. In turn, grateful monasteries would enthusiastically promote the teachings of their greatest patron.

Gregory's reputation as a Doctor of the Church rests on the insights he brought to his studies of spiritual life. His oeuvre encompasses massive correspondence (some 854 extant letters), the MORALIA IN IOB, his "Dialogues" on the lives of the saints of Italy, homilies, and the monumental LIBER REGULAE PASTORALIS. This book of pastoral rules covering apostolic work and the spiritual life was as important to the episcopacy as Benedict's Rule was to monasticism, and it's influence on the Church was to reign unchallenged until the advent of St. Thomas Aquinas many centuries later. In fact, in the field of moral theology he is often considered first of the Latin Fathers, and St. Thomas himself would cite him some 374 times in the 242 articles of the second part of SUMMA THEOLOGIAE. Gregory was also active in the liturgical reform of the Roman Rite, though admittedly the extent of his actual contributions to the Gregorian Sacramentary are still to be ascertained. However, his overall understanding of scripture had a profound influence on the intellectual and spiritual climate of the middle ages, and his reputation in the Church can be attested to by the critical attention paid his works even in our post-Vatican II era.

After his death in 604, on the 12th of March, Gregory was canonized by popular acclaim. He was subsequently named a Doctor of the Church and is one of only two pontiffs (the other being Pope St. Leo I) to be vested with the title GREAT.

To the popular mind he is perhaps best known for his role in the creation of the forms of musical worship that came to be known as Gregorian Chant.

Gregory originated the title which the Bishops of Rome throughout the centuries have adopted: Servus servorum Dei, "servant of the servants of God."

~From the Monastery of Christ in the Desert website

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