Pope Gregory I was the bishop of Rome from 590 to 604. Though it is known that he was born in Rome, there are disputes about the exact year of his birth. However, most sources claim he was born in 540. His was an affluent Roman family with close connections with the church. His father was a Roman senator. Gregory became the prefect of Rome at the age of 33. In 590, he became the pope, thus becoming the first pope with a monastic background. His past experience as a prefect also made him an exceptional administrator. He was known as a strong pope, who convinced the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire into working toward public welfare. He was also known to put together the first recorded large-scale mission of Christian missionaries from Rome to England, known as the ‘Gregorian Mission,’ to spread the message of Christianity. He was also known as a great writer and was the first pope who was largely admired for his written words. He was later made a Doctor of the Church and one of the Latin Fathers. He is also a patron saint of musicians, students, singers, and teachers.
Childhood & Early Life
Pope Gregory I was born Gregorius Anicius, in Rome, the Eastern Roman Empire, to a reputed nobleman named Gordianus. His father was one of the most reputed men in the entire city of Rome and served as a senator and the prefect of the city. His father also served as the “regionarius” in the church. A “regionarius” was not actively involved in the matters of the Papal States but was a high-positioned person in the local Christian doctrine.
Gregory was born at a time when Italy was going through a troublesome period. In 542, the Plague of Justinian, a pandemic, was terrorizing a large chunk of the population of the empire. In many parts, about one-third of the total population had been swept away. Panic and riots were rampant in the society.
Justinian I was the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire back then, and the war for the throne was at its peak. After the war ended in 552, peace was restored in the empire.
Gregory observed the happenings around him as he grew up. Over the next few years, he transformed into a well-read and learned young man. He studied subjects such as mathematics, literature, science, and law. He was a great student and ardently learned everything to become a highly educated young man. He also groomed himself for a career in politics.
He quickly received promotions in the government, thus becoming the prefect of Rome, like his father once was. He held what was known as the highest civil office in Rome. At 33, he was remarkably young for his role but did a tremendous job for the welfare of his people.
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Even though Gregory was immersed in politics, he maintained his contacts with the church and devoted a lot of time to work for their causes. Following his father’s demise, he gave up his villa in Rome for the service of the church, turning it into a monastery. The monastery was ruined in the subsequent years, but it was renovated a few centuries ago and stands tall even today.
Gregory followed a monastic life and had taken the vow of poverty. He did not forgive thievery. When he came to know that a dying monk had stolen three gold coins, he ordered to let him die alone. After his death, Gregory ordered for the monk’s body to be thrown away. However, he had 30 Masses offered to assist the monk’s soul before the final judgement by God.
Many family members of Gregory had adopted sainthood, including his own mother. Observing his services to the church, Pope Pelagius II ordained him a deacon and sent him as the church’s messenger to meet the emperor sitting in Constantinople.
He did this mainly due to the rising danger from the Lombards from the west, who were invading the country. The pope trusted Gregory’s political skills and thus asked him to request the king to send armies to help them. However, the emperor denied his request, as he thought that the danger toward the east was far greater.
The pope passed away in 590, and Gregory was the best choice to replace him. Gregory was initially hesitant to accept the burden of being the pope, but he eventually accepted the offer.
Gregory stated in his writings that monastic life gave him the pleasure nothing else could. According to him, leading a monastic life was the most spiritual way to live. He also claimed he was a servant of God and often used the term “Servant of the Servants of the God” as a papal title.
One of the main things he did as the pope was to send his representatives on missions to spread the word of God. One of his targets was England, where Christianity was still in its early days back then. He sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to Kent, England, in 597. This was the period when Christianity spread largely in England, mostly due to Gregory’s efforts.
Pope Gregory was also known to make many revolutionary changes to the Mass. Some of the changes still remain, such as the position of “Our Father” or “Pater Noster,” which is still kept in the position where Gregory had placed it.
He greatly believed in the welfare of the poor. He appointed several deacons and gave them the duty of tending the poor. At least one deacon was assigned to every church and was also ordained to carry out the purpose.
He is also credited with the establishment of “cantus planus,” a style of singing popularly known as the “Gregorian chant.” The monophonic music has been closely associated with the medieval churches, and it is assumed that the style had started becoming popular since then. However, many sources credit Pope Gregory II for introducing the chant. Nevertheless, Gregory I’s background in music presents a strong claim in his favor.
He strictly ordered his clergy to engage in welfare work, and if any of them denied, they were replaced. Clergies were handsomely paid for their duties, as money was mostly acquired by liquidating the church’s assets.
He was also known as an exceptional writer. Some of his popular writings that survived the ravages of time are ‘Commentary on Job,’ ‘Liber Regulae pastoralis,’ and ‘Dialogues.’ He also wrote several sermons. It is estimated that he wrote about 850 letters during the last 13 years of his life.
During the final years of his papacy, a famine struck Rome. Following this, according to his orders, the church’s assets were sold to help the hungry and the needy. The church controlled a huge chunk of land, and the produce from those were sold in the markets to generate income. Gregory ordered all the produce from these lands to be distributed in Rome for free.
He was widely considered to be the first medieval pope. He was known to be instrumental in establishing the Papal States and in making people trust the rule of church more than the state or the emperor.
Death & Legacy
Pope Gregory I suffered from arthritis during the final years of his life. He passed away on March 12, 604. He was 64 years old at the time of his death. He was immediately honored with sainthood.
He is known as one of the Latin Fathers and a Doctor of the Church. He is also known among Christians as the patron saint of singers, musicians, teachers and students.