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“Whatever may be thought of the popes of earlier times,” says a certain writer, “they always had great interests in view: the care of oppressed religion, the conflict with heathenism, the spread of Christianity among the northern nations, the founding of an independent hierarchy. It belongs to the dignity of human existence to aim at and to execute something great; this tendency the popes kept in upward motion.”

This commendation of the earlier popes, though by no means applicable to all, is eminently true of the one who stands at the beginning of our period. 

GREGORY THE FIRST, or THE GREAT, the last of the Latin fathers and the first of the popes, connects the ancient with the mediaeval church, the Graeco-Roman with the Roman-Germanic type of Christianity. He is one of the best representatives of mediaeval Catholicism: monastic, ascetic, devout and superstitious; hierarchical, haughty, and ambitious, yet humble before God; indifferent, if not hostile, to classical and secular culture, but friendly to sacred and ecclesiastical learning; just, humane, and liberal to ostentation; full of missionary zeal in the interest of Christianity and the Roman see, which to his mind were inseparably connected. He combined great executive ability with untiring industry, and amid all his official cares he never forgot the claims of personal piety. In genius he was surpassed by Leo I, Gregory VII, Innocent III; but as a man and as a Christian he ranks with the purest and most useful of the popes. Goodness is the highest kind of greatness, and the church has done right in according the title of the Great to him rather than to other popes of superior intellectual power. 

The times of his pontificate, (A.D. Sept. 3, 590 to March 12, 604) were full of trouble, and required just a man, of his training and character. Italy, from a Gothic kingdom, had become a province of the Byzantine empire, but was exhausted by war and overrun by the savage Lombards, who were still heathen or Arian heretics, and burned churches, slew ecclesiastics, robbed monasteries, violated nuns, reduced cultivated fields into a wilderness. Rome was constantly exposed to plunder, and wasted by pestilence and famine. All Europe was in a chaotic state, and bordering on anarchy. Serious men, and Gregory himself, thought that the end of the world was near at hand. “What is it,” says he in one of his sermons, “that can at this time delight us in this world? Everywhere we see tribulation, everywhere we hear lamentation. The cities are destroyed, the castles torn down, the fields laid waste, the land made desolate. Villages are empty, few inhabitants remain in the cities, and even these poor remnants of humanity are daily cut down. The scourge of celestial justice does not cease, because no repentance takes place under the scourge. We see how some are carried into captivity, others mutilated, others slain. What is it, brethren, that can make us contented with this life? If we love such a world, we love not our joys, but-our wounds. We see what has become of her who was once the mistress of the world. . . . . Let us then heartily despise the present world and imitate the works of the pious as well as we can.” 

Gregory was born about A.D. 540, from an old and wealthy senatorial (the Anician) family of Rome, and educated for the service of the government. He became acquainted with Latin literature, studied Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, but was ignorant of Greek. His mother Sylvia, after the death of Gordianus, her husband, entered a convent, and so excelled in sanctity that she was canonized. The Greek emperor Justin appointed him to the highest civil office in Rome, that of imperial prefect (574). But soon afterwards he broke-with the world, changed the palace of his father near Rome into a convent in honor of St. Andrew, and became himself a monk in it, afterwards abbot. He founded besides six convents in Sicily, and bestowed his remaining wealth on the poor. He lived in the strictest abstinence, and undermined his health by ascetic excesses. Nevertheless he looked back upon this time as the happiest of his life. 

Pope Pelagius II made him one of the seven deacons of the Roman Church, and sent him as ambassador or nuntius to the court of Constantinople (579). His political training and executive ability fitted him eminently for this post. He returned in 585, and was appointed abbot of his convent, but employed also for important public business. 

It was during his monastic period (either before or, more probably, after his return from Constantinople) that his missionary zeal was kindled, by an incident on the slave market, in behalf of the Anglo-Saxons. The result (as recorded in a previous chapter) was the. conversion of England and the extension of the jurisdiction of the Roman see, during his pontificate. This is the greatest event of that age, and the brightest jewel in his crown. Like a Christian Caesar, he re-conquered that fair island by an army of thirty monks, marching under the sign of the cross. 

In 590 Gregory was elected pope by the unanimous voice of the clergy, the senate, and the people, notwithstanding his strong remonstrance, and confirmed by his temporal sovereign, the Byzantine emperor Mauritius, Monasticism, for the first time, ascended the papal throne. Hereafter till his death, he devoted all his energies to the interests of the holy see and the eternal city, in the firm consciousness of being the successor of St. Peter and the vicar of Christ. He continued the austere simplicity of monastic life, surrounded himself with monks, made them bishops and legated, confirmed the rule of St. Benedict at a council of Rome, guaranteed the liberty and property of convents, and by his example and influence rendered signal services to the monastic order. He was unbounded in his charities to the poor. Three thousand virgins, impoverished nobles and matrons received without a blush alms from his hands. He sent food from his table to the hungry before he sat down for his frugal meal. He interposed continually in favor of injured widows and orphans. He redeemed slaves and captives, and sanctioned the sale of consecrated vessels for objects of charity. 

Gregory began his administration with a public act of humiliation on account of the plague which had cost the life of his predecessor. Seven processions traversed the streets for three days with prayers and hymns; but the plague continued to ravage, and demanded eighty victims during the procession. The later legend made it the means of staying the calamity, in consequence of the appearance of the archangel Michael putting back the drawn sword into its sheath over the Mausoleum of Hadrian, since called the Castle of St. Angelo, and adorned by the Statue of an angel. 

His activity as pontiff was incessant, and is the more astonishing as he was in delicate health and often confined to bed. “For a long time,” he wrote to a friend in 601, “I have been unable to rise from my bed. I am tormented by the pains of gout; a kind of fire seems to pervade my whole body: to live is pain; and I look forward to death as the only remedy.” In another letter he says: “I am daily dying, but never die.” 

Nothing seemed too great, nothing too little for his personal care. He organized and completed the ritual of the church, gave it greater magnificence, improved the canon of the mass and the music by a new mode of chanting called after him. He preached often and effectively, deriving lessons of humility and piety from the calamities of the times, which appeared to him harbingers of the judgment-day. He protected the city of Rome against the savage and heretical Lombards. He administered the papal patrimony, which embraced large estates in the neighborhood of Rome, in Calabria, Sardinin, Corsica, Sicily, Dalmatia, and even in Gaul and Africa. He encouraged and advised missionaries. As patriarch of the West, he extended his paternal care over the churches in Italy, Gaul, Spain, and Britain, and sent the pallium to some metropolitans, yet without claiming any legal jurisdiction. He appointed, he also reproved and deposed bishops for neglect of duty or crime. He resolutely opposed the prevalent practice of simony, and forbade the clergy to exact or accept fees for their services. He corresponded, in the interest of the church, with nobles, kings and queens in the West, with emperors and patriarchs in the East. He hailed the return of the Gothic kingdom of Spain under Reccared from the Arian heresy to the Catholic faith, which was publicly proclaimed by the Council of Toledo, May 8, 589. He wrote to the king a letter of congratulation, and exhorted him to humility, chastity, and mercy. The detested Lombards likewise cast off Arianism towards the close of his life, in consequence partly of his influence over Queen Theodelinda, a Bavarian princess, who had been reared in the Trinitarian faith. He endeavored to suppress the remnants of the Donatist schism in Africa. Uncompromising against Christian heretics and schismatics, he was a step in advance of his age in liberality towards the Jews. He censured the bishop of Terracins and the bishop of Cagliari for unjustly depriving them of their synagogues; he condemned the forcible baptism of Jews in Gaul, and declared conviction by preaching the only legitimate means of conversion; he did not scruple, however, to try the dishonest method of bribery, and he inconsistently denied the Jews the right of building new synagogues and possessing Christian slaves. He made efforts, though in vain, to check the slave-trade, which was chiefly in the hands of Jews. 

After his death, the public distress, which he had labored to alleviate, culminated in a general famine, and the ungrateful populace of Rome was on the point of destroying his library, when the archdeacon Peter stayed their fury by asserting that he had seen the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovering above Gregory’s head as he wrote his books. Hence he is represented with a dove. He was buried in St. Peter’s under the altar of St. Andrew. 

Bishop Bossuet thus tersely sums up the public life of Gregory: “This great pope . . . subdued the Lombards; saved Rome and Italy, though the emperors could give him no assistance; repressed the new-born pride of the patriarchs of Constantinople; enlightened the whole church by his doctrine; governed the East and the West with as much vigor as humility; and gave to the world a perfect model of ecclesiastical government.” 

To this Count Montalembert (likewise a Roman Catholic) adds: “It was the Benedictine order which gave to the church him whom no one would have hesitated to call the greatest of the popes, had not the same order, five centuries later, produced St. Gregory VIII. He is truly Gregory the Great, because he issued irreproachable from numberless and boundless difficulties; because he gave as a foundation to the increasing grandeur of the Holy See, the renown of his virtue, the candor of his innocence, the humble and inexhaustible tenderness of his heart.’ 

“The pontificate of Gregory the Great,” says Gibbon, “which lasted thirteen years, six months, and ten days, is one of the most edifying periods of the history of the church. His virtues, and even his faults, a singular mixture of simplicity and cunning, of pride and humility, or sense and superstition, were happily suited to his station and to the temper of the times.”