12 March 2013

With the Saints in Lent (28): Saint Gregory the Great, 12 March

Saint Gregory the Great ... his papacy marks the recovery of the Latin Church

Patrick Comerford

Only two Popes, Leo I and Gregory I, have been given the popular title of “the Great.” Both served in the difficult times of the Barbarian invasions of Italy.

Today [12 March], in many Church Calendars, we remember the life of Saint Gregory the Great (ca 540-604), who was Pope from 3 September 590 until he died in 604.

Saint Gregory is a Doctor of the Church and one of the Latin Fathers. He is revered as a saint in many parts of the Church, including among the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and some Lutheran churches.

His lifestory bridges the gap between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the end of the dark ages, between the Patristic period and the mediaeval church. His great concerns included reform and innovation in monasticism, pastoral care, ecclesial structures, liturgy and church music.

Saint Gregory was born into a patrician family about 540, and became Prefect of Rome in 573. Shortly afterwards he retired to a monastic life in a community he founded in his ancestral home on the Coelian Hill.

Pope Pelagius II appointed him as his apocrisiarius or Ambassador to Constantinople in 579. Not long after his return home, Pope Pelagius died of the plague, and in 590 Gregory was elected as his successor. He was the first of the popes to come from monastic background, and his life was a true witness to the title he assumed for his office: “Servant of the servants of God.”
Saint Gregory’s pontificate was one of strenuous activity. He organised the defence of Rome against the attacks of the Lombards, and fed the people from papal granaries in Sicily. He administered “the patrimony of Saint Peter” with energy and efficiency.

Following the Barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome, the recovery of the Latin Church only truly begins with the papacy of Gregory I. His ordering of the Church’s liturgy and chant has moulded the spirituality of the Western Church until the present day. He is respected for his prolific writings, and for his exceptional efforts in revising the Roman liturgy of his day.

Saint Gregory (centre) among seven Fathers of the Church carved on the south side of Lichfield Cathedral (from left): Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Gregory the Great is credited with re-energising the Church’s missionary work in northern Europe. In 596, he sent Saint Augustine on a mission to England. Saint Augustine is counted as the first Archbishop of Canterbury, while the historian the Venerable Bede has called Gregory the Apostle of the English.

He promoted monasticism, made important changes in the liturgy and fostered the development of liturgical music. He gave the Roman Schola Cantorum its definite form. The mainstream form of Western plainchant, standardised in the late eighth century, was attributed to Pope Gregory I and so became known as Gregorian chant.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Gregory is credited with compiling the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts, which is celebrated on Wednesdays, Fridays, and certain other weekdays during Great Lent.

Saint Gregory the Great died on 12 March 604, and was buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Immediately after his death, he was canonised by popular acclaim. The current Roman Catholic calendar of saints, revised in 1969 after Vatican II, celebrates Saint Gregory the Great on 3 September. Before that, his feast day was on 12 March. However, the Eastern Orthodox Church continues to commemorate him on 12 March. The Church of England remembers him on 3 September, but the Episcopal Church in the United States still retains 12 March.

Saint Gregory is a Doctor of the Church and one of the Latin Fathers. He is well known for his writings, which were more prolific than those of any of his predecessors as pope. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition he is known as Saint Gregory the Dialogist because of his Dialogues. For this reason, English translations of Orthodox texts sometimes name him as Gregory Dialogus.

Throughout the Middle Ages, he was known as “the Father of Christian Worship” because of his exceptional efforts in revising the Roman worship of his day.

The Reformer John Calvin admired Gregory the Great and declared in his Institutes that Gregory was the last good Pope.

Some aphorisms and quotations attributed to Saint Gregory the Great::

Non Angli, sed angeli – “They are not Angles, but angels.” These words are said to have been spoken by Saint Gregory when he first encountered pale-skinned English boys being sold in the slave market in Rome. The Venerable Bede says this also inspired his decision to send Saint Augustine of Canterbury to England.

Ecce locusta – “Look at the locust.” Saint Gregory wanted to go to England as a missionary and started. After setting out, his group stopped on the fourth day to eat lunch. A locust landed on the edge of the Bible he was reading and he exclaimed: “Ecce locusta, look at the locust.” However, reflecting on it he saw it as a sign, as loco sta means “stay in place.” Within the hour, an emissary from the Pope arrived to call him back to Rome.

“I beg that you will not take the present amiss. For anything, however trifling, which is offered from the prosperity of Saint Peter should be regarded as a great blessing, seeing that he will have power both to bestow on you greater things, and to hold out to you eternal benefits with Almighty God.”

Pro cuius amore in eius eloquio nec mihi parco – “For the love of whom (God) I do not spare myself from His Word.” The sense is that since the creator of the human race and redeemer of him unworthy gave him the power of the tongue so that he could witness, what kind of a witness would he be if he did not use it but preferred to speak infirmly.”


Almighty and merciful God, you raised up Gregory of Rome to be a servant of the servants of God, and inspired him to send missionaries to preach the Gospel to the English people: Preserve in your Church the catholic and apostolic faith they taught, that your people, being fruitful in every good work, may receive the crown of glory that never fades away; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


I Chronicles 25: 1a, 6-8; Psalm 57: 6-11; Colossians 1: 28-2: 3; Mark 10: 42-45.

Tomorrow (13 March): Blessed Agnellus of Pisa.

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