Gregory the Great was one of two Popes to be called “The Great”. This title was bestowed on him after his death in 604, honoring his many accomplishments. The other one was Pope Leo the Great. Gregory was the first monk to become a pope.
Born about the year 540 into a patrician family, as a young man Gregory held an administrative post in the city of Rome. After the death of his father, about 573, he forsook that way of life and founded a monastery in his family home in Rome, as well as six other monasteries in Sicily. That explains his place among our clerestory windows amidst other significant monas tic founders. (Point to the window, 2 nd from the end nearest the altar.) After he became Pope he included among his other writings an entire book about the life of Saint Benedict that did much to extend the popularity of monas ticism. Gregory could not have known Benedict personally, since Gregory was only 10 years old at the time of Benedict’s death, but his example and his Rule made a deep impression on Gregory’s formation as a monk. Much of what we know about Benedict has come from that book.
Gregory’s administrative abilities came to the attention of Pope Pelagius II, who called him out of the monastery and sent him to Constantinople as papal ambassador to the imperial court there. After six years in that post he was able to return to his monastery on the Coelian Hill in Rome more determined than ever to live as a monk. However, in 590 he was elected Pope, and once more had leave the monastery and return to the administrative life of the Church. From time to time in his sermons he would bewail the necessity of becoming as involved as he had to be in the affairs of the world as Bishop of Rome.
Gregory was not par ticularly noted as a theologian, nor was he an original thinker, but he had the ability to sift through the writings of others and pick out significant teachings and make use of them in his preaching and in his pastoral and administrative work. It was in this latter role that he shone. His management of the Church brought it out of chaos, and his recognition of the needs for evangelism and an ordered liturgy helped to spread the message of the Gospel throughout Western Europe, “to the ends of the earth” as he thought of it. We are par ticularly indebted to him for the reform of plainsong that he initiated, which we know as Gregorian chant, and which we use regularly here at our monastery.
Italy in the sixth century was an unhappy and troubled land. Brigands and war, frequent crop failures and famine, and recurrent outbreaks of bubonic plague were seen as signs that the end of the world was near. People were frightened. Gregory shared in this belief that the end was near, but he did not give in to fear. Instead, he saw himself as watchman, as the Prophet Ezekiel had written. Tomorrow’s O.T. lesson is an example of this (cf. esp. Ezek. 3 & 33). In this role he looked forward to the world’s end as a day of liberation. This theme of Watchman, or Sentinel, showed up in his preaching. He did all that he could to make sure that the Church was well-ordered and at peace with itself.
It was in his role as Watchman that Gregory put forth much effort to encourage the spread of the Gospel. This included his sending a band of 40 monks to England to re-found the Church there, beginning at Canterbury. You are probably familiar with the story of Gregory observing some fair-haired young British slaves in a market square and asking who they might be. When he was told that they were “Angles”, he replied that they should be called “Angels”, because they had such angelic faces. The Venerable Bede chronicled Gregory’s personal interest in the English mission. Augustine, leader of the band of monks would write back to Gregory with various pastoral and prac tical questions. Gregory always replied with good, common sense answers, usually based on the Holy Scriptures. He counseled the use of humane flexibility when dealing with new problems. His concern for the English mission earned him the title “The Apostle of the English”.
Gregory was not interested in the titles that were being bestowed upon him. Reflecting the words of Jesus that we heard read in this morning’s Gospel, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,” (Mk 10:43b) Gregory preferred simply to be known as “Gregory, the servant of the servants of God.” Gregory set an example before us that we would all do well to try to follow.
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