Another man born in disastrous times who went on to be a pope is our subject today. Roman senator named Gordanius and a wealthy woman named Silvia were Gregory’s parents. Silvia’s great grandfather was Pope Felix III; her three aunts entered the convent; thus, the family home was very politically and religiously involved. The family lived on Caelian hill, in Rome, the previous site of many of the palaces of the old emperors. The family had several estates in both Sicily and Tuscany.
In 542, Justinian’s plague ("the Black Plague")came to Italy, decimating the country with famine and panic and killing one third of the population. Justinian’s army fought the Goths in the north. Then Totila, leader of the Goths sacked Rome in 546. Most of the Romans had left Rome previous to that, including Gregory’s family, who probably flew to their estates in Sicily. The war was over by 552 and the Frank invasion was defeated in 554. Rome was a ruined version of that mighty city when Gordanius and family returned. The central government of the empire was no longer there, or even, really in Ravenna, but in Constantinople.
Meanwhile, Gregory was becoming a young man. His education was superb and he ranked second to none in his studies. It appears that he was being trained to follow in his father’s footsteps in politics. And, for a time, he served as the prefect of Rome.
When his father died, about 574, Silvia took the veil and left Gregory the house. He turned it into a monastery dedicated to the Apostle, St. Andrew. He viewed being a monk as the “ardent quest for the vision of our Creator”. Other like-minded men joined him.
This was not to be his life. Within a few years, Pope Pelagius II ordained him a deacon. Then he asked for, probably, legal help in northern Italy, where the schism of the Three Chapters was continuing. Although Gregory could not solve that problem, Pelagius had another, more urgent one.
In 579, the pope assigned Gregory to be ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople as part of a Roman delegation to beg military aid against the Lombards. The Byzantine army was busy in military activity in Persia and could not help. Gregory was told to stay and keep at the emperor. He did not dare harangue the emperor, Maurice, too often for fear of being ousted from the royal presence altogether. So he played the social circuit looking for favors. He also got involved in a great theological dispute with Patriarch Eutychius on the palpability of the body after the general resurrection, ultimately presenting his case to the royal court, where he won. This led to a bitter taste for theological speculation in the East far into Gregory’s own papacy.
After five years, Pelagius wrote again to Gregory detailing the hardships that Rome was having with the Lombards and asking for a relief force from Maurice. The emperor was too busy, still, having added the Slavs and the Avars of the north to his list of enemies. He chose to limit his dealings with the Lombards to intrigue and diplomacy, bribing the Franks of Gaul to attack the Lombards. This, at least, slowed down the invaders for a time.
In 586, Gregory went back to his monastery where his friend, Augustine, was now prior. Within four years, Pelagius died in the second wave of the plague to hit Rome. Unwilling to lead, Gregory was elected by acclamation.
“Preaching of non-heretical Christianity and elimination of all deviations from it” was the key element of Gregory’s worldview. He developed and sent a mission to England, nominating, Augustine, to lead the way.
Being of a legal mind, Gregory became known for the administrative system of charitable relief for the poor of Rome. These people, many refugees from the Lombard incursions, were sick from the plague, or the famines which accompanied the plague or homeless from the destruction. Many of the rich had donated lands, in the hope of currying favor or grace. The Church, by now, owned 1300-1800 square miles of farmland within a short journey of Rome. Gregory arranged for the foods to be sent to Rome and given as alms monthly. He had indigent people eat with him. And he arranged a small army of monks to go out every morning with food for the homeless.
Constantinople looked on Gregory’s pacifist activity as a joke, but he won over the affections of many Lombards. And the people looked to the papacy as the government. This attitude lasted until the unification of Italy in the 1860s.
Gregory was a prolific writer of sermons, letters, rules, and commentaries, many of whom are extant.
No wonder they called him “The Great”!