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March 12, 2013

When St. Gregory the Great Was Elected Pope

Saint Gregory, surnamed "Dialogos" and "the Great", was born in Rome to noble and wealthy parents about the year 540. While the Saint was still young, his father died. However, his mother, Sylvia, saw to it that her child received a good education in both secular and spiritual learning. He became Prefect of Rome and sought to please God even while in the world; later, he took up the monastic life; afterwards he was appointed Archdeacon of Rome, then, in 579, apocrisiarius (representative or Papal legate) to Constantinople, where he lived for nearly seven years. He returned to Rome in 585 and was elected Pope in 590. He is renowned especially for his writings and great almsgiving, and also because, on his initiative, missionary work began among the Anglo-Saxon people. It is also from him that Gregorian Chant takes its name; the chanting he had heard at Constantinople had deeply impressed him, and he imported many elements of it into the ecclesiastical chant of Rome. He served as Bishop of that city from 590 to 604 and is celebrated annually on March 12th.

By Rev. James Barmby

Pope Pelagius died on the 8th of February, 590. The people of Rome, as has been already intimated, were at this time in the utmost straits. Italy lay prostrate and miserable under the Lombard invasion; the invaders now threatened Rome itself, and its inhabitants trembled; famine and pestilence within the city produced a climax of distress; an overflow of the Tiber at the time aggravated the general alarm and misery; Gregory himself, in one of his letters, compares Rome at this time to an old and shattered ship, letting in the waves on all sides, tossed by a daily storm, its planks rotten and sounding of wreck. In this state of things all men's thoughts at once turned to Gregory.

The pope was at this period the virtual ruler of Rome, and the greatest power in Italy; and they must have Gregory as their pope; for, if anyone could save them, it was he. His abilities in public affairs had been proved; all Rome knew his character and attainments; he had now the further reputation of eminent saintliness.

He was evidently the one man for the post; and accordingly he was unanimously elected by clergy, senate, and people. But he shrank from the proffered dignity. There was one way by which he might possibly escape it. No election of a pope could at this time take effect without the emperor's confirmation, and an embassy had to be sent to Constantinople to obtain it. Gregory therefore sent at the same time a letter to the emperor (Mauricius, who had succeeded Tiberius in 582), imploring him to withhold his confirmation; but it was intercepted by the prefect of the city, and another from the clergy, senate, and people sent in its place, entreating approval of their choice.

During the interval that occurred, Gregory was active in his own way at Rome. He preached to the people, calling them to repentance; he also instituted what is known as the "Septiform Litany", to be chanted in procession through the streets of the city by seven companies of priests, of laymen, of monks, of virgins, of matrons, of widows, and of poor people and children, who, starting from different churches, were to meet for common supplication in the church of the Blessed Virgin. In it the words occur, peculiarly interesting to us as having been afterwards sung by his emissaries Augustin and his monks, as they marched into Canterbury at the commencement of their mission in this country: "We beseech thee, O Lord, in all thy mercy, that thy wrath and thine anger may be removed from this city, and from thy holy house. Allelujah." It was at the close of one of these processions that the incident is said to have occurred from which the Castle of St. Angelo has derived its name; the story being that Gregory saw on its site, above the monument of Hadrian, an angel sheathing his sword, as a token that the plague was stayed.

At length the imperial confirmation of his election arrived. He still refused; fled from the city in disguise, eluding the guards set to watch the gates, and hid himself in a forest cave. Pursued and discovered by means, it is said, of a supernatural light, he was brought back in triumph, conducted to the church of St. Peter, and at once ordained on the 3rd of September, 590.

Flight to avoid the proffered dignity of the episcopate was not uncommon in those days, and might often be mere affectation, or compliance with the most approved custom. A law of the Emperor Leo (469), directed against canvassing for bishoprics, had even laid down as a rule, that no one ought to be ordained except greatly against his will; "he ought to be sought out, to be forced, when asked he should recede, when invited he should fly; for no one is worthy of the priesthood unless ordained against his will."

But there is no reason to doubt that Gregory felt a real reluctance, though he may have been partly actuated by the received view of what was proper in such a case, and though it may be suggested that he could hardly have thought seriously that flight from the city would in the end avail. Throughout his life he gives us the impression of a sincere man; he often afterwards recurs with regret to the peace of his convent; and it would be very unfair to him to question his sincerity, when he gives as his reason for refusal the fear lest "the worldly glory which he had cast away might creep on him under the colour of ecclesiastical government."

Five letters remain, written by him soon after his accession, in which he expresses his feelings on the occasion. They are addressed to John, patriarch of Constantinople, to Anastasius of Antioch, to Paulus Scholasticus in Sicily, to his closest friend Leander of Seville, and to Theoctista, the emperor's sister. To the last, whose acquaintance he had doubtless made at Constantinople, and with whom, as being a pious lady of rank, it was according to his habit to keep up correspondence, he wrote as follows:

"Under the color of the episcopate I have been brought back into the world; I am enslaved to greater earthly cares than I ever remember to have been subjected to as a layman. For I have lost the joys of my rest, and seem to have risen outwardly, while inwardly I have fallen. I lament that I am driven far away from my Maker's face. For I used to strive to live daily outside the world, outside the flesh; to drive from the eyes of the mind all phantasms of the body, and incorporeally to see supernal joys. Desiring nothing in this world, fearing nothing, I seemed to be standing on an eminence above the world, so that I almost thought the promise fulfilled in me, 'I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth'. But suddenly driven from this eminence by the whirl­wind of this temptation, I have fallen into fears and tremblings, since, though I fear nothing for myself, I am greatly afraid for those who have been committed to me. On all sides am I tossed by the waves of business, and pressed down by storms, so that I can say with truth, 'I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me'. I loved the beauty of the contemplative life, as a Rachel, barren, but beautiful and of clear vision, which, though on account of its quietness it is less productive, yet has a finer perception of the light. But, by what judgment I know not, Leah has been brought to me in the night, to wit the active life, fertile, but 'tender-eyed'; seeing less, though bringing forth more."

He concludes, with a touch of humour, such as often enlivens even his most serious letters, "Lo, my most serene lord the emperor has ordered an ape to be made a lion. And, indeed, in virtue of this order, a lion can the ape be called, but made one he cannot be. Wherefore my pious lord must needs lay the charge of all my faults and shortcomings not on me, but on himself, who has committed to one so weak an office of such excellence." His treatise also on "The Pastoral Care", written, as will appear in our review of his writings, with the immediate object of excusing his reluctance to accept the popedom, shows evidently how a peculiarly deep sense of the responsi­bility of the episcopal office, and of risk to the souls of its bearers, had actuated him in his refusal.

Having been once placed in the high position he so little coveted, he rose to it at once, and fulfilled its multifarious duties with remarkable zeal and ability. His comprehensive policy, and his grasp of great issues, are not more remarkable than the minuteness of the details, in secular as well as religious matters, to which he was able to give his personal care. And this is the more striking in combination with the fact that, as many parts of his writings show, he remained all the time a monk at heart, thoroughly imbued with both the ascetic principles and the narrow credulity of contemporary monasticism. His private life, too, was still in a measure monastic: the monastic simplicity of his episcopal attire is noticed by his biographer; he lived with his clergy under strict rule, and in 595 issued a synodal decree substituting clergy for the boys and secular persons who had formerly waited on the pope in his chamber.

Source: From the book Gregory the Great (1879).