A brief biographical account of Gregory the Great (c.540-604) by Rev. Brian DeJong
Perhaps the most important early pope was Gregory the Great. Gregory was born in 540 to a noble and wealthy Roman Christian family. In fact, Gregory’s great-great grandfather was Pope Felix III. Gregory’s mother Silvia was a pious woman and raised Gregory as a Christian.
Gregory was also an intelligent child, and was above average in his schoolwork. During this time Rome was repeatedly attacked by the barbarians. At age 5 Gregory saw Rome besieged by Totila, King of the Goths. Because of this turmoil, Gregory was called to civil leadership as an urban prefect.
After serving a short time in government, he resigned his post, used his wealth to found six monasteries and himself became a simple monk. To turn his back on wealth and power was dramatic, but Gregory sought a life of solitude and peace with God. He later said that those were the happiest days of his life. Gregory’s decision was based in part on his firm belief that the end of the world was near. He thought that judgment loomed, and that volcanoes were the gates of hell. While we must do what we can to relieve suffering here on earth, our main task is to prepare for heaven, he thought. Gregory was a model monk, fasting and praying and meditating.
Gregory also wanted to be a missionary, and almost succeeded in going to England. Supposedly he was reading on his way to England, and as he read, a locust landed on his open book. The word locusta sounded like loca sta “stay put”, so Gregory stopped his journey and waited. As he waited, messengers from the Pope overtook him and commanded him to return to Rome. Later, as Pope, Gregory would send Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the English.
Upon returning to Rome, Gregory was appointed an aid to the Pope. In this role he went to Constantinople as a Papal ambassador. During this time Gregory came to realize that Rome was on its own, and couldn’t expect help from the Eastern part of the Empire.
When the reigning pope died in 590, Gregory was unanimously chosen as successor. Among other things, Gregory was an able theologian and perhaps the greatest Christian preacher of his day. He worked to reform the morals of the church, and dealt strongly with heretics.
Yet Gregory always worked from the assumption that the Bishop of Rome had authority over all other churches and bishops. He defined and affirmed many Catholic doctrines, such as purgatory, the need for penance and good works, the saving power of the sacraments, and the practice of appropriating pagan festivals and practices and Christianizing them.
During his reign (590-604) the barbarians repeatedly sacked the city of Rome. The civil leaders were ineffective and Gregory actually wielded greater civil power than they – even appointing military governors. He also organized the distribution of food among the needy in Rome, oversaw the repair of aqueducts, and supervised the defenses of the city. He made the church into a temporal power to be reckoned with, not only in Rome but up into southern Europe.