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Catholic Heroes… Pope St. Gregory The Great

August 23, 2018 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

In 1994 a musical phenomenon took the world by storm. Nothing like it had ever been popular before, but this new recording became a hit around the world. People raved about the peace it brought them when they listened to it. The songs were sung by Benedictine monks from their monastery near Burgos, Spain.
Although Gregorian Chant may have been refined years later, the essence of this music originated with Pope Gregory I in the sixth century.
Gregory was born in 540 in Rome to a couple prominent not only in civil matters but also in Church affairs. His father, Gordianus served as a senator, as the prefect of Rome, and “Regionarius” in the Church.
Gregory’s mother, Silvia, also came from a wealthy and noble family. Gregory’s mother and two of his father’s sisters are venerated as saints. They lived in a villa on the Caelian Hill, opposite the residence of the emperor that now lies under the monastery church of St. Andrew and St. Gregory.
The family also had homes on Sicily, where Gregory received his early education since the Goths captured Rome in 546 and 552. The family had left Rome for Sicily.
Over the years, different invaders sacked Rome and destroyed the surrounding farmlands. The famine and the resulting plagues left a lasting impact on Gregory, leaving him with a melancholy nature as shown in his writings where he predicted a quick end to the world. Perhaps the ruins of the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus also contributed to his sadness.
Another cause may have been the Plague of Justinian. When it spread through Rome in 542, nearly one-third of the population died. The survivors were devastated both emotionally and spiritually.
When the Franks were repelled in 554, Romans finally experienced some peace. During those decades of pillage and destruction, Gregory excelled at his home studies as his parents made sure that his brilliant mind was well formed both spiritually and academically. Primarily he studied law; but he also mastered grammar, rhetoric, the sciences, literature, Latin, history, and mathematics — as well as music.
He finished his studies and, after serving the government, Gregory was appointed Prefect of Rome at the age of 33. Through this experience, Gregory learned the need for law, order, and respect for authority to have a peaceful society.
When Gordianus, his father, died, Gregory turned his ancestral home into a monastery dedicated to St. Andrew. After much prayer and discernment he decided to become a monk, leaving all his worldly recognition and riches behind.
Now a widow, his mother left Rome to live in a conventual retreat. Gregory then gave the rest of his properties to charity, going to Sicily to establish six monasteries in the various family properties there.
For three years he lived in seclusion at the St. Andrew monastery — years he called the happiest of his life. The penances and fasting he practiced most likely led to the gastric troubles from which he suffered for the rest of his life.
Much to Gregory’s disappointment, Pope Pelagius II selected him to be one of the seven deacons of Rome. Once again he would live outside the walls of isolation.
With the Lombards marching on Rome, Pope Pelagius sent Gregory to Constantinople to seek the help of Emperor Tiberius II. Gregory avoided the court as much as possible, spending his time in seclusion and prayer. While there, he wrote his commentaries on the Book of Job, requested by St. Leander of Seville.
A controversy between Gregory and Eutychius, the patriarch of Constantinople, escalated to the point where the emperor intervened and sided with Gregory. The animosity was so extreme that both Gregory and Eutychius became ill. Eutychius never recovered, recanting his error on his deathbed.
Because Tiberius had to hold off the Persians, the mission failed and Gregory returned to Rome. Joyfully he went back to St. Andrew’s monastery and was elected abbot.
His leadership and example drew many, leading the monastery to become widely known for producing many holy men and Church leaders. Gregory lectured on Sacred Scripture and most likely during this sojourn he saw the fair youths from England at the slave market. The future Pope then sought ways to convert the Angles and received Pope Pelagius’ permission to go to the boys’ native land to do so.
Three days into his journey to England, he was recalled to Rome and then assigned the task of bringing the schismatic Three Chapters back into union with Rome, which also failed.
In 589, the Tiber flooded Rome and destroyed all the stored food. Famine and starvation ravaged the city, leaving most of the people dead.
In 590 Pope Pelagius died and the clergy quickly elected Gregory to become Pope. Gregory refused the appointment, writing to Emperor Maurice and begging him not to confirm the appointment. The letter was blocked by the emperor’s assistant and instead a schedule of the installation was sent back to Rome.
With the famine still raging in Rome, Gregory called for a procession from each of the Seven Hills of Rome to meet at the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary to pray for an end to the plague. Their prayers were answered and legend holds that people saw St. Michael put away his sword, marking the end of the plague. He also ordered many of the Church assets to be sold to feed the poor, vowing that he would not eat until they first had been fed.
In August 590, word finally came to Rome confirming Gregory as Pope. While he contemplated fleeing Rome, the people seized him and took him to the Basilica of St. Peter where he was consecrated on September 3, 590, the day his feast is celebrated.
Gregory bore this appointment as one of his heaviest crosses. He wrote many letters explaining both his reluctance to fill the office as well as his praise for the monastic life.
The new Pope inherited a Church crippled by years of ineffective leadership. Unity in doctrine and spirituality was lacking. Many bishops acted autonomously. This was dealt with by sending missions to northern Europe and the British Isles. Then from England, missions were sent to the Netherlands and Germany. All of these missions preached the same truths.
Pope Gregory also instituted many reforms in the liturgy which are still used to this day, such as placing the Our Father after the Roman Canon. In addition, he instituted the use of Gregorian Chant in liturgical ceremonies.
Until Pope Gregory’s reign, the people looked to the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire for confirmation of Church appointments. Gregory ended this practice more by his example and excellent leadership as the people looked to the Pope in Rome for guidance.
In his last years Pope Gregory suffered greatly from arthritis. He died on March 12, 604 and is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Both Anglicans and Lutherans venerate Pope Gregory who also is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers; and he has been given the title Pope St. Gregory the Great for his lasting contributions.

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