Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church

detail of a stained glass window of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, by Syrius Eberle, date unknown; parish church of Saint Benedict in Odelzhausen, Dachau, Bayern, Germany; photographed on 17 October 2015 by GFreihalter; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 605.

Courage, it has been said, is a necessary virtue in all the followers of Jesus Christ. The ancient faith is the religion of courage and of combat; and we find a happy illustration of this principle in the life of our great Saint.

Gregory was born at Rome of pious, wealthy, and noble parents, about the year 540. Gordian, his father, was a senator, but after the birth of the Saint, he bade adieu to the world, and died one of the seven cardinal deacons of the Eternal City. His mother, Sylvia, also consecrated herself to heaven in the religious state.

Gregory went through a long and brilliant course of studies. Shortly after reaching manhood he was appointed chief magistrate of Rome by the Emperor Justin the Younger. The death of his father left him master of an immense fortune, with which he built six monasteries, and transformed his own stately residence into a seventh. He himself took the monastic habit in 575.

In this retirement Gregory became so wholly absorbed in prayer, fasting, and the study of the sacred sciences that he contracted a painful weakness of the stomach. He fell into swoons if he did not eat often. But what gave him the greatest sorrow was his inability to fast even on Easter Eve. He consulted a monk of eminent sanctity in relation to this affliction. Both prayed to heaven, and Gregory was happily cured.

While yet a simple monk this illustrious Saint projected the conversion of England. He happened one day to take a walk through the Roman market, and the sight of several young slaves exposed for sale attracted his attention. He was so struck with their fair forms and beautiful countenances that he stopped and made enquiries as to their country and religion. The slave- dealer informed him that they came from an island called Britain, and that they were heathens.

“What evil luck,” cried Gregory, heaving a deep sigh, “that the Prince of Darkness should possess beings with an aspect so radiant, and that the grace of those countenances should reflect a soul void of the inward grace! But of what nation are they?”

‘”They are Angles,” was the reply.

“Truly they are well named,” said the great-souled monk, “for these Angles have the faces of angels; and they must become the brethren of the angels in heaven. From what province have they been brought?”

“From Delra.”

“Still good,” he continued. “De ira eruti – they shall be snatched from the ire of God, and called to the mercy of Christ. And what is the name of the king of their country?”

“Alle.”

“So be it,” said Gregory; “he is right well named, for they shall soon sing the Alleluia in his kingdom”

He bought the captive youths and took them to the palace of his father – now his own monastery. “The purchase of these three or four slaves,” says Montalembert, “was thus the origin of the redemption of all England.”

From that hour Gregory formed the grand design of bringing over the Anglo-Saxons to the Catholic Church; and towards its completion he consecrated a persevering courage, devotion, and prudence which the greatest men have not surpassed. At first he sought and obtained permission from the Pope to go as a missionary to England; but when the news of his departure spread through Rome the populace overwhelmed the Sovereign Pontiff with reproaches.

“Holy Father,” they cried out, “what have you done? In allowing Gregory to go away you have injured Rome, you have undone us, and offended Saint Peter.”

The Pope reconsidered his action, and despatched messengers to recall Gregory. The Saint was overtaken on the third day, and obliged, though with much reluctance, to return to the Eternal City.

Pope Pelagius II died at the beginning of a dreadful pestilence, and Gregory was unanimously chosen to succeed him in 590. He opposed his own election by every means in his power; and when he saw all his efforts fail he fled in disguise, and lay concealed in woods and caverns for three days. During this time the people of Rome prayed and fasted. A pillar of light pointed out our Saint’s wild abode. He was thus discovered, and no longer resisted the clear will of Heaven. He was consecrated on the 3d of September, in the midst of great acclamations.

Writing to one of his friends, the new Pontiff says: “I remember with tears that I have lost the calm harbor of my repose, and with many a sigh I look towards the firm land which I cannot reach. If you love me, assist me with your prayers.”

Sad and sombre was the state of the Church at that period. Plague and famine desolated Rome. The Eastern churches were wretchedly divided, and shattered by the Nestorians and other heretics worse than heathens. In the west of Europe, Spain was overrun by the Arian heresy, and England was buried in paganism But Gregory was a man of vast genius and unquailing courage. It was in the midst of such unhappy circumstances that he carried out the spiritual conquest of England.

In obedience to the command of the Vicar of Christ, Saint Augustine and his forty companions set out for the distant land of the Angles. When the travelers reached Lerins – that Mediterranean isle where, a century and a half before, Saint Patrick had prepared himself for the conversion of Ireland – they were frightened by the tales they heard in relation to the Anglo-Saxons. These people, it was told, were a nation of wild beasts and cannibals. The monks gathered around their leader and besought him to return to the Pope, with the request that they might be relieved from a journey so perilous and toilsome.

Augustine departed for Rome. He told all to Gregory, but that man of hardy, apostolic spirit would not listen to such demands. He seized his pen and wrote those timid “fishers of men” a letter that revived their drooping courage.

“It were better,” wrote the great Pope, “not to begin that good work at all than to give it up after having commenced it. . . . Forward, then, in God’s name! . . . The more you have to suffer, the brighter will your glory be in eternity, May the grace of the Almighty protect you and grant me to behold the fruit of your labors in the eternal country! If I cannot share your toil, I shall none the less rejoice in the harvest, for God knows that I lack not the good will.”

Augustine and his band of missionaries traversed France, crossed the Strait of Dover, and stepped ashore on the same spot where over six hundred and fifty years previously Julius Caesar had erected the Roman standard. The new conquerors, like Caesar, arrived under the ensigns of Rome; but it was of Rome the Eternal, not Rome the imperial. They came to restore the law of the Gospel which the fierce Saxon had drowned in blood. They came to imprint the immortal seal of the Catholic faith on the soil of England.

“The history of the Church,” says Bossuet, “contains nothing finer than the entrance of the holy monk Augustine into the kingdom of Kent with forty of his companions, who, preceded by the cross and the image of the great King, our Lord Jesus Christ, offered up their solemn prayers for the conversion of England.”

When the success of Augustine’s mission reached Gregory, it filled his great heart with joy inexpressible. He writes to the Patriarch of Alexandria:

“The bearer of your letters found me sick and leaves me sick. But God grants me gladness of heart to temper the bitterness of my bodily suffering. The flock of the Holy Church grows and multiplies. The spiritual harvests gather into the heavenly garners. . . . You announced to me the conversion of your heretics, the concord of your faithful people. … I make you a return in kind, because I know you will rejoice in my joy and that you have aided me with your prayers.

“Know, then, that the nation of the Angles, situated at the extremest angle of the world, had till now continued in idolatry, worshipping stocks and stones. God inspired me to send thither a monk of my monastery here to preach the Gospel to them. This monk, whom I caused to be ordained bishop by the French bishop has penetrated to this nation at the uttermost ends of the earth, and I have now received tidings of the happy success of his enterprise. He and his companions have wrought miracles that seem to come near to those of the Apostles themselves, and more than ten thousand English have been baptized by them at one time.”

This great Pope was the father of the poor. So as to spare them confusion in receiving alms, he relieved their necessities with much sweetness and amiability. He called the old men among them his fathers. He often entertained them at his own table. He kept by him an exact list of the Roman poor, and provided liberally for the wants of each. At the beginning of every month he distributed corn, wine, cheese, fish, beef, and other articles of food. He appointed officers in every street to attend to the daily wants of the needy sick, and before eating himself he always sent some delicacy from his table to the homes of poverty. On one occasion a beggar was found dead on the corner of some out-of-the-way street. The news struck Gregory to the heart with sorrow, and it is said that he abstained from celebrating Mass for several days, deeming himself guilty of negligence in not seeking the poor with more care and energy.

A lady of distinction, being troubled with scruples, wrote to our illustrious Doctor, saying that she could never be at ease till he would obtain from God by revelation an assurance that her sins were forgiven.

“You ask,” replied Gregory, “what is both difficult and unprofitable. It is difficult, because I am unworthy to receive any revelation. It is unprofitable, because an absolute assurance of your pardon does not suit your state till you can no longer weep for your sins. You ought always to fear and tremble for them, and wash them away by daily tears. Paul was taken up to the third heaven, yet trembled lest he became a reprobate. Security is the mother of negligence.”

He was a man of unceasing toil and activity. It is truly incredible how much he wrote, and, during the fifteen years that he governed the Church, what great things he achieved for the glory of God, the good of the faith, the reformation of manners, the relief of the poor, the comfort of the afflicted, the establishment of ecclesiastical discipline, and the progress of piety and religion. But our astonishment redoubles when we remember that during all this time his life was a daily battle with bad health.

It was this illustrious Pontiff who ordered that blessed ashes should be placed on the heads of the faithful at the beginning of Lent. He instituted processions on the Feast of the Purification of the Most Blessed Virgin, and the recitation of the Litany of the Saints on the feast of Saint Mark, on account of the growing virulence of the plague which had carried off his august predecessor,

The disease always ended in a fit of sneezing or of yawning, and the Pope ordered that “God bless you” should be said to those who sneezed, and that the sign of the cross should be made on the lips of those who yawned. It was at the end of this dreadful plague that the antiphon Regina coeli loetare was introduced into the chants of the Church.

Our great Saint was the first who used the phrase, to speak ex cathedra. He was also the first who ordered that pontifical bulls or diplomas should be dated from the incarnation of our Divine Redeemer. Through a sentiment of humble modesty – ever the companion of real greatness – he styled himself in all his letters “servant of the servants of God.” The custom over twelve centuries has consecrated this beautiful title. It is used in our own day by Leo XIII.

Extraordinary men commissioned by Heaven to begin works which are to be truly great and enduring seldom live to old age. Gregory the Great, whose pontificate had left a bright and lasting impression on the memory of Christendom and a peerless example in the annals of the Church, filled the chair of Saint Peter only fifteen years. He died on 12th of March in the year 605.

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 15 November 2018. <>