Gregory was born in Rome, of noble and pious parents, his mother Silvia, being among the saints of the Church. In his ancestral home, on the Coelian Hill, he led a most austere life, and, after the death of his parents, joined the order of Saint Benedict, converting his house into a monastery. The church of Saint Gregory, in Rome, stands upon the site of the saint’s family mansion, and the chapel of Saint Silvia, connected with it, was erected by Gregory, in honor of his mother.
In the convent, the young novice practised perfectly all the exalted virtues of his station in life, and showed so strong a predilection for the religious state, that nothing but the call of obedience would ever have prevailed upon him to leave his beloved convent. Pope Pelagius II appointed the young monk to the position of deacon of Rome, and shortly after, sent him as nuncio to the imperial court of Constantinople.
While Gregory was still a novice, he was struck with the beauty of some boys who were exposed for sale in the Roman market-place, and was grieved to learn that they were pagans.
“Angels,” he said, “and of the province of Deira – worthy indeed to be angels; Deira, from the wrath of God must we rescue them.”
He never forgot the fair English slave boys, and, upon his return from Constantinople, solicited the permission of the pope, to go as a missionary to the distant island of Britain. Reluctantly, consent was granted, and Gregory started on his long journey. He had traveled some distance, when a messenger from the pope overtook him, with a command to return at once, to Rome. The reason for his unexpected recall was this; when the Roman people learned that their beloved Gregory had gone on so perilous a mission, they importuned the pope so earnestly, that the young missionary’s recall was the result.
Pope Pelagius died, soon after Gregory’s return to Rome, and the humble Benedictine monk was unanimously elected to fill the vacant see. He tried to escape the honor by flight, but a dove showed the place of his retreat, and Gregory was escorted in triumph to Rome, where the ceremonies of his installation took place.
The plague was raging in Rome, and the newly-elected pope made use of the fear and dread with which the inhabitants were filled, to remind them of their duty towards Almighty God, whose hand rested so heavily upon them. Gregory invited his flock to join in a sevenfold litany to be sung in the church of Saint Mary Major. All the people inarched in a great procession – the immense concourse chanting Kyrie Eleison. So virulent was the plague, that, in the course of a single hour, eighty persons in this procession dropped dead. A pretty legend states, that, while the people, on their way to church, were crossing the Tiber opposite the mausoleum of Hadrian, all in that great procession saw, with joyful astonishment, the angel of wrath on top of the mausoleum, sheathe his sword, as a sign that the plague was at an end. From that hour the name of the mausoleum was changed to the “Angel’s Castle,” (the Castle of Saint Angelo.)
After the disappearance of the pestilence, the anthem, Regina Coeli, was introduced into the service of the church, because the abatement of the scourge was considered to have been brought about through the intercession of the Blessed Mother of God.
Saint Gregory disliked exceedingly his election to the papacy, his desire having been to return to the peaceful seclusion of the cloister. In his letters, he expressed himself plainly on this subject. To the emperor’s sister he wrote: “I have lost the solid joys of retirement, and, whilst externally seeming to rise, I have fallen internally.” Gregory had not forgotten, in the midst of the cares of his new dignity, the design he had formed for the conversion of the English. The light of faith had, indeed, been kindled in Britain, in the fifth century, by Saint Germanus, but the subsequent invasion of the island by the pagan Saxons and Angles, had undone most of the good missionary’s work. In Gregory’s time all the inhabitants, with the exception of a very few, living in remote parts of the island, were pagans. Fortunately the reigning prince, Ethelbert, had married a Christian princess, Bertha, the daughter of the king of Paris. Queen Bertha was very pious, and she married Ethelbert only on condition that she should be allowed the free exercise of her religion.
Gregory chose, for the English mission, Saint Augustine, and several companions – all members of the Benedictine order. They landed on the Isle of Thanet, and Queen Bertha’s influence obtained for them an immediate interview with the king, who insisted that the proposed audience should be given in the open air, because he thought that any spell the missionaries might cast over him, would be less powerful out of doors, than in the house.
Saint Augustine and his companions approached the place where Ethelbert was awaiting them. They walked in procession, with all the solemn pomp of a religious ceremony. Before them were borne a silver cross, and a banner with the image of the Saviour. The king received them kindly, and they at once began to preach the truths of the gospel. Ethelbert listened attentively and when they had concluded said: “Your promises are fair, but I cannot abruptly relinquish the ancient belief of the Saxons; however, as you have taken so long and perilous a journey, to bring what you consider a better teaching to Britain, it is but just that we should treat you well.”
The king allowed the missionaries to establish themselves in Canterbury, where a little chapel had been erected for the use of Queen Bertha. Very soon the holy teaching and example of Saint Augustine and his fellow-monks won the king to the True Faith. His subjects began to follow his example, and on Christmas day 597, two thousand pagans were baptized.
Gregory’s heart was filled with joy and gratitude when he heard of the great success that had attended his missionaries in Britain. He wrote a letter of congratulation to Ethelbert and Bertha, and another to Saint Augustine, in which he described the joy that he felt over the conversion of Britain to the True Faith. This letter contained directions for the consecration of bishops for the different sees which Gregory wished to establish in various parts of the island. He advised Saint Augustine not to destroy the pagan temples, but only the images they contained, and ” to consecrate, wherever possible, the buildings to the worship of the True God.” He exhorted the holy missionary to be on his guard, lest the miracles which God had deigned to work through him, might cause some natural feeling of pride in his soul.
Saint Gregory, sent, at the request of Saint Augustine, a fresh company of monks to Britain, for the rapidly growing church was in need of more priests. These monks took with them many beautiful gifts sent by the pope to his newly-converted flock, consisting principally of valuable books – some of them remarkably beautiful. One Bible was written upon rose-colored leaves showing beautiful reflections in the light. Many of the books were bound in silver and set with precious stones. The library of Corpus Christi, at Cambridge, and the Bodleian, at Oxford, contain two ancient copies of the Gospels supposed to have been among the books which the pontiff sent to England in Saint Augustine’s time.
Gregory labored ceaselessly for the welfare of his flock, despite an illness which was of many years’ duration, and which caused him much suffering.
Many abuses had crept into the church in Gaul; these he remedied with infinite care and trouble. His charity to the poor and the sick, not only of Rome, but of distant places also, was constant and perfect. He sent bedding, clothes and money as far as Mount Sinai. An aged abbot of a monastery in Isauria, wrote to beg the pope to send him fifty solidi for the needs of his brethren; but, upon second thought considered that he had asked too much, and added a postcript to his letter, in which he stated that thirty solidi would suffice. To this Gregory answered: “Because I find you have acted towards me with such consideration, I must behave in the like spirit. I have, therefore, sent you the fifty solidi, and, for fear that might be too little, I have sent you ten more, and lest even that might not be sufficient, I have super-added twelve more. In this you have shown your love for me, that you have presumed to place the full confidence in me that you ought to have done.” To the numerous poor of Home, Gregory gave daily assistance in their necessities. Twelve indigent persons were invited to his table, every day, and there may still be seen in Rome a great stone, at which the holy pontiff is supposed to have served the persons whom poverty and charity had made his guests. A poor man was found dead in a lodging-house, presumably of want, and, though Gregory had not even been aware of his existence, he refrained from saying mass for several days, as though he, himself, had been in some way lacking in charity. Even the oppressed and despised Jews found a friend and benefactor in the saintly pontiff, who insisted that these un- fortunate people should not be injured, deprived of their synagogues, or prevented from holding their religious festivals. “Those who are not Christians,” he said, “must be won to the True Faith, by mildness and kindness, by admonition and persuasion.”
Saint Gregory expended much time on the liturgy of the Church, which he re-arranged with order and precision, condensing in one book the mass- prayers which had hitherto been scattered through several volumes. This collection of prayers, called the sacramentary, is the ground-work of the Roman Missal used in our churches at the present time. The music, used in the service of the Church, also claimed Saint Gregory’s attention. The Gregorian chant, so much favored by the Holy Father Pius X, was composed with much care and labor by Gregory, who founded, in Rome, a school of singers, to teach and perpetuate this style of music. He endowed this school with lands, and erected two buildings for its use – one connected with the Basilica of Saint Peter, the other with the Lateran Palace, where he used to instruct his boys, reclining on a couch, when his infirmity would not permit him to sit up.
The affairs of his beloved monks were the object of much solicitude to Gregory, who made many wise laws relative to the government of monasteries. He never ceased to regret that he had not been allowed to spend his life in the cloister. In a letter he wrote: “I sailed with a favorable wind when I led a quiet life in my monastery. But stormy gales have arisen since and hurried me along with them.”
During the invasion of Italy by the Lombards, many nuns were forced to take refuge in Rome, some of them but poorly provided with the necessities of life. Gregory hastened, with his accustomed energy, to render them all the assistance in his power. To the emperor’s sister, who had sent an alms for the poor, Gregory wrote: “With half the money, I have arranged for the purchase of bed-clothes for the nuns, because, from the want of sufficient bed-coverings, they suffer much from the cold of winter here.” The nuns mentioned in this letter evidently had come from some warmer part of Italy.
Saint Gregory, who had been, for many years, a victim of ill-health, began, in the year 603, to suffer so much from his increasing infirmity that he said to a friend; ” My one consolation is the hope of the speedy approach of death. Pray for me, lest I give way to impatience through my sufferings, and lest the sins which might be pardoned me on account of my pains, be increased by my complainings.”
Charitable and solicitous for the welfare of others to the last, he could beg Marinianus of Ravenna, to take care of his health, and very shortly before his death, he wrote to Venantius of Perugia that he had heard that “our brother and fellow-bishop Ecclesius is suffering from the cold, not having suitable clothing.” Because of the unusual cold, Gregory begged Venantius to forward to Ecclesius, without delay, the thick woolen garment, which he sent by the bearer of his letter.
This act of charity and forgetfulness of self was the last of the innumerable ones that had filled the life of the holy pontiff. He died, March 12, 604, mourned by the entire civilized world.
Saint Gregory’s remains were first interred in the portico of Saint Peter’s, where they rested until the pontificate of Gregory IV. This pontiff consid- ered that the great saint should be buried more honorably, and caused his body to be removed to an oratory which had been built and adorned es- pecially to receive it.
In the present Basilica of Saint Peter, the saint’s bones rest beneath the altar of Saint Andrew.
Saint Gregory has left numerous writings, sermons on the Gospels, instructions to priests, and many theological works, in which are displayed the author’s learning, piety and sound judgment. The holy pontiff was a model of all the virtues, joined to prudence and wisdom. It has been said of him that he combined the gentleness of the dove with the wisdom of the serpent. Perhaps his most conspicuous virtue was humility, which he practised in a perfect manner all his life. He was accustomed to refer to himself as the “servant of all bishops.”
A few fragments of Saint Gregory’s epitaph, are still extant.
Earth, take that body which at first you gave
Till God again shall raise it from the grave,
His soul amid the stars finds heavenly day
In vain the gates of darkness make essay,
On him, whose death but leads to life the way,
To the dark tomb, this prelate though decreed
Lives in all places by his pious deed.
Before his bounteous hand, pale Hunger fled,
To warm the poor, he fleecy garments spread
And to secure their souls from Satan’s power
He taught by sacred precepts every hour,
Nor only taught, but first the example led
Lived o’er his rules and acted what he said.
To English Saxons Christian truth he taught,
And a believing flock to heaven he brought.
This was thy work and study, this thy care,
Offerings to thy Redeemer to prepare,
For these, to heavenly honors raised on high,
Where thy reward of labors ne’er shall die.