Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict – Saint Gregory the Great, Pope

illustration of Saint Gregory the Great, Pope, from the book 'Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict', designed by Father Amandus LiebhaberIt is the proud boast of the family of the Anicii that it has given to the world the two greatest luminaries of the Order of Saint Benedict, namely, Saint Benedict, the founder of the Order, and Saint Gregory the Great, who, next to Saint Benedict, was its chief benefactor. Of this illustrious family Saint Gregory was born in Rome about 540 A.D., his father being Gordianus and his mother Sylvia. The education he received was so thorough, and he applied himself with such diligence to his studies, that we are told that there was nobody at that time in Rome who surpassed him in learning. Consequently it is no wonder that we soon find him entrusted with various magistracies, and, after rapid promotion due to merit, finally appointed Prefect or Chief Magistrate of the City. All the dignity and splendour of this great office he soon gave up to become a monk. Before embracing the religious life, Gregory had spent his great wealth, partly on the relief of the poor, partly in founding monasteries. Six of these he established in Sicily, and the seventh, Saint Andrew’s, he erected in Rome on the Hill of Scaurus, having pulled down for this purpose his ancestral mansion. It was in this monastery, then ruled by Valentius (others say Hilarion was the Abbot), that Saint Gregory was clothed with the habit. He now devoted himself with such energy and fervour to prayer, fasting, and the study of the Sacred Writings, all the time taking only as much of the plainest food as would support life, that he brought on a weakness that prevented him from fasting. So broken down was he, that he would have been unable to keep the fast of the Eve of Easter had not Saint Eleutherius, to whom he applied for help, by his prayers obtained from Heaven a renewal of his strength.

On the death of the Abbot, the Community, with one accord, elected Gregory to be their Superior. His rule was distinguished not only by his care of the poor – the living he clothed and fed, for the dead he caused prayers and masses to be offered up daily – but by the strictness with which he carried out the Rule of the Order. He saw to his brethren being trained up in morals, virtue, and learning, so that they might carry the standard of the Cross to Pagan nations. The first expedition he determined on was that for the conversion of the English. Attracted by the fine presence and ingenuous countenances of some Angle captives whom he saw exposed for sale in the Forum, he obtained from Pope Benedict permission to set out with a chosen band of his monks to win these heathens over from the worship of their false gods. The Romans, however, were so loth to part with their most glorious citizen, that, at their earnest solicitation, Benedict recalled him. Soon afterwards he was raised to the Cardinalate, and sent to Constantinople by the Pope as Papal Nuncio, bearing congratulations to the new Emperor, Tiberius. At Constantinople he met Saint Leander, O.S.B., at whose request, during his stay in that city, he wrote his thirty-five books on Morals, founded upon the Book of Job. After successfully discharging the duties of his mission, Saint Gregory was detained for some time longer by the heresy of Eutychius, the Patriarch of Constantinople. In several conferences, this prelate was convinced of his error, and made complete submission.

When the Nuncio returned to Rome, he found the city devastated by a plague resulting from an overflow of the Tiber. The great heat caused the stagnant waters and the bodies of the animals, left by the inundation, to putrefy, and thus tainted the air. One of the first victims was Pope Pelagius. On his death the unanimous voice of the clergy, senators, and citizens of Rome acclaimed Gregory as Pope. He was reluctant to assume the great responsibility, and only accepted it conditionally, hoping that the Emperor, influenced by the letters which he sent, would not sanction the election. These letters, however, never reached their destination, having been intercepted by the magistrates of the city. Meanwhile, to succour his suffering fellow-citizens, the Pope elect did not cease to exhort them to repentance for their sins; he urged them again and again to appeal for help to the Mother of Mercy. By his orders solemn processions or Litanies, in which the picture of Our Blessed Lady, formerly painted by Saint Luke, was carried, were made to the Church of Saint Mary Major. The Virgin’s help was not long delayed. An angel was seen over the Mole of Hadrian to sheathe the sword with which up to this he had smitten the city, the choirs of heavenly spirits at the same time singing the hymn Regina Coeli laetare, to which Gregory’s response was Ora pro nobis Deum, Alleluia. The ravages of the plague being thus checked by this miracle, the people became more eager than ever that Gregory should assume the tiara. The sanction of the Emperor Mauritius had also arrived. There seemed no escape for Gregory but in flight. Changing his dress, he secretly left the city. But the will of Heaven was not to be denied. A pillar of light, shining over the cave where the Saint lay in hiding, directed the search of the people; he was brought back to Rome, and consecrated Supreme Pontiff A.D. 590.

It is impossible within our space to do more than mention a few out of the many achievements of this great Pontiff – the relief of the famine which succeeded the plague at Rome; the exhaustion of the treasury in procuring corn supplies; the feeding of multitudes of poor; the providing for the necessities of the Church throughout the world; the protection and the exaltation of the Benedictine Order the conversion of the English by the mission of Augustine, Mellitus, and Justus, of the Visigoths in Spain, and of the Lombards in Italy; the stamping out of the heresies of the Donatists in Africa, the Arians in Spain, the Manicheans in Italy, and the Schismatics in Gaul. Simony he punished everywhere. We must not omit the labours of his pen, the reform of the Missal and of church music, the introduction of the Litanies, and his numerous Epistles. All these, it must be remembered, were produced in spite of pain and sickness and the constant anxieties caused by the attacks of the Lombards and other enemies of the Church. These great works could not have been written without aid from on High. We are informed, on the authority of Peter the Deacon, that the Holy Ghost, in the form of a dove, was seen applying its bill to Saint Gregory’s ear when he was engaged in writing.

This Saint, one of the greatest of monks and of Popes, died, worn out by labours and disease, in the thirteenth year of his Pontificate, A.D. 604.

– text and illustration taken from Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict by Father Aegedius Ranbeck, O.S.B.