Saint Gregory the Great lived in the sixth century. He is considered a founder of the Middle Ages in the West. In the Dictionnaire de la Conversation et de la Lecture by William Duckett, we find the following biographical entry about him:
“Saint Gregory was born in Rome the son of the wealthy Senator…. After his education in his youth, Emperor Justus considered him worthy of being elevated to the office of Praetor due to his considerable knowledge. In this office, the young man later became famous in the Eternal City for his intelligence, mature judgment and extreme love of justice. However, some reproached him because of the great luxury and worldly splendor in his clothes and habits. They feared that he would squander the immense fortune his father had left him.
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Due to his piety, Gregory struggled incessantly against this pomp. Upon his father’s death, he suddenly appeared as a new man. He ordered the founding of seven monasteries, six of which were in Sicily. He gave away his rich clothes and precious furniture to help the poor and took the monastic habit in Saint Andrew’s Abbey, which he founded. Against his will, his brethren soon chose him to be the abbot.
Fasting, prayer and study became his only occupations. Impressed by some young Englishmen for sale at Rome’s slave market, he lamented that these islanders were not Christian. Thus, he obtained permission from Pope Benedict I to preach the faith in Great Britain. However, no sooner was he on his way than both the clergy and people forced him to return. He was made a deacon of the Roman Church in 578. In 580, Pope Pelagius II sent him to Constantinople, where he gained the esteem of the entire court.
On his return to Rome, Pope Pelagius sought to keep him as his secretary. However, Gregory considered the office too burdensome to accept. Finally, by dint of praying, he was free to return to his monks.
Upon the death of Pelagius, the people of Rome acclaimed him as pope. Gregory trembled in fear. He fled the Eternal City, wrote the emperor begging him not to confirm his election and hid in a cave. The people discovered him and took him to Rome. Despite his protest, the populace enthroned him on September 13, 590.
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The holy man had enemies who accused him of dishonesty and hypocrisy even though his entire life disproved such accusations. The simplicity of his home attested to his modesty and humility. He devoted his income to help the poor. His constant concern was to instruct the people. According to Emperor Mauritius, he put an end to the schism of the bishops of Istria. He also obtained the conversion of the Lombards and the destruction of Arianism, for which he expressed extraordinary joy in his letters to Queen Theodolinda.
Yet Gregory did not forget the English. Led by the monk Augustine, his missionaries departed in 595 and arrived two years later in the Kingdom of Kent, where Queen Berta had prepared his triumph. King Ethelbert and a large part of his people converted.
He had less trouble reforming the liturgy than keeping discipline. After composing the Antiphonary, he regulated the order of psalms, prayer, and songs. In Chartres, he established an academy for singers (schola cantorum) and, whip in hand, gave young clerics lessons in plainchant.
He ordered pagan temples, not to be destroyed but transformed into churches.
So much work and fatigue did not favor the cure of the illnesses that never ceased to beset him. Gout often kept him bedridden, but its horrible pains did not stop his prodigious activity.
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No pope has written more letters than Gregory. He had an extraordinary flair to distinguish truth from slander in accusations against priests. He was a terrible adversary to forgers, witches, Simoniacs and schismatics.
This great pontiff died on March 12, 604 after thirteen years, six months and ten days in office.
His comments on Holy Scripture exerted considerable influence on Christian thought in the Middle Ages, earning him the title of Doctor of the Church. With Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome, he is one of the four great doctors of the Latin Church.”
The consideration that Saint Gregory the Great was a true founder of the Middle Ages is fully grounded. Whether as a simple priest, deacon, or pope, we see his extraordinarily rich life served to somehow close the last remnant, the last crack in the door that separated us from pagan antiquity. He opened the door to the new age about to be born.
Regarding pagan antiquity, we see how he fought the remnants of paganism. He ordered the last existing pagan temples not to be destroyed but to cease pagan worship and be used for Catholic worship. He exterminated Arianism, a plague from the Western Roman Empire. The Arians penetrated Europe and perverted the barbarians, who invaded the Western Roman Empire.
He did away with immorality and other objectionable evils from antiquity. At the same time, he built a new age.
He was a great founder of monasteries—the expansion of coenobitic life is one of his most characteristic works that marked the early Middle Ages. He was himself the superior of a monastery.
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He worked to establish plainchant—later known as Gregorian chant. In so doing, the great pope present history with a picturesque scene. Here is a Doctor of the Church and eminent politician, whip in hand, teaching plainchant to his students. He does not hold a stick but a whip to discipline his students when needed. This picturesque image would merit for an illumination or perhaps a stained glass window.
He properly gave a voice to the Middle Ages by establishing plainchant, as it was the great singing voice of the Middle Ages from beginning to end. He imprinted his character on Benedictine life, which Saint Benedict had set in motion but had not yet taken on the stamp of firmness and definition that he provided.
On the other hand, his missionary sense is admirable. We see him among those who inaugurated the idea of missions in England and Ireland. These missions gave rise to the outflow of a great current of missionaries that returned to the continent to evangelize Germany. Thus, we see him sowing the seeds of the Middle Ages.
We see him deal, albeit to no avail, with the great wound of Christendom at that time, which was the Roman Empire of the East, increasingly prone to schism. This empire had always staggered between heresy and Catholic truth.
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The empire eventually fell apart. Yet, he tried to secure that wall of the city of Jesus Christ, which was threatening to fall. His lack of success is another example of Byzantium’s supreme ingratitude to the popes’ zeal. Men like him were even well-liked and influential. However, they failed to uproot the accursed city’s immorality, softness, recklessness and penchant for heresy.
Therefore, we can say that this great mind dealt with all the problems of his time. He analyzed and faced them while writing works that became pillars of medieval thought. His most rich and admirable life was fully dedicated to the service of the Catholic Church and Christian civilization.
What would Saint Gregory say if he were to resurrect today? From the height of heaven, what would he say about our world, so different from the one he knew. He lived in a rough period of history, marked by disorder and even blatant crimes.
However, while the people participated in evil deeds, they also acclaimed a saint as pope. The saint fled from them, but they tracked him down and placed him in the papacy. They could discern a saint from a non-saint and preferred the saint over the unholy. Would the same thing happen today? Are there many who would flee from the papacy? Would people today go after a saint to take him to the papacy? How everything has changed.
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Let us ask Saint Gregory I—Saint Gregory the Great—to transform our epoch, After the purifying punishments it must undergo,1 let it be turned into a new and even more splendorous Middle Ages,2 a request that he—one of the founders of the most glorious Middle Ages—will promptly understand.
“He instituted a school of singers (schola cantorum), which is heard even today in the Holy Roman Church. For the use of this schola, he had two houses built, one near the steps of the Basilica of Saint Peter the Apostle, the other adjacent to the buildings of the Patriarchal Lateran Palace. That is where, to this day, the bed on which he lay to teach singing, the whip with which he disciplined the choristers, and his authentic Antiphonary are preserved with legitimate veneration. By a clause in his donation deed, under pain of anathema, he distributed property titles between the Schola’s two parts as a reward for their daily service.” Taken from Jean Hymonides (v. 824-av. 882) called the deacon, monk at Monte Cassino, Vita S. Gregorii Magni, lib. II, 6-10.
1. Here Prof. Plinio refers to the punishments foreseen by Our Lady at Fatima if the world did not mend its sins.
2. The allusion to the Reign of Mary, derived from the same prophecies made at the Fatima apparitions. For a deeper understanding of this subject, we suggest to our visitors the article: The Reign of Mary, Building a Better World