Gregory the Great
I, Gregory, Bishop of Rome, greet you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To tell you of my life, I can only speak of the grace and mercy of Christ. You see, when I found myself elected as pope in the year 590, conditions in Rome were desperate indeed.
The city itself had been sacked four times in the last 150 years. Even in the previous 20 years it had been conquered four times and the barbarians were still at the door. To make matters worse, there was also a great flood. Many houses were simply washed away.
Even much of the corn supply was destroyed. With no food and the city in ruins, the plague quickly set in. Countless wagons carried bodies to be buried in common pits outside the city walls. Rome was a city of the dead.
The government seemed powerless and ineffective in the face of these disasters. Only the church was left. By the grace and mercy of God, it fell to me to care for the citizens of Rome. By God’s will I had become the servant to the servants of God.
Born to Lead
I was born in 540 to a well-to-do family in Rome. But we weren’t distinguished by our wealth alone. Our ancestry, well known for its devotion to Christ, also included two other popes. Even today my mother is recognized as a saint. My father, Gordian, owned large estates in Sicily and a great mansion in Rome. Such status afforded me the finest education that Rome had to offer.
Because of my background, I had anticipated a brilliant career in public service. Indeed, the Emperor Justin II had appointed me to the highest civil position, the Prefect of Rome, by the time I was thirty. But soon after my father’s death I renounced my position and wealth to become a monk. I, who had walked the streets of Rome in shining silk and jewels, chose instead to wear a worthless garment and serve at the altar of God.
Not wanting to waste any time, I immediately founded six monasteries on my father’s estates in Sicily. I also converted my own house into a monastery where I lived with my fellow monks. Those three years were the happiest of my life. I devoted myself to prayer, meditation and fasting. Then I was drawn out of that sweet seclusion, much against my will, and ordained as one of the seven deacons of Rome.
Looking for Help
Crisis continued to loom for the great city of Rome. The Lombards were advancing rapidly toward the city. Our only hope was the Emperor Tiberius in Byzantium. So Pope Pelagius II sent me there as his ambassador. Nothing could have been more repugnant than walking in the worldly atmosphere of the brilliant Byzantine court after living the monastic life.
After six years, it was obvious that the emperor’s help would not be forthcoming. I came to the hard conclusion that the only way Rome could save herself was through the efforts of her own people. It was a lesson I never forgot.
I was overjoyed to return to Rome and hoped to live out my days as the abbot of my monastery. But one day as I walked through the market I saw three fair-haired boys being sold as slaves. “What is your nationality?” I asked. “We are Angles,” they replied. “You are well named for you have angelic faces.,” I told them.
I suddenly felt a great desire to bring Christ to the British Isles, their homeland. But when I began my journey to their country, the people of Rome raised such an outcry that the pope was forced to send a messenger to bring me back home. Later I sent another great saint in my stead to evangelize the English.
Head of the Church
When the pope died from the plague, I was elected to fill that great office. Legend has it that I was so fearful of this great responsibility that I ran to the forest to hide. I was found three days later and carried to St. Peter’s Basilica for my consecration.
I continued to live a simple, monastic life as pope even though ill health plagued my every step. I suffered almost continually from indigestion, fevers came and went, and in my last years gout and depression were my constant companions. But I still took my responsibilities seriously. They say I accomplished more in these years than most people do in a lifetime. Here are just a few of the tasks to which I set my hand.
Shortly after taking office, I published a book for bishops called the Pastoral Rule. I believe that a bishop is a physician of souls. He is to preach and enforce discipline but always live a holy live and never forget his own weakness. I’m pleased that my book became a best-seller of sorts and continued in use for centuries.
Servant of God
Because the government was completely ineffective, the defense of Rome fell to me. So I personally met with the king of the Lombards and negotiated the peace. I even used the church treasury to ransom our prisoners. I could not bear the thought that my beloved Rome might fall to the barbarians and sink into obscurity.
Because of the war, Rome was over-run with refugees. They were hungry and many had the plague. Through the church I was able to provide them with corn at little or no cost. In an effort to counteract the plague, I decreed that everyone must say “God Bless You” whenever a person sneezed.
If all this wasn’t enough, in my spare time I managed the vast estates of the church. My previous experience in finance and administration served me well as I managed the equivalent of over 1.5 million dollars a year. Now that was a lot of money 1500 years ago. I wrote hymns, reformed worship, and some say introduced Gregorian chant to the liturgy. I guided my wayward clergy back to a holy life. I protected the rights of the Roman Jews and insisted that they be won to Christ by our holy example, not by force. Over 800 of my letters and writings still survive today.
Just before my death in 604, I sent a warm winter coat to a poor bishop who was suffering from the cold. The inscription on my tomb reads “After having confirmed all his actions to his doctrines, the great consul of God went to enjoy eternal triumphs.” So be it, for the glory of God.