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Gregory the Great:

The Reluctant Pope yet the Greatest of the Greats

Of all the popes in the history of the Catholic Church, only a few have received the posthumous honor of having "the Great" attached after their name: Gregory I (540-604; pope from 590-604) was the greatest. Many people will be familiar with Gregory through the style of singing/chanting which he initiated and is named after him: Gregorian Chants. He is recognized by historians as the person most responsible for bringing Christianity and Southern Europe out of the decaying Roman period and into the Middle Ages. Yet as important as he was for the Christianity and people of the Sixth Century and beyond, he did not get to do what he really wanted with his life.

But before we get to that, here is a more detailed look at what he accomplished. As mentioned, he created a style of chanting which bears his name. When Gregory became pope, Italy was in the midst of famine and rampant disease; he used the Church’s funds to feed multiple thousands. (The story is told of Gregory sending food from his own table to hungry people before he ate.) He worked to free slaves and cared for numerous orphans and widows. He preached often. When the city of Rome was under threat of being attacked and destroyed by the Lombards, he was able to thwart the assault. He sent forty missionaries to England; the importance of this cannot be understated, and many church history scholars see Gregory’s actions as leading the land of England into Christianity. He appointed bishops, and also removed and punished bishops for neglect of duty or crimes. He fought against the forced baptism of Jews and decreed conversion through preaching as the only means of encouraging a Jew to become a Christian.

So it is easy to see why Gregory was so highly acclaimed. Yet he did not desire the office of pope, and was even reluctant to accept it. So what was it Gregory wanted to do? Live a life of spiritual peace in a monastery.

Years before being elevated to pope, this is exactly what Gregory had done. Born to wealth and privilege, Gregory’s father died when he was a young man and his mother never remarried. The Emperor Justin II appointed Gregory imperial prefect in Rome in 574 (think of it as the mayor). But Gregory eventually rejected this responsibility, turned his father’s palace into a monastery, and became a monk. Soon after, he founded six monasteries in Sicily and gave his remaining wealth to the poor.

Gregory found what he most desired: a lifestyle which would allow him to focus his mind solely on God. Yet this was not to remain so. In 579 Pope Pelagius II made Gregory a deacon of the Church and sent him to Constantinople as ambassador to the Emperor. He returned to Rome in 585 and resumed his monastic lifestyle, yet was elevated to pope in 590. He did not want this position, but after a long struggle decided it was God’s will. And the rest is history.

That Gregory achieved much good is certain. That Gregory reluctantly performed this service is also certain, desiring instead to remain in seclusion, prayer, and Bible study. Therefore the old saying that "ships are safest in the harbor, but that is not what they are made for" was never truer than in Gregory’s case. He desired to serve God in a way that was most comfortable for him, but was obedient when God called him to serve differently. And as a result Christianity and Europe of the Middle Ages was changed.

©2004 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved