St. Gregory the Great, whose feast is today, Sept. 3, was the first monk ever chosen as Pope. He had grown up in one of the few remaining old aristocratic families in Rome. Before taking his vows, he had been an important politician in the city, so he had some experience with administration. Nevertheless, he hadn’t intended to become the most important politician of his age. Things just turned out that way. There was work to be done, and only Gregory could do it.
Rome was in bad shape when Gregory became her bishop. The plague that had killed Pope Pelagius was still raging. The city had been kicked around like a football between Goths and Vandals, with Greeks from the Eastern Roman Empire periodically stepping in to inflict even more damage. Fires and disastrously bad weather added to the catastrophes. And the constant threat of invasion from the north by the horrible Lombards kept the survivors in terror.
These Lombards were a particularly vicious sort of barbarian, at least to their enemies. They massacred everyone in their path, except for the few who might be useful as slaves. The Lombards who weren’t pagans were Arians, so they had no qualms about plundering the orthodox churches and slaughtering the clergy. Cities emptied as they approached, and soon Rome and Ravenna were the only substantial cities left in the northern half of Italy.
In theory, Italy was governed by the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, through his exarch in Ravenna. In practice, the exarch was nearly powerless, and the Eastern Empire had enough problems of its own to worry about. The exarch might be able to hold onto Ravenna, with its naturally impenetrable defenses, but he couldn’t do much about it when the Lombards decided to march on Rome. No one was left to defend the once-proud city but Gregory.
It was lucky for Rome that Gregory had both experience in government and a deep and sincere faith. It took both qualities to save the city.
He led the people in prayers to end the plague; thousands joined him in a solemn procession. When they reached Hadrian’s tomb, Gregory and many of the people saw a vision of the Archangel Michael sheathing a flaming sword, indicating that the scourge was over. From that time on, the place has been known as the Castle of the Holy Angel — Castel Sant’Angelo in Italian.
Then there were the Lombards to be taken care of. The useless exarch at Ravenna had declared that negotiating with those people was impossible, but Gregory made peace with them when they had reached the very gates of Rome. In Constantinople, the Emperor Maurice was angry: who did Gregory think he was, acting like an emperor? But Maurice had been perfectly content to let Rome be wiped off the face of the earth — every time Gregory had asked for his help, Maurice had been too busy with other important matters.
Any other pope might have been content with saving Rome from invasion and converting thousands of barbarians. But Gregory was never content. While any part of the Church was imperfect, there was work to be done.
The Mass was one of his most important concerns. Under Gregory it was revised and standardized, and Gregory himself wrote hymns that have become part of our liturgical heritage. The form of music called “Gregorian chant” is probably named for him, because he set the standards for Church music for a thousand years. (Gregory himself taught the chants to church choirs, beating out the time with a stick like a modern conductor.) Even today, much of our worship owes its shape to Gregory’s reformed liturgy.
The finances of the Church also came under Gregory’s eye. The Church by this time owned huge estates; Gregory not only treated the peasants who worked them fairly, but also did his best to make legal guarantees that his successors would have to honor. When the Church spent money, Gregory made sure that everyone knew how it was being spent.
Finally, there was the clergy itself to keep in line. Many of the bishops were talented men from the old upper classes who had entered the Church because no other outlets for their ambition appeared. Some of them thought they could act like irresponsible princes, living immoral lives and using their positions to get rich. Gregory wouldn’t stand for that. He himself lived like a monk, and while he didn’t try to force that life on all the clergy, he did at least insist on their living like Christians.
Gregory set the example for the popes who followed. Although few were as talented as Gregory, they all built on what he had done. By default, they were the secular leaders in the city of Rome and the surrounding country, and they became more and more independent of the Emperor in far-off Constantinople. And Constantinople, for its part, would soon have worries much closer to home.
Gregory’s tomb is in St. Peter’s, and I stop to pray there whenever I’m in Rome. Won’t you join me on my next visit? We can walk together in the footsteps of the Apostles, the Fathers, the martyrs, and the great popes. We can visit Gregory’s tomb and the spot where he sighted the Archangel Michael. With my colleagues at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology — Scott and Kimberly Hahn and others — I’ll be leading a pilgrimage to Rome in May of 2007. We’ll have guided tours, classes and talks, daily Mass, and lots of slack-jawed, awestruck moments in the city of so many great Fathers. If you’re interested in joining us, contact Wendt Tours at 877-565-8687.