Saint Gregory the Great is the last of the four great Fathers of the church and much like Saint Augustine, we will focus on his life today with future articles on his writings and legacy.
Pope Gregory was born roughly in the year 540 in Rome, shortly after the Eastern Roman Empire had reconquered the city from the Visigoths. His after Gordianus was a patrician and Prefect of the city of Rome at one point while also holding the position of Regionarius. His mother and two paternal aunts (Tarsilla and Aemiliana) are Saints in the Catholic and Eastern churches. On top of all of that rich history in his family, his great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III.
His family owned a villa suburbana on the Caelian Hill, right in the middle of several very famous Roman landmarks (though most in ruins from the Visigoths' numerous sacks, the north of his villa's street runs into the Colosseum, the south the Circus Maximus, and across the street were the ancient former palaces on Palatine Hill.
Following the tradition of most young men of his position in Rome, he was well educated and fluent in Latin. With this education and drive, at the age of only 33, he followed in his footsteps and became the Prefect of the City of Rome. He would hold this position for only a few years, for after his father's death he began converting his villas into monastic communities. Specifically, his villa in Rome became a monastery dedicated to Andrew the Apostle (San Gregorio Magno al Celio).
After converting his remaining villas into their own monasteries, he gave away his family's remaining fortune to the poor and entered the monastery he built in Rome. During this time he lived an extremely austere life many many hours of no sleep, long fasts, and release of worldly passions. Despite the strict and austere life, he would later write that these years were
"the happiest portion of my life".
When his youngest aunt left the convent life and married the steward of her estate (both of his elder aunts - Saint Trasilla and Saint Emiliana had passed - he famously wrote
"Many are called but few are chosen"
Unfortunately, this happy portion of his life would soon end. In 578, Pope Benedict the I made him one of the seven deacons of Rome and a year later in 579, Pope Pelagius II chose Gregory as the ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople. Pope Pelagius had hoped Saint Gregory would be able to plead Rome's cast to the emperor that a relief force was needed to help remove the Lombard's influence over the town, but the Byzantine emperors were unable to do so due to their immediate issues with the Persians and Slavs. In Constantinople he frequently clashed with the Patriarch Eutychius, leaving a poor taste of the East, something he would carry with him when he became Pope.
He was happily recalled to Rome in 586 and returned to his monastery as it's Abbot. In the year 589, the plague returned. (On a side note, the custom of saying "God Bless You" after a sneeze came from this time period. The disease almost always ended in a spasm of sneezing or yawning, and so as Pope, Saint Gregory ordered the phrase to be uttered whenever someone sneezed). The plague killed many Romans during this time, including Pope Pelagius.
On September, 590, Saint Gregory was consecrated Pope and Bishop of Rome in Saint Peter's Basilica - the first monk to become Pope. As Pope, he focused his attention on the poor, mission work, caring for Priests and Bishops, and reforming the liturgy.
On the mission front, he famously sent Augustine of Canterbury (his successor as abbot at the priory of Saint Andrew) and 39 fellow monks to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons of England. This mission to Kent in 597 was so successful, that years later missionaries would depart from England to evangelize northern Europe and Germany.
Saint Gregory is famous for his administration of Alms to the poor in Rome. Due to the large amount of refugees from the Lombard invasion, there was no short of need in the city. He led the relief efforts with the philosophy that the wealth of Rome belonged to the poor with the church acting only as it's steward. Each parish now had a diaconium or office of the Deacon - this office and building was used for the poor to apply for help at any time. Pope Gregory aggressively required the church to seek out and help needy persons, replacing administrators who stood in the way and those who did not actively seek to help the poor. He famously wrote to a subordinate in Sicily:
"I asked you most of all to take care of the poor. And if you knew of people in poverty, you should have pointed them out ... I desire that you give the woman, Pateria, forty solidi for the children's shoes and forty bushels of grain ...."
Saint Pope Gregory reformed the vast land holdings of the church who sold their goods, requiring them instead to collect and distribute the food. He gave quotas and set new administrative structures in place to ensure the distribution to the poor would happen. This food was given to the poor on a monthly pattern, but armies of monks were organized to hand out food, water, wine and clothing to the poor who were unable to pick up their supplies from the offices every morning. Saint Pope Gregory refused to eat each day until the indiget were fed. Famously, when he would eat, he fed 12 poor and impoverished guests at his table with him. He would travel to homes and hand cook their food to spare the recipients any shame.
In 593 he wrote the four books of Dialogues - some of the most famous and universally read writings throughout the middle ages. He ordained that the first four Ecumenical Councils of the Church be treated with the same respect as the four Gospels. He also ordered the changes to Lent - traditionally only the head of the Pope received the ashen cross on his forehead - making all faithful receive the cross. He ordered the priest repeat to each receiving:
"Remember man, that dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return"
It is also possible that the Gregorian Chant was created during this time.
Pope Saint Gregory the Great died on March 12, 604 at the age of 64. He was canonized almost immediately and the Church placed him beside Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine as the fourth Great Doctors of the West. In Britain, he was so well appreciated that he was called Gregorius noster (our Gregory). The monastery at Whitby in Britain wrote the first full length life of Gregory in 713.