Millstatt Sacramentary,
ca. 1170, Klagenfurt

(ca. 540-604)

Pope 590-604



BMM S0321-Moralia c. 1190

GREGORY the Great, Pope from 590 to 604.  He was the fourth and last of the traditional Latin ‘Doctors of the Church’ and the father of the medieval Papacy.  The son of a senator, he became prefect of the city (Praefectus Urbi) in 573, but, like many of the finer men of the age, he sold his vast property and devoted the proceeds to the relief of the poor.  He founded seven monasteries, six in Sicily and one in Rome, which last he himself entered as a monk c. 574.  After a few years of a very austere life, the Pope compelled him to leave the cloister, creating him regionarius, i.e. one of the seven deacons of Rome.  Soon afterwards (c. 578) Pelagius II made him ‘apocrisiarius’ at the Imperial court of Constantinople.  His experiences there, which convinced him that no help was to be expected from the struggling Eastern Empire, largely influenced his future course of action as Pope.  About 585 he returned to Rome and became abbot of his former monastery (St. Andrew’s). To this period probably belongs the famous story, related by Bede, of his encounters with the fair Saxon slaves in the market (‘Non Angli, sed angeli’).

  On his accession to the Papacy, accepted only after a severe interior struggle, Gregory found Italy in an alarming state.  The land was devastated by inundations, famine, pestilence, and the invasion of the Lombards, and the position of the Church threatened by the claims of the Imperial power at Constantinople.  It was owing to Gregory, in whom firmness and strength of character were tempered by gentleness and charity, that many of these evils were conquered.  Of particular significance were his relations with the Lombards, with whom he concluded, in 592–3, what amounted to a separate peace.  By this unprecedented step he set aside the authority of the exarch of Ravenna, the Emperor’s representative.  Throughout this period of unrest, aggravated by the weakness and treachery of the Byzantine authorities, he followed a course of independent action, appointing governors to the Italian cities and providing war materials, and thus establishing the temporal power of the papacy.  In his administration of the vast estates of the Church, in which he spent great sums on works of charity, he showed conspicuous ability.  In his frequently strained relations with the East he upheld the supremacy of the Roman see and refused to recognize the title of ‘Oecumenical Patriarch’, adopted by the Patriarch of Constantinople.  One of the greatest successes of his pontificate was the conversion of England, for which task he selected St. Augustine, later of Canterbury, with about 40 missionaries from his own monastery.  He also intervened with great effect in strengthening the Church in Spain, Gaul, and Northern Italy.

  Gregory was a very fertile author, of a practical rather than speculative bent of mind.  His  ‘Liber Regulae Pastoralis’ (c. 591) sets out the directives for the pastoral life of a bishop, whom he regards first as a shepherd of souls.  The book, which was translated by King Alfred, became the textbook of the medieval episcopate.  The ‘Dialogues’ (c. 593), which told the lives and miracles of St. Benedict and other early Latin saints, reflect the uncritical credulity of the age; they served as a model to most medieval hagiographers. His ‘Expositio in Librum Iob, sive Moralium Libri XXV’ is an exegesis of the Book of Job in the threefold literal, mystical, and moral sense, with special emphasis on the last.  The ‘Homilies on the Gospels’ were sermons preached on texts from the Gospels; they were much drawn on as lessons for the third Nocturn in the Breviary of 1570.  There is also a collection of 854 of Gregory’s letters, which are of extreme interest for the information they supply on the Pope’s character and multifarious activities.

  St. Gregory was an ardent promoter of monasticism.  By granting the monks ‘privilegia’, which partly restricted episcopal jurisdiction, he laid the foundations of the later exemption of religious orders that brought them under direct Papal control.  In his theology he did not aim at originality, but followed the teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo, whose ideas he accommodated to the minds of his contemporaries.  He developed esp. the doctrine of Purgatory, teaching that the pains of the souls detained there may be relieved by the Sacrifice of the Mass, and popularized the mystical doctrines of St. Dionysius the Ps.-Areopagite, esp. his angelology. He encouraged the veneration of relics if authentic.  He made important changes in the liturgy, and some of the prayers in the Gregorian Sacramentary are his, though the Sacramentary as a whole is a later compilation.  He fostered the development of liturgical music, and, though his exact share in its codification is disputed, his name has been so closely linked with plainsong that it is commonly known as the ‘Gregorian Chant’; he gave to the Roman ‘schola cantorum’ its definite form.  His pontificate and personality did much to establish the idea in men’s minds that the Papacy was the supreme authority in the Church, and his achievement was the more impressive in that (as is reflected in the title ‘servus servorum Dei’, which he applied to himself) he had great personal humility.  He was canonized by popular acclamation

CPG (CCSL 1995 pp. 552-559) Designations of Gregory's Works:

10) 1708 Moralia siue Expositio in Job

20) 1709 Homiliae ii in Canticum Canticorum

30) 1710 Homiliae in Hiezechielem

40) 1711 Homiliae xl in Euangelia

50) 1712 Regula Pastoralis

60) 1713 Dialogorum libri iv

70) 1714 Registrum Epistularum




Eamon Duffy, 1997 (rev. ed. 2015)




The Arch of Septimus Severus near the Capitoline in Rome by Claude Lorraine, c. 1650 - note the flooding and transformation of the ground into an insect-ridden swamp

The Arch of Septimus Severus - today


THE imperial reconquest of Africa from the Vandals was achieved by Belisarius in one short and brilliant campaign launched in 533.The campaign to recover Italy from the Goths began the following year. It was to drag on for twenty years, but there would be no joy at its ending, for it left Italy depopulated and impoverished. Up to a third of the population had perished, and to the traumas of war and its attendant famines were added natural disaster, a successive waves of plague swept through the peninsula. Politically, too, the overthrow of the Gothic kingdom proved a disaster, not a liberation. The restoration of imperial rule brought no revival of the fortunes of the Roman aristocracy. Instead, every position of importance was filled by career administrators from the East: Italy became a Greek colony. It was expected, moreover, to pay handsomely for the privilege. The burden of imperial taxation proved far more oppressive, and far more efficient, than anything the Goths had imposed — Justinian’s chief tax-collector in Italy was grimly nicknamed ‘the scissor-man’. From the 540s onwards most of the surviving ancient families of Rome in a position to do so migrated east, to Constantinople, where it had become clear that all the opportunities and the fruits of empire lay.

ROME had a double share of the woes of Italy. Stripped of its traditional ruling class, separated by a long sea journey from the court at Constantinople, it had no real place in the new imperial order. Ravenna would remain the political centre of imperial Italy, as it had been of the Gothic kingdom. There, in the basilica of San Vitale, Justinian and Theodora set up their images behind the altar, unforgettable icons of the Byzantine convergence of regal and priestly authority. There the imperial governor of Italy, the Exarch, would rule in the Emperor’s place. Rome was left to the crows and its own devices. Repeatedly besieged and plundered, it had been captured and devastated by Totila in 546. Its population, 800,000 in AD 400, had dropped to 100,000 by AD 500, and was down to 30,000 by the year of Totila’s sack. Pope Pelagius, a man caught, as his epitaph declared, ‘in a falling world’, was reduced to begging clothing and food from bishops in Gaul for the poor — and even the former rich — of the city. The Senate was gone, and the wars had shattered the physical glory of Rome. Many of the great aqueducts which fed the city’s baths, cisterns and fountains, and which had turned the corn-mills on the Janiculum hill, had been deliberately cut by the Goths, or stripped by thieves of their lead linings.They leaked precious water from the mountains into the surrounding plain, beginning the long transformation of the Roman Campagna into the fever-ridden swamp which it would remain till the days of Mussolini.

The Compagna, by  Haseltineca.1880. During the middle ages malaria from mosquitoes in the swamp inhibited farming and settlement

BY the end of the sixth century, the city’s population was creeping up again, to about 90,000. Many of these, however, were refugees from a new invasion. For the imperial conquest, in destroying the Gothic occupiers, had removed the only real obstacle to a far worse scourge, the part-pagan and part-Arian Lombard tribes who descended in their tens of thousands from Austria in 568. In September 569 Milan fell to them, and their king Alboin took the title ‘Lord of Italy’. By 574 the Lombards commanded half the peninsula, and had all but cut the connections between Ravenna and Rome. They were to remain in control for the next two centuries.

THIS was the inheritance of Gregory the Great (590-604).

Gregory the Great as Model

“The Life of the Pastor Must Be a Balanced Synthesis”
Pope Benedict XVI

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, SEPT. 3, 2006 ( Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today before reciting the midday Angelus with crowds at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

Today the Roman calendar remembers St. Gregory the Great, Pope and doctor of the Church (about the years 540-604). His singular figure, I would say almost unique, is an example that must be presented both to pastors of the Church as well as public administrators: In fact, first he was prefect and later Bishop of Rome.

As an imperial official, he was outstanding for his administrative capacity and moral integrity, to the point that, when only 30 years old, he held the highest civil office of “prefect of the city” (“Praefectus Urbis”).

Meanwhile, maturing in his interior was the vocation to the monastic life which he embraced in the year 574, when his father died. Thereafter the Benedictine Rule became the foundation of his life. Even when he was sent by the Pope as his representative to the emperor of the East, he had a monastic, simple and poor lifestyle.

When being called back to Rome, though he lived in a monastery, he was a close collaborator of Pope Pelagius II, and, when the latter died, victim of a plague epidemic, Gregory was acclaimed by all as his successor.

He tried in every way to avoid the appointment, but in the end had to give in and, leaving the cloister with regret, dedicated himself to the community, aware that he was doing his duty and that he was a simple “servant of the servants of God.”

“He is not really humble,” he wrote, “who understands that he must be leader of others by decree of the divine will and yet disdains this pre-eminence. If on the contrary he submits to divine dispositions and does not have the vice of obstinacy and is prepared to benefit others with those gifts, when the highest dignity of governing souls is imposed on him, he must flee from it with his heart, but against his will, he must obey” (“Pastoral Rule,” I, 6).

These words are as a dialogue with himself. With prophetic vision, Gregory intuited that a new civilization was dawning with the meeting between the Roman heritage and the peoples called “barbarians,” thanks to the force of cohesion and the moral loftiness of Christianity. Monasticism was becoming a richness not only for the Church, but for the whole of society.

Of frail health but strong moral stature, St. Gregory the Great carried out intense pastoral and civil action. He left a very large collection of letters, admirable homilies, a famous commentary on the Book of Job and writings on the life of St. Benedict, as well as numerous liturgical texts, famous for the reform of chant, which, due to his name, was called “Gregorian.”

However, his most famous work, without a doubt, is the “Pastoral Rule,” which had the same importance for the clergy as St. Benedict's Rule for the monks of the Middle Ages. The life of the pastor of souls must be a balanced synthesis between contemplation and action, animated by love “which reaches the loftiest heights when it bends down with mercy to the profound ills of others. The ability to bend down to the misery of others is the measure of the force of one's self-giving to others” (II,5). In this teaching, always timely, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council were inspired to describe the image of the pastor of our times.

Let us pray to the Virgin Mary that the example and teaching of St. Gregory the Great may be followed by the pastors of the Church and also by leaders of civil institutions.

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1) Actually, Homily 13 (Migne 2??) On sight restored to the blind man seems more apposite.


2) Homily 31 (31 in Migne PL 1228) : Contemplative man was indeed created to behold the heavenly light. Because his sins deserved it, he was cast out to endure the darkness of his heart.


3. Homily 37 describes “saca colloquia” concerning heaven:

“If we reflect on what is promised to us in heaven and how great these things are, dearly beloved, everything we have upon earth comes to appear worthless. When we compare our earthly possessions with the happiness of heaven, they seem a burden and not a help. When we com¬pare our life in time with eternal life, we must call it death rather than life. What is our daily decline into decay but a kind of extension of death? What tongue can describe, what mind can grasp the greatness of the joys of the heavenly city—taking part in the choirs of angels, sharing with the blessed spirits in our Creator's glory, seeing the face of God before us, beholding infinite light, feeling no fear of death, rejoicing in the gift of imperishableness?   We take fire even when we hear of these things! Already we long to be there where we hope to rejoice without end. But we attain great rewards only through great labors.”