Christian Saints Podcast

Saint Gregory the Great

August 28, 2021 Darren C. Ong Season 1 Episode 45
Christian Saints Podcast
Saint Gregory the Great
Show Notes Transcript

Saint Gregory the Great was also known as Pope Saint Gregory I or  Saint Gregory the Dialogist, He was Pope from 590-604 AD, at a time of crisis for the city of Rome. Saint Gregory lived in Rome at a time when it was no longer an important city. The Roman empire now had its capital in Constantinople in the east, and Rome was beset by plagues and wars with Germanic tribes from the north. Despite all these challenges, Saint Gregory is known as one of the greatest popes in the history of the church. He took charge of Rome's defenses when it was under siege and negotiated peace treaties, he wrote many important commentaries on scripture and other religious writings, and he was an influential liturgist. In the East, he is known for writing the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, and in the West the Gregorian Chant is so named in his honor. Saint Gregory also emphasized that the church should meet the physical as well as spiritual needs of the poor and sick, and under his leadership the church's charity saved many from starvation.

 All Saints podcast script 
 God is glorious in his saints! 
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate z, at a time when the city of Rome was in a terrible decline. The Roman Empire itself was still going strong, but it was now centered in the East, in the new capital of Constantinople. Whereas Rome itself was under constant threat from Germanic tribes, like the Lombards. Even in these trying situations, Saint Gregory became one of the most important Popes in history. He was an influential writer and liturgist, he launched missions to bring Christianity to new lands and new people, and is particularly credited with bringing Christ to the English people. He is also known for his charity, and under his leadership the church was a force for helping the poor and the sick.
 Gregory was born around the year 540 into a distinguished noble family. His father served as a senator, and was a prefect of the city of Rome. Saint Gregory was also the great great grandson of another Pope, Pope Felix III. However, the Rome of Gregory’s time was not at all as it was in its heyday. In fact, shortly before Gregory’s birth the city was occupied by the Ostrogoths, and was only recently reconquered by the Roman empire. The 540s, the time of Saint Gregory’s birth was also when Rome was hit by the plague of Justinian, the same plague that would cause the black death some centuries later. In 546 Rome was again sacked by the Ostrogoths. It was only in 554, when the Roman Empire defeated the Ostrogoths and their allies in the battle of Volturnus that peace would return to Italy. The city of Rome could then rebuild, but as a city of secondary importance, with imperial power centered at Constantinople. 

Gregory received a relatively decent education despite all the chaos, and had a successful career in government,  following in his father’s footsteps to become prefect of Rome, the highest ranking official in the city. When his father died in the year 574, Saint Gregory decided to give up all of his familial wealth and political power, to live the life of a monk. This passage is taken from a biography of Saint Gregory written by F. HOMES DUDDEN,:

 Gregory's resolution was taken at last. His father, Gor-dianus, was already dead ; and his mother, Silvia, had retired into a life of seclusion in the neighbourhood of the Basilica of St. Paul.' The Caelian Palace, together with the bulk of the Regionary's wealth, had fallen to Gregory, who had thus become one of the richest men in Rome. Now, however, he renounced it all. The greater part of his paternal inheritance he devoted to the foundation and endowment of monasteries. Of these, six were situated in Sicily, and may probably be identified with the Monasteries of St. Hermas, of SS. Maximus and Agatha, of St. Theodore, of St. Hadrian, the Praetorian Monastery, and the Nunnery of St. Martin.2 The seventh and most famous of all—the celebrated Monastery of St. Andrew—was founded in Gordianus's palace in Rome, close to the Church of St. John and St. Paul. On these religious houses Gregory settled sufficient revenues for the support of their inhabitants—his intention clearly being that the monks should not be distracted from their spiritual exercises by the necessity of labouring to procure the means of subsistence. The rest of his property he distributed among the poor. Then, having laid aside every sign of his former rank and wealth, the man whose silken robes and glittering jewels had dazzled all eyes when he drove in state processions through the city, donned the coarse dress of a monk, and began to learn the lessons of humility as a simple brother in the monastery he had founded.' 

Saint Gregory was a dedicated monk, following the monastic rules set our by St Benedict of Nursia, whom Saint Gregory admired greatly. The fasting he would undertake in this time was so severe it would weaken his health for the rest of his life.
The Church would make use of Saint Gregory’s considerable skills. He was appointed as one of seven deacons of Rome, and in 578 Saint Gregory was sent to the Imperial capital of Constantinople as an ambassador from the church in Rome. This was a time when Constantinople was at the height of its power and wealth.

While there as ambassador, Saint Gregory would be involved in a minor theological controversy with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Eutychius who had asserted that when Christians would be resurrected our body would be “impalpable” – that is, immaterial,the way we imagine ghosts to be, whereas Gregory defended the orthodox Christian position, that we will be resurrected in the flesh. The Emperor wanted to resolve the issue, and invited Patriarch Eutychius and St Gregory to argue their positions before him. Saint Gregory was able to convince the emperor, who then ordered Patriarch utychius’ books burnt. Later, when Patriarch Eutychius succumbed to illness, he would acknowledge that Saint Gregory was right in his deathbed.

 Saint Gregory’s time as ambassador was not very successful. One of his main priorities was to secure more military support for the defence of Rome, which was still continually threatened by Germanic warriors. However, this request for a stronger military presence in Rome was refused, because the foreign policy of the Empire at that time was more concerned with enemies on the Eastern borders, primarily Persia.
In 586 Saint Gregory returned to Rome to be a monastery Abbot. Four years later, upon the death of Pope Pelagius II, Saint Gregory was chosen as Pope. Saint Gregory was not particularly happy about being Pope, and this unhappiness sometimes expressed itself in his writings. But upon being chosen for the position, he went about his duties admirably. His attitude towards his new role is encapsulated by the title he coined for himself: servus servorum Dei (the servant, of the servants of God). This is a title that Popes use for themselves to this day.
 The now-Pope Gregory took charge at another disastrous time for Rome. A flood had destroyed the city’s grain reserves the year prior, and on top of that Rome was hit by yet another plague, which killed his predecessor Pope Pelagius II. Rome was again attacked, this time by Lombards, and Saint Gregory had to negotiate a truce. Since the imperial government in Contstantinople was unable to give attention to the problems in Rome, it was up to Pope Gregory to organise the defense of the city, even paying the salaries of soldiers from cthe church treasury.
 Even with his considerable duties in administering not just the church, but also the city of Rome under siege, Pope Gregory was still able to produce many influential writings, including many important commentaries on the scriptures. Let us take this time to go through a few of them.
 In the Eastern Orthodox church, Saint Gregory is often referred to as Saint Gregory the Dialogist, which is a reference to one of his most well-known works, the Dialogues. This was a book that compiled the life stories of various saints of his time, structured as a dialogues between Gregory himself and a deacon, Peter. Let’s read an excerpt, which is a miracle story about Saint Benedict of Nursia:

Upon a certain time, as he was going to the oratory of St. John, which is in the top of the mountain, the old enemy of mankind upon a mule, like a physician, met him, carrying in his hand an horn and a mortar. And when he demanded whither he was going: "To your monks," quoth he, "to give them a drench" [i.e. a large dose of veterinary medicine]. 

The venerable father went forward to his prayers, and when he had done, he returned in all haste, but the wicked spirit found an old monk drawing of water, into whom he entered, and straightways cast him upon the ground, and grievously tormented him. The man of God coming from his prayers, and seeing him in such pitiful case gave him only a little blow with his hand, and at the same instant he cast out that cruel devil, so that he durst not any more presume to enter in. 

PETER. I would gladly know, whether he obtained always by prayer, to work such notable miracles; or else sometimes did them only at his will and pleasure.

GREGORY. Such as be the devout servants of God, when necessity requireth, use to work miracles both manner of ways: so that sometime they effect wonderful things by their prayers, and sometime only by their power and authority: for St. John saith: So many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God.38 They, then, that by power be the sons of God, what marvel is it, if by power they be able to do wonderful things? And that both ways they work miracles, we learn of St. Peter: who by his prayers did raise up Tabitha; and by his sharp reprehension did sentence Ananias and Sapphira to death for their lying.39 For we read not, that in the death of them he prayed at all, but only rebuked them for that sin which they had committed. Certain therefore it is that sometimes they do these things by power, and sometimes by prayer: for Ananias and Sapphira by a severe |91 rebuke, St. Peter deprived of life: and by prayer restored Tabitha to life. And for proof of this, I will now tell you of two miracles, which the faithful servant of God, Benedict, did, in which it shall appear most plainly that he wrought the one by that power which God gave him, and obtained the other by virtue of his prayers. 

Another important work that Saint Gregory wrote was a book titled “Pastoral Care”, with instructions on how Christian clergy should pastor and serve their congregation. This book was very influential. The Byzantine Roman Emperor Maurice was particularly impressed, and ordered it translated into Greek and distributed all over his empire. Let us read here an excerpt of this text:
If, then, we have the care of our neighbour as well as of ourselves upon us, we have each foot

protected by a shoe. But he who, meditating his own advantage, neglects that of his neighbours,

loses with disgrace one foot’s shoe. And so there are some, as we have said, enriched with great

gifts, who, while they are ardent for the studies of contemplation only, shrink from serving to their

neighbour’s benefit by preaching; they love a secret place of quiet, they long for a retreat for

speculation. With respect to which conduct, they are, if strictly judged, undoubtedly guilty in

proportion to the greatness of the gifts whereby they might have been publicly useful. For with

what disposition of mind does one who might be conspicuous in profiting his neighbours prefer

his own privacy to the advantage of others, when the Only-begotten of the supreme Father Himself

came forth from the bosom of the Father into the midst of us all, that He might profit many? -Pastoral Rule
Saint Gregory was also active in advancing the evangelical mission of the church. Bear in mind that this was a time when the city fo Rome was facing disaster after disaster, and because of this the church in Rome had neglected its overseas missions to focus on problems at home. But Saint Gregory did not use the problems in Rome as an excuse not to bring the gospel to places and peoples who had not yet received it. He was particularly celebrated for establishing a mission to the English, sending Saint Augustine of Canterbury with a large contingent of missionaries to an unltimately successful missionary journey to England. 
 Rev Alban Butler, the English hagiographer, relates this anecdote to explain Saint Gregory’s desire to bring Christ to the pagan English:
While still a monk the saint was struck with some boys who were exposed for sale in Rome, and heard with sorrow that they were pagans. "And of what race are they?" he asked. "They are Angles." "Worthy indeed to be Angels of God," said he. "And of what province?" "Of Deira," was the reply. "Truly must we rescue them from the wrath of God. And what is the name of their king?" "He is called Ella." "It is well," said Gregory; "Alleluia must be sung in their land to God." He at once got leave from the Pope, and had set out to convert the English when the murmurs of the people led the Pope to recall him. Still the Angles were not forgotten, and one of the Saint's first cares as Pope was to send from his own monastery St. Augustine and other monks to England.- Butler
Saint Gregory had an enormous impact on the church liturgy in both the east and the west. During midweek services in Lent, Orthodox churches celebrate the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, which is attributed to Saint Gregory. In the western liturgical music tradition, the main style of chant is known as the Gregorian chant.
Saint Gregory’s papacy was especially distinguished by the care he gave to the poor. With the series of wars and plagues ravaging Italy, and with the imperial state neglecting affairs in Rome, there was a great deal of poverty and suffering in the formerly great city. Saint Gregory used the resources of the church and applied it to be a shelter and protection for the poor and hungry. To be clear, Saint Gregory did not invent Christian charity. Jesus teaching and ministry on earth showed his deep concern for the poor, and Christians from the very beginning of the faith were known for the care they showed to the poor. The institution of the xenodochium, which meant “a place for strangers” was established in the Christian Roman Empire, as places where Christians,especially monastics would care and minister for the needy. The xenodochium serving as a combination of a guesthouse and hospital.But Saint Gregory directed the resources and focus of his church to helping the poor and hungry to an extent greater than it had before, establishing the church as an institution that would meet not just the spiritual needs, but the physical needs of the desperate poor. This is a legacy that endures to this day, and in every corner of the world the Christian church is caring for the sick and feeding the hungry.
 There is a wonderful PhD thesis written by Dr. Miles Doleac at Tulane University: POVERTY, CHARITY AND THE PAPACY IN THE TIME OF GREGORY THE GREAT- which explores in detail Saint Gregory’s ministry to the poor during his papacy. We will quote from the conclusion of that thesis.
From the first century on, Christian believers had been called to be constant servants of

the poor and the stranger. In doing so, by charitable acts both large and small, they

claimed a measure of power over the evils of the world and the oppressive forces of the

powerful. From 590-604 CE, Gregory I, bishop of Rome and self-proclaimed “servant of

the servants of God,” using the powers and resources at his disposal, made charity not

just a fixture of Christian ideology or the practice of capable and motivated individuals,

monks or bishops, but a permanent, institutional fixture of the Roman Church, which was

soon to become the ideological, if not political, head of Christendom, at least until the

Protestant Reformation. This was Gregory’s “great” achievement. Leo I, the only other

papal Magnus, saved Rome from Attila, designed and built S. Maria Maggiore and

swayed the Council of Chalcedon with his Tome. 2 Gregory’s contribution was in the

realm of charity, in the overhaul, expansion and formalization of the Church’s charitable


“We hold the position of paymaster in the affairs of the poor ….” Gregory wrote

to another aristocrat turned ascetic, Julian (in 603), demanding that his Catanian

monastery embrace fully its role as— first and foremost— a center for poor relief. 3

Despite the seriousness with which Gregory approached his office’s role as steward of

the poor, he did not, in practical application, create new poor relief institutions. Even

diaconiae were in existence before his bishopric. Rather, he merged and reorganized old

ones, most notably in his treatment of monastic xenodochia. His extensive attention to

and patronage of monasteries appears to have had, at its root, his belief—demonstrated

by his above exchange with Julian or his chastisement of bishop Januarius (in 594 and

603, respectively) for allowing a Sardinian xenodochium to fall into disrepair, among

other evidence—that monasteries should and must play an integral role in the Church’s

mission against poverty. 4 This is likely why Gregory held his own bishops and sub-

deacons personally responsible for overseeing the affairs of xenodochia or even

managing their day-to-day operations.

Robert Markus wrote that Gregory’s was a world in which “The Devil was close,

always ready to swallow up the world and the flesh.” 5 Gregory’s decision to turn to

ascetic configurations and institutions specifically to address the basest necessities of the

flesh—food, shelter, medical care—is most interesting indeed. It is almost as if Gregory

saw in monasticism a kind of buffer that stood immune to the world’s eschatological

predicament. Monks, therefore, stood well-placed to stand on the front lines, feeding and

caring for the world’s most desperate. Christian ascetics had turned Christ into a kind of

spiritual “feeder” to reconcile the problem that food and the belly were seen as exemplars

of base, carnal desire; fasting was necessity for most monks, as it was for Gregory, who

wrecked his body by doing so. 6 Yet, for the same Gregory, the provision of food for

Christ’s flock was the responsibility of his Church, the “feeder” of his people and

“paymaster” of the poor, and so he went to significant lengths to ensure that hunger—

most notably, the carnal kind—was satiated whenever possible. The result of all this, for

a time, was that Gregory fed significant numbers of persons in the city of Rome beyond

just the destitute; although, the very poor remained always the primary focus of his effort.

Saint Gregory passed in the year 590, and his’remains are located at Saint peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Roman Catholic church celebrates his feast day on September 3, whereas all other churches celebrate it on March 12.

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Let us end with this prayer, attributed to Saint Gregory the Great:
Acclaim To The Suffering Christ
O Lord, You received affronts 
without number from Your blasphemers, 
yet each day You free captive souls 
from the grip of the ancient enemy. 
You did not avert Your face 
from the spittle of perfidy, 
yet You wash souls in saving waters. 
You accepted Your scourging without murmur, 
yet through your meditation
You deliver us from endless chastisements. 
You endured ill-treatment of all kinds, 
yet You want to give us a share 
in the choirs of angels in glory everlasting.
You did not refuse to be crowned with thorns, 
yet You save us from the wounds of sin. 
In your thirst You accepted the bitterness of gall, 
yet You prepare Yourself to fill us with eternal delights. 
You kept silence under the derisive homage 
rendered You by Your executioners, 
yet You petition the Father for us 
although You are his equal in Divinity.
You came to taste death, 
yet You were the Life 
and had come to bring it to the dead.