Thursday, 12 March 2009

Feast of St Gregory the Great

Born around 540, St Gregory is one of the few Popes legitimately accorded the title 'Great'. Born into a senatorial family, he initially pursued a secular career.

In 574, however, after the death of his father he established several monasteries, including one in his own home, and became a monk where he practiced great austerities (although I have to admit, I've always found the story of his mother, St Sylvia, serving the monks their veges on the last of the family silver platters before it was given away to a beggar who turned out to be an angel fairly entertaining). It is in this period that he came under the influence of St Benedict - Montecassino was destroyed around 577, and the monks fled to Rome, allowing St Gregory access to the several informants who gave him the material for his life of the saint (Book II of the Dialogues).

In 578 he was reluctantly ordained a deacon by the Pope, and from 579 he spent several years as papal ambassador to Constantinople, where he became embroiled in the theological controversies of the day.

In 586 he returned to Rome and his monastery of St Andrew's, and the next few years proved particularly productive in terms of commentaries on Scripture, and much more. It was also in this period that he famously saw some britons being sold as slaves in the market, and became determined to go off and re-evanglise Britain. He didn't get very far on his missionary journey however, before being recalled to Rome!

In 590 he was elected Pope and seems to have been something of a reluctant starter. He proved however, despite illness, to be an extremely energetic Pope, reforming the liturgy (though his role in relation to the chant that is named for him is somewhat contested these days), sending a successful mission to England under the leadership of St Augustine of Canterbury, and diligently governing the Church.

Pope St Gregory the Great was a strong advocate of the monastic life, legislating in some respects to bring monasticism more closely into the structure of the Church, modifying some of St Benedict's prescriptions (for example extending the noviciate from one year to two), but also promoting some of St Benedict's key concepts, such as stability and poverty. His life of St Benedict is one of the foundational documents of the Benedictine Order, and some regard him as a second founder of the Order; certainly he played a key role in its spread.

His famous book on the role of the bishop (The Pastoral Rule) dates from this time - would that it was required reading for modern bishops!

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