Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

8. Gregory the Great |
The man who laid the foundational unity of the Christian West

Gregory the Great is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 202, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

Out of chaos and anguish, Pope Gregory the Great rekindles united faith and purpose — in the nick of time

Gregory the Great - The man who laid the foundational unity of the Christian West

Gregory the Great – The man who laid the foundational unity of the Christian West
A youthful-looking Pope Gregory the Great, from an illustration by Antonello da Messina in the Galleria Nazionale della Sicilia, Palermo, Italy. Gregory was, in fact, already middle aged when he assumed the leadership of the western church.

Had the Muslims vanquished the Christian countries of North Africa a half-century sooner, the results of their subsequent assault upon western Europe would unquestionably have been very different. Gazing across the Mediterranean toward Italy, France and Spain, they would have beheld a civilization still pulverized by barbarian invasions, religiously fragmented, and deep in a state of squalid savagery–a harvest ripe for the Muslim sickle.

But in those dark years, more than two decades before Muhammad began his war for the unity of the Arab peoples, a very different man of God had been diligently forging the unity of the Christian West. He seemed the epitome of paradox: implacable yet pliable; harsh yet merciful; pragmatic yet romantic; condemned by some nineteenth-century liberal scholars as unintellectual, yet his name is linked to a musical form that is arguably the greatest Christian cultural accomplishment of the era; and his spiritual works guided Christians through the entire Middle Ages.

Born to wealth and influence, this man renounced great possessions to become a monk, but was then yanked back to become bishop of Rome, and therefore, in the eyes of the faithful, successor to the apostle Peter. He would be known to later centuries as Pope Gregory the Great. As such, he was destined to play a key role in the preservation of the West against the Islamic onrush, although Islam was a term he never would have heard.

Two attributes in particular made Gregory great. One, that most indispensable yet unglamorous of gifts, was his superb talent for administration. With this skill he would provide Western Europe with what it would need most in the crisis that was coming, namely a respected authority and central leadership. He set the Christian church at the undisputed core of medieval western society.

The second vital attribute was his ability to discern and address the central anguish of his people. In a Europe where danger, disease, slavery, exhaustion, anxiety, agony and death lay on every side, he addressed the deep fear that can haunt believers in such times: How could a good God create such a world? Their experience seemed to say that either there was no God, or God was indifferent to the pains of his creatures, or God was himself evil. This was the terrible question raised by what some regard as the most remarkable work of ancient man, the Book of Job. In his commentary on that Old Testament work, Gregory faced it head-on, and provided the kind of reassurance that defeats despair.

Gregory became pope in the year 590. Western Europe was a chaos of barbarian kingdoms. Italy in particular had been reduced by nearly two centuries of invasion and counterinvasion to a state of seemingly terminal devastation. Its latest attackers were the Lombards, a small but ferocious barbarian conglomerate that had streamed across the Alps twenty-two years earlier, and driven the forces of Byzantium out of much of the territory painfully regained under the emperor Justinian two decades before that. Now, as Lombard chieftains skirmished against the remaining imperial enclaves, and against each other, famine stalked the devastated countryside. City dwellers went hungry too. Plague followed close behind, and to these afflictions were added such disasters as storms and floods of unusual severity.

Two years prior to the Lombard incursion, for example, a pestilence notable for causing boils, fever, and swift death almost depopulated Italy’s northeastern region of Liguria, writes the reputed “father of Italian history,” Paul the Deacon, in his Historia Langobardum. Corpses lay unburied and “dread silence” covered the land. Famine struck in the year 570, and the year 589 brought down upon the countryside “a deluge of water . . . such as is believed not to have existed since the time of Noah,” which washed out whole farms, carried off corpses of men and cattle, and obliterated highways.

At Rome, the waters of the Tiber crept up the city’s walls, broke over them, and crashed into the low-lying sectors as people ran screaming ahead of them. It was said that “a great multitude of serpents, and a dragon of astonishing size, passed by the city and descended to the sea.” This was straightway followed by “a very grievous pestilence called inguinal” (i.e., of the groin). In its train came another scourge chillingly described by Paul as “a scab disease of such a kind that no one could recognize his own dead on account of the great swelling and inflammation.”

Gregory was meanwhile diligently pursuing his chosen vocation in St. Andrew’s Monastery at Rome. Always frail of body, rendered faint by fasting, and afflicted by gout and bouts of malaria, he had decided as a young man to leave the life of public service that his family characteristically followed. Instead, he believed, his vocation was to serve God as a monk, through prayer, meditation and contemplation of the divine light within that gives clarity to the mind and peace to the soul. Twice before he had been summoned from his monastic life to serve the church in the world, but now in the year 589, at the age of almost fifty, he was finally at peace.

And so he might have continued, except that God apparently had other ideas. To Gregory’s heartfelt chagrin, an urgent summons arrived from Pope Pelagius II, and the need was undeniable and immediate. With famine and plague simultaneously besetting Rome, said Pelagius, the citizens were panicking. Where could they turn? Government itself seemed to have disappeared; the church must bear the whole burden, and he needed help. So Gregory agreed to become Pelagius’s assistant, but worse was to follow. Early in 590, Pelagius himself died of plague; dread and despair now truly gripped the populace.

What could Gregory do, he must have wondered–he, a mere monk and papal secretary? The answer was clear. He must call the people to repentance, reassuring them of God’s ultimate mercy. So he organized processions throughout the city that converged upon the Church of the Blessed Virgin. “We beseech thee, O Lord, in all thy mercy,” the people chanted, “that thy wrath and thine anger may be removed from this city, and from thy holy house.” Yet heaven seemed deaf to their pleas. During one of these processions, writes Paul the Deacon, eighty people fell dead in a single hour. Was this God’s answer?

Then, glowing above the massive mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian, Gregory beheld a fearsome vision. It was the archangel Michael, he said, God’s warrior, sword in hand. But look! There was something else. The great angel was sheathing his sword, not brandishing it! The plague had been halted, Gregory declared. And so it had.1 Meanwhile, the citizenry had reached an unshakable decision. Gregory must become their next bishop. His horror at such a prospect became the stuff of legend. An occasional summons to meet some crisis was one thing. But bishop of Rome? From such an office there could be no escape–it was a lifetime sentence.

He sought to flee the city, says the document called The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, written by “an Anonymous Monk of Whitby.”2 Finding all the city gates guarded to prevent his escape, he had himself smuggled out in a barrel and then hid in a nearby wood, but the people, guided by a heavenly vision, found him and brought him back. Less dramatic testimony to his reluctance also exists. He wrote a letter begging the emperor Maurice not to confirm his election, but city officials intercepted it, and substituted a contrary plea of their own. The imperial imprimatur arrived late that summer.

Thus it was that on September 3, 590, before the high altar of the old St. Peter’s Basilica built by Constantine, amidst heartfelt psalms of praise, this would-be contemplative monk was consecrated bishop of Rome, sole apostolic see in all the west. Gregory himself did not rejoice. “Under the color of the episcopate,” he wrote to a friend, “I have been brought back into the world; I am enslaved to greater earthly cares than I ever remember to have been subjected to as a layman.” Filled with foreboding, he added: “I fear greatly for those who have been committed to me.”

Certainly, he faced an intimidating prospect. Around him lay the crumbling city of Rome, once the capital of the world, and now the shabby capital of one small and impoverished region, whose abandoned agricultural lands were reverting to wilderness. Beyond Italy, things were little better. Recurrent plagues after 542 had killed an estimated one-third of the empire’s population. People scarcely wept anymore, wrote the historian John of Ephesus. “They were stunned as if giddy with wine. They were smitten in their hearts and had become numb.” Gregory concurred. “All is destroyed, bones and flesh alike, all the glories and lawful institutions of the world,” he wrote. “What is left to the few who survive?”

Gregory’s most hideously pressing problem was security–primarily security against the Lombards. In 568, three years after the death of Justinian, they had come over the Alps as ostensible allies of the Byzantines. Soon, the allies became invaders and rampaged through the whole northern peninsula so ferociously that most cities surrendered without resistance, thereby reducing their peoples to Lombard slavery.

In the ensuing two decades, the Lombards had established a collection of feuding duchies in the north, and two large ones southward: Benevento and Spoleto, both ravenously eyeing what was left of Rome. Neither of these ever actually attacked the city, but constantly threatened it, and periodically tried to starve it through blockades. Between the northern and southern Lombard duchies, the Byzantines maintained control of a corridor running from Rome in the west to Ravenna in the east–roughly the area that a century and a half later would become the papal states.

Soon after Gregory’s consecration, Spoleto began a new offensive against the city, directed by its duke Ariulf. Gregory persistently describes this chieftain as the “unspeakable Ariulf,” since his wanton cruelty was considered remarkable even by Lombard standards. How ironic it would be, the pope lamented, if the once-great city of Rome should fall not even to a king, but to “a mere duke.” With Ariulf’s troops very near, “killing and mutilating,” he appealed to the Byzantine exarch in Ravenna for help. No help was available, the exarch replied.

So the pope opened personal negotiations with the “unspeakable” Ariulf, with notable results.3 According to Paul the Deacon, when the duke met with Gregory, “his heart was touched by divine grace, and he perceived there was so much force in the pontiff’s words that with most humble courtesy he made satisfaction. . . .” A treaty was signed; Gregory agreed to an undisclosed payment of money, and Ariulf’s men withdrew. But the treaty failed to keep the peace for long, because of Gregory’s second greatest problem: Constantinople, which insisted that it still ruled Italy, though it could now maintain no more than several precarious toeholds.

On this occasion, the current emperor, Maurice, repudiated the treaty, severely reprimanding Gregory for presumption. To Maurice, the Lombards were not a nation, nor even a people, but a collection of renegade robbers with whom no treaty must ever be made. Gregory replied that he did what had to be done, adding grimly that he was assuredly not motivated by fondness for Lombards. “For my sins,” he once wrote to a friend, “I find myself bishop not of Romans but of Lombards, whose promises stab like swords and whose kindness is bitter punishment.” The Byzantines (who often seemed little better) took advantage of Gregory’s treaty to recapture seven Lombard-held towns along the corridor–whereupon the Lombards recaptured the towns, and laid siege to Rome as well.

There Gregory had been preaching daily in St. Peter’s on the apocalyptic prophecies of Ezekiel: “Where are they who aforetime rejoiced in her magnificence? Where is all their pomp, their pride, their frequently disordered revelry? Lo, she sitteth desolate. . . .” The suffering citizenry needed no reminder of the biblical applicability of this. From the city walls, they could see their fellow citizens, chained together by the neck, being led off for sale as slaves. Starving and mutilated refugees, some with their hands chopped off, crept up to the gates. Gregory tried to ransom as many prisoners as possible, authorizing bishops to sell sacred vessels if necessary.

He even took charge of routine civic needs–raising money, for example, to repair aqueducts. By now, in the estimation of church historian W. H. Hutton (Cambridge Medieval History), Gregory was the actual ruler of Rome and central Italy, both spiritually and temporally, although this could not be openly recognized. By 595, five years into his fourteen-year papacy, he worked out the terms of another treaty with Ariulf and other Lombard dukes. If Constantinople didn’t want to sign it, he said, he could do so on behalf of the city alone.

These direct negotiations brought down upon him Maurice’s full fury, with accusations of lying, disloyalty, and even stupidity. Obviously, the emperor charged, Gregory was Ariulf’s dupe. “If the captivity of our land were not daily and hourly increasing,” the pope replied with dignity, “I would gladly hold my peace as to the contempt and derision that are poured upon me.” But as things stood, he protested, he could not remain silent. And he, too, had complaints. Why had Maurice repudiated his compact with Spoleto? And why were there no imperial troops to defend Rome? How could the emperor criticize the way the city was trying to defend itself, when the empire was doing so little in this regard?

The emperor, being himself thoroughly Christian (and soon to be martyred, along with his family, and one day canonized by the Eastern Church), went directly into theology. He threatened Gregory with “the terrible judgment of Almighty God.” Retorted the pope: “We do not yet know how each man will appear on that day. . . . I will say this, however, that as an unworthy sinner I have more hope from the mercy of Jesus when he comes than I have from the justice of your piety. . . . Perchance the things which you praise he will blame, and those which you blame he will praise.”

Such language struck the historian Thomas Hodgkin (Italy and her Invaders) as “bold almost to insolence.” Nevertheless, a two-year truce was forged in 599 between the Lombards and Constantinople. Italy’s imperial authorities had finally realized that the Lombards were there to stay, and must be recognized. This truce was soon broken by the Byzantines, replaced by another that was broken by the Lombards, and again replaced. But at least a peace process was under way. When Muslim raiders–always the harbingers of Muslim conquest–arrived in southern Italy a century and a half later, they would meet with a united resistance centered upon Rome and its bishop.

Small concern for Italy’s well-being could even now be expected from Constantinople, however, a fact that Gregory had learned long since. A public servant born and bred, he was the son of a Roman senator, and a scion of the powerful and pious Anicii family. (Some scholars say Pope Felix III, 483—492, was an ancester.) Schooled in both law and humanities, he had been appointed prefect of Rome at thirty-three, presiding at Senate meetings, and responsible for police matters and certain courts of law.

His chief early biographer, a ninth-century monk called John the Deacon, (not to be confused with the eighth-century Lombard historian, Paul), provides a physical description of Gregory in middle life, based on a fresco portrait still preserved in John’s time at St. Andrew’s Monastery. It showed a man of medium height and sturdy build, John says, with a bald head fringed by dark hair, dark eyes, somewhat aquiline nose, full lips, swarthy complexion and prominent chin. Wearing the formal dress of his day, he gazed out mildly from the picture.

His portrait notwithstanding, neither formality nor mildness figured prominently in Gregory’s reputation. Decisiveness, determination and dedication were more his style, as typified by the fact that upon the death of his father, he had immediately sold the family estate, and spent the proceeds on relief for the poor and the endowment of seven Benedictine monasteries. One of them was St. Andrew’s, installed in his ancestral home on Rome’s Coelian Hill, where Gregory himself was admitted as a humble lay brother.4 But he never did succeed in escaping the world.

First, Pope Benedict I insisted upon ordaining him one of the “deacons of Rome,” in charge of distributing alms in one of the city’s seven divisions. Then Pelagius II dispatched him to the court of the emperor Maurice to plead (in vain) for military and other assistance. This firsthand experience of eastern politics thoroughly soured him on Constantinople–and afforded an early glimpse of his future. Except for certain good friends, he seemingly disliked the city, the court, and the emperor Maurice, too. He also became convinced Rome could only be saved by a man on the spot, and independent of Constantinople–not realizing that one day he would become that man.

That Constantinople should consistently obstruct his efforts to restore the failing western empire must therefore have come as no real surprise, and the same would apply to his efforts at unifying the church. Upon his consecration, for example, he wrote to reassure the eastern bishops regarding his stand on the emperor Justinian’s unsuccessful attempt to resolve the Monophysite controversy thirty-seven years earlier. (See earlier volume, Darkness Descends, pages 277 and 280.) Vigilius, bishop of Rome at that time, had vigorously opposed Justinian’s formula, but Gregory, like other popes since, now fully accepted it.

This effort at amity unexpectedly backfired, however, when the bishops of Italy’s whole northern region, the Lombard area, stubbornly reiterated their rejection of the Justinian compromise. Moreover, when Gregory tried to discipline them, they appealed to Maurice, and he backed them. “Afflict them no further in the present troubled state of Italy,” the emperor ordered. Gregory argued long and eloquently, but obeyed.

Maurice’s unwelcome theological endeavors underlined the inescapable central problem. Did the emperor run the church, or did the pope? “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s,” Jesus had said (Matt. 22:21, Mk. 12:17, Lk. 20:25). Theoretically, the two should complement each other, and Gregory considered himself an entirely loyal subject. But the line between, always difficult, was made worse by the rooted assumption that imperial authority always trumped episcopal. This arrangement, later deplored by its critics as “Caesaropapism,” would continue to cause serious problems throughout history whenever Christianity became the state religion.

In this respect, Italy, for all its tribulations, enjoyed an important advantage. With the emperor so far away, the western church had a degree of freedom not enjoyed by the eastern patriarchs. It was a freedom Gregory would exploit to engender in the new western monarchies a confidence in the papacy they would assuredly need in the coming clash with Islam. Even so, Gregory never did refuse a direct imperial order. He boldly argued, remonstrated and equivocated–but when push came to shove, he obeyed his emperor.

On some matters, of course, Gregory fully concurred with Constantinople. He agreed, for instance, that the unity of the West depended on general adherence to basic Christian belief as defined in 325 at the Council of Nicea, which decisively rejected Arianism. All the barbarian peoples, except the Franks, had come into the West as Arians, including “the despicable Lombards,” as Gregory acidly referred to them. But even Lombards, he believed, could and should be saved. The true faith might enable God to amend their lives, “or if they should happen to die, as is more desirable, they might pass absolved from their crimes.”

In the critical years preceding the Muslim invasions, all the tribes one by one did accept the Nicene view of Jesus. So too did the Lombards, through socialization, intermarriage and the efforts of the Italian clergy, constantly encouraged by Gregory. Notably contributing to this process was a remarkable Christian woman, Theodelinda. Born an orthodox Christian, she was married to a Lombard king, and upon his death, a strange succession took place. So respected was Theodelinda that the Lombard dukes agreed to accept as their sovereign whomever she now chose to marry. She chose Duke Angiluf, who proved satisfactory to the Lombards, and quite a strong ally of Gregory. Angiluf himself did not forsake Arianism, but agreed for example that his son be baptized a Nicene Christian. Gregory sent warm congratulations to Theodelinda, and gifts to the baby prince.

Meanwhile, his enthusiasm for missions bore lasting fruit. He sent Augustine to Canterbury, England, leading sixty years later to the unification of the church in Britain. (See subchapter that follows.) All over western Europe, he used the monks as powerful transmitters of divine grace, through lives dedicated wholly to God, often appointing them as bishops. He urged monasteries to operate according to rule, preferably the rule of St. Benedict, whom he greatly admired, and to whom he dedicated the entire second book of his four-volume Dialogues. The monk’s service to God must be twofold, Gregory believed. He must seek God in the contemplative life, while also working out the Christian’s duty to his fellow men. Those who aspire to “the citadel of contemplation” should first prove themselves in action among God’s people in the world.

Gregory’s liturgical and musical accomplishments exhibit the same theme: service to God and man. He wanted the best physical expression attainable of this duality, and his contribution to the Roman liturgy and sacred music is impressive. He established the Roman Schola Cantorum (school of singers) at the Lateran, for instance, and his name is closely linked with the plainsong style of liturgical singing commonly known as “Gregorian chant.”

As bishop of Rome, of course, he had wide ecclesiastical power. Among other prerogatives, he could grant or withhold confirmation of the election of most western bishops, and often did withhold it. In his hundreds of letters to prelates in Gaul, Spain and Africa, many of which survive, he freely advised, exhorted and rebuked, always with the clear underlying assumption that ultimate authority over them resided in the Apostolic See of Peter. His Liber Regulae Pastoralis became the veritable textbook of the medieval episcopate, and continues in use today as a manual guiding Catholic bishops. England’s future King Alfred reputedly translated it into Old English, and it circulated widely in Gaul. In the ninth century, Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, reported that every bishop at his consecration was given a copy.

While striving always for the unity of the West, Gregory was not insistent on complete uniformity of practice. “When there is one faith,” he wrote to his Spanish friend, Bishop Leander of Seville, “difference of usage does no harm to the church.” Therefore, he backed Leander in allowing the formerly Arian Spaniards to continue using single-immersion baptism, rather than the three immersions required in the Roman rite. Similarly, when Augustine of Canterbury asked what liturgical rite to use in Britain, Gregory did not simply order him to use the Roman or Gallic mass. He advised Augustine to ascertain which one would best please God and the English converts.5

So too with the Jews, whose position within the empire was restricted by imperial legislation. Gregory approved this restrictive legislation, and urged the Visigothic monarchy in Spain to duplicate it, but within its limits he insisted that the rights of Jews as Roman citizens be rigorously observed, and that they be treated with scrupulous fairness. He saw the Jewish people as sadly blind in not recognizing that the great messianic promise of their own scriptures had in fact been fulfilled. But he forbade attempts to forcibly convert them, “lest those whom the sweetness of preaching and the fear of future judgment might have invited to believe be repelled by threats and terrors.” Besides, he argued, conversions by force were never sincere. On the other hand, however, some gentle encouragement, such as a lower rent or tax, would not be amiss.

But quite another side of his personality is evidenced by six years of vehement correspondence with state and church officials in Africa, urging punitive action against both the Donatists and the remaining pagan peoples there. Donatism had emerged after the imperial persecutions of the third century. (See earlier volume, By This Sign, chapter 6.) Strictly speaking, Donatism began as a schism, not a heresy, but over time had become both heretical and extremely violent, resorting to what a later generation would call terrorism. Against the Donatists, Gregory demanded stern measures, including beating and torture.

Probably the best portrait of the man comes not from his biographers, but from himself. Of his voluminous correspondence, some eight hundred letters survive, encompassing personal, ecclesiastical, governmental, diplomatic and administrative activity, many of them written by a man too sick to rise from his bed.6 Many involve real estate. By the end of the eighth century, writes Prosper Boissonnade in his Life and Work in Medieval Europe, fully one-third of the soil of Western Europe would belong to the church. Eighteen hundred square miles of it belonged to the see of Rome. Known as the “Patrimony of St. Peter,” it consisted of more than four hundred rural estates, most of them in Sicily, which produced wealth to support the church, its monasteries and convents, and its numerous charities.

Management was delegated to local officials called “rectors (rulers) of the patrimony.” One was a subdeacon named Peter, responsible for the Sicilian estates, and Gregory’s instructions to him are exhaustive. Peter must ensure that all dealings are scrupulously honest (fair prices, no false measures, loans when necessary, respect for boundaries, no harboring of runaway slaves). But would Peter also please keep in mind that the purpose of the patrimony was to produce revenue? What, for instance, was the point in maintaining all these stud horses, while receiving hardly any stud fees? “It is a very hard thing that we should be paying sixty solidi a year to our stud-grooms, and not receiving one eighteenth as much back.”7

Peter had also to represent the pope in weightier matters. He must recommend suitable candidates for the priesthood and for vacant bishoprics. He was to tactfully persuade a certain bishop to be less severe. He was to mediate a dispute between another bishop and a neighboring aristocrat. He was to depose an unsatisfactory abbot. Peter, it appears, lasted eighteen months on the job and quit.

Gregory made tough demands on his clergy as well. “Bad priests are the cause of people’s ruin, and what is only a fault in a layman is a crime in a clergyman.” Offsetting his demands, however, are flashes of wit and humor. How fortuitously God has arranged things, he observes. We no sooner congratulate ourselves on some great gift we possess, for example, than we are humbled by the unpleasant discovery of one we lack.

Then, too, there are endless letters meeting the concerns of individual people: arrangements for the care of the orphaned daughters of the great poet Venantius Fortunatus; instructions to a rector to pay the debts of a Syrian merchant whose creditors will otherwise seize his son;8 and an appeal to his old friend, Bishop Marinianus of Ravenna, who is ill and vomiting blood, to come to Rome and be cured. Failing a cure, Gregory tells Marinianus, “whichever of us God calls first” could die in the other’s arms.

Not a few letters are extremely severe, of course, such as the one summoning to Rome a certain Bishop Maximus, newly elected in what is now Croatia. Although his consecration had been approved by the emperor, Gregory charged that Maximus had lived an evil life, and had purchased his episcopal votes. Maximus not only defied the summons, but countered with a false allegation that Gregory himself had murdered another bishop. This wrangle continued for several years, but Gregory prevailed. Maximus wound up lying prostrate on a church pavement and declaiming, “I have sinned against God and the most blessed pope Gregory.” After that, Gregory allowed him to assume his episcopacy.

Not that he won all his battles. One lost cause was his virulent campaign against the continuing use of the term “ecumenical bishop” (i.e., “universal bishop”) by the patriarchs of Constantinople. Rome had long been mildly annoyed by this and in 595, when the patriarch John repeated the title over and over again in one routine document Gregory blew up. No bishop should be subjected to the headship of anyone but Jesus Christ himself, he insisted. To address anyone–emphatically including himself–as “universal bishop” was a profane and wicked idea. (Gregory referred to himself as the “servant of the servants of God.”)

When John refused to back down, and the emperor approved the use of the offending title, and the patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria seemed indifferent, Gregory angrily broke off communion with Constantinople. Succeeding patriarchs nevertheless continued to use the title, and a century later Rome itself would begin to apply it to the pope. But at the time, writes J. B. Bury (A History of the Later Roman Empire), the “ecumenical bishop” fight was one of many irritants that arguably justify dating Christendom’s final east—west schism to the reign of Maurice and the pontificate of Gregory I.

Undoubtedly Gregory’s greatest miscall, however, was the panegyric he dispatched to the new emperor Phocas after the death of Maurice. This effusion begins like a liturgy: “Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad!” It continues in the same tone: “By your benign actions may all the citizens of our Republic, until now so grievously afflicted, regain their cheerfulness of soul. . . . I delight to think, with a grateful heart, what praise is due to Almighty God for removing the yoke of our sadness. . . .” And more of the same.

Did Gregory not know that Maurice and his sons were butchered by Phocas, and Maurice died a very Christian death? (See page 134.) Did he not foresee that Maurice’s widow and children would soon be murdered as well, and that from Phocas’s record, it was altogether clear what kind of emperor he would be? Whatever his personal feelings, say his defenders, Gregory was naturally obliged to acknowledge the new ruler or perhaps, he really did not know the frightful details of Maurice’s death. Whatever the explanation, his encomium to one of the worst of all emperors stands as a stain on an otherwise exemplary life.

Other than this, the chief accusations historians bring against Gregory are that he never did learn Greek, scorned the Roman classics as heathen, and lacked literary polish. His nineteenth-century translator, James Barmby (writing in Britain’s great liberal era), accuses him of naiveté. His accounts of the Latin saints are tales of marvels, Barmby writes, childish, grotesque, and not “edifying to readers of the present day,” and his biblical scholarship is “utterly incompetent.” Bury faults Gregory’s language as lacking in academic polish, and Gregory himself for having “launched the church into the waters of ignorance and barbarism.”

In the twentieth century, however, Bishop Gregory has fared better than his critics. Some today regard Barmby’s translation as almost unintelligible, while the erudite Bury is seen as having failed to appreciate the horrors being endured by Gregory’s flock, the people to whom his biblical and spiritual writings are primarily addressed. Gregory was not writing for academic, literary or artistic approval, but for the benefit of people facing death, destitution and despair.9 He clearly understood the fragility of civilized order in what Augustine called “the City of Man,” writes the late twentieth-century historian R. A. Markus (Gregory the Great and his World). Nothing evidences this better than his most ambitious literary work, the Magna Moralia, an extensive allegory based on Job, a biblical subject that few ancient commentators, and not many modern ones, hasten to tackle.

In this thirty-five-volume work, totaling more than five-hundred-thousand words, Gregory, a man for whom pain had become a way of life, sought to bring meaning and purpose to the suffering that much of his flock was day by day enduring. In the Old Testament, Job is portrayed as a God-fearing and prosperous individual whose faith, says the devil, will evaporate if his riches are removed, and he will curse God. So God permits Satan to take them away, one by one, until Job is utterly destitute and stricken with disease, trying through dialogues with three friends to fathom what has befallen him. But though dumbfounded by his fate, Job does not yield to despair. He declares his faith in words like those which Handel would make memorable in one of the great arias of his oratorio, The Messiah: “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth” (Job 19:25). In the end, God restores Job and doubles his wealth.

What did this have to teach the Christians who clung to their faith through famine, disease, war and death? Gregory’s response was not to promise that the suffering would cease, because he knew it would not, but rather to give it purpose. “Unless [the soul] sighs, it does not eat,” he writes. “The prophet sighed and ate when he said, ‘My tears were bread to me.’” God takes satisfaction in driving his saints toward repentance and reconciliation, a process that can be learned from example: “Virtue acts quietly, but the recognition of virtue is stirred up by the whip. Left alone, Job kept what he was to himself; beset by troubles, he brought the sweet odor of his fortitude to the notice of all. It is that way with ointments that do not spread their scent abroad unless they are stirred up, and with incenses that do not give off their aroma unless they are burned.”

So what is the fundamental purpose of pain? Willingly accepted, says Gregory, it wards off the danger of eternal damnation. Accompanied by intense longing for God, pain can open a door through which floods God’s exquisite light. He knew from his own painful experience that this was the peace, which, as Paul said, “passes all human understanding.” In short, pain can foster virtue and end in triumph. To western European and North American Christians of the late-twentieth century, this would seem a harsh and strident message. To sixth-century Christians in Italy under the Lombards, or twenty-first-century Christians in Sudan, living under the Muslims, it would evoke a very different response. It transformed personal hardship, a trigger for despair for the natural man, into a powerful signal of hope for the Christian.

Unlike Job, however, Gregory the Great did not die with all his problems solved. When he went to his grave at the east end of the Basilica of St. Peter, beneath the altar to St. Andrew on or about March 12, 604, the Lombard problem, though easing, was far from over. Rome was again in the grip of a famine, and most no doubt expected further and more horrible plagues.

When his successor as bishop of Rome, Sabinianus, cut off free rations in the city, riots followed. Some actually complained that Gregory had caused the shortage by his many lavish expenditures–the very largesse from which they themselves had so often benefited. A furious mob sought to burn his books, but a courageous assistant calmed the crowd by convincing them that he had often seen the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, hovering near Pope Gregory when he was writing those very books. The books were saved, and very soon afterward, their author was canonized by popular acclamation.

Though the problems of Western Europe remained unsolved, where to look for solutions had been clearly established. The critical James Barmby provides an admirable summation: “It is impossible to conceive,” he writes, “what would have been the confusion, the lawlessness, the chaotic state of the Middle Ages without the medieval papacy; and of the medieval papacy, the real father is Gregory the Great.” The ultimate authority in the former empire was no longer in any doubt. It had once resided in a Roman emperor. Henceforth, it would reside in a Roman bishop, and it would be he, more than any king, who would stir the spirit that stopped, and kept stopped, the Muslim onslaught in the west.

This is the end of the Gregory the Great category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 202, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Gregory the Great from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info