SAINT GREGORY I A.D. 590-604
GREGORY I, surnamed the Great, doctor of the Church, was born about the year 540, and was the son of Gordian, a Roman senator, afterwards regionary cardinal-deacon, and of Sylvia, a very pious lady. He was grandnephew of Pope Saint Felix III, of the Anicia, now the Conti, family. In the year 572 he was praetor, not, as some writers have stated, prefect of Rome. That fact is proven by a letter written by Gregory himself to Constantius, Archbishop of Milan.
At the death of his father, Gregory found himself master of an immense fortune. Then he built six monasteries, among them one, in 575, at his own palace in Rome; he became a Benedictine monk, and lived in the monastery of Saint Andrew, which he had himself caused to be built, and which belonged to the Camaldolese Benedictines. Some writers, and among them Father Thomassin, of the Oratory, maintain that Gregory belonged to no religious order. Be that as it may, he was named cardinal-deacon by Pelagius, whose secretary he had been. Subsequently the same pope sent him as nuncio to Constantinople, to the Emperor Maurice.
Gregory, on his return to Rome, was against his wish created pontiff. The choice of the clergy and of the Roman people had unanimously fallen upon Gregory, who wrote to the Emperor Maurice, begging him to oppose the election. Germanus, prefect of Rome, intercepted the letters, and substituted others in the opposite sense, containing the text of the decree of election. Gregory then left Rome and concealed himself in a retired place. The people flocked from all parts in search of Gregory, who was at length discovered by a dove hovering over his head. He was surrounded, and entreated to accept the pontificate, and he was conducted to Saint Peter's and consecrated on the 3d of September in the year 590.
At the commencement of his pontificate, he wrote to the patriarchs of the East a letter, in which, according to the custom of those times, he included his profession of faith. At the same time he confirmed the general councils of Nice, of Constantinople (i.e., the first council of that city), of Ephesus, and of Chalcedon. He ordered that those four councils should be respected as the four Gospels. The same confirmation was pronounced as to the second Council of Constantinople, called the fifth ecumenical council. The pope demanded that that council should be plainly acknowledged by all, in order that the defenders of the three chapters, which that council had condemned, should desist from their culpable obstinacy.
Three years previously, Pelagius had ordered that those subdeacons in Sicily who were married should separate from their wives. Gregory, thinking this decision too stern and severe, permitted subdeacons to marry, provided that they should not receive higher orders; and subsequently he forbade the ordination of any subdeacon before he had made the vow of continence in the proper form before the bishop.
He allowed the Spaniards to baptize by only a single immersion. The authority of Gregory was followed by the Fathers in the Council of Toledo. That permission, contrary to previous custom on that subject, was granted, in order that the true Catholics might be distinguished from the heretics in Spain, who, by a triple immersion, fancied that they authorized their errors relating to the Trinity.
He forbade that Hebrews should be compelled to receive the faith of Christ. He ordered that entrance into the monasteries of nuns should be forbidden to both men and women who were strangers to what concerned the administration of those monasteries. He ordered that at the commencement of Lent the blessed ashes should be placed on the foreheads of the faithful. Up to the time of Celestine III, created pope in 1191, it was the custom to place the holy ashes on the head of the pope, as they are now placed on the heads of the faithful, and to repeat the well-known formula : "Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return". But under Urban VI, elected pope in 1378, a different custom was introduced, which obtains to this day; that, namely, of strewing the ashes upon the head of the Holy Father without saying a word. Monsignor Antonelli, in a letter addressed to the Cardinal Gentili, inquires into the reasons for which the masters of the ceremonies refrain from saying the words. He considers that the action of strewing the ashes during the repetition of the formula is a venerable remnant of the rite formerly practised with the penitents on Ash Wednesday. Ashes were given to them, accompanied by those words which remind us of our mortality, and, so reminding us, are a wholesome humiliation. At the same time, the public penance, whence that ceremony came down to us, being a species of ecclesiastical judgment, to which the Roman pontiff ought not to be subjected, it was resolved that, as regarded him, the fact should suffice without the formula; that is to say, that the action of placing the ashes on the head sufficiently suggests the mortal condition of the pope, without there being exercised upon him that shadow of ecclesiastical jurisdiction to which the head of the Church is in no wise subject.
Gregory also ordered that the Lent fast should be kept uninterruptedly, and not, as formerly, discontinued on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Thus, fasting commenced from Septuagesima. He also ordered that from Septuagesima to Easter the Alleluia should not be sung. He permitted the priests of Sardinia to administer confirmation in the absence of the bishops, who ordinarily administer that sacrament, as was solemnly declared by the Council of Trent. Benedict XIII subsequently granted the same privilege to the abbot of Saint Paul, outside the walls of Rome, and to the custodian of the Holy Sepulchre, of the order of Minor Observantes, of the convent of Aracoeli.
In 592 Pope Saint Gregory caused the removal to Rome of the tunic of Saint John the Evangelist, and placed it be neath the altar of Saint John in the Lateran Basilica. The same year the Emperor Maurice rendered a decree by which he prohibited men of the legal profession, as well as persons charged with debts to the treasury, from entering the clerical state, and soldiers from entering the monastic profession. The Holy Father, in his letter written in 593, praises that part of the decree which relates to men of the law, but disapproves the two other parts, which he induced the emperor to revoke.
Saint Gregory also remedied two abuses: the one consisted in demanding a price for the burial of the dead in churches, and the other in building churches where the dead had been interred. The pope was unwilling that there should be any risk of the bones of the profane being mingled with those of martyrs.
Father Thomassin, already quoted, maintains that it was not until the reign of Gregory that Christians began to be buried in the churches; for which reason that pope disapproved of the custom. But Muratori proves that the custom was long anterior to Saint Gregory. The Council of Braga, in 563, was the first to forbid burial in the churches, and subsequently many synods, especially in France, prohibited the custom, but with exceptions as to certain persons. But the Roman Church has always maintained the ancient custom of burying in churches, as appears in the reply of Nicholas I to the Bulgarians, about the year 860. During the French occupation in 1809, public cemeteries began to be inpopular request, and such cemeteries were afterwards authorized by Pope Pius VII. Only persons of very high rank are now interred in the churches.
Many persons affirm that Saint Gregory the Great instituted what is known as the Gregorian Chant. But the learned Dominic Maria Manni, in his Dissertation upon the Discipline of the Ancient Ecclesiastical Chant, printed at Florence in 1756, and reprinted in the collection of Zaccaria in 1794, proves that Gregory did not invent that chant, but reduced it to a more fitting form, and rendered it more easy to be studied. And we have it on the authority of Anastasius the Librarian that a chant similar to the Gregorian was known in the time of Saint Hilary, created pope in 461; and, according to the testimony of Peter, Bishop of Orvieto, there was a very similar chant in the time of Pope Saint Sylvester, i.e., two hundred and seventy years before the time of Saint Gregory. However, it is certain that this pope instituted, at Rome, a school of chanters, for whom he had two houses built: one near the Basilica of Saint Peter, and the other near the patriarchate of Saint John Lateran. Into this college of chanters only seven deacons were admitted, and, in addition, some boys who, when necessary, took their parts in high tone.
Saint Gelasius having arranged the recital of the prayers or collects in the Mass, Saint Gregory put them in better order, and compiled a volume which he entitled the Sacramentary. In the Sacramentary of Saint Gregory and in the Roman rubrics, we find, in addition to the ceremonies of the Mass, those of baptism, of ordination, and of the processions, with the blessing of tapers and ashes, and many others noticed in the Sacramentary of Saint Gelasius.
Some persons have complained that Saint Gregory had adopted several practices from Constantinople, but he showed that he had only re-established old customs; and as it seemed to be feared that the Greeks would draw some advantage from it, "Who doubts", said he, "that that church should not be subject to the Holy See, as the emperor and the Bishop of Constantinople on every occasion show that it is? If that church or any other has some good practice, I am ready to imitate that practice of even the lowest of your inferior churches".
Saint Gregory instituted the processions on the day of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, and the Litany of the Saints on the feast of Saint Mark, on account of the increased virulence of the plague that had carried off Pelagius. The disease always ended in a fit of sneezing or of yawning, and the pope ordered that "God bless you" should be said to those who sneezed, and that the sign of the cross should be made on the mouths of those who yawned. The plague having ceased, the antiphon "Regina cceli laetare" was introduced in the chants of the Church.
It is affirmed by pious writers that, at the moment when the plague decreased in virulence, there appeared on the top of the mausoleum of Adrian an angel sheathing his sword. Thenceforth that mausoleum was called the Castle of Sant Angelo, and an angel in marble was placed on it, for which Benedict XIV substituted the one in bronze, which still remains there.
Gregory found it necessary to repress a claim of John the Faster, a man, however, whom the Greeks represent as a prelate of such great virtue that he was placed among the number of the saints, a step to which the approval of the Congregation of the Propaganda was given afterwards. John assumed the title of the Universal Bishop. The predecessor of Gregory had censured that title; and Gregory had already deprived Eulogus, Bishop of Alexandria, of the similar title of Universal Patriarch. The Holy Father then entitled himself, in all his letters, with a sentiment of humility and modesty, "servant of the servants of God". That custom has continued to our own day, and Pius X uses the same formula. At the close of the tenth century, some bishops wished to take that title; but it is now confined solely to the Roman pontiff.
Gregory was the first pontiff who ordered that pontifical diplomas or bulls should be dated from the Incarnation of our Saviour.
Formerly the Church had the custom of calculating time from the consular fasti (it is known that they commenced, dating from the year 244, from the foundation of Rome, or 245, according to the epoch of Varro, that is to say, five hundred and nine years before Christ), but under Diocletian appeared Dionysius, called, from his short stature, Dionysius the Little, who abandoned the eras of the consuls and the Emperors Augustus and Diocletian, which till then had been followed all over the world. In 527 Dionysius introduced a paschal cycle for ninety-five years, and made the years commence on the 25th of March, saying that he dated them from the Incarnation of the Lord; but he left the three months from the Circumcision, which commence on the 1st of January. So the year of the Incarnation, according to Dionysius, commenced three months after the Circumcision, which dates from the 1st of January; while the year of the Nativity commenced on the 28th of December, and that of the Indiction on the 24th of September, but for the Roman Curia on the 25th of December.
Saint Gregory was also the first pontiff who employed the phrase "to speak ex cathedra". He ratified the baptism given by heretics in the name of the Most Holy Trinity. He ordered that on the 29th of June the memory of the two princes of the apostles, Saint Peter and Saint Paul, should be celebrated in the Church of the Vatican, and that on the following day the feast of Saint Paul should be celebrated specially.
From the letters of this pontiff we learn that the Holy See then possessed rich patrimonies in Sicily, in the city of Syracuse, in Palermo, in Calabria, in Apulia, in the country of the Samnites, in Campania, in Tuscany, in Sabina, in Norcia, at Carseoli, one called Appia, at Ravenna, in Dalmatia, Illyria, Sardinia, Corsica, Liguria, in the Cottian Alps, in Germaniciana, in Syria, and in Gaul. The last-named patrimony, according to Saint Gregory, produced but little revenue. Each of those patrimonies was intrusted to a distinct administrator, who had the title of defender or rector, and was always one of the first clerks of the Roman Church. It also possessed other patrimonies in the East, which yielded a net revenue of nearly half a million francs of the present day.
Finally, Saint Gregory, after having, through Saint Augustine, a Benedictine monk of the abbey of Saint Andrew, at Rouen (a monastery known to have been founded by Saint Gregory), converted the Anglo-Saxons to the true faith, gave him orders to establish two metropolitans, one at London, and the other in the city of York; and the metropolitans were then to ordain twelve bishops.
Gregory confounded the Arians who remained in Spain, and the Lombards who occupied a large portion of Italy. He illustrated the Church by the prodigious number of works he has left us, although interrupted by serious difficulties. After meriting the praise of Saint Ildefonsus, who said of that great pontiff, "He excelled Anthony in holiness, and Augustine in knowledge", and after governing the Church thirteen years, six months, and ten days, Gregory died on the 12th of March, 603, aged sixty-four years.
In two ordinations, one in Lent, and the other in the month of September, he created sixty-two bishops, thirty-eight or thirty-nine priests, and five or fifteen deacons. He was adorned by the most sublime virtues, and his court consisted of subjects worthy to be near him. He kept laics out of his council, and took for his advisers only clerks endowed with great prudence, and learned pious monks. He received them whenever they chose, whether by night or day; nothing was wanting to religious perfection in the palace, nothing wanting of the pontifical duties in the Church.
Andres, at the beginning of his book, On the Origin, Progress, and Present Condition of all Literature, pronounces the following judgment on Gregory: "He possessed doctrine, learning, and eloquence superior to those of the time in which he lived; the arts and sciences found a worthy temple in his palace. He had not a single servant who had not received a good education, and whose words were not worthy to be heard around the ancient throne of the Latin language. In the court of the great Gregory the studies of the fine arts took a new vigor. Nevertheless, all the advantages of a lettered mind could not protect him from the calumnies of those who were determined to consider him the sworn enemy of good taste and of the sciences and fine arts. Tiraboschi courageously came forward in his defence, and the memoir of that holy doctor triumphed over many unworthy accusations".
The grave cares of the pontificate did not prevent Gregory from indulging in practices of the most ardent charity. Every day he invited twelve paupers into his palace, and personally waited upon them at table; and, according to the legends, that humility was rewarded by his one day seeing an angel make the thirteenth of the company at that table. Thence came the custom of daily inviting thirteen poor persons, generally priests, in the name of the pontiff, who himself served them at table; they were selected in the hospital of the Most Holy Trinity. In the monastery of Saint Andrew he had his portrait placed, showing him to have been of noble stature, his face long, his head bald in front, with tufts of black hair at the side.
A passage, altered from the Polycratic of John of Shrewsbury, was made to accuse Gregory of the burning of the Palatine Library, founded by Augustus that is to say, of all its classic works. This error is completely refuted in the Art of Verifying Dates. It was also said that during his reign Gregory ordered the destruction or mutilation of the statues and monuments which still existed in Rome, so that strangers who from religious motives might visit Rome should not go to admire the triumphal arches and other wonders of ancient Rome. Platina exclaims : "Away with such calumny against so great a Roman pontiff, to whom, after God, his country was dearer than life".
Platina further observed that the mutilations were made by the Romans to build new palaces. These barbarians tore away the ornaments and fixtures in order to get at some pal try bronze nails, or the vases (ollae) which the ancient architects had placed in circus walls to render them more sounding; and Platina adds: "This was done by the Romans themselves, if we may give the name of Romans to Epirotes, Dalmatians, Pannonians, and the scum and offscouring of the whole world".
In regard to the statues, Platina, in his fine Latinity, continues to justify Gregory, especially against the charge of having caused the statues to be decapitated. "The statues lie upon the ground, not only overthrown by time, but also because their bases had been removed by those who were in quest of