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The Actions of Pope Gregory I in the World
From an Ecumenical Point of View
writes concern the Catholic papacy that the few years of Gregory's pontificate –
"are among the most notable in the entire history" (1971, 2:62).
The epithet "Great" is history's general opinion of the work of this son of the Roman Church. The stature of Gregory during his own time as well as the great significance of his pontificate to the subsequent history of the Western church has earned him this regard. In particular, it was his achievements which gave to the Church "an organization that was independent of the Empire or any other lay power" (Davis 1979:88) and which led her into either the 'dark ages' of Christianity or the 'ages of faith', according to two opposing viewpoints.
However, to view Gregory only from the perspective of pope, saint and doctor of the Church is to adopt a hagiographic attitude that too easily loses sight of the broader historical situation to which his actions were a response. The various negative aspects of his actions need also to be taken into account honestly to properly evaluate the career of one of the most significant leaders of Western Christianity.
This essay tries to avoid seeing him as the hero of the Church that he is often presented as by historians. It does not assume the sincerity of his motives simply because they are couched in the religious terms of his world. It rather tries to view his actions broadly against the background of his time and the inherent and implied objectives of those actions.
and raised with the Roman legacy of administrative genius and trained in Law, his entrance into the civil service was to be expected, and his appointment by the Emperor in 573 (Rush 1967:108; Cross ed. 1958:105) to the highest civil dignity in Rome as its Prefect and the president of its Senate, was an appreciation of this potential.
However, the calamitous times of famine, war and plague which faced him during his two years in office, under the military and administrative impotence of the Byzantine Emperor to resolve any of them, became intolerable, and on the death of his father he resigned (Rush ibid.).
His resignation has most often been portrayed as a pious choice to go God's way, but Hans Kuhner points rather to political and social reasons for it (Enc. Britannica 1977, 8:415). Bearing in mind that the ascetic virtues of monastic life were highly regarded in his family home (three of his father's sisters had chosen this life rather than marriage) and that now, in the grief of his father's death his own mother turned to this, his decision to leave public office for a spiritual retreat was an understandable choice in the disorder and disasters of the time. Yet, nevertheless it does show the selfless character of this wealthy Roman.
He disposed of his father's estates in Sicily and Rome to form seven monasteries, espoused the strict Benedictine Rule of monastic life, and associated himself with the monastery formed in his palace on Caelian Hill (St. Andrews), though Latourette doubts whether he ever became technically a monk.
With his administrative training and experience Pope Benedict I (murdered in a Lombard attack) ordained him to one of the seven diaconates of Rome. In 579 Pope Pelagius II sent him as his ambassador to Constantinople, recalling him in 584 to be his secretary and counselor. On his return some think that he was elected abbot of St. Andrews, but this is uncertain.
Pope Pelagius died of plague in January 590, and on September 3 of that year, with general acclaim, Gregory, great grandson of Pope Felix III (although Davis asserts 'great-great' 1979:79), became Bishop of Rome, Primate of Italy, and Patriarch of the West – the Pope.
3.1 His Humility  
first of the notable actions of Gregory was his consistent example of spiritual devotion and discipline. His reluctance to accept the papal throne, although often a ploy of the time to avoid appearing ambitious, seems in his situation to be a sincere reluctance. After election while awaiting imperial confirmation to office (which he requested not to be given) he inaugurated his reign with a three day penitential procession of clergy and laity of the seven districts for the continuing plague. Throughout Gregory's rule he continued to avoid pomp and ostentation. It is said that he even sent food from his table to the poor at each meal.
The Benedictine rule of personal poverty and that all property must be held in common (Davis 1979:77) was a significant influence on Gregory in his administration of the estates of the Roman Church. Earlier, on turning to the monastic life it is said that he distributed the balance of his fortune among the poor (Latourette 1971, 2:62) and on election to the papacy used the revenues of that office to subsidize the poor and the refugees of Rome (Latourette Ibid. p.63), including three thousand nuns who had fled the Lombard wars.
3.2 His Charity  
Church owned extensive property throughout the West of up to eighteen hundred square miles in extent, occupied but its often oppressed salves and serfs (Thompson & Johnson 1937:196). Gregory improved management of these estates and used their income in money and kind to feed Rome in famine, ransom captives, and support the needy. He rebuked those who stockpiled goods during famine, and those who enlarged their estates by ruthlessly disregarding the rights of others. Friend of the poor, he protested against the oppressive fiscal policies of the Byzantine exchequer, which so harshly taxed the people that they sometimes had to sell their children into slavery or emigrate into areas controlled by the Lombards. And yet, Bainton reports that Gregory's expression "the unspeakable Lombards" was because their taxation system was so light that some of the old Romans defected to their sovereignty (1967:13).
It thus appears that his government responsibilities and the welfare of the people were sometimes in conflict, yet he remained committed to the poor and in the judgments he handed down to his church officers his pastoral care was always evident (Bainton 1967:167).
some regard Gregory as the first Medieval pope (Bainton 1962:94), Oakley suggests that it is more appropriate to see him as the "transitional figure" ('Papacy' Enc. Brit. 1977, 13:956) between the patriarchal style and the autocratic style of church government. Kelly remarks that the "skill and persistence with which the Holy See was continually advancing and consolidating its claims" (1968:417) was noteworthy long before Gregory. But it was Gregory who "translated the theory of papal 'principatus' into the practical terms of papal supremacy." (Davis 1979:88).
The venom with which Gregory attacked Patriarch John the Faster's use of the title "universal bishop", given by the Byzantine emperors Leo and Justinian, is surprising but very significant. Gregory described its use as a "blasphemous and diabolical usurpation, and compared him who used it to Lucifer." (Schaff 1964, 4:220). He wrote letters in this regard to his ambassador Sabinianus in Constantinople, to the Patriarch, to the Emperor, to the Empress, and then to the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch and "played upon their jealousy (Schaff ibid.). On the death of the offending patriarch, he instructed his ambassador in Constantinople to make "renunciation of the wicked title" a condition of intercommunion, and wrote to Emperor Maurice that whoever uses such a title is "the forerunner of Antichrist". (Schaff ibid.)
He never used this title of himself, but because he would not share it rather than that he felt it inappropriate, and instead used "Servant of the Servants of God" which carried the same claim with proud modesty.
It is probably this obsession to protect the primacy of his office that led him into the guilty compromise of "indelible disgrace" (Gibbon 2:122) in applauding the brutal revolutionary Phocas who overthrew the benign but uncooperative Imperial couple, murdering them and their children, and oppressing his subjects.
Gregory asserted that "the See of Constantinople is subject to the Apostolic" (that is, Rome) "which is set over all the churches". yet he wisely tried to avoid intruding upon the practical jurisdiction of his patriarchal colleagues, saying –
"My honour is the honour of the universal Church. It is also the solid authority of my brother. I am truly honoured only when honour due to each and every one of them is not denied to them."
(quoted by AC Rush, p.112).
teachings ruled dogmatic thought "undisputed for five hundred years" (Heick, p.242). His untiring correspondence, prolific writing, and frequent preaching, gave great publicity to his views. Apart from his exhortations to cultivate the Christian virtues he made the following particular contributions to the Church's thinking.
5.1 Penance
Theoretically he was Augustinian, but in application he was at least Semi-Pelagian. Heick shows the inconsistencies in Gregory's soteriology. Gregory understood redemption as a price paid to Satan (Heick, p.243) rather than to the justice of God.
To him original sin was inherited guilt rather than a corrupted body, and unbaptised children were damned to eternal Hell. Baptism removed 'original sin' (guilt), but for subsequent sins there must be "satisfactions" of self-inflicted temporal punishments by which to escape eternal punishment.
Thus the Church received from Gregory a doctrine of Penance in which the merit of Christ's atonement, as well as the merit of the saints and the ritual of the Church, centred in converting eternal punishment into temporal penalties and in the reduction of the same.
5.2 Superstitions
Gregory taught that the use of amulets and relics of the saints helped to provide "satisfactions" for sins and assist the believer. Many popular superstitions of the peoples within the Latin Church and those of the Germanic tribes found a place in the theological perspective of Gregory. From the fourth century, martyrs had begun to play the role of pre-Christian gods in the old religions.
The magical element of pagan religions was thus modified and accommodated to the ethic and history of Christianity. Gregory in his 'Dialogues' reinforced superstitions about relics of the saints and furthered their cult. In his instructions to Augustine of Canterbury he also encouraged the use of pagan sacred places for the building of churches, thereby capitalizing on the pre-Christian past of the Anglo-Saxons.
Gregory particularly stimulated belief in supernatural phenomena as was credible in his time. Gregory accepted the writings of pseudo-Dionysius as authentic and these were probably a source of his teachings about hierarchies of angels, demons, and the sacraments (Wright in Dowley, 1988:83,132). He claimed to have seen an angel sheathing his sword over Hadrian's tomb during the penitential procession for the plague of 589-590 (Bainton 1967:166) which place became the papal seat.
5.3 Purgatory
  Bainton comments –
"he is credited with having first formulated the doctrine of purgatory – and what doctrine more than this shaped the piety of the Middle Ages?" (1967:15).
The purifying fires of purgatory had been taught before but Gregory made them "a matter essential to the faith" (Walker 1963:174).
5.4 The Mass
Gregory emphasized that "the Eucharist sacrifice" made satisfaction for sins of the living and the dead. Thus masses for the dead extended the Church's influence over men beyond the grave (Latourette 1971:361) to free or not to free from punishment. This teaching of Gregory contributed substantially to the number of endowments and legacies bequeathed for the saying of masses for the deceased, and helped to make the Church more wealthy.
6.1 Monastic Reform
In Gregory, monasticism and papacy joined hands for the first time. Monasticism in the West had suffered a considerable decline from the fifth century because of ascetic extremes and lack of regulation (Thompson & Johnson 1937:203). Benedict of Nursia's monastic rule corrected both these defects. Gregory promoted this moderate and strict Benedictine Rule which among others prevented monks from wandering between monasteries (Ibid. p.204), and he also separated men's monasteries from women's convents. He tried generally to enforce clerical celibacy.
As monasteries became owners of large landed estates a rivalry quickly developed between "regular" clergy ('regula') or monks on the one hand, and "secular" clergy (seculum') or priests, bishops and archbishops, on the other, from the double standard of morality between the two groups, and competition for favour of the laity to receive the generosity of the faithful.
Gregory granted monasteries exemption from the jurisdiction of local bishops and made them responsible to the papacy. He found it useful to have institutions directly accountable to himself within the sphere of local bishops who were still often independent of his direct control. Thompson and Johnson comment significantly that "the monks fought the battles of Rome in western Europe" (Ibid.).
6.2 Centralization
scandals of simony and other offences among clergy of the Frankish Church confirmed to Gregory the need for greater discipline and that the papacy and not the king should appoint them to office. Davis writes that –
"The first steps towards such a central control were taken in the organization of his mission to England. ...Gregory established what was to be the pattern of the government of the Church, bishops being supervised by their archbishop, and archbishops by the Pope." (1979:85-6)
In his government of the Western Church Gregory adapted and combined institutions already in existence to reinforce his primacy. He utilized the existing provincial organization found throughout the Empire with the difference that the metropolitan was now to derive his power from the Pope (Davis Ibid.).
Metropolitan bishops had not needed confirmation in their office before. He employed the practice of the emperors and sent the 'pallium' to Augustine, and thereafter newly-elected archbishops went to Rome to receive this conformation to office.
He increased the authority of the bishops under his immediate supervision relative to others and "centralized" and enlarged "the entire papal administration" (Kuhner 'Gregory I, Enc. Brit. 1977 8:415
6.3 The Liturgy
Gregory extensively remodeled the liturgy of the Western Church as represented in the book which uses his name, the gregorian Sacramentary, and the Gregorian Chant. He increased the importance of the sermon in the order of service, writing forty sermons on the Gospels, and twenty-two on Ezekiel, Song of Solomon, and others, and also composed many prayers for the Church calendar.
6.4 Clerical Training
He produced a handbook on Pastoral Care early in his pontificate which was used extensively, translated into Greek during his lifetime, and became for bishops and priests what the Rule of St. Benedict had become for monks. Gregory's longest work, the Book of Morals, using the biblical book of Job as its basis, was a storehouse of Gregory's theology, and became a 'vade mecum' for later centuries.
Hobbes describes the papacy as "the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof" (Davis 1979:68). It was Gregory who "proclaimed the 'Christian Commonwealth' in which the pope and clergy were to be responsible for ordering society" (Dowley 1988:220). Latourette attributes to this pope the laying of the foundations for the power which the Church of Rome was to exercise in the Western Europe of the next nine centuries.
It was the collapse of the Western Empire which left the bishop of Rome as the real ruler of much of central Italy. In the wake of the barbarian migrations into the Western Empire and its collapse it was the Church that came to be looked to to preserve 'Romanitas' (civilized culture).
Justinian's Code had assigned juridical and administrative tasks to bishops and they had become considered as pillars of governmental structure and in 554 Justinian's Pragmatic Sanction had given the papacy temporal power. Thus the consolidating of Rome's primacy and the centralizing of the Church under Pope Gregory I truly laid the foundation for the power of the papacy that ruled kings and nations in later centuries.
Gregory was very pragmatic in achieving his objectives. He did not hesitate to bribe corrupt Byzantine officials for their cooperation and showed a deferential attitude toward Brunhilde, a most blood-thirsty Frankish queen, recommending that she use military force to destroy pagan worship. The apparent influence of the Eastern Church upon the Celtic bishops probably hastened his mission to Britain. Augustine, as his representative, angered these Celtic clergy by insisting on treating them as subordinates. Walker writes that Gregory committed the British bishops, over whom he had no jurisdiction, to the superintendency of Augustine (1963:181).
In spite of the external Arianism of the Lombards, Gregory negotiated peace with them for the sake of Rome and began to slowly bring them under his influence. The abandonment of Arianism by the Visigoths of Spain the year before his enthronement was a great opportunity for Gregory, and his correspondence with their king and bishops swung their allegiance toward Rome. His influence among the Franks eventually resulted in the opportune request to restore the papal vicariate at Arles. In North Africa he allowed the bishops to maintain their local customs on condition no convert from Donatism be consecrated as bishop.
Gregory was an astute and dedicated leader of the Western Church whose actions continue their influence today in Roman Catholicism.
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