Gregory the Great–the First Pope
Gregory was born around the year A.D. 540 into a wealthy Roman home.
According to Gregory of Tours, the pope’s personal historian, Gregory was an apt
scholar in the fields of grammar, rhetoric, logic and law. During his lifetime he
wrote several famous works such as Moralia on the person Job, and a biography
on the monk Benedict (the second book of the Dialogues).
Upon his father’s death, and the devastation of Rome under the emperor Justinian
(527-565) who was trying to recover the lost half of the Roman Empire from the
Lombards (Germans), Gregory believed the world was coming to an end. He
decided to withdraw from the world and enter a Benedictine monastery. During
this time, he almost died due to prolong fasting. This impressed Benedict I, and so
he ordained Gregory.
Gregory was eventually dragged unwillingly from the monastery, by Pelagius II,
who made him a deacon. Then in 579 Pelagius II asked him to be a resident
ambassador (called apocrisarius) to the imperial court in Constantinople. During
this same time Gregory was asked, again by Pelagius, to seek Byzantine aid
against the Lombards, who had invaded Italy a few years before. This adventure
proved to be fruitless.
Some years later, Gregory returned to his monastery, but he wouldn’t be there for
long. In 590 Pelagius II died of the plague and the clergy chose Gregory to be
Pelagius’ successor. Because the church faced continual threats from the
Lombards , the Italians viewed Gregory not only as a spiritual leader, but really as a
ruler over the entire area. This area was a strip of territory that extended through
Italy diagonally from coast to coast--which would soon be called the Papal States.
Gregory reluctantly accepted his position but once he took over he made some
swift changes. He felt his position in the church needed to have the leadership and
control over the entire church hierarchy around the world, not just in Italy. As well,
he needed to have religious authority over all the Catholic people--world-wide.
Gregory most assuredly recalled the “Petrine Theory” from Leo I. Yet, Leo’s
theory wasn’t approved at the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). So, how would
Gregory implement universal papal leadership when it had been denied in the past?
First, he would set the pattern for the Church government, which would give him
power over the church hierarchy. The bishops would be supervised by
archbishops, and the archbishops by the “pope”–an ecclesiastical title which was
frequently used by any bishop, but under Gregory the Great, it came to be
reserved for official use solely to the bishop of Rome.
Secondly, Gregory would implement a missionary plan. In order for him to have
world-wide control the people needed to be Catholic. To make this happen,
Gregory asked the Benedictine monks to go out into the world and convert the
Anglo-Saxons to Catholicism. The term “Anglo-Saxons” is the common name for
the various peoples who migrated from Denmark and Northern Germany to Britain
about AD 450.
Gregory also asked Augustine to go to England and convert the Anglo-Saxons
there. Augustine began in the north of England and then went to Kent in the
south. King Ethelbert ruled in Kent and worshiped Odin, the god of his fathers.
According to Bede, the eighth century Anglo-Saxon historian Ethelbert agreed to
meet Augustine and hear what he had to say. The meeting had to be in the open,
rather than inside his house. The king believed that Augustine’s “magic” could only
work on him inside a building. Outside in the open air, he was safe.
After listening to Augustine, Ethelbert was hesitant saying that, “Your words and
promises are very fair, but they are new to us and of uncertain import, and I
cannot approve them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with
the whole English nation.” We do not know if Ethelbert ever forsook the beliefs
he was brought up with, but history does tell us that he converted to Catholicism
along with most in his empire.
From the outer appearance of things, it seemed as if Gregory’s missionary plan
was succeeding quite beautifully. And indeed, if one looks at numbers only, we can
say it did succeed. Countless Anglo-Saxons were baptized into the Catholic
church. This in part is why Gregory was given the name “the great.” His
implementation of universal papal authority, and the thousands that flocked to the
church was viewed as miraculous. But, we must honestly question if the converts
were able to give up all that they were taught. As we know, King Ethelbert
admitted that it would be difficult for him to forsake his beliefs and traditions, so
wouldn’t it be difficult for others as well? Apparently so.
Anglo-Saxons were committing themselves to the church and a pope--rather that
to the gospel and a Savior. Because of this, they brought into the Catholic church
their own ideas, beliefs, and superstitions.
The church also became a protection to crime. Murderers were allowed to take
refuge in the church. And thoughts (coming from the Germans) of having one’s
sins forgiven with the payment of money, slowly crept in. (Over a thousand years
later, Martin Luther would speak up against this).
During this same time, the clergy became very wealthy and prosperous as the rich
began joining the church. Yet, this brought on another problem. The priests were
hesitant to confront these rich when they were in sin. The priests enjoyed their
wealth and didn’t want to offend those who were making their lives so
comfortable. It also must be noted that some of the clergy feared for their safety
if they were to confront a person’s sinfulness. For instance, when a bishop
offended Queen Fredegund, (a Frank) she caused him to be murdered in his own
cathedral on Easter Sunday.
As might naturally have been expected, during Gregory’s time as pope (and since)
the people in the Catholic church came to see that the outward worship and the
rituals of the Mass was all that was required of them.. A personal relationship and
a commitment to the living Redeemer, Jesus Christ, became a completely lost
Gregory died on March 12, 604, and buried in the portico of St. Peters. In the
present basilica, his remains rest in the chapel of Clement VIII.
Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II, Vol. XII, Translated into English with
Prolegomena and Explanatory Notes. Series II, Vol. XII, under the Editorial Supervision of Philip
schaff, D.D., LLD., and Henry Wace, D.D. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark; Grand Rapids, MI: WM.B.
Eerdemans Publishing Company).
Sketches of Church History from AD 33 to the Reformation by Rev. J.C. Robertson, MA, Canon of
Canterbury (England: society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1904).
Bede, Ecclesiastical History, selections from: I-23, I-24, I-26. Chapter: The Conversion of England.
(Note: Bede, the historian, has also been referred to as “Bede the Venerable,” the priest, the
monk, the scholar).
Civilization Past & Present, Vol. 1 (Glenview, Illinois, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1981, 1976,
Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1956).
Copyright © 2003 by Donna Morley