Spiritual Life
Reasons to Believe
Religions & Sects
Church History
In the News
Faith & Reason Press Speaker's Forum Links Resources About Us

Gregory the Great–the First Pope


Donna Morley

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 message.

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).

Gregory, Moralia

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, 1969, 1960).

Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1956).

Copyright © 2003 by Donna Morley