St Gregory the Great.
Gregory was a 5th Century Roman of noble birth ― the son of a distinguished Senator of Rome. While still young, he was made Governor of Rome. On his father’s death he gave his great wealth to the poor, turned his house on the Caelian Hill overlooking the ancient Forum into a monastery (known today by his name in Italian as San Gregorio Magno), and for some years lived humbly as a monk. The Pope drew him from his seclusion and appointed him one of the seven Deacons of Rome. Later he was dispatched to the imperial court at Constantinople where he represented the Pope.
St Gregory, from his youth, was a gifted scholar, and enjoyed witty puns ― never missing a chance when it arose. One day, while still a monk, he was walking through the Forum market place, when he came across some white-skinned boys on display for sale. On enquiring about then, he heard with sorrow that they had no knowledge of the Christian Faith.
“And of what race are they” he asked.
“They are Angles”.
“Are they indeed. They are worthy to be Angels of God!” said he.
“And of what Province?”
“Of Deira”, was the reply.
“Truly we must rescue them from the wrath of God; and what is
the name of their King?”
“He is called Ella”.
“It is well”, said Gregory; “Alleluia must be sung in their land to God”.
With absolute decisiveness typical of a Roman administrator, together with the compassion of a holy monk, Gregory obtained permission from the Pope to prepare immediately to set out and take the Christian Faith to the Angles. The people of Rome, when they heard rumours that their beloved Gregory was about to leave them, protested to the Pope (Pelaguis II) who recalled him.
In due course Gregory was himself elected to the Chair of Peter in Rome. One of his first cares as Pope was to send from his own monastery St Augustine together with about thirty other monks to England where, at Canterbury, they built a chapel in honour of the third Century Roman Martyr, St Pancras. There they established the Church on the strong foundation of Roman style government. From this point its influence grew and spread throughout the British Isles ― giving shape and impetus not only to the Christian Church, but also to government, education and social services: all of which are still visible even in our own secular time.
Many who have never heard of this great champion of the Faith have at least heard of “Gregorian chant”. Even more who wouldn’t know what that term means, have heard Gregorian chant as a background to some popular modern music. St Gregory was instrumental in collecting together and formalising the traditional chants and music of the Church, some of which have their origin in the Blessed Apostle Paul.
Pope Gregory was a great administrator of the Church and an outstanding preacher and teacher. His sermons are still read and valued as much today as one and a half millennia ago. That, in itself, speaks volumes about this great man and great leader.
Painting by Scuola Senese (1580)
Sculpture by Nicolas Cordier (1602)
Interior of Basilica today
Pope Gregory’s Throne
A Word of Advice From Pope St. Gregory the Great (AD 5th Century)
In this connection we should note and ponder carefully how holy men, in order to safeguard themselves in humility, when they know many things perfectly, try to keep before their minds that which they do not know. Thus they remind themselves, on the one hand, of their own limitations, and on the other, they are not raised above themselves by those things in which they are proficient. Knowledge is indeed a virtue; but humility is the guardian of them all. For the future, then, be humble in mind about whatever you may know, lest the wind of vanity may carry off those very things which the virtue of knowledge has stored up.
When, therefore, you do any good, always recall to mind the sins you may have committed, so that while you are mindful of the evil you may have done, your
mind will never rejoice indiscreetly over the good you do. Let each esteem his neighbour as better than himself, even those who are strangers to you; yes, even those whom you may see do something which is wrong, because you do not know the good which may be hidden in them. Let each be zealous to be worthy of esteem; yet at the same time, let him live as if he knew not that he was so esteemed, lest by proudly claiming esteem, he may lose it….
If, therefore, holy men, even when they do mighty things, consider themselves worthless, what must be said of those who, without any fruit of virtue, are yet puffed up with pride? Works, however good, are as nothing unless seasoned with humility. A great deed, done proudly, lowers a man rather than uplifts him. He who would gather virtue without humility is like one who carries dust in the face of the wind; and where he appears to possess something he is in fact blinded from that same thing and made worse by it.
Therefore, in all that you do, hold fast to humility as the root of all virtues and good works. Pay no heed to the things in which you are better than others, but to those in which you are worse; so that, while you keep ever before you the example of those who are better than yourself, you may, through humility, be able to ascend to greater things, through the bountiful mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be honour and glory for ever and ever.