Bede: Gregory the Great
Tradition has assigned the name Great to only two Popes, Leo I (440-461) and
Gregory I (590-604). The latter is often remembered for his efforts to promote the
conversion of the English. The following account is from St. Bede's classic work (written
before 731) on early English Church history.
In the year of our Lord 605, having ruled the apostolic Roman Church most illustriously
for thirteen years, six months, and ten days, the blessed Pope Gregory died and was taken
up to his eternal home in heaven. And it is fitting that he should receive special mention
in this history, since it was through his zeal that our English nation was brought from
the bondage of Satan to the Faith of Christ, and we may rightly term him our own apostle.
For during his pontificate, while he exercised supreme authority over all the churches of
Christendom that had already long since been converted, he transformed our still
idolatrous nation into a church of Christ. So we may rightly describe him as our own
apostle, for while others may not regard him in this light, he was certainly an apostle to
our own nation, and we are the seal of his apostleship in the Lord.
Gregory was Roman-born, son of Gordian, and came of a noble and devout family. Felix,
once bishop of the same apostolic see, a man of high distinction in the Church of Christ,
was one of his ancestors, and Gregory maintained this family tradition by the nobility and
devotion of his religious life. By God's grace, he employed his recognized worldly
position solely to win the glory of eternal honour, for he soon retired from secular life
and sought admission to a monastery. There he entered upon a life of such perfection in
grace that in later years he used to recall with tears how his mind was set on high
things, soaring above all that is transitory, and how he was able to devote himself
entirely to the spiritual life. Remaining in the body, he could yet transcend its
limitations in contemplation, and looked forward to death, which most men regard as a
punishment, as the gateway to life and reward of his labours. He used to mention this, not
in order to call attention to his increase in virtue, but lamenting the loss of virtue
sustained in his spiritual life through his pastoral responsibilities. One day, in
conversation with his deacon Peter, Gregory described his former spiritual state, then
sadly continued: 'My pastoral responsibilities now compel me to have dealings with worldly
men, and when I recall my former peace, it seems that my mind is bespattered with the mire
of daily affairs. For when I am wearied by attention to the worldly affairs of numberless
people and wish to meditate on spiritual things, I seem to approach them with unmistakably
lessened powers. So when I compare what I now endure with what I have lost, and when I
weigh that loss, my burden seems greater than ever.'
Holy Gregory spoke in this way from deep humility, yet we cannot help but feel that he
lost none of his monastic perfection through his pastoral cares, and gained greater merit
by his labours for the conversion of souls than in his former peaceful life, especially
since, even when he became Pope, he ordered his house as a monastery. When he was first
summoned from his monastery, ordained to the ministry of the altar, and sent to
Constantinople as representative of the apostolic see, he never abandoned his spiritual
exercises, although compelled to mix with people of the Imperial court. For some of his
fellow-monks were so devoted to him that they accompanied him to the Imperial city, and he
began to maintain a regular religious observance with them. In this way, as he records,
their example proved an anchor-cable that held him fast to the peaceful shore of prayer
while he was tossed on the restless waves of worldly affairs, and his studies in their
company enabled him to refresh a mind distracted by earthly concerns. He was not only
strengthened against the temptations of the world by their fellowship, but inspired to
ever greater spiritual activity.
When these companions urged him to write a mystical commentary on the often obscure
book of Job, he could not refuse a task imposed on him by brotherly affection, which would
be of help to many people. So he first gave a clear exposition of its literal meaning in
thirty-five sections, and followed by showing how the book refers to Christ and the
sacraments of the Church, and in what sense it applies to all the faithful. He began this
work when Papal representative in the Imperial city, and completed it in Rome after he
became Pope. It was during his stay in Constantinople that Gregory, a mighty champion of
Catholic truth, suppressed at its birth a new heresy about our state at the resurrection.
For Eutyches, bishop of that city, taught that our bodies will then be impalpable, more
intangible than wind and air: but when Gregory heard this, he quoted the example of our
Lord's Resurrection, and showed logically how this opinion was utterly opposed to the
orthodox belief. For the Catholic belief is that the body is transfigured in the glory of
immortality and refined by the operation of spiritual power, but remains palpable by
reason of its nature. This is exemplified in our Lord's risen body, of which he said:
'Touch Me, and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see Me have.' In defense
of the Faith, our venerable father Gregory contested this rising heresy so effectively
that, with the help of the devout Emperor Tiberius Constantine, it was entirely
suppressed, and no one has since been found to revive it.
Gregory also wrote a notable book, The Pastoral Office, in which he describes in clear
terms the qualities essential in those who rule the Church, showing how they should live;
how they should carefully instruct all their people; and how they should always bear in
mind their own frailty. He also compiled forty Homilies on the Gospel, which he divided
into two volumes. He wrote four books of Dialogues, in which at the request of his deacon
Peter, he included the lives of the saints of Italy to serve as patterns of holy life for
posterity. So whereas in his Commentaries he showed what virtues are necessary, in
describing the miracles of the saints he made clear the potency of those virtues. In
twenty-two homilies he also revealed the profound teaching latent in the early and latter
parts of the prophet Ezekiel, which had hitherto remained very obscure. Further, he
compiled a book of answers in reply to the questions of Saint Augustine, first bishop of
the English nation.... In conjunction with the bishops of Italy he also compiled the short
Synodical Book, which deals with the administration of the Church. He also wrote a large
number of personal letters. The extent of his writings is a source of amazement when one
considers that throughout his youth he was often in agony from gastric pain, and
frequently troubled by a slow fever. But in all these afflictions he reflected that holy
scripture says: 'The Lord scourgeth every son that He receiveth', and the greater his
worldly sufferings, the greater his assurance of eternal joy.
Much might be said of his imperishable genius, which was unimpaired even by the most
severe physical afflictions; for while other popes devoted themselves to building churches
and enriching them with costly ornaments, Gregory's sole concern was to save souls. He
regularly gave whatever money he had to relieve the poor, in order that 'his righteousness
might remain for ever, and his horn be exalted with honour.' . . . In addition to his
deeds of kindness and justice, we should remember with gratitude how Gregory saved our
nation from the grasp of the ancient Enemy by the preachers whom he sent us, and brought
it into the abiding liberty of God. He was full of joy at its conversion and salvation, as
he mentions in his Commentary on Job: 'The Britons, who formerly knew only their own
barbaric tongue, have long since begun to cry the Hebrew Alleluia to the praise of God.
The once restless sea now lies quiet before the feet of His saints, and its ungovernable
rages, which no earthly princes could tame by the sword, are now quelled at the simple
word of His priests in the fear of God. Heathen nations who never trembled before armed
hosts now accept and obey the teachings of the humble For now that the grace of the
knowledge of God has enlightened them and they see His heavenly truths and mighty wonders,
the fear of God restrains them from their former wickedness, and they desire with all
their hearts to win the prize of eternal life.' Gregory also tells how the holy Augustine
and his companions guided the English nation to knowledge of the truth both by their
preaching and their miracles.
Among many other matters, blessed Pope Gregory decreed that Mass should be said over
the tombs of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul in their churches. He also introduced into
the Canon of the Mass three excellent and valuable petitions: Order our days in Thy peace,
preserve us from eternal damnation, and number us in the flock of Thine elect, Through
Christ our Lord.
Gregory ruled the Church during the reigns of the Emperors Maurice and Phocas, and in
the second year of the latter's reign he passed from this life and entered the true life
of heaven. His body was laid to rest on March the fourth in the church of Saint Peter the
Apostle before the sacristy, whence he will one day rise in glory with other shepherds of
Holy Church. On his tomb was inscribed this epitaph:
Receive, O earth, the body that you gave, Till God's lifegiving power destroy the
grave. His heaven-bound soul no deadly power, no strife Can harm, whose death is but the
gate of life. The tomb of this high Pontiff, now at rest, Recalls his life and deeds for
ever blest. He fed the hungry, and he clothed the chill, And by his message saved their
souls from ill. Whate'er he taught, he first fulfilled in deed, And proved a pattern in
his people's need. To Christ he led the Angles, and by grace To Faith and Church he added
a new race. O holy pastor, all your work and prayer To God you offered with a shepherd's
care. High place in heaven is your just reward, In triumph and in joy before the Lord.
I must here relate a story which shows Gregory's deep desire for the salvation of our
nation. We are told that one day some merchants who had recently arrived in Rome displayed
their many wares in the crowded market-place. Among other merchandise Gregory saw some
boys exposed for sale. These had fair complexions, fine-cut features, and fair hair.
Looking at them with interest, he enquired what country and race they came from. 'They
come from Britain,' he was told, 'where all the people have this appearance.' He then
asked whether the people were Christians, or
whether they were still ignorant heathens. 'They are pagans,' he was informed. 'Alas!'
said Gregory with a heartfelt sigh: 'how sad that such handsome folk are still in the
grasp of the Author of darkness, and that faces of such beauty conceal minds ignorant of
God's grace! What is the name of this race?' 'They are called Angles,' he was told. 'That
is appropriate,' he said, 'for they have angelic faces, and it is right that they should
become fellow-heirs with the angels in heaven. And what is the name of their Province?'
'Deira,' was the answer. 'Good. They shall indeed be de ira saved from wrath and called to
the mercy of Christ. And what is the name of their king?' he asked. 'Aella', he was told.
'Then must Alleluia be sung to the praise of God our Creator in their land,' said Gregory,
making play on the name.
Approaching the Pope of the apostolic Roman see for he was not yet Pope himself Gregory
begged him to send preachers of the word to the English people in Britain to convert them
to Christ, and declared his own eagerness to attempt the task should the Pope see fit to
direct it. But this permission was not forthcoming, for although the Pope himself was
willing, the citizens of Rome would not allow Gregory to go so far away from the city. But
directly Gregory succeeded to the Papacy himself, he put in hand this long cherished
project and sent other missionaries in his place, assisting their work by his own prayers
and encouragement. And I have thought it fitting to include this traditional story in the
history of our Church.
Bede: Ecclesiastical history of the English People
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© Paul Halsall, July 1998