Gregory I

the great) (540-604. Pope from 590. Born in Rome, he was brought up in a household that encouraged piety and enabled him to receive a thorough education in grammar and rhetoric. His outstanding performance as a student of law led to his appointment as prefect of the city about 570. Later he decided to renounce worldly things and provided for the founding of seven monasteries, including one in his family home which he dedicated to St. Andrew and entered about 575. The experience in business affairs gained by his service as prefect and his predilection for the contemplative life were valuable in shaping the policies of his pontificate. Gregory was brought back into public life by Benedict I, who ordained him a Roman deacon. He was active as a papal representative to Constantinople and was successful in some instances, but failed to obtain aid for Rome against the Lombards. He reluctantly accepted his election as pope and was consecrated in 590.

His term in office had important and far-reaching consequences for the future of the papacy. In an effort to secure Rome against invasion by the Lombards he entered into a factional dispute with the church at Ravenna and the imperial exarch. Unable to reach an agreement which would unify Italian peacemaking efforts, Gregory sent his own troops against Lombard forces and made a truce with the Lombard duke, Aruilf of Spoleto, in 592. When the Lombard king entered Rome in 594, Gregory moved to save Rome by paying a large ransom and committing himself to an annual tribute. Gregory continued to work for peace throughout Italy, but this effort was not fruitful until 598. Revenues from the papal patrimony (lands in Italy, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Gaul, North Africa, and Illyricum) were administered by Gregory to care for poor families, ransom captives, and pay for the campaigns against and peace settlements with the Lombards. Since it was Gregory and not the emperor who undertook these duties usually assumed by the civil government, this was an important step in the formation of the Papal States,* thus making the pope a temporal ruler.

In ecclesiastical affairs, Gregory strengthened the position of the Roman pontificate through his handling of the church in both East and West. While recognizing the jurisdictional rights which the other churches had over their own territories, he maintained that the See of Peter had been entrusted with the care of the entire church and therefore had universal jurisdiction. He reversed a decision against two priests made by the patriarch of Constantinople (John IV the Faster) and strongly objected to the patriarch's use of the title “ecumenical (universal) bishop.” Gregory also asserted his position in the Western Church by seeing that the bishops were elected according to correct canonical procedure and by working to heal the Donatist* schism. He was not always successful in his attempts to enforce Roman primacy, especially in Aquilia where a previous schism remained unhealed until after his death. Gregory was able to link the independent Frankish Church to Rome by restoring the vicariate. He rejoiced over the conversion of the Arian Visigoths in 589 and was able to place the Spanish Church in the care of his friend Bishop Leander of Seville. Missionary work began in England under Augustine of Canterbury in 597 and succeeded in converting the Anglo-Saxons.

Gregory's importance is that of a transmitter of the wisdom of the ancient world to the medieval world. He is considered one of the four great doctors of the Roman Catholic Church in moral theology, not so much for the originality of his thought as for his didactic method. His works include forty Homilies on the Gospel (590-91), aimed at preparing his subjects for the Judgment; twenty-two Homilies on Ezekiel (593), profound and masterful pieces on many aspects of Christian life, including historically important accounts of Italy and the Lombards; the Book of Morals, a commentary on the Book of Job, his longest work and highly valued in the study of ethics during the Middle Ages; Pastoral Care, an exposition on the duties and qualities of the bishops of the church; fourteen books of Letters, which contain valuable information on his pontificate; and The Four Books of Dialogues on the Life and Miracles of the Italian Fathers and on the Immortality of Souls (593-94). The Dialogues are especially significant in that they simplified the doctrines expressed in Augustine's The City of God, and were thus very influential during the Middle Ages. Gregory was also active in the reform of the liturgy of the Roman Rite.

F.H. Dudden, Gregory the Great (2 vols., 1905); C. Butler, Western Mysticism (2nd ed., 1927); P. Batiffol, St. Gregory the Great (tr. J. Stoddard, 1929); N. Sharkey, St. Gregory the Great's Concept of Papal Power (1956).