Pope Saint Gregory the Great (Sanctus Gregorius Magnus Papa), bishop and doctor of the church, was born around 540 AD and died in 604 after serving 14 years as pope. He is the first pope to come from the monastic tradition, which is assumed to be of the Benedictine. He viewed the life of a monk as the “ardent quest for the vision of our Creator”. Such mysticism may seem at odds with the calling to the bishopric and the seat of Peter, a calling he did not look forward to, and yet Gregory brought these two aspects of ministry together effectively. This of course wasn’t some cosmic conjunction or happenstance.
In the years before he became pope, he served as apocrisiarius under the former pope, Pelagius II. As apocrisiarius, an ambassador, to the emperor in Byzantine, Gregory sought help from the east in dealing with the Lombards, who were the inheritors of the Arian heresy and still a powerful force in the western empire. Byzantium offered no help, having to deal with Persia and barbarians to the north, and this may be the reason for Gregory’s greatness as a pope. He knows already the situation of the western empire, being separate from the east as the Roman empire is crashing down. The Roman east, while still stable, is also beset with new challenges from the north and from Persia. Gregory comes to the Chair of Peter with no hope of help. And so takes responsibility himself.
I guess here is where my opinions my very, and I may assume that this is where the opinions of all may shoot in different directions. It is concerning the popular title of Great, which is used of Gregory. A rare moniker, only used in reference to one other pope (Leo the Great). In truth the term really applies to all of what Gregory accomplished, as monk, abbot, priest, pope, ambassador and leader, but for me I think his greatness is completely bound up in his accepting a life he did not want and then watching that calling go beyond into a world he wanted no part in.
Gregory, it is said, had no interest in becoming pope. Rather he wanted to return to the contemplative life of quiet and solitude, but he was elected to the papacy and stood fast in his calling. He challenged the church, pushing for reform, in the clergy, monasteries and liturgy. He stood against heresy and is one of two popes to hold the title of doctor (teacher) of the church (Leo again). He pushed for reform in the music of the church and centuries later his name would be attached to the great music of the church, the Gregorian Chant. But it is, as pope, on top of all this that an even greater call is placed on Gregory. And that is as a military leader.
As the Roman empire collapsed in the west, an event that was occurring during the time of Gregory and in fact was probably not rightly known by those who lived during this time, the power of the government was too distant in the east. As mentioned, Gregory sought help in matters of heresy and the Lombards, but the east had it’s own problems to work out. Gregory, truly understood the difference between the church and state, as two circles of influence, each with supreme authority to govern itself. But given the lack of one, his position as Pope was really the only authority that set about to do anything. And he did. When the Lombards invaded he organized Romes defense and would in the end work out a treaty with them. When food was lacking he worked out the process of importing supplies as well as distribution. The political did not diminish the spiritual. Gregory as mentioned was a man of reform, but he was also a man about missions. He pushed the missionary efforts in the direction of England, sending Augustine of Canterbury, and in the end England which has been practically lost to the empire for a century, was eventually regained.
Gregory died in March of the year 604, and was declared a Saint by popular acclaim. In Iconography he is sometimes seen with a dove, probably to emphasize the contemplative nature which was part of the Popes life. He is the first to refer to the papacy as the Servant of the Servants of God, a title that has been used by most popes since.