St. Gregory the Great — A Saint for Today

Fourteen centuries separate us from the pontificate of Gregory the Great, but his priorities remain urgent priorities for our own day.

Master of Portillo, “The Mass of Saint Gregory the Great”
Master of Portillo, “The Mass of Saint Gregory the Great” (photo: Public Domain)

Today is the Memorial of St. Gregory the Great. St. Gregory, one of only three popes to enjoy the appellation “the Great” (John Paul II may someday join them). The parallels between his life and ours are striking.

Gregory was the 64th pope, reigning for 13 years from Sept. 3, 590, to March 12, 604. He’s estimated to have been born around 540, a decade in which the “Plague of Justinian” (a variant of the bubonic plague) was rampant in Italy. Not unlike many young people today, Gregory’s life probably included the experience of pandemic. (According to one source, during a later pestilence in his pontificate, where sneezing was one of the common symptoms, it’s said Gregory was responsible for the custom of responding to the sick with “God bless you.”)

A talented young man from a well-situated family, he had a political career as prefect of Rome at age 33. Rome at this time had been suffering a series of political convulsions as the Gothic kings put an end to the Western Roman Empire. By the mid-to-late sixth century, a modicum of stability had settled in, although the Imperial Government was now in Constantinople.

Talent notwithstanding, Gregory’s focus lay elsewhere and, when his father died, Gregory turned his family estate into a monastery dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle. He was the first pope to come from the monastic life, and was strongly dedicated to poverty.

But God had other plans. Pope Pelagius II ordained him a deacon and sought his help to solve remnants of Christological controversies still plaguing ecclesiastical unity. Gregory also served that Pope for seven years as his ambassador at the imperial court in Constantinople. Returning to the monastery in Italy, Gregory was elected in 590 to succeed Pelagius.

As pope, Gregory was responsible for sending missionaries that began the Christianization of Britain. Legend says that upon seeing some blond slaves in the Roman slave market, he asked who they were and was told they were Angles (from Anglo-Saxon). “Not Angles not Angels” (non Angli sed angeli) Gregory was alleged to have said, and sent Augustine of Canterbury to undertake that mission. 

In the gap of civil administration and decline left by the fall of the Western Roman Empire (and the East’s neglect of the West), Gregory stepped in. Animated by monastic poverty, Gregory began gathering resources for the relief of the poor of Rome and central Italy.

He was a prodigious theological writer. He undertook liturgical reform. What we call “Gregorian Chant” is named after him. 

Speaking of the liturgy, Gregory took the Mass seriously, and this leads us to important devotional and theological points often depicted in Christian art. Because he was committed to evangelical poverty, he rebuked a dying monk who admitted to hoarding gold against the monastic rule. The man repented but Gregory, concerned for the man’s salvation, ordered a series of Masses to be said for 30 consecutive days for his purification. In his Dialogues, Gregory recounts a vision another monk received on the 30th day of that series, declaring Justus, for whom those Masses had been offered, was freed from Purgatory and taken to heaven as a result of those Masses.

The tradition of “Gregorian Masses” — having 30 consecutive Masses offered for the repose of a deceased person — continues in the Church. A number of religious orders arrange for them, some even for future celebration on notification of death. They can be readily found on the internet. Why not consider making arrangements for yourself and/or a loved one?

Why haven’t you heard about Gregorian Masses? A few reasons come to mind. One is that many parish priests do not want to celebrate them, as it involves a commitment to thirty consecutive days which, in many parishes with limited clergy and daily Mass schedules, is difficult. Another is that our eschatology has assumed a “don’t worry, be happy” hue, where we never talk about Purgatory (much less Hell) because we don’t take seriously enough (1) the incompatibility of any sin with God’s holiness; (2) the pervasiveness of sin (at least venial sin) in our lives; (3) the need to make reparation (i.e., repair) the evil we have done; and (4) the desire not to be “offensive” to others, e.g., the bereaved whom we do not want to “disturb” nor non-Catholics who reject Purgatory.

Gregory thus reaffirmed the Catholic tradition that “it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they be loosed from sins” (2 Maccabees 12:46), especially by celebration of the Eucharist, the “source and summit of the Christian life.”

But Gregory’s focus on the Mass doesn’t end there. “The Mass of St. Gregory” is a favorite iconographic depiction in Christian art, particularly in the Middle Ages and Counter-Reformation periods. The depiction above comes from the Master of Portillo in early 16th-century Spain.

Tradition has it that, once when celebrating Mass, a woman smiled when receiving Communion. Questioned, she laughed at Gregory’s reverence for the host, insisting that it was nothing more than bread she had baked that day. Legend holds the host then appeared as a finger. Subsequently, tradition asserted that the image of Jesus as the “Man of Sorrows” appeared on the altar during the Mass.

In this painting, Gregory is consecrating the host. His monastic tonsure is visible, while a bishop to the rear holds the threefold papal tiara. Two deacons in green dalmatics assist. As Gregory venerates the host, the appearance of Jesus as Man of Sorrows is before him, the blood from his stigmata appearing to empty into the chalice. 

In our own day, faith in the Real Presence likewise remains weak. Bad catechesis has contributed to what appears to be widespread American Catholic misunderstanding of the Eucharist as merely “symbols” of Jesus’ Presence rather than the genuine Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, made present everyday on our altars throughout the world.

Sept. 3, the feast of St. Gregory the Great, is also First Friday. In private revelation to another saint, Margaret Mary Alacoque, our Lord promised the grace of final repentance to those who receive Communion on nine consecutive First Fridays. Given St. Gregory’s great devotion to the Eucharist, we might consider doing just that. Catholic schools, if they are already in session, can likewise provide this opportunity for students, as nine months (until May 2022) will roughly coincide with the academic year. 

Almost a millennium and a half separate us from the pontificate of Gregory the Great, but the priorities this reform pope stressed — the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the universal call to holiness and the necessity of reparation for sin, the missionary impulse, and a purified Church in service to the poor (Gregory was responsible for popularizing the papal title “Servant of the Servants of God”) — remain amazingly real priorities for our own day.

Boycott placard

Boycott Like a Catholic

What corporations do in the public square, not just the factory floor, is becoming an increasing concern for Catholics — and the Church has the tools for those discerning how to respond.