Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/St Gregory the Great
GREGORY, St, surnamed the Great (c. 540-604), the first pope of that name, and one of the four doctors of the Latin Church (Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome being the other three), was born at Rome about the year 540. His father Gordianus possessed senatorial rank, and his mother Sylvia is said to have baen remarkable for her mental endowments. Educated for the legal profession, Gregory about his thirtieth year was chosen by the citizens to the high position of praetor urbanus ; this post he is said to have occupied for three years (571-574), discharging its duties with great pomp and magnificence ; but on the death of his father, having become deeply impressed with a sense of the transitoriness and vanity of all earthly things, he retired from public life and gave up his whole fortune to pious uses, building six monasteries in Sicily and one in Rome; in this last, which was dedicated by him to St Andrew, he embraced the Benedictine rule, and divided his whole time between works of charity and the exercises of fasting, meditation, and prayer. It was while he was still a simple monk of St Andrew that the often repeated inci dent related by Bede is believed to have occurred. Having scan some English slaves of striking beauty exposed for sale in the public market, "non Angli sed Angeli," he set his heart upon the evangelization of Britain, and was only prevented by the command of his ecclesiastical superiors from setting out in person to seek the realization of his pious wish. About 578 or 579 he was appointed abbot of his monastery, and likewise one of the seven deacons (regionarii) of the Roman Church ; and in 582 he was sent by Pelagius IT. to Constantinople as papal apocrisiarius or responsalis at the imperial court. There he remained for upwards of three years, during which he negotiated several matters of importance and delicacy; but amid his diplo matic and other engagements he found time to begin, if not even to complete, one of his largest works, the Moralia, or exposition of the book of JoK A few years after his return from the Eastern capital, the death of Pelagius (590) caused a vacancy in the papal chair, and the choice of the clergy, senate, and people unanimously fell upon Gregory. He strongly deprecated the bestowal of this honour, and wrote to the emperor (Maurice) imploring him not to con firm the nomination. A pious fraud, committed by the city praetor then in office, prevented the letter from reach ing its destination ; and though Gregory hid himself for a time, he was at length obliged to yield to the urgency of his friends by accepting the papal crown (September 590). The pontificate of fourteen years which followed was marked by extraordinary vigour and activity, which made them selves felt throughout almost every department of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the entire Western Church. By means of earnest prayer and wisely ex pended pains the aggressions of the Lombards were checked, and order and tranquillity were speedily restored to Rome ; in Italy and France he tightened the too long relaxed reins of ecclesiastical discipline ; in England, Spain, and Africa the powers of Paganism, Arianism, and Donatism were perceptibly weakened; as against the Eastern emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome were asserted with a vigour previously un witnessed; the ceremonies of the church were regulated and extended, the liturgy further developed. The anniver sary of Gregory s death, which took place at Rome on the 12th of March 604, is observed as a duplex by the Latin Church, and even in the Greek Church his wisdom and sanctity continue to be commemorated. The hyperbolical panegyrics of those ecclesiastical writers who lived nearest his time (such as Gregory of Tours and Isidore of Seville) must of course be taken with considerable reservation ; but they are interesting as showing how powerful and profound was the impression he left upon his contemporaries and immediate successors an impression and an influence well entitling him to the epithet of "great." Of the personal qualities of Gregory, the most obtrusive are beyond all question the singular strength and energy of his character. Firmly and intensely convinced of the divineness of the Christian doctrine and life as these had presented them selves to his mind and heart, he suffered no obstacle and no discouragement to triumph over his determination to give them all the currency and prevalence that were possi ble in his day. Having clearly seen the end he had in view, he with equal discernment made choice of his measures for its attainment. The refinements alike of literature and of art had for him no place in the Christian scheme ; it is needless to say that he therefore despised them both for himself and for others. There is some room for hoping indeed that the burning of the books of the Palatine library was due to some ruder pontiff ; but there is no possibility of mistake as to the literary taste of the man who could write (pref. to Moralia) "non metacismi collisionem fugio, non barbarismi confusionem devito, situs motusque etiam et prtepositionum casus servare contemno, quia indignum vehementer existimo ut verba ccelestis oraculi restringam sub regulis Donati." The uniformity of the Roman ritual, the ascendency of the Roman hierarchy, the prevalency of the Catholic dogma, these were not merely the highest, they were the only, ideals he had ever caught sight of. It ought not therefore to surprise us if in striv ing towards them he sometimes was tempted, and yielded to the temptation, to sacrifice truthfulness to what he con ceived to be the truth, and the mere claims of humanity to the demands of what he regarded as a higher love. Xever purely selfish, he was, apart from the exigencies of his ecclesiastical position, singularly tolerant, liberal, and kindly.
Of the numerous extant works attributed to Gregory the Groat the following are undisputed: the Moralia, in thirty-five books, being an exposition of the book of Job, composed between 580 and 590; the twenty-two Homilies on Ezekiel (about 595), and the forty Homilies on the Gospels (about 592); the Regula (or Cura) Fastoralis, dedicated to John, archbishop of Ravenna (about 590) ; the Dialogues with Peter the deacon, in four books, on the lives and miracles of the Italian saints (593 or 594); and the Letters, in four teen "registers," arranged according to the years of his pontificate. He was also the author of various rhymed hymns, nine of which are still extant and appear in the collected editions of his works. They are characterized more by simplicity of language than by depth of feeling. The Concordia quorundam testimoniorum sacrarum scripturarum, and also the Commentaries on 1 Kings, Canticles, and the seven penitential psalms usually ascribed to him, are spurious. His liturgical works, the Sacramcntarium and Antipnonarium, have been considerably tampered with by medifeval collectors and revisers ; and even the Letters are not wholly free from interpolations. Of Gregory s merits as an expositor little need be said ; he avowedly adopts in all cases the allegorical method, which in his hands is unflinchingly carried out, with, in many cases,
sufficiently astounding results. As Milman has remarked, “It may safely be said that, according to Gregory's licence of interpretation, there is nothing which might not be found in any book ever written.” In practical homiletics, however, he is very often just and profound as well as high-toned; but it would be too much to say that he was superior to the prejudices of his time; in particular his preference for the monastic and ascetic forms of the Christian life is carried to a height which a wider observation of the conditions of human usefulness and happiness will never cease to regard as excessive. His Dialogues, which have been translated into Anglo-Saxon, Greek, and even Arabic, describe the most astonishing miracles with an artless simplicity which, as suggestive of entire belief, is certainly interesting to the student; yet it is difficult (as Gibbon has pointed out) to free the lavish dispenser of miraculous filings from the chains of St Peter from the suspicion of some degree of pious insincerity. The Letters are, as might be expected, of great importance from the light they throw upon the history of those times.
The complete editions of the works of this great father of the Latin Church have been, as was to be expected, numerous. The earliest was that of Lyons (1516), which was rapidly followed by those of Paris (1518–39), Basel (1551), and Rome (1588). The best edition is the Benedictine (Paris, 1705), in 4 vols. fol., reprinted at Venice (1768–76), in 17 vols. 4to, and in Migne's Patrology, vol. Ixxv.–lxxix. See Wiggers, De Gregorio Magno (1838–40); Marggraf, De Greg. M. Vita (1844); Lau, Gregor. d. Grosse nach s. Leben u. Lehre dargestellt (1845); Pfahler, Gregor der Grosse u. seine Zeit (1852); and Baxmann, Politik der Päpste von Gregor I. bis Gregor VII. (1868–69). There is a convenient edition of the Cura Pastoralis by Westhoff (1860).