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The exact date of St. Gregory’s (Pope St. Gregory I, Latin: Gregorius I Magnus) birth is uncertain, but is usually estimated to be around the year 540 in the city of Rome. His parents named him Gregorius, which according to Aelfric in “A Homily on the Birth-Day of S. Gregory,” translated by Elizabeth Elstob, “… is a Greek Name, which signifies in the Latin Tongue Vigilantius, that is in English, Watchful….”
The medieval writers who give this etymology do not hesitate to apply it to the life of Gregory. Aelfric, for example, goes on: “He was very diligent in God’s Commandments.”
When Gregory was a child, Italy was retaken from the Goths by Justinian I, emperor of the Roman Empire ruling from Constantinople. The war was over by 552. An invasion of the Franks was defeated in 554. The western empire had long since vanished in favour of the Gothic kings of Italy. After 554 there was peace in Italy and the appearance of restoration, except that the government now resided in Constantinople. Italy was still united into one country, “Rome” and still shared a common official language, the very last of classical Latin.
As the fighting had been mainly in the north, the young Gregorius probably saw little of it. Totila sacked and vacated Rome in 547, destroying most of its ancient population, but in 549 he invited those who were still alive to return to the empty and ruinous streets. It has been hypothesized that young Gregory and his parents, Gordianus and Silvia, retired during that intermission to Gordianus’ Sicilian estates, to return in 549.
Gregory had been born into a wealthy noble Roman family with close connections to the church. The Lives in Latin use nobilis but they do not specify from what historical layer the term derives or identify the family. No connection to patrician families of the Roman Republic has been demonstrated.
Gregory’s great-great-grandfather had been Pope Felix III, but that pope was the nominee of the Gothic king, Theodoric.
The family owned and resided in a villa suburbana on the Caelian Hill, fronting the same street, now the Via di San Gregorio, as the former palaces of the Roman emperors on the Palatine Hill opposite. The north of the street runs into the Colosseum; the south into Circus Maximus. In Gregory’s day the ancient buildings were in ruins and were privately owned. Villas covered the area. Gregory’s family also owned working estates in Sicily and around Rome.
Gregory’s father, Gordianus, held the position of Regionarius in the Roman Church. Nothing further is known about the position. Gregory’s mother, Silvia, was well-born and had a married sister, Pateria, in Sicily. Gregory later had portraits done in fresco in their former home on the Caelian and these were described 300 years later by John the Deacon. Gordianus was tall with a long face and light eyes. He wore a beard. Silvia was tall, had a round face, blue eyes and a cheerful look. They had another son whose name and fate are unknown.
The monks of _St. Andrew’s: (the ancestral home on the Caelian) had a portrait of Gregory made after his death, which John the Deacon also saw in the 9th century. He reports the picture of a man who had a face that was intermediate in shape between his mother’s and father’s. His nose was “thin and straight” and “slightly aquiline.” “His forehead was high.” He had thick, “subdivided” lips and a chin “of a comely prominence” and “beautiful hands.”
Gregory was well educated with Gregory of Tours reporting that “in grammar, dialectic and rhetoric … he was second to none….” He wrote correct Latin but did not read or write Greek. He knew Latin authors, natural science, history, mathematics and music and had such a “fluency with imperial law” that he may have trained in law, it has been suggested, “as a preparation for a career in public life.”
While his father lived, Gregory took part in Roman political life and at one point was Prefect of the City.
In 579, Pelagius II chose Gregory as his apocrisiarius (ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople). Gregory was part of the Roman delegation (both lay and clerical) that arrived in Constantinople in 578 to ask the emperor for military aid against the Lombards.
When he became Pope in 590, among his first acts was writing a series of letters disavowing any ambition to the throne of Peter and praising the contemplative life of the monks. At that time, for various reasons, the Holy See had not exerted effective leadership in the West since the pontificate of Gelasius I. The episcopacy in Gaul was drawn from the great territorial families, and identified with them: the parochial horizon of Gregory’s contemporary, Gregory of Tours, may be considered typical; in Visigothic Spain the bishops had little contact with Rome; in Italy the territories which had de facto fallen under the administration of the papacy were beset by the violent Lombard dukes and the rivalry of the Jews in the Exarchate of Ravenna and in the south.
Gregory is credited with re-energizing the Church’s missionary work among the “barbarian” peoples of northern Europe. He is most famous for sending a mission, often called the Gregorian mission, under Augustine of Canterbury, prior of Saint Andrew’s, where he had perhaps succeeded Gregory, to evangelize the pagan Anglo-Saxons of England. The mission was successful, and it was from England that missionaries later set out for the Netherlands and Germany.
In letters, St. Gregory remarks that he moved the Pater Noster (Our Father) to immediately after the Roman Canon and immediately before the Fraction. This position is still maintained today in the Roman Liturgy. The pre-Gregorian position is evident in the Ambrosian Rite. Gregory added material to the Hanc Igitur of the Roman Canon and established the nine Kyries (a vestigial remnant of the litany which was originally at that place) at the beginning of Mass. He also reduced the role of deacons in the Roman Liturgy.
Sacramentaries directly influenced by Gregorian reforms are referred to as Sacrementaria Gregoriana. With the appearance of these sacramentaries, the Western liturgy begins to show a characteristic that distinguishes it from Eastern liturgical traditions. In contrast to the mostly invariable Eastern liturgical texts, Roman and other Western liturgies since this era have a number of prayers that change to reflect the feast or liturgical season; These variations are visible in the collects and prefaces as well as in the Roman Canon itself.
A system of writing down reminders of chant melodies was probably devised by monks around 800 to aid in unifying the church service throughout the Frankish empire. Charlemagne brought cantors from the Papal chapel in Rome to instruct his clerics in the “authentic” liturgy. A program of propaganda spread the idea that the chant used in Rome came directly from Gregory the Great, who had died two centuries earlier and was universally venerated. Pictures were made to depict the dove of the Holy Spirit perched on Gregory’s shoulder, singing God’s authentic form of chant into his ear. This gave rise to calling the music “Gregorian chant”. A more accurate term is plainsong or plainchant.
Sometimes the establishment of the Gregorian Calendar is erroneously attributed to Gregory the Great; however, that calendar was actually instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 by way of a papal bull entitled, Inter gravissimas.