I’m sure there have been more than three great popes in our history – but there are only three which history has given the title “the Great”: Leo I, Gregory I and Nicholas I (somehow, Nicholas I is always forgotten in that list). Today is the feast day of St. Gregory the Great, and patristic scholar extraordinaire Mike Aquilla gives us a nice summary of his life:
St. Gregory the Great, whose feast is today, Sept. 3, was the first monk ever chosen as Pope. He had grown up in one of the few remaining old aristocratic families in Rome. Before taking his vows, he had been an important politician in the city, so he had some experience with administration. Nevertheless, he hadn’t intended to become the most important politician of his age. Things just turned out that way. There was work to be done, and only Gregory could do it.
Rome was in bad shape when Gregory became her bishop. The plague that had killed Pope Pelagius was still raging. The city had been kicked around like a football between Goths and Vandals, with Greeks from the Eastern Roman Empire periodically stepping in to inflict even more damage. Fires and disastrously bad weather added to the catastrophes. And the constant threat of invasion from the north by the horrible Lombards kept the survivors in terror.
These Lombards were a particularly vicious sort of barbarian, at least to their enemies. They massacred everyone in their path, except for the few who might be useful as slaves. The Lombards who weren’t pagans were Arians, so they had no qualms about plundering the orthodox churches and slaughtering the clergy. Cities emptied as they approached, and soon Rome and Ravenna were the only substantial cities left in the northern half of Italy.
In theory, Italy was governed by the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, through his exarch in Ravenna. In practice, the exarch was nearly powerless, and the Eastern Empire had enough problems of its own to worry about. The exarch might be able to hold onto Ravenna, with its naturally impenetrable defenses, but he couldn’t do much about it when the Lombards decided to march on Rome. No one was left to defend the once-proud city but Gregory. It was lucky for Rome that Gregory had both experience in government and a deep and sincere faith. It took both qualities to save the city.
St. Gregory the Great, pray for us!