Pope Gregory’s story is as well-known as that of any saint. Even among the non-religious his use of puns is celebrated. He famously said of two blond-haired slave boys in Rome that they were “not Angles, but angels”, and their sight inspired him to send St Augustine to the Kingdom of Kent where, in part thanks to the pressure of his overbearing wife, King Ethelbert accepted baptism in 597.
Gregory’s impact went beyond bringing the Angles, Saxons and Jutes within the Church in a region that a Northumbrian monk would one day call “England”.
Born in 540, during the very darkest of the Dark Ages, Gregory was among that select band of men and women (among them Benedict) who would lay the foundation of a new civilisation built on Greece and Rome’s legacy but around the vision of Jesus Christ.
A prolific writer, a Doctor of the Church and one of the Latin Fathers, Gregory was known as “the father of Christian worship” for the next millennium. Among Orthodox Christians he is called St Gregory the Dialogist. Even John Calvin admired him, calling him “the last good pope”. He was also the first pope from a monastery, reflecting the increasing influence of the monastic movement.
As a child, Gregory may have witnessed the re-capture of Italy by Emperor Justinian, who threw the Goths out of Italy in 552 and then repulsed the Franks in 554, after which there was peace in Italy. (Yet the Plague of Justinian, which killed a third of the Italian population, was a bigger cause of misery than any barbarian.) Gregory was born into a wealthy Roman family that had close ties to the Church.
His great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III and the family owned land on the Caelian Hill, now the Via di San Gregorio, opposite the former palaces of the emperors on the Palatine Hill (by that time total ruins).
An exceptional student, he had great admiration for the monastic life, three of his aunts being nuns, although the youngest caused by a scandal by abandoning the religious life. Gregory’s response has lasted the ages: “Many are called but few are chosen.”
In 579 he was chosen as an ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople where his main task was securing help against the Lombards; the Byzantines, as it was, had enough problems with the Slavs.
He left for Rome in 585, returning to his monastery on the Caelian Hill before being elected Pope in 590, Pelagius having succumbed to the plague.
The papacy had lost control of much of western Europe by this point, with Gaul overseen by local families, the Spanish bishops cut off from Rome and Italy itself overwhelmed by barbarians. Gregory was determined to spread the Gospel, sending missions to Germany, the Low Countries and, most famously, Britain.
Gregory wrote more than 850 letters in the last 13 years of his life and also standardised western plainchant, which therefore became known as Gregorian.