Gregory the Great became the Pope of the Christian Church at a defining moment for Christianity in the Middles Ages. The Christian Church was becoming a prominent power in the world and in return this brought great responsibility to the Pope. In Gregory’s responsibility as the Pope he faced many challenges that included issues from within and outside the Church. The issues Gregory had to address expanded from what it meant to be a priest to how to live the Christian faith. In the Western half of the Empire there was a large Germanic tribe presence that practiced different forms of pagan religion. In Gregory’s papacy he took the initiative to convert the pagans, which is featured in his mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons in England. All of these challenges are reflected in Gregory’s writings, which survived to modern times. These writings include a variation of letters to different religious and secular leaders. The issues that Gregory had to deal with are reflected in his writings addressed to these leaders. From these letters the question formed is what did it mean to be a Pope in the 6th century. It was a challenge to be Pope in the 6th century, because Gregory had to deal with many external and internal matters of the Church. Gregory had deal with many different fronts in his world.
To understand what it meant to be a Pope in the 6th century it is crucial to understand the historical context of the world Gregory became a prominent figure. The Middle Ages period has been referred to as the Dark Ages by historians. This time period was labeled by Dark Ages, because the Roman Empire had fallen to different groups of barbarian’s tribes. It was a shock for the Holy Roman Empire, that was a vast empire that had been a dominant power for centuries to fall. The entire empire did not fall completely. The West had fallen to different Germanic tribes; however, the East had survived. During the lifetime of Gregory, the Eastern Empire had fought many battles to bring back the Western half of the empire. When Gregory became Pope in 590 A.D he inherited many of the issues and turmoil that had plagued Europe since the fall.
Gregory was alive during this time period of restoring the Holy Roman Empire. Before he was known as Pope Gregory the First, he was known as Gregorius Amicus. Gregory was born in 540 A.D in Rome into a wealthy family. His father, Gordianus, and his mother, Silvia, were very involved in the Church. When Gregory grew up he had the desire to live a monastic life as a monk. The source of Gregory’s inspiration for monastic life was Saint Benedict, a monk who lived few centuries before. Saint Benedict reformed the structure of monastic life to be centered around the motto of work and pray. [i] This motto and this idea of detachment from the world influenced Gregory’s papacy. [ii] Gregory was called out of monastic life to become the Pope. Gregory was reluctant become the Pope because of his love for monastic life.[iii] However, Gregory accepted this call to become the Pope.
When Gregory became the Pope he inherited a young Church. The Christian faith was still new to the world and was still becoming an established power. The claim was that the Christian Church had started after the death Jesus Christ around 30 A.D. Jesus’ disciples had started the Christian Church, from Peter being the first Pope to his successor of Pope Gregory in the year of 590 A.D. The beginning of Christianity was extremely difficult because mainly the Romans persecuted them for their faith. An example would be that many Christians suffered in Emperor Nero’s Circus. It was depicted that Christians were put into the Colosseum either to be burned, attacked, or mauled by animals. This did happen to other groups of people as well, but the focus for now is on the Christians. This pattern would continue until Emperor Constantin; ho was the Roman Pope to become Christian. One of the things Constantine is remembered for is the Edict of Milan passed in 313 A.D. The Edict of Milan called for the religious tolerance for Christians.[iv] This is important to understanding Christianity in this context. The Christians now no longer had to fear the persecution from the Romans. This could allow Christianity to spread more freely, because this is the first type of religious tolerance.[v] This is key historical context to show in the span of about two centuries of how Christianity was able to grow quickly. This also gave the Pope more power because he was in charge of the church. This time period defined what it meant to be a Pope.
One of the challenges of Gregory’s papacy were the internal questions about the church. As earlier stated the Catholic church was still new and it was still developing its doctrine. Gregory is considered a Doctor of the Church due to his extensive writing about theology and doctrine for the church. There had appeared to be some confusion about the role of the clergy. Many questions arose of how the clergy should act and what to say. A series of these questions and answers are recorded in the letters exchanged between Pope Gregory and Augustine, the Bishop of Angli. One of the questions asked by Augustine is are the religious allowed to marry. Pope Gregory answered him that if a clergy member could not remain celibate than he should marry.[vi] In the church only a man could become a Priest, therefore he could not marry. Priest are supposed to remain celibate in the church. Gregory had the time period had to help define what it meant to be priest.
Gregory did not only write letters, but books as well. One of the books Gregory wrote was called the Pastoral Rule. This book addressed the duties of a clergy member. A metaphor that has been used in the church was the idea of the priest being the Shepard and the people being his flock. The idea is that the priest is responsible for leading the people to God. Many of the letters that Gregory addressed to people were about this topic. In this book he listed a series of rules for priest to follow. In his book Gregory wrote the the ruler should be pure.[vii] Gregory suggested that since the clergy is the one that to help the people become pure that he himself should be pure. If a priest was nut pure this could cause controversy or conflict within the community. A lack of trust could develop between the shepard and his flock. The ruler should also be the chief in action. [viii] This is the idea that the priest should embody the Sphered and lead his flock by his actions and words. One of the last examples is the ruler should not set his heart on pleasing men, but should heed to them. [ix] This contrasted the norm of the time, the idea that the clergy was meant to serve the people and not God first. The claim was a person could not please God and please men. The priest had to be a servant to God, but also a servant to the people. Gregory encouraged that the priest does all of this to serve God for the good of the people they serve. This was a challenge for Gregory because he had to help define what the priesthood was. This book provided calcification for the clergy on their responsibilities. As featured in one of the response letters to Gregory’s book.
The Pope had to convey messages to many of the different church leaders to address multiple issues or to praise good work. One of the main reasons that Gregory wrote his book the Pastoral Rule is because of all the questions concerning the clergy. In the Christian church there were many roles people could have. A man could be a priest, bishop, monk, brother, friar, or a lay man. A woman could be a religious sister or a lay woman. With so many influences it can be hard to keep everyone accountable. A concern for church is when members of the religious would go off on their own. In one of his letters addressed to Fortunatus, the Bishop of Neapolis, he voiced his concern about a monk. One of the monks in the monasteries that Fortunatus had left and taken some of the other monks with him. [x] Gregory had reprehended him his negligence in this matter. This is a challenge for Gregory because it is unknown why this monk left. It could be problematic for the church if he left to teach another Gospel. Gregory’s letters represented his advice to his flock, like how the clergy is the Shepard to the flock. The Pope in a sense is the Shepard to the flock which is the clergy. A majority of the letters that Gregory left were addressed to different bishops. In his letter to the Columbus, Bishop of Numidia, Gregory warmed the bishop to keep watch over his flock. Despite the difficulties that the bishop will face Gregory, reassured him that he would be rewarded in the after life. Gregory could provide that support the clergy needed.
Gregory did face many challenges as the Pope. However, historians do not always see the response of the regular people to Gregory challenges. Saint Licinanus, a Bishop, wrote a response to Gregory’s book, Pastoral Rule. This letter provided some insight into what Gregory’s clergy members thought. An important note to remember with the letters of Gregory is most of these letters are one sided. The historian cannot always tell what the opinion on the other side of the letter. This letter is important, because it can provide a small insight in what the clergy thought in response to his letter. Saint Licinanus wrote, “May God the Holy Trinity vouchsafe to preserve your crown unharmed for instructing His Church, as we hope, most blessed father.” [xi] Saint Licinanus wrote about his gratitude to Gregory for his book. Saint Licinanus had admitted to his own ignorance in different manners and prayed that he could learn more. This could have reflected what other clergy members thought. The role of the clergy had not been clearly defined. Historians can take the letter at face value. There could be a motive behind this source if the Bishop had an agenda or wanted to gain favor with Gregory.
One thing that heavily influenced Gregory’s papacy was this idea of asceticism. Asceticism is the idea of living a very self disciplined life that voids many of the worldly desires.[xii] This idea was important to Gregory who had lived a monastic life for a few years prior to being the Pope. As mentioned before Gregory was inspired by Saint Benedict and his motto of Ora et labora which means work and pray. This is something that Gregory called for in his letters and urged the religious to return to the simple things in life. In some of Gregory’s letters he warned the clergy of corruption and the consequences of corruption. This urge of asceticism could have been seen as a way to prevent this corruption. Gregory wrote, “If the virtue of charity consists in the love of one’s neighbor, and we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves.” [xiii] This was a letter to a bishop. Gregory wrote that the fundamental aspect was love. Historians have argued that this has influenced Gregory’s teachings and diplomatic patterns. [xiv] This tried into the notion that Gregory had presented about how a clergy member should aim to please God and not to please man. Gregory had spent most of his life in Rome because that is where the Christian church ran from. His main form of communication to the outside world was from the letters he wrote.
Earlier in the 6th century a majority of the West had been taken back, but there was still a large Germanic tribe presence. These Germanic tribes still had leaders and power in the territory they occupied. Gregory exchanged many letters with the leaders of the Germanic tribes. An example would be from the letter Gregory sent to Rechard, King of the Visigoths. Gregory wrote, “how acceptable your offering is, seeing that, being about to give gold, you have first given gifts of souls by the conversion of the nation subject to you.” [xv] In this letter Gregory expressed his gratitude to the king for his assistance to help convert the Visigoths from their pagan faith to the Christian faith. King Rechard had rejected the ideas the Jews had brought to him in favor of Christianity. The idea was that the King was willing reject an offering of the world which is money, but instead take the gift of the Spirit which is the souls. Also the King was generous in his support to the church. Gregory appeared to be overjoyed in his letter and praising of the king. He also reminded the king to have diligence because a majority of his people were still pagans. There is also a letter from King Rechard to Pope Gregory. In this letter King Rechard is doing a profession of his faith. King Rechard wrote, “At the time when the Lord in His compassion caused us to be dissociated from the impious Arian heresy.” [xvi] King Rechard appeared to very thankful for everything the Lord and Pope Gregory had done for him. This is something interesting to note, because it brings into this notion of what faith means. The King seemed to be an important person to convert, because he was the leader of his people. Gregory in a sense had entrusted the King with the souls of his people. Since the King was the leader of the people it would make sense for the people to follow his conversion. He was the one to lead his people into a new faith. Gregory had interactions with other leaders who were pagans, throughout his years as Pope, Gregory had launched multiple missions, called the Gregorian Missions, throughout Europe.
One of Gregory’s largest missions was to convert the Anglo-Saxons in England from paganism to Christianity. Gregory himself remained in Rome so he sent Augustine of Canterbury to lead the missions. One of the people these missionaries came into contact with was the King of Kent. In Kent there was a king called Ethelbert and his wife Bertha. King Ethelbert had been exposed to Christianity before the arrival of the missionaries, because his wife was a Christian. [xvii] The King of Kent allowed the missionaries to stay in Canterbury, however they were not allowed to speak about their faith.[xviii] The missionaries still practiced their faith among themselves. With the practice of their faith and the influence of his wife, King Ethelbert had a change of heart and converted to Christianity. With the King’s conversion it allowed for many of his people to begin to be baptized. Now the Christian missionaries were allowed to spread the Gospel. Even though Gregory was not physically in England, he was very involved in what happened. Gregory wrote very specific instructions to missionaries of how to convert the people. He emphasized it was not by destroying their idols but what is inside them. [xix] Even with the King now converted to Christianity, Gregory kept in contact with both the King and Queen of the Kent. This letter provided the insight to what Gregory dealt with in the external manners of the church.
These letters were fundamental to Gregory’s papacy, because he was able to keep in contact with people over vast lands of territory. In his letter to the king Gregory wrote, “Make haste to extend the Christian faith among the peoples under thy sway, redouble the zeal of thy rectitude in their conversion, put down the worship of idols, overturn the edifices of their temples.” [xx] Gregory wrote to congratulate the king on his conversion. Also in his letter he included some advice for the new Christian king. As mentioned earlier the king is very powerful, because whatever faith he takes will inspire the people. While at the same time Gregory called for the removal of the idols and temples the people used by the King. Gregory wanted there to be a crack down on this paganism in Kent, especially with the King now converted. He also suggested to the new Christian king that he should take advice from Augustine of Canterbury, because he speaks the word of God.
A majority of Gregory’s letters were sent between males. However, mentioned before Gregory kept in contact with the Queen of Kent. Gregory had also exchanged some letters with the king’s wife, Bertha. He praised Bertha for being strong in her faith. Gregory believed that in return for her faith the Lord provided her with the conversion of her husband and country. Gregory wrote, “the faith which you profess, to the end that for him, and for the conversion of the whole nation through him, fit retribution might accrue to you in the joys of heaven.” [xxi] In short Gregory told the Queen that since she kept her faith the Lord provided her with the conversion of her husband. For historical context the king was a pagan, however his wife was a Christian. Queen Bertha was allowed to marry him if she could practice her Christian faith. The queen did not waiver in faith and kept strong in the years of her marriage.
Gregory had an important role in the world during the 6th century. He was a prominent figure in the religious world, but also the secular world. He would exchange letters with many of the different leaders, who at times would seek his advice. Another Germanic group that Gregory wrote too were the Lombard’s. The Lombard’s were another group of people that had moved into area where the Roman Empire once was. Gregory had been exchanging letters with the Queen Theodelinda of the Lombard’s. While most of Gregory’s letters that have survived have seemed to be positive this letter was a critique of the queen. Gregory wrote to the queen, “led on by some bishops even to the offence against holy Church of suspending yourself from the communion of Catholic unanimity.” [xxii] Gregory criticized the queen by being influenced by the people she surrounded herself. By doing this the queen had distanced herself from the church by her actions. Gregory informed her that she should doubt the church, because of the session of Peter and the apostles of what they left behind. The relationship between the monarchs and the Popes differed on the person and what the gain was. The Pope and his church was not just a religious center, but also a political scene. The People would have close relations with different monarchs. In another letter Gregory wrote to Brunicild, who was the Queen of the Franks. He was thanking her for her support of the church and also for allowing the church to educate her son. In this letter Gregory requested that she continue to be generous with the church. This could be a strategic strategy to help keep the church safe.
One of Gregory greatest challenges was the the internal issues of the church, which was influenced by the vast territory Gregory had influence over. However, to have that many churches divided by land can lead to differences in opinion. Augustine, the Bishop of Angli, mentioned earlier, asks the question about how the Mass said in Roman Church and the Gaul Church are very different. The bishop wanted calcification about what was to be said in the Mass. The Mass is the service for the Christian Church. This is also really the only time the people are gathered to learn about religion. Gregory responded that the Roman Church had been nurtured over time. He reminded Augustine that the church in Gaul was still a new church and a new faith to the people. At the end it wasn’t so much the Church, but if God was pleased. Another issue for Gregory is for the Christian church considered heresy. Due to the vast land and number of churches it can be hard to make sure everyone knows the same thing. Gregory wrote a letter to Aregius, the Bishop of Vapincum. He warned the bishop to keep an eye out for heresy. He told him if he sees heresy he should condemn the action and correct the problem. Gregory was trying to limit the amount of falsehoods that could be said about the Christian religion.
To be a Pope in the 6th century was a challenge as reflected in his letters. Gregory had accomplished a lot in his papacy. He was the Pope from 590 A.D. until his death in 604 A.D. During this time Gregory had faced many challenges being the Pope. This task was especially hard for Pope Gregory since at first he wanted to be a monk. He was drawn to monastic life, but decided to accept his call to be the Pope. Another challenge was the Roman Empire was also not completely united at the time. It was not until the 6th century that the Western half of the Empire became to unite with the Eastern half of the Empire. There were a wide group of people with different faiths in one area. Gregory had the mission to convert all the pagans to Christianity. This is really the first time that mission work on that scale had been completed. Europe was also in a Dark Period with the fall of the Roman Empire. There was decline in trade, education, and many other aspects of life, so Gregory came in at a defining moment. However, Gregory is remembered as one of the greatest Popes in church history. Gregory is remembered because of his letters and contributions to the church. Gregory added extensively to church’s doctrine about how the clergy should behave to what is the proper way to conduct the Mass. Gregory wrote hundreds of letters and many books. This gives direct insight on his thoughts on matters. There is still much more that can be learned about Gregory the Great. The church was a patriarchal structure. There is not as many records or writings about women and their role in the church. To get more insight into what Gregory thougth about women. It would be interesting to see the different letters he wrote to the women and men to see if there is any contrast or gender themes in his writing.
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