St. Gregory (540 – 604 CE) was a learned politician who became a monk, then Pope. He came from a wealthy patrician family, well connected to the Church in Rome. His father was a senator and Gregory became the Prefect of Rome at the young age of 30.
He reluctantly became Pope from 590 to 604, writing letters after his election indicating that he really didn’t want to do it, but would assume office out of divine duty.
An interesting anecdote tells us that Gregory so believed in the afterlife that he punished a dying man and even abused his dead body.
It seems to some that Gregory was not always forgiving, or pleasant for that matter, even in his monastic years. For example, a monk lying on his death bed confessed to stealing three gold pieces. Gregory forced the monk to die friendless and alone, then threw his body and coins on a manure heap to rot with a curse, “Take your money with you to perdition”. Gregory believed that punishment of sins can begin, even on one’s deathbed. However, at the monk’s death Gregory offered 30 Masses in his remembrance to assist his soul before the final judgment.¹
Today, most would see behaviour like this as indicative of a disturbed psyche, and definitely illegal.
Also interesting is that, although Gregory was learned, he came to dislike erudition in favor of what many would see as fanatical superstition.
Opinions of the writings of Gregory vary. “His character strikes us as an ambiguous and enigmatic one,” Cantor observed. “On the one hand he was an able and determined administrator, a skilled and clever diplomat, a leader of the greatest sophistication and vision; but on the other hand, he appears in his writings as a superstitious and credulous monk, hostile to learning, crudely limited as a theologian, and excessively devoted to saints, miracles, and relics“.²
Vintage colour engraving from 1864 showing Gregory and the English slaves at Rome. Pope Gregory I (c. 540 – 12 March 604), better known in English as Gregory the Great, was pope from 3 September 590 until his death. Gregory is well known for his writings, which were more prolific than those of any of his predecessors as pope.
I originally mentioned Gregory in this blog mostly because he’s the one whom the term “Gregorian Chant” is named after. But like many legends, Catholic or otherwise, attributing Gregorian Chants to Pope Gregory is probably not historically accurate.
Most scholars believe that the so-called Gregorian Chant came into existence during the 9th and 10th centuries due to a blend of social, political and musical forces that mostly did not exist when Gregory was alive.4