The Pope of England: The Reluctance and Zeal of St. Gregory the Great

A version of this summary was presented at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church on March 13th, 2016.

John Calvin wrote, in his Institutes, that St. Gregory the Great was “the last good pope.” Although that is surely unfair to the papal legacy, it points to an interesting question: why do Anglicans, Lutherans, and Orthodox Christians admire and recognize the feast day of a pope who is known, at least in part, for his role in strengthening papal authority and, according to some scholars, initiating the medieval Catholicism that the Reformers would seek to, well, reform? I believe that it is because St. Gregory represents a catholicity of the Christian faith in the true sense of the term: he held important theological discussions with Christians in the East, was a beloved leader of Christians in Italy, and directed evangelistic work over the people of Anglo-Saxon England. Still today, his feast day in Anglicanism is held on March 12th.

Reluctance, followed by zealous fulfillment of his duty, marked much of St. Gregory’s life decisions. He did not wish to enter the world of secular government; he became the Prefect of Rome, the highest civil position in Rome in the day. He did not wish to leave the monastery he had founded around the year 574 and dedicated to St. Andrew, because he found a deep satisfaction in a life dedicated to prayerful devotion, “in that silence of the heart, while we keep watch within through contemplation, we are as if asleep to all things that are without.” But when Pope Pelagius II enlisted Gregory to be his ambassador to the secular and ecclesiastical authorities in the Eastern church, he dutifully obeyed, which resulted in Gregory settling an important doctrinal controversy with Patriarch Eutychius, who was denying the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Gregory debated Eutychius publicly before the Emperor, pointing to passages such as Luke 24:39 where Christ instructs the apostles to behold his hands and feet. This attention to careful scriptural detail led St. Gregory into another task he took on reluctantly at the insistence of his admirers, an analysis of the Book of Job. Gregory’s Moralia on Job remains one of the most important works of scriptural exegesis of the text, and he recounts beautifully his turn to the Holy Spirit to guide him in his labors:

“In a strait between my alarms and my devout aspirations, I lifted up the eyes of my mind to the Bestower of all gifts [James 1, 17], waiving my scruples, I fixed my thoughts on this, that what an affection flowing from the hearts of my brethren enjoined upon me, could not certainly be impossible, I despaired, indeed, of being a match for these things, but, stronger for my very despair of myself, I forthwith raised my hopes to Him, by Whom the tongue of the dumb is opened, Who maketh the lips of babes to speak eloquently, [Wisd. 10, 21], Who has marked the undistinguished and brute brayings of an ass with the intelligible measures of human speech.  What wonder, then, that a simple man should receive understanding from Him, Who whenever He willeth, utters His truth by the mouths of the very beasts of burden?”

St. Gregory did not want to become Pope either, desiring to return to the monastic life after a missionary trip to Anglo-Saxon England, but after the death of Pelagius II, Gregory was unanimously voted as candidate for the office, in spite of his attempts to refuse the position. Regardless of this reluctance, he pursued his duties with unwavering vigor. He worked to regularize liturgical worship throughout the Church, and it is attributed by some sources that he initiated what would become known as the Gregorian chant. He promoted Christian charity in his own country, helping impoverished Italians harmed by Lombardian occupation of Northern Italy, and ensured that many poverty-stricken people had food, sometimes cooking their meals himself. He wrote numerous edifying works on the Christian faith, including 33 sermons, a text on pastoral care called the Dialogues for which he was best known, and over 850 of his letters survive today. He was sainted in the years immediately following his death, and stories abound of his encounters with angels, miraculous prayers for the living and the dead, and even reports that a dove hovered by his ear while he wrote his sermons.

It is said that Gregory saw Anglo-Saxon men in the Roman marketplace, slaves according to Bede, and struck by the encounter he was filled with a desire to bring the Gospel to their people. Before becoming pope himself Gregory had asked Pelagius for permission to evangelize in the British Isles. The Romans were so displeased with the absence of their beloved Gregory that they had forced Pelagius to recall him back to Italy, but Gregory did not forget his mission there. After becoming pope, he installed Augustine (not that Augustine) as the Bishop of Canterbury, and as a result of this mission the English church flourished so well that they began to send out missionaries of their own to Germany and other lands. One certainly need not be Roman Catholic to agree with St. Gregory the Great’s words on the importance of missionary work:

“Almighty God places good men in authority that He may impart through them the gifts of His mercy to their subjects. And this we find to be the case with the British over whom you have been appointed to rule, that through the blessings bestowed on you the blessings of heaven might be bestowed on your people also.”

Anthony G. Cirilla