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On the Kalendar: Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, Doctor

March from Les Petites Heures d'Anne de Bretagne

“March”, kalendar page from Les Petites Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (The Little Hours of Queen Anne of Bretagne), by the Maître des Triomphes de Pétrarque. From Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (France).

Gregory the Great, the first Pope of that name, is one of the most widely regarded doctors of the church in Christendom. Even John Calvin, no great fan of the papacy, admired Gregory, calling him the last good Pope. (Gregory was born around 540, and he reigned as Pope from 590 to 604.)

Gregory was the son of a Roman senator, and he himself was briefly a Roman prefect. Gregory was drawn to the monastic life, feeling that monasticism, rather than the declining Eastern Empire, would guide the future of Christianity. However, he was called out of the monastic life by Pope Benedict I, who appointed Gregory one of the seven deacons of Rome. Later, Benedict’s successor Pelagius II appointed him apocrisarius (ambassador) in Byzantium.

Once Gregory was consecrated Pope, he initiated a number of significant liturgical reforms. First and foremost was his influence on plainchant, the music of the church. Gregory’s influence was so strong that the music is called Gregorian chant, even though Gregorian chant as we know it today is the result of the fusion of Roman and Frankish elements which took place in the Franco-German empire under Pepin, Charlemagne, and their successors in the eighth century.

Equally important, and more definitively attributable, were Gregory’s revisions of the Pre-Tridentine Mass, which included “removing many things, changing a few, adding some”, as one chronicler observed. Gregory is also credited with guiding the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, still used in the Byzantine Rite. (Remember, the Great Schism didn’t happen until 1054.) The descendant of this Rite is the Mass of the Presanctified used on Good Friday.

Gregory was also a prolific writer. His works include four books of Dialogues about miracles and wonders by holy men (the second book is devoted to Saint Benedict), an extensive collection of sermons and homilies, and over 850 letters.

Gregory is also a central figure in the Roman mission to England. Seeing some pale-skinned English boys at a slave market, Gregory is reputed to have said, Non Angli, sed angeli, si forent Christiani—“They are not Angles, but angels, if they were Christian”. It was at Gregory’s behest that Augustine of Canterbury was sent to England to convert the populace.

The relics of Gregory are interred in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He feast was originally March 12, but in 1961, Pope John XXIII’s reforms basically forbade the observance of feasts during Lent, so Gregory’s feast day was moved to September 3, the day of his episcopal consecration in 590.

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