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When Gregory was born, Italy had been suffering from the reconquest of the peninsula by Justinian, the emperor who ruled from Constantinople.
In 568, the Lombard invasion caused many more years of war and suffering. Strongmen rose in various regions seized power without care for the good or goods of regular citizens. Popes took on more temporal roles in preserving stability and peace.
Gregory came from a pedigreed family with a long history and extensive property in Rome and Sicily. Pope Felix III (reigned 483–492), was his great-great grandfather, and Pope Agapetus I (535–536) also may have been a relative. Gregory’s father was an official and Gregory, himself became an urban prefect. When Gregory’s father died, his mother and three of his aunts entered religious life.
Gregory was well educated for his time. He may have studied law, but a lifelong conflict between his personal desire for contemplative purity and the public duty to serve others in the “pollution” of worldly affairs led him to join monastic life in 574. Gregory established, on family property on the Caelian Hill of Rome, a monastery dedicated to St. Andrew. He founded six more monasteries on family estates in Sicily but retained sufficient property to make later endowments to the church.
In 579 Pope Pelagius II made Gregory a deacon, sending him as apocrisiarius (legate) to Constantinople. There Gregory lobbied for aid against the Lombards. In 590 Gregory succeeded Pelagius II, who had succumbed to the plague that swept Rome that year. According to tradition, Gregory led a penitential procession to Santa Maria Maggiore during that plague; a vision of the archangel Michael atop Hadrian’s Tomb (now the Castel Sant’Angelo) convinced him that Rome would be spared. Today a statue on the Castel Sant’Angelo depicts Michael replacing his sword in its scabbard.
As pope, Gregory constantly walked a tightrope between the Lombards and the Byzantine government that represented Constantinople from Ravenna in northeastern Italy. He planned military attacks, paid ransoms and successfully warded off two Lombard invasions of Rome.
He strengthened his subjects by feeding them and repairing aqueducts to the city. He finally succeeded in a peace with the Lombards through his relationship with the Catholic wife of the king of the Lombards. Of course, that did not endear him to the Byzantines.
The emperor recognized the Holy See as a power ordained by God but generally did not defer to the pope. Gregory, on the other hand was constrained to carry out laws to which he objected. Traditionally, the patriarch of Constantinople represented imperial orthodoxy encompassing the entire Christian empire, and he was thus deserving of the title “ecumenical.” Gregory believed that the title offended the equity of all bishops and ignored Rome’s primacy as the heir of St. Peter, whose moral power was needed to ratify councils and discipline members of the church.
For Gregory true holiness lay in humility and referred to himself as the “servant of the servants of God.” A succession of emperors supported the patriarch, and the long-standing rivalry between Rome and Constantinople continued.
In an implicitly divided empire, Rome stood supreme in the West and Constantinople in the East. Gregory felt that divine providence had subjugated the Germanic people to the Christian emperor and made extra efforts in the pastoral care of them.
The net effect was to raise the profile of Rome in their eyes. He built ties to the Spanish court and to the French queen and asked for support in St. Augustine’s missions in Great Britain. He also succeeded in consolidating 42 vacated episcopal sees in the south of Italy where Lombards had wrought particular devastation. His good management of land and assets in that area made possible the aid he provided to the poor and less fortunate.
Some of Gregory’s policies would be politically incorrect today. He did tolerate slavery, as a fact of God’s dispensation bestowed on humanity after the Fall, and he believed that humble obedience was required by God. He insisted in his letters that Jewish creditors were not to be defrauded, oppressed or vexed unreasonably because they were protected by Roman law; however, he nevertheless believed that biblical prophecy foretold their conversion, and he adopted polices of “persuasion” that harmed Jews economically. Yet, Gregory’s moral theology shaped medieval spirituality and in his writings offered a practical wisdom for the Christians of his day.