Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak. — John Adams

Saint Gregory the Great - Notre Dame




The Procession on St. Mark's Day

Pope St. Gregory had in his mind other abbots, healthier than he, and less liable to be diverted from their work by the need of writing books, when he wrote to Maximianus, once his own superior at St. Andrew's, and now Bishop of Syracuse:

"Do not allow priests or deacons or persons of any grade who serve churches to be at the same time abbots in monasteries. The duties of each office are so engrossing that no one can attend properly to both."

The Pope whom he succeeded, Pelagius II, had himself been a monk in Monte Cassino. He knew, therefore, that Abbot Gregory had enough on his hands—his monks, his desk-work, his charities, the building of his church. Yet Pelagius had to make calls on his time.

The affair of the Three Chapters  menaced schism. To Gregory's pen was entrusted the delicate task of inducing the Italian bishops to acquiesce in the decision of the Holy See. There were other points on which his experience was invaluable—the concerns of the Eastern Churches, for instance, and all dealings with the emperor. And most certainly he was at the right hand of Pelagius in the last dreadful year of his pontificate, when Rome was afflicted with the threefold scourge of famine, war and pestilence.

War was nothing new. The Lombards terrorized the land since 568, and famine followed in their wake. Yet wheat from Sicily and Egypt came regularly by sea to Ostia, and was stored in the imperial granaries of Old Rome for distribution among the citizens.

In 589 Duke Zotto burnt Monte Cassino; and the monks fled to Rome, laden "like pack-asses "with their precious books. In the autumn of that same year a series of floods and earthquakes played havoc with the standing crops in various parts of Italy. At Verona there occurred a marvel which St. Gregory, in his Dialogues, likens to the miracle of the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace.

"For the river Adige did so swell, that it came to the church of the holy bishop and martyr St. Zeno, and rose as high as the windows not far from the roof itself. The church doors stood open, but the thin liquid formed a solid wall that barred all exit. The people, forced to remain in the church, took of this water to quench their thirst. It stood there in the door way, water to them for their comfort, and yet not water to ruin the place. All this showed the merits of Christ's martyr, St. Zeno."

The Tiber, too, overflowed its banks. It ran over the walls of Rome, says our saint, turned the low-lying district around the Vatican into a fetid swamp, and undermined the buildings in the Campus Martius. We read of a dragon of huge size, choking in the salt waters at the river's mouth, and poisoning the air with its putrefying breath.

Stripped of metaphor, the plague was in Rome, a compound of typhus fever with the more malignant forms of measles and smallpox. Death followed close upon seizure. When a man sneezed, the bystanders cried "God bless you." When a man yawned, he himself traced the Sign of the Cross in front of his open mouth. For yawning and sneezing were sure symptoms of the disease. In the delirium that ensued, strange sights were seen. Sometimes sinners died in despair. Sometimes they recovered and reformed their lives. Several curious stories in the Dialogues  refer to this scourge.

The monks of St. Andrew's, at any rate, were not afraid of contact with the plague-stricken. St. Gregory writes: "There was in my monastery a very unruly lad named Theodore, who name to us more upon necessity than of his own accord. He could not bear that anyone should speak a word to him for the good of his soul. He would neither do good works nor hearken to anything good. With oaths, with angry words, with curses, with scoffing laughter, he protested that he never meant to put on the habit of a holy life. This untoward boy was stricken with the plague. One half of his body was already dead, and only in his breast a little life remained. The monks knelt around his couch, and the nearer they saw him to his end, the more fervently did they commend him to God's mercy.

"'Depart, depart,' he called out suddenly. 'I am given over to a dragon to be devoured, and he cannot devour me because you are here. He has already swallowed my head. Let him be, that he may not torture me longer, but do what he has to do.'

"'What words are these?' they made answer. 'Strengthen thyself, Brother, with the Sign of the Cross.'

"'I wish I could!' he replied, 'but I am fettered by the coils of the dragon.'

"The monks fell prostrate on the ground, and prayed in zeal with tears. And presently the boy called out again:

"'Thank God, the dragon at last has fled! He could not abide your prayers. Now, I beseech you, make intercession for my sins, for I am fully resolved to become a monk.'

"And indeed he came back to life, and turned to God with his whole heart. He was still a long time chastised with afflictions before his soul departed from the miseries of this mortal life."

The reigning Pope fell a victim to the plague, and died on the 7th of February, 590. The choice of his successor rested with the clergy, the senate and the people of Rome, and the votes were unanimous in Gregory's favour. He had good birth, sound judgment, virtue, talent, business experience, and was popular both in Rome and at the Court of Constantinople.

It was most unlikely that the emperor would withhold his consent. Yet it was on Maurice's veto that the Pope-elect pinned his hopes, for the Romans were deaf to his tears and entreaties. He wrote off at once to the emperor and to influential persons at Court. Afterwards he blamed his friends at Constantinople for their inertia at this crisis of his fortunes. The truth is they never received his letters. The prefect of Rome detained his courier, and sent off instead the official papers dealing with the election, and sound reasons besides to show Gregory's fitness for the high responsibilities to which he was called. Months elapsed before an answer could arrive. Meanwhile the plague increased its ravages. Fear paralysed all efforts to control it, panic added to the death roll, the dead remained unburied. Gregory sent his monks among the citizens to exhort, to encourage, to enforce sanitation. He himself mounted the ambo in one of the principal churches, and preached on the efficacy of contrite prayer.

"Affliction oftentimes leads to conversion. May God's chastisements soften our hard hearts! You see yourselves there is no interval of ill-health between seizure and death. Before the sufferer has time to repent he is gone. And oh! in what fearful plight does that man stand, who meets the glance of the terrible Judge, before he has time to bewail his sins. Whole households die in batches. Parents see their children go before them to the grave. We must seek safety in compunction before we are struck down, and while there is time to weep.

"Let us recall our sins to mind so that we may ask God to forgive them, and lift up our hands with our hearts to God, heightening the earnestness of our prayers by the merits of good works. He gives confidence to our trembling, who says by the mouth of His prophet: 'I will not the death of a sinner, but that he be converted and live.' Let none despair because his crimes are heinous, since three days' prayer purged the Ninevites, hardened in sin. The converted robber earned eternal life in the very instant of his death. . .

"Let us persist with clamorous tears. Importunity annoys men but pleases the God of truth. . . . And so, beloved brethren, with contrite hearts and amended lives, let us assemble on the fourth day of the week, at early dawn, in seven groups, singing litanies through the streets of Rome."

Very early on the appointed day—it was Wednesday, the 25th of April—the priests were astir in the principal church of each of the seven regions. For the clergy of Rome were to meet at the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, the abbots and their monks at Saints Gervasius and Protasius, the abbesses and their nuns at Saints Marcellinus and Peter, the children at Saints John and Paul, the men at St. Stephen, the married women at St. Clement, and the widows at St. Euphemia. And as the seven groups wound slowly through the city streets, eighty persons fell out of the ranks to drop dead of the plague. But the suppliant chant never faltered.

At St. Mary Major, Gregory awaited to exhort anew to confidence in persevering prayer. He now took his place in the procession, and at its head he caused to be borne aloft the miraculous image which, according to the Golden Legend, "St. Luke the Evangelist had carved and painted after the likeness of the glorious Mother of God."

From St. Mary's on the Esquiline they moved westward to St. Peter's on the Vatican. And when they came to the bridge that spanned the Tiber they saw, on the topmost cupola of Hadrian's marble mausoleum, the archangel St. Michael in the act of sheathing his flaming sword. And anon the mortality ceased, the air became wholesome and clear, and round the image of Our Lady angelic voices brought to earth the three first lines of the Easter anthem:

"Regina Coeli laetare, Alleluia!

Quia quem meruisti portare, Alleluia!

Resurrexit sicut dixit, Alleluia!

And when the heavenly music ceased, St. Gregory lifted his voice in glad and grateful confidence:

"Ora pro nobis, Deum, Alleluia!"

Soon came sorrow to mingle with his joy. Letters from the emperor reached Rome in the summer. Maurice was delighted with the choice of the electors. Gregory's feelings may be gauged from his letters.

To the emperor's sister-in-law, Theoctista, he wrote in his dismay: "I am now more in bondage to earthly cares than ever I was as a layman. I have lost the deep joy of solitude, and while I am outwardly exalted, my spiritual self is cast down headlong into an abyss. . . . Amid the whirlwind of this trial I fear and tremble, and not for myself alone. I am terribly afraid for those committed to my care. . . .

"I longed to sit with Mary at the Master's Feet, and to! I am compelled, like Martha, to be troubled about many things. I thought the legion of devils had been cast out of me and I wished to rest a while near Our Lord and to! I have to go back to my countrymen and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for me. But who, amid so many earthly cares, can declare the glorious works of God? As for me, I find it difficult even to think of them. There are indeed men who can so control their outward prosperity that it does not degrade them. But for me the task is beyond my strength, for what the mind is unwilling to undertake it cannot manage well. Behold, our Most Serene Lord has ordered an ape to become a lion. A lion indeed the ape may be called at the imperial command, but a lion he cannot become."

The Pope-elect attempted flight. But the prefect of Rome had his suspicions and set a watch on all the city gates. Some merchants, however, were prevailed upon to bear him past the guards, hidden away among their bales of cloth. For three days he wandered in the woods without food, and in danger from thieves and Lombards. Meanwhile Rome was in consternation. The churches were crowded all day, a fast was proclaimed, and messengers scoured the country in pursuit. On the third night, a supernatural radiance betrayed the fugitive in the cavern where he lay hid. He was led back to Rome in triumph, and the joy of the citizens knew no bounds.

As quickly as possible he was ordained priest and consecrated bishop. On the 3rd of September, 590, he was solemnly enthroned in St. Peter's. With a heavy heart he wrote to claim the prayers of his friends.

"Worthless and weak," he told John the Faster, "I have taken charge of an old ship very much battered. The waters break in everywhere, the rotten timbers creak daily in the storm. For God's sake give me by your prayers a helping hand."

He elaborates this metaphor of a sinking ship when writing to St. Leander.

"The waves break against the prow, clouds of sea-foam dash over the curved bulwarks on the sides, a squall bursts upon the stern. And I, whom God has placed at the helm, have to tack sideways, lest through my negligence the leak in the hold increase. Weeping I look back upon the peaceful haven I have left so far behind, and I groan in spirit as I catch glimpses through the haze of the port towards which I am steering this wind-buffeted, crazy old boat. O dearest brother, if you lave me, help me by your prayers to battle with the waves. In proportion as you help my endeavour, may you yourself be strengthened in your own work."

"I complain, and not lightly of your love," he wrote to the Consul Gregory, the man in Rome who had been most active in procuring his election. "You knew I sought seclusion, and you have dragged me out to meet trouble. God reward you eternally for your good intention, and may it be His good pleasure to deliver me from the dangers into which you have thrust me! For my sins I am made a bishop, and not alone of the Romans, but of the Lombards who acknowledge no right save the sword, and whose favours are torture. See to what a pass your patronage has reduced me!"