Among all the Pastors whom Our Lord Jesus Christ has placed as His Vicars over the Universal Church, there is not one whose merits and renown have surpassed that of the holy Pope, whose feast we keep today. This first St. Gregory, whose name signifies watchfulness; was surnamed the Great, and he was already in possession of that title for many centuries when God sent St. Gregory VII, the "great Hildebrand," to govern His Church.
In recounting the glories of this illustrious Pontiff, it is but natural we should begin with his zeal for the Services of the Church. The Roman Liturgy, which owes to him some of its finest hymns, may be considered as his work, at least in this sense, that it was he who collected together and classified the prayers and rites drawn up by his predecessors, and reduced them to the form in which we now have them. He collected also the ancient chants of the Church, and arranged them in accordance with the rules and requirements of the Divine Service. Hence it is that our sacred music is called the Gregorian Chant, which gives such solemnity to the Liturgy, and inspires the soul with respect during the celebration of the great Mysteries of our Faith.
He is then the Apostle of the Liturgy, and this alone would have immortalized his name; but we look for far greater things from such a Pontiff as St. Gregory. His name was added to the three, who had hitherto been honored as the great Doctors of the Latin Church. These three were Ss. Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome; who else could be the fourth but St. Gregory? The Church found in his writings such evidence of his having been guided by the Holy Ghost—such a knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures, such a clear appreciation of the Mysteries of Faith, and such unction and authority in his teachings, that She gladly welcomed him as a new guide for Her children.
Such was the respect wherewith everything he wrote was treated, that his very Letters were preserved as so many precious treasures. This immense Correspondence shows us that there was not a country, scarcely even a city, of the Christian world, on which the Pontiff had not his watchful eye steadily fixed; that there was not a question, however local or personal, which, if it interested religion, did not excite his zeal and arbitration, as the Bishop of the Universal Church. If certain writers of modern times had but taken the pains to glance at these Letters, written by a Pope of the 6th century, they would never have asserted, as they have done, that the prerogatives of the Roman Pontiff are based on documents, fabricated, as they say, two hundred years after the death of St. Gregory.
Throned on the Apostolic See, our Saint proved himself to be a rightful heir of the Apostles, not only as the representative and depository of their authority, but as a fellow-sharer in their mission of calling nations to the true Faith. To whom does England owe her having been, for so many ages, the Island of Saints? To St. Gregory, who, touched with compassion for those Angli—of whom, he playfully added, he would fain make Angeli—sent to their island the Monk Augustine (St. Augustine of Canterbury), with forty companions; all of them, as was St. Gregory himself, spiritual sons of St. Benedict. The Faith had been sown on this land as early as the 2nd century, but it had been trodden down by the invasion of an infidel race. This time the seed fructified, and so rapidly, that St. Gregory lived to see a plentiful harvest. It is beautiful to hear the aged Pontiff speaking with enthusiasm about the results of his English mission. He thus speaks in the 27th Book of his Morals: "Lo, the language of Britain, which could once utter naught but barbarous sounds, has long since begun to sing, in the divine praises, the Hebrew Alleluia! Lo, that swelling sea is now calm, and Saints walk on its waves The tide of barbarians, which the sword of earthly princes could not keep back, is now hemmed in at the simple bidding of God’s priests."
During the fourteen years that this holy Pope held the place of St. Peter, he was the object of the admiration of the Christian world, both in the East and West. His profound learning, his talent for administration, his position—all tended to make him beloved and respected. But who could describe the great virtues of his soul? His contempt for the world and its riches led him to seek obscurity in the cloister. His humility made him flee from the honors of the Papacy and hide himself in a cave, where at length he was miraculously discovered, and God Himself put into his hands the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, which he was evidently worthy to hold, because he feared the responsibility. His zeal for the whole flock made him consider himself not the master, but the servant, so much so indeed that he assumed the title, which the Popes have ever since retained, of Servant of the Servants of God. His charity took care of the poor throughout the whole world. His ceaseless solicitude provided for every calamity, whether public or private. His unruffled sweetness of manner showed itself to all around him, in spite of the bodily sufferings which never left him during the whole period of his laborious pontificate. His firmness in defending the deposit of the Faith crushed error wherever it showed itself. His vigilance with regard to discipline made itself felt for long ages after in the whole Church. All these services and glorious examples of virtue have endeared our Saint to the whole world, and will make his name blessed by all future generations, even to the end of time.
Let us now read the abridged Life of our Saint, as given us in the Roman Breviary:
St. Gregory the Great, a Roman by birth, was son of the Senator Gordian. He applied early to the study of philosophy, and was entrusted with the office of Praetor. After his father's death he built six monasteries in Sicily, and a seventh, under the title of Saint Andrew, in his own house in Rome, near the Basilica of Saints John and Paul, on the hill of Scaurus. In this last-named monastery, he embraced the monastic life, under the guidance of Hilarion and Maximian, and was later on elected Abbot. Shortly afterwards he was created Cardinal-Deacon, and was sent by Pope Pelagius to Constantinople, as Legate, to confer with the Emperor Tiberius Constantine. Whilst there he achieved that celebrated victory over the Patriarch Eutychius, who had written against the resurrection of the body, maintaining that it would not be a real one. St. Gregory so convinced him of his error, that the Emperor threw his book into the fire. Eutychius himself fell ill not long after, and when he perceived his last hour had come, he took between his fingers the skin of his hand, and said before the many who were there, "I believe that we shall all rise in this flesh."
On his return to Rome, he was elected Pope by unanimous consent, for Pelagius had been carried off by the plague. He refused, as long as possible, the honor thus offered him. He disguised himself and hid himself in a cave; but he was discovered by a pillar of fire shining over the place, and was consecrated at St. Peter's. As Pope he was an example to his successors by his learning and holiness of life. He every day admitted pilgrims to his table, among whom he received, on one occasion, an Angel, and on another, the Lord of Angels, Who wore the garb of a pilgrim. He charitably provided for the poor, both in and out of Rome, and kept a list of them. He reestablished the Catholic Faith in many places where it had fallen into decay. Thus, he put down the Donatists in Africa, and the Arians in Spain; and drove the Agnoites out of Alexandria. He refused to give the pallium to Syagrius, Bishop of Autun, until he had expelled the Neophyte heretics from Gaul. He induced the Goths to abandon the Arian heresy. He sent St. Augustine (of Canterbury) and other Monks into Britain, and, by these learned and saintly men, converted that island to the Faith of Jesus Christ; so that St. Bede truly calls him the "Apostle of England." He checked the haughty pretensions of John, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who had arrogated to himself the title of "Bishop of the Universal Church." He obliged the Emperor Mauritius to revoke the decree, in which he had forbidden any soldier to become a monk.
He enriched the Church with many most holy practices and laws. In a council held at St. Peter's, he passed several decrees. Among these: that in the Mass the Kyrie eleison should be said nine times; that the Alleluia should always be said, except during the interval between Septuagesima and Easter; that these words should be inserted in the Canon of the Mass—Diesque nostros in tua pace disponas (And mayest Thou disposest our days in peace). He increased the number of processions (litanies) and stations, and completed the Office of the Church. He wished to have the four Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon, to be received with the same honor as the Four Gospels. He allowed the Bishops of Sicily, who, according to the ancient custom of their churches, used to visit Rome every three years, to make that visit once every fifth year. He wrote several books; and Peter the Deacon assures us that he frequently saw the Holy Ghost resting on the head of the Pontiff, while he was dictating. It is a matter of wonder, that with his incessant sickness and ill health, he could have said, done, written, and decreed as he did. At length after performing many miracles, he was called to his reward in Heaven, after a Pontificate of thirteen years, six months, and ten days; it was on the fourth of the Ides of March (March 12), which the Greeks also observe as a great Feast, on account of this Pope's extraordinary learning and virtue. His body was buried in the Basilica of St. Peter, near the Secretarium.
O Father of the Christian people! Vicar of Christ—in charity, as well as in authority! O St. Gregory, vigilant Pastor! The Church which thou hast so faithfully loved and served turns to thee with confidence. Thou canst not forget the flock, which keeps up such an affectionate remembrance of thee; hear the prayer she offers thee on this thy solemnity. Bless the Hierarchy of Pastors, which has received from thee such magnificent teachings and such admirable examples. Assist it to maintain inviolate the sacred trust of Faith.
The terrible schism, which has separated the East from Catholic unity, began to show itself during thy Pontificate. Byzantium has long ago consummated her crime, which has degraded and enslaved her; and yet she seems blind to the real cause of all her miseries. She has since been abetted in her sin and her haughtiness; Russia, the despotic power that has her hands steeped in the blood of Martyrs, has made common cause with her in rebellion against the Church. We have heard of the proud threat, that she would not rest till she have put "one foot on the Tomb of Our Lord in Jerusalem, and the other on the Confession of St. Peter in Rome," so that mankind will make a god of the czar! Rouse up the zeal of the Christian world, O St. Gregory! Inflame them with resistance to this false christ! May his fall become a lasting monument of the vengeance of our true Christ, Jesus our Savior, and a fulfillment of the promise He made to His Church: That the gates of Hell shall never prevail against the Rock. We know, O Holy Pontiff, that this promise is to be fulfilled, but we dare to pray, that we may see its accomplishment verified in our own times! (Historical note—it would appear that Almighty God answered Dom Guéranger's prayer—at least in part. Czar Nicholas I and Russia suffered a humiliating defeat in the Crimean War in 1858. The War was due in part to the Czar’s insistence on the schismatic Orthodox retaining partial control of some of the pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land. The huge statue of Our Lady at the Shrine of Puy is made from cannons captured from the Russians at Sebastopol and melted down for this purpose—see Salve Maria Regina Issue No. 145.)
These are the days of salvation; pray for the faithful who have commenced their Lenten penance. Obtain for them compunction of heart, love of prayer, and an appreciation of the Liturgy and its Mysteries. The solemn and devout Homilies, which thou didst address at this Season to the people of Rome, are still read to us; may they sink into our hearts, and fill them with a fear of God's Justice and hope in His Mercy, for His Justice and Mercy change not to suit the time. We are weak and timid, and this makes us count as harsh the laws of the Church, which oblige us to fasting and abstinence; obtain for us brave hearts, brave with the spirit of mortification. Thy holy life is an example to us, and thy writings are our instruction. What we still want, is to be made true penitents, and this thy intercession must do for us; that so we may return, with the joy of a purified conscience, to the divine Alleluia, which thou hast taught us to sing on earth, and which we hope to chant together with thee in Heaven.
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