March 12: Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, 604

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.


Only two Popes, Leo I and Gregory I, have been given the popular title of “the Great.” Both served in the difficult times of the barbarian invasions of Italy. Gregory also knew the horrors of “plague, pestilence, and famine.” He was born of a patrician family about 540, and became Prefect of Rome in 573. Shortly thereafter he retired to a monastic life in a community which he founded in his ancestral home on the Coelian Hill. Pope Pelagius II made him Ambassador to Constantinople in 579, where he learned much about the larger affairs of the Church. Not long after his return home, Pope Pelagius died of the plague, and in 590 Gregory was elected as his successor.

Gregory’s pontificate was one of strenuous activity. He organized the defense of Rome against the attacks of the Lombards, and fed its populace from papal granaries in Sicily. In this as in other matters, he administered “the patrimony of St. Peter” with energy and efficiency. His ordering of the Church’s liturgy and chant has molded the spirituality of the Western Church until the present day. Though unoriginal in theology, his writings provided succeeding generations with basic texts, especially the Pastoral Care, a classic on the work of the ministry.

In the midst of all his cares and duties, Gregory prepared and fostered the evangelizing mission to the Anglo-Saxons under Augustine and other monks from his own monastery. The Venerable Bede justly called Gregory the Apostle of the English.

Gregory died on March 12, 604, and was buried in St. Peter’s basilica. His life was a true witness to the title he assumed for his office: “Servant of the servants of God.”


I     Almighty and merciful God, who didst raise up Gregory of Rome to be a servant of the servants of God, and didst inspire him to send missionaries to preach the Gospel to the English people: Preserve in thy Church the catholic and apostolic faith they taught, that thy people, being fruitful in every good work, may receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II     Almighty and merciful God, you raised up Gregory of Rome to be a servant of the servants of God, and inspired him to send missionaries to preach the Gospel to the English people: Preserve in your Church the catholic and apostolic faith they taught, that your people, being fruitful in every good work, may receive the crown of glory that never fades away; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


1 Chronicles 25: 1a, 6-8

Colossians 1: 28-2:3

Mark 10: 42-45

Psalm 57: 6-11

Preface of Apostles

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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9 thoughts on “March 12: Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, 604

  1. The new New Testament reading seems appropriate for Gregory I.

    Bio. He needs a ‘He died in about the year 394.’statement.

  2. It would be appropriate to include a quotation from the letter he sent to those evangelizing England, where he advises them to adapt rather than try to erase local practices where possible. Bede quotes it, I think. It’s too bad that some much later missionaries didn’t have or heed such advice.

  3. Gregory the Great
    TITLE: Like “priest” with nothing special noted in the title, “Bishop of Rome” doesn’t claim much either, besides being winner in the election. This one actually did some things, so at the very least “Liturgical Reformer” might apply. Just being one of the two with the popular title of “the Great” doesn’t describe much, in and of itself.
    BIOGRAPHY: While the title is careful to designate him as “Bishop of Rome” the bio starts with “Only two Popes….” “Pope” or “Bishop of Rome” doesn’t particularly matter to me, but it seems funny to say it out of both sides of the mouth in the commemoration. Saying he’s only one of two that were popularly called “the Great,” and not having any “because” – no matter how perfunctory – to explain why he was popularly called the Great, seems counter-intuitive.
    The phrase “plague, pestilence, and famine” is familiar to us from our Great Litany, but when I looked up the definition for “pestilence” it verified that it just means plague, or similar disastrous epidemic. Besides the word “pestilence” being redundant (albeit familiar), that whole sentence just pops up in the paragraph with no explanation, context, or connection to the rest of the paragraph, and could be omitted without loss.
    “Coelian” is a word that could benefit from a pronunciation guide. “Gregory’s pontificate was one of strenuous activity” seems a gratuitous editorializing, since a list of what he did follows and does not require an introduction, and particularly not an implicit instruction about how we are to view those activities. (“Wow, that was certainly a pontificate full of strenuous activity.”) The same goes for the sentence, “In this as in other matters he administered “the patrimony of St. Peter” with energy and efficiency.” (Is that supposed to be your conclusion or mine?)
    Occasionally, although rarely, we get a negative slam that is out of place, and surely not needed, in a commemoration. This one includes the phrase, “Though unoriginal in theology,….” The sentence begins perfectly well with, “His writings provided succeeding generations with basic text…etc.” Drop the “unoriginal theology” piece. (Marcion had original theology, and that’s no compliment.)
    Paragraph 3 starts with, “In the midst of all his cares and duties….” That doesn’t add anything! Nobody claimed he “fostered the mission to the Anglo-Saxons” while on vacation, apart from cares and duties. Of course he did it “in the midst of all his cares and duties” – that clause is empty filler, with no substantial merit that argues for its inclusion: it’s self-evident. “Prepared and fostered” also pads the intelligence being conveyed: “fostered” suffices as the only verb needed. (What are we supposed to visualize or conceive as the difference between “prepared” and “fostered”? – Nothing! Just say “fostered.”)
    And, since I’m being nit-picky today, I will add that though I love the self-appellation cited in the closing sentence, I question whether (as HWHM puts it) “his LIFE was a true witness TO THE TITLE he assumed,” or if THE TITLE witnessed to his LIFE. It’s a good thing to pick an insightful and fitting title to describe a life. It’s a terrible thing to live one’s whole life simply to validate a title. (And while you’re at it – whatever “it” is – and I doubt “it” will be re-editing this bio, — just say, “His life was CHARACTERIZED IN the title he CHOSE for his office: “Servant of the servants of God.”)
    COLLECT: Surprisingly, I’m not so nit-picky with the collect. The only criticism I have is that it gives the church “the day off” insofar as the “so that” clause is concerned. The “so that” gives God, not the church, a job to do. The petition properly asks God to “Preserve in your Church the catholic and apostolic faith they [the missionaries] taught,” – then continues –“ [so] that your people, being fruitful in every good work, may RECEIVE the crown of glory that never fades away.” It’s not exactly the same as, “so that, as Christ’s Church, WE MAY BE fruitful in every good work, proclaiming as good news your crown of glory, that never fades away.” I also note that “faith” in this collect has totally capitulated to the notion of propositional (mental) content – i.e., it’s a subject matter now, not an act of faith and spirit; a static noun, no longer even partly a verb.
    READINGS: I heartily approve of the New Testament selections, including the newly proposed reading from Colossians. I can see Gregory’s kind of commitment resonating with the epistle’s, in effect, saying: “I want you presented to God perfectly formed in the mystery that is incarnate in Christ.” I can also see the Mark reading as appropriate for Gregory: anyone who chooses for his self-description “Servant of the servants of God” would be well within the spirit of a gospel passage that says, in its way, “The world’s way is to dominate others; God’s way is to serve others, as Jesus himself did and taught.”
    The Old Testament lesson focuses on the chant aspect of Gregory’s contribution, which is certainly a legitimate focus. However, it’s the most boring, trivial, uninspiring passage I can imagine. To wit:
    1 Chronicles 25.1a,6-8 (NRSV)
    25:1 David and the officers of the army also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals. …
    6 They were all under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the order of the king.
    7 They and their kindred, who were trained in singing to the LORD, all of whom were skillful, numbered two hundred eighty-eight.
    8 And they cast lots for their duties, small and great, teacher and pupil alike.
    At the same time, there are other aspects in the biography that are ignored in the selected readings and collect: (1) Monastic life in community he founded; (2) Ambassador to Constantinople for Pope; (3) Comprehensive view of the ecumenical Church; (4) Defended Rome against Lombards; (5) Fed Roman people from papal granaries; (6) “Apostle of the English.” I don’t especially care if the OT lesson stays with the music aspect or picks up on one of the aspects listed – they can’t all be included. But, don’t pick a boring, uninspiring passage JUST BECAUSE it mentions some arbitrary detail from the biography. The scripture passage selected should tell of God’s gracious work and guidance with his people; not just a trivial pursuit fact about “who’s on (cymbals, harps and lyres) first.”
    As for Psalm 57, (the selected one in HWHM) it says, in effect, “They set out to do me in, but it backfired on them, so now I sing YHWH’s praise to all nations; YHWH’s (hesed) covenant solidarity is more than the most glorious thing in the sky!” It’s not an exact fit for Gregory’s commemoration, but it expresses something about music AND evangelism. This works well if the OT is about music, but a different psalm of response would be needed if one of the other emphases in the biography were to be chosen instead of music, since the Psalm is not functioning as an fourth and independent reading, but is specifically a RESPONSE to the OT lesson. I dislike the choice of OT lesson; the psalm can’t really be judged apart from the lesson, and I hope SCLM will seek a better OT lesson (and a good psalm that resonates with it).
    All in all, the commemoration is uplifting. It has more potential than it actualizes, but it is certainly a gift to the church. THANK YOU!

  4. I value the lesson about Gregory. Not being possessed of a broad background in theological study, I appreciate the information provided. It adds to my appreciation of the richness of our church and those who came before.

  5. The subtitle needs to be changed. (It seems a bit pathetic that we persist in calling a Pope “The Bishop of Rome”, but Gregory is not honored because he was a Pope, rather for his effective usage of the office) I suggest “Apologist and Founder of Missions”.

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