17 - 23 minutes readMarch 12 – St Gregory the Great, Pope & Doctor of the Church ~ Dom Prosper Gueranger

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March 12 – St Gregory the Great, Pope & Doctor of the Church


Among all the Pastors whom our Lord Jesus Christ has placed as his Vice-regents over the universal Church, there is not one whose merits and renown have surpassed those of the holy Pope whose feast we keep today. His name is Gregory, which signifies watchfulness; his surname is the Great, and he was in possession of that title when God sent the Seventh Gregory, the glorious Hildebrand, to govern his Church.

In recounting the glorious 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 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 and devotion 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 must look for far greater things from such a Pontiff as Gregory. His name was added to the three who had hitherto been honored as the great Doctors of the Latin Church. These three were Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome; who else could be the fourth but 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 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 Gregory, who, touched with compassion for these Angli,—of whom, as he playfully said, he would fain make Angeli,—sent to their island the Monk Augustine, with forty companions, all of them, as was Gregory himself, children of St. Benedict. The faith had been sown in this land as early as the second century, but it had been trodden down by the invasion of an infidel race. This time the seed fructified, and so rapidly that 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 twenty-seventh Book of his Morals: “Lo! the language of Britain, which could once mutter naught save 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 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 virtues of his great soul?—that contempt for the world and its riches, which led him to seek obscurity in the cloister; that humility which made him flee 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 Heaven, which he was evidently worthy to hold, because he feared the responsibility; that zeal for the whole flock, of which he considered 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; that charity which took care of the poor throughout the whole world; that ceaseless solicitude which provided for every calamity, whether public or private; that unruffled sweetness of manner which he showed to all around him, in spite of the bodily sufferings which never left him during the whole period of his laborious pontificate; that firmness in defending the deposit of the Faith, and crushing error wheresoever it showed itself; in a word, that vigilance with regard to discipline, which 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 be 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 Liturgy.

Gregorius magnus, Romanus, Gordiani Senatoris filius, adolescens philosophiæ operam dedit, et prætorio officio functus, patre mortuo, sex monasteria in Sicilia ædificavit; Romæ septimum sancti Andreæ nomine in suis ædibus, prope Basilicam sanctorum Joannis et Pauli ad clivum Scauri: ubi Hilarione ac Maximiano magistris monachi vitam professus, postea Abbas fuit. Mox Diaconus Cardinalis creatus, Constantinopolim a Pelagio Pontifice ad Tiberium Constantium Imperatorem legatus mittitur, apud quem memorabile etiam illus effecit, quod Eutychium Patriarcham, qui scripserat contra veram ac tractabilem corporum resurrectionem, ita convicit, ut ejus librum imperator in ignem injiceret. Quare Eutychius paulo post cum in morbum incidisset, instante morte, pellem manus suæ tenebat multis præsentibus, dicens: Confiteor quia omnes in hac carne resurgemus. Gregory the Great, a Roman by birth, was son of the Senator Gordian. He applied early to the study of philosophy, and was intrusted with the office of Prætor. 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 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 by Pope Pelagius sent to Constantinople, as Legate, to confer with the Emperor Constantine. While there he achieved that celebrated victory over the Patriarch Eutychius, who had written against the resurrection of the flesh, maintaining that it would not be a real one. 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.”

Romam rediens, Pelagio pestilentia sublato, summo omnium consensu Pontifex eligitur: quem honorem ne acciperet, quamdiu potuit, recusavit. Nam alieno vestitu in spelunca delituit: ubi deprehensus indicio igneæ columnæ, ad Sanctum Petrum consecratur. In pontificatu multa successoribus doctrinæ ac sanctitatis exempla reliquit. Peregrinos quotidie ad mensam adhibebat: in quibus et Angelum, et Dominum Angelorum peregrini facie accepit. Pauperes et urbano et externos, quorum numerum descriptum habebat, benigne sustentabat. Catholicam fidem multis locis labefactatam restituit. Nam Donatistas in Africa, Arianos in Hispania repressit: Agnoitas Alexandria ejecit, Pallium Syagrio Autustodunensi Episcopo dare noluit, nis Neophytos hæreticos expelleret ex Gallia. Gothos hæresim Arianam relinquere coegit. Missis in Britanniam doctis et sanctis viris Augustino et aliis monachis, insulam ad Jesu Christi fidem convertit, vere a Beda presbytero Angliæ vocatus Apostolus. Joannis patriarchæ Constantinopolitani audaciam fregit, qui sibi universalis Ecclesiæ Episcopi nomen arrogabat. Mauritium imperatorem, eos qui milites fuissent, monachos fieri prohibentem, a sententia deterruit. On his return to Rome, he was chosen Pope, by unanimous consent, for Pelagius had been carried off by the plague. He refused, as long as it was 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 Saint Peter’s. As Pontiff, 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, an 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 re-established the Catholic faith in several 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 should have expelled the Neophyte heretics from Gaul. He induced the Goths to abandon the Arian heresy. He sent Augustine and other Monks into Britain, and, by these learned and saintly men, converted that island to the faith of Christ Jesus; so that 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, whereby he had forbidden any soldier to become a monk.

Ecclesiam ornavit sanctissimis institutis et legibus. Apud Sanctum Petrum coacta Synodo, multa constituit. In iis, ut in Missa Kyrie eleison novies repeteretur; ut extra id tempus, quod continetur Septuagesima et Pascha, Alleluia diceretur: ut adderetur in Canone: Diesque nostros in tua pace disponsas. Litainas, Stationes, et Ecclesiasticum officium auxit. Quatuor Conciliis, Nicæno, Constantinopolitano, Ephesino et Chalcedonensi, tamquam quatuor Evangeliis onorem haberi voluit. Episcopis Siciliæ, qui ex antiqua Ecclesiarum consuetudine Romam singulis trienniis conveniebant, quinto quoque anno semel venire indulsit. Multo libros confecit: quos cum dictaret, testatus est Petrus Diaconus se Spiritum Sanctum columbæ specie in ejus capite sæ vidisse. Admirabilia sunt quæ dixit, fecit, scripsit, decrevit, præsertim infirma semper et ægra valetudine. Qui denisque multis editis miraculis, Pontificatus anno decimo tertio, mense sexto, die decimo, quarto Idus Martii, qui dies festus a Græcis etiam propter insignem hujus Pontificis sapientiam ac sanctitatem, præcipue honore celebratur ad cœlestem beatitudinem evocatus est. Cujus corpus sepultum est in Basilica Sancti Petri, prope Secretarium. 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, the following may be mentioned: That in the Mass, the Kyrie eleison should be said nine times; that the Alleluia should always be said, except during Septuagesima and Easter. That these words should be inserted in the Canon: Diesque nostros in tua pace disponsas (And mayst thou dispose our days in thy peace). He increased the number of Processions (Litanies) and stations, and completed the Office of the Church. He would have the four Councils, of Nicea, 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 12th), which the Greeks also observe as a great Feast, on account of this Pontiff’s extraordinary learning and virtue. His body was buried in the Basilica of Saint Peter, near the Secretarium.

To these admirable Lessons we subjoin a selection of Antiphons and Responsories, which are taken from an Office approved of by the Holy See, for this Feast of so great a Saint.

Antiphons and Responsories
Beatus Gregorius in cathedra Petri sublimatus, Vigilantis nomen factis implevit. The blessed Gregory, being raised to the Chair of Peter, fulfilled, by his actions, the meaning of his name—the Watchman.
Pastor eximius pastoralis vitæ specimen tradidit et regulam. This glorious Pastor was the model, and wrote the rule, of the Pastoral Life.
Dum paginæ sacræ mysteria panderet, columba nive candidior apparuit. While he was interpreting the Mysteries of the Sacred Volume, there was seen upon him a dove whiter than snow.
Gregorius, monarchorum speculum, pater Urbis, orbis deliciæ. Gregory was the mirror of monks, the father of the City, and the favorite of mankind.
Gregorius, respiciens Anglorum juvenes, ait: Angelicam habent faciem; et tales Angelorum in cœlis decet esse consortes. Gregory looks upon some youths from Anglia, and says: They have the faces of Angels, and such children must needs be companions of Angels in heaven.
℟. Gregorius, ab annis adolescentiæ suæ, Deo cœpit devotus existere. * Et ad supernæ vitæ patriam totis desideriis anhelavit. ℟. From his early youth, Gregory was devout in God’s service, * And with all his heart sighed after the land of heavenly life.
℣. Pauperibus opes distribuens, Christum pro nobis egenum, egenus ipse sequutus est. ℣. He distributed his wealth to the poor, and became poor himself, after the example of Christ, who made himself poor for us.
* Et ad supernæ vitæ patriam totis desideriis adhelavit. * And with all his heart sighed after the land of heavenly life.
℟. Sex in Sicilia monasteria constituens, fratres illic Christo servituros aggregavit; septimum vero intra Romanæ urbis muros instituit: * In quo et ipse militiam cœlestem agressus est. ℟. Six Monasteries did he found in Sicily, and put in them communities of Brethren, who should serve Christ; a seventh also he founded within the walls of Rome’s city, * Wherein he, too, enrolled himself in the heavenly warfare.
℣. Mundum cum flore despiciens, dilectæ solitudinis locum quæsivit. ℣. He despised the world with its flowers, and sought out a place of solitude most dear to his soul.
* In quo et ipse militiam cœlestem aggressus est. * Wherein he, too, enrolled himself in the heavenly warfare.
℟. Ad summi Pontificatus apicem quæsitus, quum ad sylvarum et cavernarum latebras confugisset.* Visa est columna lucis a summo cœli usque ad cum linea recta refulgens. ℟. When they were in search of him to set him on the throne of the Papal dignity, he fled to the woods and caves and his himself; * But a bright pillar of light was seen to shine upon him, in a straight line from the high heavens.
℣. Tam eximium pastorem sitiens populus, jejuniis et orationibus ad cœlum insistebat. ℣. The people, in their eager desire to have so excellent a Pastor, besieged heaven with their fastings and prayers.
* Visa est columna lucis a summo cœli usque ad eum linea recta refulgens. * But a bright pillar was seen to shine upon him, in a straight line from the highest heavens.
℟. Ecce nunc magni maris fluctibus quatior, pastoralis curæ procellis illisus: * Et quum priorem vitam recolo, quasi post tergum reductis oculis viso littore suspiro. ℟. Lo! now I am tossed by the waves of the great sea, and am buffeted by the storms of pastoral care: * And when I remember my former life, I sigh like one that looks back on the shore he has left behind.
℣. Immensis fluctibus turbatus feror, vix jam portum valeo videre quem reliqui. ℣. I am carried to and fro on huge waves, which scarcely permit me to see the port I sailed from.
* Et quum priorem vitam recolo, quasi post tergum reductis oculis, viso littore suspire. * And when I remember my former life, I sigh like one that looks back on the shore he has left behind.
℟. E fonte Scripturarum moralia et mystica proferens, fluenta Evangelii populus derivavit: * Et defuntus adhuc loquitur. ℟. He drew moral and mystical interpretations from the Scripture fountain, and made the streams of the Gospel flow upon the people: * And being dead, he yet speaketh.
℣. Velut aquila perlustrans mundum amplitudine charitatis majoribus et minimis providet. ℣. Like an eagle flying from one end of the world to the other, he provided for all, both little and great, by his large-hearted charity.
* Et defunctus adhuc loquitur. * And being dead, he yet speaketh.
℟. Cernens Gregorius Anglorum adolescentulos, dolebat tam lucidi vultus homines a tenebrarum principe possideri: * Tantamque frontia speciem, mentem ab internis gaudiis vacuam gestare. ℟. As he gazed on the boys of Anglia, it grieved him to think that such bright faced youths should be in the power of the prince of darkness: * And that they who had such comely faces, should have souls devoid of interior joy.
℣. Ex intimo corde longa trahens suspiria, lugebat imaginem Dei ab antiquo serpente deturpatam. ℣. Deeply did he sigh, and, from his inmost soul, grieve that the image of God should be disfigured by the old serpent.
* Tantamque frontis speciem, mentam ab internis gaudiis vacuam gestare. * And that they, who had such comely faces, should have souls devoid of interior joy.
℟. Quum Joannes episcopus arraganter primæ Sedia jura dissolvere tentaret, surrexit Gregorius fortis et mansuetus: * Apostolica fulgens auctoritate, humilitate præclarus. ℟. When John, the Bishop, arrogantly strove to interfere with the rights of the first See, bravely and meekly and Gregory rise up. * Radiant with Apostolic authority, and humble exceedingly.
℣. Petri claves invictus asseruit, et cathedram principalem illæsam custodivit. ℣. Unflinchingly did he defend the Keys of Peter, and guard from insult the principal Chair.
* Apostolica fulgens auctoritate, humilitate præclarus. * Radiant with Apostolic authority, and humble exceedingly.
℟. Gregorius, præsul meritis et nomine dignus, antiquas divinæ laudis modulationes renovans, * Militantis Ecclesiæ vocem triumphantis Sponsæ concentibus sociavit. ℟. Gregory, a Pontiff great in merit and name, restored the ancient melodies used in the Divine praise, * And united the songs of the Church Militant, with those of the Spouse Triumphant.
℣. Sacramentorum codicem mystico calamo rescribens, veterum Patrum instituta posteris transmisit. ℣. His mystic pen transcribed the book of the Sacraments, and handed down to posterity the institutions of the ancient Fathers.
* Militantes Ecclesiæ vocem triumphantis Sponsæ concentibus sociavit. * And united the songs of the Church Militant with those of the Spouse Triumphant.
℟. Stationes per Basilicas et Martyrum Cœmeteria ordinavit: * Et sequebatur exercitus Domini Gregorium præeuntem. ℟. He regulated the Stations to be made at the Basilicas and Cemeteries of the Martyrs: * And the army of Christ went in procession, with Gregory at their head.
℣. Ductor cœlestis militiæ arma spiritualia proferebat. ℣. He was the leader of the heavenly warfare, and gave to all their spiritual armor.
* Et sequebatur exercitus Domini Gregorium præeuntem. * And the army of Christ went in procession, with Gregory at their head.

St. Peter Damian, whose Feast we kept a few days back, composed the following Hymn in honor of our Apostle.

Anglorum jam Apostolus,
Nunc Angelorum socius,
Ut tunc, Gregori, gentibus
Succurre jam credentibus.
O Gregory, that once wast the Apostle of the Angli, and now art a companion of the Angels! protect now, as of old, the nations that believe in Christ.
Tu largas opum copias,
Omnemque mundi gloriam
Spernis, ut inops inopem
Jesum sequaris principem.
Thou spurnest wealth and riches, and all the glory of the world, that so thou, being poor, mayst follow the Lord Jesus, who was poor.
Videtur agens naufragus,
Dum stipem petit Angelus;
Tu munus jam post geminum,
Præbes et vas argenteum.
An Angel presents himself to thee, in the garb of one that was shipwrecked, and asks an alms; thou first makest him a double gift, and then thou givest him a silver vase.
Ex hoc te Christus tempore
Suæ præfert Ecclesiæ:
Sic Petri gradum percipis,
Cujus et normam sequeris.
After this, Christ puts thee over his Church, for thou didst imitate the virtues, and now thou hast the honors, of Peter.
O Pontifex egregie,
Lux et decus Ecclesiæ,
Non sinas in periculis,
Quos tot mandatis instruis.
O excellent Pontiff! Light and ornament of the Church! Thou hast so richly instructed us,—assist us in our dangers.
Mella cor obdulcantia
Tua distillant labia,
Fragrantum vim aromatum
Tuum vincit eloquium.
From thy lips there flows honey that brings sweetness to the heart. Thy words are more fragrant than the richest perfume.
Scripturæ sacræ mystica
Mire solvis ænigmata,
Theorica mysteria
Te docet ipsa Veritas.
Admirably dost thou solve the obscure figures of Sacred Writ. The divine mysteries are taught thee by Him that is the very Truth.
Tu nactus apostolicam
Vicem simul et gloriam,
Nos solve culpæ nexibus,
Redde polorum sedibus.
O thou that hast the office and the glory of the Apostles, pray for us, that we may be loosened from the bonds of sin, and obtain the thrones prepared for us above.
Sit Patri laus ingenito,
Sit decus Unigenito,
Sit utriusque parili
Majestas summa Flamini. Amen.
To the unbegotten Father, and to his Only Begotten Son, and to the Spirit of them both, be praise and highest kingship. Amen.

Father of the Christian people! Vicar of the charity, as well as of the authority, of Christ! O 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. Protect and guide the Pontiff, who now holds the place of Peter, as thou didst; enlighten and encourage him in the difficulties wherewith he is beset. Bless the Hierarchy of the Pastors, which has received from thee such magnificent teachings and such admirable examples. Assist it to maintain inviolate the sacred trust of Faith; bless the efforts it is now making for the restoration of ecclesiastical Discipline, without which all is disorder and confusion. God chose thee as the regulator of the Divine Service, the Holy Liturgy; foster, by thy blessing, the zeal which is now rising up among us for those holy traditions of Prayer, which have been so neglected; teach us the long-forgotten secret, that the best way of praying is to use the Prayers of the Church. Unite all Churches in obedience to the Apostolic See, which is the ground and pillar of Faith, and the fountain of Spiritual Authority.

The terrible schism, which has separated the East from Catholic unity, began to show itself during thy Pontificate. Byzantium has now consummated her crime, which has degraded and enslaved her; and yet she seems blind to the real cause of all her miseries. In these latter days she has been abetted in her sin and her haughtiness—Russia, the despotic power that has her hands steeped in the blood of Martyrs, had made common cause with her in rebellion against the Church, and we have heard the proud threat that she will not rest till she have put “one foot on the Tomb of our Lord in Jerusalem, and the other on the Confession of Saint Peter in Rome,” so that mankind shall make a god of the Czar!—Rouse up the zeal of the Christian world, O Gregory! and inflame them with holy 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 even in our times.

But there is one country which was most dear to thee—our own native land. O Apostle of England! look down with affection on this island, which has now rebelled from Rome, and has become the resort of countless false religions. But now, after four centuries of apostasy from the true Faith, the hand of God’s mercy is pressing her to conversion. She is thine own child in Christ Jesus: wilt thou not aid her return to Him? Wilt thou not guide her, by thy prayers, to come forth out of the darkness, which still so thickly clouds her, and follow the Light which heaven holds out to her? Oh! if England were once more Catholic, who can tell the good she would do? for what country is there that can do grander things for the Propagation of the Faith? Pray for her, then; she may regain her glorious title of Isle of Saints, for she has thee for her Apostle!

These are the days of salvation; pray for the Faithful, who have entered on their career of 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 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; get 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.


This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)