In the 21st century, we are accustomed to the pope referring to himself as “the servant of the servants of God,” but the title itself was first promulgated in the sixth century by Pope St. Gregory I, also known as St. Gregory the Great. Pontiff during a turbulent time not unlike our own, his personal character and leadership have led him to be included among the four great Latin Doctors of the early Church.

Born about the year 540 into a wealthy and prominent Christian Roman family, Gregory’s exemplary talents led him to be named a prefect in Rome before the age of 30. He had that office for only five years, however; somewhat abruptly, he left his position to become a Benedictine monk, establishing seven monasteries on his family’s extensive property.

Although content to live a contemplative life, Gregory nonetheless obeyed when Pope Pelagius II asked him to become one of his seven deacons; later, he also served as the pope’s representative in Constantinople.

Rome at the time was beset by tremendous difficulties both within and without. Invasions continually threatened the Western Church, while Islam was becoming a serious issue for the Church in the East. Major flooding, coupled with an outbreak of the plague in Rome, wreaked havoc in the city itself, resulting in, among other things, the death of Pope Pelagius in 590. Elected pope in his place by popular acclaim, Gregory reluctantly accepted the position, becoming the Church’s 64th pontiff and the first monk ever to sit in the Chair of Peter.

Despite his ill health and preference for the monastic life, Gregory embarked on his new vocation with all the energy and zeal he possessed. He laid particular emphasis on the Church’s missionary work as well as the care of the poor. It was Gregory who dispatched St. Augustine of Canterbury to what was then “Angle-Land” (present day England) to preach the Christian faith to the people there; indeed, the conversion of King Ethelbert of Kent led to the Christianization of the rest of that country.

Gregory also increased the number of deacons in the Church to specifically care for the needs of the people. He was known to replace any clergy who were reluctant to go among the poor and, during a famine in 590, he ordered that the assets of the Church be used to aid the needy and starving. In an act that reminds us of our current pope, Gregory also made certain to dine with a dozen poor people at each meal.

Though disputed by some (who credit this to Gregory II), it is believed that he was also responsible for establishing “cantus planus,” which we know today as Gregorian Chant. Closely associated with medieval monasteries, it remains the oldest original music that exists in the Church to this day.

Pope St. Gregory died in 604 and was immediately proclaimed a saint by popular acclaim. Venerated by Anglican and Lutheran Christians as well as Catholics, his feast day is Sept. 3.

Sources for this article include:

Huddleston, Gilbert. “Pope St. Gregory I (“the Great”).” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.

“Pope Saint Gregory the Great.” CatholicSaints.Info. March, 25, 2018.