The augmented power of the Papacy and Gregory the Great

In the general disorder, the Papacy, under some very able men, markedly increased its power and extended the geographical range of its authority. In principle, as we have seen, even before the year 500 its claims were sweeping. Whether those claims would be implemented depended upon the opportunity and upon the ability of the individuals in the Papal chair. The political disorders offered the challenge. Some Popes were weak and did not rise to the occasion. Indeed, as we are to see, towards the end of the period the Papacy fell victim for a time to the turbulence of the surrounding political scene and sank to an all-time low in its power. Yet it also had some very able and devoted men.

Of the Popes of this period the strongest was Gregory I, by common consent called the Great. Significantly, too, he was canonized by the Catholic Church and esteemed a saint, an exemplar of Christian faith and life. Occupying the throne of Peter from 590 to his death in 604, or for only fourteen years, he packed into that brief period a prodigious amount of work and achievement.

Gregory came from a prominent Roman house and had a Pope among his ancestors. The family was deeply religious. Three of his father's sisters dedicated themselves as virgins and two of them were eventually enrolled as saints. After his father's death his mother adopted the monastic life and later was canonized. Gregory was born about the year 540 and was given as good an education as the Rome of his day could provide. That city had been sacked again and again, it was greatly reduced in population, its aqueducts were no longer functioning, and many of the huge public buildings of imperial days were falling into ruins. Gregory knew no Greek and cared little for the classical pre-Christian Latin authors or for philosophy, astronomy, or mathematics. He early showed marked administrative ability and was appointed by the Emperor to head the civil administration of the city. Through the death of his father he inherited large wealth. Much of that wealth was in Sicily and with it he founded and endowed six monasteries off that island. He also turned his ancestral home in Rome into a monastery. The remainder of his fortune he gave to the poor. Whether he ever became technically a monk is in debate, but he was undoubtedly attracted to the monastery, frequented the one which he had founded in Rome, led an ascetic life, and was a warm admirer of Benedict. Indeed, most of our authentic information about the latter comes through him. The Pope appointed him one of the seven regionary deacons of the city, officers whose duty it was to look after the administration of alms. For six years he served in Constantinople as the Papal representative at the imperial court. When he arrived, Justinian had been dead for less than fifteen years, much of Italy, including Rome, was still in the Empire, and the Christological controversies had not yet been finally resolved, Always strictly and gravely orthodox, he was grieved by the large number of Monophysites who were separated from the Catholic Church. While in Constantinople he wrote voluminously in the clear but unadorned Latin which was characteristic of him. Returning to Rome about 585 or 586, he became secretary to the Pope.

In 590, through the popular acclaim of the clergy and people of Rome, Gregory was elected Pope. He was most reluctant to assume the duties of the office and is said to have written to Constantinople asking that the necessary imperial confirmation not be given. As Pope he faced a combination of problems which would have appalled and baffled a less able and resolute man, and he had to meet them under the handicap of physical frailty and recurrent attacks of indigestion, gout, and fever. His was the responsibility for seeing that the population of Rome was fed. Shortly before his accession the city had suffered from an inundation of the Tiber and the ensuing pestilence, and this aggravated his problem. The Lombards were expanding their power in Italy. In addition to the military threat of their arms and to the ruthless pillaging which is associated with invasions, they presented a religious challenge, for, to the extent that they were Christians, they were Arians. Gregory had the responsibility for the very large physical possessions of the Church of Rome, including its buildings in Rome and its endowments, chiefly in lands, in Italy, Sicily, Gaul, and North Africa. He held to the traditional claims of his see for priority in the Catholic Church, and as Patriarch in the West felt especial responsibility for Italy, Gaul, and Spain. At the outset he may almost have despaired of saving from shipwreck what he called "the rotten old vessel of which God had given" him "the charge."

Gregory rose to all the manifold obligations and reached out beyond them to new enterprises. He saw that Rome's poor were fed and that the church fabrics of the city were repaired and maintained. He managed the estates of the church so successfully that their revenues were increased, but with humane treatment of those who cultivated their lands. He raised armies, kept Rome inviolate from Lombard attacks, negotiated with both Lombards and imperial officials, and on his own authority made peace with the Lombards. During his pontificate he was the outstanding figure in Italy, in its political as well as its ecclesiastical life. He exercised authority in Gaul and Spain, attempted to reform abuses in the church in the Frankish domains, reached out into Illyricum, and inaugurated the Roman mission to Britain of which we are to hear more in a moment. He maintained contacts with the other patriarchs of the Catholic Church and insisted on the primacy of Rome, especially against the claims of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Gregory preached frequently. He also gave thought and effort to the public services of the Church, including its liturgy and music. He introduced changes in the liturgy. The type of music called Gregorian and which attained wide and prolonged popularity has been attributed to him. Just how much, if anything, he had to do with it has been in dispute, but it is clear that he was interested in the music of the Church and it is probable that he at least made decisive modifications by editing what had come down from the past. He maintained strict discipline among the clergy, sought to enforce the rule of clerical celibacy which had long been the ideal in the West, and gave especial oversight to the bishops who were in the ecclesiastical province of which the Bishop of Rome was metropolitan. He was greatly interested in monasteries, gave them increased liberty from the supervision of the bishops to govern their internal secular affairs, and was zealous in reforming those foundations which had lapsed morally and spiritually. He deposed unworthy abbots, sought to prevent monks from wandering about from one monastery to another, and, to obviate causes for scandal, decreed that women's convents be kept far apart from men's monasteries.

While one of his favorite designations of himself, servus servorum Dei ("servant of the servants of God") had been employed before him, and not exclusively by Popes, it seems peculiarly appropriate for him. When, in the ninth century, it began to be used only by the Popes, it may have been in part because of his example. There was fully as great aptness in a phrase which was on an epitaph of Gregory, consul dei ("God's consul"), for to a preeminent degree Gregory brought to the Church the administrative gifts which characterized the great Romans. Like the more eminent consuls he was a builder of empire, an empire centred in Rome. It was an empire, too, which like that of the consuls and the Cssars who bore the title of consul guarded the heritage of Grsco-Roman civilization, Romanitas. Yet Gregory was not just another consul: he was a consul of God and the empire which he sought to strengthen was, as he saw it, the kingdom of God in which Christ was ruler and the Pope, as Peter's successor, Christ's vicegerent. In an age of mounting chaos that empire of Christ's Church stood for decency, order, justice, and the high values of the spirit. More than any other one man, Gregory laid the foundations for the power which the Church of Rome was to exercise in the Western Europe of the next nine centuries.

The contrast with the Eastern wing of the Catholic Church is significant. The latter developed no such able administrators as did the Papacy. In this respect it had no one to compare with Leo the Great or with Gregory the Great. The obvious reason for the difference is that in the West the Empire waned and the Popes stepped in to take its place in preserving order while in the East the Empire continued and the leading Patriarch of that region, he of Constantinople, was overshadowed by the Emperor and the state. Even when men came to that Patriarchate from the civil service, as did Photius, they had been subordinates and not rulers and tended to conform to the tradition of cssaropapism. There may be deeper but more subtle reasons, such as the distinction between the Roman and the Greek genius, the one practical, the other, in its later Neoplatonic form, stressing spirit at the expense of flesh. It will be recalled that Monophysitism, belittling the human element in Christ, had much greater vogue in the East than in the West. Whatever the reasons, the contrast was real.

This trend towards regarding the Popes as the successors of the Cssars and the Papacy as the exponent and protector of Romanitas brought with it both beneficent results and perils. On the one hand it gave to the Church of the West a structural unity, helped to hold Europe together, and made for civilization. On the other, it substituted, perhaps fatally, visible organisational unity for the unity of love and mixed the kind of power represented by the Roman Empire with that of the Cross and the resurrection. The latter was not completely lost, but it suffered by its conjunction with Romanitas.

Gregory was not only an administrator. For centuries he was even more famous as a theologian. Here he was not an originator, for his primary talents were not those of the scholar. His preaching was simple and practical. In common with his times, he employed the allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, held the relics of the saints in great reverence, and believed in and emphasized miracles. He was intimately familiar with the text of the Bible and made much use of it. He was a warm admirer of Augustine and it was to a large degree the latter's thought that he endeavoured to transmit. Gregory did not exactly reproduce Augustine. While, with the latter, he held that the number of the elect is fixed, he seemed to make less of predestination by God than of God's foreknowledge. He believed in the divine initiative in the salvation of the individual, but held that once grace had begun to act, enabled by it, the individual could cooperate with it. To him sin was more weakness than the basic corruption of man's nature which Augustine stressed. He was substantially in accord with the modified Augustinianism of the Council of Orange.

Gregory put into written form much of the popular Christianity that had been growing up. He had more to say of purgatory than Augustine and was more certain of it than was the latter. Purgatory, so Gregory taught, is a state, a fire, in which Christians are purged of light sins before the final judgement. Men must repent of sins committed after baptism. He held that God's forgiveness is conditioned solely on men's contrition for their sins, but that works of penance lighten the load which would otherwise have to be borne in purgatory as disciplinary and cleansing, and that masses for the souls in purgatory are a help. For Christians this side the gate of death masses and the aid of the martyrs and saints are also to be sought, not that they ensure forgiveness, but because they aid in the discipline which the Church prescribes for those who repent of post-baptismal sins. Gregory also wrote extensively on angels and demons, systematizing what was generally believed in the circles of his day. He gave to both an hierarchical arrangement. He thought that the end of the world was at hand.

The writings of Gregory became standard and were much read in succeeding centuries. He was regarded as the last of the great fathers of the Latin Church and did much to fix its beliefs.

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