On 3 September, we mark the feast day of Pope St Gregory the Great. He was pope from 590 to 604, a reformer of the Church. Responding to a succession of crises in Rome, he set up the financial framework of the Church while energising the missionary work most notably sending missionaries to evangelise to the people of England and northern Europe. But he's most known for his humility and his care for the poor.

Gregory came from a wealthy family owning estates in Sicily. He was the son of a senator and was related to several popes. By the age of 30, he was the chief administrative officer of Rome, which had fallen in stature following years of decline and attack from the Lombards, who had conquered much of the Italian peninsula. At the time, Gregory was responsible for finances, police, and public works. In this role he built six monasteries.

By the age of 33, he was Prefect of Rome. But despite the outward success, he was dissatisfied, preferring a quiet life of contemplation. He became a Benedictine monk and when his father died, he converted his home into a monastery. He tried to avoid the trappings of success, preferring instead the austere and joyful simplicity of life in a monastery, where his days were spent in prayer, work and studying Scripture. But this was not to last.

In 577, Pope Benedict appointed Gregory to be one of the seven deacons of Rome. And in 578, Pope Pelagius II sent Gregory to Constantinople as representative to the imperial court, then later recalled him to serve as advisor.

In 589, a flood destroyed the grain reserves of Rome, creating a famine. A plague swept through the city and killed Pope Pelagius. In this fraught environment, Gregory was elected pope and although he initially attempted to refuse the position, he eventually assumed the role, albeit reluctantly. But here his administrative skills and experience were put to excellent use.

The Rome of 590 was a mess. It was a city packed with refugees, poor and homeless people trying to scrape together a living in a city suffering plague, famine, and constant threat of attack. He appealed to Constantinople for aid, but they were unable to offer any assistance. To deal with the famine, Gregory fed people from the Church’s granaries and organised systematic relief for the poor.

And this is one of the key things for which he’s known and loved: his immense work of charitable relief for the poor of Rome. He believed that wealth belonged to the poor and the Church was the steward of that wealth. ‘I hold the office of steward to the poor,’ he wrote in a letter.

He inspired many to give generously. He required all church workers to make helping the needy their number one priority. Any people who refused to do so were replaced. Pope Gregory was meticulous in balancing the ledgers. With greater expenses, the Church needed greater income. He liquidated property assets and kept Church finances buoyant in order to best serve the poor. He also set up a robust administrative framework for the management of Church property. Any produce coming from Church-owned farmland was shipped to the poor directly.

Pope Gregory soon created an efficient system where the papacy was providing a monthly food supply for much of the populace of Rome. If anyone was too ill or infirm to collect their monthly supplies, he would go to them. Each morning he would send out a small army of monks into the streets with pre-prepared food. He personally would not eat each day until the needy were all fed. When he did eat, he shared a table with twelve needy people from Rome.

For this, Gregory was adored.

Gregory was also a prolific writer. He wrote a book of instruction for bishops, On Pastoral Care.

‘Act in such a way that your humility may not be weakness, nor your authority be severity,’ he wrote. ‘Justice must be accompanied by humility, that humility may render justice lovable.’ The book became popular throughout the Middle Ages as a manual for holy life. As evident in his writings, despite being a gifted leader and administrator, he was dedicated to humility, self-discipline and meekness. ‘For the place of the wicked is pride just as conversely humility is the place of the good,’ he wrote.

Any reader of Gregory’s life may get the impression that greatness was at best something that did not concern him, at worst, something he didn’t desire at all. St Gregory has much to teach us about what it means to achieve greatness in an age of social media-driven self-absorption and narcissism. For St Gregory, greatness was not about self-aggrandisement, rather, real greatness involves doing the opposite. It involves focusing on the mission, humbly offering our skills and charity where it is most needed to build God’s kingdom.

He was declared a saint immediately after his death by ‘popular acclamation’. He is one of the four Doctors of the Church and is patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers.

Prayer of St Gregory the Great

Acclaim To The Suffering Christ
O Lord, You received affronts
without number from Your blasphemers,
yet each day You free captive souls
from the grip of the ancient enemy.

You did not avert Your face
from the spittle of perfidy,
yet You wash souls in saving waters.

You accepted Your scourging without murmur,
yet through your meditation
You deliver us from endless chastisements.

You endured ill-treatment of all kinds,
yet You want to give us a share
in the choirs of angels in glory everlasting.

You did not refuse to be crowned with thorns,
yet You save us from the wounds of sin.

In your thirst You accepted the bitterness of gall,
yet You prepare Yourself to fill us with eternal delights.

You kept silence under the derisive homage
rendered You by Your executioners,
yet You petition the Father for us
although You are his equal in Divinity.

You came to taste death,
yet You were the Life
and had come to bring it to the dead.