Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
St. Gregory the Great: The Seeds of the Middle Ages
Saint of the Day, Saturday, March 11th, 1967
Today, March 11th is the feast of Saint Eulogius of Córdoba. Tomorrow, the 12th will be the feast of St. Gregory the Great, considered the founder of the Middle Ages in the West. 6th century (in the current calendar, the feast of St. Gregory the Great is celebrated on September 3rd).
St. Gregory the Great by Zurbarán
In the Dictionnaire de la Conversation et de la Lecture by William Duckett,1 we find the following biographical indications about St. Gregory the Great:
“St. Gregory was born in Rome the son of the wealthy Senator ... After an educated youth, his considerable knowledge made him worthy of being elevated to the dignity of Praetor by Emperor Justus. In this office, the young man later became so notable for his intelligence, mature judgment, and extreme love of justice that he became well known in the Eternal City. Some reproached only because of the great luxury and worldly splendor in his clothes and habits, all of which led to fear that he would squander the immense fortune his father had left him.
However, at the time of his father’s death, Gregory, who in his piety had struggled incessantly against his pomp, suddenly appeared as a new man. He sent founded seven monasteries, six of which in Sicily, gave away his rich clothes and precious furniture to the poor, and took the monastic habit in St. Andrew’s abbey, which he founded. Against his will, he soon became its abbot by choice of his brethren.
Fasting, prayer, and study became his unique occupations. Impressed by the beauty of some young Englishmen for sale as slaves in Rome’s market and grieving over the fact that these islanders were not Christian, he obtained permission from Pope Benedict I to preach the faith in Great Britain. But no sooner than he got on his way, both the clergy and people forced him to back down. Made a deacon of the Roman Church in the year 578, in 580, Pope Pelagius II sent him to Constantinople, where he gained the esteem of the entire court.
On his return to Rome, Pope Pelagius endeavored to retain him in his capacity as secretary. However, that was too burdensome an office for Gregory to accept, and finally, by dint of praying, he was free to return to his monks. However, upon the death of Pelagius, with great acclamations, the people of Rome called him to the papacy. Gregory shivered in fear. He fled the Eternal City, wrote the emperor begging him not to confirm his election, and hid in a cave. But the people discovered him, took him to Rome, and enthroned him despite himself on September 13th, 590.
However, the holy man had enemies who accused him of dissimulation and hypocrisy even though his entire life denied such accusations. The simplicity of his home attested to his modesty and humility. He devoted his income to help the poor. His constant occupation was to instruct the people. According to Emperor Mauritius, he put an end to the schism of the bishops of Istria. He also obtained the conversion of the Lombards and the destruction of Arianism, a fact for which he expressed ex-traordinary joy in his letters to Queen Theodolinda.
Yet Gregory had not forgotten the English. Led by the monk Augustine, his missionaries departed in 595 and arrived two years later in the Kingdom of Kent, where Queen Berta had prepared his triumph. King Ethelbert and a large part of his people converted.
He had less trouble reforming the liturgy than the discipline. After composing the Antiphonary, he regulated the order of psalms, prayers, and songs. In Chartres, he established an academy for singers (scholam cantorum) and, whip in hand, gave young clerics lessons in plainsong.
As for pagan temples, he ordered them not to be destroyed but transformed into churches.
So much work and fatigue were not suitable to cure him of the illnesses that never ceased to beset him. Gout often kept him bedridden, but its horrible pains did not stop his prodigious activity.
No pope has written more letters than Gregory. He had an extraordinary flair to distinguish truth from slander in ac-cusations against the priests. Forgers, witches, Simoniacs and Schismatics had in this pope a terrible adversary.
This great pontiff died on March 12th, 604 after thirteen years, six months and ten days of pontificate.
His comments on Holy Scripture exerted considerable influence on Christian thought in the Middle Ages, earning him the title of Doctor. With St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome, he is one of the four great doctors of the Latin Church.”
The consideration that St. Gregory the Great was the true founder of the Middle Ages is fully grounded. In his extraordinarily rich life, whether as a simple priest, deacon, or when elevated to the pontificate, we see that he somehow closed the last remnant, the last sliver of the door that separated us from pagan antiquity and opened the door to the new age about to be born.
From the standpoint of pagan antiquity, we see how he fought the remnants of paganism. He ordered the last existing pagan temples not to be destroyed but to cease pagan worship and be used for Catholic worship. He exterminated Arianism, a plague from the Western Roman Empire, when the Aryans penetrated Europe and perverted the barbarians, who invaded the Western Roman Empire.
He did away with immorality and other objectionable drawbacks from antiquity and appeared to us, at the same time, as the builder of a new age.
He is a great founder of convents—the expansion of cenobitic life is one of his most characteristic works that marked the early Middle Ages. He was himself the superior of a convent and, on the other hand, worked to establish plainsong [later known as Gregorian chant].
The Church has always esteemed the veneration of relics and venerates both St. Gregory’s bed and whip. His Schola Cantorum, a prototype of cathedral choirs, is at the origin of our Western music.
In so doing, the great pope conveys a picturesque image. Here you have a Doctor of the Church and eminent politician whip in hand, teaching plainsong to his students. He does not hold a stick but a whip. This picturesque image would call for an illumination or perhaps a stained glass window. He properly gave voice to the Middle Ages by founding plainsong, as plainsong was the great singing voice of the Middle Ages from beginning to end. And he gave his character to Benedictine life, which St. Benedict had set in motion but which had not yet taken on the stamp of firmness and definition that it acquired with him.
On the other hand, his missionary sense is admirable. We see him among those who launch the idea of missions in England and Ireland. From there, you have the outflow of the great current of missionaries from England and Ireland returning to the continent to evangelize Germany. We thus see him sowing the seeds of the Middle Ages. At the same time, we see him deal, albeit to no avail, with the great wound of Christendom at that time, the Roman Empire of the East, increasingly prone to schism. This empire had always staggered between heresy and Catholic truth.
“He instituted a school of singers (scholam cantorum), which is heard even today in the Holy Roman Church. For the use of this schola he had two houses built, one near the steps of the Basilica of St. Peter the Apostle, the other adjacent to the buildings of the Patriarchal Lateran Palace. That is where, to this day, the bed on which he lay to teach singing, the whip with which he threatened children, and his authentic Antiphonary are preserved with legitimate veneration. By a clause in his donation deed, under pain of anathema, he distributed property titles between the Schola’s two parts as a reward for their daily service.” Jean Hymonides (v. 824-av. 882) called the deacon, monk at Monte Cassino, Vita S. Gregorii Magni, lib. II, 6-10.
As you all know, it ended up falling apart. You see how he tried to secure that wall of the city of Jesus Christ, which was threatening to fall, and here have another example of Byzantium’s supreme ingratitude to the popes’ zeal. Men like him even became well liked there and gained influence but failed to uproot the accursed city’s immorality, softness, recklessness, and penchant for heresy.
Therefore, one can say that all the problems of his time went through this great man’s mind. He analyzed them, faced them, and at the same time wrote works that became pillars of medieval thought. His was a most rich and admirable life fully dedicated to the service of the Catholic Church and Christian civilization.
What would St. Gregory say if he were to resurrect today? From the height of heaven, what will he say about today’s world, so different from the one he knew? He lived in a hard time, a time of disorder and even blatant crimes. But while the people participated in the evils of that time, they also acclaimed a saint as pope. The saint fled from them, but they tracked him down and placed him in the papacy. They were able to discern a saint from a non-saint and to prefer the saint over the unholy. Would the same thing happen today? Are there many who flee from the papacy? Would people today go after a saint to take him to the papacy? How everything has changed.
Let us ask St. Gregory II—St. Gregory the Great—to work to transform our epoch, after the purifying punishments it must undergo,2 into a new and even more refined Middle Ages,3 a request that he—one of the founders of the most glorious Middle Ages—will promptly understand.
(1) This lecture’s recording has no reference to the Dictionnaire’s edition from which the quote was taken. For proofreading purposes we use the Second Edition, 1868, Volume 10, p. 556 and 557, available here. As there are a few slight differences, we are led to believe that the notes were taken from another edition.
(2) Here Prof. Plinio refers to the punishments foreseen by Our Lady at Fatima if the world did not mend its sins.
(3) Allusion to the Reign of Mary, derived from the same prophecies made at the Fatima apparitions. For a deeper understanding of this subject, we suggest to our visitors the article by Prof. Plinio here.