A Falling City
The year is 590 and the city is Rome. The Roman Empire had stretched itself too thin over the years, and now it’s being attacked by Germanic people groups outside its borders. The scene at the capital isn’t pretty: attacking “barbarians,” crumbling infrastructure, crop-destroying floods, and to top it all off, a devastating plague. As historian Bruce Shelley describes it, “The carts were piled high with corpses. People went insane. Rome became a desert, and the pope himself, Pelagius II, died, screaming in agony.” Cue Pope Gregory I, or Gregory the Great. He was great not because of his towering intellect (while a prolific writer, he was no Augustine) or for his physique (his already weak frame was made even weaker from a habit of fasting) but for his humility and goodness. In fact, he had to be dragged from the woods outside of Rome and forced to take up his new post. Years later, when other church officials were trying on fancy titles, Gregory insisted that he only wanted to be known as “the servant of the servants of God.”
A Servant of Servants
Gregory was born in 540 to a noble family but divested himself of his wealth, using it to found seven monasteries and live as a Benedictine monk. Before he became pope, his life as a monk was interspersed with stints in public office (as prefect of Rome and church ambassador to Constantinople). While he may have been timid about taking up the office, once there he threw himself into the job. He oversaw Rome’s welfare, rebuilt its infrastructure and defenses, and even negotiated with the attacking Lombard people. He was, functionally, the mayor of Rome.
At the same time, he also remained the head of the church. He corresponded with church leaders abroad and initiated reforms in worship (Gregorian chants are named after him). On top of preaching he wrote a number of books, including a guide to pastoral care that remained a church handbook for centuries. He preserved and passed on the Christian faith in an age of turmoil when superstition abounded. Between his administrative and pastoral tasks, he was incredibly busy, all the more amazing given his poor health. In a letter in 601 he wrote, “to live is pain; and I look forward to death as the only remedy.” He died three years later.
Mission Beyond the Borders
Gregory was pope of the whole church (this is before several church splits that we will be studying soon, such as the Reformation), and under him the church also continued to support a stream of missionaries beyond the deteriorating borders of the Roman Empire. History hands down to us a story about Gregory encountering a group of fair-haired slaves being sold in Rome. When he asked where they were from, someone told him that they were “Angles.” He replied that they were in fact “angels” and commissioned a group of missionaries to evangelize in what is now England. The head of that group became the first archbishop of Canterbury, the church center for England. The incident, scholars say, “provides a direct link for all Anglo-American Christianity with the early church.”
The Middle Ages Begin
In a period of immense upheaval and suffering, Gregory worked tirelessly to provide care and order through the church to the people of the city. While he worked hard to fight poverty, disease, and warfare, he most tirelessly fought against pride.He was the pastor of Rome’s fall, and under his watch the church rose as a source of stability and order for a crumbling empire, a role the church would carry into the Middle Ages. Gregory paved the way for a relationship between the church and the political establishment that would at times, as we will see, be abused. But it began from a heart of service in a time of turmoil.