St. Gregory the Great was born in Rome around 540 AD. This was a time when the Goths and Franks were invading Rome. The emperor was in Constantinople. The Senate had been disbanded. Italy was still one country, called Rome, and late classical Latin was the language of the people.
Gregory’s family were wealthy, owning homes and property in and around Rome and in Sicily. He was raised and educated for a career in public office. He had fresco portraits of his family painted at some point, and his biographer, John the Deacon, left a description of them 300 years later as they appeared in the portraits. Gregory’s father was tall and had a light eyes and a long face. He wore a beard. Gregory’s mother was also tall, but she had a round face and blue eyes. She appeared to be a cheerful person. A portrait of Gregory himself was done shortly after his death. Again, John the Deacon left a description of his appearance in the portrait. Gregory is described as being somewhat bald, with a tawny beard. The shape of his face was somewhere between that of his mother and his father. His remaining hair was worn long and curled carefully. He had a thin, straight, almost aquiline nose and a high forehead. His lips and chin were described as also attractive and it is said that his hands were beautiful.
St. Gregory lived in a time of great turmoil. Wars, floods, famines, political changes, and religious controversies swirled through Italy and the Empire. He left a career in public service to enter a monastery when he was around 30 years old, only to be drawn back into public life by the Pope, who sent him to Constantinople to request help from the Emperor in defending Rome. Following 6 years in Constantinople, he returned to Rome. Eventually he himself was elected Pope, an office he tried to decline.
As Pope, he is remembered for reforms of the liturgy, establishing rules of conduct for bishops, the wielding of political power in dealing with invading armies and natural disasters, his insistence on the supremacy of the papacy over the other patriarchs of the church, the notion that the Pope is the “Servant of the Servants of God,” and for establishing the papacy in the form it would take during the Middle Ages. He insisted that the Church has a responsibility to care for the poor. When famine threatened even the wealthy in Rome, he arranged for food and other supplies to be delivered from properties in southern Italy (lands that his family had given the Church) and distributed in the city. He cooked meals for the formerly wealthy himself to spare them the pain of having to ask for charity.
St. Gregory is also remembered for sending missionaries to England, the “end of the Earth” from the perspective of Rome. At that time, there was no knowledge of lands beyond the British Isles. In the rest of the Roman Empire, Christianity had been introduced. Even the Franks in Central Europe had been reached by missionaries. Given the turmoil and upheaval, it stands to reason that he might have thought, as many do today in times of natural disasters and social turmoil, that the end of the world must be near. The Gospels said that the end would not come until the Good News was preached to the ends of the Earth, however. So, perhaps with that in mind, and certainly with a fondness for the blond, blue-eyed people (the Angles) he had seen in Rome, he sent Anselm of Canterbury to preach the Good News in England.
The end of the world didn’t come in St. Gregory’s time. However, the works he did influenced the Christian community of his time and continue to play a role in even our beliefs and style of worship today.