Stories of Saints and Martyrs - Jetta S. Wolff

St. Gregory the Great

March 12; A.D. 605

Among the many relics of ancient times to be seen at Rome, are the portraits of the parents of the great St. Gregory. The face of his father is of oval shape, rather long and grave, with a great deal of beard; that of his mother bright and pleasant, with large blue eyes. St. Gregory was like both parents; he had the sweetness of his mother, and the grave, earnest dignity of his father. They were Christians, and their son was brought up from childhood to know and love JESUS, and to lead a life of earnest purpose. He was always fond of study, and even as quite a young man was very learned. At the age of thirty he was made Praetor of Rome. Then his father died, and his mother withdrew from the world and went to live in a convent, while Gregory sold part of the lands that fell to him, in order to give the money to endow some monasteries in Sicily. His heart was set upon doing good, and living a life of usefulness. By-and-by it seemed to him that he would be better able to serve GOD and his fellow-men if he became a monk. So he gave up his high position in the state, laid aside the robes of silk and purple, and the glittering jewels, denied himself the good fare to which he had been used, and put on the dress and hood of a monk of the Order of St. Benedict. His grand old family palace he turned into a monastery, and at its gates built a special place called a hospice to receive poor pilgrims.

One day as he was crossing the market-place at Rome, he saw a number of little boys set out for sale! For these were the days of slavery, and the children had been taken over from our land of Britain to be sold at Rome, where they were sure to fetch a good price—poor little lads! They had fair skins, long fair hair, and large blue eyes, just like many of our little English boys now-a-days. Italian children are not often fair like this. Their hair is usually dark, and their eyes brown or even black. So St. Gregory was much struck by their looks, and he stopped to ask who these children were, and where they came from.

"They are Angles," was the answer. For our land, as you know, was then called, "Angleland," from which has come the shorter word England.

"Angles," he repeated, "they ought to be angels." He thought the fair-haired, blue-eyed lads looked good and pure as must be the angels in heaven. And then he sighed to think they did not yet know even the name of the Saviour, for the German tribes, from whence had come the Angles and Saxons who had conquered Britain, were known to be heathens.

"They must be taught," said St. Gregory. So he went at once and ransomed the poor little slaves, and had them taken to his monastery, where they were brought up as good Christian boys.

But Gregory was not content with putting these children in the way of salvation. He went to the Bishop of Rome—the Pope, as he is always called—and said men ought to be sent to the land across the sea from which they had come, to teach all the people there the Faith of CHRIST.

He begged to be allowed to go himself to the land of the Angles to preach to the people. The Pope gave leave. The few things needed for the journey were soon put together, and St. Gregory started northwards.

The journey was a very long and slow one in those early times. St. Gregory had not got very far upon his way when it became known to the people of Rome that he had left the city to go upon a distant mission. He was dearly loved by the Romans. They could not bear the thought that he had left them. No; there were plenty of monks, they said, who could be sent across the sea to the cold, distant British Islands; their own Gregory ought not to be exposed to the dangers of travel, and the trials of a life among strangers and heathens in a far-off country. Besides they could not spare him from among themselves. So some of them went to the Pope and spoke so earnestly that at last he agreed to their desire, and sent an order to St. Gregory to return to Rome.

Though he was touched by the love and attachment thus shown him by the people of his native city, St. Gregory was sorry to give up his plan; he yearned to carry the Gospel himself to the land which had given birth to those little Angle boys he had thought so like to what he fancied the angels must be. But he sent good Christian Priests to our island, and though he did not come in person, it is to him we owe the first Christian settlement under the Anglo-Saxons. St. Augustine was chief of the band of Missionaries who landed on the shores of Kent about the year A.D. 597, and he did his work well and zealously, as you will hear in another chapter. In a short time St. Gregory was made Pope. But through all his life he remained the simple, humble, hard-working, and unselfish Christian that had first won the love of the Roman people—full of learning, full of culture, but ever ready to turn his hand to the very plainest duty which came in his way.

As I have said before, those were the days of slavery. The slave trade was carried on among the nations of Europe at this time, just as it went on until almost our own times among the people of America and Africa. Men, women, and children were bought and sold by those who were rich enough to own them, as if they were mere tools. It was very rare in those days for any one to think this wrong. But St. Gregory felt keenly how unjust it was for men, whatever their race or rank, to be treated as mere brute beasts, and all his life he preached against the custom. Slavery continued long after he had gone to his rest, but he did much to unsettle men's minds upon the subject—to make some people begin to think they were not doing right in counting among their possessions human beings, as they counted their fields, their houses, their cattle, or their money. Perhaps many a poor slave was freed by a kind-hearted master through what the great and good St. Gregory said; and there is no doubt, since Gregory was so much loved and looked up to by all, that owners tried to act more kindly by their slaves than they would have dreamt of doing had he not spoken out so boldly what he thought. Every one agrees that Pope Gregory did a great deal of good in his day.

He was very fond of music, and founded a school of singing. The chants we speak of as "Gregorian "are so called because it was St. Gregory who first arranged them. Often he would himself go into the choir and sit among the chorister boys, take his own part in the singing, or kindly and lovingly help them in theirs.

It was St. Gregory, too, who wrote many of the beautiful collects we have in our Prayer Book; and the Litany—parts thereof very much as we now use it—was written by him, and ordered to be chanted in the streets of Rome, and through all Italy during a time of great distress. And though he did so much, he was never a strong man; for many years he had a weak and suffering body. But "his strength was made perfect through weakness."

St. Gregory died in the year A.D. 604, at the age of sixty-nine.