The Day Saint Gregory the Great Stopped a Plague

God raised up, in the middle of the VI century, a man who by his prayers, sacrifices, and struggles, obtained the conversion of England, Spain, and the Lombards who were terrorizing Italy, and made an end to the terrible plague that was decimating the population: Saint Gregory the Great.

Newsroom  (17/12/2021 9:00 AM, Gaudium Press) The son of a very rich senator and of Saint Silvia, Saint Gregory was born in Rome in the year 540. He studied Grammar, Rhetoric, Philosophy, and Law, concluding his studies with brilliant success.

He was tall and thin, with a perfect oval face, an aquiline nose, a high forehead, and a penetrating gaze.

Supreme Magistrate of Rome

When he was 30 years old, the Emperor of the East appointed him praetor, that is, supreme magistrate of Rome. The Lombards threatened to invade the Eternal City, and the court of Byzantium said it had no army to oppose the barbarians. Thanks to Saint Gregory’s judicious negotiations with the Lombards, the latter gave up their fierce projects. By his remarkable wisdom in exercising this office, he won the hearts of the Romans.

St. Gregory’s family was quite fervent. His father left his position as a senator, became a deacon, and led a life dedicated to the Church. His mother entered a monastery and three of his paternal aunts consecrated their virginity to God.

He often went to the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino to pray. And he was happy to say that St. Benedict was “his relative in the order of nature and his father in the order of grace.” In fact, they both belonged to the noble Anicia family.

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Papal Legate in Constantinople

Upon the death of his father, Saint Gregory inherited a huge fortune and decided to lead a life of holiness. He became a monk in his palace on Mount Celio, built seven monasteries – six in Sicily and one in Rome – sold the rest of his possessions, distributed the money to the poor, and observed the rule of St. Benedict, practicing strict fasts. Rome, which had seen the noble praetor walking through the streets in silk robes covered with precious stones, now saw him wearing sackcloth.

One day, he observed in a marketplace in Rome several handsome young men who were being offered for sale as slaves. He asked to which people these young men belonged, and was told that they were Angles. St. Gregory stated, “They are not Angles, but angels.”

Informed that they were pagans, he ardently desired to convert them and obtained permission from Pope Saint Benedict I to go and preach the Gospel in Great Britain. Accompanied by some monks, he set out on his way, but when the people learned of the fact, they ran to meet him and forced him to return to Rome.

Ordained deacon in 578, he was sent to Constantinople by Pope St. Pelagius II as legate to the Court of Byzantium, where he gained the esteem of all.  Six years later, he returned to Rome and the Pontiff chose him as his secretary.

St. Michael sheathed his sword and the plague stopped

Stricken by a terrible plague that decimated the population, St. Pelagius II died in 590.  To implore God to stop this scourge, St. Gregory led a solemn procession through the streets of Rome, during which people were falling dead; after an hour, their number reached 80.

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Then, the Saint took in his hands the picture of Our Lady, painted by St. Luke, and, barefoot, wearing a penitent’s garment, started walking towards St. Peter’s Basilica.

When he arrived at a large castle on the banks of the Tiber River, an angelic choir was heard singing in praise of the Blessed Virgin, and the people knelt down. An Angel appeared on top of the castle, holding a sword in his hand which he sheathed, signifying that the plague was over.

From then on the building began to be called “Castle of the Holy Angel”“. It was March 26, 590. Later an image of St. Michael the Archangel, made of bronze, was placed on the summit of this castle.

He ran away in an empty basket to avoid being acclaimed Pope

But it was necessary to choose a new Pope.  St. Gregory was unanimously elected by the clergy, senate, and people. When he heard the news, he wrote to the Emperor, begging him not to confirm his election.

Foreseeing that the Saint would try to flee Rome, watchmen were posted at the city gates. But he hid himself inside an empty basket that some peasants were carrying, and thus managed to escape.

When the people heard about this, they began to fast and pray in churches, asking God for the grace to find their beloved shepherd.  Many people began to search the houses and the fields. After three days, they found him praying in a cave and brought him to St. Peter’s Basilica, where he was acclaimed.  The next day he received the pontifical ordination.

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One of the four Western Church Fathers

Among the admirable works accomplished by Pope Saint Gregory, we highlight the following:

       In Italy, he converted the Arian Lombards, who returned to the Catholics all the goods they had stolen.

       He sent to England the Abbot Augustine accompanied by 39 monks, where they converted King Etelbert and a good part of the population. Augustine was made Bishop of Canterbury, in the southeast of the country. On Christmas Day 597, approximately 2,000 people received baptism in this city. The Church raised to the honor of the altars Ethelberto and Augustine of Canterbury.

       He worked firmly for the conversion of the Arian Visigoths who dominated Spain and violently persecuted the Catholics.

       He wrote several books, among them “Pastoral Rule”, about the mission of bishops, in which he states that the true prelate must rise up “with eagerness for justice against the vices of sinners”. And “Moralia,” which was the basis of the moral theology taught in the Middle Ages. He also wrote 844 letters, which constitute an authentic treatise on civil and ecclesiastical law.

       Such is the wisdom, splendor, and greatness manifested in his works that St. Gregory received the epithet “Great” and was declared Doctor of the Church. He is one of the four Fathers of the Western Church, together with St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

  By Paulo Francisco Martos

Notions of Church History


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