Reforms of Pope Gregory the Great Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Pope Gregory the Great initiated reforms that established papal primacy and provided for a reorganization of Church practices and activities.

Summary of Event

In the early Christian centuries, disputes about theology agitated the Church and threatened to divide it irreparably. Influential bishops took the lead in resolving such controversies, and the bishops of Rome thereby acquired a reputation as defenders of orthodoxy and authoritative teachers of doctrine. Among such powerful personalities was Gregory the Great, who became bishop at a time when the primacy of authority within the Church was much debated and church-state relations were still undefined. The capital of the Roman Empire had moved to Constantinople, and Italy was in danger from barbarian attacks. [kw]Reforms of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) [kw]Gregory the Great, Reforms of Pope (590-604) Gregory the Great Church reform Italy;590-604: Reforms of Pope Gregory the Great[0160] Religion;590-604: Reforms of Pope Gregory the Great[0160] Pelagius II Gregory the Great Peter the Deacon Augustine of Canterbury, Saint

Gregory came from an aristocratic Roman family; his ancestors included popes Felix III (483-492) and Agapetus (535-536). He obtained a fine education, especially in the law, and in 570, he became prefect of Rome, a position in which he led the senate and supervised matters of defense, finances, and internal security. Civil service did not satisfy him, however, so he abandoned this secular pursuit around 575 and became a monk. His family’s estate became a renowned monastery, known as a site of learning and rigorous asceticism. Gregory intended to spend his life there pursuing monastic virtues.

Soon, however, Pope Benedict I made Gregory a deacon to administer charity in Rome; the next pontiff, Pelagius II Pelagius II , dispatched Gregory to Constantinople for seven years to be his legate at the imperial court. In 585, Gregory returned to his Roman monastery, hoping to enjoy its seclusion. Devastating floods and an epidemic of plague propelled him into public life again. When Pelagius died in the midst of the crisis, public acclaim demanded that Gregory succeed him as bishop of Rome.

In addition to the miseries that resulted from disease, Italy suffered from barbarian attacks, and Rome received numerous refugees. Gregory used crops from Church lands to feed hungry people, and he purchased more grain from Egypt. He was a skillful economic and political leader, and his deep sense of charity led him to ransom prisoners taken by the Lombards and to pay tribute in order to discourage further attacks.

Gregory did more than any previous Roman bishop to advance papal primacy. As a theologian, he had a profound influence because he was the first to present a well-formulated doctrine of Purgatory, which became a major theme in medieval belief. Theology;Italy Italy;theology Gregory was rather naïve, however, in spiritual matters, accepting reports of miracles without substantiation. As one who believed in the imminent approach of the Apocalypse, which would mark the destruction of the world, he sometimes discouraged study of secular learning despite his own knowledge of classical literature.

Although Catholic rulers had sometimes compelled pagans to accept Christianity, Gregory decried the practice of forced conversion. He contended that compulsion produced hypocrites, not converts. Among his most significant achievements was the extension of papal jurisdiction through missions to evangelize pagans and establish the authority of Rome in parts of Christendom where it did not prevail, particularly in Britain. In his desire to subject churches to the rule of bishops obedient to his authority, Gregory dispatched Augustine Augustine of Canterbury , a monk from the monastery of Saint Andrew in Rome, to England in 597 to seek the salvation of the Anglo-Saxons Anglo-Saxons[Anglo Saxons];Christianity and and to bring the British church to accept pontifical rule. Christianity;England England;Christianity Gregory rewarded Augustine’s success by making him first archbishop of Canterbury. In a similar way, Gregory improved his position in Gaul and Spain, and he insisted that Italian bishops confer with him and submit to his supervision. He was highly successful in establishing the authority of the Vatican over broad areas of Christendom.

In a fifteenth century missal, Gregory is shown conducting what came to be known as the “miraculous Mass,” in which Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is depicted here by his rising from the altar.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Gregory was pope at a time when relations between the Papacy Papacy;relations with Eastern churches and the patriarchs of the Eastern churches were undefined and sometimes hostile. Gregory recognized the right of the patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem to govern their own jurisdictions, but he asserted his own primacy and at times entertained appeals from clergy within those patriarchates. He disapproved of the archbishop of Constantinople’s use of the title “ecumenical patriarch,” and he declared unequivocally the universal extent of papal authority, asserting that the Church of Rome was “the head of all churches.”

In addition to his success in cementing papal rule, Gregory exerted broad influence through his theological writings, some of which were composed before he became pope. Liber regulae pastoralis (591; Pastoral Care Pastoral Care (Gregory the Great) , 1950), The Four Books of Dialogues on the Lives of the Italian Fathers and on the Immortality of Souls (594), and a collection of his letters were all produced while he was pope.

In Pastoral Care, the pontiff explained his conception of a bishop’s duties with regard to the spiritual well-being of his people, among which he emphasized the ministry of preaching as incumbent on all bishops, for only through that medium could they fulfill their responsibilities as successors to the apostles, the preeminent preachers of the New Testament. Gregory opposed the belief that a clergy member’s main duties were ceremonial. Pastoral Care enjoyed wide circulation during the Middle Ages and appeared in Greek and Old English. Just as the rule of Saint Benedict served as a guide for monks, Gregory’s work became the manual for bishops.

The Four Books of Dialogues on the Lives of the Italian Fathers and on the Immortality of Souls Four Books of Dialogues on the Lives of the Italian Fathers and on the Immortality of Souls, The (Gregory the Great) was addressed to general readers as well as to clerics. Gregory composed this work in the form of a conversation with Peter the Deacon Peter the Deacon , and therein he extolled the pious lives of saints from the sixth century (to whom he was quick to attribute miracles). The second dialogue deals with Saint Benedict of Nursia Benedict of Nursia, Saint (c. 480-c. 547), founder of the Benedictine order, and is the main source of information about the most influential figure in Western monasticism. Gregory believed that the intercession of Benedict was responsible for numerous miracles, but he hastened to add that some of the finest saints had no miracles to their credit, their holy lives being the attestation to their sanctity.

In thus acclaiming the saints, Gregory encouraged the practice of invoking their intercession with God, a practice that became customary in medieval devotion. In the same way, Gregory promoted the veneration of relics and images of the saints. In letters to various bishops, the pontiff reprimanded clerics who denigrated the use of images in Catholic worship, even when ignorant people worshiped them in violation of the divine law against idolatry. Gregory held that the duty of the clergy was to teach against superstition while not contending that the use of images per se was sinful.

Gregory’s formulation of the doctrine of Purgatory is an especially significant feature of his dialogues on the lives of the Italian Fathers. He taught that judgment comes right after death and that a purgation by fire awaited believers as a means to purify them of offenses that did not merit damnation. The prayers of living Christians could benefit souls in Purgatory because the good deeds of people on Earth could be reckoned to those in torment. The fourth dialogue includes graphic depictions of Hell as well as Purgatory, and it portrays Heaven as the realm of eternal bliss. Gregory’s teaching about life after death promised immediate entry into Heaven for those souls who were worthy. According to him, these worthy souls would not have to wait until judgment day, as previous theologians had affirmed.


Gregory’s pontificate occurred during Europe’s transition from classical to medieval times. His influence helped carry that movement forward in church organization, missions, moral and doctrinal theology as well as in mystical and ascetical practices of devotion. Eventually, the church arranged masses on thirty consecutive days and assigned a special indulgence for all who participated. The series became known as the “Gregorian Masses,” named after a story that appeared in Gregory’s dialogues in which a monk obtained release from Purgatory after people on earth had transferred the benefits to his soul. Medieval authors cited Gregory as the author of chants that became popular in that era. His exact role in their development is not clear, but the influence of Gregorian chants on church music is undeniable. In 1298, Pope Boniface VIII declared Gregory a doctor of the Church, thus laying the foundation for the custom of referring to him as Gregory the Great. Music;Gregorian chants

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bremmer, Rolf H., Jr., Kees Dekker, and David F. Johnson, eds. Rome and the North: The Early Reception of Gregory the Great in Germanic Europe. Sterling, Va.: Peeters, 2001. A look at how Gregory the Great was perceived in early Germanic literature. Bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cavadini, John D. Gregory the Great. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996. A biography of Gregory the Great that also examines early church history. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cavadini, John D, ed. Gregory the Great: A Symposium. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. A collection of essays on Gregory the Great and the early Church. Topics include the pope’s holiness, his knowledge of Greek, and his influence on astronomy and early Middle Age doctrines on the artistic image.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dudden, F. Holmes. Gregory the Great. 2 vols. New York: Russell & Russell, 1969. The classic biography of Gregory, Dudden’s work established a benchmark to which all subsequent scholarship has responded.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Markus, R. A. Gregory the Great and His World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A discussion of Gregory the Great that focuses on his theology and his relations with religious and secular leaders as well as discusses the environment in which he functioned.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Straw, Carole. Gregory the Great. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1996. A concise introduction to Gregory’s life and work. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Straw, Carole. Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Marked by its erudite scholarship, Straw’s work is an excellent analysis of Gregory.

Categories: History