As mentioned in a previous article in this series, many of the bishops of Rome, the popes of the first millennium of Christianity, are saints in the Orthodox Church.
Indeed, many Western saints of the first millennium are Orthodox saints. However, we still think of them as being primarily one or the other, Eastern or Western. But there are saints which transcend the East-West divide and show most clearly that the church, at least of the first millennium, was simply the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,” as we recite in the Creed. St. Gregory is one of those saints.
Saint Gregory was born into a noble family which was close to the church. Several of his relatives are saints. He was well-educated. After his father’s death he converted his family home into a monastery. He had a deep respect for the monastic life, calling it “an ardent quest for the vision of our creator.”
However, in 579, Pope Pelagius the Second sent him to Constantinople, the city of the Roman Emperor, as his ambassador. He tried to get the emperor to send troops to defend Rome against various warring tribes. In this he was unsuccessful. He also engaged in theological debate while there.
In 585 he returned to his monastery in Rome. However, in 590 he was chosen as Pope. One of the most important acts of St. Gregory as Pope was sending St. Augustine of Canterbury to Britain to evangelize the people there. Although there was an earlier Celtic church in Britain, it was rather isolated and cut off from the main body of the Church in Europe.
St. Gregory was also active in the field of liturgy. He influenced the development of the Latin Mass and the typical form of plainchant became known as “Gregorian Chant”, although it was only attributed to him several centuries after his death. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, celebrated during Great Lent, is attributed to him.
St. Gregory is famous for many of his writings. His commentary on the Book of Job and his rules for pastors have their relevance today. He also wrote his “Dialogues” (that is why he is called Dialogos in the Orthodox Church). This is a book about saints and miracles in sixth century Italy. A large part of this book is dedicated to St. Benedict and is one of the main sources of information about him. St. Gregory also left behind collections of sermons and letters.
As mentioned above, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is attributed to St. Gregory. This Liturgy is first mentioned in church canons from the 7th century, which means it existed earlier, close to the time of St. Gregory. However, in its present form the Presanctified Liturgy shows a later Byzantine influence rather than a 6th century Roman one. The Presanctifed is an evening service. It combines Vespers (the evening prayer of the church) with the reception of Holy Communion. However, there is no consecration at this Liturgy. Communion is given from the Holy Communion consecrated the previous Sunday. It can be celebrated on Wednesday and Friday, but it is sometimes just celebrated on one of those days. In the beginning of the Liturgy we have the reading or chanting of psalms which the choir is doing as the priest is preparing the Holy Gifts. After the Little Entrance, there are scripture readings from the Old Testament. At the Great Entrance (made in silence) the Holy Gifts are placed on the altar. After a litany and the Our Father the clergy and the people receive Communion.
As we have seen, it is difficult to trace a direct connection between the service and St. Gregory Dialogos, but it is attribution to him reflects St. Gregory’s importance as a saint linking East and West, a saint who reflects the ancient unity of the Church.
Troparion — Tone 4
Receiving divine grace from God on high, glorious Gregory, and strengthened with its power, you willed to walk in the path of the Gospel, most blessed one. Therefore you have received from Christ the reward of your labors. Entreat Him that He may save our souls.
Kontakion — Tone 3
Father Gregory, you showed yourself to be an imitator of Christ, the chief Shepherd, guiding the orders of monks to the fold of heaven. You taught the flock of Christ His commandments. Now you rejoice and dance with them in the mansions of heaven.