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Saint Gregory the Great
by Francisco Goya.
‘The property of the poor’
The same man who prophesied the calamitous end of the world and the impending divine judgment carried out an ecclesiastical property policy as intense as if that divine judgment were never to come.
The pope had a series of well-organised patrimonies, about fifteen at the beginning of his pontificate, and territory of many hundreds of square kilometres, called the patrimony of St. Peter. This meant that all this did not belong to the pope, the clergy or the Church, but actually belonged to the blessed prince of the Apostles. And that property of Peter extended from North Africa, where to Gregory’s great joy the almost depopulated territories were worked by prisoners of war (the cheapest ‘labour’), passing through Italy, the urban territory of Rome (Patrimonium urbanum), to Corsica, Sardinia, Dalmatia, Istria and Provence: a property of enormous extension and certainly the largest in Italy. Much of it came from imperial foundations. Perhaps the last gigantic increase was due to the estates of the Arian Church, which was plundered after the destruction of the Ostrogoth kingdom. And while private property diminished more and more, the riches of the Church were always increasing.
In Sicily, the granary of Rome since ancient times, the patrimony of ‘Saint Peter’ was so great that Gregory divided it into two administrative centres (rectories): Palermo and Syracuse, with about 400 tenants in total (conductores). And he personally was informed that for years ‘many people suffered violence and injustice by the administrators of Roman ecclesiastical property’, from whom he had deprived them by taking away their slaves. In the exploitation of the territories, the pope had the support of some of his closest associates as well as the rectors of different patrimonies (obliged with an oath before the supposed tomb of Peter, covered by him with 100 pounds of gold).
Gregory, who ordered the deacons of Catania to wear sandals (compagi) because it was the only thing allowed to Roman deacons, despite his gloomy penitential sermons and his corrosive expectation of the destruction of the world, still found time, surprisingly long, to take care of the fields, the belly mares, the old oxen, the useless cows and the slaves, who had to be naturally baptised members of the holy Church whenever possible. The methods of the holy father do not seem to have been too scrupulous. The main reason was to increase revenue before the impending doomsday and to present the boss with a perfect balance sheet. It has been written that his slogan was: ‘Prestige, efficiency and discipline’. Today, that could be the creed of any American marketing scholar…
Papal real estate continually provided Gregory with large amounts of merchandise and money, making the Catholic Church the leading economic power in Italy… The miserable peasants who were already being deprived with the taxes on the land (burdatio) that were collected three times a year, in addition to the leases and deliveries to the Holy Catholic Church, saw themselves oppressed… But Gregory called himself ‘treasurer of the poor’, describing the immense pontifical riches as ‘the property of the poor’: one ‘of the most beautiful expressions of him’, sings the Church History Manual.