– For the context of these translations click here –
Gregory I, work of the Danish sculptor
Christian Carl Peters (1883-1884).
Frederik’s Church, Copenhagen.
We can thus consider Gregory as the founder of the temporal power of the papacy. Without yet existing a Church-State there was already a kind of State, or at least an important factor of power. Gregory elected the bishops, together with the large landowners, the provincial governors and defined their powers, especially the judicial power. The pope also influenced commerce and controlled, in conjunction with the senate, measures and weights. And to him they belonged—this being perhaps what increased his power the most—enormous territorial extensions, great agricultural estates throughout Italy and beyond.
Despite everything Gregory remained, like his predecessors, the subject of the emperor, his superior. The imperial person and government were considered sacred. The monarch of Byzantium also fought ‘heresies’, promulgated ecclesiastical edicts and convened councils…
Between the exarch of Ravenna and the pope there were no good relations. Italy, and especially the territorial chaos of its middle part, was a focus of small, almost continuous wars. That is why the exarch wanted to protect the corridor of land between Ravenna and Rome, and the pope himself wanted to protect Rome; but there were no longer enough troops for it. The Roman garrison, considerably depleted by the plague and without receiving soldiers, was on the brink of a mutiny.
Gregory assumed command. He took charge of the city, intervening decisively in all military actions, from the appointment of officers to the operations of the generals or the negotiation of armistice conditions. He took care that no one evaded the service of arms under the pretext of service to the Church. Furthermore, he recruited people from the monasteries to guard the city walls, although he avoided putting soldiers in the nunnery monasteries. He even designed military installations for Campania, Corsica and Sardinia. He took care to reinforce the weak points of the imperial enclaves with reinforcement troops and fortifications. He appointed a commander for Naples, whose population he threatened: ‘Whoever opposes his just orders will be considered as a rebel against Us, and whoever obeys him obeys Us…’
The beginning of papal propaganda in England
The beginnings of Christianity in Britain remains in the dark. Early Northern Christians had been Scandinavian merchants. In the year 314 there is a testimony of three British bishops who participated in the synod of Arles.
Roman rule over Britain, established in 43 c.e. by Emperor Claudius with four legions (barely 40,000 men), had finished around 400. In 383 Theodosius abandoned Hadrian’s Wall, and at the beginning of the 5th century the Romans, under the orders of Stilicho and Constantius III, withdrew. Faced with the attacks of Picts and Scots, the British called to their aid the Germanic tribes of Jutes and Saxons, and later also the Angles, who created a series of regional kingdoms that fought each other. Such were those of Kent, Sussex, Essex, and Wessex as well as those later of Mercia, Northumbria, and Middlesex, both rising to supremacy. But the period between 450 and 600, called Dark Ages, remains the least known period in English history.
In the time of Gregory the province of Brittany of the old Roman rule consisted of the Roman-British kingdoms in the west and the pagan kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons, who had established themselves in the rest of the island territory. In August 598, Gregory wrote to Bishop Eulogius of Alexandria that the Anglo people lived ‘in an outer corner of the world’ and that ‘they still venerate the tree and the stone…’ with a veneration that was not without sense and beauty.
Towards the end of the 6th century King Ethelbert of Kent married the Merovingian and Catholic princess Berta, great-granddaughter of Clovis, niece of Brunichilde and daughter of the Frankish King Chabert of Paris. In her entourage was Bishop Liuthard, who was supposed to celebrate the Christian liturgy, although Ethelbert was still a pagan. But upon becoming the most powerful king of England and being recognised as sovereign, Gregory hastened to send (595-596) the prior of his monastery of St. Andrew, Augustine, with some 40 monks, as emissaries to the ‘barbarians’… Unfortunately Ethelbert allowed the Roman monks to develop their propaganda in the kingdom…
The fables of the Trinity and Peter, etc., now replaced the cult of Odin and the Druids. At Pentecost 597, or more likely 601—if it really happened—the king had many Angles baptised. There are no sure testimonies of the ‘conversion’ of Ethelbert, but he was certainly the founder of three Episcopal churches in Kent and Essex: those of Canterbury, Rochester and London, which already existed in 604 when Augustine died. And with his predominantly civil laws the king protected ecclesiastical possessions as well. But at his death in 616 (or 618), and this does appear with certainty, his son and his successor Eadbald was still pagan, and so was probably his second wife.
In 602 reinforcements arrived from Rome. Abbot Mellitus, who two years later was already bishop of London, came with his troops dressed in monastic robes, carrying all kinds of ornaments, sacred vessels, relics, and various papal letters. The news of the conversion reached Constantinople. Nor was the exhortation lacking to destroy paganism and to continue the work of conversion amid the warnings and evocations of the terror of the final judgment. ‘Therefore, my most illustrious son’, Gregory wrote to the king, ‘keep carefully the grace you have received from God and hasten to spread the faith among the people who are subject to you. Increase still more your noble zeal for conversion; suppress idolatry, destroy their temples and altars…’
Thus wrote the preacher of humility. But when the occasion required it—and that was always the supreme rule of his conduct—Gregory knew how to act with greater caution and adopt an apparently more conciliatory tone, which at times may even seem comical. For example, to his ‘dearest son’, Abbot Mellitus, leader of the new troop of propagandists, he wrote that he had resolved
after long reflection on the situation of the Anglos. It is unnecessary to destroy the pagan temples of those towns, but only the idols that are in them. Then those temples must be sprinkled with holy water, altars erected and relics deposited. Because if such temples are well built, they can perfectly be transformed from a dwelling place of demons into houses of the true God, so that if the same people don’t see their temples destroyed, lay down their error from their hearts, recognise the true God and pray and go to the usual places according to their old custom…
Isn’t this a magnificent religion? If the temples are ‘well built’ there is no need to demolish the devil’s work. None of that: they can then serve the work of God. You just have to destroy the ‘idols’ and let the new ones in exclusively.