This Thursday, September 3, is the Feast of Pope St. Gregory the Great. He was Pope from Sept. 3, 590 till 604, when he died. There are several things about him that stand out and make him significant.
First of all, he was a writer. He wrote more than all the previous popes combined. We have 62 of his homilies, 854 of his letters, and several books he wrote, including a commentary on the book of Job, a handbook for bishops called “The Rule for Pastors,” and a few other works.
He was a musician or at least appreciated music. “Gregorian” chant is named after him. Historians are not sure just how much goes back directly to Gregory’s day, but he was a major impetus in the use of plainchant in church.
He was a skillful politician and administrator. Before being elected Pope, he was the Vatican’s representative to the Imperial court in Byzantium, an important, indeed crucial, and delicate job. He did well there. We also know from his letters that he was involved in day-to-day administration of the Papacy, giving specific orders to overseers of the papal estates in North Africa as to exactly what was to be done and how.
But the thing that connects Pope Gregory the Great to our parish is that he is the one who sent (and later resent) the monk Augustine to England to convert the pagan English. We know this monk as St. Augustine of Canterbury, or St. Austin. The story goes that Gregory first encountered the English when he saw some fair-skinned English boys in the Roman slave market. They were from a tribe known as the Angels, and Pope Gregory remarked, “Non Angli, sed angeli,” meaning “They are not Angles, but angels!” Apparently Pope Gregory was a punster, but even for that, still a holy man.
This “vision” of the “angels” stayed with Gregory, and he longed to work for their conversion from their heathen religion to Christianity. And so he appointed the Roman monk Augustine to go and undertake the conversion of heathen England. When Augustine had second thoughts about the adventure when he got to the coast of France and then hightailed back to the civilized comforts of Rome, it was Pope Gregory who reminded Augustine that as a monk he was under holy obedience, and that the Pope’s instructions were not an invitation but rather an order; and when would he be leaving again (soon!) for England? So if it had not been for Pope Gregory the Great, the English would not have been converted, Augustine would not have become a saint, and we would not be St. Austin’s Parish!
So this Thursday we are celebrating the Saint who had a lot to do with the eventual naming of our parish. And that is a good reason to celebrate.