While authority of the Roman church had been well established for some time, the church in Constantinople rejected the concept that Rome should have authority over it and its people. At a time when divisions where high, Gregory was placed into leadership against his own desires. Under his leadership, the gap between the church in Rome and the church in Constantinople grew only wider.
Gregory was born sometime around 540 in Rome to an aristocratic family. A well-traveled man, Gregory spent time throughout the Mediterranean, including Constantinople. His gifts in leadership, speaking, and teaching brought him into the good graces of the people. Despite his personal will, the people called Gregory as their pope September 3, 590.
Gregory’s rise to leadership came at a time in which the empires were divided. The emperors were continuously at war with one another. The senate sought to provide the much needed leadership that was required, but it soon disbanded. As the church in Rome sought to continue its work with the poor, but now without the help of the government, the people began to look to the church more. The church became as much a political leader as it did a religious leader.
As their pope, Gregory began a number of endeavors within the church, especially projects that were geared towards acting as missionaries towards the pagans. He set up a number of monastic communities across Europe and gave those communities charters to control various territories. He approved a number of beliefs and practices that became the standard for Catholic beliefs (which includes the saints, self-sacrificial penance, and observance of the feast days). Most notably, he set standard practices and guidelines for bishops in his writing The Book of Pastoral Rule. As he promoted the absolute superiority and primacy of Rome, he not only created a separation with Constantinople but he established the church in Rome as a supreme authority in religion and in politics.
While the church was not yet distinctly Catholic in the manner that we see it today, Gregory provided some of the basis by which that would happen. In seeing the innovations of practice and teaching that he put into place several things began to transpire:
- Rome transformed into the central power.
- The division of territories began to take place.
- The church began focused on seeking others to be part of it.
- Its influence in politics began to increase.
We also begin to see some development in its theology as well and the impact that will have on the whole church. With roughly 850 letters by Gregory, much is revealed about Gregory’s personal theology. It can be described as generally ascetic and mystical. He advocated for Augustinian theology, but only as interpreted by John Cassian. While some may consider him semi-Pelagian, he was synergistic in that he combined the two, noting that Christ redeemed everyone, buyt a person must strive to be redeemed. In other words, a person worked his way towards salvation, but the grace of God was needed in those works. Nearly 1000 years later, it was this version of Augustinianism that Martin Luther was taught and so heavily disagreed with that sparked the reformation.
The stage had been set for a number of divisions that would transform the church.