Today is the anniversary of the death of Pope St Gregory the Great in 604 AD, and the traditional date of his feast. In the post-Conciliar reform of the liturgical calendar, he was moved to September 3rd, the anniversary of his consecration as bishop of Rome, which took place in 590.

Prior to his election as Pope, he had lived in a monastery on the Caelian hill in Rome, which is now a church dedicated to him, a short walk away from the church of Ss John and Paul, which we discussed last week. One of the great achievements of his pontificate was to send a group of monks from his former monastery, led by the prior, a man named Augustine, as missionaries to England. There had been Christians in England long before they arrived, but they were a small and isolated group and had made little to no headway in converting the Anglo-Saxons and other tribes that come to the island since its abandonment by the Romans in 410 A.D. The missionary efforts of Augustine and his companions led to the conversion of many of them, as well as the establishment of the church hierarchy in England and some of its oldest institutions. He himself was the first archbishop of Canterbury, and another member of the company named Lawrence was the second, while one named Mellitus became the first bishop of London, and Justus the first of Rochester; all of them are now venerated as Saints.

The success of this mission may be judged in part by the career of St Bede the Venerable, who was born roughly 70 years later and became a monk in an abbey called Jarrow in the north of England. The English historian Christopher Dawson observes, “No one could guess from the study of his work that a man like Bede … was hardly two generations removed from pagan barbarism.” (Medieval Essays, p. 144)

Among his voluminous and learned corpus is a History of the English Church, which contains this famous anecdote about how Pope Gregory came to be inspired to send missionaries to England.

When he was still a monk in Rome, “…some merchants had arrived (there… with) some boys put up for sale, with fair complexions, handsome faces, and lovely hair. On seeing them, (Gregory) asked … from what region or land they had been brought. He was told that they came from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were like that in appearance. He asked again whether those islanders were Christians or still entangled in the errors of heathenism. He was told that they were heathen.

Then with a deep-drawn sigh, he said, ‘Alas that the author of darkness should have men so bright of face in his grip, and that minds devoid of inward grace should bear so graceful an outward form.’ Again he asked for the name of the race. He was told that they were called Angli. ‘Good’, he said, ‘they have the face of angels (angeli), and such men should be fellow heirs of the angels in heaven. What is the name’, he asked, ‘of the kingdom from which they have been brought?’ He was told that the men of the kingdom were called Deiri. ‘Deiri’, he replied, ‘De ira! good! snatched from the wrath of Christ and called to His mercy. And what is the name of the king of the land?’ He was told that it was Ælle; and playing on the name, he said, ‘Alleluia! The praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.’ ” (transl. Bertram Colgrave, Oxford, 1969)

According to Bede, Gregory himself would have gladly undertaken the mission to England, but the people of Rome would not allow him to leave the city. (He was a highly talented administrator, and this was perfectly understandable, given the beleaguered state of the city in the later decades of the 6th century.) He therefore had to wait until he himself became Pope to send the mission.

(A mosaic in one of the side chapels of Westminster Cathedral in London, depicting the episode narrated above. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)