By Fr. Félix López, S.H.M.
Saint Gregory the Great was born in Rome around the year 540 into the heart of a wealthy and noble family that had converted to Christianity. His father, St. Gordianus, held the office of senator and was the brother of St. Trasilla and St. Emiliana, virgins. His mother was St. Silvia, a woman of great piety. And if that were not enough, there were even two popes in his family: Felix III (483-492) and Agapetus I (535-536).
Early on in his life, St. Gregory began an administrative career and in 572 became Prefect of Rome. In 574, he withdrew from this public career to embrace the Benedictine Rule, and he transformed one of his houses on a hill in Rome into the Monastery of St. Andrew. Shortly afterwards, Pope Pelagius II convoked Gregory to the diaconate. Gregory met St. Leander of Seville and maintained a constant correspondence with him, correspondence that has been conserved. Later, the Pope named him as his secretary. After the pontiff’s death, Gregory was acclaimed by all to be his successor in the year 590. Although he tried to refuse the appointment, he understood that it was God’s will. The new pontiff very sadly left his life of solitude and dedicated himself to the community as a simple Servant of the Servants of God.
He has also left behind admirable homilies, his famous Moralia in Job, as well as numerous liturgical texts which are famous for the reform of the chant later named “Gregorian” after him. But his most famous work is undoubtedly The Rule for Pastors, which was of enormous importance for the clergy. Gregory died on March 12 in the year 604, and was declared Doctor of the Church in 1295. He received the title “the Great” because of his magnanimity towards each and every person who came into contact with him. He is one of the Latin Fathers of the Church along with St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome.
St. Gregory recognized Mary as Mother of God: “Lo, the same Virgin is called both the handmaid and the Mother of the Lord. For she is the handmaid of the Lord, because the Word before the Ages, the Only-begotten, is equal to the Father; but the Mother, because in her womb from the Holy Spirit and of her flesh He was made man” (Epistles XI, 67).
For St. Gregory, Mary was above any other creature, including the angels, for “the incorporeal Light assumed a body in her womb” (Moralia XXXIII, 5). The mystery of Mary’s virginity was something that greatly amazed the Pope. When referring to it, he placed it at the end of a list of miraculous events that God had worked in favor of His people: “Carefully consider it, please, and tell me if you can: How was the Red Sea divided by the staff (of Moses)? How could the hardness of the rock bring forth a torrent of water at the strike of a staff? How could the dry rod of Aaron flourish? How could the Virgin, a descendent of Aaron, conceive and remain a virgin, even while giving birth?” (Homilies of Saint Gregory the Great on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, 2, 8, 9).
We can observe how he highlighted Mary’s virginity during the birth, which makes the virginal birth of Christ even more mysterious. For Gregory, the virginitas in partu has a supernatural function: “He was conceived, not by the cooperation of natural intercourse, but by the Holy Spirit coming on His Mother. And when born He proved the fecundity of His Mother’s womb, though preserving its virgin purity” (Moralia XXIV, 3).
To prove the possibility of the virgin birth, St. Gregory turns—as did St. Jerome and St. Augustine before him— to Jesus’ entrance in the Upper Room when the doors were shut: “What is so amazing about the event in which, after the Resurrection, the eternal Conqueror passed through the closed doors? After all, when He came here to die (referring to His birth in the flesh), did He not come without opening the womb of the Virgin?” (Hom. In Ev. 26, 1).
Some authors have placed in doubt the appropriateness of using this passage of the entrance into the Upper Room with the doors closed to justify the virgin birth, since in that moment the body of Jesus was already in the glorious state, while it was not so at the moment of His birth. To this we may respond that at certain moments before the Resurrection, Jesus’ body—while it did not cease to be a real body of flesh—had the ability to take on qualities that could overcome natural laws: for example, during the Transfiguration or when He walked on water.
A very interesting fact cited by Pope St. Gregory the Great was the apparition of the Virgin Mary to a little girl called Musa. The Pope heard about it from the girl’s brother, Probus, whom he considered to be a man of God and credible. The Virgin Mary appeared to Musa surrounded by young people dressed in white. She invited Musa to enter into her service and to leave behind childish attitudes. Mary would again visit Musa thirty days later. The girl’s parents noticed a profound change in their daughter’s behavior and after questioning her, she told them about the apparition. Musa fell sick and thirty days later Mary again came to visit her. The little girl accepted the Virgin Mary’s invitation: “ ‘Here I am, Lady; I am coming.’ In that same breath, she handed over her spirit and left behind her virginal body to dwell with the virgins” (Dialog. 4, 18).
It was significant that so early on, the faithful believed that it was possible for the Virgin Mary to appear to someone. The Pope himself even spoke of it in a natural manner.
In the person of St. Gregory the Great, the richness of being both a Father and Doctor of the Church as well as Pope is combined. This means that his writings and homilies form part of the ordinary Magisterium. They show us, in continuity with the previous doctrine, that during the sixth century also the Church considered the doctrine of the virginity of Mary, including the virginal birth, to be an integral part of the faith.
© HM Magazine Nº208 May-June 2019