St Gregory the Great

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Pope and doctor. Born in Rome in 540, St Gregory was the first of the sixteen Popes named Gregory. He came from a patrician family and was for a time the chief civil magistrate of Rome. He became a monk when he was about 35, having given his wealth away to establish several monasteries.

From 579 to 585 he was the Pope's agent at Constantinople. Five years after his return to his monastery he was elected Pope - the first monk chosen for the office.

His papacy lasted fourteen years, during which time, Gregory was tireless, energetic and charitable. He abolished fees for burials. He looked after those suffering from famine. He would not allow injustice to Jews. He wrote hymns. He also reformed church worship and introduced what is now called 'Gregorian chant'.

Disregarding the right of the Byzantine emperor he made his own peace with the marauding Lombards and ransomed their prisoners.

One of his most far-reaching decisions came about after he saw blonde Anglo Saxon slaves for sale in the market. "They are not Angles, but Angels," he said, and decided to send missionaries to England.

St Gregory's writings influenced the church for many centuries. More than 800 of his letters and sermons survive - among them a book on the office and duties of a bishop, which came to be used throughout Christendom, and was translated into English by King Alfred and a long commentary on the Book of Job.

St Gregory the Great has been called the father of mediaeval papacy, without which the early middle ages would have taken much longer to emerge from the chaos which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

He called himself: 'The servant of the servants of God' - a name that the Popes have used ever since.

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