A message from Father Nick 25


Pope St Gregory the Great (II)       Not Angles, but Angels…

            We met St Gregory the Great last week: the pope who had wanted to spend his life as a monk. He had converted his family villa on the Coelian Hill in Rome into a monastery dedicated to the Apostle Andrew (it would later be rebuilt as a church in honour of Gregory himself), and this remained his spiritual home through life. A chair he is believed to have used as Bishop of Rome may still be seen there today.

For all his humble intentions, Gregory had acquired enormous responsibilities. At the end of the sixth century, the Church was fully involved in the world’s development and changes, and Roman order was giving way to new forms of organization. The Latin language was no longer shared by large numbers of people; German tribes were settling in the old empire in great numbers; East and West were moving further apart in sympathy; and many people had no knowledge of the Good News.

Gregory was concerned to share that knowledge generally, but he was famously committed to one particular sphere of mission – England. The English monk-historian Bede, writing in the eighth century when Christianity had long been established, describes a famous moment in the story:

We are told that one day some merchants who had recently arrived in Rome displayed their many wares in the market-place. Among the crowd who thronged to buy was Gregory, who saw among the other merchandise some young people being shown for sale. These had fair complexions, fine-cut features, and beautiful hair. Looking at them with interest, he enquired from what country and what part of the world they came. ‘They come from the island of Britain,’ he was told, ‘where all the people have this appearance.’

He then asked whether the islanders were Christians, or, whether they were still heathens. ‘They are pagans,’ he was informed. ’Alas,’ said Gregory with a heartfelt sigh: ‘how sad that such bright-faced folk are still in the grasp of the Author of darkness, and that such graceful creatures conceal minds void of God’s grace! What is the name of this race?’ ‘They are called Angles,’ he was told. ‘That is appropriate,’ he said, ‘for they have angelic faces. And it is right that they should become joint-heirs with the angels in heaven. And what is the name of the province from which they have been brought?’ ‘Deira’ was the answer. ‘Good. They shall indeed be rescued de ira – from wrath – and called to the mercy of Christ. And what is the name of their king?’ ‘Aelle,’ he was told,. ‘Then,’ said Gregory, making play on the name, ‘it is right that their land should echo the praise of God our Creator in the word Alleluiah’”

            This exchange is said to have taken place before Gregory was elected pope, and he was only too ready to come to Britain himself as a missionary. Instead, when he was elected pope, he sent Augustine (“Augustine of Canterbury” as he came to be called) and a party of monks to bring the Gospel to the English. The monks arrived in Kent in 597 AD. The rest, as they say, is history.