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How St. Gregory the Great Was Elected Pope

Hugh O’Reilly

The Tiber once overflowded its banks so far that it came over the city walls and demolished a large number of houses. The river carried many serpents and frogs down to the sea, but the waves smothered the beasts and tossed them onto the shore. The stench of their rotting bodies bred a deadly pestilence, and people seemed to see arrows coming from heaven and striking this one and that one. The first to be stricken was Pope Pelagius, who died within hours, and the plague swept through the population so fatally that many houses stood empty in the city.

The Church of God, however, could not be without a head, and the people unanimously elected Gregory to be their Bishop in 590, although he made every effort to dissuade them. He had to be consecrated Bishop of Rome but the plague was causing havoc in the city, so he preached to the people, organized a procession, and had litanies recited, exorting everyone to pray zealously to the Lord. Even while the entire population pleaded with God, however, in any one hour 90 men died. But Gregory continued to urge all to pray until the divine mercy should banish the plague.

End of plague in Rome, Castle of Sant' Angelo

Leading the procession, St. Gregory the Great sees an Angel atop the castle putting his sword into its scabbard
When the procession ended, Gregory tried to flee from Rome to avoid being made Pope. He could not, however, because the people posted guards to watch for him day and night at the city gates. At length he changed his clothes and persuaded some tradesmen to hide him in a wine cask and get him out of the city in a wagon.

When they reached a forest, he set out for a hiding place in the caves and hid there for three days. A relentless search for him was underway, and a bright column of light beamed down from the heavens and appeared over the place where he had concealed himself: One hermit saw Angels descending and ascending in this beam. Of course this led the pursuers to Gregory, and they took him back to Rome and consecrated him as Supreme Pontiff. ...

The plague was still ravaging Rome, and Gregory ordered the procession to continue to make the circuit of the city, the marchers chanting the litanies. An image of the Blessed Mary ever Virgin was carried in the procession. This image - which was painted by St. Luke, who was not only a physician but a distinguished painter - is still in the Church of Saint Mary Major in Rome and is said to be a perfect likeness of the Virgin.

And lo and behold! The poisonous uncleanness of the air yielded to the image as if fleeing from it and being unable to withstand its presence: The passage of the picture brought in its wake a wonderful serenity and purity of air.

We are also told that the voices of Angels were heard around the image, singing:

Regina coeli laetare, alleluia (Queen of heaven rejoice, alleluia)
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia (Because the One thou didst deserve to bear, alleluia)
Ressurrexit sicut dixit, alleluia (Has risen as He said, alleluia).

To which Gregory promptly added:

Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia (Pray for us to God, alleluia).

Then the Pope saw an Angel of the Lord standing atop the castle of Crescentius, wiping a bloody sword and returning it to its scabard. Gregory understood that this signaled the end of the plague, as, indeed, happened. Thereafter the castle was called Castello Sant'Angelo - the Castle of the Holy Angel.

Selected from Jacques de Voragine, The Golden Legend,
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, vol. 1, pp. 173-174

Posted December 19, 2009
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