The so-called Eternal City was less eternal than ever in 589, when thousands of corpses piled in wagons had to be moved outside the walls from the center so that they could not infect anyone else. They were the unhappy victims of the black or bubonic plague pandemic that also struck Spain and Marseille at that time. In November, the Tiber River overflowed, causing the collapse of several old buildings and the Church’s grain warehouses that held the food reserves for the city of Rome during the winter.
Before the end of the year, the plague was felt in all its bite. People raised their hands to their heads: «It is the wrath of God! How can we appease it! ”They shouted, evoking the biblical plagues. In the Vatican, the situation was far from better. Pope Pelagius II had just died in rales, a victim of the bloody plague, with swollen glands in his groin, armpits, and neck.
A monastic pope
Some bishops panicked at the suspicion that God had turned his back on Rome, pouring out all his anger. Not surprisingly, the city was still under siege by the Lombards, who looted it at all hours. Violent altercations in the streets were the order of the day. And to all this was added the plague pandemic that left dead at every moment and the terrible floods. It looked like the end of the world.
The Romans took refuge in their houses, hopeless, while from time to time they peered through the shutters of the windows fearful before the arrival of the Apocalypse. And amid the reigning chaos, a new pope had to be elected. The bishops pointed to the same man. No one is more prepared and kind in his eyes than the Benedictine monk Gregorio. Until then, it was strange that a friar should so unanimously draw the eyes of the prelates to occupy the solitude of Peter. But they were times in which the Papacy demanded not only the leadership of the Church, but the culmination of a political work of the highest level.
Nor is it less certain that Gregorio had been a prefect and that he embodied like few others the exalted virtue of charity. He was often seen surrounded by those most in need, with whom he shared food and prayed for his intentions. He was the man of faith that the Church needed at that time so virulent. Finally chosen unanimously, Gregorio experienced a major earthquake. He longed to embrace the monastic, contemplative and silent life, as established by the Rule of Saint Benedict. All the opposite to the exigencies of the Papacy, turned into the center of the foreign eyes and even of the political framework. But should he not obey the Lord’s designs? Legend has it that, beset by doubts, Gregorio fled his residence, a former monastery, to take refuge in the forest and try to circumvent his destiny. Finally, he returned to Rome after three days to assume his pontificate with resignation, very soon deserving of the title “Servant of the Servants of God”.
The beginning of his reign will go down in the annals of Church History by a single anecdote as incredible as it is true. Pope Gregory asked the people to go out in procession through the city as penance for the sins committed, convinced that it was the only solution to end the terrible plague pandemic once and for all. And so, while the service was being celebrated, the Archangel Saint Michael appeared to those present with his sword drawn at the top of the fortress, announcing the end of the epidemic. The prince of the heavenly militias thus defeated, the broadsword in hand, the bitter enemy.
Shortly afterwards, as a sign of gratitude, Pope Gregory baptized the fortress with the name of Sant’Angelo Castle in Rome. A statue of Saint Michael commemorates today that miraculous day. The Pope would call himself Gregory the Great, thus becoming the Father of the Church with an important contribution. A tireless worker, his legacy of letters and doctrinal writings is of enormous relevance. He began the evangelization of the English and negotiated with the Lombards the payment of a tribute in exchange for an end to the siege of the city. But there is one last fundamental contribution: he compiled from the first songs that Christians sang in the catacombs and adding the later ones he composed a wonderful Antiphonary. Thanks to him, we know today the famous Gregorian Chants.
Sabiniano was chosen Pope when Gregorio died. They both knew each other. In 593, Gregory had appointed him Nuncio to Constantinople, but he made him return immediately for his clumsy management. Sabiniano never forgave him. Moved by hatred and resentment, he devoted himself to discrediting him. He spread the slander that only the desire for admiration presided over his good works and also accused him of having squandered the ecclesiastical patrimony to feed the poor. But all that did nothing but win him the enmity of the faithful and the clergy.
For this reason, although he did some interesting things, such as normalizing the tolling of the bells to warn of the beginning of the holy offices, the legend today presents Sabiniano as a greedy and lacking charity man, who in the midst of famine opened the barns to sell the expensive wheat, instead of distributing it to the neediest.