St. Gregory and the Greater Litanies

Source: District of Asia

The coronavirus epoch has offered us an important lesson that God is everything and Man is nothing. It is why the saints have always turned to God, when their land was afflicted with pestilence. We have feasts to remind us of these great truths. The greater litanies were instituted for this purpose.  When Rome was threatened by an epidemic, St. Gregory quickly turned towards heaven and interceded for the city. Here we present a description of the event:

Towards the close of the year 589 Rome suffered from excessive rains, the Tiber overflowed its banks and inundated the lower parts of the city, causing great destruction and distress. The waters stood stagnant for a considerable time, and, when they gradually ebbed away, they left a slime in the houses and streets that engendered a fearful pestilence. Numbers fell victims to the plague. In January the disease attacked Pope Pelagius, who lingered for a time, but died of it on February 8th, 590. At this vacancy in the chair of St. Peter the thoughts of all reverted to Gregory. Conspicuous for his ability and capacity, conversant with the course of ecclesiastical affairs, of undoubted holiness of life, of good family, friendly with the Emperor, he seemed to the clergy and patricians eminently fitted for the exalted position, and, indeed, the only one. The people had long shown their reverence and affection for him, alike in his secular office of praetor and in his ecclesiastical ministrations in their midst ; they had prevented his mission to England, and his popularity was unbounded. The election consequently turned unanimously in favour of Gregory, no one else being thought of.  He resisted to the utmost, pointed out his utter unworthiness, that he had already fled from the world on account of his weakness in combating the world, and that it would endanger his salvation to compel him again to undertake secular occupation. Seeing no hope of influencing the elections, Gregory relied on his friendship with the Emperor to induce him to refuse approbation. In those times the free election rested with the clergy, senate, and people, but before consecration it was customary to submit the name of the Pontiff elect to the Emperor for approval, and Gregory wrote in the most urgent terms to Maurice, entreating him for a multiplicity of reasons to oppose the choice. He at the same time sent letters to John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople, and other friends at the Byzantine Court, to urge them to take up his cause with the Emperor, and afterwards complains that none of them had the charity to help him in his difficulties. Germanus, the governor of Rome, foreseeing that Gregory would make every effort to gain over the Emperor, sent messengers to waylay Gregory's envoys, secured and opened his letters, and despatched his own couriers with all possible speed with the decree.

During these preliminaries of the election the plague made terrible ravages amongst the population of the city, and the panic and affliction increased so as to cast aside further thought of the election. Nothing could check the course of the pestilence; rich and poor, old and young, were stricken down; strong men attacked by it died in a few hours; bodies remained unburied, and increased the mortality; fear paralyzed all efforts to control it, and the panic added to the death-roll. Gregory retained his calmness and self-possession; he took the superintendence, organized regular assistance, sent his monks over the city, used entreaties, commands, and threats to induce the unhappy people to adopt precautionary measures. Still the pestilence did not abate.

The substance of one of his discourses at the church of St. Sabina is preserved by St. Gregory of Tours: "It is natural for us, my dearest brethren, to tremble at the scourge of God when we see and feel it, but which we ought to have feared before it came. Affliction opens for us the road to conversion, and punishment softens the hardness of heart under which we suffer; as the Prophet foretold, the sword has reached even to the soul. Behold the whole population stricken by the sword of Heaven's wrath, and men are destroyed by sudden death-stroke. Sickness coins not before death, for you see that death anticipates the delay of sickness. Each one once smitten is carried off before he can turn to repentance. Think, therefore, how he is to meet the gaze of the terrible Judge, who has had no time to atone for what he has done. Individuals alone do not perish, all fall together; houses are empty, fathers see the burial of their children, and their heirs precede them in death. Let each one of us therefore take refuge in tears of penance while there is time to weep before we are struck down. Let us call back to our minds whatever we have committed, and, by weeping, let us atone for our sins. Let us come before His face in confession, and as the Prophet admonishes, let us lift up our hearts and our hands to the Lord. To lift up our hearts and hands to God is to excite the earnestness of our prayer by the merit of good works. He gives surety, He gives confidence to our trembling, who tells us by the Prophet, ‘I will not the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live.' Let no one despair from the heinousness of his crimes: a three days' penance washed away the hardened sins of the Ninevites; the converted thief merited the reword of life in the very sentence of death. Let us change our hearts and presume that we have received what we ask: the Judge more speedily grants the petition when the suppliant has corrected his evil doing. Therefore, in the peril of so great an affliction, let us persist in clamorous tears. That importunity which is annoying to men, pleases the Judge of truth, for a good and merciful God wishes that pardon should he exacted from Him by prayer; and will not be angry as much as we deserve: for He says by the Psalmist, ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.’  He therefore is Himself a witness that He desires to have mercy on those who pray, since He tells us to pray.” He concludes by ordering a general procession to consist of seven different bodies, who were to meet at the church of St. Mary Major, and there to unite in prayer, humiliation, and lamentation in order to implore the mercy of God. The day was observed as a Sunday. The priests of each of the seven regions or districts assembled at a church in the district and were there joined by those who were assigned to each procession. The clerics started from the church of SS. Cosmas and Damian, the monks from that of SS. Gervase and Protase, the nuns from SS. Marcellinus and Peter, children from SS. John and Paul, men from St. Stephen, widows from St. Euphemia, married women from St. Clement's. These separate bodies wended their way through the plague-stricken city, singing penitential prayers, and carrying the relics of the saints and the picture of the Mother of God attributed to St. Luke. During the hour that the procession lasted St. Gregory of Tours states that eighty died of the pestilence. At the close of the procession tradition asserts that the Archangel Michael appeared over the Mole of Hadrian sheathing a sword, which announced the cessation of the plague. On the present castle of St. Angelo the figure of an angel sheathing a sword commemorates the event. Another tradition relates that Gregory heard the angels singing the Paschal Anthem: Regina caeli, laetare, Alleluia; Quia quem meruisti portare, Alleluia; Resurrexit, sicut dixit, Alleluia. to which Gregory added, on the inspiration of the moment, Ora pro nobis Deum, Alleluia.

And thus the church kept the custom of procession begging the mercy of God and the powerful intercession of the Virgin Most Merciful, Who by Her prayers can disarm the vengeance of Her Divine Son, and shorten the term of punishment which He had decreed to inflict on men for their sins.