Today we honor Pope St. Gregory the Great, who lived from 540 to 604. A well educated noble, at thirty he was named prefect of Rome, but at thirty-five, with his father leaving him their estate, Gregory turned it into a monastery, to which he retired in search for intimacy with God.
Five years later, in 590, at the death of Pope Pelagius II, Gregory was acclaimed pope by the whole populace of Rome. Two things stood out in his reign. One was his calling up a Monte Casino monk, changing his name to Augustine, and sending him to England as the first Archbishop of Canterbury. (As a boy, Gregory had seen English slaves in Rome’s market, and he had always wanted to do something for those people.)
A second noteworthy move had him composing what was called the Roman Canon. Let me explain what was involved in that.
Our Eucharistic Prayers all grew out of the grace or blessing offered by Jesus at the Last Supper (when he said. “Do this in memory of me.”) In formal suppers that blessing always had the same three parts. The host began by recalling God’s favors. Next, he called down God’s Spirit to unite and empower the diners. Thirdly, he asked them to join him as part of the “pleasing gift,” (In Greek, the eu-charis).
The host offering that blessing always had to include those same three parts, and that was carried over with priests using the blessing as a Eucharistic prayer. An additional requirement for the host, and later for the priest, was that he make up his own words each time, not using a set formula.
Now, Gregory was one of the last brilliant writers in Latin, with 800 perfect letters of his coming down to us. However, with the barbarian invasions closing most schools, Gregory had very few priests who were capable of making up suitable Eucharistic Prayers for Mass. So, he had to change the rule that had priests making up their own Mass prayers.
For a standard Eucharistic Prayer to be used by all priests, Gregory composed what came to be called the Roman Canon or the Gregorian Mass. With very few changes, it was the Latin Mass prayer I used when I was ordained sixty-one years ago.