St. Gregory’s was born in 540. Gregory was the last of our leaders who was at home with classical Latin. His 800 surviving letters show him to have been a master of grammar and rhetoric. He was high born; and after serving as Prefect of Rome, he spent seven years as the Pope’s ambassador to the emperor in Constantinople.
After his father’s death, Gregory returned to Rome, converting the family estate into the monastery of St. Andrew. He became a monk out of what he called “an ardent quest for a vision of the creator.”
At the death of Pope Pelagius in 590, every citizen of Rome cried for Gregory to take the pontificate. The greatest problem facing Pope Gregory was the absence of educated priests for properly offering the Eucharist. We have seen how there had been a rule for the priests that had them using their own wording in the three parts of the blessing offered by Jesus at the Last Supper. St. Justin in 165 A.D. had written that the one presiding offered the Eucharist and the blessing “As much as in him lies.”
Gregory lacked priests who could stand before their altars making their own versions of Our Lord’s table blessing, and that had forced him to devise a formula of words that embodied Our Lord’s table blessing. His wording had each priest begin by recalling God’s favors, then moving on to asking God’s Spirit to unite and empower worshipers, and finally for giving themselves with Christ as pleasing gifts to God. His wording came to be known as the Roman Canon. After some minor changes made by Charlemagne and the Council of Trent, his Roman Canon was the formula for offering Mass that I learned in 1952.
Although Gregory had not meant it to happen that way, by his forming the Canon in Latin, he made Latin the official language of the Western Church.The last words of the priest in Pope Gregory’s Latin formula were “Ite, missa est,” meaning, “Go, it’s finished;” but the people, ignorant of Latin, thought the priest was saying, “Go. It is the Missa.” They began calling our Eucharistic service the Missa, and for us it became the Mass.
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