Pope Saint Gregory III
Feast Day: December 10
Most of the time, the election of a new pontiff begins with a funeral; rarely, however, does the nomination process get underway at the funeral, as happened in the case of Pope Saint Gregory III. A Syrian, the man who would become Gregory III was walking in the funeral procession for his predecessor, Pope Gregory II, in 731, when the people and clergy of Rome began to call for him to be elected pope, because of his reputation for wisdom and holiness. In fact, they reportedly carried off the popular cardinal of the basilica of St. Mark’s from the procession in order to install him as pope then and there.
He was, notably, the last pope to have his election confirmed by the exarch of Ravennna in the name of the Byzantine emperor, but this support was not sufficient to prevent conflict with the Byzantine emperor, Leo III. One of the main causes of the fracture between the eastern emperor and the Roman pontiff was the issue of iconoclasm. The problem was that the Emperor Leo III had, in 726, published an edict that declared images and statues of saints, God, and other holy images were not objects of veneration but idols, and so the emperor ordered all such images in churches to be destroyed by his soldiers. He then sent the edict to Pope Gregory II, ordering all such images in Rome be destroyed, and that the pope call a council to forbid the use of holy images. Gregory II instead defended the use of holy images, and Gregory III continued his predecessor’s defense of holy images.
After failing to get an emissary through to Emperor Leo III, Pope Gregory III called a council of bishops, clergy, and nobles to approve excommunicating anyone who either condemned the veneration of images or destroyed them. Leo III did not take that well, to say the least: he sent an armed fleet to capture the pope and bring him to Constantinople. When that fleet was lost in a storm, Leo III then recognized the ecclesiastical authority of the patriarch of Constantinople over what had formerly been the pope’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction. At this loss of power in the East, Pope Gregory III had the opportunity to turn his attention to missionary efforts and church organizational needs in western Europe.
Of particular note is Pope Gregory III’s appointment of St. Boniface as archbishop of Germany, supporting St. Boniface’s efforts to convert Germany. However, it was not all good news from Western Europe; towards the end of Pope Gregory III’s life, the Lombards were treating to invade Rome, prompting the pontiff to complete the restoration of the Roman walls and to write to the Frankish chieftain Charles Martel for help. The presence of Martel’s ambassadors brought a short peace in 739, but eventually the Lombard leader Liutprand took the field again and in 741, Martel died, leaving the Romans in need of aid. A few weeks later, in the early winter of 741, Gregory III also died. He is buried in the oratory of Our Lady in Saint Peter’s Basilica, which he himself had built.
It is recorded in the book of the pontificate that Gregory was “a man of deep humility and true wisdom. He had a good knowledge of Sacred Scriptures and knew the Psalms by heart. He was a polished and successful preacher, skilled in both Latin and Greek, and a stout upholder of the Catholic Faith: a lover of poverty and the poor, a protector of the widowed and orphaned, a friend to monks and nuns.”
What Does He Have to Do With Me?
One of the major things Pope St. Gregory III is remembered for is his strong stance against iconoclasm, even at great political cost. One of the things we can learn from him is that while pro-con lists can be helpful, the faith life cannot be reduced to a simple cost/benefit analysis, at least not using worldly standards. Sometimes, our Faith demands that we let go of certain good things of this world, in order to do what is right from an eternal perspective. That can often be hard, even if it doesn’t involve the Byzantine Emperor threatening us with military action. From Pope St. Gregory III, we can learn to be steadfast to our faith despite those fears.
- He was the last pope to seek the ratification of his papacy by the exarch.
- In order to fight iconoclasm, he ordered the repair and beautification of many churches, and emphasized adding images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other saints.
- He established the monastery of St. Chrysogonus and repaired the hospice of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, endowing it so that it could support the poor.
Saint Gregory III, it’s hard to stand still and wait for God to do his work. Sometimes I doubt God’s providence. I’m afraid that God’s plan won’t work out unless I push it along. Help me, when I’m confused, to stop, pray, and wait for God. Amen
- The Letters of St. Boniface by St. Boniface
- The Lives of the Saints by Fr. Alban Butler
- Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians by Thomas F. X. Noble
- Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s by R.A. Scotti