St. Gregory the Great, like the recently blogged-about St. Bernard of Clairvaux, was a “super saint.” His virtues, heroic acts, teachings, writings, supernatural experiences, and, perhaps most importantly, his lasting impact on both the Church and secular culture today, have truly earned him the title “Great.”
On the anniversary of his death (March 12), I posted a story about “St. Gregory and the Beggar,” the beggar being an angel in disguise. Today on his feast day I would like to mention another angelic occurrence in the life of Gregory, this one featuring St. Michael.
In 590, a great plague struck Rome. When the stricken city had nearly reached its breaking point, Pope St. Gregory the Great united the people by preaching a sermon that filled them with hope and resolve. They were to bombard heaven with their prayers, declared Gregory, to such a degree that God and His Blessed Mother could not resist in ending the scourge. He rallied people from the seven corners of Rome and led them in procession through the streets as an act of penance, praying for forgiveness and atoning for sin. As the crowd reached the bridge of St. Peter’s, the miraculous occurred: St. Michael appeared in full view of the faithful over the tomb of Hadrian, sheathing his flaming sword to indicate the end of the plague. At the same moment, Saint Gregory heard angelic voices singing the antiphon, “Queen of Heaven, rejoice!”
To this day, the tomb of Hadrian in Rome is called the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, in memory of the visitation of Saint Michael and of the miraculous deliverance of the city from plague. A chapel was later built at the top of the tomb along with a large marble angel, which remained there for centuries until Pope Benedict XIV replaced the statue with a bronze one.
The custom of saying “God bless you” when someone has sneezed, and the making of the Sign of the Cross on the mouths of those who yawn, goes back to the days of Saint Gregory and the Roman plague. Because the disease typically ended in a spasm of sneezing or yawning, Gregory ordered that “God bless you” should be said to those who sneezed, and the blessing of the Sign of the Cross should be put on the mouths of those who yawned.