Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Fathers of the Church

Epistle VII: to Januarius, Bishop of Caralis


This epistle is from Book IX of the Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great. As Gregory relates, law states that those who have entered a monastery can no longer make wills as all their property now must stay with the monastery. Having heard that the abbess Gavinia had attempted to leave some legacies, Gregory determines that, despite the fact that she has always refused to wear monastic dress, her property belongs to the monastery.


St. Gregory (b. 540 in Rome) was elected pope at the age of 50, serving from 590 to 604. In 14 years he accomplished much for the Church. England owes her conversion to him. At a period when the invasion of the barbarian Lombards created a new situation in Europe, he played a great part in winning them for Christ. At the same time, he watched equally over the holiness of the clergy and the maintenance of Church discipline, the temporal interests of his people of Rome and the spiritual interests of all Christendom. He removed unworthy priests from office, forbade the taking of money for many services, and emptied the papal treasury to ransom prisoners of the Lombards and to care for persecuted Jews and victims of plague and famine. Gregory also reformed the liturgy, and it still contains several of his most beautiful prayers. The name "Gregorian chant" recalls this great Pope's work in the development of the Church's music. His commentaries on Holy Scripture exercised a considerable influence on Christian thought in the Middle Ages. Following his death in 604, his numerous epistles, including the following letter, were compiled into the Papal Register of Letters.

by Gregory the Great in 590-604 | translated by James Barmby, D.d

Gregory to Januarius, &c.

It has been laid down by the plain definition of the law that those who go into a monastery for the purpose of entering on monastic life are no longer at liberty to make wills, but that their property passes into possession of the same monastery. This being known to almost all, we have been greatly surprised by the notification of Gavinia, abbess of the monastery of Saints Gavinus and Luxorius, to the effect that Sirica, abbess of her monastery, after receiving the office of government, had made a will leaving certain legacies. And when we enquired of the Solicitude of your Holiness why you endured that property belonging to the monastery should be detained by others, our common son Epiphanius, your archpresbyter, being present before us, replied that the said abbess had up to the day of her death refused to wear the monastic dress, but had continued in the use of such dresses as are used by the presbyteresses of that place. To this the aforesaid Gavinia replied that the practice had come to be almost lawful from custom, alleging that the abbess who had been before the above- written Sirica had used such dresses. When, then, we had begun to feel no small doubt with regard to the character of the dresses, it appeared necessary for us to consider with our legal advisers, as well as with other learned men of this city, what was to be done with regard to law. And they, having considered the matter, answered that, after an abbess had been solemnly ordained by the bishop, and had presided in the government of a monastery for many years until the end of her life, the character of her dress might attach blame to the bishop for having allowed it so to be, but still could not prejudice the monastery, but that her property of manifest right belongs to the same place from the time of her entering it and being constituted abbess. And so since she [i.e. the abbess Gavinia] asserts that a guest-house (xenadochium) retains possession unduly of the property unlawfully devised, we hereby exhort you, both the monastery and the guest- house itself being situate in your city, to make provision with all care and diligence, to the end that, if this possession is derived from no previous contract, but from the bequest of the said Sirica, it be restored to the said monastery without dispute or evasion. But, if by any chance it is said to have accrued from another contract, either let your Fraternity, having ascertained the truth between the parties, determine as legal order may seem to demand, or let them by mutual consent choose arbitrators, who may be able to decide between their allegations. And whatever be appointed by them, let it be so observed under your care that no grudge may remain between the venerable places, which ought by all means to be cherished in mutual peace and concord. Wherefore all other things which are detained under the will of the above-named Sirica, seeing that none of them is permitted by legal sanction, must needs be carefully restored to the possession of the monastery through the priestly care of your Fraternity: for it is plainly laid down by the imperial constitutions hat what has been done contrary to the laws should not only be inoperative, but also be held as not having been done at all.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (LNPF II/XIII, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.

To Fathers of the Church home page