Today is the feast of the great Hildebrand, Pope St. Gregory VII, famous for his role in the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century, and a wonderful ally of Pope St. Leo IX and St. Peter Damian in this effort.
His pontificate was consumed with the struggle against the great abuses of the era -- abuses supported by the secular leadership of the time. St. Gregory VII was resolute in his leadership. A bit of historical background, then.
Cardinal Hildebrand was unanimously chosen to follow Pope Alexander II, and he took the name St. Gregory VII (1073-1084) in 1073. His was to be a momentous pontificate: he would face a stubborn Emperor – the 22 year old Henry IV (reigned 1056-1105). Gregory fought a triple headed serpent throughout his pontificate: simony, clerical incontinence, and lay investiture. His enemies were many, and made up the leading men of Europe: especially Emperor Henry IV. His allies, the monks of the Cluniac monasteries, the Italian Normans, the Saxons of Germany, and countess Matilda of Tuscany – a Lombard Italian noble. Soon after becoming pope, Gregory held a synod at Rome – Lenten Synod of 1074 – which began the battle:
"Those who have been advanced to any grade of holy orders, or to any office, through simony, that is, by the payment of money, shall hereafter have no right to officiate in the holy church. Those also who have secured churches by giving money shall certainly be deprived of them. And in the future it shall be illegal for anyone to buy or to sell [any ecclesiastical office, position, etc.].
Nor shall clergymen who are married say mass or serve the altar in any way. We decree also that if they refuse to obey our orders, or rather those of the holy fathers, the people shall refuse to receive their ministrations, in order that those who disregard the love of God and the dignity of their office may be brought to their senses through feeling the shame of the world and the reproof of the people."
[Decree of Council at
With regard to incontinence, often the people themselves drove out violators of the pope’s command.
The simony and investiture, however, were harder to eradicate than clerical incontinency. The next year, 1075, Gregory held another synod, this one going after the most politically entrenched problem. He proclaimed the deposition of anyone who was guilty of lay investiture. The battle was set, for Henry IV (1056-1105) didn’t appreciate a papal letter urging his repentance. Henry was a talented, but brash and immoral, young Emperor, who freely bought and sold church offices. In December of 1075, Gregory warned and threatened the Emperor with excommunication if he didn’t reform and repent. That Christmas 1075, while saying Mass at Santa Maria Maggiore, Gregory was attacked and kidnapped, but soon released, and he immediately returned to finish the Mass. Henry’s reaction to the warning came in 1076, and it was to attempt to depose the pope, and send him a letter addressed to “Hildebrand, not Pope, but false monk.” The German bishops supported their Emperor. The dispute was clearly in earnest. Not surprisingly, Gregory VII responded with excommunication:
"O St. Peter, chief of the apostles, incline to us, I beg, thy holy ears, and hear me thy servant whom thou has nourished from infancy, and whom, until this day, thou hast freed from the hand of the wicked, who have hated and do hate me for my faithfulness to thee. Thou, and my mistress the mother of God, and thy brother St. Paul are witnesses for me among all the saints that thy holy Roman church drew me to its helm against my will; that I had no thought of ascending thy chair through force, and that I would rather have ended my life as a pilgrim than, by secular means, to have seized thy throne . for the sake of earthly glory. And therefore I believe it to be through thy grace and not through my own deeds that it has pleased and does please thee that the Christian people, who have been especially committed to thee, should obey me. And especially to me, as thy representative and by thy favour, has the power been granted by God of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth. On the strength of this belief therefore, for the honour and security of thy church, in the name of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I withdraw, through thy power and authority, from Henry the king, son of Henry the emperor, who has risen against thy church with unheard of insolence, the rule over the whole kingdom of the Germans and over Italy. And I absolve all Christians from the bonds of the oath which they have made or shall make to him; and I forbid any one to serve him as king. For it is fitting that he who strives to lessen the honour of thy church should himself lose the honour which belongs to him. And since he has scorned to obey as a Christian, and has not returned to God whom he had deserted-holding intercourse with the excommunicated; practising manifold iniquities; spurning my commands which, as thou dost bear witness, I issued to him for his own salvation; separating himself from thy church and striving to rend it-I bind him in thy stead with the chain of the anathema. And, leaning on thee, I so bind him that the people may know and have proof that thou art Peter, and above thy rock the Son of the living God hath built His church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."
[Gregory VII, Reg. III, No. 10 a, translated in Ernest F. Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, (London: George Bell and Sons, 1910), 376-377
Henry and Gregory at Canossa, by Carlo Emanuelle.
Gregory also released his subjects from their oaths of loyalty! The nobles responded – meeting in October 1076, and, with the papal legates, proclaimed that Henry should present himself the next Candlemas 1077 to the Pope for judgment, and as an excommunicate, could not rule. Henry made a memorable move – as the judgment in court would go badly for him – so he immediately went to the pope, and found him in the dead of winter at Canossa, in the Italy (Castle of Countess Matilda of Tuscany). For three days the emperor, “in the snow, barefoot, in penitential garb, holding a candle,” sought the forgiveness of the pope. Gregory wanted a court session, but could not refuse such a sign of repentance. Henry IV received absolution and Holy Communion from the hand of the pope. He promised to submit to the pope’s judgment, and allow the pontiff to come to Germany.
Henry, though, before he even left Italy, made alliances with Gregory’s enemies amongst the Lombards. The German nobles, for their part, chose a new King of Germany: Duke Rudolph of Swabia (Claim 1077-1080). A civil war followed, and Henry continued to trample the rights of the Church, earning him another excommunication in 1080! This was met with Henry elevating an anti-pope from Ravenna: “Clement III” (1080-1100). Rudolph was mortally wounded that October, and no one was left to challenge Henry in Germany. Henry actually marched on Rome several times, and in 1084, chased the pope into refuge at Castel Sant’Angelo. Though Robert Guiscard and the Italian Normans relieved the pope and drove Henry out, they ended up sacking the city, and Gregory was forced to flee. He died at Salerno in May 1085: “Dilexi justitiam et odivi iniquitatem: propterea morior in exilio.” The investiture struggle was not over yet, but the end was in sight.
For more of Pope St. Gregory VII, you should note:
Old Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Gregory VII
Patron Saints Index: St. Gregory VII
The coffin of Pope St. Gregory VII in Salerno, Italy.
St. Gregory VII is buried in the Cathderal of Salerno -- here is a link to their site: http://www.cattedraledisalerno.it/