Pope St. Gregory VII

(1020? - 1085 A.D.)

St. Gregory VII, often referred to by his baptismal name Hildebrand, was one of the great reformers of the Middle Ages.

Born in Tuscany, this talented youth was sent to Rome to be educated under the supervision of his priest-uncle. In 1045, John Gratian, one of Hildebrand’s professors at the Lateran school, was elected pope, and chose him as his secretary. John (Gregory VI) resigned the papacy after a year. His former secretary, glad to unshoulder administrative labors, became a monk. But he did not long enjoy the peace of the monastery, for in 1049 the newly elected Pope St. Leo IX called him back to serve as his business manager. The next four popes renewed the appointment. Willy-nilly, Hildebrand was stuck in administration. Indeed, he became the power behind the papal throne.

When Pope Alexander II died in 1073, Hildebrand, because of his worth and experience, was the obvious choice to succeed him. He accepted, taking the name Gregory VII, but he did so with trepidation. The Church in Europe was then at low ebb. The clergy widely ignored the rule of celibacy, and simony (the “sale” of church positions) was rampant. Gregory quickly enacted new laws and enforced old ones intended to suppress such abuses. But it was necessary also that he chop out the root of these evils, namely, the pretense of civil rulers that they had a right to appoint bishops and other church officials.

As long as political features exerted that control, their appointees were liable to be unworthy, self-seeking men. Consequently, in 1075, Gregory issued a decree forbidding any rulers to invest clerics in church office.

Of course, the European rulers reacted violently to the decree. The loudest to protest was Henry IV, the young, canny and avaricious Holy Roman Emperor. He answered the pope by stirring up anti-papal clerics and laymen against him. These staged a revolt in Rome at midnight Mass on Christmas 1075, seized Gregory, and held him prisoner for several hours. Henry then announced that he intended to oust the pope in favor of a bishop of his own choosing.

But Henry had gone too far. When Gregory excommunicated him, releasing his subjects from their feudal oaths of allegiance, the German nobles threatened the emperor with deposition if he had not made peace with Gregory before February 1076. Now, Henry had a keen sense of public reactions. Taking the initiative, he crossed the Alps in midwinter with his empress and child and only one servant, and sought out the pope, who was visiting at Canossa in northern Italy. Dressed in penitential garb, he stood before the castle of Canossa for three cold days, begging Gregory to absolve him. The pope, with good reason, doubted the emperor’s sincerity, but finally had to grant his petition. It was a melodramatic episode in human history.

The German nobles nevertheless deposed Henry in 1077, and elected in his place Rudolph of Swabia. However, when Rudolph died two years later, Henry renewed his revolt against the pope, naming a pope of his own, Guibert of Revenna. Gregory re-imposed the excommunication, whereupon Henry led his army against Rome and after a siege of three years, occupied it. The pope sought refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo, until his rescue by the forces of Robert Guiscard, the Norman Duke of Calabria. But Guiscard’s troops so misbehaved that the Romans drove them out as well, and the pope, for safety’s sake, had to go back with the Normans to southern Italy. Thirteen of his cardinals now rebelled against him. The pontiff, failing in health of late, died at Salerno, near Naples. In his last moments, he said (adapting Psalm 44) “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity; that is why I die in exile.” This strong but generous pope had already forgiven his enemies and lifted the excommunications of all but the impenitent Henry and his antipope.

St. Gregory, in a turbulent era, had envisioned a purified Church, and worked all his priestly life to achieve it. He died before his vision became a reality, but the movement for reform that he launched eventually succeeded.

--Father Robert F. McNamara