chapter thirty seven

The lasting impact of a Pope and Saint named Hildebrand: Pope Saint Gregory VII

As we detailed in the past several issues, four Popes since Pope Saint Leo IX in 1049 had been under the wise counsel of a holy man who the newly-formed College of Cardinals finally realized was the only choice for supreme pontiff upon the death of Pope Alexander IIon April 21, 1073. Thus, the next morning the holy man Hildebrand, the monk from Tuscany, who had greatly influenced the curia in the reform movement as secretary to five popes, was unanimously selection as the one hundred and fifty seventh successor to Peter. Hildebrand chose the name Pope Gregory VII in deference to the last Gregory Pope Gregory VI who had bestowed minor orders on the young Hildebrand as the new pontiff's mentor in 1046. During his years as mentor to the Popes this saintly and knowing monk had played a vital role in the establishment of two of the Church's great mainstays today in the governmental aspect of episcopal affairs: Canon Law and the College of Cardinals. Though he was chosen on April 22, 1073, it's interesting to note that the new Gregory purposely delayed his consecration until June 30. This was not, as many surmised, for the purpose of receiving the German imperial blessing, but rather Gregory's own desire to wait for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul for Hildebrand had a deep veneration toward these two special Apostles. With this feast accomplished, Gregory set into motion a program of reform that was far and beyond any curriculum his successors had proposed. Despite his wise counsel to the popes who went before him, Gregory could not fully implement the reforms until he had total command of the curia. Now that he was in charge he defined the true papal role in the Church as it had never been done before. It was his life-long crusade to rid the church of all evils that existed and restore Holy Mother Church to her ancient stature as the glorious leader of Christian morals. He realized his reforms would be met with resistance, especially for those with imperial allegiances, but he was prepared for that as well. He issued a decree that pure doctrine could only be conveyed and preserved through governmental law within the Church and that all of the laws of the Church would be collected into a concise volume termed the Dictatus Papae for all the clergy to not only follow, but disseminate to the faithful. At the forefront of this reform was the fact that total obedience to Holy Mother Church was paramount for every Catholic in the world. He reiterated that the supreme pontiff of Rome is universal and that no one can judge him, but that the pope alone can dispense vows. In 1074 and again the next year Gregory held two Lenten synods in which he implemented many of these reforms as well as setting down stringent standards for "the purification of the higher clergy." As expected, Germany and France resisted, many of their bishops balking at the strict measures on celibacy laid out. Over the years, especially in those two western lands, many unworthy men had been ordained and were not only not leading exemplary lives, but taking the faithful down the wrong road. But Gregory VII was a strong man. Buoyed by the strength of the Holy Spirit to see him through this ordeal, Gregory was ready for their onslaught and held another Roman synod in which he threatened suspension of any bishop who did not comply fully with Rome. He employed Papal legates to ensure they were in full compliance and new bishops had to take an episcopal oath of loyalty. He also insisted that all bishops make a mandatory visit to the Holy See in Rome at specific intervals, a practice that still remains today in the ad limina visits of all bishops. Gregory set up the Lateran synods in a format that would evolve into general councils in the future.

It was inevitable that the Holy Roman Empire would not cater to Gregory's reforms for it meant first and foremost that the bishops would forevermore be loyal first to Rome, then to their territories. This meant the abolition of royal control of bishops by the kings and other imperial houses and greatly threatened the feudal system which had elevated unworthy men to high positions to the dismay of many others who were forced into vassaldom and slavery, as it were. Germany was the loudest protester, not only because the imperial line of Henry had been the closest to Rome, but the fallout from Alexander II's condemnation of King Henry IV's lay investiture policies. In late January 1076 at the diet of Worms, Henry IV retaliated by denouncing the "evil deeds of the monk Hildebrand" and deposed Gregory. Gregory would have none of that and followed in kind by excommunicating the German king at the Lenten synod of 1076. In like manner, Gregory pronounced that any bishop who remained loyal to Henry as king would be either suspended or, worse, excommunicated. Henry lashed back but could see his support by the bishops and, consequently, the people, slipping away. This also opened the door for his opponents to gain a tighter rein on the political climate of Germany. They demanded he submit to the holy pontiff for it was expedient at that moment in history for these "up-and-coming" princes to throw their support behind the Pope. They called for a council at Augsburg to be held in February of 1077 and summoned Gregory VII to be there. Henry could see the handwriting on the wall. Fearing he would be deposed by his own people he panicked and decided to intercept the pontiff before he could reach Augsburg. Thus, with his kingdom in disarray, Henry IV was given no choice but to seek reconciliation with the Holy Father, coming under the guise of a humbled-man to the pontiff in the snow-covered mountains at Canossa in the Alps in January 1077 hoping to distinguish the dreaded bell, book and candle, not because of sincere repentance but because it was politically expedient. Knowing the mind-set of Henry, Gregory refused for three days to see the German king, but realized that it was also his pastoral duty to be available for all and relented. It was a case of Gregory not sitting in judgment as to the state of a man's soul but being all he could be as a shepherd. After agreeing to all the stipulations Gregory established, the king agreed and was pardoned and readmitted into the Church. His life in the sacraments wasn't as important to Henry as the fact he could regain his kingdom. Gregory surmised as much but gave him the benefit of the doubt praying for God's healing graces. Rather than being received victoriously when he returned to Germany, there was a mix of resentment and pity. Some German princes saw Henry's vow that he would never relent and his ensuing repentance in the next breath as a sign of weakness and railed that he had intercepted the Holy Father preventing Gregory from reaching Augsburg. Thus they rebelled, electing an antiking in the person of Rudolf of Swabia at Augsburg two months after the meeting in Canossa. It was the beginning of a three year civil war in Germany that would not only be violent and deadly, but throw Henry into disfavor with Rome once again. As we have seen from his actions, Henry IV did not have the strength and conviction of character that his father, grandfather and great grandfather possessed. Gregory, knowing instintively that Henry was not sincere, sought to remain neutral in his mediations between the antiking and Henry, but when Henry, a rogue in his own right, broke every promise Gregory had demanded, he had no choice but to once again excommunicate Henry and this time depose him as king, recognizing Rudolf as the legitimate ruler in Germany at the Lenten synod of 1080.

Henry VI went ballistic, convening a council of his imperial bishops at Brixen on June 25, 1080 in which he persuaded the episcopal body to depose Gregory and elect their own pontiff - the antipope Clement III who was Guibert of Ravena. Henry felt he held the upper hand and this proud man relished the opportunity to confront Gregory. Henry had taken this action as a measure of regaining control of his empire and would stop at nothing to accomplish his goal. However he did not realize who he was facing for Gregory would not back down. Henry went to extremes and invaded Rome in 1084, taking the city by storm and placing the antipope Clement III on the throne. Gregory VII took refuge in Castel Sant' Angelo above the Tiber. Supporters sent word to the Norman Robert Guiscard in southern Italy. The latter corralled every soldier of fortune and Saracen available and marched on Rome, defeating Henry. However not all was kosher in Rome for it was out of the fire of Henry's threat and into the frying pan of Saracen sacking, pillaging and plundering every inch of the eternal city. It was so bad Gregory fled to the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. When the Saracens threatened to attack the famed abbey, Gregory decided to move further south to protect his fellow monks there and seek protection under the Normans. There in the city of Salerno, physically exhausted he became seriously ill. Despite pending death Gregory remained undaunted in spirit, not truly realizing the indelible mark he had left on the Church he so loved. On May 25th, 1085 God called this saintly pontiff home. Just before expiring, Gregory is quoted as saying, "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exhile." He accepted his inevitable death in a manner befitting a saint, pardoning all his enemies and absolving all those he had excommunicated save for Henry and Clement III who falsely sat in the chair Gregory VII had represented so well. He had so hoped to eradicate evil through his zeal and reforms but satan was once again running amok. All he had effected during his twelve year reign seemed for naught in the face of what was happening in his beloved Rome with the antipope on the throne and Henry once again making noise. Yet it was left to the rich history of the Church to truly evaluate all Gregory VII had accomplished and set in motion. Though many within the curia regarded him as a saint he was not officially recognized thus until 1606 when he was elevated to sainthood by Pope Paul V.

Throughout his papacy, Gregory's actions and power were brought into question by many who wanted to follow their own agendas rather than God's Will and the Pope pointed this out, arguing successfully for the Petrine powers as set down by Christ Himself when he told the Apostle, "Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven" (Matthew 16: 18-19). Gregory knew that the power Jesus spoke of to bind and loose was meant for all, no one was exempt and that the decisions to bind and loose were the Pope's as the rightful successor to Peter. Gregory was merely enforcing Christ's command. These Petrine powers had been watered down but it was left to Gregory to bring them in line with the way it was meant to be. A scholar, theologian and holy man, Gregory realized the full scope of this and carried out the right of the holy pontiff to dispose of all property which included kingdoms and the riches of men - all men including kings and princes for they were just as much a part of the flock as anyone else and, because of that, bound to be obedient to the Pope. Gregory felt strongly that a king should be benevolent and was placed in that position by the grace of God for good in an effort to quell any evil within their respective kingdoms. When they violated this trust then they no longer deserved the privilege of royalty and the Pope, as God's diplomat, had the responsibility to replace them with someone not only more competent, but in full alliance with God's Will. His policies have been called the Magna Carta of medieval Christianity. Gregory never set himself above kings but rather equal in the eyes of God. He reiterated over and over the passage from Luke 12: 48, "But of everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and of him to whom they have entrusted much, they will demand more." He held himself accountable before God just as he held the kings accountable. He likened his view of pontiff and king as two eyes in the body. Both were vital with neither more important than the other but both equally necessary to oversee their rightful subjects.

Though the struggles with the German imperial house seemed to overshadow and interfere with Gregory's papacy, this saintly man accomplished much in his evangelization efforts, strengthening the Church in Poland, Russia, and Hungary to the east; England, Denmark, France and Spain to the west. In the Middle East Gregory, early in his pontificate, had wanted to organize a military crusade to retake holy territory in the Middle East where the Seljuk Turks had flaunted the Eastern Schism and greatly curtailed the Roman Catholic traditions there. But his problems with Henry VI delayed those plans. In fact, many do not realize that it was Gregory VII who instituted the concept of Crusade in the scope of bringing the faith and defending the faith in foreign lands where once the faith thrived but was now in pagan hands. Though he was ahead of his time, Gregory VII planted the seeds for the great crusades to the Holy Lands that would both glorify the Church and frustrate her efforts over the next several centuries as we shall see in future installments. This installment was dedicated to the papacy of just one pope because of the impact Gregory VII played in the History of the Mass and Holy Mother Church, replacing the Mozarabic rite in Spain with the Roman rite and setting fixed Ember days for fasting throughout the universal Church.

In the next installment we shall finish out the eleventh century and the aftermath of all Gregory instituted as the Holy See returns to normal with two succeeding popes who were called Blessed.