25 May 2007

Pope St. Gregory VII and His Relevance Today

Today is the Feast Day of Pope St. Gregory VII. A review of his life, particularly his pontificate, shows that there is no new crisis facing the Church that she has not faced in different guise before. His approach to defending and upholding the Church worked then. Will it be, is it being, tried now? The rumored Motu Proprio concerning the Traditional Mass, the strong words of Pope Benedict concerning Islam, concerning the dangers of false ecumenism, concerning the necessary link between faith and civilization, and his forceful defense of the Church in Brazil and to the Italian Bishops-- are these the beginnings of necessary actions, or just isolated events? Time will tell.

Pope St. Gregory VII

One of the greatest of the Roman pontiffs and one of the most remarkable men of all times; born between the years 1020 and 1025, at Soana, or Ravacum, in Tuscany; died 25 May, 1085, at Salerno.


Prior to his pontificate, he headed monasteries and implemented Cluniac reforms (I will post on the chapter concerning Cluny tonight) He was a wise adviser to Popes and behind the establishment of the procedure of Papal election that allowed the college of Cardinals to select the new Pope. Once elected Pope, he sought to reform the Church in the face of intense clerical and episcopal opposition.


Once securely established on the Apostolic throne, Gregory made every effort to stamp out of the Church the two consuming evils of the age, simony and clerical incontinency, and, with characteristic energy and vigor, laboured unceasingly for the assertion of those lofty principles with which he firmly believed the welfare of Christ's Church and the regeneration of society itself to be inseparably bound up.


With admirable discernment, Gregory began his great work of purifying the Church by a reformation of the clergy. At his first Lenten Synod (March, 1074) he enacted the following decrees:

  • That clerics who had obtained any grade or office of sacred orders by payment should cease to minister in the Church.

  • That no one who had purchased any church should retain it, and that no one for the future should be permitted to buy or sell ecclesiastical rights.

  • That all who were guilty of incontinence should cease to exercise their sacred ministry.

  • That the people should reject the ministrations of clerics who failed to obey these injunctions.

Similar decrees had indeed been passed by previous popes and councils. Clement II, Leo IX, Nicholas II, and Alexander II had renewed the ancient laws of discipline, and made determined efforts to have them enforced. But they met with vigorous resistance, and were but partially successful.

The promulgation of Gregory's measures now, however, called forth a most violent storm of opposition throughout Italy, Germany, and France. And the reason for this opposition on the part of the vast throng of immoral and simoniacal clerics is not far to seek. Much of the reform thus far accomplished had been brought about mainly through the efforts of Gregory; all countries had felt the force of his will, the power of his dominant personality. His character, therefore, was a sufficient guarantee that his legislation would not be suffered to remain a dead letter. In Germany, particularly, the enactments of Gregory aroused a feeling of intense indignation.


The greater number of bishops received their instructions with manifest indifference, and some openly defied the pope. ... In France the excitement was scarcely less vehement than in Germany. A council at Paris, in 1074, condemned the Roman decrees, as implying that the validity of the sacraments depended on the sanctity of the minister, and declared them intolerable and irrational. John, Archbishop of Rouen, while endeavouring to enforce the canon of celibacy at a provincial synod, was stoned and had to flee for his life. Walter, Abbot of Pontoise, who attempted to defend the papal enactments, was imprisoned and threatened with death. ...

But the zeal of Gregory knew no abatement. He followed up his decrees by sending legates into all quarters, fully empowered to depose immoral and simoniacal ecclesiastics.


In his efforts to enforce ecclesiastical discipline, Gregory has repeated difficulties in dealing with the erratic, and strong-willed Henry IV. Henry would vacillate between outright opposition to the Pope, including taking military action, and periodic penitence. The famous episode at the castle of Canossa, where Henry, after long journey, was left to do penance on the castle doorstep for three days before Gregory agreed to lift censure, is worth reading in its own right. However, the great antagonist eventually rebelled, drove on Rome, and forced St. Gregory into exile and caused the "election" of an anti-pope.


Disappointed and sorrowing he withdrew to Monte Cassino, and later to the castle of Salerno by the sea, where he died in the following year. Three days before his death he withdrew all the censures of excommunication that he had pronounced, except those against the two chief offenders--Henry and [the anti-pope].

His last words were: "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile."

His body was interred in the church of Saint Matthew at Salerno. He was beatified by Gregory XIII in 1584, and canonized in 1728 by Benedict XIII.


St. Gregory's last words should be the words of every Christian living in the world. We are in the world but not of it. We are exiles and strangers. May we love justice and hate iniquity.

St. Gregory, pray for us.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Pope Gregory was a most excellent pope,

EWTN has a series called the Glory of the Papacy and they did two programs dedicated to him,

Check it out if you get a chance