Monday, 25 May 2009

St Gregory VII

Today is the Feast Day of St Gregory VII (c.1020-25th May 1085), Pope and Confessor. The greatest of all our Medieval Popes, he was a pious and courageous defender of the rights of the Church against a bullying secular world. I produce here a short history of the period and a ''biography'' of one of the greatest Men of all time.

Born Hildebrand, a name that amusingly signified ''bright flame'' to his friends, and ''brand of Hell'' to his enemies, in Tuscany, he was of very humble origins. His father is believed to have been a carpenter. At a young age he went to Rome to be educated by the monks of Santa Maria on the Avertine Hill; and it was here that he was first imbued with those high principles of pious reform of the Church, of which later in life he was a fearless exponent. On account of his knife-sharp administrative and political sense, Pope Gregory VI chose him as his chaplain, and so he shared in the Pontiff's exile in 1046. Hildebrand retired to Cluny on the Holy Father's death in 1047, and in 1049 returned to the Eternal City with Pope Leo IX, just elected Pontiff, and was soon created Cardinal-Subdeacon and was placed in charge of the Patrimony of St Peter's. Under the Pontificate of Leo IX, Hildebrand recovered much of the lost revenue of the Church, which had fallen into the hands of Roman nobility and the Normans. However, all of his pious deeds before he was elected Supreme Pontiff need not here be told.

In the Year of Our Lord 1073, Hildebrand was himself elected Supreme Pontiff to cries of: ''Blessed Peter has chosen Hildebrand the Archdeacon!'' and ascended the Apostolic Throne. He immediately went about securing his own position as Pontiff, and went to Southern Italy to negotiate treaties with the Normans. On returning to Rome, he set about that pious reform of the Church, already begun by his predecessors, with the aim not only of ridding the Church of the evils of Simony and Clerical inconstancy, but he also embarked on a quest for the libery and exaltation of the Church in practice by forbidding lay investiture of Ecclesiastical offices.

This may require some background explanation. In the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, the problem of lay control of the Church became particularly troublesome. The collapse of a central authority in Western Europe during this period, caused by relentless Viking and Muslim invasions, created a situation where rich landowners could extend their authority over churches, monasteries and even Episcopal sees. Thus, Priests, Religious and even Bishops could and were appointed not by the Church, but by laymen. Who has the authority to appoint Bishops? Kings or Popes?

But, St Gregory had little chance of bringing about the Gregorian Reform if he lacked the power to name the Bishops - a power that in the 11th century was being exercised wrongly by European princes. Besides, as long as laymen were naming priests, abbots and bishops, the moral decline of the Church would continue indefinately. St Gregory wrote of this woeful situation:

''The Eastern Church has fallen away from the Faith and is assailed on every side by infidels. Wherever I turn my eyes - to the west, to the north, or to the south - I find everywhere bishops who have obtained their office in an irregular way, whose lives and conversation are strangely at variance with their sacred calling; who go through their duties not for the love of Christ, but from motives of worldly gain.'' (From the Catholic Encyclopedia)

St Gregory's Lenten Synod of 1074 enacted the decrees that would eventually be obeyed, but at the time received considerable opposition from almost every corner of the West; especially in Germany. In Germany, the matter was fought with great bitterness on both the Church and secular sides, and King Henry IV convened a synod of the German bishops who in their insolence dared to depose Gregory. St Gregory countered this by excommunicating Henry in 1077. German magnates agreed then that Henry should loose his crown within a year unless he did penance for his sins. And so, this led to the famous confrontation at the castle of Canossa where Henry abased himself, and sought the intercession of Matilda, Countess of Tuscany; Henry spent three days in the snow, accused himself, and received absolution. However, his humility was feigned, and Henry was again excommunicated and deposed. The insolent German bishops in turn deposed St Gregory, and elected Antipope Clement III. Henry then marched on Rome and after a siege of more than two years, captured the Eternal City. St Gregory fled with the Normans, and retired in sorrow to the great Abbey of Monte Cassino, 80 miles south of Rome. He died in exile in Salerno on this day in 1085, uttering the famous words: Amavi iustiam et odivi iniquitatem; propterea, morior in exilio - I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile.

St Gregory VII, pray for us.

1 comment:

  1. Very informative. I will be interested to see the next installments on Ss. Philip Neri and Bede the Venerable.