Today is the feast day of Saint Gregory VII. Ora pro nobis.
(by Fr. Prosper Gueranger 1870)
Our Easter Calendar has already given us the two great Popes, Leo the Great and Pius the Fifth; it bids us, today, pay honour to the glorious memory of Gregory the Seventh. These three names represent the action of the Papacy, dating from the period of the Persecutions. The mission divinely put upon the successors of St. Peter, is this: the maintaining intact the truths of Faith, and the defending the Liberty of the Church. St. Leo courageously and eloquently asserted the ancient Faith, which was called in question by the heretics of those days; St. Pius the Fifth stemmed the torrent of the so-called Reformation, and delivered Christendom from the yoke of Mahometanism; St. Gregory the Seventh came between these two, and saved society from the greatest danger it had so far incurred, and restored the purity of Christian morals by restoring the Liberty of the Church.
The end of the 10th, and the commencement of the 11th, Century, was a period that brought upon the Church of Christ one of the severest trials she has ever endured. The two great scourges of Persecution and Heresy had subsided; they were followed by that of Barbarism. The impulse given to civilization by Charlemagne was checked early in the 9th Century; the Barbarian element had been but suppressed, and broke out again with renewed violence. Faith was still vigorous among the people, but, of itself, it could not triumph over the depravity of morals. The Feudal system had produced anarchy throughout the whole of Europe; anarchy created social disorder, and this, in its turn, occasioned the triumph of might and licentiousness over right. Kings and Princes were no longer kept in check by the power of the Church; for, Rome herself being a prey to factions, unworthy or unfit men were but too frequently raised to the Papal Throne.
The 11th Century came; its years were rapidly advancing; and there seemed no remedy for the disorders it had inherited. Bishoprics had fallen a prey to the secular power, which set them up for sale and the first requisite for a candidate to a Prelacy was, that he should be a vassal subservient to the Ruler of the nation, ready to supply him with means for prosecuting war. The Bishops being thus, for the most part, simoniacal, as St. Peter Damian tells us they were, what could be expected from the inferior Clergy, but scandals? The climax of these miseries was, that ignorance increased with each generation, and threatened to obliterate the very notion of duty. There was an end to both Church and society, had it not been for the promise of Christ, that he would never abandon His own Work.
In order to remedy these evils, in order to dispel all this mist of ignorance, Rome was to be raised from her state of degradation. She needed a holy and energetic Pontiff, whose consciousness of having God on his side would make him heedless of opposition and difficulties; a Pontiff, whose reign should be long enough to make his influences felt, and encourage his successors to continue the work of reform. This was the mission of St. Gregory the Seventh.
This mission was prepared for by holiness of life: it is always so with those whom God destines to be the instruments of his greatest works. Gregory, or, as he was then called, Hildebrand, left the world, and became a Monk of the celebrated Monastery of Cluny, in France. It was there, and in the two thousand Abbeys which were affiliated with it, that were alone to be then found zeal for the Liberty of the Church, and the genuine traditions of the Monastic life. It was there, that, for upwards of a hundred years, and under the four great Abbots, Odo, Maiolus, Odilo and Hugh, God had been secretly providing for the regeneration of Christian morals. Yes, we may well say secretly, for no one would have thought that the instruments of the holiest of Reforms were to be found in those Monasteries, which existed in almost every part of Europe, and had affiliated with Cluny for no other motive, than because Cluny was the sanctuary of every monastic virtue. It was to Cluny itself that Hildebrand fled, when he left the world; he felt sure that he would find there a shelter from the scandals that then prevailed.
The illustrious Abbot Hugh was not long in discovering the merits of his new disciple, and the young Italian was made Prior of the great French Abbey. A stranger came, one day, to the gate of the Monastery, and sought hospitality. It was Bruno, Bishop of Toul, who had been nominated Pope by the Emperor Henry 3rd. Hildebrand could not restrain himself, on seeing this new candidate for the Apostolic See, of this Pope, whom Rome, which alone has the right to choose its own Bishop, had neither chosen nor heard of. He plainly told Bruno that he must not accept the Keys of heaven from the hand of an Emperor, who was bound in conscience to submit to the canonical election of the Holy City. Bruno, who was afterwards St. Leo the Ninth, humbly acquiesced to the advice given him by the Prior of Cluny, and both set out for Rome. The elect of the Emperor became the elect of the Roman Church, and Hildebrand prepared to return to Cluny; but the new Pontiff would not hear of his departure, and obliged him to accept the title and duties of Archdeacon of the Roman Church.
This high post would soon have raised him to the Papal Throne, had he wished it; but Hildebrand’s only ambition was to break the fetters that kept the Church from being free, and prepare the reform of Christendom. The influence he had, he used in procuring the election, canonical and independent of imperial favour, of Pontiffs who were willing and determined to exercise their authority for the extirpation of scandals. After St. Leo the Ninth, came Victor the Second, Stephen the Ninth, Nicholas the Second, and Alexander the Second, all of whom were worthy of their exalted position. But he who had thus been the very soul of the Pontificate under five Popes, had, at length, to accept the Tiara himself. His noble heart was afflicted at the presentiment of the terrible contests that awaited him; but his refusals, his endeavours to evade the heavy burthen of solicitude for all the Churches, were unavailing; and the new Vicar of Christ was made known to the world, under the name of Gregory the Seventh. “Gregory” means vigilance; and never did man better realize the name.
He had to contend with brute force personified in a daring and crafty Emperor, whose life was stained with every sort of crime, and who held the Church in his grasp, as a vulture does its prey. In no part of the Empire would a Bishop be allowed to hold his See, unless he had received investiture from the Emperor, by the ring and crosier. Such was Henry the Fourth of Germany; and his example encouraged the other Princes of the Empire to trample on the liberty of canonical elections by the same iniquitous measures. The twofold scandal of simony and incontinence was still frequent among the clergy. Gregory’s immediate predecessors had, by courageous zeal, checked the evil; but not one of them had ventured to confront the fomenter of all these abuses, the Emperor. That great contest, with its perils and anxieties, was left for Gregory; and history tells us how fearlessly he accepted it.
The first three years of his Pontificate were, however, comparatively tranquil. Gregory treated the youthful Emperor with great kindness, out of regard for his father, who had deserved well of the Church. He wrote him several Letters, in which he gave him good advice, or affectionately expressed his confidence in the future. Henry did not allow that confidence to last long. Aware that he had to deal with a Pope whom no intimidation could induce to swerve from duty, he thought it prudent to wait a while, and watch the course of events. But the restraint was unbearable; the torrent had but swollen by the self-imposed check; the enemy of the spiritual power gave full vent to his passion. Bishoprics and Abbeys were again sold for the benefit of the imperial revenue. Gregory excommunicated the simoniacal prelates; and Henry, imprudently defying the censures of the Church, persisted in keeping in their posts men who were resolved to follow him in all his crimes. Gregory addressed a solemn warning to the Emperor, enjoining him to withdraw his support from the excommunicated Prelate, under penalty of himself incurring the bans of the Church. Henry, who had thrown off the mask, and thought he might afford to despise the Pontiff, was unexpectedly made to tremble for the security of his throne by the revolt of Saxony, in which several of the Electors of the Empire joined. He felt that a rupture with the Church, at such a critical time, might be fatal. He turned suppliant, besought Gregory to absolve him, and made an abjuration of his past conduct in the presence of two Legates, sent by the Pontiff into Germany. But scarcely had the perjured Monarch gained a temporary triumph over the Saxons, than he recommenced hostilities with the Church. In an assembly of Bishops, worthy of their imperial master, he presumed to pronounce sentence of deposition against Gregory. He, shortly afterwards, entered Italy with his army; and this gave to scores of Prelates an opportunity for openly declaring rebellion against the Pope, who would not tolerate their scandalous lives.
Then did Gregory, in whose hands were placed those Keys, which signify the Power of loosing and binding in heaven and on earth, pronounce against Henry the terrible sentence which declared him to be deprived of his crown and to have forfeited the allegiance of his subjects. To this the Pontiff added the still heavier anathema; he declared him to be cut off from the communion of the Church. By thus setting himself as a rampart of defence to Christendom, which was threatened on all sides with tyranny and persecution, Gregory drew down upon himself the vengeance of every wicked passion; and even Italy was far from being as loyal to him, as he had a right to expect her to be. More than one of the princes of the Peninsula sided with Henry; and as to the simoniacal Prelates, they looked on him as their defender against the sword of Peter. It seemed as though Gregory would soon not have a spot in Italy whereon he could set his foot in safety; but God, Who never abandons His Church, raised up an avenger of his cause. Tuscany, and part of Lombardy, were, at that time, governed by the young and brave countess Matilda.
This noble-hearted woman stood up in defense of the Vicar of Christ. She offered her wealth and her army to the Holy See, that it might make use of them as it thought best, as long as she lived; and as to her possessions, she willed them to St. Peter and his Successors. Matilda, then, became a check to the Emperor’s prosperity in crime. Her influence in Italy was still strong enough to procure a refuge for the heroic Pontiff, where he could be safe from the Emperor’s power. He was enabled by her management to reach Canossa, a strong fortress near Reggio. At the same time, Henry was alarmed by news of a fresh revolt in Saxony, in which more than one feudal lord of the Empire took part, with a view to dethrone the haughty and excommunicated tyrant. Fear again took possession of his mind, and prompted him to recur to perjury. The spiritual power marred his sacrilegious plans; and he flattered himself, that, by offering a temporary atonement, he could soon renew the attack.
He went barefooted and unattended to Canossa, garbed as a penitent, shedding hypocrite tears, and suing for pardon. Gregory had compassion on his enemy, and readily yielded to the intercession made for him by Hugh of Cluny and Matilda. He took off the excommunication, and restored Henry to the pale of holy Church; but thought it would be premature to revoke the sentence, whereby he had deprived him of his rights as Emperor. The Pontiff contented himself with announcing his intention of assisting at the Diet which was to be held in Germany; there he would take cognizance of the grievances brought against Henry by the Princes of the Empire, and then decide what was just.
Henry accepted every condition, took his oath on the Gospel, and returned to his army. He felt his hopes rekindle within him at every step he took from that dreaded fortress, within whose walls he had been compelled to sacrifice his pride to his ambition. He reckoned on finding support from the bad passions of others, and, to a certain extent, his calculation was verified. Such a man was sure to come to a miserable end; but Satan was too deeply interested in his success, to refuse him his support.
Meanwhile, Henry met with a rival in Germany: it was Rodolph, duke of Suabia, who, in a Diet of the Electors of the Empire, was proclaimed Henry’s successor. Faithful to his principles of justice, Gregory refused, at first, to recognize the newly elected, although his devotedness to the Church and his personal qualifications were such as to make him most worthy of the throne. The Pontiff persisted on hearing both sides, that is, the Princes and representatives of the Empire, and Henry himself; this done, he would put an end to the dispute by an equitable judgment. Rodolph strongly urged his claims, and importuned the Pontiff to recognize them; but Gregory, though he loved the Duke, courageously refused his demand, assuring him that his cause should be tried at the Diet which Henry had bound himself, by his oath at Canossa, to stand by, though he had good reasons to fear its results. Three years passed on, during which the Pontiff’s patience and forbearance were continually and severely tried by Henry’s systematic subterfuge, and refusal to give guarantees against his further molesting the Church. At length, after using every means in his power to put an end to the wars that ravaged Italy and Germany, and after Henry had given unmistakable proofs that he was impenitent and a perjurer, the Pontiff renewed the excommunication, and, in a Council held at Rome, confirmed the sentence, whereby he had declared him deposed of his crown. At the same time, Gregory ratified Rodolph’s election, and granted the Apostolic benediction to his adherents.
Henry’s rage was at its height, and his vengeance threw off all restraint. Among the Italian prelates who had sided with the tyrant, the foremost in subserviency and ambition was Guibert, Archbishop of Ravenna, and, of course, there was no bitterer enemy to the Holy See. Henry made an Anti-pope of this traitor, under the name of Clement the Third. He had his party; and thus Schism was added to the other trials that afflicted the Church. It was one of those terrible periods, when, according to the expression of the Apocalypse, it was given unto the Beast to make war with the Saints, and to overcome them (Apoc xiii. 7). The Emperor suddenly became victorious: Rodolph was slain fighting in Germany, and Matilda’s army was defeated in Italy. Henry had then but one wish, and he determined to realize it: enter Rome, banish Gregory, and set his Anti-pope on the Chair of St. Peter.
What were the feelings of our Saint in the midst of this deluge of iniquity, from which, however, the Church was to rise purified and free? Let us listen to him, describing them in a letter written to his former Abbot, St. Hugh of Cluny. “The troubles which have come upon us are such, that even they that are living with us, not only cannot endure them, but cannot even bear to look at them. The holy king David said: According to the multitude of my sorrows in my heart, thy consolations have given joy to my soul (Ps. xciii. 19): whereas to us, life is often a burthen to us, and death a happiness that we sigh for. When Jesus, that loving Consoler, true God and true Man, deigns to stretch out his hand to me, His goodness brings back joy to my afflicted heart; but when He leaves me, immediately my trouble is extreme. Of myself, I am for ever dying; but in so far as He is with me, there are times when I live. When my strength wholly leaves me, I cry out to Him, saying with a mournful voice: ‘If thou hadst put a burthen as heavy as this on Moses or Peter, they would, methinks, have sunk beneath it. What, then, can be expected of me, who, compared to them, am nothing? Thou hast then, O Lord, but one thing to do: Thou thyself, with thine Apostle Peter, must govern the Pontificate thou hast imposed on me; else thou wilt find me sink beneath the load, and the Pontificate, in my person, be disgraced (Data Romae, nonis Maii, Indictione 1).'”
These words of heartfelt grief depict the whole character of the sainted Pontiff. The one great object of his life, was the reformation of society by the Liberty of the Church. It was nothing but his zeal in such a cause that could have made him face this terrible situation, from which he had nothing to look for, in this life, but heart-rending vexations. And yet, Gregory was that Father of the Christian world who, from the very commencement of his Pontificate, was full of the thought of driving the Mahometans out of Europe, and of delivering the Christians from the yoke of the Saracens. It was the inspiration taken up by his successors, and carried out under the name of the Crusades. In a Letter addressed to all the Faithful, our Saint thus speaks of the enemy of the Christian name, whom he describes as being at the very gates of Constantinople, committing every kind of outrage and cruelty.
“If we love God, if we call ourselves Christians, we must grieve over such evils; but we should do more than grieve over them. Our Saviour’s example and the duty of fraternal charity impose upon us the obligation of giving our lives for the deliverance of our fellow-Christians. Know, then, that trusting in the mercy of God and in the might of his arm, we are doing and preparing everything in our power, in order to give immediate help to the Christian Empire (Data Romae, Kalendis Martii, Indictione 12).” He shortly afterwards wrote to Henry, who, at that time, had not shown his hostile intentions against the Church. “My admonition to the Christians of Italy and the countries beyond the Alps has been favourably received. At this moment, fifty thousand men are preparing; and, if they can have me to head the expedition as leader and Pontiff, they are willing to march to battle against the enemies of God, and, with the divine assistance, to go even to our Lord’s Sepulchre.” Thus, despite his advanced age, the noble-minded Pontiff was willing to put himself at the head of the Christian army. “There is,” says he, “one thing which urges me to do this: it is the state of the Church of Constantinople, which is separated from us in what regards the dogma of the Holy Ghost, and which must be brought back to union with the Apostolic See. Almost the whole of Armenia has abandoned the Catholic Faith. In a word, the greater portion of the Orientals require to know what is the faith of Peter, on the various questions which are being mooted among them. The time is come for using the grace bestowed, by our merciful Redeemer, on Peter, when he thus spoke to him: I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith may not fail: do thou confirm thy brethren (St. Luke, xxii. 32). Our Fathers, in whose footsteps we would walk, though we be unworthy to be their successors, have more than once visited those countries, that they might confirm the Catholic Faith. We, then, also feel urged, if Christ open to us a way, to undertake this expedition, for the interests of the Faith, and in order to give aid to the Christians.”
With his characteristic good faith, Gregory went so far as to reckon on Henry’s protecting the Church, during his absence. “This design,” says he, in the same Letter to the Emperor, “requires much counsel and powerful co-operation, in case God permits us to attempt it: I therefore come to you, asking you for this counsel and co-operation, and hope you will grant me them. If, by divine favour, I go, it is to you, after God, that I leave the Roman Church, that you may watch over her as a holy mother, and protect her from insult. Let me know, as soon as may be, what, in your prudence, aided by God’s counsel, you decide on. If I had not greater confidence in you than people suppose, I should not have written this to you; but as it may happen that you may not fully believe I have the affection for you that I profess, I appeal to the Holy Spirit who can do all things. I beseech him to make you understand, in His own way, how attached I am to you; and that he may so guide your soul, as to disappoint the desires of the wicked and strengthen the hopes of the good (Data Romae, 7 Idus Decembris, Indictione 13).”
The interview at Canossa took place in less than three years from the date of the above Letter; but at the time he wrote it, Gregory’s hopes for carrying out the expedition were so well grounded, that he acquainted the Countess Matilda with his intention. He wrote to her as follows. “The matter which engrosses my thoughts, and the desire I have to cross the seas in order to give succour to the Christians, who are being slain as brute beasts by the Pagans, makes me seem strange to many people, and I fear they think me guilty of a sort of levity. But it costs me nothing to confide it to you, my dearly beloved daughter, whose prudence I esteem more than words could express. After you have perused the Letters which I am sending to the countries beyond the Alps, if you have any advice to offer, or, what is better, any aid to give to the cause of God your Creator, exert yourself to the utmost; for if, as men say, it be a grand thing to die for one’s country, it is grander and nobler to sacrifice this mortal flesh of ours for Christ, who is Eternal Life. I feel convinced that many soldiers will aid us in this expedition. I have grounds for believing that our Empress (Agnes, the saintly mother of Henry) intends going with us, and would fain take you with her. Your mother (the Countess Beatrice) will remain here in Italy, to protect our common interests; and all things thus arranged, we shall, with Christ’s help, be enabled to set out. By coming hither to satisfy her devotion, the Empress, ” especially if she have you to help her, will doubtless encourage many to join in this enterprise. As for me, honoured with the company of such noble sisters, I will willingly cross the seas, ready to lay down my life for Christ with you, from whom I would not be separated in our eternal country. Send me a speedy answer upon this project, as also regarding your coming to Rome. And may the Almighty God bless you, and give you to advance from virtue to virtue, that thus the common Mother may rejoice in you for many long years to come (16 December, 1074. Jaffe. Monumenta Gregoriana, page 532)! “
The project on which Gregory set his heart with so much earnestness, was not a mere scheme suggested by his own greatness of soul; it was a presentiment infused into his mind by God. The troubles he had nearer home, and which he so heroically combated, left him no time for a long expedition; he had to engage with an enemy who was not a Turk, but a Christian. S till, the Crusade so dear to his heart was not far off. Urban the Second, his second successor, and, like himself, a Monk of Cluny, was soon to arouse Christian Europe, and give battle to the Infidels. But as this subject has led us to mention Matilda’s name, we take the opportunity thus afforded us, of entering more fully into the character of our great Pontiff. We shall find, that this illustrious champion of the Church’s Liberty, with all his elevation of purpose, and all his untiring zeal in what concerned the interests of Christendom, was as solicitous about the spiritual advancement of a single soul as any Director could be. Writing to the Countess Matilda, he says: “He who fathoms the secrets of the human heart, he alone knows, and knows better than I do myself, how interested I am in what concerns your salvation. I think you understand that I feel myself bound to take care of you, for the sake of so many people, in whose interest I have been compelled, by charity, to deter you, when you were thinking of leaving them in order to provide for the salvation of your own soul. As I have often told you, and will keep on telling you, in the words of heaven’s herald, Charity seeketh not her own (I. Cor. xiii. 5). But as the principal armour where with I have provided you in your battle against the prince of this world, is the frequent receiving of our Lord’s Body, and a firm confidence in the protection of his Blessed Mother, I will now add what St. Ambrose says on the subject of Holy Communion.”
The Pontiff then gives her two quotations from the Writings of this Holy Father, to which he also adds others from St. Gregory the Great and St. John Chrysostom, on the blessings we derive from receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist. He then continues: “Therefore, my daughter, we should have recourse to this greatest of the Sacraments, this greatest of all remedies. I have written all this to you, beloved daughter of Blessed Peter, with a view to increase your faith and confidence when you approach to Communion. This is the treasure, and this the gift, more precious than gold and gems, which your soul, out of love for the King of heaven, your Father, expects from me, although you would have received the same, in a far better way, and one more worthy of your acceptance, had you applied to some other of God’s ministers. With regard to the Mother of God, to whose care I have confided you, for the past, the present, and the future, until we are permitted to see her in heaven, as we desire, what can I say? How can I say anything worthy of Her, whom heaven and earth are ever praising, and yet never so much as she deserves? Yes, hold this as a most certain truth: that as she is grander and better and holier than all mothers, so is she more merciful and loving to all sinners who are sorry for their sins. Be, then, determined never to commit sin; prostrate yourself and weep before her, with a contrite and humble heart; and I unhesitatingly promise you this, you will find her more ready to assist you, and more affectionate, than any mother on earth ever was to her child (Data Romae, 14 Kalendas Martii).”
A Pontiff like this, who, amidst all his occupations, could devote himself, with such paternal zeal, to the advancement of one single soul, was sure to be on the watch for men whose piety and learning promised well for the interests of the Church. It is true, there were very few such men, in those times; but, Gregory would find them out, wheresoever they might be. The great St. Anselm, who was living in the peaceful retirement of his Monastery at Bee, had not escaped the watchful eye of the Pontiff, who wrote him these touching words, amidst the troubles of the year 1079. “The good odour of your fruits has spread even to us. We give thanks to God, and we embrace you with affection in the love of Christ; for we are well assured of the benefits which the Church of God will derive from your studies, and of the succour which, through God’s mercy, she will receive from your prayers, united as they are with those who are of a like spirit. You know, my Brother, of how much avail with God is the prayer of one just man; how much more, then, must not avail the prayer of many just ones? No, we cannot doubt it; it obtains what it asks. The authority of Truth Himself obliges us to believe it. It is He Who said: Knock, and it shall be opened to you! Knock with simplicity of heart, ask with simplicity of heart, for those things which are pleasing to Him; then shall it be opened to you, then shall you receive; and it is thus that the prayer of the just is graciously heard. We therefore beg of you, Brother, of you and your Monks, that you beseech God, in assiduous prayer, that he may vouchsafe to deliver, from the tyranny of heretics, his Church and us, who, though unworthy, are placed over it; and that, dispelling the error which blinds our enemies, He may lead them back to the path of truth (St. Anselmus. Epist. LIb. ii. 31).”
But Gregory’s attention was not confined to persons of such eminence and learning, as a Matilda or an Anselm. His quick eye discerned every Christian, how humble soever his station, who had suffered persecution for the cause of holy Church; he honoured and loved him far more than he would the bravest soldier who fought for earthly glory, and got it at the risk of his life. Let us read the following Letter, which he wrote to a poor priest of Milan, named Liprand, who had been cruelly maimed by the Simoniacs. “If we venerate the memory of those ” Saints who died, after their limbs had been severed by the sword; if we celebrate the sufferings of those, whom neither the sword nor torture could separate from the Faith of Christ; you, who have had your nose and ears cut off for His Name, you deserve still greater praise, for that you have merited a grace, which, if it be accompanied by your perseverance, gives you a perfect resemblance to the Saints. Your body is no longer perfect in all its parts; but the interior man, who is renewed from day to day, is now grander than ever. Your outward face is maimed, and therefore disfigured; but the image of God, which consists in the brightness of virtue, has become more graceful by your wounds, and its beauty heightened by the deformity which men have brought on your features. Does not the Church, speaking of herself, say: I am black, 0 ye daughters of Jerusalem (Cant. i. 4)? If, then, your interior beauty has not been impaired by these cruel mutilations, neither has your priestly character, which manifests itself rather by the perfection of virtue than by that of the body. Did not the Emperor Constantine show his veneration for a Bishop who had had one of his eyes pulled out? was he not seen to kiss the wound? Have we not the examples of the Fathers, and the early history of the Church, telling us that the Martyrs were allowed to continue the exercise of the sacred ministry, even after their limbs had been mutilated? You then, Martyr of Christ! must confide in the Lord without reserve. You must congratulate yourself on having made an advance in your Priesthood. It was conferred upon you by the holy oil; but now, you have sealed it with your own blood. The more your body has lost, the more must you preach what is good, and sow that Word which produces a hundredfold. We know that the enemies of holy Church are your enemies and persecutors; fear them not, and tremble not in their presence; for we lovingly hold both yourself and everything that belongs to you under our own protection and that of the Apostolic See. And if you should, at any time, find it necessary to have recourse to us, we now at once admit your appeal, and will receive you with joy and every mark of honour, when you visit us and this Holy See (1075 Jaffe. Page 533).”
Such was Gregory, keeping up the simplicity of the Monk amidst all his occupations as Pope; and what engrossing occupations were not these, even forgetting that fearful contest with tyranny and crime which cost him his life! We have already mentioned his project of the Crusade, which, at a later period, was enough to immortalize the name of Urban the Second. As to his other labors for the good of religion in every part of Christendom, we may truly say, that, at no period of the Church’s existence, did the Papacy exercise a wider, more active, or more telling influence, than during the twelve years of his Pontificate. By his immense correspondence, he furthered the interests of the Church in Germany, Italy, France, England and Spain; he aided the rising Churches of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway; he testified his vigilant and tender solicitude for the welfare of Hungary, Bohemia, Poland, Servia, yea, even for Russia. Despite the rupture between Rome and Byzantium, the Pontiff withheld not his paternal intervention, with a view to remove the schism which kept the Greek Church out of the centre of Unity. On the coast of Africa, he, by great vigilance, succeeded in maintaining three bishoprics, which had survived the Mussulman invasion. In order to knit the Latin Church into closer unity, by greater uniformity in Prayer he abolished the Gothic Liturgy that was used in Spain, and forbade the introduction of the Greek Liturgy into Bohemia. What work was not all this for one man! And what a martyrdom he had to go through! Let us resume our history of his trials. The Church and Society were to be saved by him; but, like his Divine Master, he had to drink of the torrent in the way (Ps. cix. 7), as the condition of his mission being a successful one.
We have seen how his defenders were defeated in battle; how he was menaced by the conqueror, who had once stood trembling in his presence; and how there was set up, in opposition, an Anti-pope, whose side was taken by unworthy prelates. Henry marched on towards Rome, taking with him the false vicar of Christ. He set fire to that part of the City which would expose the Vatican to danger; Gregory sent his blessing to his terrified people, and, immediately, the fire took the contrary direction and died out. Enthusiasm was, for a while, the feeling of the Romans, who have so often been ungrateful to their Pontiff, without whom, their Rome, with all its glory, sinks into a poor contemptible town. Henry was afraid to consummate his sacrilege. He therefore sent word to the Romans, that he only asked one condition: it was, that they should induce Gregory to consecrate him Emperor of Germany, and that he would forever be a devoted son of the Church: as to the ignoble phantom he had set up in opposition to the true pope, he (Henry) would see to his being soon forgotten. This petition was presented to Gregory by the whole City. The Pontiff made them this reply: “Too well do I know the king’s treachery. Let him first make atonement to God and to the Church which he tramples beneath his feet. Then will I absolve him, if penitent, and crown the convert with the imperial diadem.” The Romans were earnest in their entreaties, but this was the only answer they could elicit from the inflexible guardian of Christian justice. Henry was about to withdraw his troops, when the fickle Romans, being bribed by money from Byzantium, (for, then, as ever, all schisms were in fellowship against the Papacy,) abandoned their King and Father, and delivered up the keys of the City to him who enslaved their souls. Gregory was thus obliged to seek refuge in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, taking with him, into that fortress-prison, the Liberty of holy Church. Thence, or perhaps a few days previously to his retiring thither, he wrote this admirable Letter, in the year 1084. It is addressed to all the Faithful, and may be considered as the last Will and Testament of this glorious Pontiff.
“The kings of the earth and the princes of the priests have met together against Christ (Ps. ii. 2), the Son of the Almighty God, and against his Apostle Peter, to the end that they may destroy the Christian Religion and propagate the wickedness of heresy in every land. But, by the mercy of God, they have not been able, with all their threats, and cruelties, and proffers of worldly glory, to seduce those that put their confidence in the Lord. Wicked conspirators have raised up their hands against us, for no other reason than because we would not pass over in silence the perils of holy Church, nor tolerate them that blush not to make a slave of the very Spouse of God. In every country the poorest woman is allowed, yea, she is assisted by the law of the land, to choose her own husband; and yet, now-a-days, holy Church, the Spouse of God and our Mother, is not allowed to be united to her Spouse, as the Divine Law commands, and as she herself wishes. It cannot be that we should suffer the children of this Church to be slaves to heretics, adulterers, and tyrants, as though these were their parents. Hence we have had to endure all manner of evil treatment, perils, and unheard-of cruelties, as you will learn from our Legates.
“You know, Brethren, that it was said to the Prophet: Cry from the top of the mountain, cry, cease not! I, then, urged irresistibly, laying human respect aside, and raising my mind above every earthly consideration, I preach the Gospel, I cry out, yea, I cry out unceasingly, and I make known to you, that the Christian Religion, the true Faith which the Son of God, Who came down on the earth, has taught us by our Fathers, is in danger of being corrupted by the violence of secular power; that it is on the way to destruction, and to the loss of its primitive character, being thus exposed to be scoffed at, not only by Satan, but by Jews, and Turks, and Pagans. The very Pagans are observers of their laws, though these cannot profit the soul’s salvation, neither have they been guaranteed by miracles, as ours have been, to which our Eternal King has borne testimony; they keep their laws, and believe them. We Christians, intoxicated with the love of the world, and led astray by vain ambition, we make every principle of religion and justice give way to covetousness and pride; we seem as though we had neither law nor sense, for we have not the earnestness our Fathers had for our salvation, and for the glory of both the present and future life; we do not even make them the object of our hopes. If there be some still left who fear God, they only care for their own salvation, and the common good seems not to concern them. Where do we now find persons who labour and toil, or expose their lives by fatigue, out of the motive of the fear or love of the Omnipotent God? whereas we see soldiers of this world’s armies braving all manner of dangers for their masters, their friends, and even their subjects! There are thousands of men to be found who face death for the sake of their liege lord; but when the King of heaven, our Redeemer, is in question, so far from being lavish of their lives, Christians dare not even incur the displeasure of a few scoffers. If there be some, (and, thanks to the mercy of God, there are still a few such, left among us,) if, we repeat, there be some, who, for the love of the Christian Law, dare to resist the wicked to their face, not only are they unsupported by their Brethren, but they are accused of imprudence and indiscretion, and are treated as fools.
“We, therefore, who are bound, by our position, to destroy vice and implant virtue in the hearts of our Brethren, we pray and beseech you, in the Lord Jesus Who redeemed us, that you would consider within yourselves, and understand why it is that we have to suffer such anguish and tribulation from the enemies of the Christian Religion. From the day, when, by the Divine will, the Mother Church, despite my great unworthiness, and (as God is my witness) despite my own wish, placed me on the Apostolic Throne, the one object of all my labours has been that the Spouse of God, our Mistress and Mother, should recover her just rights, in order that she may be free, chaste, and Catholic. But such a line of conduct must have caused extreme displeasure to the old enemy; and therefore it is, that he has marshaled against us them that are his members, and has stirred up against us a world-wide opposition. Hence it is that there have been used against us, and against the Apostolic See, efforts of a more violent character than any that have ever been attempted since the days of Constantine the Great. But there is nothing surprising in all this: it is but natural, that the nearer we approach to the time of Antichrist, the more furious will be the attempts to annihilate the Christian Religion (1084. Jaffe. Page 572).”
These words vividly describe to us the holy indignation and grief of the great Pontiff, who, at this terrible crisis, stood almost alone against the enemies of God. He was weighed down, he was crushed, by adversity; but conquered, no! From the fortress, within whose walls he had withdrawn the majesty of the Vicar of Christ, he could hear the impious cheers of his people, as they followed Henry to the Vatican Basilica, where, at St. Peter’s Confession, the mock pope was awaiting his arrival. It was the Palm Sunday of 1085. The sacrilege was committed. On the previous day, Guibert had dared to ascend the Papal Throne in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran; and on the Sunday, whilst the people held in their hands the Palms that glorify the Christ, whose Vicar was Gregory, the Antipope took the crown of the Christian Empire and put it on the head of the excommunicated Henry. But God was preparing an avenger of his Church. The Pontiff was kept a close prisoner in the Fort, and it seemed as though his enemy would soon make him a victim of his rage; when the report suddenly spread through Rome that Robert Guiscard, the valiant Norman chieftain, was marching on towards the City. He had come to fight for the captive Pontiff, and deliver Rome from the tyranny of the Germans. The false Caesar and his false Pope were panic-stricken; they fled, leaving the perjured City to expiate its odious treason in the horrors of a ruthless pillage.
Gregory’s heart bled at seeing his people thus treated. It was not in his power to prevent the depredations of the barbarian troops; they had done their work of delivering him from his enemies, but they were not satisfied; they had come to Rome to chastise her, but now they wanted booty, and they were determined to have it. Not only was the Saint powerless to repress these marauders; he was in danger of again falling into Henry’s hands, who was meditating a return to Rome, for he made sure that the people’s angry humour would secure him a welcome back, and that the Normans would withdraw from the City, as soon as it had no more to give them. Gregory, therefore, overwhelmed with grief, left the Capital; and, shaking off the dust from his feet, he repaired to Monte Cassino, where he sought shelter, and a few hours’ repose, with the Sons of the great Patriarch St. Benedict. The contrast of the peaceful years he spent when a young Monk at Cluny, with the storms that had so thickly beset his Pontificate, was sure to present itself to his mind. A wanderer and fugitive, and abandoned by all, save a few faithful and devoted souls, he was passing through the several stations of his Passion; but his Calvary was not far off, and God was soon to admit him into rest eternal. Before descending the holy Mount, he was honoured with the miraculous manifestation, which had been witnessed on several previous occasions. Gregory was at the Altar, offering up the Holy Sacrifice; when, suddenly, a white dove was seen resting on his shoulder, with its beak turned towards his ear, as though it were speaking to him. It was not difficult to recognize, under this expressive symbol, the guidance which the saintly Pontiff received from the Holy Ghost.
It was the early part of the year 1085. Gregory repaired to Salerno, where his troubles and life were to be brought to a close. His bodily strength was gradually failing. He insisted however, on going through the ceremony of the dedication of the Church of St. Matthew, the Evangelist, whose body was kept at Salerno. He addressed a few words, in a feeble voice, to the assembled people. He then received the Body and Blood of Christ. Fortified with this lifegiving Viaticum, he returned to the house where he was staying, and threw himself upon the couch, whence he was never to rise again. There he lay, like Jesus on his Cross, robbed of everything, and abandoned by almost the whole world. His last thoughts were for Holy Church. He mentioned to the few Cardinals and Bishops, who were with him, three from whom he would recommend his successor to be chosen: Desiderins, Abbot of Monte Cassino, who succeeded him, under the title of Victor the Third; Otho of Chatillon, a monk of Cluny, who was afterwards Urban the Second, Victor’s successor; and the faithful Legate, Hugh of Die, whom Gregory had made Archbishop of Lyons.
The by-standers asked the dying Pontiff what were his wishes regarding those whom he had excommunicated. Here again, he imitated our Saviour on his Cross, he exercised both mercy and justice: “Excepting,” said he, “Henry, and Guibert the usurper of the Apostolic See, and them that connive at their injustice and impiety, I absolve and bless all those who have faith in my power, as being that of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul.” The thought of the pious and heroic Matilda coming to his mind, he entrusted this devoted daughter of the Roman Church to the care of the courageous Anselm of Lucca; hereby imitating, (as the biographer of this holy Bishop remarks,) our dying Jesus, who consigned Mary to his Beloved Disciple John. Gregory’s last blessing to Matilda drew down upon her thirty years of success and victory.
Though so near his end, yet was Gregory as full of paternal solicitude for the Church as ever he had been. Calling to him, one by one, the faithful few who stood round his couch, he made them promise on oath that they would never acknowledge Henry as Emperor, until he had made satisfaction to the Church. Summing up all his energy, he solemnly forbade them to recognize any one as Pope, unless he were elected canonically and in accordance with the rules laid down by the holy Fathers. Then, after a moment of devout recollectedness, he expressed his conformity to the Divine Will, (which had ordained that his Pontificate should be one long martyrdom,) and said: “I have loved justice and hated iniquity: for which cause, I die in exile!” One of the Bishops who were present, respectfully made him this reply: “No, my Lord, you cannot die in exile; for, holding the place of Christ and the holy Apostles, you have had given to you the Nations for your inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for your possession.” Sublime words! but Gregory heard them not: his soul had winged its flight to heaven, and had received a Martyr’s immortal crown. So that Gregory was conquered by death, as Christ himself had been; but as the Master triumphed over death, so too would he have his disciple triumph.
Christianity, which had been insulted in so many forms, rose again in all its grandeur. Nay, on the very day that Gregory breathed his last at Salerno, heaven seemed to give a pledge of this Resurrection; for on that day, the 25th of May, 1085, Alphonsus 6th entered, with his victorious troops, into the City of Toledo, and there, after four centuries of slavery under the Saracen yoke, he replanted the Cross of Christ. But the Church had need of someone who would take Gregory’s place in defending her against oppression. The need was supplied. The martyrdom of our Saint was like a seed that produced Pontiffs imbued with his spirit. As he had prepared his own predecessors, he also prepared worthy successors. There are few names on the list of the Popes more glorious than those that begin with Victor the Third, (Gregory’s immediate successor,) and continue to Boniface the Eighth inclusively, in whom was recommenced the struggle for which our great Pontiff so heroically lived and died. Scarcely had death put an end to his trials in this vale of tears, than victory came to the Church; for her enemies were defeated, her sacred law of Celibacy was everywhere re-enforced, and the canonical election of her Bishops was secured by the suppression of Investitures and Simony.
Gregory had been the instrument used by God for the reformation of the Christian world; and although his memory be held in benediction by all true children of the Church, yet his mission was too grand, and too grandly fulfilled, not to draw down upon him the hatred of Satan. The Prince of this world (St. John, xii. 31), then, took his revenge. Gregory was, of course, detested by heretics; but that could scarcely be called an insult: he must be rendered odious to Catholics; Catholics must be made ashamed of him. The devil succeeded, and, it may be, beyond his expectations. The Church had passed her judgment; but her judgment, her Canonization, had no weight with these cowardly, temporising, half Catholics; and they persisted in calling the Saint, simply and reproachfully, “Gregory the Seventh?” Governments, styling themselves Catholic, forbade his being honoured as a Saint. There were even Bishops who issued Pastorals to the same effect. The most eloquent of french Preachers declared his Pontificate and conduct to be unchristian. There was a time, and that not so very long ago, when these lines would have exposed the writer to a heavy penalty, as being contrary to the Law of the land. The Lessons of to-day’s Feast, which we give on the next page, were suppressed by the Parliament of Paris, in the year 1729; and those who dared to recite them, were to be punished by the forfeiture of their property. Thank God! all this is now passed; and the name of Saint Gregory the Seventh is honoured in every country, where the Roman Liturgy is in use. Yes, this glorious name will remain now, to the end of the world, on the universal Calendar of holy Church, as one of the brightest glories of Paschal Time. May it produce the same enthusiastic admiration, and bring the same blessings, upon the Faithful of these our times, as it did on our Catholic forefathers of the Middle Ages! (1)
His body was interred in the church of Saint Matthew at Salerno. (4)
His writings treat mainly of the principles and practice of Church government. They may be found under the title “Gregorii VII registri sive epistolarum libri” in Mansi, “Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio” (Florence, 1759) and “S. Gregorii VII epistolae et diplomata” by Horoy (Paris, 1877). (7)
He was beatified by Pope Gregory XIII in 1584 and canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1728. (8)
Image: Pope Saint Gregory VII saying Mass (inspired by the Holy Spirit), Scanned by uploader from page 292 of Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, Benzinger Brothers (9)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff