The Catholic Defender: Saint Gregory VII
Gregory VII was the first pope to depose a crowned ruler, Emperor Henry IV (1056–1105/06). With this revolutionary act, Gregory translated his personal religious and mystical convictions regarding the role of the papacy into direct action in the world at large.
Contemporary accounts report that when Henry was finally permitted to enter the gates, he walked barefoot through the snow and knelt at the feet of the pope to beg forgiveness. As a result, the Pope revoked Henry's excommunication.
The 10th century and the first half of the 11th were dark days for the Church, partly because the papacy was the pawn of various Roman families. In 1049, things began to change when Pope Leo IX, a reformer, was elected. He brought a young monk named Hildebrand to Rome as his counselor and special representative on important missions. Hildebrand was to become Gregory VII.
Three evils plagued the Church then: simony–the buying and selling of sacred offices and things; the unlawful marriage of the clergy; and lay investiture—kings and nobles controlling the appointment of Church officials. To all of these Hildebrand directed his reformer’s attention, first as counselor to the popes and later as pope himself.
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.
Gregory’s papal letters stress the role of the bishop of Rome as the vicar of Christ and the visible center of unity in the Church. He is well known for his long dispute with Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV over who should control the selection of bishops and abbots.
Gregory fiercely resisted any attack on the liberty of the Church. For this he suffered and finally died in exile. He said, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore, I die in exile.” Thirty years later the Church finally won its struggle against lay investiture. The liturgical feast of Saint Gregory VII is celebrated on May 25.
God, strength of all who put their trust in you, you endowed your bishop blessed Gregory with the virtue of steadfastness to defend the liberty of the Church; grant that by virtue of his example and intercession, we may overcome all difficulties with the same courage.
The Gregorian Reform, a milestone in the history of Christ’s Church, was named after this man who tried to extricate the papacy and the whole Church from undue control by civil rulers. Against an unhealthy Church nationalism in some areas, Gregory reasserted the unity of the whole Church based on Christ, and expressed in the bishop of Rome, the successor of Saint Peter.