Friday, May 13, 2011

Papal Profile: Pope St Gregory VII

One of the most famous Roman Pontiffs, who is often noted for his very strained relations with the preeminent monarch of his time, was Gregory VII. He was born around 1020-25 in Savona in Tuscany. His given name was Ildebrando de Savona and this is usually rendered as the more familiar Hildebrand of Savona. Because of his name, some have speculated that he was the son of a blacksmith, others that it simply reflected his “fire” for the faith. In any event, he came from very humble origins and as a youth went to Rome to study at a monastery on the Aventine Hill. During those years he was taught by the future Pope Gregory VI whose stand-off with the German Emperor Henry III had a profound impact on him. When the Emperor exiled the Pontiff to Cologne, Hildebrand went with him and later, after returning to Rome, made the acquaintance of Bruno of Toul who was subsequently elected Pope Leo IX. It was Leo IX who ordained Hildebrand deacon and sent him on papal business to France as a legate.

Upon the death of Leo he rushed back to Rome but, when confronted with a considerable number wishing him to take the Throne of St Peter, promptly ran away, ironically enough going to Germany to seek a suggestion from the Emperor. In the end, his choice was given the job as Pope Victor II who continued to employ Hildebrand as his predecessors did. The next Pontiff, Stephen IX, did the same and Hildebrand also helped solve a minor-crisis when the Roman nobility attempted to set up an anti-pope following the death of Stephen. In the end, this was overcome and he was the driving force behind the selection of Pope Alexander II in 1061. As he worked behind the scenes he helped arrange a peace between the north Italians and the Normans in the south as well as formalizing the rules for the election of popes so that the struggle, confusion and (at times) even violence seen in the past would not continue in the future. The basic system he established remains in effect today.

When Alexander II died in 1073 there was an immediate, massive outcry for Archdeacon Hildebrand to succeed him. This time, he could not run away, and despite his pleas for a different choice, he was elected Pope Gregory VII. However, and this is significant, he held off his formal papal consecration until his election was confirmed by the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany (Henry IV). In fact, he attempted again to remove himself from his unenviable position by advising the Emperor that, as Sovereign Pontiff, he would be bound to be rather difficult to deal with as he was not prepared to tolerate secular interference in spiritual matters and actually advised the Emperor NOT to approve his election. The German bishops knew what Hildebrand was made of and they too warned of big trouble to follow if he held the See of Peter. However, others assured Henry IV that Hildebrand was a good man for the job and, in a move he surely came to regret, he confirmed his election as Pope Gregory VII. By this time the new Pontiff had been ordained priest and he was formally consecrated Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Supreme Pontiff etc on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in 1073.

Purely in terms of the Catholic Church, Gregory VII was a great reforming pope. He brought about a revival in the understanding of the “true presence” and in the character and quality of the clergy as he was greatly distressed, upon taking the throne, to see how many priests and bishops were living immoral lives, were ignorant of many basic teachings and who had obtained their offices in irregular ways. Celibacy was made, unequivocally the rule and selling Church offices was condemned. He cleaned up, reformed and improved the Church in a big way, however, those clerics who gained their positions in an “irregular” way was something that caused a great deal of trouble in dealing with. This led to what is known as the “Investiture Dispute” between Pope Gregory VII on one hand and the Holy Roman Emperor on the other. Originally, this was a dispute over who had the right to appoint bishops; the Pope or the Emperor. At heart, however, it was a clash between the power of the Church and the State such as would be seen time and time again throughout history.

The Pope reprimanded Henry and maintained that it was he who appointed bishops, not the Emperor. In 1076 Henry responded by gathering a council of pliant German bishops and declaring Gregory VII improperly elected and thus deposed. In response, the Pope shocked Europe by formally excommunicating the Emperor and absolving his subjects of their allegiance to him. This was not what either man had wanted of course. Gregory VII considered it a terrible distraction from what he wanted to be the focal point of his foreign policy: calling the royals of Christendom to another crusade to defend the crumbling Eastern Empire from the Muslims. However, it happened, and though there were unscrupulous forces on both sides who sought to use the conflict to their advantage, most people took the side of the Pope and the Emperor was finally forced to go to the Pope and ask forgiveness. The meeting happened at Canossa at the castle of powerful noblewoman fighting on the side of the papal forces and Gregory VII famously made the Emperor wait for the three days in the snow doing penance before he would absolve him.

It did not end there however, as Henry was soon up to his old tricks. However, lest anyone try to use this unfortunate dispute to paint the papacy and the imperial monarchy itself as being at odds, it is important to remember that when the German princes, tired of Henry’s antics, tried to depose him and elect another it was Pope Gregory VII who tried to work out a compromise between the two sides. However, it came to nothing and when Henry IV moved to set up his own anti-pope to oppose Gregory he was excommunicated once again. This time, however, the Emperor had more support and his forces invaded northern Italy and fought their way south and, after bitter combat, managed to take Rome on March 21, 1084. Gregory VII was forced to go into exile, which was not long remedied even when Duke Robert of Normandy and his rowdy forces advanced from the south and chased the Emperor, and the anti-pope he had set up, out of Rome. Gregory VII did not live to see the struggle totally resolved as he died on May 25, 1085 in Salerno. He was beatified by Pope Gregory XIII in 1584 and canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1728.

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