|Wax Burial Effigy of Gregory VII (Hildebrand)|
High position tends to favor the well-positioned in this world and this has often been true of the papacy. But even as Christ Jesus taught us, greatness in the kingdom of God is found in being the servant of all (Mk.10:43). Such is the story of Pope Gregory VII (1015-1085) a man of very humble beginnings who became a monk in Rome but through his gifts, both spiritual and natural, rose to become the leader of Christendom, and arguably a man with few peers among those who have ever sat on the throne of St. Peter.
His birth name was Hildebrand (“a bright flame”) which was quite appropriate for the son of the town blacksmith and his wife. Growing up in southern Tuscany, Hildebrand Bonizi lived as neither a peasant or a prince, but as an ordinary commoner of his day. As a teenager, Hildebrand was able to go to Rome and study under the tutelage of his maternal uncle who was both a scholar and abbot of a Benedictine monastery. In the Middle-Ages, monastic life was often considered a special opportunity for young men as in some places it was the only means to getting higher education and it provided a structure that was conducive to learning and innovation. It is also not an exaggeration to say that those who were well-educated in the Medieval era were very often put in the service of the church.
Eventually Hildebrand’s uncle was elevated to the papacy and took the name Gregory VI. His was a short papacy that was troubled with many false accusations and eventually ended with his abdication and replacement at a church council. Hildebrand followed his uncle into exile but eventually returned to Rome and in 1053 was made a cardinal bishop. Cardinal bishops were seen in this time as the new senate of Rome. For the next 20 years Hildebrand served 5 popes in various capacities. In many regards this is a very tumultuous period for the papacy with some popes engaging in or being taken down by great scandals. One of the great sins of this period was the buying and selling of church offices. This practice, called Simony after the sin of Simon Magus (Acts 8) who sought to buy spiritual power from the Apostles and was very publicly cursed by St. Peter, was growing more and more common. In some regards there was a sociological context for this that makes this somewhat less evil than it sounds today, but that aside, it truly had the effect of the rich and powerful, especially in Rome, turning this spiritual office into a means of leveraging power. This problem was met head on when Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII in 1073.
In taking the name Gregory VII, Hildebrand was signaling the legitimacy of his uncle’s reign that had ended poorly but also that he was going to follow in his footsteps as a reformer. One of the biggest reforms that Hildebrand put into place was papal elections by the cardinals. Although all the elaborate election procedures that we see today such as being locked in the Sistine Chapel and burning ballots to signal the people are later accretions, they are built upon Hildebrand’s reform which removed the politically powerful and well-placed from interfering, and made the election of the highest bishop the responsibility of the church’s highest leadership. While not solving the problem of power grabbing or simony completely, this step at least set the stage for its eventual correction. This is not without a bit of irony though. While Hildebrand is the father of papal elections, he himself was never officially elected but rather simply acclaimed. He had so much a part the papal court, when the position became vacant everyone was agreed: “Let Hildebrand be pope!”
Though the tradition of priestly celibacy has ancient roots, it was a tradition that was not uniformly practiced or enforced. Gregory VII, himself a monastic, changed that and enforced celibacy as the norm for the Roman Catholic priesthood. This has always been one of the questionable practices of the Catholic Church not because celibacy (singleness without sexual partners) is without any biblical warrant, but that Jesus taught that only some have that gift and one of the most notable figures in the church that didn’t have that gift was St. Peter himself believed by Catholics to be the first pope! To uniformly enforce a practice that is contrary to the natural makeup of most humans is to invite sin and scandal in the first place, but also unneeded disgrace when a church could be well-served by a priest with a lawfully wedded wife and family. Ill-advised as this policy is (from my perspective at least) it did have a context in Gregory’s day where bishops had secret wives and families and would often seek to hand down a diocese as an inheritance. In eliminating heirs through the enforcement of celibacy throughout the church, Gregory VII was also consolidating the role of the papacy in appointing and approving bishops worldwide.
The most important reform of Gregory VII was standing against what is called “lay investiture”. Even if these terms seem foreign to you, you’ll easily see their significance even in the modern world of today. If the church is God’s communion and instrument on earth, should clergy and particularly church leadership be appointed by the secular government or the church itself? Many kings in Europe held the idea that they were appointed by God to rule and therefore the churches in their realms were under their jurisdiction and that included their bishops. Gregory VII took the opposite view and asserted that the pope alone is the Lord’s vice-ruler here on earth and as such not only has the right to bestow the offices of the church, but also has authority over secular kings with the right to depose them or absolve their subjects of their obligation to obey them.
In taking this stand it would be inaccurate to say Gregory VII won a certain and final victory. He most famously engaged King Henry IV of Germany in this controversy and even excommunicated him for a time until he repented from appointing his own bishops. But after three years, King Henry repented of his repenting and led a successful effort to depose Gregory VII as pope, electing his own pope in the person of Clement III.
While Gregory VII and a later successor Innocent III brought papal power to supremacy in Europe as they exerted their will over other secular rulers, their viewpoint was a continual source of controversy. Sovereign rulers had a difficult time with the idea that they derived their authority to rule as a gracious grant from the papacy and popes likewise only with difficulty could accept they were co-equal to temporal rulers, ruling over the souls rather than bodies of men. Indeed the role of the church and government in God’s economy is still an issue for which the lines can be quickly blurred even today. But for Gregory VII this was something for which he had absolute clarity. It was he who declared rulers shall kiss his feet but he will kiss no layman's feet and that the church has never erred or will err in the future in its judgments.
While some of this may seem like a man on a quest for the absolute power that corrupts absolutely, we should understand Gregory VII in the context of his own time. His exertions of power were in great part a correction of structural sins within the church. On balance, he also lived in a Europe where everyone from the smallest to the greatest, owed allegiance to someone higher up the ladder. It was the time of knights, kings, lords, landed commoners and un-landed peasants. He put this together theologically and aimed at a union where kings and subjects would be in submission to the church and truly live as part of Christendom. Gregory VII lead the way at the high tide of the church’s influence in Europe, this would later be taken to absurd heights by others and eventually falter, but in the 11th century, the bright flame Hildebrand saw his path through the darkness around him and sought to take the church with him.
Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII was beatified in 1584 during another period of great Catholic reform following the Council of Trent. In 1728 he was officially elevated to sainthood.