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Gregory VII - Fought Abuses

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Gregory VIIHildebrand was born of poor parents at Soana in Tuscany. Educated at a Roman monastery and the Lateran school, he became a monk. Pious, bursting with energy, and gifted with administrative ability, the little monk was to become a great pope. When his old teacher John Gratian, became Pope Gregory VI, he took Hildebrand into his service and ordered him to clean up the city, tormented by violence and barefaced robbery, grim heirlooms of Benedict IX's disorderly pontificate. The young monk organized a police force which knocked some order into the Roman lordlings. At Gregory's resignation Hildebrand followed him into Germany. At Gregory's death, he retired to Cluny. Pope Leo IX took Hildebrand back to Rome and henceforth he served as a strong right arm to the reforming popes. After Alexander II died, the demand for Hildebrand was too great to be resisted. He was consecrated as Gregory VII on June 30, 1073. With St. Gregory VII the fight against abuses reached a new pitch of intensity. This devout, very sincere man faced squarely the sad condition of the Church. No fanatic, he concentrated on the worst abuses. Now the root of abuse was the way kings and lords appointed bishops and abbots by lay investiture. Gregory swung the ax at this root by absolutely banning lay investiture at a Roman synod in 1075.

The stage was set for the clash with King Henry IV. Henry had talked fair, but continued to act evilly. Cencius, a Roman noble friendly to the king, broke in on Gregory's Christmas Mass and carried him a prisoner to his tower. But the Romans swarmed so angrily around his tower that the rascal lord quickly released the outraged Pope. Gregory then summoned Henry under pain of excommunication to appear before a Roman synod to answer charges. Henry's answer was to hold his own synod at Worms and have his subservient bishops condemn Gregory. The Pope excommunicated Henry and released his subjects from their allegiance. Saxony rose in arms and Henry's throne quaked when the nobles of Germany gathered at Tribur in October 1076. Gregory's legates persuaded the nobles to give Henry a chance to repent before deposing him. A national diet under the Pope's presidency was summoned at Augsburg for 1077.

Henry, knowing his unpopularity with many nobles, had no wish to face this assembly. He hurried over the Alps before Gregory could reach Germany. As a suppliant he appeared before the castle of Canossa where Gregory had retired. Cleverly the King stood shivering in a penitential garb while Countess Matilda, the Pope's hostess, and St. Hugh of Cluny pleaded for mercy. Gregory knew he should await the Augsburg meeting, but he had been jockeyed by Henry into a position where he simply had to absolve the king. Once absolved, Henry went back to his old ways. He set up an antipope, the abuse-loving Guibert of Ravenna. He defeated the German nobles, captured Rome, and installed his creature in the Lateran as Clement III. Gregory, besieged in the Castle of St. Angelo, was rescued by the Normans. But soon he had to leave Rome. Worn out the brave old saint died at Salerno in 1085. "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile," he said; but he had paved the way for a better future. He was canonized by Benedict XIII in 1728.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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