Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Gregory VII, Pope and Confessor

[Pope Saint Gregory VII]Article

Before his exaltation to the popedom, he was called Hildebrand. He was born, in Tuscany, and educated at Rome under his uncle the abbot of our Lady’s, upon the Aventin hill. He went afterwards into France, and embraced the monastic state at Cluni. Being called back to Rome he signalized himself by his zeal, sanctity, and learning, and preached with great reputation and fruit in the court of the pious emperor Henry III, surnamed the Black. The holy Pope Saint Leo IX had the highest esteem for him, often followed his counsels, ordained him subdeacon, and made him abbot of Saint Paul’s, which church then belonged to a very small community of monks, and lay at that time almost in ruins, the greater part of its revenues being usurped by powerful laymen. Hildebrand recovered its lands and restored the monastery to its ancient splendour. In 1054 he was sent by Pope Victor II legate into France in order to abolish the practice of simony in the collation of ecclesiastical benefices. He held for this purpose a council at Lyons, in which a certain bishop who was accused of simony, denied the crime with which he was charged. The legate bade him recite the Glory be to the Father, which the bishop readily endeavoured to do. But he was never able to pronounce the name of the Holy Ghost. At this miraculous conviction he was struck with remorse and confusion, and casting himself at the legate’s feet, humbly confessed his crime. This is related by Pope Calixtus II, Saint Hugh of Cluni, William of Malmesbury, and Saint Peter Damian, and the last mentioned author assures us that he had the account from Hildebrand’s own mouth. The legate presided also in the council of Tours, in which Berengarius retracted and condemned the heresy which he had broached relating to the holy eucharist. Pope Stephen IX. sent him on an embassy to the empress, and dying, ordered his return to be waited for, and his advice to be followed in the election of a new pope. By his direction Nicholas II, and after his death in 1061, Alexander II were placed in Saint Peter’s chair. This latter dying in 1073, Hildebrand, then archdeacon, was by compulsion exalted to the papacy. He left nothing unattempted to keep off that heavy burden from his shoulders, and among other expedients wrote to Henry IV. king of Germany, who was then in Bavaria, entreating him to interpose his authority in order to prevail that the project of his election might be set aside, declaring at the same time that if he were pope he could never tolerate his enormous and scandalous crimes. Notwithstanding this, Henry gave his assent to the saint’s election, and he was consecrated pope on Saint Peter’s day. In his letters he was not able to forbear expressing his most sensible grief, and he with tears implored the succour of the prayers of the whole Church for grace and fortitude that he might be enabled worthily to discharge his functions. Before his ordination he wrote to the pious countesses Beatrice and Mathilda, advising them not to communicate with those bishops of Lombardy who had been convicted of simony, though king Henry espoused their interest, and he intimated to them a design of sending to that prince some pious persons who should give him wholesome advice, and exhort him to return to his duty. The scandals which simony caused in the Church called for an apostolic zeal in the chief pastor to stem the torrent which was breaking into the sanctuary itself. The pope deposed Godfrey, archbishop of Milan, who had obtained that dignity by simony, and in a council which he held at Rome enacted a law by which all persons who should be guilty of that sin were declared incapable of receiving any ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and disqualified for holding any benefice whatever. This decree raised great murmurs in Germany, and the archbishop of Mentz was in danger of being murdered for labouring to put it in execution. Notwithstanding this opposition the pope judged that the more obstinate the evil was the greater was the necessity of a severe remedy, and he stirred up all zealous pastors rather to lay down their lives than to be remiss in maintaining the laws of God and his Church. He excommunicated Cencius a rich and powerful nobleman of Rome, and some other persons for certain notorious crimes. These sinners being incorrigible, grew desperate, and laid violent hands on the pope on Christmas night in 1075. In committing this outrage one of them attempting to strike off his head, gave him a deep wound, and the mutineers carried him to Cencius’s castle. But the people rescued him the next day, and banished the conspirators. The pope himself recalled and pardoned them, by which mildness he overcame their malice. This storm was not over when he was overtaken by another far more boisterous from a different quarter. Henry IV. king of Germany, who succeeded his pious father Henry III surnamed the Black, in 1056, when he was only ten years old, governed well so long as he followed the counsels of his mother Agnes, and became a good soldier. But having taken the reins into his own hands, he by several acts of tyranny alienated first the princes of the empire, and afterwards began grievously to oppress the Church. He crushed a powerful rebellion of the Saxons in 1063; but in 1064 the dukes of Suabia, Carinthia, and Bavaria taking up arms gave him great disturbance, alleging that he had usurped several provinces to which he had no right, and that he had oppressed the liberty of the empire. When Gregory VII. was raised to the papacy, Henry wrote first to his holiness in the style of an humble penitent, condemning himself for having simoniacally sold the benefices of the Church, usurped a pretended right of giving the investitures of bishoprics, and grievously abused it in often promoting to ecclesiastical dignities persons most unworthy and unfit. The pope on his side had shown an extreme concern for his salvation, had caressed him, and sent him many obliging and tender letters, though always breathing an apostolic zeal. Henry showed by his actions that his pretended repentance was mere hypocrisy, for he continued to repeat the same crimes; and perceiving the inflexible disposition of his holiness, assembled at Worms on the 23rd of January, 1076, a conventicle of simoniacal time-serving bishops, who presumed to depose him from the pontificate, on pretence of an imaginary nullity in his election. The king sent this mock sentence to the pope at Rome, together with a contumelious letter. Gregory in a council at Rome declared the king and his schismatical adherents excommunicated, and took upon himself to pronounce that for his tyranny he had forfeited his crown, which he again confirmed in 1080. Many princes of the empire chose Rodolph duke of Suabia emperor in 1077; but that prince proved unfortunate in several battles, and died of the wounds which he received in one of them. Henry on his side set up Guibert, the excommunicated archbishop of Ravenna, for antipope; and 1084 entered Rome with an army, and besieged Saint Gregory in the castle Saint Angelo, but was obliged by Robert Guiscard the Norman, duke of Calabria, to retire, and the Tuscans gave his army a great overthrow in Lombardy. Three devout princesses were at that time the most strenuous protectresses of the Holy See, namely, Agnes the empress dowager, who after being removed from the regency during her son’s minority by a faction of the princes, retired to Rome 1062, and there died a nun in 1077. The other two were Maud or Mathilda, the most pious countess of Tuscany, and Beatrice, her mother. They were admirers and faithful imitatrices of the virtues of the pope, and were directed by his counsels in the paths of perfection. Amidst these storms Saint Gregory enjoyed a perfect tranquillity of soul, having his heart strongly fixed on God, and adoring in all things his ever-holy will. He received all afflictions cheerfully, knowing them to be the greatest remedy and advancement in the interior man, if the exterior be humbled and beaten by many strokes. The author of the life of Saint Anselm of Lucca assures us that his heart seemed perfectly disengaged from all earthly things, and that he attained to so eminent a gift of contemplation, that in the midst of the most distracting affairs, he appeared always recollected, and often fell into raptures. Duke Robert having rescued him from his enemies, conducted him for greater safety from Rome to Monte Cassino, and thence to Salerno, where God was pleased to put an end to his labours; for the saint falling sick in that city, he recommended for his successor cardinal Desiderius, abbot of Monte Cassino; and having received the last sacraments in perfect dispositions of resignation and piety, happily exchanged this mortal life for immortality, on the 25th of May, 1085, in the twelfth year of his pontificate. Several contemporary writers bear testimony to many miracles performed by him, or through his intercession after his death.

It may not be amiss to add what Du Pin, a most partial adversary, writes concerning him, when he draws his character: “It must be acknowledged,” says he, “that Pope Gregory VII. was an extraordinary genius, capable of great things; constant and undaunted in the execution; well versed in the constitution of his predecessors; zealous for the interests of the Holy See; an enemy to simony and libertinism; (vices which he vigorously opposed;) full of Christian thoughts and of zeal for the reformation of the manners of the clergy; and there is not the least colour to think that he was not unblemished in his own morals. This is the judgment which we suppose every one will pass upon him who shall read over his letters with a disinterested and unprejudiced mind. They are penned with a great deal of eloquence, full of good matter, and embellished with noble and pious thoughts; and we boldly say that no pope since Gregory I. wrote such strong and fine letters as this Gregory did.”

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Gregory VII, Pope and Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 May 2012. Web. 19 September 2020. <>