St Gregory VII, the Greatest Pope in History?

Among the many holy pontiffs, one stood out who heroically battled against enemies of the Church scattered throughout the world and attained such holiness that he became the greatest Pope in history: Saint Gregory VII.

Newsdesk (12/11/2022 2:15 PM , Gaudium Press) The son of a carpenter, he was born in a small town in Tuscany, central Italy, in 1020, taking the name Hildebrando. He was educated in a monastery on the Aventine Hill in Rome, whose abbot was his uncle.

After he was ordained a priest, Pope Gregory VI appointed him chaplain of his palace. After his death in 1046, Hildebrand, a great admirer of Saint Odilon, became a monk at the Monastery of Cluny.

Saint Leo IX, who was pontiff from 1049 to 1054, was aware of Hildebrand’s virtues, called him to the Eternal City and appointed him Administrator of the Roman diocese. It was a heavy job to carry, for in Rome much of the clergy was corrupted by simony and sensuality.

Such was the uprightness, sagacity and fortitude of Hildebrand that seven popes chose him as a counsellor: Gregory VI, Clement II, Saint Leo IX, Victor II, Stephen X, Nicholas II and Alexander II.

In 1056, Emperor Henry III died, leaving the regency to his frail wife Agnes; the crown prince – Henry IV – was only six years old.

Stephen X died in 1058. Hildebrand worked for the election of Nicholas II and convinced him to issue a decree condemning potentates who appointed individuals to hold positions in the Church.

The imperial court, dominated by ungodly councillors, many of them bishops, revolted against this decree because it wanted to elect bishops, abbots and even the Pope.

Now, the Pontiff is not subject to any other power, as Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira states:

“The sovereignty [of the Pope] is as united to the headship of the Church as clarity is to light. But it is also an indispensable imperative of the universality of the Church — indeed, if the Church is universal, and if the supreme ministry of the Papacy is also universal, how can the Pope be subject to the injunctions of governments, of parties, of factions?“[1]

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Saint Altmann battled against the corrupt clergy

In October 1061, the Germanic and Lombard prelates elected an antipope named Cadalous; the Empress Agnes and her son Henry IV handed him the pontifical insignia.  Agnes later repented of this heinous sin, supported St. Gregory VII and became a nun.

The Antipope gathered an army and invaded Rome in June 1063. The people fought against Cadalous, causing his soldiers to flee, but the mayor’s son took him into the Castle of Sant’Angelo. Eventually, the Catholic faithful expelled the infamous Cadalous and Alexander II was recognised as the true Pope.

Alexander II having died in April 1073, the Roman clergy and people acclaimed Hildebrand as the new pope, which was confirmed by all the cardinals and bishops.

Choosing the title Gregory VII, he convened a council in Rome and wrote to the bishops summoning them:

“Every knight who abandons his lord on the day of combat incurs degradation. Show that you are true soldiers of Jesus Christ, coming to gather under His banner, to fight at His side, and to merit with honour the victory and the rewards that follow.”[2]

One hero who battled against the corrupted clergy was Saint Altmann, Bishop of Passau in Bavaria – southern Germany.

In December 1074, in the cathedral filled with the faithful Saint Altmann anathematised the sensual and simoniac clerics. A group of wicked people rushed upon him and would have murdered him if some noblemen of valor had not defended him by risking their own lives.

The Saint was expelled from his diocese by Henry IV and died in exile in a monastery in a town in present-day Austria in 1091. His memory is celebrated on August 8th.

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Countess Matilda dedicated her life to the defense of the Church

Henry IV, already emperor, gathered in January 1076, in the city of Worms, in southwest Germany, a conference of bishops from Germania and Lombardy.  They rebelled against the Pope and, among other infamies, accused him of having dishonest relations with the Countess Matilde.

The sentence of this assembly, communicated to St. Gregory VII by Henry IV himself, said that the Pope was deposed “as a heretic, sorcerer, adulterer, sycophant of the populace, usurper of the Empire, fierce and bloodthirsty beast.”[3] 

The Countess Matilde was a lady of unblemished purity who dedicated her life to the defense of the Church, even by force of arms, as the virginal Saint Joan of Arc would do a few centuries later.

Daughter of the Marquess Beatrice, she inherited large tracts of land in Tuscany and Lombardy – Central and Northern Italy – with castles, abbeys and churches. She married Godofroy III, Duke of Lower Lorraine – which covered parts of present-day Belgium, Holland, Germany and France -, uncle of Godofroy of Bouillon, the great hero of the First Crusade.

St Gregory VII excommunicated all the participants of the nefarious assembly of Worms, deposed the emperor and declared that his subjects were bound by the oath of allegiance.

Many bishops and priests in Lombardy were simoniacs and lived with their wives. The Pope wrote to all the prelates in that part of Italy, ordering them to fight against debauchery:

“Cursed be he who sheathes his sword for fear of dyeing it with blood (cf. Jer 48:10), that is, who does not dare to make the lightning of the Gospel word resound in the ears of carnal men.

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“I employ this language because in the midst of the crimes that abound on earth, there are found in Lombardy ministers of Satan, forerunners of the Antichrist.“[4]

Dreadful death of the Bishop of Utrecht

In February 1076, Saint Gregory convened a council in Rome attended by 110 bishops, several abbots and persons of high nobility, including the Empress Agnes, the Marquess Beatrix and her daughter the Countess Matilde.

Sent by Henry IV, two ambassadors entered the conciliar hall and delivered a letter from this impious man, declaring that Saint Gregory was not Pope, but a false monk.

At the request of all the participants in the council, St. Gregory excommunicated Henry IV, who received the news while he was in Utrecht, now Holland.

The bishop of that city summoned the people to an assembly in a church and, from the ambo, began to hurl the most disgraceful insults at the Holy Pontiff. At a certain moment he felt ill and was taken to his residence amidst terrible convulsions.

Feeling the arrival of death, seeing one of Henry VI’s servants beside him, he cried out:

Go tell your master that he, I, and all his doers are damned for ever. I see the devils surrounding my bed, about to take my soul.“[5]

And so this wicked man expired. They dared not give him an ecclesiastical burial.

By Paulo Francisco Martos in Noções de História da Igreja

Compiled by Roberta MacEwan


[1] CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. O Legionário. São Paulo.15-8-1943.

[2] DARRAS, Joseph Epiphane. Histoire Génerale de l’Église. Paris: Louis Vivès. 1875, v. XXI, p. 613.

[3] DICTIONNAIRE DE THÉOLOGIE CATHOLIQUE. Paris: Letouzey et Ané. 1914, v. 6-II, column 1796.

[4] DARRAS, op. cit.v. XXI, p. 582.

[5] Idem, v. XXII, p. 102.

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