Gregory VII — his name had been Hildebrand before becoming Pope — was born about the year 1020. For two years he was a Benedictine monk of Cluny (1047-1049), then he became a cardinal, and finally, in 1073, Pope. A strong character with a remarkable personality, he easily takes a place with the greatest popes in the Church’s history.
His life was one long struggle to purify and unify the Church, and to make her free and independent of secular powers. He enacted strict prohibitions against simony (the purchasing of ecclesiastical preferments), clerical concubinage, and lay investiture (appointment to ecclesiastical offices by civil authorities). On this later score he soon became involved in a dispute with the Emperor Henry IV which caused him untold trouble and which finally resulted in banishment and death. But his stand cleansed the Church and restored its status. Gregory died in exile with these words on his lips: “I loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.”
Concerning him the Protestant historian Gregorovius wrote: “In the history of the papacy, there will always be two shining stars to reveal the spiritual greatness of the popes. The one is Leo, before whom the terrible destroyer Attila drew back; the other is Gregory, before whom Henry IV knelt in the garb of a penitent. Each of these world renowned men, however, engenders a different reaction. Where Leo inspires highest reverence for pure moral greatness, Gregory fills one with admiration because of an almost superhuman personality. The monk who won without weapons has more right to be admired than Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon.
“The battles fought by medieval popes were not waged with weapons of iron and lead, but with moral weapons. It was the application and operation of such lofty, spiritual means that occasionally raised the Middle Ages above our own. Alongside Gregory, Napoleon appears as a bloody barbarian. . . . Gregory’s accomplishment is a distinctly medieval phenomenon, to study it will always be exciting. The history of the Christian world would lose one of its rarest pages if this stalwart character, this artisan’s son in the tiara, were missing.”
His lifework was based on his conviction that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law; that, in her capacity as a divine institution, she is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state; and that the pope, in his role as head of the Church, is the vice-regent of God on earth, so that disobedience to him implies disobedience to God: or, in other words, a defection from Christianity. But any attempt to interpret this in terms of action would have bound the Church to annihilate not merely a single state, but all states.
Thus Gregory, as a politician wanting to achieve some result, was driven in practice to adopt a different standpoint. He acknowledged the existence of the state as a dispensation of Providence, described the coexistence of church and state as a divine ordinance, and emphasized the necessity of union between the sacerdotium and the imperium. But at no period would he have dreamed of putting the two powers on an equal footing; the superiority of church to state was to him a fact which admitted of no discussion and which he had never doubted.
He wished to see all important matters of dispute referred to Rome; appeals were to be addressed to himself; the centralization of ecclesiastical government in Rome naturally involved a curtailment of the powers of bishops. Since these refused to submit voluntarily and tried to assert their traditional independence, his papacy is full of struggles against the higher ranks of the clergy.
This battle for the foundation of papal supremacy is connected with his championship of compulsory celibacy among the clergy and his attack on simony. Gregory VII did not introduce the celibacy of the priesthood into the Church, but he took up the struggle with greater energy than his predecessors. In 1074 he published an encyclical, absolving the people from their obedience to bishops who allowed married priests. The next year he enjoined them to take action against married priests, and deprived these clerics of their revenues. Both the campaign against priestly marriage and that against simony provoked widespread resistance.
His writings treat mainly of the principles and practice of Church government. They may be found under the title “Gregorii VII registri sive epistolarum libri”. He thought the church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law.]
Impact on the Eucharist
Gregory VII was seen by Pope Paul VI as instrumental in affirming the tenet that Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament. Gregory’s demand that Berengarius perform a confession of this belief was quoted in Pope Paul VI’s historic 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei:
I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine that are placed on the altar are, through the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer, substantially changed into the true and proper and lifegiving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that after the consecration they are the true body of Christ.
This profession of faith began a “Eucharistic Renaissance” in the churches of Europe as of the 12th century/
Gregory died in exile in Salerno; the epitaph on Gregory VII’s sarcophagus in the city’s Cathedral says: “I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore, I die in exile.