Imagine this: next week, Nancy Pelosi approaches San Francisco Archbishop Cordileone to beg forgiveness for her advocacy of abortion.  Or Vladimir Putin approaches Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and begs forgiveness for his invasion of Ukraine.  (Okay, allow me to dream recklessly that Kirill had not been elected via a Russian version of lay investiture, had spoken truth to power, and had excommunicated Putin.) Almost totally pie-in-the-sky unimaginable, right?  The product of ridiculous daydreaming.  Yet something as amazing as this actually did happen in 1077.  A powerful Emperor approached the Pope, barefoot in the snow, to beg forgiveness.  That Pope was Pope St. Gregory VII, whose feast day is May 25th.  He is not as well known or acclaimed as his namesake, Pope St. Gregory the Great of the 6th century, but Gregory VII (1021-1085) was one of the most consequential popes in history.  In a real sense, he was the John Paul of his day, striving to reform the Church, and standing down secular authorities who sought to influence or suppress the Church.

Gregory was part of a line of late 11th century reform popes who followed an ugly line of bad, often corrupt popes.  Yet “Hildebrand,” as he was known before becoming pope, having first become a Cluny monk, rose up the ecclesiastical ranks to become the most influential prelate in the Church, assisting several reform popes who preceded him.  He helped to clean up finances, guided numerous reforms to fruition, and led the effort to assign the selection of popes to the college of cardinals – in order to reduce the influence of kings on papal selection. 

Hildebrand was so well-regarded that his fellow cardinals elected him pope in 1073 by acclamation.  He immediately embarked upon a series of reforms, advancing what he and the last several popes had begun.  He attacked simony.  He regulated against married clergy and regularized celibacy for priests.  He removed numerous bishops who resisted, including almost the entire array of French bishops.  And perhaps most of all – his greatest legacy – he set to work against lay investiture.  This was the practice of kings and other rulers of the secular state selecting and appointing the Church’s bishops.   They did so out of their own sense that it was their right, as well as the opportunity to consolidate their power.  Church and state were much more interwoven in this era, with kings involved in Church affairs and Church leaders involved in affairs of state.  There was no “separation of Church and state” as we know it today.  Although sometimes a good ruler would appoint a faithful Catholic as bishop, often, these rulers appointed their own people who were less interested in pastoring and more interested in serving their ruler.  This is one significant reason why the Church was saddled with so many bad bishops and popes in the Middle Ages.  They were often “plants” from the state.  Gregory fought this, fought to make the Church independent and better able to carry out its pastoral mission to save souls. 

This came to a climax in the cold of winter, 1077.  Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was fed up with Gregory’s “interference,” so he declared Gregory abdicated.  Kings then could sometimes actually do that.  A lesser pope would have submitted.  Gregory, however, had amassed a level of moral authority and influence beyond any recent pope, and stood his ground.  He called Henry, and raised him one: he excommunicated him.  This was the first time in history a pope had done this to a king.  This had a dual effect.  Not only did excommunication remove Henry from communion with the Catholic Church, but it also meant that Henry could not continue as Emperor. (Church and state were that intertwined.)  Gregory’s prestige had given him the upper hand among the princes of Europe and many backed Gregory.  Consequently, Henry was in trouble, and he knew it.  This led to one of the most extraordinary scenes in all history: the allegedly repentant Emperor approached Pope Gregory barefoot and in penitential garb in the Alpine snow at Canossa in northern Italy, and begged forgiveness.  Gregory was not a fool.  He had every reason to suspect that Henry was only seeking to get his throne back.  But Gregory, motivated primarily by his faith, knew that Christ’s call was to forgive.  And so he did.  Gregory lifted the excommunication.  Still, the point was made.  The Emperor was not above the Church.

Only a strong pope with immense moral authority could have pulled this off.  Even so, Henry wasn’t done.  He went back on the warpath a few years later, incurring another papal excommunication, but this time he invaded Rome and drove Gregory out of the city.  Gregory died in exile a year later.  The issue of lay investiture was not resolved for another few decades, but Gregory had laid the foundation for wresting control of Church leadership away from the state.

Was Henry’s repentance a sham?  Did he not take the excommunication seriously?  Getting inside Henry’s head is risky business but it is likely that his motives were mixed.  Sure, he wanted his throne back.  But, like most all Europeans then, he was also a believing Catholic in an age of genuine belief.  Yes, he wanted power over the Church, but he did recognize the authenticity of the Church as God’s instrument on earth.  And he did care for his soul.  That excommunication without a doubt gave him pause.  It is also risky for us to try and get inside the heads of Pelosi or Putin.  Perhaps Archbishop Cordileone’s act of directing Nancy Pelosi not to present herself for Communion might, in the quiet of the night, politics aside, give her pause, too. We may never know.

Pope St. Gregory VII, monk, reformer, man of sincere faith in God, was motivated by a desire to serve God and to protect God’s Church from undue influences – from within or without.  His leadership – in fostering reform and in battling against lay investiture – was a turning point in Church history.  Through Gregory’s leadership, the Church thereafter moved more toward the pastoral and out from under so much control by the state.  To be sure, many problems lay in the future, but Gregory steered the Church in a more spiritually healthy direction.  And like Pope St. John Paul II, who used his tenacity and moral authority to stand down the Soviets, leading to the collapse of European communism and release of the Catholic Church in eastern and central Europe, so Pope St. Gregory VII’s tenacity and moral authority released the Catholic Church from undue interference of the kings and rulers in the Middle Ages.

Well done, good and faithful servant!


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