St. Gregory VII – The Pope Who Overcame the World

The Church is under attack from many sides. On the one hand, political power threatens its freedom. On the other, money is the sole master of a clergy that is predominantly deviant. The contempt – if not persecution – of celibacy tightens the siege even more. What is the solution? A saint.

A unique scene was unfolding in the fortress of Canossa, in the north of the Italian Peninsula. Three days had passed since a miserable man dressed in penitential sackcloth, barefoot in the snow and fasting from morning until night, loudly pleaded on his knees to enter the innermost part of the castle. One circumstance made the spectacle especially dramatic: the most merciless winter of the century was raging. Nevertheless, the unusual nature of the scene was more on account of the characters than the facts. The one who refused entry was the Pope, and the beggar was the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, the greatest monarch of the West.

What twists and turns of history had led to such a paroxysm?

Henry IV before St. Gregory VII, by Taddeo and Federico Zuccari

The war takes shape

During those days of January 26 to 28 in 1077, unfolded one of the battles of the enormous war, in which Pope Gregory VII played the role of the Church’s general. It did in fact result in a resounding victory for the Pontiff, but only on one front, since the Church was under siege from several directions.

On one side, it was attacked by Emperor Henry IV, who reserved the right to invest bishops and clerics with their offices. Many of the imperial lands, which stretched from the northern half of present-day Italy to the current borders of Germany and even beyond, belonged to episcopal sees and abbeys. Since it was the feudal lord who distributed the respective domains to his vassals, the emperor thought he also had the right to choose the clerics who would take possession of these lands. However, the election or confirmation of a bishop could only be carried out by the Supreme Pontiff. One can well imagine the problem that arose from this: the Kaiser appointed any prelate he liked, without requesting papal consent. This was the first and most serious problem… but it was not the only one.

As the lands that fell to the clerics unlawfully invested by the emperor were lucrative, commerce began to surround these functions: simony proliferated, the nefarious sacrilege already practised by Simon the Magician (cf. Acts 8:18-24), of submitting the sacred to money.

This second evil spawned a son worse than the father, namely, a clergy all intent on profit, invested in ecclesiastical functions without the supervision of Rome: this is the equation that resulted in the depravity of those who were called to be the “light of the world” (Mt 5:14) by their example. As a result, moral scandals among these priests multiplied, especially with regard to the celibacy they were obliged to observe. It was a third side of the siege being laid on the Holy and Immortal Church.

St. Gregory clearly discerned the entire situation. Imperturbable, resolute and audacious, he declared war. The splendid period of the Gregorian reform was dawning.

But how had this glorious Pope arisen?

From Hildebrand to Gregory VII

The life of this Pontiff is as marvellous and shrouded in mystery as the dawn. The birth of Hildebrand – that was his name – most likely took place between 1015 and 1023, in the village of Sovana, in Tuscany. We know almost nothing about his childhood and youth, except that he came from a modest, plebeian family and that, as a young man, he became a Benedictine at the Abbey of St. Mary on the Aventine – a daughter of Cluny – in Rome. There he formed his personality and began to outline the history he would write. His character was moulded by the Cluniac mentality, which was then sculpting the splendour of the Middle Ages: his papacy would be a “monastic enterprise”,1 and his actions that of a religious crowned with a papal tiara.

In the Eternal City he so distinguished himself that, as early as 1046, he accompanied the future Pope Gregory VI to Germany. Upon his return, he was made a cardinal-subdeacon and from then on became counsellor and secretary to all the successive Roman Pontiffs: Leo IX, Victor II, Stephen IX, Nicholas II and Alexander II. When the latter died on April 21, 1073, he was acclaimed as the worthy successor of St. Peter during his predecessor’s funeral rites.

Averse to this election, he asked Emperor Henry IV to veto it. If the monarch was unwilling to do so, he promised a severe and inexorable war against secular investitures and the simony they promoted. Happily and inexplicably, the sovereign ratified the election.

Elevated to the Apostolic See, ordained priest and bishop – for he was then no more than a deacon – he took the name of the first Pope he served, Gregory. “The reform, for which he had laboured and suffered so much under his predecessors, was now in his hands.” 2

He did not delay in taking action.

Opening fire

In the third month of the following year, a council met in Rome in which it was decided to excommunicate all bishops and clerics who were simoniacs or fornicators. In one fell swoop, St. Gregory VII bloodied the various faces of the conspiracy that was assaulting the Church. By wounding simony and clerogamy, he also struck the emperor.

The emperor, instigated by the excommunicated, decided to settle the case without further ceremony. As the Servant of the Servants of God officiated at the Christmas feast in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, a band of armed men entered the temple, assailing the faithful and pouncing upon the Pontiff, kidnapping him! With the Pope in their hands, the sacrilegious horde ran through the streets of Rome to escape to the Alps, where the emperor would receive them. To no avail, for the flock defended its Shepherd.

After three days of penance in the snow, the greatest monarch of the West implored the Pope’s pardon, in a resounding victory for the Church

The first attack from hell had failed. The war continued…

On February 22, 1076, Hildebrand convened another council in the Lateran Basilica. And Henry IV played a desperate card. After the Veni Creator was sung, an imperial emissary rose: “King Henry, our lord, sends us to inform you of his irrevocable decisions. […] We say to you, Gregory, by virtue of royal authority: descend now from the Apostolic See, if you wish to live. […] Come down! Come down, you who are cursed for ever and ever!”3

By one of those ironies of history, they were the ones who had to flee to save their lives, driven by the cries of hostility from all those taking part in the council. The Pope then announced his intention to anathematize Henry IV and his accomplices. The assembled Council Fathers agreed with the Successor of Peter. The emperor was excommunicated!

The victories

With this act, all the imperial vassals were ipso facto released from the obedience they owed Henry. However, his subjects not only abandoned him, but demanded that he reconcile with the Church by February 2 of the following year, when he would be tried for his many unspeakable crimes, which were not limited to disobedience to the Papacy. If he was found guilty at that meeting, he would be stripped of his office once and for all.

St. Gregory’s diadem was perfect virginity. Mary was his closest confidante, his most heeded counsellor, and the Mistress of all his actions

Just as “the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars” (Ps 29:5), so a word from the Pope bent the greatest monarch of the West. It was the same moral force that had already weighed on other powerful people: the Norman Robert Guiscard, conqueror of southern Italy and victor at the Bosphorus, who was conquered by the Pope; the King of France, Philip I, who heard the Pope’s rebukes; Solomon of Hungary and Sweyn II, King of Denmark, among others, who felt the power of Peter’s keys.

This checkmate by St. Gregory VII was what led the prince to prostrate himself and beg forgiveness – and to obtain it, thanks to the great mercy of the Saint – at Canossa. Despite this, it was not until the Lateran Ecumenical Council, held in 1123 under the aegis of Callixtus II, that the Church’s victory on all three fronts was solemnly sealed.

Ruins of the castle of Canossa (Italy)

Faced with these facts, materialistic eyes might look at St. Gregory as a man with a strong will, a statesman with a broad political vision, a colossus who made Europe bow down to him more effectively than Caesar Augustus, Charlemagne or Napoleon. How short-sighted!

Hildebrand, the poor commoner from Sovana, would have been nothing if grace had not transformed him into St. Gregory VII.

So what were the influences of the divine life, what were the virtues, what were the devotions that made him a landmark in Universal History and a beacon in hagiography?

The Pope’s weapons

St. Gregory VII was first and foremost a monk. His diadem, therefore, was perfect virginity. Despite the calumnies – those shadows with which envy always pursues men of integrity – that were levelled against him, there was never a doubt in the minds of those who beheld the purity of his gaze. The “divine Mary”, as he invoked her, was the bulwark of this and his other virtues, as well as his most intimate confidante, his most heeded counsellor and the Mistress of all his actions. This was yet another proof of his holiness, for there is no saint without a fervent devotion to the Redeemer’s Mother.

What was the effect of the practice of chastity on this man? “He that has clean hands,” exclaims Job, “grows stronger and stronger” (17:9). This is another of his crowning achievements: the courage to have faced a whole era and an already centuries-old decadence in the clergy; the courage to unmask sin and punish the sinner.

He was well aware that the peoples curse and nations abhor him who says to the guilty: “You are innocent” (cf. Pr 24:24). The reverse is also true: history acclaims St. Gregory among the greatest men to have walked the earth.

He strengthened this firmness with the “Bread of the Angels” (Ps 78:25). The Divine Eucharist was his beacon and the weapon with which he dispersed God’s enemies. Weapon? He put it this way: “The most effective weapons […] against the prince of this world are frequent Communion of the Body of the Lord and a devotion full of confidence and tenderness to the Virgin Mother of God.”4

Such enthusiasm for the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Real Presence could not be separated from love for the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. “Few Pontiffs have had such a lofty sense of the Church”5 as St. Gregory. For her sake he faced the greatest difficulties, ran the riskiest adventures and did the impossible to defend her. “I have always endeavoured,” he wrote in his last pastoral letter, “that the Church should be free, pure and orthodox.”6 “Free” from the intrusion of the state into the spiritual sphere, “pure” in its ministers, and “orthodox” in its doctrine.

Recumbent statue of St. Gregory VII, containing his mortal remains – Cathedral of Salerno (Italy)

This triad of devotions was the intact badge he wore on his chest: fervour for the Blessed Sacrament, love for Our Lady and zeal for the Church and the Papacy.


Despite everything, this Pontiff was defeated. Yes, having been expelled from Rome by the once again revolted emperor, who had himself crowned there by the antipope Clement III, he gave his soul to God on May 25, 1085, exclaiming: “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.”7 O sorrow! To be defeated after a lifetime of struggle…

He loved justice and hated iniquity: for his heroism in the face of persecutions, a light was lit in the Church that will never be extinguished

Defeated? Only in appearance, for the future would bring him victory.8

Defeated? No, because his last words are the testament and proof of his conformity to God, since he loved and hated as God did: “The Lord,” sings the psalmist, “loves those who hate evil” (Ps 97:10).

Defeated? No, because the moment he succumbed to death, a light was lit for the Church and the world that will never be extinguished: an example of heroism for all men and of holiness for all Catholics. Above all, a model for the Supreme Pontiffs, who can never tolerate to bow before worldly dictates.

The day of his “defeat”, May 25, is the day on which the whole Church commemorates his victory. ◊



1 ARQUILLIÈRE, Henri-Xavier. Saint Grégoire VII. Essai sur sa conception du pouvoir pontifical. Paris: J. Vrin, 1934, p.21.

2 CARUCCI, Arturo. San Gregorio VII e Salerno. 2.ed. Marigliano: Istituto Anselmi, 1984, p.41.

3 GOBRY, Ivan. Mathilde de Toscane. Condé-sur-Noireau: Clovis, 2002, p.46; 48.

4 ST. GREGORY VII, apud GOBRY, op. cit., p.32.

5 DANIEL-ROPS, Henri. A Igreja das catedrais e das cruzadas. São Paulo: Quadrante, 1993, p.142.

6 ST. GREGORY VII, apud WEISS, Juan Bautista. Historia Universal. Barcelona: La Educación, v.V, p.357.

7 Idem, ibidem.

8 “Gregory would die without obtaining victory. Nevertheless, Urban II, Paschal II and Callistus II would reaffirm and execute his decrees” (DURANT, Will. A História da Civilização. A Idade da Fé. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 1950, v.IV, p.484).



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