Pope St. Gregory VII: Letter to Hermann of Metz

Pope St. Gregory VII

Letter to Bishop Hermann of Metz, March 15, 1081

Bishop Gregory, servant of the servants of God, to his beloved brother in Christ, Hermann bishop of Metz, greeting and apostolic benediction. It is doubtless owing to a dispensation of God that, as we learn, thou art ready to bear labours and dangers in defence of the truth. For such is His ineffable grace and wonderful mercy that He never allows His chosen ones completely to go astray— never permits them utterly to fall or to be cast down. For, after they have been afflicted by a time of persecution— a useful term of probation as it were,— He makes them, even if they have passed through some trepidation, stronger than before. Since, moreover, manly courage impels one strong man to act more bravely than another and to press forward more boldly— even as among cowards fear induces one to flee more disgracefully than another,— we wish, beloved, with the voice of exhortation, to impress this upon thee: thou should’st the more delight to stand in the army of the Christian faith among the first, the more thou art convinced that they are the most worthy and the nearest to God the victors. Thy demand, indeed, to be aided, as it were, by our writings and fortified against the madness of those who babble forth with unhallowed mouth that the authority of the holy and apostolic see had no right to excommunicate Henry— a man who despises the Christian law; a destroyer, namely, of the churches and of the empire; a favourer of heretics and a partaker with them— or to absolve any one from the oath of fealty to him, does not seem to us to be altogether necessary when so many and such absolutely certain proofs are to be found in the pages of Holy Scripture. Nor do we believe, indeed, that those who, heaping up for themselves damnation, impudently detract from the truth and run counter to it have joined these charges to the audacity of their defence so much from ignorance as from a certain madness of wretched desperation. And no wonder. For it is the custom of the wicked to strive after protection from their iniquity and to defend those like to themselves; considering it of no importance that they incur perdition for lying.

For, to cite a few passages from among many, who does not know the words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who says in the gospel: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock will I build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth shall be bound also in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth shall be loosed also in Heaven”? Are kings excepted here, or do they not belong to the sheep which the Son of God committed to St. Peter. Who, I ask, in this universal concession of the power of binding and loosing, can think that he is withdrawn from the authority of St. Peter, unless, perhaps, that unfortunate man who is unwilling to bear the yoke of the Lord and subjects himself to the burden of the devil, refusing to be among the number of Christ’s sheep? It will help him little to his wretched liberty, indeed, that he shake from his proud neck the divinely granted power of Peter. For the more any one, through pride, refuses to bear it, the more heavily shall it press upon him unto damnation at the judgment.

The holy fathers, indeed, as well in general councils as otherwise in their writings and doings, have called the holy Roman church the universal mother, accepting and serving with great veneration this institution founded by the divine will, this pledge of a dispensation to the church, this privilege handed over in the beginning and confirmed to St. Peter the chief of the apostles. And even as they accepted its proofs in confirmation of their faith and of the doctrines of holy religion, so also they received its judgments— consenting in this, and agreeing as it were with one spirit and one voice: that all greater matters and exceptional cases, and judgments over all churches, ought to be referred to it as to a mother and a head; that from it there was no appeal; that no one should or could retract or refute its decisions. Wherefore the blessed Pope Gelasius, armed with the divine authority, when writing to the emperor Anastasius how and what he should think concerning the primacy of the holy and apostolic see, instructed him as follows: “although,” he said, “before all priests in common who duly exercise divine functions it is right that the necks of the faithful should be bowed, by how much more should the bishop of the Roman see be obeyed, whom both the supreme deity has willed to predominate over all priests and the subsequent piety of the whole church in common has honoured? From which thy prudence clearly sees that, with him whom the voice of Christ placed over all, and whom a venerable church lies always professed and devoutly holds as its primate, no one can, by any human device whatever, gain an equal privilege and be equally acknowledged.” Likewise pope Julius, when writing to the oriental bishops concerning the power of that same holy and apostolic see, said: ” It would have become ye, brethren, to choose your words and not to speak ironically against the holy Roman and apostolic church, since our Lord Jesus Christ, addressing it as was fitting, said: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven.’ For it has the power, granted to it by a special privilege, of opening and closing for whom it will the gates of the kingdom of Heaven. “Is it not lawful, then, for him to whom the power of opening and closing Heaven is granted to exercise judgment upon earth? God forbid that it should not be! Remember what the most blessed apostle Paul says: “Know ye not that we shall judge angels? How much more the things of earth!” The blessed pope Gregory also decreed that those kings should fall from their dignity who should dare to violate the statutes of the apostolic see, writing to a certain abbot, Senator, as follows: “But if any king, priest, judge or secular person, disregarding this the page of our decree, shall attempt to act counter to it he shall lose the dignity of his power and honour and shall know that he, in the sight of God, is guilty of committing a crime. And unless he restore the things which have been wrongfully removed by him, or unless he atone by fitting penance for his unlawful acts, he shall be kept away from the most sacred body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and shall undergo a stern vengeance at the eternal judgment.”

But if the blessed Gregory, the most gentle of teachers decreed that kings who should violate his decrees in the matter of a single hospice should not only be deposed but also excommunicated and, at the last judgment, condemned: who, save one like to them, will blame us for having deposed and excommunicated Henry, who is not alone a scorner of the apostolic judgments but also, as far as in him lies, a treader under foot of holy mother church herself and a most shameless robber and atrocious destroyer of the whole realm and of the churches. As we have learned, through St. Peter’s teaching, from a letter concerning the ordination of Clement in which it says: “If any one shall be a friend to those with whom he (Clement) does not speak, he also is one of those who wish to exterminate the church of God; and while, with his body, he seems to be with us, he is with heart and soul against us. And such an enemy is far more dangerous than those who are without and who are open enemies. For he, under the guise of friendship, does hostile acts, and rends and lays waste the church.” Mark well, beloved, if this pope so severely judges the friend or companion of those with whom, on account of their actions he is angry, with what condemnation he will visit the man himself with whose actions he is displeased.

But to return to the matter in hand. Is not a dignity like this, founded by laymen— even by those who do not know God,— subject to that dignity which the providence of God Almighty has, in His own honour, founded and given to the world? For His Son, even as He is undoubtingly believed to be God and man, so is He considered the highest priest, the head of all priests, sitting on the right hand of the Father and always interceding for us. And He despised a secular kingdom, which makes the sons of this world swell with pride, and came of His own will to the priesthood of the cross. Who does not know that kings and leaders are sprung from those who— ignorant of God— by pride, plunder, perfidy, murders— in a word by almost every crime, the devil, who is the prince of this world, urging them on as it were— have striven with blind Cupidity and intolerable presumption to dominate over their equals; namely, over men? To whom, indeed, can we better compare them, when they seek to make the priests of God bend to their footprints, than to him who is head over all the sons of pride and who, tempting the Highest Pontiff Himself, the Head of priests, the Son of the Most High, and promising to Him all the kingdoms of the world, said: “All these I will give unto Thee if Thou wilt fall down and worship me?” who can doubt but that the priests of Christ are to be considered the fathers and masters of kings and princes and of all the faithful? Is it not considered miserable madness for a Son to attempt to subject to himself his father, a pupil his master; and for one to bring into his power and bind with iniquitous bonds him by whom he believes that he himself can be bound and loosed not only on earth but also in Heaven ? This the emperor Constantine the Great, lord of all the kings and princes of nearly the whole world, evidently understood-as the blessed Gregory reminds us in a letter to the emperor Mauritius-when, sitting last after all the bishops in the holy council of Nicaea, he presumed to give no sentence of judgment over them, but, even calling them gods, decreed that they should not be subject to his judgment but that he should be dependent upon their will. Also the aforementioned pope Gelasius, persuading the said emperor Anastasius not to take offense tat the truth which had been made clear to his senses added this remark: “For, indeed, O august emperor, there are two things by which this world is chiefly ruled-the sacred authority of the pontiffs and the royal power; whereby the burden of the priests is by so much the heavier according as they, at the divine judgment of men, are about to render account for the kings themselves.” And a little further on he says: “Thou dost know, therefore, that in these matters thou art dependent on their judgment and that thou art not to wish to reduce them to do thy will.”

Very many of the pontiffs, accordingly, armed with such decrees and with such authorities, have excommunicated— some of them kings; some, emperors. For, if any special example of the persons of such princes is needed,— the blessed pope Innocent excommunicated. the emperor Arcadius for consenting that St. John Chrysostom should be expelled from his see. Likewise another Roman pontiff— Zacchary, namely-deposed a king of the Franks, not so much for his iniquities as for the reason that he was not fitted to exercise so great power. And he substituted Pipin, father of the emperor Charles the Great, in his place— loosing all the Franks from the oath of fealty which they had sworn him. As, indeed, the holy church frequently does by its authority when it absolves servitors from the fetters of an oath sworn to such bishops as, by apostolic sentence, are deposed from their pontifical rank. And the blessed Ambrose— who, although a saint, was not, indeed, bishop over the whole church— excommunicated and excluded from the church the emperor Theodosius the Great for a fault which, by other priests, was not regarded as very grave. He shows, too, in his writings that, not by so much is gold more precious than lead, as the priestly dignity is more lofty than the royal power; speaking thus towards the beginning of his pastoral letter: “The honour and sublimity of bishops, brethren, is beyond all comparison. If one should compare them to resplendent kings and diademed princes it would be far less worthy than if one compared the base metal lead to gleaming gold. For, indeed, one can see how the necks of kings and princes are bowed before the knees of priests; and how, having kissed their right hands, they believe themselves to be fortified by their prayers.” And, after a little: “Ye should know brethren, that we have thus mentioned all these things in order to show that nothing in this life can be found more lofty than priests or more sublime than bishops.”

Thou, brother, should’st also remember that more power is granted to an exorcist, when he is made a spiritual emperor for the casting out of demons, than can be granted to any layman in the matter of secular dominion. Over all kings and princes of the earth who do not live religiously and do not, in their actions, fear God as they should, demons— alas, alas— hold sway, confounding them with a wretched servitude. For such men desire to rule, not, induced by divine love, to the honour of God and for the saving of souls-like the priests of the church; but they strive to have dominion over others in order to show forth their intolerable pride and to fulfil the lusts of their heart Concerning whom the blessed Augustine says in the first book on the Christian teaching: “For, indeed, whoever strives to gain dominion even over those who are by nature his equals— that is, over men: his pride is altogether intolerable.” Exorcists, then, have, as we have said, dominion from God over demons: how much more, therefore, over those who are subject to demons and members of demons? If, moreover, exorcists also preeminent over these, how much the more so are priests!

Furthermore every Christian king, when he comes to die, seeks as a miserable suppliant the aid of a priest to the end that he may evade hell’s prison, that he may pass from the shadows to the light, that, at the last judgment, he may appear absolved from the bonds of his sins. But what man— a layman even, not to speak of priests— has ever implored the aid of an earthly king for the salvation of his soul when his last hour was near? And what king or emperor is able, by reason of the office imposed upon him to snatch any Christian from the power of the devil through holy baptism, to number him among the sons of God and to fortify him with the divine unction? And who of them— which is the greatest thing in the Christian religion— can with his own lips make the body and blood of our Lord? Or who of them possesses the power of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth? From which things it is clearly seen how greatly priests excel in power and dignity. Or who of them can ordain any one as clerk in the holy church— much less depose him for any fault? For in the matter of ecclesiastical grades a greater power is needed to depose than to ordain. For bishops may ordain other bishops, but by no means depose them without the authority of the apostolic see. Who, therefore, that is even moderately intelligent can doubt that priests are to be preferred to kings? But if kings are to be judged by priests for their sins, by whom should they be judged with more right than by the Roman pontiff? Finally, any good Christians whatever have much more right to be considered kings than have bad princes. For the former, seeking the glory of God, strenuously rule themselves; but the latter, enemies unto themselves, seeking the things which are their own and not the things which are God’s, are tyrannical oppressors of others. The former are the body of the true king, Christ; the latter, of the devil. The former restrain themselves to the end that they may eternally reign with the supreme emperor; but the sway of the latter brings about this— that they shall perish in eternal damnation with the prince of darkness who is king over all the sons of pride.

Nor, indeed, is it much to be wondered at that wicked bishops are of one mind with a bad king whom— having wrongfully obtained honours from him— they love and fear. For they, simoniacally ordaining whom they please, sell God even for a paltry price. And as the good are indivisibly united with their head, so also the bad are pertinaciously banded together— chiefly against the good— with him who is the head of evil. But against them we ought surely not so much to hold discourse as to weep for them with tears and lamentations: to the end that God Almighty may snatch them from the nooses of Satan in which they are held captive and, after their great danger, bring them at length at some time to a knowledge of the truth.

We refer to kings and emperors who, too much swollen by worldly glory, rule not for God but for themselves. But, since it belongs to our office to distribute exhortation to each person according to the rank or dignity which he adorns, we take care, God impelling us, to provide weapons of humility just for emperors and kings and other princes, that they may be able to subdue the risings of the sea and the waves of pride. For we know that mundane glory and worldly cares usually do induce to pride, especially those who are in authority. They, in consequence, neglecting humility and seeking their own glory, always desire to dominate over their brothers. Wherefore to kings and emperors especially it is of advantage, when their mind tends to exalt itself and to delight in its own particular glory, to find out a means of humbling themselves and to be brought to realize that what they have been rejoicing in is the thing most to be feared. Let them, therefore, diligently consider how dangerous and how much to be feared the royal or imperial dignity is. For in it the fewest are saved; and those who, through the mercy of God, do come to salvation are not glorified in the holy church and in the judgment of the Holy Spirit to the same extent as many poor people. For, from the beginning of the world until these our own times, in the whole of authentic history we do not find seven emperors or kings whose lives were as distinguished for religion and as beautified by significant portents as those of an innumerable multitude who despised the world— although we believe many of them to have found mercy in the presence of God Almighty. For what emperor or king was ever honoured by miracles as were St. Martin, St Antony and St Benedict— not to mention the apostles and martyrs? And what emperor or king raised the dead, cleansed lepers or healed the blind? See how the holy church praises and venerates the emperor Constantine of blessed memory, Theodosius and Honorius, Charles and Louis as lovers of justice, promoters of the Christian religion, defenders of the churches: it does not, however, declare them to have been resplendent with so great a glory of miracles. Moreover, for how many kings or emperors has the holy church ordered chapels or altars to be dedicated to their names, or masses to be celebrated in their honour? Let kings and other princes fear lest the more they rejoice at being placed over other men in this life, the more they will be subjected to eternal fires. For of them it is written: “The powerful shall powerfully suffer torments.” And they are about to render account to God for as many men as they have had subjects under their dominion. But if it be no little task for any private religious man to guard his own soul: how much labour will there be for those who are rulers over many thousands of souls? Moreover, if the judgment of the holy church severely punishes a sinner for the slaying of one man, what will become of those who, for the sake of worldly glory, hand over many thousands to death? And such persons, although after having slain many they often say with their lips “I have sinned,” nevertheless rejoice in their hearts at having extended their fame as it were. And they are unwilling not to have done what they have done, nor do they grieve at having driven their brothers into Tartarus. And, so long as they do not repent with their whole heart and are unwilling to let go what has been acquired or retained through shedding of blood, their penitence before God will remain without the worthy fruit of penitence. Surely, therefore, they ought greatly to fear. And it should frequently be recalled to their memory that, as we have said, in the different kingdoms of the earth, from the beginning of the world, very few of the innumerable multitude of kings are found to have been holy: whereas in one see alone— the Roman one, namely-almost a hundred of the successive pontiffs since the time of St. Peter the apostle are counted among the most holy. Why, then, is this-except that the kings and princes of the earth, enticed by vain glory, prefer, as has been said, the things that are their own to the things that are spiritual; but the pontiffs of the church, despising vain glory, prefer to carnal things the things that are of God? The former readily punish those who sin against themselves and are indifferent to those who sin against God; the latter quickly pardon those who sin against themselves and do not lightly spare those who sin against God. The former, too much bent on earthly deeds, think slightingly of spiritual ones; the latter, sedulously meditating on heavenly things, despise the things which are of earth.

Therefore all Christians who desire to reign with Christ should be warned not to strive to rule through ambition of worldly power, but rather to keep in view what the blessed Gregory, most holy pope, tells them to in his pastoral book when he says: “Among these things, therefore, what is to be-striven for and what to be feared except that he who surpasses in virtue shall be urged and shall come to rule, and that he who is without virtues shall not be urged and shall not come?” But if those who fear God come, when urged, with great fear to the apostolic chair, in which those who are duly ordained are made better by the merits of the apostle St. Peter,— with how much fear and trembling is the throne of the kingdom to be approached, where even the good and humble— as is shown in the case of Saul and David— become worse? For what we have said of the apostolic chair— we know it, too by experience— is thus contained in the decrees of the blessed pope Symmachus: “He— St. Peter, namely— has sent down to posterity a perennial gift of merits together with a heritage of innocence.” And a little further on: “For who can doubt that he is holy who is raised by the apex of so great a dignity? And, if the goods acquired by merit are lacking, those which are furnished by his predecessor suffice. For either he (St. Peter) exalts distinguished men to this summit, or he illumines those who are exalted.”

Therefore let those whom holy church, of its own will and after proper counsel, not for transitory glory but for the salvation of many, calls to have rule or dominion, humbly obey. And let them always beware in that point as to which St. Gregory, in that same pastoral book bears witness: “Indeed, when a man disdains to be like to men, he is made like to an apostate angel. Thus Saul, after having possessed the merit of humility, came to be swelled with pride when at the summit of power. Through humility, indeed, he was advanced; through pride, reproved— God being witness who said: ‘When thou wast small in shine own eyes, did I not make thee head over the tribes of Israel?”‘ And a little further on: “Moreover, strange to say, when he was small in his own eyes he was great in the eyes of God; but when he seemed great in his own eyes he was small in the eyes of God.” Let them also carefully retain what God says in the gospel: “I do not seek my glory”; and, “He who wishes to be the first among you shall be the servant of all.” Let them always prefer the honour of God to their own; let them cherish and guard justice by observing the rights of every man; let them not walk in the counsel of the ungodly but, with an assenting heart, always consort with good men. Let them not seek to subject to themselves or to subjugate the holy church as a handmaid; but chiefly let them strive, by recognizing the teachers and fathers, to honour in due form her eyes— namely the priests of God. For if we are ordered to honour our carnal fathers and mothers— how much more our spiritual ones! And if he who has cursed his carnal father or mother is to be punished with death— what does he merit who curses his spiritual father or mother? Let them not, enticed by carnal love, strive to place one of their own sons over the flock for which Christ poured forth His blood, if they can find some one who is better and more useful than he: lest, loving their son more than God, they inflict the greatest detriment on the holy church. For he who neglects to provide to the best of his ability for such a want— and, as it were, necessity— of holy mother church is openly convicted of not loving God and his neighbour as a Christian should.

For if this virtue— namely, love— has been neglected, no matter what good any one does he shall be without every fruit of salvation. And so by humbly doing these things and by observing the love of God and of their neighbour as they ought, they may hope for the mercy of Him who said: “Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart.” If they shall have humbly imitated Him they shall pass from this servile and transitory kingdom to a true kingdom of liberty and eternity.

Source: Ernest F. Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages (London: George Bell and Sons, 1896), pp. 304-405.