"Every true and lasting reform has ultimately sprung from the sanctity of men who were driven by the love of God and men. Generous, ready to stand to attention to any call from God, yet confident in themselves because confident in their vocation, they grew to the size of beacons and reformers."
Pope Pius XI, On the Church and the German Third Reich 1937
Unsupported by their brethren: But confident in their calling
In the nineteenth century priestly formation was inspired by a manliness which anticipated spiritual combat. As a result, bishops and priests were not only well formed, but they developed the habit of telling Catholics what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. For example, in 1896 James Cardinal Gibbons wrote a book for his priests and seminarians with the title- The Ambassador of Christ. In his book, Cardinal Gibbons addressed the reason why some clergy and teachers of the Faith tend to avoid addressing difficult truths of the Gospel. And the reason for this avoidance was the love of human respect and the dread of incurring disfavor. On human respect, he wrote:
"The vice opposed to self respect is human respect. Human respect is a base condescension by which, from the fear of offending others, or from the desire of acquiring their esteem, a man says or does what his conscience conceives to be unlawful. It is not easy to exaggerate the baneful influence which this moral cowardice exerts on mankind, especially on impressionable youth, under the alluring guise of friendship and love of applause...
God has established in your breast the sacred tribunal of conscience by whose dictates you are bound to decide. But in yielding to human respect, you act the part of a temporizing judge like Pilate, who pronounced sentence, not in accordance with the evidence before Him, but in obedience to the clamors of the multitude. You sacrifice principle to expediency, you subordinate the voice of God to the voice of man, you surrender your Christian liberty and manly independence, and you become the slave of a fellow creature."
Several hundred years earlier Pope St. Gregory VII wrote in the eleventh century about the love of human respect and the aversion to hatred so common among Christian leaders during his time. The subtle temptation to curry favor with the people is no small obstacle in calling people to repentance; but the call to repentance is a must if pastors are to save souls. The same can be said whenever the courageous attempt was made to reform the Church.
It should be expected, then, that whenever Christians shine the light of Christ in dark corners, some people will put up a fight and as such, there is a price to be paid. For this saintly pope, he was driven out of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Like so many political rulers throughout history, Henry IV favored State-control over the Church. But because St. Gregory VII stood up to the emperor- and even excommunicated him at one point – he eventually died in exile; that is, outside of Rome.
Nevertheless, due to St. Gregory VII initiatives, a movement of reform was generated among the clergy; a reform which led to the liberation of the Church from the domination of the State.
You might be surprised to learn that the Church around 1000 A.D. experienced much of the same problems that she struggled with in recent years. Internationally, the uprising of Islam posed a problem for Christianity, within the Church the clergy was riddled with sexual scandals, including pedophilia, and, as mentioned, the State was meddling into the affairs of the Church. But tolerance of these evils was not an option for this St. Gregory VII; rather, he sought to actively purge them and in doing so incurred the disfavor of many! Among those who opposed his robust measures of reform were his own bishops and priests.
No doubt, the most painful part of his ministry as pope was being opposed by his own brethren; that is, by bishops and priests who should have been on his side. After all, he was only human. As such, his zeal for God's glory led him to feel alone and abandoned at times. In fact, on January 22nd, in the year 1075 A.D., he wrote a letter to St. Hugo, Abbot of Cluny, expressing his anxiety and toil that was daily afflicting him in his role as the Head of the Catholic Church. He writes, “If it were possible, I should greatly desire you to understand fully what anxiety oppresses me, what toil renewed day by day wearies and disturbs me by its increasing burden, so that your brotherly sympathy might incline you toward me and cause you to pour out your heart in flood of tears before God, that Jesus, the man of poverty, through whom all things were made and who is ruler over all, might stretch forth his hand and deliver me from my misery with his wonted mercy.”
Yet, to borrow the words of Cardinal James Gibbons, be refused to subordinate the voice of God to the voice of man. He was full of that Christian liberty and manly independence which characterized so many of the Church Fathers. And because he came from a background which trained him in prayer and in holiness, he never became a slave to human respect. As to this very point, he wrote to his clergy:
"The only reason why the leaders of the nations and the leaders of the priests have armed themselves and come together against Christ and His Vicar is this- that we would not keep silent as to the dangers which threaten the Holy Church, nor yield to those who would reduce the Bride of Christ to slavery...There are those in the world thousands of men who risk death every day at the summons of their lords. Yet, when the interests of the King of Heaven, our Redeemer, are at stake, how many Christians shrink, not from death only but even from the hatred of men. And the few- thanks be to God for those few -who dare to resist the wicked openly, and to face death, are not only unsupported by their brethren, but are accused by them of imprudence, and indiscretion, and are treated as fools..."
Jesus Christ died outside the walls of Jerusalem. Our Lord said that a servant is not greater than his master. As the leader of all Christians, Jesus led by example and allowed himself to be ostracized by his own. Because he, the Lord of all, was an object of the world's hate, he told his disciples to expect no different. Pope St. Gregory VII did just that! He expected to be treated like his Master. Again, he was driven outside of Rome by Henry IV only to die in exile. The last words of this great pope was as follows: "I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile."
Inspired by the love of justice and the hatred for iniquity, St. Gregory VII led the Church to its restoration which it so desperately needed. He persisted and ended up infusing the Church with his monastic spirituality and vigor. Indeed, the Catholic Church was to benefit from his holiness and reform for centuries to come.
In Gibbons' 1896 book, The Ambassador of Christ, he passed down to his priests and seminarians the science of the virtues of great leaders. Indeed, they were trained to work for God's glory and the spiritual welfare of those souls committed to them even if, God forbid, they were to be bereft of their brethren's support. After all, being a Saint- especially a saintly member of the clergy -can be a lonely calling. Yet, as Pope Pius XI wrote to the persecuted German clergy in 1937, such a calling enabled leaders throughout history to respond to any call from God; even if it meant going about it alone.
Confidence in their calling empowered the Ambassadors of Christ to be confident in themselves. May this confidence be restored among our spiritual leaders as well as every Catholic who desires to follow Christ. And may the wise counsel of men like Pope St. Gregory VII, Cardinal James Gibbons and Pope Pius XI be dusted off and be taught once again in our Catholic institutions.