When I was a graduate student at Georgia Southern University, I worked as a graduate teaching assistant in the History department. As such we were expected to have door cards on our office doors and on mine I included the following quote.
“If history records good things about good people, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good; or if it records the evil of wicked people, the godly listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and bad, and to do what he knows to be good and pleasing to God.” –Saint Bede the Venerable.
You may find it surprisingly that I was allowed to display a quote by a saint on the door of an office at a secular, state institution but I found it in a book that my thesis advisor, who also taught the undergraduate class on Early Church History, had assigned me so there was not much of an argument they could make against it. (Although I’m certain if they had really wanted to make a big deal out of it, they would have.)
St. Bede the Venerable
Bede the Venerable is one of three saints commemorated on May 25. Bede was born in A.D. 672/3 and died in 735. He was a British Benedictine monk and is most well known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede’s was not the first Ecclesiastical History. That distinction belongs to the work of Eusebius of Caesarea who chronicled the history of the early Church from its founding until his own time in the fourth century. Even before that, the Gospel according to Saint Luke has a distinctly historical character written in a similar style to Herodotus, “the Father of History.” Later historians such Sozomen, Theodoret and Socrates Scholasticus attempted to continue, and in some cases retell, the account of Eusebius.
All of these histories mainly recounted events. In some cases, they added commentary about how these events showed the greatness of God or the wisdom of Divine Providence. Bede was the first to suggest that individuals could use lessons taken from history to better themselves and learn that would help them to achieve sanctity and eventually eternal life.
My students ask me all the time why they should care about social studies and how are they going to use it later in life. During college, I constantly argued with friends who were majoring in engineering or communication that my own major of History was not only important but useful. It is hard to provide convincing answers to these questions in a society that follows STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) so much more than the Humanities and Liberal Arts.
Despite almost being a cliché, that statement “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it,” remains nevertheless true. Many of the problems facing the world today are a result of people forgetting history and failing to understand the various processes that led to certain historical events. For example, many of the problems ailing the American Republic, not the least of which is the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, are the same that affect both the Weimar and Roman Republics shortly before they collapsed. And in their ignorance, many Americans espouse the same policies and support the same kind of politicians that hastened the slides of these republics into dictatorship and totalitarianism.
The words of Saint Bede the Venerable should remind all men of the importance of the study of history to not only carry on the traditions of our forefathers but to be prepared to meet the challenges that are presented to us by the world and that we are called to stand against in whatever role to which we are called as men. Even beyond that, individual men can learn lessons from history that help them to become better men, both mentally and spiritually.
Pope St. Gregory VII
A historical example of a man who manfully meet the challenges that the world presented to his particular vocation is Pope St. Gregory VII, who is commemorated on the same day as St. Bede. Originally a Franciscan monk named Hildebrand, Gregory VII reigned as pope from 1073 until 1085 during the aftermath of a time Bishop Athanasius Schneider has termed the “Dark Century”. This Dark Century was a time of incredible corruption in the papacy, and the Church as a whole. It fell to Gregory and other “reforming popes” to clean out the rot and bring the institution back to some semblance of the Church that Christ had founded.
Then, as now, removing corruption was not an easy task. A key part of doing so was removing political influence that was infecting the Church. A significant abuse at that time was the practice of “lay investiture.” A vassal was a nobleman who swore loyalty to a “lord,” usually a king or more powerful nobleman, in exchange for a title and a grant of land called a “fief.” Because the bishop was nominated by the king and the diocese was considered a kind of fief, the king considered the bishops of his country to be his vassals, with all the obligations of loyalty that entailed. As a symbolic gesture, the king would produce each of his vassals with the symbols or tokens of their respective offices. For that reason, at an episcopal consecration the king would present the newly consecrated bishop with the symbols of his office: the crozier and ring.
Pope St. Gregory VII rightly saw two enormous problems with this practice. The first was the political dimension. Many bishops put their loyalty to the king over loyalty to the Pope and would side with, and support, the former in disputes with the latter. This critically weakened both the spiritual and political authority of the Pope. While at that time many of the quibbles between Pope and king were political in nature, oftentimes these bishops would, as many do know, put political aspirations above their religious duties and side with the king even in disputes over spiritual matters. Even more importantly, the practice of lay investiture gave the king, who was a layman, a significant part in a liturgical service in which he should have had no part, blurring the line between the ordained and lay states.
Pope Gregory acted decisively to put an end to the abuse of lay investiture. This brought him into direct conflict with Henry IV, king of Germany. Henry felt that removing the practice of lay investiture would weaken his authority as king, which at the time he desperately needed to maintain. Henry was also the Holy Roman Emperor. In this position as “emperor of the Romans,” the Holy Roman Emperor maintained the power to veto a papal election. Henry extended this to include the power to depose the Pope and threatened to remove Gregory from the papacy if he did not rescind his order ending lay investiture.
Unfazed, Gregory stood his ground. He pointed out that since Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor in A.D. 800, the Pope actually had the power to depose the emperor and not the other way around. He excommunicated Henry, declared that Henry was no longer the legitimate Emperor and absolved his subjects of their loyalty to him.
Gregory’s intransigence made Henry realize that if he wanted to keep this throne, he had to convince the Pope to lift the excommunication. To this end, Henry resolved to make a show of doing penance by walking from Speyer in Germany to Canossa in Italy, where Pope Gregory was spending the winter. When Henry arrived, Gregory refused to allow the emperor to enter the castle in which the Pope was staying and Henry spent three days in the snow, fasting and barefoot. On the fourth day, Gregory allowed Henry to enter the castle, at which point Henry knelt before the Pope and publically asked for forgiveness and to be readmitted to the Church.
Gregory must have at least suspected that Henry’s apparent penance was a calculated, political move and that his apparent penitence was insincere. By publically absolving, the Pope lost the political leverage he had gained by excommunicating Henry. However, Gregory put his duty as a shepherd of souls over political considerations, and accepted Henry as penitent, whom he had a duty to absolve. Thus, Henry was reconciled to the Church.
Later history remembered Henry’s penitential walk to Canossa as a symbol of the Church, specifically the Pope, imposing his will on the state, specifically the German Empire or Reich. During his Kulturkampf (“struggle of cultures”) against the Catholic in Germany during the late nineteenth century, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck stated that “We will not walk to Canossa,” stating that he would continue to oppose the influence of the Pope, who was at that time Pope Pius IX.
It was not long before Henry returned to his old ways and the Pope excommunicated him once again. This time, Henry did not attempt reconciliation but instead led an army to sack Rome and remove the Pope. Gregory was defended by Norman allies but their violence in taking control of the city angered the population and forced Gregory to withdraw to Salerno. There he died on May 25, 1085. His last words, which are written on his tombstone, were said to have been,
“I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore, I die in exile.”
Pope St. Gregory VII’s last words and epitaph well sum up his entire papacy. They serve as a historical reminder for all men, but especially bishops, of the consequences of doing what is right and standing up to evil. The main reason for the many crises currently assailing Christian civilization is that few men, and even fewer bishops, are willing to speak truth to power in the way that Pope St. Gregory did largely out of fear of suffering a similar fate. The world needs this kind of strong leadership to face the many evils of our time. One of the reasons for the unexpected success of Donald Trump as a Presidential candidate is that American society has been so paralyzed by political correctness, that people rally around the first person to abandon it, not matter how crass, unintelligent and amoral that person may be.
It is time for true men of God to rise up and unapologetically and fearlessly fight for truth and justice against iniquity, even in face of exile, prison or even death, political or bodily. Let us pray that God, through the intercession of Sts. Gregory VII and Bede the Venerable, may grant us the courage to do this.