Gregory VII — his name had been Hildebrand before becoming Pope — was born about the year 1020. For two years he was a Benedictine monk of Cluny (1047-1049), then he became a cardinal, and finally, in 1073, Pope. A strong character with a remarkable personality, he easily takes a place with the greatest popes in the Church's history.
His life was one long struggle to purify and unify the Church, and to make her free and independent of secular powers. He enacted strict prohibitions against simony (the purchasing of ecclesiastical preferments), clerical concubinage, and lay investiture (appointment to ecclesiastical offices by civil authorities). On this later score he soon became involved in a dispute with the Emperor Henry IV which caused him untold trouble and which finally resulted in banishment and death. But his stand cleansed the Church and restored its status. Gregory died in exile with these words on his lips: "I loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile."
Concerning him the Protestant historian Gregorovius wrote: "In the history of the papacy, there will always be two shining stars to reveal the spiritual greatness of the popes. The one is Leo, before whom the terrible destroyer Attila drew back; the other is Gregory, before whom Henry IV knelt in the garb of a penitent. Each of these world renowned men, however, engenders a different reaction. Where Leo inspires highest reverence for pure moral greatness, Gregory fills one with admiration because of an almost superhuman personality. The monk who won without weapons has more right to be admired than Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon.
"The battles fought by medieval popes were not waged with weapons of iron and lead, but with moral weapons. It was the application and operation of such lofty, spiritual means that occasionally raised the Middle Ages above our own. Alongside Gregory, Napoleon appears as a bloody barbarian. . . . Gregory's accomplishment is a distinctly medieval phenomenon, to study it will always be exciting. The history of the Christian world would lose one of its rarest pages if this stalwart character, this artisan's son in the tiara, were missing."
— Excerpted from The Church's Year of Grace, Pius Parsch.