Biography – Pope Gregory XIII – The Papal Library

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Gregory XIII
1572-1585

Hugo Buoncompagni born 1502

Pius V's successor was born at Bologna. He studied law at the famous university of his native city. At twenty-eight he graduated as a doctor with sufficient distinction become a professor of law in his own university. His career illustrates very well the reality of the Catholic "reformation" in the sixteenth century. As a young man, and a young professor in minor orders, Hugo's conduct conventionally loose. He was not virtuous and had an illegitimate son. However in 1538 he changed his ways and was ordained. After this his life was exemplary and notably austere. He attracted the attention of Paul III who used his talents as a canon lawyer. Under Paul IV he was associated with Cardinal Carlo Carafa, but he not implicated in the scandalous activities of this prelate and Pius IV continued to encourage him, making him a cardinal, and sending him to the Council of Trent.

He was elected pope on 13 May, 1572 after a conclave lasting three days. The leading figure at this conclave was Cardinal Granvella, the most important Spanish cardinal, who was at that time viceroy of Naples. circumstances had made the papacy dangerously dependent on Spanish influence. The Spanish royal government was one of the few absolutely orthodox governments in Europe. Further, France was rent with civil war between the Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots. The Catholic party was organized into a catholic league which enjoyed Spanish support. Unfortunately it was clear that the Spanish government was not moved solely by religious considerations but was determined to exploit the weakness of its once formidable rival. The two parties in France had come to an uneasy truce when a group of Catholics took the occasion of the presence in Paris of many of the leaders of the Huguenot party (for the marriage of Henry of Navarre to a French princess) to undertake a kind of mass assassination, known as the Massacre of St. Bartholomew since it took place on that saint's day.

It is unlikely that the massacre was entirely premeditated. The pope was given a wholly misleading account of events. Under the impression that an attempt to seize power by the Huguenots had been prevented he ordered public rejoicing in Rome. Unfortunately this looked like papal approval of the massacre and was much used by Protestant propagandists. In fact the pope did not approve of the cruelty of the leaders of the Catholic League but unfortunately he made no public protest.

Gregory had hopes of the reconciliation of Sweden. John III of Sweden had married a Polish princess who was a Catholic. Under her influence King John submitted to Rome. He was not prepared to allow the resumption of communion between the Swedish Church and Rome to cause political trouble. The pope in a most statesmanlike way abandoned all claims to the sequestrated church property although this would have impoverished the Swedish Church. UnfortunatelyJohn Ill's conversion was not very deep and he reverted to Lutheranism. His son was, however, brought up a sincere Catholic but was later driven from Sweden because of his faith.

In political matters Gregory's pontificate was not distinguished but in other spheres he was a true leader of the Catholic reform. Perhaps most important was the enormously enhanced prestige the Holy See was gaining under a series of popes of respectable life. In 1572 the Venetian ambassador remarked that nothing had done more for the good of the Church than this succession of popes of irreproachable life. Gregory also worked tirelessly for the completion of the work of the Council of Trent. He put all his energy behind the creation of diocesan seminaries for the proper education of the clergy. He himself founded or substantially contributed to twenty-three of them. He gave generously to the Roman College – he was reckoned its second founder – the nucleus of the university now called the Gregorian University. He also founded the German and English Colleges. Gregory began the work of reconciling the dissident Orthodox Churches. While insisting on the correctness of the Latin version of the Creed and the Latin custom of using unleavened bread in the Mass, he permitted the use of leavened bread where it had been customary. He founded a Greek college in Rome. Little was achieved in his time, but he took up a more conciliatory attitude than many of his predecessors, and set an important precedent.

The religious orders were not forgotten. The Jesuits and Theatines, the two representative orders of the Catholic reformation, were supported. In 1575 the modern Oratory was founded by St. Philip Neri whose influence in Rome was rapidly growing. Gregory carried on his predecessor's work of improving the quality of the episcopate. He began the practice of keeping lists of suitable priests from each country, who might be made bishops with advantage to the Church. He also reformed papal ceremonials and protocol. He had been a distinguished canon lawyer. It had already been noticed that the Church needed an up-to-date and authoritative collection of the established laws of the Church. Pius V had started a commission for this purpose on which Gregory, as cardinal, had been the leading light. In 1582 the work was completed and the edition of the Corpus Iuris Canonici was completed. It remained substantially the law book of the Church until the present century.

The most spectacular event of the pontificate for contemporaries, and the achievement Gregory was most proud of, was the reform of the calendar. The calendar in use went back to the Romans and the time of Julius Caesar. The Romans had not been able to calculate the length of the solar year with complete accuracy and by the sixteenth century the calendar year was ten days "slow." That is it was ten days behind the sun. The Council of Trent had required some reform of the liturgical calendar, and this was seen to need some correction of Julius Caesar's calculations. Under Gregory's orders an extremely accurate calendar was constructed and proposals for replacing the Julian calendar were put to all the Catholic courts of Europe. The princes consented; the fourth of October, 1582 was followed by the fifteenth of October and the Gregorian calendar was in force. It was a most impressive piece of international co-operation. The non-Catholic countries continued to resist this necessary reform out of hostility toward the pope. The English adopted it in 1751. The Russians held out until the Revolution with the odd result that the famous "October Revolution" actually took place in November. Gregory also invented leap years in their present form. The "day" of the changeover in 1582 was notable also as the day of the death of St. Teresa of Avila.

The pope was not successful with the government Rome itself. He was a reformer in many ways. He had numerous nephews, and although he gave them some offices in the Curia and the government of the papal Patrimony, he never did much for them, less than any previous pope for many years. His family complained that the cost of keeping up the dignity their connection with the pope required was far more than they got from any offices he sent their way. In this spirit Gregory set out to modernize the traditional government of Patrimony. Unfortunately he was no organizer and he tried to do too much too quickly. As a result the Roman countryside was a chaos of unchecked brigandage, there were disorders in Rome itself, and the papal treasury was empty when the pope died on 10 April, 1585.

*Disclaimer*—This biographical data is from "The Popes" edited by Eric John. Published by Hawthorn Books, Inc of New York. We have attempted to contact the publishing company which is apparently out of business. If there is a problem with using this material please contact the Project Manager

 

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