Christ's Faithful People
1227 - 1241 AD
Ugolino de' Conti, son of the Count of Segni and a grandnephew of Innocent III, was born at Anagni. Educated at Bologna and Paris, Ugolino developed into a first-rate papal diplomat. Made cardinal-bishop of Ostia by Innocent III, he served on the committee which elected Honorius III. Chosen to succeed Honorius on March 19, 1227, Ugolino took the name Gregory IX. Although an old man, he abounded in vigor. His achievements were many and all the more remarkable because so much of his time was taken up fighting Frederick II.
As cardinal, Gregory had given the Cross to Frederick back in 1220. Now as pope, he urged the Emperor to fulfill his crusading vow. Frederick did sail in 1227, but a few days later he returned on a plea of sickness. Suspecting trickery, Gregory excommunicated the reluctant crusader. Frederick answered by stirring up an imperialist revolt in Rome which sent the Pope flying from the city. After vainly seeking release from censure, Frederick went off, an excommunicated emperor, to win a crusade without a fight. While the Emperor was gaining Jerusalem by a treaty with the Sultan, the Pope was vainly trying to replace him on the imperial throne. Finally in 1230 a peace was patched up, but Gregory grew increasingly uneasy as the despotic Frederick strove to enchain Italy. After the Emperor smashed the embattled North Italian burghers at Cortenuova in 1237, Gregory tried to rescue the hard-pressed Lombard communes. Frederick invaded the Papal States, and once more Gregory excommunicated him. Since curses and pleas fell on deaf ears, Gregory called a crusade against Frederick and summoned a council to meet at Rome. Frederick stopped the council by capturing a fleet-load of prelates bound for Rome! Gregory died suddenly on August 22, 1241, with Frederick's army threatening Rome.
Though Gregory must have felt frustrated in his efforts to curb Frederick, he could look back on a record rich in achievement. A personal friend of St. Francis, St. Clare, and St. Anthony, he did much to foster Franciscan growth. His keen legal sense was a great help in the order's early days. He had presided at St. Dominic's funeral and regarded the Friars Preachers with high favor. This intelligent Pope deserves credit for the blooming intellectual life of the age, for he it was who saved Aristotle for the schoolmen when the Philosopher, mistranslated and misinterpreted, was in danger of being driven from Christian classrooms. He gave his alma mater, Paris, the bull "Parens scientiarum," the Magna Carta of that university. In this medieval Wagner Act, the right of the university to go on strike is fully recognized.
Very much the man of his age, Gregory IX climaxed a century of resentment against the antisocial Albigensians by starting the papal inquisition. A severe man toward heretics, he had approved of Emperor Frederick's law which decreed death by fire for unrepentant heretics.
Gregory's vision was not limited by the West. He strove unsuccessfully to promote reunion with the Greeks. He did succeed in bringing back the Syrian Monophysites to Catholic unity. He planned great missionary enterprises, and he made a collection of canon law so valuable that its influence extends to modern times.