Pope Gregory XIII

gigatos | February 12, 2022


Gregory XIII, Latin: Gregorius XIII, born Ugo Boncompagni (Bologna, January 7, 1502 – Rome, April 10, 1585), was the 226th pope of the Catholic Church (225th successor of Peter) from May 13, 1572 until his death. For later historiography is considered as one of the most important pontiffs of the modern age, especially with regard to the implementation of the Catholic Reformation and the reform made to the calendar that takes his name.

Ugo Boncompagni was born in Bologna on January 7, 1502 to Cristoforo Boncompagni (1470-1547), a wealthy merchant, and Angela Marescalchi (b. 1480), the fourth of ten children (seven boys and three girls).

He studied law at the University of Bologna, graduating in 1530 in utroque iure. In the same year he attended the Coronation of Charles V as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, of which is preserved a detailed account. Later he began his career as a professor of law, always in the University of Bologna. Among his most illustrious students he had Alessandro Farnese, Ottone di Waldburg, Reginald Pole, Stanislao Osio, Paolo Burali d”Arezzo and S. Carlo Borromeo.

In 1539 he renounced the chair and, at the invitation of Cardinal Pietro Paolo Parisio, went to Rome where he was appointed as a jurist. He received the tonsure (a rite that precedes the conferral of holy orders) on June 1, 1539 and was ordained a priest in 1542. Pope Paul III appreciated his preparation: he gave him the post of first judge of the capital, then in 1546 he included him in the college of abbreviators at the Council of Trent as an expert in canon law.

In 1547 his father died, Ugo inherited a large part of the family property because his older brother had died without heirs: among them, even half of the family palace. To ensure himself an heir, he decided to have a son with an unmarried woman, running the risk of causing a scandal and jeopardize his career. The son was born on May 8, 1548 in Bologna and was named Giacomo. He was legitimated on July 5, 1548.

Pope Paul IV (1555-1559), in addition to aggregate it as datarius to the residence of his cardinal nephew Carlo Carafa, recognizing the qualities of jurist, he used it to carry out several diplomatic missions. Towards the end of 1561, Boncompagni was again sent to the Council of Trent. Thanks to his proven competence as a canonist and to his exceptional commitment to work, he rendered valuable services for the resolution of some problems in the last session of the Council (1562-63).

At the end of the Council he returned to Rome, where in 1565 Pius IV created him cardinal, with the title of cardinal presbyter of San Sisto. He was then sent to Spain as papal legate. Thanks to this new mandate he became known and well liked by the Spanish king, Philip II, so as to win his trust. It was also thanks to him that the trial for heresy, initiated against the archbishop of Toledo Bartolomé Carranza, ended without disagreements with the king.

Ugo Boncompagni participated in two conclaves: that of 1565-66 and that of 1572, which ended with his election.

The conclave of 1572

Ugo Boncompagni was elected Roman Pontiff by the Sacred College on May 13, 1572 in the Vatican Chapel. He was crowned on May 25 in the Vatican Palace; the newly elected chose the pontifical name of Gregory in honor of Pope Gregory I. The conclave of 1572 was one of the shortest in history, lasting less than two days. In the 16th century, only one other conclave lasted as long: the one that led to the election of Pope Julius II (October 31 – November 1, 1503).

Implementation of the decrees of the Council

While before Gregory the Catholic Reformation was essentially conducted only in Italy and Spain, thanks to his pontificate it developed rapidly and organically in all Catholic countries.

In 1573 the pope established the Congregation of the Greeks, that is, Catholics of the Byzantine rite. For the formation of clergy he erected the Greek College (1577). He also founded an English College and a Maronite College (see below). In these institutes, in addition to learning philosophy and theology, the future candidates for the priesthood had to be trained in the strong Roman observance, so that when they returned to their motherlands, especially in those where there was a strong presence of Protestants, they could bear witness to obedience and fidelity to the Church of Rome and irreproachable conduct before the people.

In 1582 Gregory XIII promulgated the Corpus Iuris Canonici.

Relations with Church Institutions

Gregory”s predecessors, Pius IV and Pius V, had already approved measures that centralized papal control over the congregations of the Church. The pontiff continued this course of action. A year before his election, Pius V had created the Congregation of the Index. Gregory XIII confirmed, with the apostolic constitution Ut pestiferarum opinionum (September 13, 1572), what Pius V had created, giving a more definite form to the newly created congregation.The pontiff reinstated the “German Congregation” (April 1573), a body established by Pius V in 1558 for Catholic restoration in Germany and Switzerland.He chose a day of the week on which to receive anyone who had a problem to submit to him.

With the bull Ubi Gratiae (June 13, 1575) he revoked all previous permission to enter monasteries granted to women of the nobility as well as to other women of any rank and condition; he also forbade abbots and abbesses to grant, on their own initiative, permission to enter monasteries.

In 1575 he approved the Congregation of the Oratory, founded a few years earlier by Philip Neri (bull Copiosus in misericordia, July 15).

With the apostolic brief Exposcit debitum (January 1, 1583) Gregory XIII abolished on the whole Italian territory (islands included) the office of abbess for life, replacing it with a temporary office (three years).

On May 25, 1584, he made public his most important decision regarding congregations: the pontiff declared that the profession of the simple vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, and the approval of the Holy See, are sufficient to constitute a religious state.

He reconfirmed the privileges granted to the Order (1579).

He recognized the Discalced Carmelites (male and female branches) as a province of the Order (brief Pia consideratione, June 22, 1580), following the wishes of Teresa of Avila.

He restored all the privileges abolished by his predecessor Pius V. He re-financed the seminary run by the Jesuits in Rome, the Collegio Germanico, and assigned it a new seat. In 1579 he founded a new Jesuit college: the Collegio Ungarico. The following year he merged the two institutions into the Germanic-Hungarian College.

Gregory held the Order in high esteem, considering it the most competent in the formation of priests. In 1576 he called back to Rome the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine, professor at Louvain, and gave him the chair of Apologetics at the Roman College, a scholastic institution run by the Order. In 1578 he had the tower of the winds erected and invited Jesuit astronomers and mathematicians to prepare the reform of the calendar.

In 1579 he entrusted the English College, founded a few years earlier to care for the priestly formation of the faithful from England and Wales, to the Jesuits.

Pope Gregory granted the Roman College important subsidies and added new and spacious buildings. In doing so, he became its second founder, after Ignatius of Loyola. The new institute, inaugurated on October 28, 1584, took the name “Archiginnasio Gregoriano e Università Gregoriana” in honor of the pontiff and today is known as the Pontifical Gregorian University.

The missionary work, although already largely implemented by Pius V, found in Pope Gregory a renewed impetus so as to extend in the lands of America as well as the Far East. He took great care of evangelization in Asia. Through the Jesuit missionary Rodolfo Acquaviva, he came into contact with the sovereign of the Mughal Empire, Akbar (1542-1605). In 1582, the pontiff addressed a letter to the monarch in which he urged him to convert to Christianity.

In 1585 he reserved the evangelization of China and Japan for the members of the Society of Jesus. On March 23 of that year, a few weeks before his death, he had the satisfaction of receiving a Japanese delegation of young Christians, princes and aristocrats from the kingdoms of southern Japan, probably the first ever to come to Europe, led by the missionary Alessandro Valignano (Tenshō Embassy).

In 1581 the pontiff instituted the Opera Pia del Riscatto and entrusted its management to the Roman Archconfraternity of the Gonfalone. It dealt with the redemption of people captured by the Barbary pirates in the Italian peninsula who, in order to give them back to their families, demanded the payment of a ransom. Until then, this task had been carried out by the order of the “Trinitarians” and the “Fathers of Mercede”.

Decisions in liturgical matters

Gregory XIII also aimed at his missionary intentions with events proper to the Catholic tradition, such as the Jubilee, which took place in 1575. In addition to celebrating the traditional Roman Jubilee, proclaimed in 1574, with a great number of people and personalities, he granted an all-Milanese Jubilee for the following year to his created Cardinal Carlo Borromeo.

In 1582, the pontiff published the Corpus Iuris Canonici, a collection of laws and decrees governing the life of the Church.

In 1586 Gregory XIII published the first Martyrologium Romanum, creating a unified list of the dates on which the memories of the saints and blesseds of the Catholic Church are celebrated. The work was published with this title: Martyrologium Romanum ad novam kalendarii rationem, et ecclesiasticae historiae veritatem restitutum. Gregorii XIII pontificis maximi iussu editum. Accesserunt notationes atque tractatio de Martyrologio Romano. Auctore Caesare Baronio Sorano, ex typographia Dominici Basae, Romae 1586. Similar editions had already been printed in 1583. A second edition came out in Venice in 1587 apud Petrum Dusinellum.

Measures towards the Jews

In 1577 the pontiff founded the College of the Neophytes, an institute for the Christian education of Jews who wanted to abandon their religion. With the Jews who did not want to convert was inflexible: with the Bull Antiqua iudaeorum improbitas (June 10, 1581) fixed the cases in which the Jews could fall under the jurisdiction of the inquisitorial courts, also ordered the Inquisition to act with firmness and determination.

On February 28, 1581, he ordered a ban on Jewish physicians treating Christian patients.

With the bull Sancta Mater Ecclesia (September 1, 1584) ordered that all Jews who had reached the age of 12 years had to attend the so-called “forced sermons”, whose purpose was to convince Jews to convert to Christianity.

He subjected to censorship the works written by Jews, a task that he entrusted to the Hebraist Marco Marini.

He allowed the Jews to return to Venice and allowed them to cross the Italian territory in order to reach their destination.

Relations with European monarchs

The election of Ugo Boncompagni was welcomed by the Catholic rulers of Europe, who assured their support for the new leader of the Church.

During his time in Spain as papal legate (1565), the future pontiff had managed to earn the esteem of Philip II, king of Europe”s most powerful state. The Spanish sovereign encouraged Gregory XIII to operate in the Netherlands and Ireland, allowing Catholic armed forces to pass through his states, and helped the pontiff in his attempt to recover England to Catholicism. In 1578, in fact, Philip II welcomed and supplied the troops of Thomas Stukeley, an English Catholic who set out to lead an army to invade England.

In 1578, the young King Sebastian I of Portugal died in Morocco at the Battle of Alcazarquivir without leaving an heir. Cardinal Henry I the Chaste, Sebastian”s uncle, succeeded him as king. Henry asked Gregory XIII to renounce the ecclesiastical office in order to have an heir and perpetuate the dynasty of Aviz, but the pontiff, advised by the Habsburgs, did not agree. The cardinal-king died two years later without descendants, leaving a power vacuum in the Portuguese throne, which led to a succession crisis.

Gregory XIII did not grant a dispensation for the celebration of the marriage between the heir to the throne, Prince Henry of Navarre, and Margaret of Valois. The dispensation was necessary because Henry was not Catholic, but of Huguenot confession. The marriage was celebrated anyway on August 18, 1572. The wedding was not attended by ambassadors from Catholic countries.

Relations with non-European monarchs

In 1584 the pontiff approved the initiative of Cardinal Ferdinando de” Medici to send a legation to Persia. Entrusted to the Florentine Giovanni Battista Vecchietti, the aim of the legation was to establish good diplomatic relations in an anti-Ottoman function. While the political results were transitory, the legation was remembered for the important cultural results: Vecchietti brought back to Rome some manuscripts of the Bible in Hebrew that had never been seen before in Europe.

Relations with Baltic States and Russia

The Kingdom of Poland and Russia had long been fighting for hegemony over the small Baltic states. Lithuania was under Polish influence, while Livonia and Estonia were under Russian influence. The pontiff made the contenders sign the Peace of Jam Zapol”skij (January 15, 1582, actually a ten-year truce) which sanctioned the Polish (Catholic country) predominance over the three Baltic states (mostly Lutheran). The protagonist of the mediation was the Jesuit diplomat Antonio Possevino. Subsequently Gregory XIII entrusted Possevino with a mission to Moscow, appointing him the first nuncio to Russia. The aims of the mission were: to found a Christian League in anti-Turkish function; to introduce Catholicism in Russia and, from there, in Asia. Possevino went personally to Moscow and conferred with King Ivan IV, known as “the Terrible”.

In the 16th century, Catholicism had not yet spread to Russia, a very large and historically rich territory with great potential. The Russians were Orthodox; their Church was linked to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. Possevino proposed a conciliation between the Chair of Peter and the Church of Moscow, which was rejected by the Russian ruler. However, the Jesuit obtained that Catholics could publicly profess their beliefs.

Relations with Eastern Rite Churches

In 1579 a new monastery was inaugurated in Rome at the Church of Santa Maria Egiziaca; the church had been donated to the Armenians eight years earlier by Pius V. From that date until the 19th century, the church-monastery complex was the center of the Armenian community in Italy.

Gregory XIII re-established ties with the Maronite Church. Formally, they had never been interrupted, but the Maronites had had no relations with Rome for many centuries. The communion was sealed in 1584, with the foundation of the Maronite College (bull Humana sic ferunt, June 27, 1584), which welcomed the clerics sent to Rome by the Maronite patriarch for priestly formation.

In the same year, the Pontiff supported the foundation of the “Stamperia orientale medicea” (or Typographia Medicea linguarum externarum), which was the brainchild of Cardinal Ferdinando de” Medici. The main activity carried out by the Printing House was the publication of books in the different Oriental languages in order to encourage the spread of Catholic missions in the East. Its first director was Giambattista Raimondi.

Countering Protestantism

Gregory XIII took energetic action to bring the Christian peoples of Europe back to religious unity.

In particular, the pontiff worked for the British Isles. In the sixteenth century, the English had begun to systematically practice a kind of colonialism in Ireland, consisting of granting English immigrants territories “liberated” from their Irish owners. In this way the colonists spread Anglicanism on the island. Some Irish nobles did not accept this state of affairs and organized a revolt (among them stood Count James FitzMaurice, to which the Holy See provided aid and troops. For almost two years (1578-1579) the rebels engaged the English forces. The attempt failed and FitzMaurice was killed on August 18, 1579.

The pontiff morally supported conspiracies to dethrone Elizabeth I of England. However, all he achieved was to create an atmosphere of subversion and imminent danger among English Protestants, who began to look upon every Catholic as a potential traitor.

To bring Sweden back to Catholicism, Gregory XIII initiated contacts with King John III, who had married the Catholic Catherine Jagellona. The pontiff sent some Jesuits to his court, including Lauritz Nilsson (Laurentius Norvegus). They obtained from the king a rapprochement with Catholicism that was summarized in two documents: New Church Order (1575) and Liturgy of the Swedish Church (1576), the so-called “Red Book”. John III himself secretly converted to Catholicism (he also raised the heir to the throne Sigismund by providing him with a Catholic education.

The greatest successes in bringing the peoples of central and northern Europe back into Catholic communion were achieved in Poland, which became completely Catholic again, in Germany where, thanks to the intervention of the Dukes of Bavaria and of distinguished German ecclesiastical princes, the expansion of Protestantism was halted, and in the Spanish Netherlands. One of the pillars of Gregory”s action were the nunciatures, i.e. the permanent diplomatic representations in the capitals. At the time of his ascent to the throne, there were only nine ordinary nunciatures, four of which were in Italy. Of the other five, three were “Latin” (located in France, Spain and Portugal), one German (at the emperor”s) and one Slavic (in Poland). New diplomatic representations were added to them: in Lucerne (for Switzerland, 1579), in Graz (for inner Austria, 1580) and in Cologne (for northern Germany, 1584). At the end of his pontificate, as many as 13 nuncios in European countries answered to the pontiff.

Gregory XIII”s objective was to promote an alliance between Spain and France, the two largest Catholic states, capable of conducting an offensive on all fronts. The new nuncios in Madrid, Nicolò Ormaneto, and in Paris, Anton Maria Salviati, were charged with smoothing out the existing contrasts between the two monarchs. In France, Gregory XIII supported Henry of Guise, a Catholic nobleman and a pillar of intransigent Catholicism. When in the night of St. Bartholomew (1572) were exterminated thousands of Huguenots, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a general jubilee, absolving Catholic France of all error. In 1576 Henry of Guise became head of a league aimed at extirpating Protestantism from France. Gregory welcomed the signing of a treaty between the House of Guise and the King of Spain (Treaty of Joinville, 1584). In that year the Protestant Henry of Navarre (see above), a Huguenot, was designated as successor to the throne of France, reigning Henry III (1574-1589) who had no heirs and had lost his youngest brother.Against Henry of Navarre was opposed the candidacy of Cardinal Charles of Bourbon-Vendôme, but King Henry III had him arrested. In 1589 Henry III had Henry of Guise killed; the League proclaimed Cardinal Borbone-Vendôme (still in prison) the new king with the name of Charles X, but then he spontaneously renounced the title. Henry of Navarre became the new king of France.

As we have seen, the Holy See”s project to create an alliance between Spain and France did not come to fruition: the two countries continued their national policies and religion was not considered a discriminating factor in choosing countries with which to have friendly relations. As a demonstration of this, in 1572 it became public knowledge that France had established relations with the Sultan of Istanbul, enemy of the Christian faith: just one year after the Battle of Lepanto. Also the Republic of Venice came to terms with the Ottoman Empire: in 1573 a peace agreement was signed, which put an end to the Holy League.

Government of the Papal State

Gregory XIII decided to personally take care of all important affairs. He entrusted the revision of the fiscal rights of the Holy See to Rodolfo Bonfiglioli, treasurer of the Apostolic Chamber, who, with integrity, “acquired a hatred of the great Princes, so cruel that each one held it, that it should fall”. The result was the confiscation of several fiefs and noble estates. He also increased the taxes at the port of Ancona, the main port of call of the Papal State on the Adriatic Sea, as well as taxes on goods from the Republic of Venice.

In 1572, the pontiff appointed Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, one of his most trusted advisors, as Secretary of State.

Patron of arts and sciences

Gregory XIII directly supported many scholars in their work. He was concerned with a new and correct editing of the Decretum Gratiani and the Martyrologium romanum. He set up a committee to update the Index of Forbidden Books. He recognized the discovery and importance of the Roman catacombs.

Among the enduring scientific merits of this pope is the reform of the calendar that bears his name and was proposed by the Calabrian physician Luigi Lilio, the Gregorian Calendar, still universally in use today. Over the centuries, the Julian calendar had created a discrepancy between the civil and astronomical calendars. This had led to a number of complaints and was even discussed by the Council Fathers at Trent. Gregory XIII established a commission under the guidance of Cardinal Sirleto to which contributed the German mathematician and Jesuit Cristoforo Clavius, professor at the Roman College and the Sicilian mathematician and astronomer Giuseppe Scala. After a careful study, the Pope, with the bull Inter gravissimas of February 24, 1582, in agreement with the majority of Catholic princes and universities, established that October 4, 1582 would be followed by October 15, 1582 and that in the future should be suppressed intercalary days (ie, in practice, the 29th of February) of the years divisible by 100 but not divisible by 400, for a total of three intercalary days less every 400 years.

Works realized in Rome

In 1572, Gregory commissioned Giorgio Vasari to paint a series of frescoes depicting the massacre of Huguenots known as the Night of St. Bartholomew, still present in the Sala Regia of the Vatican Palaces. The pontiff also did mint a medal with his own effigy to commemorate the event.

Famous monuments were built in Rome at his behest, such as, for example, in 1580 the Quirinal Palace, in 1583 (the papal court moved there in 1605 with Pope Paul V), the Gregorian Chapel in St. Peter”s Basilica and in 1584, with his support, was completed the Church of Jesus, mother church of the Jesuits. He also transformed some ancient buildings in works for the common use, some rooms of the Baths of Diocletian, for example, in 1575 were readapted to granary.

In 1575, on the occasion of the Jubilee year, he had the “Sala Bologna”, a vast hall for banquets, made in the Vatican. It was richly frescoed by the workshop of the Bolognese painter Lorenzo Sabatini.

After a short illness Pope Gregory XIII died on April 10, 1585, in the middle of his activities carried on until the end with energy.

Four days later, his mortal remains were placed in St. Peter”s Basilica, in a tomb that was adorned with sculptures by Camillo Rusconi only in 1723.

The oldest papal tiara still in existence dates back to the reign of Gregory XIII (the others have not survived plundering and theft).

Episcopal genealogy is:

Apostolic succession is:

His son Giacomo (1548-1612) was prefect of Castel Sant”Angelo, then obtained several noble titles. In 1576 he married Costanza Sforza di Santa Fiora, from whom he had 14 children.

The pontiff did not fail to favor his own close relatives:

Elections to the rank of archdiocese

Elections to the rank of patriarchal see

Diocesan Headquarters Transfers

Pope Gregory XIII during his pontificate created 34 cardinals during 8 separate consistories.

Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed three saints:

He also brought three blesseds to the altars:


  1. Papa Gregorio XIII
  2. Pope Gregory XIII
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