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Pius VI - A Handsome Devil?

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Portrait by Pompeo Batoni of Pius VI"As handsome as he is holy," thus the Romans described Gianangelo Braschi, who as Pius VI succeeded Clement XIV. Gianangelo Braschi was born December 25, 1717, at Cesena of noble parents. After studies with the Jesuits, the bright young man took his degree in law when only seventeen. Braschi caught the eye of Benedict XIV, who offered him a canonry in St. Peter's, but the handsome lawyer was engaged to be married. At last he decided to become a priest; his fiancée entered a convent. Braschi became papal treasurer, and in 1773 a cardinal. Not yet sixty and full of vigor, Pius VI was to need all his reserves of holiness and strength to face what was coming.

Pius found the Jesuit problem still haunting the Vatican. He released some Jesuits imprisoned by Clement, but friendly as he was, he dared not do more. When he showed an inclination to allow the Society of Jesus to remain alive in Russia, the Bourbons stormed at him so fiercely that he had to insist on breaking up this last Jesuit province. Catherine of Russia, however, refused to allow the brief of suppression to be published in her dominions, and since Clement had so arranged matters that the suppression brief would become law in a diocese only when the bishop published it, the Jesuits lived on in Russia. In 1780 Pius VI, by word of mouth, approved of their existence.

The Jesuit problem was the least of the Pope's worries. Emperor Joseph II, flailing about in a frenzy of misdirected zeal, was limiting papal power, suppressing monasteries, and changing church regulations in a manner which led sardonic Frederick II to call him "my brother the sacristan." However amusing to old Fritz, Joseph's vagaries were more than an annoyance to Pius. He actually made the long trip to Vienna to try to talk sense into the imperial meddler, but in vain. Joseph's brother, Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany, was just as bad, and one of his bishops, Ricci of Pistoia, held a synod in 1786 which passed some outrageous decrees. Pius condemned these in 1794. The ecclesiastical electors--the prince-bishops of Mayence, Treves, and Cologne--got into the act in 1786 by issuing a Febronian manifesto known as the Punctuation of Ems. Febronianism was the doctrine taught by Von Hontheim (who wrote under the pen name Febronius) which claimed that the pope was not superior to all bishops and that Catholic kings should reduce the papal power.

The king of Naples saw to it that Bourbons contributed to the Pope's misery, but all these troubles faded in the intense glare of the French Revolution.

Pius grew increasingly alarmed as the revolutionists multiplied anti- Catholic measures. The confiscation of Church property, the suppression of papal taxes, the patient Pope let go by, but he secretly protested against the suppression of religious orders, and he had to speak out when the little bunglers of the Constituent Assembly tried to drive France into schism with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Pius saw the Church in France driven underground as blood-drunk Jacobins drove priests and nuns to the knife. Soon the Revolution flowed over the Alps and Napoleon forced the Pope to accept the harsh Treaty of Tolentino in 1797. But the Directory, more cruel than Napoleon, soon took over Rome and made the old Pope a prisoner. Dragged to France, Pius was greeted by the people with affectionate enthusiasm. His health gave way at Valence, and a prisoner and an exile, Pius VI died August 22, 1799. His last words were: "Lord forgive them."

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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