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Pius VII - Restorationist Pontiff

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Painting of Pius VIIWhen Pius VI died a prisoner in France, there were those who sneered that Pius VI would be Pius the Last. But the cardinals got together at Venice and elected another and great Pius in the person of Barnaba Chiaramonti, who took the name Pius VII.

Barnaba Chiaramonti was born at Cesena, August 14, 1740, of noble parents. At the age of sixteen Barnaba entered a Benedictine monastery and took the name Gregorio. He became abbot of San Callisto in Rome, but Pius VI took him from the monastery to make him bishop of Tivoli, then bishop of Imola, and in 1785 a cardinal. When the French overran Imola in 1797, Cardinal Chiaramonti earned the admiration of Napoleon by sticking to his post. By interceding with Generals Augereau and Macdonald, he saved his flock from misery; and in a Christmas address he said: "The democratic form of government is not . . . repugnant to the Gospel. On the contrary it exacts all the sublime virtues which are learned only in the school of Jesus Christ." These words, now commonplace, took vision and courage to utter in 1797 with the smell of blood still rank on French "democracy."

Pius VII had the great joy of restoring religion in France. After difficult negotiations a concordat was signed in 1801 between the Holy See and the French Republic. Pius had the gift of choosing and trusting capable assistants, and it was one of these, the outstanding diplomat Cardinal Consalvi, who went to Paris and pulled the concordat through tight places. In spite of the fact that Napoleon played the weasel with his "organic articles," the concordat was a great blessing. No wonder Pius VII took the extraordinary step of going to Paris for Napoleon's coronation in 1804. Napoleon, however, soon gave the Pope plenty of trouble. He kept insisting that Pius take sides in the war against England. Bitterly disappointed at the Pope's neutrality, he finally seized the Papal States in 1809. When Pius boldly excommunicated him, Napoleon had the Pope carried off a prisoner to France. In 1813 Napoleon first isolated Pius from his trusted advisers and then bullied him into making concessions which the Pope bitterly regretted. It was not long before Pius withdrew these, and not long either before Napoleon, with his empire collapsing, freed the Pope. By May 27, 1814, Pius was back in Rome.

Two events show the prestige and independence Pius had gained for the papacy. On August 7,1814, Pius VII restored the Society of Jesus throughout the world. The second act was in the temporal sphere. Cardinal Consalvi represented the Pope at the Congress of Vienna, and from that assembly of the Powers he brought back the entire Papal States to Pius VII. Only the outside territories like Avignon in France and Benevento in Naples were excepted.

A third act shows why Pius deserved so much prestige. A true Vicar of Christ, he sheltered the broken family of Napoleon, and he even interceded with the British to soften the lot of his old persecutor on St. Helena.

When Pius VII died on August 20, 1823, Gallicanism and Jansenism were becoming historical memories. It is true that infidelity still threatened, but many intellectuals were now reading Christian apologists like Chateaubriand and Lammenais rather than Voltaire and Rousseau.


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

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