Thursday, February 28, 2013

Our Favorite Popes: Pius VII

Continuing with the countdown, my favorite pope of the 1800s is Barnaba Niccolò Maria Luigi Chiaramonti, aka Pius VII. He was actually the sixth longest reigning pope in history, which is a bigger deal when you consider just what it was he had to go through. Elected in what amounted to exile by a conclave of less than 40 cardinals, he was left facing down the most powerful man in the world, Napoleon Bonaparte. This being right after the previous pope, Pius VI, had basically died while imprisoned by the French, if that gives you any idea about how things were going. In fact, it was so bad that Pius VII was being called "the Last Pope" in some quarters, simply because nobody expected the papacy to survive.

Being abused by Napoleon was pretty much the standard for the first 15 or so years of Pope Pius's reign. Whether it was being imprisoned (for over six years), lectured, threatened, carried around in a cage, etc., he was repeatedly asked by Napoleon to sign agreements that would have destroyed the Church in France. Always appealing to his conscience, Pius navigated these waters as skillfully as one could imagine, always seeking the protection of the Church first, even if it meant a return to more abuse at the hands of Bonaparte. Did I mention that he even had the courage to excom the aforementioned most powerful man in the world?

However, consider also that after Napoleon had fallen from power, His Holiness forgave him all of his offenses and even pleaded with the British government to secure him better treatment on St. Helena. Not only that, but Pius helped support Napoleon's mother, brothers, and uncle in the aftermath. Most importantly, he personally sent Bonaparte a chaplain after finding out that the ex-emperor had none in his place of exile.

Pius VII had a lot of other problems as well, ranging from German seizure of Church lands to the Trienio Liberal of Spain in 1820. Even with all these problems, he did not complain and maintained the serenity of a guy who held fast to his faith in Providence. I often think of him as the patron saint of health care administrators, even though he isn't canonized. The more I see health care turned into an arm of the state and bent upon the destruction of conscience, the more I think of this humble Benedictine being excoriated by Napoleon for doing nothing more or less than what is right.

Robin Anderson wrote a wonderful book about this faithful and holy man that I heartily recommend to you all.

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