The exile and death of Pope Pius VI and the miracle of 1799

January 4, 2017                                                                                                                                   The Memorial of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

At four o’clock in the morning, February 20, 1798, twenty three years and five days after being elected the 250th Pontiff of Rome, Pius VI was escorted out of Rome by the French army.  After decades of maneuvering in the shadows, of mockeries spewed from dark corners, of the seduction of kings and counts and court officials, of the overthrow of governments and the murder of a monarch, the conspiracy to destroy the teaching of Jesus Christ had now laid its hands on the ultimate prize: they had taken possession both of the city of Rome, the mother of the nations they were trying to destroy, and the person of the Successor of Saint Peter, the Vicar of Christ on earth.

But what to do with him?  Would they set up a guillotine on the Vatican Hill and be done with him à la Louis XVI?  Not quite.  Whatever temporal possessions the Papacy might hold at a given point in its history Popes are not primarily earthly kings, but Vicars on earth of the crucified God-Man.  Though by 1798 it had been more than eleven centuries since a Pope had been counted among the glorious company of martyrs history had taught our conspirators that simply killing the man who held the office would be nothing but counterproductive to their interests.  Just ask any of the Caesars who reigned during the quarter millennium between Nero and Maxentius.  So again what would they do?

They seem to have wanted to get rid of the papacy entirely to ‘break the Rock of Peter,’ as someone else would later write; this would be the natural aim of a conspiracy to destroy the teaching of Jesus Christ, would it not?  After all they had worked behind the scenes to seduce the Bourbon kings into suppressing the Jesuits, the great link between the Holy Father and the Catholic peoples, which began to weaken the bonds between the Roman Pontiff and the Catholic peoples.  Then they goaded these same stupid monarchs, God rest their souls, into making war on the Holy See itself, actual armed conflict against their common father.  Thus was severed the last link of filial devotion between the Roman Pontiff and the nations who had remained in communion with him following the disastrous revolt of Protestantism 250 years before.  Then those monarchs, having outlived their usefulness, were disposed of and their courts overthrown or invaded when the conspiracy itself seized control of the French state in 1789.  Now nine years later the armies of that state were in control of Rome itself and the person of Pope Pius VI, but again and for a third time: what would they do with him?

I am not sure that they knew themselves.  They proceeded in kind of an ad hoc manner.  I have not been able to find any records of deliberations within the French government on this matter but they seem to have hit on the idea of first of all keeping Pius VI out of Rome and marching him in public view as their prisoner and thus smashing the last bit of majesty of his public perception.  They marched him north to Siena where he was held for a while and then north toward the Italian French border.

Pius VI was 80 years old by this time and after a quarter century doing the most stressful job on earth in the most troubled of times he was tired.  His captors undoubtedly purposed to portray him to the peoples of Italy as an old beaten down relic of days gone by about to be tossed into the dustbin of history.  The thinking of the French Directory in Paris seemed to be that after this public shaming when Pius VI succumbed to age and infirmity and constant movement the peoples of Italy would be done with the Papacy and with the French army in control of the northern half of Italy the Cardinals would be unable to assemble to elect his successor.  French agitators were crying out in the streets that “Pius VI would be the last Pope!”  The Papacy would disappear and the Catholic Church would fade into oblivion and game, set, and match would then go to the conspiracy, or so they seemed to have thought, but the Almighty God Who made heaven and earth and the seas and all that is in them had other plans as we shall shortly see.

Jacques Crétineau-Joly reports in his 1859 work L’Église Romaine en face de la Révolution that the Directory’s plan was a disaster from the start.  Public reaction in the towns of Italy was precisely the opposite of what the French Directory in Paris expected.  I will give you here a sample of Crétineau-Joly’s description of events (translation mine):

The peoples, whose eyes had long been habituated to crimes and disasters were no longer astonished by any great thing.  However at the sight of this old man who had only the strength to bless and the voice to pardon, the peoples were moved by one of those generous pities that prepare restorations and make the faith.  They saluted the Pope on his voyage and they knelt before him.  From all eyes flowed tears of pity or of veneration.  More than one time the common Father found himself forced to intervene to snatch from death those who escorted him whom the outraged multitude wished to massacre.

Step by step, that is to say from sorrow to sorrow, the victim who is dragged to sacrifice passes through all the ordeals.  And the ordeals produce hope.  Italy, where everything is Catholic, even the sun, bows before this forehead which has been stripped of its crown but on which rests the triple majesty of old age, of woes, and of virtue.

The Directory in Paris threw itself into consternation over this reaction.  They had been telling themselves and the people of Italy that by the good graces of the French government Italy had finally been liberated from an age old tyranny and now before they even had time to gloat here the Italians were bowing before the tyrant again!  They were insulted and one of their members, a lawyer named la Révellière-Lepaux, hit on the idea of bringing the idea of bringing the Holy Father over the Alps into France where the people had by this point been better schooled in the new order the conspiracy wished to impose on the nations of Europe who had once been pleased to call themselves Christendom.  Crétineau-Joly describes the scene as follows (translation mine):

The procession of the Pontiff-prisoner turns into the Alps and into the mountains of Dauphiné.  At the heart of this province, which had given the signal for innovations, there are rude peasants, simple burghers, and working women who the conquest of civil equality must have charmed.  The sky is charged with apostasies, the atmosphere is pregnant with mocking unbelief.  The Revolution applauds itself for kidnapping a Pope, alive or dead, and for showing him to the people as the last vestige of an expiring superstition.

The people took hold of the lesson, but in a contrary sense.  They had been told that they were free; they use that freedom to kneel by the sides of the road.  It had been decreed and legislated to them that there was no God save that which the Nation chose for itself, no more Pope, no more heaven, no more hell.  At the appearance of this poor old man, who can barely lift his hand to bless, the people demand again their God.

His captors are relentless.  They drive Pius VI further north towards Paris, the seat of the Revolution, though only God knows what they planned to do with him once he got there.  No one ever did find out though, because the exile of Pope Pius VI was drawing to its end.  He reached the fortress of Valence, some 50 miles south of Lyon, and the doctors refused to allow his captors to move him any more.  Pope Pius VI died at Valence on August 29, 1799.

Perhaps you are wondering why you never heard this story?  I have wondered that as well.  Perhaps you are wondering why I have not been speaking of this Pope as ‘Saint Pius VI’ or ‘Blessed Pius VI’ or even ‘Venerable Pius VI’?  I have wondered that as well.  Why has Pope Pius VI never been declared a martyr, which the facts seem very clearly to indicate that he was?  I have wondered that as well.

At any rate the Holy Father was now dead and the French army still controlled the roads of northern and central Italy.  They still seemed in quite a good position to throw a pretty serious wrench into the election of Pius VI’s successor.  But it was not to be.  The revolutionary government in Paris, despite a decade of despoilation and outright theft was now broke, and the winds of Divine Providence now turned sharply against them.

The Revolution in France and its conquest of Rome and assault on Egypt had by this point so alarmed the world that in 1799 almost out of nowhere a heretofore unimaginable alliance between Austria, Russia, England, and Ottoman Turkey (one Catholic, one Orthodox, one Protestant, and one Muslim nation) was formed against it.  On September 30, 1799 English and allied Neapolitan soldiers liberated Rome from French rule, and in consequence of this and numerous other defeats the Directory abandoned Italy.

Meanwhile in France the Directory was rapidly losing support in Paris and on November 9, 1799 was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte in the famous coup d’état of 18 brumaire.  On December 1, 1799 the last conclave of a century filled with disasters assembled in Venice and on March 14, 1800 it elected Pius VI’s successor Barnaba Niccolò Maria Luigi Cardinal Chiaramonti who took the name Pius VII in honor of his predecessor.

Please go to Confession and pray three Hail Marys in honor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

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