Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J. 

16 The Return of Pope Pius Vll

The foundation of the modern papacy

It was a triumphant day and the welcome exultant. Five years before, Pope Pius Vll had been given a half-hour's notice by Napoleon's General Radet. Without even the chance to pack a change of linen, and still in his ceremonial surplice and cape (he was at Matins), he had been bundled into a coach at four o'clock in the morning and kidnapped, first to Savona on the French border, and then to Fontainebleau just outside of Paris.

But now, May 24, 1814, Napoleon was a prisoner on Elba and the crowded cheering streets of Rome were strewn with flowers. Down the great avenue of the Corso, the Pope's carriage was drawn through the enthusiastic and demonstrating throng by the young princes of the capital's leading noble families, while their sisters, in white, preceded them waving palms.

The Pope went straight to St. Peter's to give thanks on the tomb of his first predecessor. Later, in his apartments at the Quirinale he was welcomed by those he had had to leave so abruptly in July 1809. And later still the Roman night was filled with illuminations, while in the rejoicing capitals and cathedral cities of Europe, both Protestant and Catholic, special celebrations marked the occasion.

Pius Vll was almost 74. He was weary; and a hard coming he had had of it, travelling almost continuously for four months since he had left Fontainebleau. But he deserved the acclaim. For whether he knew it or not, on that day a new era was being established for the papacy and for the Church.

The new era had dawned, in fact, on the island of San Giorgio in Venice on March 14, 1800 when the conclave of thirty-five aged and harassed cardinals had agreed -- but only after some three nnorlths of often desperate negotiations -- to elect as pope the 58 year-old gentle, quiet, and handsome monk who was Cardinal Archbishop of Imola, Barnaba Chiaramonti.

Cardinal Chiaramonti was well-known fior his attempt to reconcile his spiritual integrity with the ideals of the French Revolution. He had been called a Jacobin. In 1797, he had declared himself ready to abandon his estates and titles to style himself Citizen-Cardinal. And he had preached his Christmas homily that year to advise his flock: ''Fulfil faithfully the precepts of the Gospel and you will be the joy of the Republic. Be good Catholics and you will be good democrats." In 1801, Pius VII, as he had chosen to style himself, agreed to negotiate with Napoleon for a restoration of religion to France.

By the terms of the Concordat which followed, the Catholic Church was indeed formally recognized once again, and her bishops and clergy required, as they had been for centuries, to give their allegiance to the government. But in order to settle several difficult conflicts of jurisdiction, both the Pope and Napoleon agreed that all bishops must resign (or be deposed by the Pope). Henceforth Napoleon would nominate them, and the Pope accord them spiritual jurisdiction.

Within a generation, this agreement would greatly strengthen the Church. Similar concordats would be negotiated with many other states. Since the general practice in most of Western Europe until then had been to treat the Church as an aspect of the State (the clergy serving not only as public officials but as part of the established structure of which the king was the head), the Concordat secured to the Pope new authority.

From then on he exercised not merely the power to invest bishops, which he had always enjoyed, but the right to depose them. Thus the Concordat accorded to him in fact what Vatican I would later establish in law and doctrine: the plenitude of power in all matters of spiritual jurisdiction.

At first, the Concordat did not work well. The Pope was insulted, bullied, and kidnapped. But by 1814 when he was restored to Rome, Napoleon was gone. Soon other kings would also have to go, the State would fade out of the picture, often separating itself officially from the Church, and thus leaving the pope as sole residuary legates of authority. Eventually the pope alone would nominate, invest, and remove bishops, and they alone would appoint and remove parish priests. The hierarchy of authority would reach its apex not in two heads as it had since the days of Clovis, but in one.

Quiet, simple, gracious -- saintly, with calm and courage, Pius VII, by 1814, had in fact founded the modern papacy.

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