The future pope was born Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti on May 13, 1792, a few short months before the September terror in Paris. He was raised in the Marches, a territory in central Italy bordering the Adriatic Sea. The Marches and several other regions (Lazio, Umbria, Romagna, and Emilia) across the middle of Italy were governed and administrated by the Pope and clergy. The conglomerate had existed since the eighth century, and was known as the Papal States.
When Giovanni was six the French Revolution was exported to the Papal States, courtesy of General Napoleon Bonaparte. After the French army occupied Rome, its officers tore the Fisherman’s Ring from the finger of Pope Pius VI, abducted the eighty-two year old pontiff, and subjected him to a death ride across the Alps. When Pius gave up the ghost on August 29, 1799, the Revolution celebrated the death of “the last Pope.”1
Napoleon was ready to prevent the cardinals gathering for a conclave in Rome to elect the next pope. What he did not know was that Pius VI foresaw his death and changed the location of the conclave to Venice. The Revolution’s revenge was to govern Rome and the Papal States according to the Napoleonic Code: the exaltation of the state over religion, civil marriages, state education, and other principles as natural to Americans as the air we breathe.
But in different times and different places the forced application of these principles was alien and frightening. French influence during Napoleon’s two invasions of Italy caused the number of secret societies, Masonic and otherwise, to multiply, particularly in the Papal States. Hales notes:
“During the period of the French revolution, the Romagna had been incorporated…with the Marches (both of the Papal States) in Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy. Thus had come about a break with old customs, and the indoctrination of some with the ‘principles of ‘89’ and with the tenets of French Freemasonry, and then of Carbonarism.”2
Mastai-Ferretti’s mother sought to shield her son from these influences by sending him, at age eleven, to the college of St. Michael in Volterra, a mountainous region of Tuscany. The school’s founder, St. Joseph Calasanctius, consecrated the school, its professors, and students to the Virgin Mary. There young Giovanni learned the “Crown of Twelve Stars,” a devotion of the twelve privileges of the Mary. The fourth privilege - “Praised be God the Father who preserved the Virgin Mary from every stain at Her conception"3 -would shine brightly a few decades later.
Outside the Tuscan mountains it was apparent the Revolution had been overly optimistic about Pius VI being the last pope. The new pope, who pointedly took the name "Pius VII," now began his duel with Napoleon. That there was a duel at all was a measure of the Revolution’s failure to exterminate Catholicism in France.
Napoleon's career began as an ally of the Jacobins during the French Revolution. He was a baptized Catholic, a Freemason,4 and an arch-realist who had no more love for the Church than he did for Masonry or the Revolution. Each was a vehicle for his ambition. He knew he could not conquer Europe and the rest of the world without two things. First, he needed the blessing of international Masonry; at the beginning of his career he had this. Second, he needed peace in France. This required a truce with the Church.
The concordat he signed with Pius VII was the price Napoleon paid to win French Catholic opinion. Freemasons hated Bonaparte's bargaining with Rome, but at the dawn of the nineteenth century the Revolution was a spent force in France: it excelled in destroying things, but seemed incapable of building anything helpful on the ruins it created. Napoleon imparted a desperately needed order to the first French Republic,
So when Bonaparte was appointed France’s First Consul and declared, “I am the revolution,” the revolutionaries had to agree. They were cheered somewhat by Napoleon’s vision of the pope as a servant to his ambition: “The Pope will be my vassal,” he declared.5 Unfortunately for Bonaparte, Pius VII, despite signing the Concordat6, was not a weakling or a dupe. He was a subtle and supple opponent who bent and bent but never broke. Events came to a head in 1809 when Napoleon decided to be the King of Italy, and incorporate the Papal States into his new kingdom. This was how Bonaparte became the first emperor to be excommunicated by his vassal.
Napoleon did not like being excommunicated. He called Pius VII “a raving lunatic who must be locked up.”7 Once again French soldiers kidnapped a pope, putting Pius in Savona for three years, then taking him to Fountainebleu, a transfer so difficult Pius nearly died: he received Viaticum and Extreme Unction en route. The other tortures he suffered during his five-year captivity were unknown, except among Roman cardinals and prelates who were informed of Pius’ misfortunes in great detail by a humble, illiterate Roman housewife called Anna Maria Taigi.
Anna, the wife of a servant and mother of seven, had for years been receiving visions from a lighted orb that resembled the sun. The orb contained people and future events portrayed in such detail as to astonish her spiritual director. Anna was known to Pius VII, who corresponded with her on several occasions, asking for her prayers and giving her his blessing. He would have met with her publicly but for fear of increasing gossip; for much of her adult life Anna Maria’s credibility, even her sanity, was attacked. It was a cross she bore in patience and mildness. As for her gift, her biographer notes:
“Anna Maria followed the tribulations of Pius VII hour by hour without intermission in her mysterious sun. By her means the cardinals, the prelates in residence in Rome, and the faithful generally, learnt of the sufferings of the prisoner…The Marquis Bandini, among other witnesses, testifies that about a year before the return of Pius VII, she told him the Pope would come back to his See with glory: ‘She told me the exact date, saying that he would pontificate in St. Peter’s on Whitsunday. All fell out precisely as she had said. Thus on 24th May 1814 Anna assisted at the entry of the Holy Father into Rome.”8
When Napoleon made Pius VII his prisoner he was the mightiest man in the world. Less than five years after being excommunicated, however, Bonaparte abdicated his power in the same palace of Fountainebleu in which he had imprisoned the Pope. Then he disguised himself as an Austrian soldier to escape the wrath of his French subjects, and snuck away.
Pius VII, on the other hand, began a slow, triumphal return to Rome. In Sinigaglia he met with Giovanni Mastai Ferretti, who had returned there from his studies for the priesthood in Rome.9 When Pius left Sinigaglia, the twenty-two year old Mastai Ferretti was with him. They entered Rome together, and Pius VII, a distant cousin, became Mastai’s patron.
Mastai’s studies for the priesthood were interrupted by bouts of epilepsy. In 1815 he was found lying unconscious on the streets of Rome, the victim of another epileptic seizure. Mastai made a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto, “to pour out his soul before the heart of her who would always be his strength. From that pilgrimage dates the effective and definitive cure of his terrible malady.”10
Mastai's relief from epilepsy appears to have been instant and permanent. He petitioned Pius VII for a dispensation from the requirement of having another priest assist him at Mass (in case of a seizure). After hearing him out, Pius replied: “We grant what you ask, dear son, because it is our conviction that this disease will never again afflict you.”11
He was right.
1 Henry Daniel-Rops, The Church In An Age Of Revolution, 1789-1870, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1965, pp. 54-58.
2 Hales, op. cit., p. 23.
3 Brother Francis of Mary of the Angels, Blessed Pius IX, Pope and Doctor of the Immaculate, CRC Online Edition, September 2000, p. 2.
4 See Mgr. George E. Dillon, D.D., Grand Orient Freemasonry Unmasked, first published in 1885, republished by Christian Book Club, Chapter X, Napoleon and Freemasonry.
5 Rops, op. cit., p. 93.
6 The Concordat allowed the exiled French bishops – exiled because they were faithful to Rome - to be deposed by Napoleon, who then appointed his own bishops. All clergy were required to pledge allegiance to the secular state of France. The Concordat caused royalist and traditionalist Catholics to view Pius VII as a traitor to their cause. Yet the very fact that Napoleon was forced to negotiate was a victory for the Church, at least compared to the mayhem and slaughter that had preceded the Concordat.
7 Albert Bessieres, S.J., Wife, Mother and Mystic (Blessed Anna-Maria Taigi), The Newman Press, 1952, translated by Rev. Stephen Rigby, p. 158.
8 Ibid., p. 159.
9 Either because of his epilepsy or because of the political turmoil in the Eternal City.
10 Pierre Fernessole, Pie IX, Lethielleux, 1960, vol. 1, p. 26, as quoted in CRC September 2000, online edition.
11 Rev. Bernard O’Reilly, The Life of Pope Pius IX, P.F. Collier, 1877, pp. 31-32.