Pope Pius VII attended by Cardinal Caprara
                                              observes Napoleon crown Josephine after
                                              first crowning himself
by Tony Dixon

Within the hallowed walls of great Notre Dame de Paris, only a few years after its desecration during the period of the Revolution, on a cold 2nd December, 1804, the air was charged with great excitement. Thousands crammed the great Cathedral for the coronation of “the little Corporal” Napoleon Bonaparte recently declared “Emperor of the French” by the Senate of the Republic. The Pope – Pius VII – had been invited to officiate. Pius VII had agreed to officiate against the weighty advice of many of his Cardinals. The ceremony progressed to the crucial moment of coronation, when to the surprise of many, Napoleon took the Crown from the Altar and placed it upon his own head. He then took Josephine’s Crown and touched it to her head before returning it to the altar. Absurdly bedecked in specially invented “classical” robes, he had demonstrated that he was beholden to no-one for the crown, not even the Pope. This procedure was carefully crafted by Napoleon and accepted by the Holy See beforehand. Yet his calculating mind did want the Pope there to lend credibility to the exercise. For his part Pius VII had accepted in order to give heart to the Catholic people of France who had suffered so much during the Revolution and in the hope that he might gain opportunities to ameliorate their position by gaining concessions from the conqueror Napoleon.

               Napoleon prepares to crown Josephine before returning her crown
to the High Altar


“May you live in interesting times” is said to be a Chinese curse. It was the unhappy experience of Barnaba Niccolo Maria Luigi Chiaramonti to do just that. He was born on 14th August, 1742 in Cesena Italy, as was his predecessor Pope Pius VI 25 years earlier. Devout and scholarly, Barnaba joined the Benedictines at age 14years taking Gregorio as his name in religion. He went on to study in Padua and Rome in philosophy and theology. In the course of his philosophy studies he became familiar with the ideas of John Locke the British philosopher whose ideas on the right to life, liberty and property, the state of nature, “the consent of the governed” and the infant mind as “tabula rasa” have had such a profound influence in the world.

He spent 9 years as Professor of Theology at Parma (1766-1775) and 6 years as a Professor at Sant. Anselmo in Rome. Pope Pius VI, his fellow native of Cesena, made him Bishop of Tivoli in 1782 and, in1785, translated him to the more important See of Imola and named him Cardinal in the same Year. He remained in Imola for 15 years and was the very model of all a Bishop should be, caring for his people in both the spiritual and the temporal spheres. For his time, his thinking was truly advanced. His Christmas Day sermon at Imola in 1797 spoke firmly and unequivocally in defense of democracy and its complete compatibility with Christianity.

These certainly were interesting times. While Don Gregorio was a Professor in Parma, the Prussians, Russians and Austrians carved up Poland to their mutual satisfaction in 1772.And in the same year, the infamous suppression of the Jesuit Order was decreed by Pope Clement XIV under vicious pressure from the Kings of Spain, Portugal and France. In 1774-1775 in a 134 day Conclave, Pope Pius VI was elected. In 1776 while Don Gregorio was teaching in Rome, the American colonies declared their independence from the King of England. While he was still teaching there, the Austrian Emperor in 1781 promulgated his Toleration Edict allowing all religions equal rights in his Catholic dominion – a marked reverse for the Church. In 1783-84 while Bishop Chiaramonti was in Tivoli, Pius VI found it necessary to secretly approve the Empress Catherine II’s encouragement of the survival of the Jesuits in Russia.

In 1786 whilst Cardinal Chiaramonti was at Imola the notorious Synod of Pistoia was convened by Bishop Scipio de’Ricci. It met and supported a number of proposals seeking to avoid the legitimate authority of the Popes. The Synod had the keen support of a number of civil authorities in various countries, keen to arrogate to themselves the right to choose who should be consecrated a Bishop, to facilitate their control over the Church. After much painful endeavour to correct the resulting situation without exacerbating matters, Pius VI found it necessary finally to condemn the Synod of Pistoia and its propositions outright, and to force the resignation of Bishop de’Ricci.

But the degeneration of European affairs was about to lurch into a sickening downward spiral of insanity and violence with the French Revolution of 1789. As Cardinal Chiaramonti continued his enlightened care for the Archdiocese of Imola, on All Souls’ Day 1789 all French Church property was nationalized or otherwise stolen. On 13th February, 1790 the law purported to suppress monastic vows and religious orders. On 12th July, 1790 the Government proclaimed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and demanded that they take an oath of loyalty to the State.

On 10th March, 1791 Pope Pius VI condemned the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and on 13th April he published the Encyclical “CARITAS” confirming that condemnation and condemning the unauthorized appointment of Bishops. On 20th April, 1792 France declared war on Austria. King Louis XVI was executed on 21st January, 1793. And to complete the settings of horror, the Reign of Terror commenced on 5th September, 1793

The Anti Clerical Law was passed on 21st October, 1793 making the clergy and their supporters liable to death on sight. As if to celebrate the rule of diabolical insanity, on 10th November, 1793 came the desecration of Notre Dame Cathedral with the “Celebration of the Goddess Reason”.

Pius VI still maintained his staunch condemnation of the French outrages even when the French forces commanded by Bonaparte seized Milan in the spring of 1796. Bonaparte then pressed on into the Papal States. Ultimately, the French entered Rome on 15th February, 1798, proclaimed a Roman Republic and deposed Pope Pius VI as Head of State. They were shocked to receive no popular support for their actions, but instead, open hostility. This reached a peak in the shooting of the French General Duphot. The Pope was taken prisoner and moved to Florence then to Turin then to Briancon across the Alps, and finally to Valence, He was imprisoned there, died there and was buried there, but not before having given instructions concerning the Conclave to elect his successor which would keep it free from French “influence”.

The situation of Holy Church at that time was truly perilous.


Venice was the chosen venue. It had the double advantage of being an Austrian territory at the time and of being Italian soil. The assembled Cardinals were divided about what to do in the face of the horrors afflicting the Church in the last eleven years. They were also divided on the question of restoring the Jesuit Order, lest the wrath of the anti – Jesuit monarchs should serve to multiply the Church’s torments. For 134 days they were divided, until at last they followed the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Cardinal Barnaba Chiaramonti was their choice, and, in honour of his predecessor, fellow native of Cesena and family friend, he took the name Pius VII. The new Pope was known for his holiness, gentleness and scholarly achievements and his modern outlook. He chose as his Secretary of State Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, a truly brilliant man. Rejecting Austrian pressure to remain in Austrian territory, Pius VII returned to Rome on 3rd July, 1800. By 1802 he had been able to recover the body of his predecessor and have it appropriately interred in St. Peter’s Basilica.


We know a great deal about this revered Pontiff from history itself. But we are doubly blessed by the memoir of him written by the Englishman Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman. On 18th December, 1818 the young Wiseman arrived in Rome with a small group of fellow seminarians to re-occupy and re-establish the Venerable English College. Pius VII had appointed Fr Robert Gradwell Rector one year earlier to prepare for their arrival. Made aware of their arrival, Cardinal Consalvi arranged a Papal Audience for them within a few days – Christmas Eve in fact.

The Audience took place in the Quirinal Palace which was as yet the Papal Residence. Years later, by now a Cardinal, Wiseman would recall the gentle, fatherly warmth of the Pope’s greeting to the group of young seminarians, walking forward to greet them as they were introduced, and urging them to learning and piety. He trusted that they would do honour to Rome and their own country by their achievements. Everything about his manner confirmed all that Wiseman had been told of his gentleness, kindness of speech and genuine concern for individuals. He felt an instant bond, both spiritual and human with this man he perceived to be great and good. “That he was a man so meek and gentle, so incapable of rancor and resentment that Cardinal Pacca scruples not to apply to him the inspired words descriptive of Moses, “that he was the Mildest of men “no-one has ever questioned. This particular quality may be called the very grace of his nature, so distinctly was it stamped on his outward appearance, so penetratingly diffused through the actions of his life”.

The Cardinal goes on to speak of Pius VII’s strength of character as “the companion of the gentlest disposition, a power of unrepining endurance, the patient fortitude which suffers without complaint and without sullenness”.

He recalls also the saintly character of the Pope’s mother, speaking of her rare piety and virtue which had clearly been greatly influential upon her son. When he had reached 21 years, and all her children were educated and mature, she retired into the Carmelite convent at Fano where she was held in great regard on account of her sanctity. Cardinal Wiseman recounts that Pius VII was known to have related several times his mother’s prediction that he would one day be Pope and “the protracted course of sufferings which it would entail”. The austerity and humility of his early religious life as a Benedictine monk in those days was to stand him in good stead in the trying years of his papacy as a prisoner of the French and witness to the bloody persecution of the Church and the plunder of her establishments.

Wiseman also recounts that the Pope told his learned Secretary Monsignor Testa how, in his energetic youth as a monk he had been allowed to go to Rome for the coronation of Pope Clement XIV. Being jostled by the crowd, he leapt up behind an empty horse-drawn carriage for a better view. The coachman turned benignly toward him saying: “My dear little monk, why are you so anxious to see a function which one day will fall to your lot?”.

The young Don Gregorio harboured no ambitions for high clerical office. Even if he had, it seemed that Pope PiusVI’s choice of his brother Gregory for appointment to the Ecclesiastical Academy when he decided to honour the Chiaramonti family, would have put paid to them


Napoleon Bonaparte’s election as “Emperor of the French “by the French Senate – undoubtedly at the “little corporal’s” instigation (he was fond of Roman allusions. having earlier styled himself Consul) – had now to be formalised.The coronation we considered earlier achieved this. Pius VII had been apprehensive about granting Napoleon’s request that he officiate. He had seen the fate of his predecessor. He realized the risk of his own capture and imprisonment at the whim of the “Emperor”. Accordingly he had signed a conditional act of abdication and left it with the Curia to ensure the continued governance of the Church in such a case. Despite his apprehension, he felt obliged to go to France in the hope that his presence might bring consolation and encouragement to French Catholics, whose situation had become so wretched. He also hoped that in negotiations with Napoleon he might be able to achieve some amelioration in the condition of the Church in France

The reception accorded the Pope in France was not encouraging. No great formality had been arranged. He was met by Napoleon and a hunting party in open country, and obliged to accept the inferior seat in Napoleon’s carriage. He was brought into Paris under cover of night. Napoleon, who had been contemplating divorce of his civil law wife Josephine, was taken aback when he learned that shortly after arriving Pius VII had informed Josephine that she should be sacramentally married. Further, the Pope had informed her that until that happened he could not participate in the coronation. He gave Cardinal Fesch, who was very close to Bonaparte the necessary dispensations and faculties to preside at the wedding without witnesses as Napoleon required. It took place at 4.00 p.m. at the Tuilleries on the day before the coronation. Napoleon was furious at the Pope’s legitimate insistence.

When the coronation took place the official publication “Moniteur “suppressed the fact that Napoleon had crowned himself.

Following the coronation, Pius VII – who had been given only the briefest opportunities to speak to Napoleon – set out in a Memorandum to the new emperor his concerns for the Church in France. He sought:

recognition that the Catholic Church was the principal religion of France, as it was

that the law permitting divorce should be repealed

that religious communities should be re-established

that the various Legations should be restored to the Holy See

All to no avail. The only concession Napoleon proposed was his offer to restore the Gregorian calendar from 1st January, 1806 in place of the Revolutionary Calendar. Pius VII left Paris on 4th April, 1805.

Although Napoleon was, in early days, lauded by many of the clergy and laity, who viewed his actions through patriotically – tinged eyeglasses, he began to steadily, but more and more manically, tighten the screws on the Church. In 1806 he required all religious periodicals to be combined into one – the “Journal des Cures “to be published under police supervision. In August 1806 he established the Feast of St Napoleon – after the martyr Neopolis/Neopolas who suffered in Egypt under Diocletian. Warming to the theme of his own religious exaltation, he required publication of a new Catechism throughout his empire which called him “the image of God upon earth” and “the Lord’s Anointed” The prisons of Vincennes, Fenestrelles and Isle de Sainte Marguerite were to hold priests who offended against the emperor’s requirements

Napoleon and Pius VII’s dealings became less and less satisfactory to “the little corporal”. The Pope did not attend Napoleon’s May, 1805 crowning in Milan with the Iron Crown of Lombardy. The Pope could not declare null the marriage of Jerome Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother) to Elizabeth Patterson, an American, as Napoleon wished. Napoleon “arranged “for Church authorities in Paris to comply and do the job. Next Napoleon introduced French Law into Italy, including the Divorce Law, despite the protests of the Holy See.

The idea of invading England, long Napoleon’s great ambition, went into the waste bin as Napoleon realized the impossibility of this venture after his navy’s defeat at Trafalgar (21st October, 1805). He attacked the Austrians taking Vienna. Toward the end of 1805 he defeated the combined forces of Austria and the Tsar at Austerlitz. He went on to capture Dalmatia, Venice, Bavaria and Wurtemburg. England might rule the waves, but Napoleon was clearly the Master of Europe.

Turning his attention to the Papal States, he occupied the Papal port of Ancona to prevent British or Russian support for the Papal States, despite the Pope’s protests. Napoleon had declared all his ports closed to British vessels and he wanted the Papal States to do the same. He also complained that the Pope had delayed the appointment of Bishops in France and Italy. In the course of these demands he referred to himself as the “Emperor of Rome”- a city he was never to see. The Pope responded in a very fine letter refusing Napoleon’s demands, and reminding him that there was no “Emperor of Rome”. He noted that no matter what calamity might be inflicted upon him on account of his refusal, he would bear it with “a resignation conformable with the Gospel”. Napoleon repeated his demands with new emissaries. In May, 1806 he invaded and occupied Civita Vecchia. In June he seized Benevento and Pontecorvo. He demanded that the Pope acknowledge Joseph Napoleon as King of Naples. He took a particular dislike to the brilliant Cardinal Consalvi who reluctantly resigned as Pius VII’s Secretary of State to ease the situation. His replacement, Cardinal Casoni, proved no more accommodating. Napoleon’s violent response was blunted somewhat by other distractions. In the first half of 1807, in a series of victories he took control of Germany and proceeded to divide up various portions of Europe allotting them to members of his family as “Kings” and his Marshalls received Principalities and Duchies. He created a hereditary nobility to surround his throne.

He began to rant at the Pope that he must become his ally if not, he raved he would call a Council of the Church in his empire to “transact my business” without the Pope. Seeking to save the Church in Europe from that precipice, the Pope sent an envoy to Paris saying that he would join the continental blockade and end all contact with the British, but he would not declare war on Napoleon’s enemies. But Napoleon wanted to break with the Papal States. Whilst negotiations dragged on, he invaded the Papal provinces of Macerata, Spoleto, Urbino and Foligno. Pius VII broke off the negotiations.

In January 1808 Napoleon ordered his forces to march on Rome. 10,000 French troops under General Miollis took the City on 2nd February 1808. In the ensuing days Miollis arrested 7 Cardinals and exiled them from the City. One month later another 14 Cardinals suffered the same fate including Cardinal Doria Pamphili who was the latest Secretary of State. When Miollis sought to arrest his successor Cardinal Pacca the Pope interposed himself saying that Miollis could not do so without arresting him also. Thereafter Cardinal Pacca resided in the Quirinal Palace also.

Later in 1808 the fierce resistance of the Spaniards to Napoleon’s invasion pre-occupied him and eased the pressure on the Holy Father. But Napoleon steadily gained ground in Spain. Renewed resistance from Austria and her allies held his attention until 13th May, 1809 when he re-captured Vienna. Once again his mind turned to the Pope. On 17th May, 1809 Napoleon decreed the Papal States annexed to his empire. Pius VII excommunicated Napoleon by a Bull posted throughout the City..Napoleon’s administration went to considerable lengths to stop news of the excommunication reaching the rest of his empire and the world –ultimately failing. On 6th July, 1809 Miollis ordered General Radet to arrest the Pope and Cardinal Pacca and at 4.00 a.m.it was done. They took them through the heat and dust of that summer’s day “without linen or spectacles “the Pope to travel the length of Italy to far northern Savona and Cardinal Pacca to Fenestrella. The “Moniteur“and the empire’s newspapers were ordered to make no mention of the excommunication or of the arrest of the Pope and the Cardinal Secretary of State. When they checked with each other, they were amused to find that despite their high office, they had only the equivalent of about $3 between them.

His enemies were later to sneer at finding Pius in his imprisonment, mending his cassock – the only one he was allowed. Some seem to have implied that to come to this pass he was perhaps not as clever as he might have been. But Cardinal Pacca later wrote : “Having therefore, attentively studied his character, and well knowing his disposition, I can affirm that Pius VII was by no means deficient in talent, nor of a weak, pusillanimous nature. On the contrary, he was a man of ready wit, lively, more than commonly versed in the sacred sciences, and especially possessed of that description of good sound sense that in matters of business intuitively perceives the difficulties to be overcome, and sees everything in its proper light”.


ON 12th September, 1809 the most rigorous expulsion of the religious orders from Napoleon’s domain was set in motion. As this and other measures gained momentum there were soon 20 vacant sees in France. In November, 1809 Napoleon appointed an “Ecclesiastical Council” under his friend Cardinal Fesch consisting of 12 Bishops. Among other things, the self proclaimed “image of God on Earth” wanted them to help him with the appointment of Bishops and the matter of his excommunication.

The Council responded that the Pope must be set at liberty and the Cardinals returned to Rome. But they went on to say that they believed the Pope had withheld the appointments for the wrong reasons, and, that a national Council of Bishops should appeal the Excommunication either to a General Council of the Church or to the Pope himself better informed. They proposed certain means of appointment of Bishops which they thought might suffice in the absence of Papal appointment. Napoleon was not impressed.

In February, 1810, he ordered all of the Papal Archives removed to Paris by his army and compelled all Cardinals to reside in Paris which he intended to make the centre of the Catholic Church. And, upon Austrian suggestions, he decided to marry an Austrian Archduchess. But the Austrians made the proposal conditional upon the annulment of Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine. He lavished gifts and privilege upon the Cardinals and pressured them to urge the Pope to yield to his wishes. They refused.

Now the “little corporal“decided to divorce Josephine and, upon Austrian suggestions, he decided to marry an Austrian Archduchess. But the Austrians made the proposal conditional upon the annulment of Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine. He "induced” the Authorities of the Archdiocese of Paris to declare the marriage null “in view of the difficulty of contacting the Pope”, then Napoleon’s prisoner. On April Fools’ Day 1810 he married Marie Louise. Thirteen of the Cardinals then in Paris refused to attend. They were then told by the Government that they were no longer Cardinals. Denied their robes, their homes, their incomes and their property sequestrated, they were sent in pairs to country villages. They became”known as “the black cardinals “.Nineteen of thirty-two Bishops in the Roman states refused to swear allegiance to Napoleon and were treated in the same way, whilst priests who refused the oath were imprisoned in Corsica.

Napoleon now made several indirect approaches to the 68 yrs old Pontiff to negotiate. The Pope, his prisoner, refused unless he was set at liberty and able to freely contact his Cardinals.

When Napoleon set about purporting to appoint Bishops to particular Sees (Florence and Paris), the Pope managed- by secret channels - to get Bulls preventing these individuals from taking office presented to the Chapters of those Cathedrals. Stymied by his prisoner, Napoleon exploded in rage. He arrested and imprisoned Cardinals and priests he suspected of facilitating this action and accused a member of the Council of Treason and had him violently ejected from the Chamber and exiled from Paris. He renounced the Concordat with the Church (which he had long since been trampling underfoot in any case) and made the Pope’s imprisonment radically more severe. He demanded surrender of the Fisherman’s Ring which Pius did after breaking it in two as is done when a Pope dies. Pius VII would still not yield to Napoleon’s megalomaniacal demands.

After several more unsuccessful manoeuvres on 16 March, 1811 Napoleon announced that HE was summoning a “COUNCIL OF THE WEST” the description was a euphemism for those areas his armies controlled

The “Council “met on 17th June, 1811.Its President was Cardinal Fesch with whom Napoleon was becoming disenchanted. Fesch required all members to swear oaths of fidelity and obedience to the Pope. For this Napoleon severely berated him. Napoleon had caused to be prepared a statement endorsing all of his demands which he expected the “Council “to endorse. The members amended it in such a manner as to make it a nonsense and were only just dissuaded by  Fesch from adding a demand that Pius VII be set at liberty. It was a hostile Napoleon who cancelled an audience he had arranged for the Members on 30th June.

He now set up a Committee to advise how he could undermine the Pope’s authority. This group advised that nothing must be done without the Pope. Furious, Napoleon was at first inclined to dismiss them. Then he recalled a conditional basis for further negotiation that the Pope had signed weeks before, when he had been isolated and without food and drink for nine days, and had been cajoled by two Bishops and his physician, urging him to acquiesce in the matters of interest to Napoleon. The document offered for discussion the setting of a six month limit for making Episcopal appointments before local decision would be authorized. The document agreed to nothing, but merely proposed a basis for negotiation. Napoleon had disregarded it at the time. Now he seized upon it and deliberately lied about its content, announcing it as an accomplished agreement. His “Council” then agreed, but smelling a rat, upon reflection, withdrew that decision and proposed that nothing should be done until the “Council’s” representatives could visit the Pope. Napoleon promptly imprisoned three members of the “Council” at Vincennes. After 15 days of heavy pressure on the members as yet free, Napoleon authorized the “Council “to meet again and, by a vote of 80 to 13, they finally gave him what he wanted, but requested the Pope’s assent. Finally, weak in body and isolated, Pius VII signed a Brief giving some ground, but holding firm on other important members. Napoleon rejected this and Pius VII would yield nothing more. Napoleon forced three of the seven Bishops he had sent to the Pope to resign their Sees and deported them to different towns.

After various other maneuvers failed, Napoleon sent an abusive letter to the Pope advising him to abdicate. Napoleon’s agent Chabrol demanded the surrender of the Papal Tiara. “Never!”was the prompt reply. Increasingly Napoleon vented his spleen on the Church. He required seminarians to do military service.


Just as Napoleon’s success at arms made him feel invincible and hubris gripped him, cracks began to appear in the imperial façade. The Spanish still had not been subdued, and their vigorous resistance was sapping the energy of the French Army. In another theatre of interest, Napoleon refused the Tsar freedom to move against Poland and Turkey. This caused the Tsar to make overtures to England.

Napoleon resolved to attack Russia. He decided to remove the Pope from coastal Savona to Fontainebleau for fear of an allied naval venture to free Pius VII. Napoleon wanted him to go about publicly at Fontainebleau and officiate in the churches. Pius VII saw that this was intended to mask the reality of his prisoner status. He would not comply, and kept to his place of confinement – a prisoner he was, and a prisoner he would be seen to be. The memory of painful incidents during his transfer from Savona was to remain with him long after his arrival on 19th June, 1812.

On 22nd June, 1812 Napoleon declared war on Russia. The Russians’ ”scorched earth“policy left his easy progress toward Moscow nothing but ashes, as far as possible they avoided pitched battles. But it was not always possible. At Borodino on 7th September, 1812, Napoleon defeated the Russian forces, leaving Moscow open to conquest as the defeated Russians retreated still further into the length of Mother Russia. Moscow fell one week later on 14th September, 1812. But now the Master of Europe had to consider what had been achieved. True he held Moscow, but he could not stay –he could not get local supplies – everything had been burned. He could not bring supplies, it was logistically impossible. He could not go on for the same reasons. He could only surrender or retreat. Probably the former option had never occurred to him. So, retreat it was to be, back across the scorched wastes now frozen and snow-covered, past the frozen remains of fallen comrades and enemies, with no fresh food and extremely reduced and declining rations. It was to prove a frozen Hell on Earth. The story of that horror is legendary. The difference between this result and Napoleon’s original plan to invade India from Moscow to attack the “mercantile greatness of England” demonstrates the difference between hubris and reality. His Armies were decimated.

Even the self-proclaimed “image of God on earth” realized his changed circumstances. He now wrote by hand an affectionate letter to his prisoner the Pope, seeking a new Concordat containing many of his delusional demands and, on 18th January, 1813 came to Fontainebleau. There followed many stormy interviews with the Pope, devoid of the affectionate character of his letter. On 25th January, 1813 a new Concordat was signed – none of the delusional demands was included- the only concession made by Pius VII was on the Episcopal appointments within six months issue. On 9th February the imprisoned Cardinals were released and went to visit the Pope at Fontainebleau. They found him anxious and regretful at having signed the Concordat. Even though, in its preamble, it had spoken of its text as a preliminary basis for a definitive arrangement, once again Napoleon had announced it as final. On 24th March, 1813 the Pope wrote to Napoleon disavowing the document. Napoleon suppressed the letter and continued to act as if the document were in effect. Three Dioceses rejected his appointees and the Belgian clergy agitated against his actions. Napoleon responded with the imprisonment of selected clergy and the deportation of some seminarians.

The cracks widened. His brother Joseph was driven out of Spain. The allies formed against Napoleon had 500,000 troops to his 280,000 as a result of his appalling losses in Russia. He still won at Dresden, but was defeated at Leipzig. Then victories at Hanau and Hochtim enabled his troops to retreat within “the Hexagon” as France was sometimes called- referring to its geographic shape. All of this occurred in less than three months. The allies invaded France. On 10th March, 1814 Pius VII was set free at Austrian outposts in Piacenza territory. On 24th May, 1814 he re-entered Rome to a tumultuous reception.

By the 14th May, 1814 Napoleon was a prisoner in Elba. Only 10 months later he escaped and recruited an army of 118,000to oppose the 800,000 allied soldiers now arrayed against him. On 17th June, 1814 he was defeated at Waterloo and subsequently imprisoned on the island of St. Helena.

On 20th April, 1821 he said to one of his aides “I was born in the Catholic religion. I wish to fulfill the duties it imposes, and receive the succour it administers."He spoke of Pius VII as “an old man full of tolerance and light”. True to that assessment, it was his ex-prisoner Pius VII who petitioned the British to allow Napoleon a Catholic Chaplain and that was allowed.

Napoleon died on 5th March, 1821.


His resistance of the power crazed dictator and the cruel treatment he endured so nobly won for this saintly and scholarly Pontiff , and the Papacy, remarkable respect throughout Europe in both Protestant and Catholic lands.

But, in the aftermath of this turmoil, Pius VII would not rest on those “laurels”. He moved firmly and prudently to see that in the “new world order” as it would be called to-day, the position of the Church was made secure. He concluded Concordats with France, Bavaria and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and even with Protestant Prussia and Orthodox Russia. He restored the Jesuit Order as he had resolved to do during his imprisonment – having no doubt seen enough of political powers pressuring the Church. In the civil sphere of the Papal States he put in hand the modernization of the administration, financial and judicial systems. But there is little doubt that he could have done anything to change what was to come in the decades ahead. He was also vigorous in his promotion of the arts.

Pius VII died on 20th August, 1823 in the 23rd year of his Pontificate – second only to St Peter in that regard. He had lingered in illness for six weeks after breaking his thigh bone in a very heavy fall. The news of the destruction by fire – due to a workman’s carelessness – of the great and ancient Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls , where he had lived for a time when he was a monk, was kept from him. He was universally mourned: saintly, scholarly, resolute and heroic in the face of vicious bullying by the once triumphant military monster of Europe.

Here was a Pope whose love of Christ and His Church was truly exemplary and constant” in spite of dungeons, fire and sword”.

(First posted here on 15th December, 2009.)


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