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The Pope Who Outlasted a Tyrant

On November 30, 1799, 34 cardinals from across Europe gathered in a conclave to elect a successor to Pope Pius VI. The papal election, however, was not held in the Sistine Chapel, not in Vatican City, and not even in Rome. Less than two years before, in February 1798, French troops had marched into Rome and taken Pope Pius VI prisoner. They placed the sickly pontiff in the citadel of Valence where he died on August 29, 1799.

While secularists asked how long the Church could survive in the new age of the Revolution, the members of the College prepared for the future. Rome was occupied, so the cardinals assembled at the Benedictine Monastery of San Giorgio near Venice. On March 14, 1800, they chose the holy Benedictine Cardinal Barnaba Luigi Count Chiaramonti, the bishop of Imola. He took the name Pius VII, but there were little means for crowning the new pope. Indeed, without a papal tiara available for the coronation, the noblewomen of Venice paid for a papier-mâché papal tiara and adorned it with jewels from their own rings and necklaces.

Few in the conclave that elected Pius VII could have anticipated the severity of the struggle that awaited the pope and the Church in the coming decades, for the new Vicar of Christ spent the next 15 years in battle with the dictator openly cursed as an Antichrist and an enemy of civilization: Napoleon Bonaparte. The relationship between the emperor and the pontiff is one worth remembering, for it is a powerful lesson to Catholics that the Church has always been blessed by successors to Peter whose gifts have been provided at the moment when they are most needed. Indeed, through the determined holiness, fortitude, and prudence of Pius VII, the Church survived the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, and the would-be master of Europe came in the end to lament, “Alexander the great declared himself the son of Jupiter. And in my time I have met a priest more powerful than I.”


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