This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
The cardinals who gathered in Rome for the conclave in June of 1846 faced a most dangerous situation. The last years of the reign of Pope Gregory XVI had not been peaceful. There had been murders of policemen and Swiss mercenary soldiers. In the mountains, the strength of the guerrilla bands was growing. On August 15, 1843, a band of guerrillas attacked a column of papal troops. The pope’s government responded by declaring martial law and by executing several of the captured insurgents. In September of 1845, a band of revolutionaries who had gathered in Paris and Algiers tried to take the city of Rimini. They failed, and papal troops secured the city.
Pope Gregory XVI died on June 1, 1846, unwept for, unlamented. Who would succeed him? Would the cardinals choose another pope like Leo XII or Gregory XVI? Or would the cardinals give in to the spirit of the times and choose a “Liberal”? The cardinals themselves were divided on this question. There were the staunch anti-Liberals, called the zelati (“zealous ones”), who wanted a pope like Gregory XVI. These cardinals favored Gregory XVI’s secretary of state, Cardinal Lambruschini. Opposed to this group were the “Liberals,” who favored two candidates—Cardinal Pasquale Tommaso Gizzi and the archbishop of Imola, Cardinal Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti.
Despite their disagreements, the cardinals knew they had to come to a decision quickly. The Carbonari and others might take advantage of the fact that there was no pope to stage a revolution—just as had happened in 1831, at the election of Gregory XVI. So it was that on June 16, only one day after they had gathered for the election, the cardinals had made their decision.
That day, they chose Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti to open and count the ballots; and as he did so and saw one ballot after another with his name written on it, he could not finish. “Brethren,” he cried, “spare me, take pity on my weakness! I am unworthy.”
But the cardinals had made their decision—Mastai-Ferretti was to be pope; and, he, though reluctantly, took the cardinals’ vote to be the will of God. He submitted to their decision, and when asked what would be his name, he said he would be called Pius IX.
He took this name in honor of the pope who had, under the most difficult circumstances, allowed him to become a priest.
The pope who had shown Mastai-Ferretti such kindness was Pius VII. In 1814, the pope had only just returned to Rome from his exile in France, when Mastai-Ferretti, then only 22, applied for admission into the papal Noble Guard. The son of an aristocratic family of the papal duchy of Urbino, Mastai-Ferretti had the social position for such service; but the young man suffered from a serious malady—he had periodic epileptic seizures. In the end, these prevented him from entering the guard and forced him to seek another profession.
The profession he chose was the priesthood. The same year, 1814, Mastai-Ferretti entered the Roman Seminary. Over the next four years, he was admitted to all the minor orders and at last was ordained a deacon in 1818.
Yet, because of his continuing epileptic seizures, it appeared that Mastai-Ferretti would never be made a priest. In sorrow, he appealed to the pope himself, and Pius heard his petition and granted his request. Mastai-Ferretti could be ordained; but, the pope added, he would never be allowed to celebrate Mass without the assistance of another priest. Though gladdened by the pope’s generosity, Mastai-Ferretti was dismayed that he would never be allowed to say Mass alone. Again, he appealed to Pius. Won over by the zeal of the young man, the pope granted his request. “Even this favor will we grant you,” said the pope, “as I believe that you will never for the future be afflicted by your disease.” Mastai-Ferretti was ordained on April 10, 1819, and ever after epilepsy never interfered with his duties as a priest.
For four years, Mastai-Ferretti remained in Rome, serving as spiritual director to a boy’s orphanage. Meanwhile, his talents became known to the new pope, Leo XII, who in 1823 sent him as part of a diplomatic mission to South America. When Mastai-Ferretti returned to Rome, the pope appointed him to be the director of a large Roman hospital. This was not the last of the favors showered on Mastai-Ferretti, for in 1827 Leo XII named him archbishop of Spoleto, the pope’s hometown.
Both before and after his consecration as bishop, Mastai-Ferretti was known for his great generosity to the poor and sick. “What is property good for in the hands of a priest,” he said, “except to be devoted seasonably in the service of charity?” So generous was he that he had to borrow money to pay for the ceremonies for his installation as archbishop of Spoleto.
The insurrection of February 1831 gave Mastai-Ferretti an opportunity to display not only his great charity, but his abundant mercy. Defeated revolutionaries, pursued by Austrian troops, fled to Spoleto only to discover that the archbishop was not their enemy. Instead of abandoning the revolutionaries to the Austrians, Mastai-Ferretti convinced the Austrian general to spare them. And when Mastai-Ferretti asked the revolutionaries to disarm, they agreed. Later, when the chief of police in Spoleto told Mastai-Ferretti of his plan to arrest everyone in the city who had sympathized with the revolution, the archbishop stopped him with a simple warning. “My worthy sir,” he said, “you do not understand your profession or mine. When a wolf wishes to devour the sheep, he does not warn the shepherd.”
Because of such acts of kindness and mercy, Mastai-Ferretti earned the reputation of being a Liberal. Yet, this reputation did not keep the very “conservative” Pope Gregory XVI from transferring him in 1832 from Spoleto to the more politically important archdiocese of Imola (where Pius VII had once been bishop). Eight years later, Gregory elevated Mastai-Ferretti to the College of Cardinals.
Little did Mastai-Ferretti know at that time that in less than six years, he would exchange his cardinal’s red robes for white and have placed on his head the three-tiered tiara, the symbol of the spiritual and temporal power of the Vicar of Christ on Earth.
Music in the Year of the Prophet
It is perhaps fitting that the composer, Felix Mendelssohn, should have completed his oratorio, Elias (Elijah), in the year of Pope Pius IX’s election as pope; for, though considered a Liberal, Pius would soon cry out with a prophetic voice in condemnation of Liberalism. This live performance of the oratorio features the Choeur de Radio France and the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Daniele Gatti.