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The Pope Dragged from Rome: February 20, 1798

The elections for the two houses of the French legislative assembly on May 20, 1797, seemed to promise a long-awaited peace for the Church in France. A majority of the seats in both the Council of Ancients and the Council of 500 had gone to candidates who favored a constitutional monarchy and even to royalists, who wanted to restore the Bourbon kingship. A royalist named Barthélemy was now one of the five directors. Such results suggested that the French people were growing tired of radical revolutionary government and attacks on their religion.

General Pierre Augereau

It appeared that the new government would seek to reconcile itself with the Catholic Church. Proposals to remove all laws against nonjuror clergy were introduced in the French legislature. But all this did not please radical deputies in the councils, nor three of the directors—Barras, Rewbell, and La Reveillière. On September 4, 1797 (18th Fructidor in the revolutionary calendar), these three, with General Pierre Augereau, staged a coup d’etat. Seizing power, they replaced Carnot and the royalist Barthélemy with other more “revolutionary” directors. The Directory now rejected the elections of 49 of the new delegates and removed from the councils 53 delegates they did not like and deported them.

Joseph Bonaparte

This newly purged French government enacted measures against royalists and the Church. It reinstated laws against émigrés and nonjuror priests. Hundreds of priests were arrested and sent across the Atlantic to the French colony of Guiana on the northeast coast of South America. All died. The Directory tried to stamp out Sunday as a holy day, persecuting those who observed it. Such measures eventually stirred up revolts in Belgium, where the Directory outlawed six thousand priests. In France, Brittany, Anjou, Maine, and Normandy rose in revolt. But the directors wanted nothing less than to overthrow the papacy. In late 1797, they found their opportunity to do this.

The Directory had appointed Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as its minister to Rome. His palace in the city, the Palazzo Corsini, had become the center of intrigue for revolutionaries who wanted to replace papal government with a republic. These Roman republicans had insulted the pope, sparked riots, and stolen sacred vessels from churches to use in their own republican ceremonies.

Though he helped the Roman republicans, Joseph Bonaparte was careful not to support them openly. Thus, when—on December 28, 1797—republican rioters sought refuge in the Palazzo Corsini to escape Roman troops, Bonaparte ordered them to leave. But Bonaparte’s friend, the French general, Léonard Duphot, joined the rioters. In a clash between the rioters and soldiers on the streets of Rome, Duphot was shot and killed.

The killing of Duphot was the opportunity the Directory had been waiting for. Since Napoleon had recently returned to Paris, the Directory ordered its new commander in Italy, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, to march against Rome and avenge the death of Duphot. Berthier and 15,000 soldiers moved into the Papal States unopposed and, on February 10, 1798, encamped outside the walls of Rome. Three days later, Berthier entered the city and took Pope Pius VI prisoner.

Berthier demanded that the pope abandon his temporal authority over Rome and the Papal States and leave Rome itself for good. Pius replied that his authority had come to him from God, and he could not justly abandon it. Berthier resorted to force. He declared the pope deposed and proclaimed Rome a republic. The 80-year old Pius was banished from the city, and on February 20, 1798, French soldiers dragged him from Rome.

Pope Pius VI, with his hand raised in blessing

Pius VI was exiled first to Siena and then to Florence (in Tuscany), where he remained until the next year. But when Tuscany went to war with France, the pope departed for Parma. Though seriously ill, Pius was removed from Parma to Piacenza and was then taken to Turin. From Turin, crossing the Alps, he came to Briançon and then Grenoble, in France. Finally, he arrived in Valence and there died on August 29, 1799.

Come sei bello! (“How handsome he is!”) the Roman women had cried in the first years of Pius VI’s pontificate. Such days were long past. At his death, Pius was no longer the handsome, Renaissance pope he had wanted to be; he had become (as they now called him) Peregrinus Apostolicus moriens in exilio—the “Apostolic Pilgrim, dying in exile.” And his last words echoed those spoken by his Lord, dying in supreme humility on the cross. “May my successor, whoever he may be,” said Pius, “forgive the French as sincerely as I do.”

A Prayer in Distress

Josef Haydn called this his setting for the ordinary of the Mass Missa in Angustiis (“Mass in Difficulties”) in response to the events of 1797 and 1798, whose protagonists were the French revolutionary government and Napoleon Bonaparte. But because the first performance of the Mass more-or-less coincided with Lord Nelson’s victory over Napoleon in the Battle of the Nile, the Mass has come to be called Lord Nelson Mass.

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