Home > Archives > 05 - 2008 > Prisoner and close to his flock
from issue no. 05 - 2008

Prisoner and close to his flock

Even during his five-year forced stay in Savona and Fontainebleau Pius VII remained close to the faithful in mercy and serene firmness of mind

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Pope Pius VII in a painting by Jacques-Louis David, Louvre Museum, Paris

Pope Pius VII in a painting by Jacques-Louis David, Louvre Museum, Paris

During his visit to Savona and Genoa on 17-18 May, Pope Benedict XVI recalled the long exile which Pope Pius VII was forced to endure in Savona from the summer of 1809 to that of 1812 when, by order of Napoleon, he was moved on and forced to reside at Fontainebleau from whence he returned to Rome only after another two years.
The five-year imprisonment of Pius VII (but one could extend the affirmation to his whole papacy) is insufficiently known not only to the general public but even to Catholics, due to the overwhelming attention paid, for good or evil, to the figure of Napoleon.
There is therefore some use in briefly recalling various aspects of his imprisonment.
One should first remember that Pius VII (elected after a long conclave in Venice in 1800) was the Pope of the concordats with the French and Cisalpine Republics between 1801 and 1803, and also the person who had consecrated Napoleon as emperor in Paris in 1804. All that had created the expectation that he would be malleable. Faced, however, with the repeated demonstrations of independence that Pius VII gave in the years following, Rome was occupied by the French in early 1808 and in July of the following year the Pope himself was seized and taken to Savona after a journey of six fatiguing weeks of wandering, since it was only on the way that Napoleon was told of the capture made by his venerable generals. Already at the beginning of that long journey appeared that “sweet sadness and natural smile” of Pius VII (in the words of Jean Leflon, one of the outstanding scholars of the pontificate of Pius VII and author of volume XX of the Fliche-Martin History of the Church) “which characterize his usual attitude during his imprisonment”. But on the tragicomic trek (the Pope himself used terms of the sort) between Italy and France it also happened that Pius VII was accompanied and consoled by “demonstration of respect and sympathy offered him by silent and distressed crowds”. In particular, Pope Benedict XVI recalled “the love and courage with which the people of Savona supported the Pope in his forced sojourn”. The jurisdictional conflict and the resulting exile, in fact, went along with the intense pastoral ministry performed by the Pope, all the more fruitful because (for objective reasons of powerlessness) free from concern with success. Even perhaps to the point of stirring the grace of conversion, as witnessed by the recently republished letter of a Piedmontese soldier guarding the Pope (see box). The removal to Fontainebleau, aimed also at weakening his resistance (the Pope almost died along the way), seems to have been motivated by the desire to put an end to that closeness of the Pope to the faithful, something that had paradoxically grown over the years in Savona.
But what is most striking is that the persecutor himself, so to speak, was not excluded from the pastor’s warmth. It is documented that on several occasions the Pope called Napoleon “a dear son”, “a little stubborn, but always a son”. The Pope, for the good of the Church, would have liked to cede to the pressure put on him by the emperor. And since, to speed his liberation, he had hardened on the refusal to grant canonical mandate to the bishops chosen by Napoleon on the basis of the concordat, on at least three occasions over the years in Savona and then Fontainebleau Pius VII was about to yield and give the mandate so that the faithful of many dioceses, including Paris, should not remain without legitimate pastors, which means to say without sacraments.
Within this framework of “serene firmness”, as Benedict XVI said speaking of Pius VII’s imprisonment, there was, however, a shadow, a sort of radical betrayal by some of the circle closest to the Pope, starting from the doctor who was set to attend him, by the very bishop of Savona (perhaps one of the reasons for the choice of that city), and other bishops who trickily sought in turn to take advantage of the Pope’s moments of weakness.
Pius VII taken as prisoner to Savona,  
Clementine Gallery, Vatican Library

Pius VII taken as prisoner to Savona, Clementine Gallery, Vatican Library

After Napoleon’s first severe defeats in Russia and Saxony, in early 1814 Pius VII could once again take the path to Rome, halting in his beloved Savona (it was not to be his last stop there because, during the “Hundred Days” that preceded Waterloo, Pius VII returned again to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Mercy which had been his first goal as soon as he arrived there as prisoner in 1809). Back in Rome, the Pope did not participate in the damnatio memoriae of his former persecutor. Indeed, when came the final imprisonment on St. Helena, the Pope sought to alleviate his sufferings, interceding with the all too zealous Allies for the “poor exile”.
Just as, according to the Mémoires of Cardinal Pacca, when Pius VII was made captive “no protest was heard, not one single protecting voice descended from the Catholic thrones in favor of this illustrious prisoner”, so at the moment of Napoleon’s exile to Saint Helena the story was identical except precisely for the mercy shown by the man who had once been his prisoner. Bonaparte’s mother acknowledged as much in a letter dated 27 May 1818 to the Secretary of State: “The only consolation granted me is that of knowing that the Holy Father forgets the past to remember only the affection that he shows for all my family. We find no support and asylum except in the papal government, and our gratitude is as great as the benefit we receive”.
“… Beautiful Immortal! beneficent / Faith inured to triumphs! / Write this, lighten your heart, / For more superb grandeur / To the dishonor of Golgotha / Never yet did stoop. // From the tired ashes / Scatter each mocking word: / The God Who brings down and raises, / Who wearies and Who consoles / On the deserted deathbed / Beside him lay down.” Who knows whether Manzoni, when he wrote this famous ode in a single burst after the death of Napoleon, had not been touched by the example of Pius VII.

The letter from a soldier

“I who was foe to priests ...”

Here’s an excerpt from the letter of a Piedmontese soldier who guarded Pius VII during his exile in Savona. The letter, kept in the episcopal archive of Alba, was published in the

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português