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Pope Born On Christmas: Pius VI At 300

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By RAY CAVANAUGH

Though Christmas will always commemorate first and foremost the divine Child of Nazareth, another holy man with a December 25 connection is Pope Pius VI. He was born as Gianangelo Braschi exactly 300 years ago this Christmas Day.
A native of Cesena in northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, Braschi was the eldest of eight children in a family that lacked wealth but belonged to the nobility. He received his early education in a Jesuit institution in his hometown, and at the mere age of 17, he earned a doctor of laws degree.
He proceeded to work as a secretary to Tommaso Cardinal Ruffo. The Holy See eventually began taking notice of Braschi’s aptitude, and following Ruffo’s death in 1753, he was made a secretary to Pope Benedict XIV.
Braschi had intended to get married, but at age 40 he broke off his engagement and chose to enter the priesthood. He was ordained in 1758, and 13 years later Pope Clement XIV made him a cardinal. Subsequent to Clement’s death in September 1774 and the ensuing 134-day papal conclave, he was chosen for the papacy and consecrated as Pope Pius VI in February 1775.
Later that year, on Christmas Day (his 58th birthday), he issued his first encyclical, Inscrutabili Divinae Sapientiae, which stressed the need to safeguard the Church “at a time when many plots are laid against orthodox religion.”
Pius VI knew he was in a tricky situation: The Enlightenment movement — which among other things championed personal freedom and questioned Church authority — was storming across the continent. “All of Europe seemed aligned against Rome,” writes Jeffrey Collins in his book Papacy and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Rome: Pius VI and the Arts, which adds how Pius VI “faced mounting attacks on political, territorial, theological, procedural, and philosophical grounds.”
Further complicating matters, Pius VI’s Predecessor had dissolved the Jesuit order, stirring added division within the Church.
Collins credits Pius VI with being “the last great papal patron of the arts in the Renaissance and Baroque tradition” and adds that the Pontiff endeavored to use the arts to reinforce the ideas of papal supremacy and Rome as a cultural capital. The city succeeded in beautifying itself, but beyond Rome established monarchies were being overthrown, and rising forces were seeking to usurp Church power.
Though primarily concerned with Europe, in 1789 Pius VI authorized the first U.S. archdiocese — in Baltimore, as Maryland at that time had the new nation’s largest Catholic population.
Writing for the New Catholic Encyclopedia, André Latreille describes Pius VI as “an amiable and rather ostentatious man gifted with excellent health and attractive presence” but also says that the Pontiff concentrated too much on “petty diplomatic quarrels” and spent too much money on “lavish projects within Rome.”
Pius VI never canonized anyone but was quite active when it came to beatification. He also declared the beheaded French King Louis XVI a martyr and put him on the path to canonization. However, the Congregation of Rites would ultimately terminate the King’s cause for sainthood, arguing that his 1793 fate at the guillotine could just as well have been for political reasons as religious ones.
Pius VI broke diplomatic relations with France following that nation’s Revolution, which he viewed, to a large extent, as a plot against the Church. The Pontiff sought to form a counterrevolution but this proved ineffective.
French troops commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte entered Italy in 1796 and defeated the papal soldiers. As these French forces took control of some Italian cities, Pius VI negotiated a ceasefire in early 1797. However, this temporary peace fell apart a few days after Christmas 1797, when a riot claimed the life of a prominent French official. In early February 1798, the French marched into Rome and insisted that Pius VI abdicate his position. He refused, and was taken captive.
Then age 81, Pius VI had suffered a stroke that paralyzed his legs. His demeanor remained stoic and resigned, as his captors shuttled him from city to city en route to France. He died in French captivity on August 29, 1799. Collins’ book tells how the rather blunt death certificate read: “Name: John Braschi. Occupation: pontiff.”
Some had suspected (if not hoped) that Pius VI’s passing would mark the end of the papacy altogether. “But the wily pontiff had left provisions for a conclave under these difficult circumstances,” relates Matthew Bunson’s The Pope Encyclopedia. Because of Pius VI’s planning, the Church was better able to elect his Successor, Pius VII.
Despite contending with a politically chaotic Europe, Pius VI had reigned for almost a quarter of a century. At the time, this was the longest papal tenure since St. Peter (it is now the fifth-longest tenure in history).
To mark the tercentenary of Pius VI’s birth, Pope Francis recently visited his home city of Cesena, where Christmas this year will undoubtedly carry an extra significance.

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