Annibale Sermattei della Genga was born in 1760 of noble parents near Spoleto, an ancient city located about seventy-eight miles from Rome in the province of Perugia. He was the fifth of eleven children and was educated in Rome at various colleges including the Academy for Nobles. He was ordained a priest in 1783 at the age of twenty-three and became Pius VI’s private secretary. In 1784 he was the ambassador to Lucerne. In 1792 he became a canon of the Vatican, and in 1793 he was named archbishop of Tyre, then nuncio in Cologne. He participated in many diplomatic missions for Pius VII including concordats in 1805 – 1806, but they were unsuccessful. In 1808 he was received coolly by Napoleon.
During Pius VII’s captivity, della Genga was virtually a prisoner at his abbey of Montecelli. In 1814 he was sent as nuncio to Paris where he came under criticism from Cardinal Consolvi (1757 – 1824), the Secretary of State, for failing to negotiate the return of Avignon to papal dominion. Another enforced retirement ensued until Pius VII named him cardinal in 1816. By 1820 he was back in Rome with the prestigious title of vicar general.
Upon the death of Pius VII in 1823, another contentious and politically charged conclave sought a candidate who would be favorable to the Austrians, that is, the Emperor of Austria, formerly Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire before it was dissolved during the Napoleonic Wars .
One aspect of the conclave was to humiliate Cardinal Consolvi and to elect a candidate who would undo the liberal policies he had helped to put into place while Secretary of State for Pius VII. The cardinals sought a return to more conservative policies. Della Genga was elected by the zelanti and shared their wish to see the papacy as less political and more pastoral. He chose the name of Leo XII and would rule for just six years. One of his first acts was to replace Consolvi as Secretary of State and to name an archconservative in his place. St. Peter and the Vatican, The Legacy of the Popes states that Consolvi and Pius VII were aware that there was no return to an antiquated model of the papacy: revolution had changed the world. Because of this they favored allowing some of Napoleon’s reforms in the Papal States to remain.
Leo XII believed otherwise. He replaced Consolvi, the architect of many concordats with a secretary who attempted to return the Papal States to rigid, authoritarian, clerical governnment. There followed minute surveillance in daily life, and an outmoded feudal aristocracy was put in place with privileged positions. The Roman College was returned to the Jesuits and the stifling of criticism was a primary aim. Sadly, Jews were restricted to ghettos again. The result was that the economy stagnated, fear and suspicion replaced openness and Leo XII was regarded as a tyrant who was making the Papal States the most backward in Europe.
In contrast, Leo XII, who rejected the influence of Cardinal Consolvi in religious matters, sought his leadership in foreign policy and because of him maintained amicable relationships with Protestant and Catholic powers and vigorously supported any attempt to free British Catholics from discriminatory laws. With Consolvi’s help he negotiated with governments from the Netherlands to Turkey in an effort to emancipate Catholic communities in their countries. In Latin America, despite possible offense to Ferdinand VII of Spain, Leo himself would provide for vacant sees in the new republics.
Leo realized to some extent that the Vatican needed to emancipate itself from the political actions of governments throughout the world. He even followed for a time the philosophy of F. R. de Lamennois, whom he considered raising to the cardinalate. In the end, the pontiff’s qualms about the materialistic philosophies inundating the modern world propelled him to embrace tired domestic policies that were unsuited to the challenges he faced. Leo was most interested in religious renewal and tried to stem the tide of errors he saw threatening the Catholic faith.
Leo announced a Jubilee Year in 1825 that was attended by half a million people, mostly Italian. However, this Jubilee, rather than festive, was characterized by twelve months of spiritual activities and contained no banquets, theater or balls. Since the Papal States were rife with secret societies, political conspirators and disgruntled common people who had had enough of Leo’s myriad laws, there was an ever present fear of assassinations and a general feeling of a lack of safety for the pope and other citizens of Rome. But the pope, though in poor health at the time, made a pilgrimage to the seven churches, which was the papal custom and the custom of the pilgrims themselves.
Although Leo’s intentions were to awaken a renewed religious fervor in both the clergy and the laity, when he died in 1829, he was profoundly unpopular and unable to perceive the world around him in a manner that might have rendered him effective as a pope in the modern world.
A monument erected in his honor by the cardinals whom he elevated is located in St. Peter’s Basilica.