Luigi Chiramonte was born in the coastal city of Cesena of noble, but impoverished parents in 1742. Around the age of sixteen, he entered a Benedictine monastery, taking the name of Gregorio. He studied at Parma and Rome and became a theology professor in colleges of his order in these cities. In 1782, Pius VI made him bishop, first of Tivoli, and then of the prestigious Imola diocese. Imola was by this time, under French occupation and Bishop Chiramonte won the admiration of Napoleon for preaching a sermon on Christmas Day, 1797, stating that the church could live with any form of government, particularly democracy, which he believed was compatible with Christianity. He showed himself to be both courageous and practical during a time of great political upheaval when the prestige of the papacy had plummeted to its lowest point. In 1785, Pius VI named him cardinal.
Pope Pius VI died in exile as a prisoner of Napoleon in August of 1799. His emergency plan was for the next conclave to meet in Venice, which was free from French control and under the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor. Thirty-four cardinals gathered in a Benedictine monastery outside of Venice. The emperor bore the expense of the conclave in an attempt to influence its outcome. It was only due to the eloquence of the secretary of the conclave, Bishop Ercole Consalvo that Chiaramonte was unanimously elected after more than three months’ deliberation. He was fifty-eight years of age and would rule as Pius VII for twenty-three years.
Although he took the name of his predecessor in solidarity with his suffering, he was very different from him. Pius VII was considered to be modest, unassuming and realistic about the changes in a new and modern world. While resolute in all things Catholic, he was willing to bend when necessary. He was fortunate to be blessed with able advisors, the most important of whom was his Secretary of State, (now) Cardinal Consalvi who proved to be a brilliant statesman and remained with Pius VII in different capacities throughout his entire papacy. Pius proved to be capable of appointing many able advisors who contributed immensely to the success of his papacy despite the political challenges imposed on it by the rule of Napoleon.
During his twenty-three year tenure the shifting political sands brought immeasurable changes, hardships and eventually, new prestige to the papacy. Pius VII was the first pope to exercise, in the absence of temporal and military power, a depth of spiritual power that had never before been seen in the Vatican. From the moment of his crowning, Pius elected to leave the safety of Venice under Austrian protection, for Rome, still occupied by the French, and to face whatever persecution might await him. In his memory was his predecessor, Pius VI, who had died a prisoner of Napoleon. There was a chance the same fate might await him.
His first act, with the help of Cardinal Consalvi, was to persuade the Austrians and Neapolitans occupying some of the Papal States to evacuate them. He was unable to convince the French to do the same. This act illustrated their great administrative ability that involved trade and currency and numerous diplomatic maneuvers to satisfy not only the Papal States themselves, but also the College of Cardinals, some of whom wanted to return to an antiquated, pre-revolutionary model of rule in the Papal States.
In 1801, in an effort to come to terms with the consequences of the revolution in France, Pius negotiated the first of several concordats with Napoleon that restored Catholicism to France. During the pontificate of Pius VI, the leaders of the revolution were desperate for money and had confiscated and sold church property to pay the national debt. From 1790, a constitution decreed that a civil electorate would choose bishops and priests who would be civil servants. Bishops would rule collaboratively with a council of state-selected clergy. The church became a government-backed constitutional church. Those clergy and religious refusing this arrangement were forced into exile, deported, or executed as traitors. 30,000 clergy and religious fled France as refugees. The Concordat of 1801 between Pius VII and Napoleon took eight months of negotiation and ended the de-Christianization period in France, establishing the rules for a relationship between the Catholic Church and the French State, which lasted until the 20th century. Although no longer the sole legal religion of France, Catholicism was acknowledged to be the religion of the vast majority. While less than ideal, it was a beginning. But then in 1802, Napoleon added the Organic Articles that further restricted papal intervention in France.
In 1803, Pius agreed to a similar concordat with the Italian Republic that had been put in place by Napoleon, and Catholicism was named the state religion. Pius was not successful in Germany, which had become secularized during the pontificate of Pius VI.
For various political and diplomatic reasons, against the advice of the curia, Pius VII agreed to attend Napoleon’s coronation in 1804 at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Although invited to preside at the coronation, Napoleon literally took the crown from the pope and crowned himself, relegating Pius VII to the role of an observer.
For the next ten years, Napoleon and the papacy were at loggerheads. At stake were not only the temporal powers of the pope in the Papal States but also an encroachment upon the pope’s spiritual power. Pius felt obliged to remain neutral during the Napoleonic Wars with the European powers, refusing first to join in a continental blockade and then to declare war on England. Napoleon, who wanted an offensive alliance against England, countered by occupying Rome and annexing the remaining Papal States in 1809. In June of that year, Pius excommunicated Napoleon who responded by having the pope arrested and imprisoned in Savona. The pope then refused to invest the bishops nominated by Napoleon. Napoleon continued to bully and badger the pontiff and to deprive him of any counsel. Under these circumstances, Pius eventually agreed to their investiture.
In 1812, Napoleon moved Pius to Fontainebleau where he signed a new concordat with far-reaching consequences that included the surrender of the Papal States. Pius’ health was failing at this point. But within two months, when Napoleon allowed the return of Cardinal Consalvi and a new Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacca, Pius retracted his signature. In 1814, due to military reverses endured by Napoleon, he released the pope who returned triumphantly to Rome only to need to seek refuge in Genoa in 1815 during the so-called 100 Days when Napoleon, who had escaped from Elba, made a short-lived bid for power.
Between 1814 – 1815, Pius negotiated the return of most of the Papal States but the inability to blend reforms based on a liberal French model with an antiquated papal system led to serious revolts in the Papal States. Pius VII appealed everywhere in Europe both among the Catholic powers and in non-Catholic countries for concordats to restore order and an end to the misery heaped upon the continent as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. He reestablished the Inquisition and the Index of Forbidden Books. The Society of Jesus was restored, concordats with Russia and Prussia were signed as well as condemnations of Freemasonry and Protestant Bible Societies. In South America, by 1822 he was affirming the neutrality of the Vatican towards political changes on the continent.
Pius VII’s spiritual strength was shown in his forgiving nature by not only offering refuge in Rome to the Bonaparte family, but also by intervening for Napoleon when his health deteriorated while in captivity on the island of St. Helena. The pope believed his captivity was too harsh. He sent him a chaplain to minister to his needs.
Pius encouraged artists like Canova, reopened the colleges and tried to make Rome a city of the arts once again. He attempted to negotiate with King Louis XVIII of France for the return of precious relics and works of art taken by Napoleon but with little success. He tried to adapt the papacy to the new, more modern world. As a result of his courage during the tumultuous period of the Napoleonic Wars, and particularly in the face of such adversity while in captivity, the papacy was enjoying renewed respect and Pius, in particular, was regarded as the spiritual authority it had been lacking. While still a political force, the Church would seek more and more to draw attention to its spiritual and pastoral role.
In the summer of 1823, Pius VII broke his leg and was unable to recover from the wound. Two weeks earlier, a fire had devastated his beloved church, St. Paul Outside the Walls, the abbey where he had both studied and taught in his younger years. He was not even told of the fire and died in August. He was buried in a mausoleum erected by Thorwaldsen in St. Peter’s Basilica.