Blessed Pius IX
Blessed Pius IXBlessed Pius IX

Era: 1846-1878

Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti was born in the coastal town of Senigallia in 1772, the fourth son of a count. He studied theology in Viterbo and Rome and in 1815, at the age of twenty-three, entered the Papal Noble Guard. He was dismissed after a seizure of an epileptic type. Four years later he was ordained a priest and the seizures all but disappeared, something Fr. Mastai-Ferretti attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His career began with his appointment as the rector of an orphanage in Rome. Pius VII then sent him to Chile and Peru to assist the nuncios there in mapping out the role of the church in independent South American republics. He was the first (future) pope to have visited America. Later appointments included the Hospice of Santa Michele in Rome and the archbishopric of Spoleto from 1827–1832 from which Mastai-Ferretti asked to resign because he did not share the intransigent views of Pope Gregory XVI. From 1832–1840 he was the archbishop of Imola where he was known for his untiring devotion as a pastor and his liberal political stance, advocating administrative change in the Papal States and sympathizing with Italian nationalism. During an earthquake his skills as an organizer of relief services and great charity were recognized. He worked to improve the education and training of his priests and became known for visiting prisoners and for establishing programs for street children.

When Gregory XVI died in 1846, a conclave lasting only two days chose Mastai-Ferretti as the new pontiff. Despite the fact that most cardinals present wanted a return to earlier policies, they also wanted a person who had not been compromised by his predecessor and was considered a moderate progressive rather than Gregory’s reactionary Secretary of State, Lambruschini. Mastai-Ferretti chose the name, Pius IX, and he would become the longest reigning pope in the history of the papacy—over thirty-one and a half years. He was fifty-four years of age when elected.

During the first months of his papacy, Pius declared political amnesty and granted practical reforms in the Papal States. He was partial to Italian nationalism. All of this changed when it became clear he believed temporal authority and spiritual independence were indispensable to each other. He would not establish a constitutional state in the Papal States.

In 1848, Pius IX refused to join in a war against Catholic Austria to expel them from the north of Italy. Then his Prime Minister, Count Rossi was murdered in November of 1848. Political unrest was so great Pius fled Rome disguised as a simple priest. His neutrality was perceived as a betrayal by the Italians rather than as the obligation of the spiritual leader of both countries.

In 1849 a republic was proclaimed in Rome abolishing the secular power of the pope, confiscating church property, and taking over education. With the help of the French, Pius was able to return to Rome later in 1849 where he set about modernizing the city. Political conflicts would continue throughout Pius’ entire pontificate but these conflicts were not the whole of his papacy. There was also an explosion of energy within the church. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life, which had been in sharp decline for centuries, were increasing to meet the demands of an industrialized world. Pius approved seventy-four new congregations of women’s religious orders to staff schools, hospitals and foreign missions. In France alone in 1878, there were 30,000 male members of religious houses and 128,000 women. Pius created two hundred bishoprics in mission territories as well as in Protestant Europe. He concluded concordats with several Latin American nations that gave the church a secure role and privileges in their developing governments.

In the midst of this new energy within the church was the flowering of Marian piety that was becoming a central element of Catholic spirituality. Pius IX shared this devotion and in 1854 defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which refers to Mary being conceived and born free from original sin. Then, in 1858, Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes and identified herself as the Immaculate Conception. One of the most significant features of this doctrine was Pius’ use of his teaching authority without the benefit of the College of Cardinals. In the words of St. Peter and the Vatican, The Legacy of the Popes,

In ultramontane Catholicism, papal authority and popular piety, hierarchy and holiness, joined hands as never before. The new centrality of the papacy was partly the work of the pope himself. Pius’ engaging personality and cheerful informality won hearts even where heads disapproved of his policies. His sufferings at the hands of Italy aroused ardent loyalties. Pius became an object of devotion and pilgrimage: pictures of the pope became almost as familiar as the crucifix or the Madonna.

Meanwhile, the rising tide of nationalism in Italy culminated in the 1860 annexation of the Papal States to the Kingdom of Italy. Rome alone was left to the pope. In 1870, with the onset of the Franco-Prussian War, French troops left Rome and the republican patriot, Garibaldi, marched on Rome to occupy the city. While the Vatican itself was independent of the government, by October Rome was annexed to the new kingdom and became its capital. The temporal power of the pope was reduced to the Vatican, a situation that has lasted to the present time.

Pius did not surrender power easily. He was angered by the anti-clericalism of the new government and refused all monetary compensation for the holdings it confiscated. He refused to recognize the Kingdom of Italy and declared himself a prisoner of the Vatican. From 1871 until his death, he did not leave the Vatican, nor did future popes until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 during the papacy of Pius XI. He also prohibited Italian Catholics from participating in Italian politics.

Amidst all of this political turmoil, momentous changes continued in the Catholic Church. In 1864, Pius published his most famous document, Syllabus of Errors. He condemned those who thought, the Roman pontiff can and should reconcile and harmonize himself with progress, with liberalism and with recent civilization. While the pope was clearly referring to the recent plunder of the rights of the Church, the press and politicians used the information as evidence of a retrograde mentality.

In 1869, Pius convened the First Vatican Council which condemned materialism and atheism, and defined the dogma of Papal Infallibility wherein the pope magisterially defines Church doctrine regarding faith and morals and is not in error when doing so. While this dogma caused a political firestorm, it also defined the direction of the church up to the present time as ultramontanism or the overt centralization of church authority in the papacy rather than in a shared authority with diocesan Sees throughout the world.

So controversial was this dogma that European countries raged. Particularly in Germany, Bismarck’s repressive attack resulted in the KulturKampf which was a series of anti-clerical laws that stripped the church of many rights it had enjoyed in the German state.

Wikipedia states that Pius IX was a patron of the arts, supporting theatres and exempting them from papal censorship, and supporting art, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, goldsmiths, coppersmiths and more. While his efforts were geared to churches in Rome, he also renovated and improved many in the Papal States. Several major discoveries occurred during his papacy because of excavations at Roman sites. Huge sums were also spent in the discovery of Christian catacombs.

The loss of temporal powers resulted in a church defined by stronger spiritual authority. In this increased central authority Pius accessed his bishops more easily due to modern transportation. Gallicanism and Josephinism disappeared. Canonizations and beatifications increased. In 1875 he consecrated the world to the Sacred Heart. As materialism grew in the world the papacy’s offer of religion and spirituality as an alternative was also growing. The pastoral role of the papacy was solidified.

When Pius IX died in 1878, he was buried temporarily in the Vatican basilica. Three years later his remains were removed to St. Lawrence Outside-the-Walls. An anti-clerical protest was organized with an attempt to throw his body into the Tiber River. Catholic priests and laymen who surrounded his bier were pelted with stones and insults. Pius IX requested no funeral monument and was buried in an ark of bare stone.

Pope Pius IX, along with Pope John XXIII, Archbishop Tommaso Reggio, Father William Chaminade, and Abbot Columba Marmion, was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Sept. 3, 2000.