Alessandro de’ Medici was born on June 2, 1555, in Florence to aristocratic parents whose family included his great uncle, Pope Leo X (1513-1521). Known for his piety, even as a child, his desire for ordination was thwarted by his mother, because he was the only son. Instead, his relative, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, employed him for fifteen years as his ambassador in Rome. There, he was fortunate to meet and become a favored disciple of (St.) Philip Neri (1515-1595). It was due to Neri’s influence that de’ Medici became a priest on July 22, 1567, after the death of his mother.
De’ Medici rose quickly in the ranks of the Church, holding several bishoprics and seeing to it that the Tridentine reforms were introduced and carried out in his dioceses although he himself remained in Rome.
A deeply religious man he maintained close ties with the Dominicans of San Marco. He spent lavishly restoring Roman churches and later on acquiring the Villa Medici.
Some of his most significant accomplishments included helping to persuade Clement VIII to absolve Henry IV of France from excommunication. (Henry Navarre was Protestant all of his life and had recently converted to Catholicism for most probably political reasons.)
In 1583, Pope Gregory XIII made him a cardinal and employed him as the legate to France for two years. While there he became a friend of King Henry IV.
Although by no means a candidate for the papacy, upon the death of Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605), in a conclave lasting two weeks, Alessandro de’ Medici was elected over the favorite candidate, an Italian historian, Baronius, and despite opposition from the Spanish king, Philip. He chose to be called Leo XI in honor of his great uncle, Leo X.
The French were jubilant, expecting favoritism because of Pope Leo’s close ties to their king. However, the new Pope had no intention of showing favoritism.
Sadly, the new pope ascended to the papacy elderly and in frail health. On Easter Sunday, April 17, 1605, while taking possession of his cathedral church, Saint John Lateran, he became quite ill and lived just another ten days before succumbing.
At the end of his life, even his confessor joined a chorus of supporters who wanted the pope to create a deserving nephew a cardinal. Leo XI so opposed this nepotism that he instead received a different confessor.
In the few day of his working pontificate, Leo XI sent generous aid to Emperor Rudolf of Hungary in his war against the invading Turks. He settled a dispute between the clergy in Castile and Leon in France and the Jesuits. He appointed a commission to reform the voting in conclave and abolished some taxes in the Papal States, much to the relief of the Romans.
Leo XI died on April 27, 1605, after one of the shortest papacies in the history of the church. A deeply religious man whose body of work and holiness occurred mostly prior to his election, Pope Leo XI’s mark on the Catholic Church will remain particularly because of his influence in implementing Tridentine reforms and in restoring church discipline in a France ravaged by civil war.
He is buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica in a monument created by Algardi.