Pius IX: The Man and the Myth, Chapters 2 -4

In the first section (here) we considered the life of Pope Pius IX from the time of his birth until his determination to take the tonsure. This section (chapters 2 – 4) will consider his life from the time after his tonsure through to his role as Archbishop of Spoleto, in Umbria. As with last time, this short post will be nothing more than brief overview of the part in question, with a few key points drawn out for further reflection. And, as also with last time, please be sure to leave your thoughts/comments below.

A Difficult Path to the Priesthood

Soon after young Giovanni Maria received the tonsure, he left for Rome. However, due to health issues, and the arrest of the Holy Father, Giovanni Maria postponed his seminary studies for a few years. Chiron points out that many colorful, and in many cases irreverent, stories have been spread by some biographers, and does an admirable job of pointing out the ridiculousness of the claims. Still, this four year period changed things for him.

Returning to Rome in 1814, he writes to a friend, “…unfortunately I do not have a vocation.” What are we to make of this? Too often we wish to see the lives of great men, and especially of saints and saintly men, written as a straight line from their cradle to their ultimate destiny. Reality, however, is something else. What this tells us is that the young Mastai boy in Rome was a normal man, made up of flesh and blood, struggling, like so many have and will continue to, with doubts about a vocation. Though it is brought out, there is nothing here to concern the reader; if anything this example should only endear us more to this great figure.

How did he act? Exactly as can be expected of a serious Catholic wrestling with the questions of his future; thus his biographer tells us that numerous times he went on retreat, giving himself set rules to follow. All of these things lead to his decisive action in February of 1816 to resume the cassock and pursue his ecclesiastical studies once more.

After a number of retreats with resolutions that show a deepening spirituality, Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferreti was ordained a priest on April 10, 1818 by Bishop Caprano. Thus began the next stage of his exciting life.

From Tata Giovanni to Chile

Giovanni Borgi, Founder of the Tata Giovanni His first apostolate was at the Ospizio Tata Giovanni, a home and source of educational formation for orphans in the city founded by Giovanni Borgi (seen at left). To these beloved inhabitants he ministered in the early years of his priesthood, until an opportunity arose that pulled on his missionary heart.

Revolutionary forces in Chile had recently pushed out the government of Spain, and as such approached the Holy See to open diplomatic relations. The Holy See did not open formal diplomatic relations with Chile for fear of offending Spain, but the Pope did authorize a mission of one Apostolic Visitor to go.

To this mission Fr. Mastai was accepted, going as auditor. After a long journey, including a meeting with pirates, the small delegation arrived in Argentina. There, the anti-Catholic government forced the faithful to receive confirmation hidden in the Apostolic Palace. Soon leaving the country they departed for Santiago, to which they arrived in March of 1824.

Ramon Freire, Leader of Chile Sadly, the political situation had changed in Chile and the conciliatory government was gone, replaced by a more anti-Catholic government lead by General Ramon Freire (picture at right). After attempting to bribe the Apostolic Visitor, Bishop Muzzi, they insisted upon an abolition of religious feasts, nomination of the bishops by the civil authorities, and the right to choose, at the state’s sole discretion, what acts of the Holy See would be published in Chile.

Left with no option, and faced with an increasingly anti-Catholic force, including an attempt to force Bishop Muzzi to consecrate government selected bishops, the small delegation left, returning eventually to Argentina, and from there to Genoa. Though the mission seemed a failure, it brought Fr. Mastai to the further attention of the Holy See.

Soon, occupying a role henceforth only handled by Cardinals – the direction of Ospizio San Michele, he shined in his far-seeing policies, being appointed by Leo XII to Archbishop of Spoleto. Here we should pause for a moment to consider one point brought to light by Chiron at both the appointment to San Michele and also to the Archbishopric of Spoleto: Fr. Mastai begs the Pope not to do it; he gives reasons for his unworthiness that come from a real humility. But, once commanded, he obeys.

Bishop of Spoleto

What do we see in his role as a bishop? We see him visiting the entirety of his diocese with firm solicitude for the poor. We see him seeking to encourage religious life, even giving spiritual direction to some of the sisters. He brought the Jesuits in to teach in his seminary, and gave regular conferences to his seminarians. In short, he sought to make a diocese conformed to the will of God.

But all was not conformed to the will of God externally. In 1831 a revolutionary spirit swept through much of Italy. Since his diocese was within the Papal States there was real concern that the bishop himself or his representatives would be taken prisoner. The thought was no far off, considering the revolutionaries, who would cause the later Pope Pius IX so much pain and suffering, had already arrested Cardinal Benvenuti, the Papal Delegate.

The important thing is not the history of these movements, though clearly they left a lasting influence on the future pope. The important thing to take away is how Bishop Mastai handled himself and his diocese; first by resolving the revolution in his diocese without any bloodshed, a rare occurrence. Secondly, it’s important to note that Bishop Mastai earned the trust and admiration of the Holy Father, who named him Extraordinary Apostolic Delegate to Spoleto and Rieti to help the Holy Father restore peace and justice there. In this task, he appealed on behalf of the revolutionaries to the Holy Father begging forgiveness, and on the other hand he restored the revolutionaries to obedience to the Pope, or more appropriately, those who were led astray by the revolutionaries.

The final note, showing his spiritual progress and the true spiritual focus he maintained is to consider his prayer after an earthquake struck the region. Warning the wicked that this was a merited punishment and warning the good that they should take heed lest they fall, he offered himself to God as a victim to avert the just judgments against his flock. “Lord, if you require a victim to satisfy your justice, I beg you spare the flock and strike the shepherd.”

1 Response


October 19, 2016

“Lord, if you require a victim to satisfy your justice, I beg you spare the flock and strike the shepherd.” Clearly this man believed in Divine Justice – not confusing it with the ‘social’ justice sought by, ‘those who were led astray by the revolutionaries.’

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