Saturday, May 16, 2009

Pius VI and the Glory of Philosophy

Angelo Campanella (born c. 1748- c. 1815)
Morte di S. S. Pio VI, seguita nel palazzo della Cittadella di Valenza / Pope Pius VI on his deathbed in the Palace at Valence 1805.
Engraving 32,5 x46 cm
National Library of Portugal

" The death of Pius VI has, as it were, placed a seal on the glory of philosophy in modern times." These words were used in a malignant obituary article on the great sufferer of Valence that appeared in a Paris newspaper. The times were such that it was thought possible to deliver funeral orations on the Papacy and to welcome with joy its permanent dissolution.

The Church's enemies were jubilant that the cockade was attached to the Papal tiara, that the banners of popular government were waving over the Papal tombs, that the body of the exiled Pope had been buried in unconsecrated ground.

The capital of Christendom had become the booty of the Revolution, the highest dignitaries of the Church had been scattered to the winds.

This then was the doleful end of the intellectual progress of the century of "enlightenment" Gallicanism and Jansenism, Febronianism and Josephism, still concealing their hostility to the Papacy with fine-sounding words, had gnawed at the Church's vitals from within, while the spirit of the Encyclopedists and " philosophers " threatened it from without.

The extreme shortsightedness of many princes and diplomats facilitated rather than hindered the advent of the evil; they had no conception that the storm of hatred, once unleashed among the people, would engulf their thrones along with the altars, human authority along with the divine. After everything traditional had been destroyed in the flames of the Revolution it looked as if the last hour had struck for the Roman Papacy as well.

But the miraculous happened once again."

From L. Pastor. The History of the Popes Volume 40, pages 395-396

See also:

Andrea Riccardi, The strength of the unarmed pope

Letter of Pope John Paul II to the Bishop of Valence 25 August 1999 :

"Pope Pius VI died in Valence 200 years ago on 29 August 1799. ... Pius VI's last months were his Way of the Cross. Over 84 years old and seriously ill, he was torn from the See of Peter.

Although he was able to enjoy a brief period of relative freedom in Florence, which allowed him to continue to exercise his responsibility as universal Pastor, he was forced to cross the Alps on snow-covered paths, and reached Briançon and then Valence, where death put an end to his earthly journey, giving some the impression that this would be the end of the Church and the papacy. One remembers Christ's words to Peter, which parallel what Pope Pius VI experienced that year, 1799: "When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go" (Jn 21: 18).

Pius VI accepted his trial with serenity and prayer, and forgave his enemies at the moment of his death, thereby gaining their admiration.

However, in addition to his physical suffering, he was morally tormented by the Church's situation. Despite the upheavals in France, he received many touching marks of respect, compassion and communion in faith from ordinary people all along the way in Briançon, Grenoble and Valence. However humiliated he may have been, the common father of the faithful, as the poet Paul Claudel said, was recognized and revered by the sons and daughters of the Church. The simple and attentive welcome in those dramatic circumstances is comforting to all.

This page in the history of the Church and of France is very instructive. Throughout her 2,000-year history, the Church has never ceased to suffer a multitude of trials. She is called to maintain her courage, for her mission comes from the Lord who never abandons her: as he promised, Christ is with us to the end of time (cf. Mt 28: 20).

At difficult moments, we should above all welcome the grace of God who increases our faith, keeps hope alive and firmly maintains communion among all Christ's disciples. It is the Holy Spirit who is at work, and it is God who causes the growth of the task undertaken by all Gospel missionaries, Bishops, priests, religious and lay people (cf. 1 Cor 3: 6).

The pontificate of Pius VI calls to mind the merits of the papacy which, down the centuries, was eager to defend the Church's freedom from the claims of civil powers. This is why many Popes fought and suffered to the point of giving their lives. Indeed, religious freedom is a right of every human person by reason of his very dignity, as the Second Vatican Council reasserted (cf. Declaration on Religious Liberty Dignitatis humanae, n. 2).

Spiritual and religious freedom are particularly important in all nations. Without them the other personal and social freedoms are impossible. Freedom of worship is an indispensable condition for building a nation, as well as for cooperation and friendship between peoples.

In this spirit, down through history Christianity has always been concerned to gather together and unite individuals and peoples, tirelessly helping them to build a more just and fraternal society and to achieve peace, which is essential for the integral growth of human beings and human communities."