Christ's Faithful People
1823 - 1829 AD
"Will you elect a skeleton?" asked gaunt Cardinal Della Genga when the conclave of 1823 swung toward him. But the skeleton proved to have plenty of life, and as Leo XII gave the Church guidance for almost six years.
Annibale della Genga was born of a noble family at Castello della Genga near Spoleto. After studies at Osimo and Rome, Della Genga was ordained priest in 1783 at the age of twenty-three. Pius VI took the young priest into his service, and he soon showed his tact by preaching a funeral oration for Emperor Joseph II. To give a sermon on Joseph without compromising the Church or offending Hapsburg ears was no easy task, but Della Genga managed it. In 1792 he became a canon of the Vatican, and in 1793 titular archbishop and nuncio to Lucerne, then nuncio to Cologne, and in 1805 nuncio extraordinary to the Diet of Ratisbon. Napoleon did not care for Della Genga and tried to have him removed, but Pope Pius refused to recall his faithful envoy. In 1808 Della Genga accompanied Cardinal Caprara to Paris on a mission to see if Napoleon could be brought to see reason. But the Emperor was in no mood for compromise. After Napoleon carried off the Pope to France, Della Genga retired to a monastery and spent some quiet years drilling a choir of peasants in plain chant. Recalled from rustic obscurity when Pius returned to Rome, he was sent to Paris to convey the Pope's congratulations to Louis XVIII. Consalvi, who was already representing the Pope in Paris, imagined that Della Genga's mission was an insult, and this caused some unpleasantness.
A few years later Pius made Della Genga a cardinal and bishop of Sinigaglia. Since he could not stand the Sinigaglia climate, Della Genga soon resigned his see and became vicar of Rome.
At the conclave the Powers favored Castiglioni, but among the cardinals Severoli was the favorite. Cardinal Albani in Austria's name declared Severoli excluded, but this barefaced interference boomeranged. At once the independent cardinals elected the "skeleton."
Leo XII showed that he was a big man by making use of Consalvi's advice until the great diplomat died. Much alarmed by the march of infidelity, Leo took measures against indifferentism. He also condemned societies which distributed unauthorized editions of the Bible. Secret societies were a thorny problem for the old Pope. Though he condemned them, they continued to flourish right under his eyes. To crush them Leo sent Cardinal Rivarola to Ferrara and Rivarola ruled with an iron hand. But down to his death the secret societies, especially the Carbonari, troubled the Pope.
Though Leo was a conservative old gentleman, his pastor's heart could not endure the sight of empty bishoprics in South America. In spite of his own inclinations and of Bourbon wrath, he implicitly recognized the independence of the South American republics by treating with them about the appointment of new bishops.
Leo XII had tried to rule the Romans like a strict old-fashioned father, and his strict old-fashioned methods were resented. Leo XII died February 10, 1829, a good priest, if not a great ruler.