Christ's Faithful People
Leo XI was a member of the famous Medici family and a grandnephew of Leo X. But while Leo X was a thoroughgoing Renaissance prince, his grandnephew was a true Counterreformation pope. One typical Medici quality was shared by both, a love for literature and art.
Alessandro de' Medici was born in 1555. He was a pious lad and was so fond of the Dominican friars of San Marco that it was thought that this Medici would enter the family of Savanarola. But he chose to become a secular priest and worked quietly in a country parish until 1569, when his relative, Duke Cosimo, sent him as Tuscan ambassador to Rome. At Rome he became a disciple and close friend of St. Philip Neri. In 1573 Alessandro was made, first, bishop of Pistoia, then archbishop of Florence. Though he was forced to remain at Rome, Alessandro saw to it that the reform decrees of Trent were carried out in his archdiocese. Made a cardinal by Gregory XIII in 1583, he was sent by Clement VIII as legate to France in the crucial years 1596-1598. There he became a friend of Henry IV.
Naturally the Spaniards were opposed to him, and his chances for the papacy were so lightly esteemed that Cardinal Avila, King Philip's mouthpiece, did not bother to publish his monarch's veto until too late. Baronius, the great historian, was the favorite at the conclave which began on March 14,1605; but Baronius had told too much truth too impartially in his history to suit Spanish susceptibility, and so this holy and learned man, to his own joy and relief, was kept from becoming pope. At last after several weeks the majority swung to Medici. Too late Cardinal Avila protested bitterly, but even his own party told him to quiet down. Alessandro accepted and chose to be called Leo XI. The French were jubilant but Leo quickly showed that he intended to be the tool of no ruler.
Easter Sunday, April 17, the coronation day of Leo, was a gala occasion for the Romans, but for Leo himself it was deadly. The old man caught a chill during the ceremonies and soon was in bed fighting vainly for his life. When it became evident that he was going to die, appeals rained on him to make a nephew a cardinal. Although the candidate was worthy, Leo had so great a horror for this rather common papal failing, that he repeatedly refused. Indeed when his confessor added his voice to the general pleading, Leo exchanged his confessor for another more prudent or detached.
Leo XI died piously on April 27,1605. Although he had ruled so short a time, he managed to lower taxes and send help to the Hungarians in their struggle against the Turks.