Biography – Pope Leo XII – The Papal Library

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Leo XII
1823-1829

Annibale della Genga born 1760

The interval between the close of one pontificate and the commencement of another is a period of some excitement, and necessarily of much anxiety.

In elective monarchy, and in the only one surviving in Europe, there is of course a space of provisional arrangements, foreseen and predisposed. Time is required for the electors to assemble from distant provinces or even foreign countries; and this is occupied in paying the last tribute of respect and affection to the departed pontiff. His body is embalmed, clothed in the robes of his office, of the penitential color, and laid on a couch of state within one of the chapels in Saint Peter's, so that the faithful may not only see it, but kiss its feet.

These preliminaries occupy three days, during which rises, as if by magic, or from the crypts below, an immense catafalque, a colossal architectural structure, which fills the nave of that basilica, illustrated by inscriptions and adorned by statuary. Before this huge monument, for nine days, funeral rites are performed, closed by a funeral oration. The body of the last pope has a uniform resting-place in Saint Peter's. A plain sarcophagus of marbled stucco will be there seen, though hardly noticed, by the traveller, over a door beside the choir, on which is simply painted the title of the latest pontiff. On the death of his successor it is broken down at the top, the coffin is removed to the under church, and that of the new claimant for repose is substituted for it. This change takes place late in the evening, and is considered private.

In the afternoon of the last day of the novendiali, as they are called, the cardinals assemble in a church near Quirinal Palace, and walk thence in procession, accompanied by their conclavisti, a secretary, a chaplain, and a servant or two, to the great gate of that royal residence in which one will remain as master and supreme lord. Of course the his is crowded by persons lining the avenue kept open for the procession. Cardinals never before seen by them, or not for many years, pass before them; eager eyes scan and measure them, and try to conjecture, from fancied omens in eye or figure or expression, who will be shortly the sovereign of their fair city, and, what is much more, the head of the Catholic Church from the rising to the setting sun. They all enter equal over the threshold of that gate; they share together the supreme rule, temporal and spiritual; there is still embosomed in them all the voice, yet silent, that will soon sound from one tongue over all the world, and the dormant germ of that authority which will soon again be concentrated in one man alone. Today they are all equal; perhaps tomorrow one will sit enthroned, and all the rest will kiss his feet; one will be sovereign, the others his subjects; one the shepherd, and the others his flock.

This is a singular and a deeply interesting moment, a scene not easily forgotten. There pass before us men of striking figure and of regal aspect. There is the great statesman of whom we have spoken, somewhat bowed by grief and infirmity, yet still retaining his brilliant gaze. There is the courteous, yet intrepid, Pacca, tall and erect, with a bland look that covers a sterling and high-principled heart; there is the truly venerable and saintly De Gregorio, lately a prisoner for his fidelity, with snow-white head, and less firm step than his companion–Galeffi, less intellectual in features, but with a calm, genial look that makes him a general favorite; Opizzoni, Archbishop of Bologna, who had boldly asserted the claims of papal over imperial authority in regard to his counsels, in a manner that caused his imprisonment; beloved and venerated by his flock, and admired at Rome, dignified and amiable in look. There were many others whose names have not remained inscribed so deeply in the annals of the time, or have not retained their hold on the memory of its survivors. But one was there who no doubt entered as he came out–without a flutter of anxiety, when he faced the gate on either side. This was Odescalchi, young still, most noble in rank and in heart, with saintliness marked in his countenance, and probably already meditating his retreat from dignity and office, and the exchange of the purple robe the novice's black gown. Many who preferred holiness to every other qualification looked on his modest features with hope, perhaps, that they might soon glow beneath the ponderous tiara. But God had said: "Look not on his countenance, nor on the height of his stature. Nor do I judge according to the look of men; for man seeth the things that appear, but the Lord beholdeth the heart" (I Reg. xvi. 7).

On this occasion, when the cardinals assembled after the death of Pius VII, Cardinal della Somaglia, dean, stated that he had received from his predecessor some papers, with orders not to open them till after the pope's death, and in presence of the Sacred College assembled. On opening them His Eminence found two briefs, dated at Fontainbleau. By the first the pope ordered the cardinals to assemble at once under the presidency of the cardinal dean, and, derogating from the ancient constitutions, to consider only the force of circumstances and the dangers of the Church, and to elect a pope with the least possible delay by a plurality of votes. The second brief contained the same dispositions, except that the pope required, according to ancient custom, a vote of two thirds to constitute a valid election. Monsignor Mazio, secretary of the Sacred College, then declared that he was the depositary of a third brief, which, by the pope's orders, he had drawn up and retained. This brief was dated in October, 1821, contemporaneous with the bull against the Carbonari. The Holy Father ordered them to proceed to an election as soon as possible after his death, if possible by acclamation, and, so to say, over his expiring body; that the election should be secret, and without waiting for cardinals absent from Rome, without notifying the accredited ministers, without informing the courts, without taking any steps regarding his funeral till it was accomplished. The Holy Father, with most pathetic expressions, recommended union; reminding the cardinals that they were almost all created by him, and that gratitude, together with a love for religion and their country, should insure their obedience. This last brief caused great emotion. Yet the Sacred College felt that none of these briefs, under the present altered circumstances, required adoption.

The conclave proceeded, therefore, in the usual form. It began on the 22nd of September, 1823.

The conclave, which formerly used to take place in the Vatican, was on this occasion, and has been on subsequent ones, held in the Quirinal Palace. This noble building, known equal