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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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 Clement XI  Innocent XIII  Benedict XIII  Clement XII  Benedict XIV  Clement XIII  Clement XIV  Pius VI




George III

Louis XV

Joseph II

Charles III

THE Catholic Powers, who had at first been content with expelling the Jesuits from their territories, were determined since Clement XIII's aggression on Parma to obtain from the Holy See the total suppression of the Order. They demanded it as a reparation for the outrage inflicted on the reigning Duke, which they attributed to Ricci's influence over the late Pope.

Choiseul, the able and tireless antagonist of the Jesuits, had been entrusted by the allied Sovereigns, long before Clement's death, with the devising of the plan of campaign to be adopted at the next conclave. They could not have placed their interests in better hands, for besides being the wiliest diplomat in Europe, Louis XV's minister had had, when Ambassador in Rome, ample opportunity to study ecclesiastical psychology; and no experience was wasted on Choiseul. The opinion of his foreign colleagues had been that a species of ultimatum should be presented to the new pope requesting the immediate dissolution of the Society of Jesus; but to this he would not agree. Pressure should certainly be brought to bear on the Holy See, but the Pope could not be actually coerced into signing a decree which, if it was to have a permanent effect, must be prompted by his own conviction and proclaimed as such to all Christendom.

Pope Clement XIV
From a print in the British Museum
Choiseul therefore repudiated all idea of brutal intimidation. "When one has a favour to ask of a Pope", he wrote, "and one is determined to obtain it, one must ask for two. The irresolution which results from the possibility of a choice lessens the vigour of resistance. Half is granted as an escape from granting the whole!" Choiseul's suggestion, therefore, was that, together with the suppression of the Society, France should request the cession of Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin; Spain that of Benevento and Ponto Corvo; Naples an extension of territory on the frontier of the Papal States; and Austria an immediate and final settlement of the vexed question of Parma and Piacenza. The new pope would therefore find himself [p. 268] confronted either with a concession for which he could not but be prepared, or with a serious mutilation of the patrimony of the Holy See. There seemed little doubt which of the two alternatives the pontiff would decide on; but if by an incredible chance he chose the latter, the material advantages gained by the Powers would be more than sufficient compensation for their wounded pride.

The cardinals who were subjects of the Bourbons and of the Habsburgs formed an unquestionable majority in the Sacred College and ensured the absolute success of the allied schemes. A pro-Jesuit pope could not possibly be elected, for Choiseul had issued instructions to the various ambassadors in Rome to inform their compatriots that in the coming conclave no private sympathies were to be allowed to influence their suffrage and that they were to obey the French leader—Cardinal de Bernis—without question, or run the risk of drastic penalties. There was no doubt whatever that these threats would be rigorously enforced, as each country would make its allies responsible for any backsliding of their dependents, and of this the prelates were well aware. Consequently during the novemdiale the Jesuits' penitents dwindled to vanishing-point; their confessionals were deserted, the palaces of all foreign subjects closed against them, and obscure Dominican and Franciscan monks were promoted to the tending of consciences which needed no guiding hand to turn in the direction from which the sun shone brightest.

Of Ricci's followers there remained only the Roman prelates and a couple of Milanese who were already on such bad terms with the Austrian Government that they had nothing to lose by defying it. All the Catholic monarchs being in perfect agreement there could be no separate political parties, and many of the disabilities which in other circumstances might have gone against this candidate or the other, were now deemed of no importance. The only information sought concerning a would-be pope was: Is he for or against the Jesuits? On the answer to that one question rested his desirability or his exclusion. The conclave assembled on February 15th, 1769, the belligerents immediately taking up their respective positions on the battlefield. Skirmishing began at once; the Jesuit party put forward a couple of candidates to test the exact strength of their forces, and found them painfully inadequate. An unfortunate incident followed the defeat of these candidates. One of the Roman nunneries boasted [p. 269] of a prophetess, who had predicted that the future pope would occupy the cell bearing the number 17. It fell to the lot of Cardinal delle Lanze, who, being both credulous and conceited, never doubted the correctness and suitability of the conventual sybil's prognostication. His failure to impress his colleagues with his own belief in his high destiny so affected him that he actually lost his mental balance. He became convinced that he really was Pope, and he would wander about the passages distributing blessings and indulgences. Eventually his health gave way, and although he was perfectly harmless it was thought advisable to remove him from the Vatican.

Meanwhile the allied leaders, certain of the election of any candidate they favoured, were carefully studying the qualifications of the numerous potential popes before making a decisive and final selection. During this period, a dull one for the bulk of the suffragists, the inmates of the Vatican were provided with a unique and exciting diversion from the tedium of their inaction, by the unexpected appearance in their midst of Joseph II and his brother the Grand Duke of Tuscany. These two princes presented themselves arm-in-arm at the door of the conclave, the Emperor requesting leave to enter the forbidden premises. Such an occurrence had never been recorded in the annals of conclaves, and there being no precedent upon which to act, the custodians summoned the Dean, who, after holding a hasty consultation with the leading lights of the Sacred College, decided to break the seals and admit the exalted sightseers. As the Emperor stepped over the hallowed threshold he made a show of unbuckling his sword, but this the Dean would not permit. Having gained admittance as His Apostolic Majesty, Joseph now insisted on being treated as plain Count Falkenheim. It is on record that he wore the undress uniform of his regiment—a bright yellow waistcoat gold-braided, a brimless hat, and his hair gathered in a small queue.

In compliance with his wishes the cardinals on being presented to Joseph II respected his incognito in so far as they omitted to remove their skull caps, which they only did when addressing royalty. He was gracious and even familiar with them all, asking innumerable questions while with the Grand Duke he inspected everything minutely. The cubicles, the refectories, the chapel, the voting papers, the chalice, the stove—no detail was too insignificant to arouse his [p. 270] inquisitive interest. While their guests were thus occupied, their Eminences' servants had been hurriedly despatched to collect all available delicacies together with the choicest wines from their employers' reserves in the city, to provide adequate refreshment for the royal visitors. The Emperor professed himself delighted with his reception, excused himself most courteously for having interrupted the labours of the Sacred College, and the brothers took their depature with no more ceremony than had attended their arrival, Joseph wishing their Excellencies "the fulfilment of all their hearts' desires"!

This pleasing episode had an immediate reaction on the spirits of the recluses. The vast quantity of food and drink left over from the afternoon's entertainment had to be disposed of somehow; parties were organised, civilities exchanged from cell to cell, and flurried conclavists rushed about securing boards and trestles for the improvised banquets. Young Cardinal Albani sent out invitations to all the junior members of the Sacred College and treated them to the most delicious pasties and sweetmeats, washed down with priceless Tokay. The success of his party was such that the whole conclave caught hospitality fever and entertaining became the rage.

Had it not been for this excess of conviviality it is possible that Ganganelli would never have become Pope, for he himself kept modestly in the background, never attempting to attract attention or recruit adherents. He had attained a certain degree of notoriety a few years previously by the able and eloquent way in which he had addressed the consistory in favour of the canonisation of the Bishop of Palafox, a Spaniard, who had been an inveterate enemy of the Jesuits. Ganganelli had secured the beatification of his celestial client, which in view of the opposition of the Society of Jesus had not been a small triumph. He himself belonged to the Franciscan Order, was very popular with his colleagues, and those who knew him well had the highest opinion of his capacities and virtue, but none of the allied leaders, so far, seemed to have realised his undoubted qualifications to occupy the Holy See.

The Jesuit faction, it was rumoured, was preparing a surprise election, and a small incident which occurred at this juncture lent some colour to the report. One night when all the inmates of the conclave had long since retired to rest, the scrutiny bell suddenly [p. 271] clanged, and the panic-stricken cardinals rushed out of their cubicles, thinking the place was on fire. No trace of a conflagration having been discovered and there being nothing to account for the mysterious call, they all went back to bed. This ghostly summons, however, had made a disagreeable impression on the suffragists, who, leading such an abnormal, herded life, were easily upset and excessively prone to collective emotions. An atmosphere of nervous misgivings pervaded the assembly and at Albani's dinner-table the next evening the guests unanimously agreed on the necessity of a prompt election. As the evening wore on and the Tokay loosened their tongues, the prelates threw all caution to the winds and openly discussed the merits and demerits of the various papabili with vivacious candour.

Sala, the host's conclavist, who was considered the jester of the conclave, suddenly declared that he could give their Eminences the solution of the problem.

"Well, if you are on such good terms with the Holy Ghost," said one of the guests, "tell us what He wants us to do!"

"Certainly", replied Sala without hesitation; "elect Ganganelli—he pleaded so successfully for the Bishop of Palafox that he is quite capable of smuggling you all into Heaven!"

A storm of applause greeted this sally and Ganganelli's name was toasted to the echoes.

Several prelates attracted by the noise had congregated outside Albani's door, among them being Cardinal de Bernis, the French leader. Ganganelli's name caught his ear, and although it is probable that the advantages offered by the Franciscan's election had not altogether escaped him, yet it was undoubtedly the effervescence of Albani's guests which influenced him to take an immediate decision.

He settled the matter there and then in his mind, and as it was imperative that France should be the future pontiff's first patron, he sped swiftly to Ganganelli's cubicle and without so much as a preamble offered him the papal crown, informing him of Choiseul's conditions and pressing for an immediate answer. Ganganelli showed no emotion, and with great dignity replied that he had not sought the great honour which Bernis proposed to confer on him; that he was well aware that many popes had signed treaties before their election, but that without in any way blaming them for having done so he did not intend to follow their example. He categorically [p. 272] refused any territorial concessions whatever, but gave his word of honour that if he became Pontiff he would see justice done regarding the Jesuits and would abolish the Order if a free tribunal judged it expedient, and he himself was satisfied that such a measure should be taken in the interests of the Church. He agreed to give the secretaryship of state to France's nominee, and Bernis was so impressed by his calm demeanour and unmistakable trustworthiness that he declared himself satisfied with Ganganelli's verbal promises. Anyway there was no time for more, as Albani and his exhilarated cohort were already clamouring for admittance. Bernis took the wind out of their sails by announcing that Ganganelli's election would take place the next morning and they dispersed more soberly to spread the great news.

Bernis interviewed the allied leaders, who issued orders to their factions to remain up in readiness for the final summons. By three o'clock the electors had all congregated in the Ducal Hall anxiously waiting for the first stroke of the chapel bell. At 3:30 Bernis gave the signal for it to be rung; the prelates rushed to Ganganelli's cell and an hour later he was proclaimed Pope under the name of Clement XIV. As the episcopal dignity had never been conferred on him, the Cardinal Dean immediately consecrated him as Bishop of Rome—for such was the formula employed to announce the Pope's accession to the diplomatic envoys and the world at large.

Clement XIV was sixty-three years of age, a man of magnificent physique and imposing presence, with a kindly, indulgent smile. He was mentally alert, sagacious and experienced in the ways of the world. The Jesuits had so far shown no animosity against him; as a Franciscan he had naturally had little intercourse with them; his advocacy of Palafox's merits had been conducted so tactfully that he had managed to keep off dangerous ground, and now the admirable catholicity with which he selected the members of the commission to sit in judgment on the Society was an added proof of his impartial frame of mind. During four years the tribunal sat weighing the conflicting evidence and debating on the advantages or disadvantages of suppressing the Jesuit Order. The Pontiff followed the case with the closest attention and firmly refused to be rushed into a decision which he considered so momentous, either by the Powers or the populace.

He was the soul of tolerance and moderation, and revived Benedict [p. 273] XIV's policy of friendliness towards his fellow sovereigns irrespective of their religious beliefs. Although he himself lived in the Quirinal with the ascetism of a true Franciscan, he could display the greatest magnificence when it came to honouring distinguished guests. He entertained the Dukes of Gloucester and Cumberland with regal lavishness and charmed them so by his manner and conversation that Gloucester remarked that England would never have seceded from the Church of Rome had Clement XIV reigned in the days of Henry VIII. Conciliation was now the order of the day. An exchange of courtesies took place between the Holy See and Parma, Portugal, Spain and Naples; France evacuated Avignon and all was peace and neighbourly goodwill. The chroniclers report that "the Prince of Wales," who was a fervent partisan of the Jesuits, on hearing of Ganganelli's election, immediately left for Albano without illuminating his palace, and to this was ascribed the fact that Clement refused to address the Pretender as "Majesty". Such pettiness is unlike what one knows of the Pope's character, and his own explanation, that such empty blandishments could do the Pretender no good and would only make the position of Catholics in England more difficult, bears the hall-mark of his good sense.

Clement was the first ruler to insist on all medical practitioners being inscribed on a register, forbidding all quacks and charlatans from attending or receiving patients. He also attempted to abolish the custom of castrating boys to provide singers for the papal choirs. This effort, however, can only have had a temporary effect, for well into the second half of the XIXth century the admirable singing of the castrati in the Sixtine Chapel was one of Rome's great attractions. It is interesting in view of this fact to note the modern attitude of rigid dogmatism adopted by the Catholic Church towards the question of the sterilisation of the unfit. In his encyclical "Casti Connubii" Pope Pius XI, the present Pontiff severely condemns those "who put eugenics before aims of a higher order," and adds that "Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects . . . and have no right to tamper with the integrity of the body either for the reason of eugenics or for any other reason".

Considering that for centuries successive popes countenanced the mutilation of numberless children for aims of no higher an order than the rendering of sacred or profane music by soprano instead of [p. 274] tenor or bass voices, the Church of Rome might, one cannot help feeling, make allowances for motives at least more altruistic, and be less categorical in its pronouncements on a subject which might not unreasonably be expected to cause it some slight embarrassment.

After mature deliberation the commission entrusted with the fate of the Society of Jesus concluded in favour of its suppression, unless its General would agree to a radical revision of the statutes, which Ricci stubbornly refused to do.

Clement was in complete agreement with the verdict, and on July 22nd, 1773, he issued the bull "Dominus ac Redemptor" in which he summed up in masterly fashion the causes and the motives which had guided the commission in taking its decision. The next day he signed the decree abolishing the Order founded by Ignatius Loyola 233 years before; which had covered itself both with glory and opprobrium, and whose members had proved themselves such incomparable servants and such deplorable masters. It is said that when Count Florida Blanca came to congratulate the Pope on the long-delayed execution, he smiled sadly, replying: "I have signed my death warrant, but I have obeyed my conscience". Notice was served on the General of the Jesuits on August 16th. He had had ample time to dispose of all compromising documents and to convey to a place of safety the large sums of money belonging to the Society. The scene in the gorgeous Church of the "Jesu" must have been deeply impressive when the Pope's bull was solemnly read to the assembled community. Ricci sat in his stall rigid as a statue, and when the echo of the last words, "The Society of Jesus has ceased to exist", died away in the oppressive silence, he rose slowly and in clear, steady tones exclaimed, "Et tertia die resurrexit!"

It may of course have been a mere coincidence, but a few months later the Pontiff, who up to then had enjoyed the most robust health and whose spirits had the buoyancy of youth, showed symptoms of a strange and unknown disease which completely baffled the court physicians. Clement was exceedingly abstemious and frugal; all his food was cooked by a Franciscan friar and could not possibly have been tampered with, so it is supposed that the poison—if poison there was—must have been introduced into some figs which the friar bought unsuspectingly one day from a street vendor. Be that as it may, the Pontiff gradually lost his voice while [p. 275] his tongue and throat became so inflamed that he was driven to keep his mouth perpetually agape in an attempt to obtain, through the freshness of the air, some relief from his sufferings. He, who had been so strong and untiring, became as weak as an infant; his limbs betrayed him and he could scarcely drag himself from chair to couch. Alternately he would be a prey to insomnia or fall into a stupor from which he could not be roused. His martyrdom was indescribable. He made heroic efforts to conceal his condition, fighting the complaint inch by inch with all the energy he could muster in his debilitated state. His gaiety flickered out; he became morose, irascible and suspicious; the virus after devastating his body attacked his mind. For hours this Pontiff, so wise and so diligent, would sit at his window pathetically intent on dazzling the passers-by with the reverberation of the sun's rays on a hand mirror. In his moments of lucidity he would express feelings of the most admirable fortitude and resignation. The physical and mental tortures he endured drew tears of compassion from those who served him.

"I knew", he is reported to have said, "that I would pay with my life for what I did; but I never anticipated such a long-drawn-out agony and such refinement of cruelty!"

There has been much controversy over the mysterious cause of Clement's death, which occurred on September 28th, 1774, but nothing has been definitely proved as to its nature. The autopsy would have been a difficult one at any period, as decomposition had actually preceded death, and in those days it was wellnigh impossible to cope with such conditions. The Pontiff himself was obviously obsessed with the conviction that he had been poisoned and it was the popular belief amongst his contemporaries. The details of his laying-out are horrifying. His remains had to be encased in plaster, and Cardinal Marefoschi, who according to the ceremonial should have placed a cloth over the dead Pope's face, feigned illness so as to escape the ordeal, the major-domo who had to take his place being so overcome that he closed his eyes and threw the veil in the direction of the bed without approaching it. A layer of plaster was hastily spread over the aperture where those features once so pleasing to look upon should have been exposed; and so was obliterated all trace of the brave, wise and virtuous Pope who had borne the name of Clement XIV.

 Clement XI  Innocent XIII  Benedict XIII  Clement XII  Benedict XIV  Clement XIII  Clement XIV  Pius VI

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