All Categories, Faith & Life

St Napoleon’s solemnity

August 13, 2021

José Maria C.S. André

Every year, on the 15th of August, the Church celebrates the great solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven.

Every year? Well, there was a time when the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte replaced Our Lady with St Napoleon. The fact that the Church had never canonized a Napoleon was not a problem, because among the crowds of Roman centurions who converted and are in Heaven, possibly one of them was named Napoleon and, more important than a Napoleon in Heaven, was the omnipotent Napoleon who ruled France and was about to rule the world. It seemed to him that whoever ruled so much over this world could also rule over the other world, and it would be fit to place the Church under his supreme authority.

Napoleon appointed bishops in France, decided over priests and convents, replaced at his will the Catholic celebrations with the feasts of Saint Napoleon, but God did not yet rank among his subjects nor the Pope, God’s representative on earth, was his vassal. The grand challenge of subduing the Church was entrusted to a professional of unusual skills named Talleyrand.

The record of this specialist is bewildering. Despite being a nobleman, he could not pursue a military career because he had one leg shorter than the other, so he decided to become a bishop. Back then, when kings ruled over almost everything, the plan was workable and, in fact, the king appointed him. Shortly thereafter, the King gathered the General States (a National Assembly) and Talleyrand entered into politics at the King’s side. As the latter was bankrupt, Talleyrand proposed to nationalize the Church’s assets. With just over two years as a bishop, that position interested him no more and he resigned.

Meanwhile, he abandoned the King, took refuge abroad for a brief time during the revolution, and returned as Foreign Minister of the Directory. Meanwhile, he began to conspire and organized the coup d’état that put an end to the Directory and prepared Napoleon’s consulate, who kept Talleyrand as Minister of Foreign Affairs and listened to him as his main adviser. It is in this role that he conceived his plan to subdue the Church.

The first step would be to kidnap Pope Pius VI, hide him in France and announce that he had died. The second step would be to allow time for a new Pope to be elected and then present Pius VI still alive. Confronted with two Popes, the Church would dissolve itself into infighting, Paris would replace the Vatican and the Emperor would replace the Pope.

The first part of the operation, to invade Rome and kidnap the Pope, was easy. Taking him to France went less well because the crowds disobeyed the Emperor and knelt at the prisoner’s passage. But the greatest misfortune of the plan was that Pius VI did not survive the mistreatments and died before the Church had time to elect a successor. Even worse, to stress continuity, the next Pontiff chose the name Pius VII.

Concerned about the Church’s situation in France, Pius VII gave in to everything that was not essential. He accepted the confiscation of all the Church property and recognized the French Government in exchange for some freedom for the Church. He just couldn’t accept Napoleon’s divorce, nor the economic blockade of the United Kingdom. As these concessions were not enough, the French army again invaded Rome and took Pius VII prisoner to France. They put him under enormous pressure, but he resisted and when Napoleon’s star began to fade, the Emperor gave up on the plan and allowed the Pope to return to Rome.

Talleyrand —who changed lovers at a pace that outraged Napoleon himself, who was not faithful to his wife— after having supported the Emperor, began to conspire against him. Napoleon fell and Talleyrand was elected head of the Provisional Government and joined the new King Louis XVIII, whom he abandoned later. Afterwards, he continued to hold power and to betray, one by one, those who appointed him.

On the day of his death, Talleyrand signed a retraction for all he had done against the Church and received the Anointing of the Sick. And St Napoleon? The Church has not yet canonized any Napoleon, but the former Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte asked to die “in the bosom of the Apostolic and Roman Church.” Shortly before his death (a few days ago 200 years had elapsed from his death), he confessed to Father Vignali, sent by the Pope to hear his confession.

And on the 15th of August, throughout the world, also in France, the Church continues to celebrate the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven.

(Image: Talleyrand in an 1815 cartoon as the man with six faces: “Long live the King!”, “Long live the Emperor!”, “Long live the First Consul!”, “Long live Liberty!”, “Long live the nobles!!…”. He holds the bishop’s staff  in one hand, in the other the symbols of revolution; the left leg is shorter than the right one. Source: Wikimedia)