Blessed Pope Pius IX was the Holy Father of the Catholic Church longer than any other Pope – 32 years, from 1846 to 1878. Born into a troubled world in Sinigaglia, Italy on 13th May, 1792, Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti grew up wanting to be a priest in spite of suffering epilepsy in his youth, and witnessing the growing secular aggression towards the Catholic Church. Before he had reached the age of 21, French authorities had imprisoned two Popes and, without the bravery of those Popes, the Church would have become an effective puppet of France. Pope Leo XII appointed Father Mastai-Ferretti Archbishop of Spoleto in 1827 at the age of 35. In 1840 he was made a Cardinal.
When Pope Gregory XVI died, Cardinal Mastai Ferretti was elected pope. He chose the name Pius IX.
Amid the turbulent events of his time, he was an example of unconditional fidelity to the immutable deposit of revealed truths. It was an extremely difficult time to be the leader of the Church with continual riots, major political conflicts between nations and religious arguments about the Church’s place in the world. Whatever the problem, Pius IX did not flinch from his duty as Vicar of Christ. Faithful to the duties of his ministry in every circumstance, he always knew how to give absolute primacy to God and to spiritual values. His lengthy pontificate was not at all easy and he had much to suffer in fulfilling his mission of service to the Gospel. He was much loved, but also hated and slandered.
He was completely and totally a man of the Church who saw God’s providence in all the events of his reign. Even in the loss of the Papal States he would see the mysterious action of God. Though certainly sympathetic early on to Italian patriotic movements, his concern was with the Church and, through the Church, for the salvation of souls.
In his Syllabus of Errors, Pope Pius IX condemned the heresies of secular society, especially Modernism. (St. Pope Pius X also virulently condemned Modernism in the following century.)
Pope Pius IX inadvertently fueled a virulent hate campaign when he reestablished the British Catholic hierarchy in 1850. The Catholic population in England had been growing rapidly through Irish immigration, which had accelerated during the disastrous Irish potato famine of the 1840’s. Previously the Catholic Church in England had been ruled by vicars reporting directly to Rome. The reestablishment of the hierarchy allowed for direct and quicker action, which made sense. Besides, the Oxford Movement within Anglicanism – a vain attempt to recapture the apostolic and Catholic nature of the Anglican Church – had recently led to a number of prominent conversions to Catholicism, including that of the renown John Henry Newman. Combined with the reestablishment of the Catholic hierarchy, English Protestants saw all this and went through one of its periodic bouts of “no-popery”, but for the growing Catholic population of the British Isles there was rejoicing. This was seen for them as the beginning of the end to three centuries of suffering and exclusion.
Pope Pius IX will always be known for declaring two important Church teachings. First, he proclaimed the teaching of the Immaculate Conception in his Apostolic Constitution, Ineffabilis Deus, on 8th December, 1854, articulating a long-held Catholic belief that Mary, the Mother of God, was free from all sin, including Original Sin, from the first moment of her conception in her mother’s womb and remained without sin her entire life. After spending many hours in prayerful reflection, Pope Pius IX, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and together with all the bishops of the Church made this teaching an official Dogma of Faith (i.e. to be believed by all Catholics.)
At the First Vatican Council, Pope Pius XVI and the bishops declared the teaching of papal infallibility. This means that when the Pope and bishops teach together on Faith and Morals – ex cathedra – they always teach the truth. Infallibility is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to the Church to ensure that the teachings of the Church will always remain true and protected from errors.
Pius IX was a Marian Pope, who in his encyclical Ubi Primum described Mary as a Mediatrix of salvation. He also granted the Marian title of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, the name of a famous Byzantine icon from Crete.
Pope Pius IX’s last words, as recorded by the Cardinals who were kneeling at his bedside, were: “Guard the Church I loved so well and sacredly.”
He had a difficult pontificate, but precisely because of that he was a great Pope, certainly one of the greatest. Thoroughly aware of being the “Vicar of Christ” and responsible for the rights of God and of the Church, he was clear, simple consistent. He combined firmness and understanding, fidelity and openness. He was beatified in 2000 by Bl. Pope John Paul II.