First part: historical background
The French Revolution had initiated a process that has totally changed the face of Europe. In the XIX century, the borders and the sovereignties had become the pieces of an international chessboard that constantly moved according to the result of the military actions and the revolutions within the states. Italy had not escaped from the wind of the great changes of this time. After the proclamation of the French Republic, several republican insurrections broke out here and there in the kingdoms and duchies of Italy. Many Sovereigns of Italy were allied or relatives of the House of France, such as Charles Emmanuel of Sardinia and Savoy, who was the brother-in-law of the future Louis XVIII, or Mary-Caroline of Austria, Queen of Naples and of Sicily, who was the sister of the Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette.
In 1796, the new French Republic sent its armies into Italy to help the revolutionaries overthrow the Monarchs and to create Republics. It is during this campaign that a young general distinguished himself at the Bridge of Arcole. His name would be soon known in the whole world: Bonaparte. Italy became a kind of annex of France when Napoleon, then Emperor of the French, proclaimed himself King of Italy, while he gave the Kingdom of Naples first to his brother Joseph, and then to Murat.
The Italian Campaigns of 1796-1797 brought to an end a long alliance between the Church and her eldest Daughter. In 754, King Pepin the Short promised to give the Pope the land of the Lombards in a document known as the Donation of Pepin. His son, Charlemagne, would confirm this act 20 years later. The Donation of Pepin provided a legal basis for the erection of the Pontifical States. The Kingdom of France had been predestined by God for the defense of the Roman Church (Testament of Saint Remy). Now, the French Republic would become the persecutor of the Church. The pact that has been sealed in Reims would be rejected.
By February 11th, 1798, Rome was occupied by the armies of General Berthier. The Roman Republic is proclaimed. Pius VI left Rome during the night of the 20th of February, 1798. He found a refuge in the Carthusian monastery of Florence, but he was finally caught by the troops of General Berthier and brought to France. He died, prisoner in Valence, on August 29th, 1799.
His successor, Pope Pius VII, restored the Pontifical States after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and that had reestablished the borders of the countries as they were before the Revolution of 1789. The former Monarchs returned on their thrones: Francis IV, Duke of Modena, Reggio and Mirandola; Ferdinand III, as Grand Duke of Tuscany for the House of Habsburg; Ferdinand IV, as King of the Two Sicilies; and Maria Luisa, Infanta of Spain, as Duchess of Lucca for the House of Bourbon.
But the liberal ideas inspired by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution contributed to the blooming of a national romantic ideal. The Carbonari spread throughout Italy, and in spite of their condemnation by Pius VII (Papal Constitution Ecclesiam a Jesu Christo, 1821) , realized an increasing success. Many uprisings instigated by the Carbonari broke out in the 1820’s and 1830’s throughout the peninsula. Pope Leo XII, who had been elected in 1823, renewed the condemnation of the Carbonari in the Apostolic Constitution Quo Graviora in 1826:
Would that those who were in charge of matters then had assumed these Decrees to be of such value as the salvation of both the Church and the State was demanding! Would that they had convinced themselves that they ought to respect in the Roman Pontiffs, Successors of Blessed Peter, not only the Universal Pastors and Teachers of the Church, but also the Vigorous Defenders of their Dignity, and the most diligent heralds of the dangers which threaten! Would that they had used that power of theirs for dismembering the sects whose pernicious devices had been exposed to them by the Apostolic See! Already from that time they had plainly put into effect their cause. And because they judged that this cause was needing to be treated with indifference or at least treated very trivially, whether by the deceit of the sectarians cunningly hiding their affairs, whether by the imprudent counsels of some, from those old Masonic sects which have never languished, very many others have arisen much more dangerous and more audacious than the former. The sect of the Carbonari, which was considered the leader of all the others in Italy and in some other regions, was considered to embrace as if in its bosom all these, and having divided into, as it were, various branches diverse in name only, undertook to fight most vehemently against the Catholic Religion and every topmost legitimate civil power. Which being a disaster, so that he might free Italy and other regions, indeed even the very Pontifical Domain – into which, because the Pontifical Government had been obstructed for so long a time, the sect had insinuated itself. Pius VII of happy memory, in whose place We have been chosen, condemned with the gravest penalties the sect of the Carbonari, or with the passage of time by whatever other name it might be called according to the diversity of places, of idioms and of men, by a Constitution published on the 13th of September in the year 1821 whose beginning is: Ecclesiam a Jesu Christo.
In spite of the condemnations, the movement continued to develop, led by Mazzini, Cavour, and Garibaldi. Then began Il Risorgimento - The Resurgence - with the first Italian War of Independence in 1848. After the assassination of Pellegrino Rossi, Minister of Justice of the Papal States in November, 1848, Pius IX fled from Rome to Gaeta. The Roman Republic was proclaimed in 1849. France, who was then under the Presidency of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the future Emperor Napoléon III, sent an army to support the Pope. General Oudinot took Rome and reestablished the Pontifical power.
But the Papal States had been weakened and the Pontifical armies were just a shadow of an army. It is at this time that Monsignor François Xavier de Mérode, of the illustrious Belgian House of Mérode and Minister of the Armies of Pius IX, decided to create a new army for the honor and the defense of the Papacy. The adventure of the Papal Zouaves would begin.
Second Part :The General of the Pope
Louis Juchault de La Moricière came back from Africa in 1846 with a great prestige that allowed him to deal with princes, ministers, and all the political leaders as an equal. After brilliant military successes in Algeria and Morocco, where he gained the nickname of Bou Chechia, ‘the man who wears a chechia,’ General de La Moricière thought that there would be something good to do with these great territories, especially in the area of agriculture. North Africa needed “Christian arms to work the soil.” He pacified these territories as a soldier; now he would participate in their development as a politician.
At forty years, Louis de La Moricière began a new career in which he would be as successful as he was in his military career. Deputy in 1846, he was appointed Minister of the War two years later. But in 1851, he was arrested for being opposed to the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. He was sent in exile to Belgium and probably thought that his career was now over. This period gave him an occasion to nurture his faith.
It is at this time that Pius IX, advised by Monsignor de Mérode, decided to reorganize the Pontifical Army. In the political context of the middle of the XIX century, the Pope could not entrust the survival of His territories to any sovereign country. The intervention of the Army of Oudinot gave Pius IX a certain respite, but it would not last long. His last recourse was then to call the children of the Church from all over the world and to organize an army under the command of a General, as Saint Pius V did when he gave full power to Marc-Anthony Colona, who defeated the Turks.
“He chose for this mission General de La Moricière, Emile Keller writes. This man had the most brilliant military reputation of this time and was then disengaged of any obligations toward his Government. He was not involved with any political party and had given proofs of his love for order and liberty. He came back to God with a pure faith matured by the harshest adversities.”
But there was still a question: would he accept? Nothing was certain. La Moricière had fought for many years, but in a well organized army and for his country. In a certain way, he was asked now to be a kind of mercenary at the head of a troop that had poor means and was hardly organized. Moreover, though he was a man of principles and faith, he was nevertheless not so certain about the necessity of maintaining a form of political power that was a vestige of the old regime.
Pius IX sent Monsieur de Corcelles, ambassador of France to the Holy See and former Deputy, to General de La Moricière. The two men knew each other very well. La Moricière’s answer was direct: “I think that it is a cause for which I would be happy to die.” We have learned from his correspondence how great a sacrifice this was for him and his family, as it was for thousands of Catholics, known or unknown, who left their families and countries to serve the Pope. The sacrifice was even greater, as many relatives and friends of La Moricière tried to persuade him to renounce such a foolish project. The answer of the great General was always the same: “When a father calls his son in order to defend him, there is only one thing to do: you go.”
In March 1860, Monsignor de Mérode, who knew La Moricière when he visited the province of Oran as a Belgium officer, paid a visit to La Moricière in his chateau of Prouzel. In the name of Pius IX, Monsignor de Mérode officially asked him to take the command of the army. The day after, La Moricière and his devoted wife offered their resolution to God in their parish church. Nothing would make him change his mind.
This great General and organizer knew that the mission was almost impossible. It was certainly a difficult cause, yet not a desperate one, as there is always a chance of victory. La Moricière was very lucid. “My hope is only in God,” he wrote to friend the day before his departure. “For what I know, the strength of a man can not suffice for the work that I am about to begin.”
By March 19th the new Commander in Chief of the Papal Army began his trip with his dear saber of Africa that he did not want to leave. It would share the glory of this cause. La Moricière asked a dear friend, François Cattoir, to come with him and Monsignor de Mérode. The three men traveled to Italy, passing by Belgium and Germany. In Cologne, they stopped to pray in the Cathedral and venerate the relics of the Wise Men. In the old days, the Family of Mérode had hosted these relics in their chateau. For this reason, the knights of the family of Mérode were granted to enter the vault of the Cathedral of Cologne with their swords. On this day, Monsignor François Xavier de Mérode had the saber of General de La Moricière under his cassock.
The three travelers arrived in Rome by April 2nd, 1860. La Moricière immediately wrote to the Pope and expressed again his desire to serve him under the only condition of never fighting against France. Pius IX accepted his service with joy and gratitude and the two men met together. The General offered his person and his saber to the Pontiff who was charmed by his prestige and his candor. From this day, the Holy Father had never refused anything to the man who represented the last chance of protecting the Pontifical States. But much more was still to be done, and the difficulties would come soon enough.
Continuation of the story of the Papal Zouaves in Upon This Rock, February 2011, soon on line!