Today marks the death of Cardinal Ercole Consalvi (1757-1824), a papal diplomat regarded as one of the greatest to ever serve the Holy See. A native Roman, he earned degrees in canon and civil law before entering the ranks of the papal government. He took Holy Orders early on, but wasn’t ordained a priest. In 1801 Pope Pius VII, recognizing his talents and his loyalty, named him Cardinal Secretary of State, the Vatican’s equivalent of a prime minister. He was also named a Cardinal Deacon. (Until the early twentieth century it was possible for someone who was not a priest, but only in minor orders, to become a cardinal. They were enrolled as cardinal deacons, but were popularly known as “lay cardinals.”) He negotiated the Concordat of 1801 with France, which normalized Church-State relations in the wake of the French Revolution. At one point during the negotiations, Napoleon Bonaparte lost his temper and threatened to destroy the Church if he didn’t get his way. Consalvi replied calmly that the clergy had been trying to do that for centuries, and had not succeeded. After Napoleon’s defeat, he represented the Holy See at the Congress of Vienna and oversaw the restoration of the Papal States to the Pope. Toward the end of his life was ordained a priest. Napoleon once said of him, “he is a man who does not wish to appear to be a priest, but he is more a priest that all the rest of them.”
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