Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Papal Profile: Pope Pius II

Pope Pius II was born Enea Silvio Piccolomini on October 18, 1405 into an impoverished noble family at Corsignano. He went to school in Sienna and Florence and, while certainly not a bad guy, lived a very worldly life by all accounts, serving as secretary to a number of bishops but not reforming his life until undertaking a mission to Scotland. On the way his ship ran into heavy weather and, fearing he would drown, the future pontiff promised to go on pilgrimage if God would save him. He survived and proved to be as good as his word. However, his reform still did not fully take effect. He fathered two illegitimate children and remained in the secular fear where his gifts for writing made him a valued poet and secretary at the court of Emperor Frederick III. He wrote a rather risqué novel, essays, poems and some history as well as his memoirs.

Finally, at the age of 40 and following a serious illness Piccolomini entered the Church, became a priest and after taking his vows he kept them. When he was 51 he was given the red hat of a cardinal and distinguished himself by his diplomatic and literary talents. A short time later, on August 19, 1458, he was elected to the See of Peter to succeed the formidable Borgia pope Calistus III. Taking the name Pius II he picked up where his predecessor left off and was consumed with the desire to inspire a Crusade against the Turks who had, by this time, taken Constantinople and were rampaging across southern Europe. However, he was thwarted in his efforts to raise a new monastic-military order as the rulers of Western Europe were more concerned with their own differences than making war to rescue Eastern Christians. Pope Pius II was drawn into such a conflict in the Kingdom of Naples which was contested by the French House of Anjou and the Spanish House of Aragon.

Pope Pius II responded with considerable zeal for a man of his years. He backed the Spanish rather than the French whose power was extensive enough to cause concern about upsetting the balance of power in Europe and he took stern measures to suppress the rise in banditry in the Papal States. He also reasserted papal supremacy over Christendom; councils and kings alike, and pressed for spiritual reform and a unity of purpose. When war broke out between the Poles and the Prussian Teutonic Knights he tried to arrange peace between them and placed spiritual sanctions on them both when they refused to reconcile. In 1461 he canonized St Catherine of Siena and the following year wrote a condemnation of slavery. However, the overriding desire to halt Muslim expansion in the east remained his greatest cause.

Although, like any good Renaissance prince, Pius II was a patron to artists, musicians and scholars, he was extremely frugal and lived very simply. When his appeals to the crowned heads of Europe for a crusade went unheeded he raised funds himself but drastically cutting back papal expenses. With the military option still seemingly out of reach he wrote a letter, as only he could, to the Turkish Sultan entreating him to abandon Islam and become a Catholic. Pius II told the Sultan that if he would join the Christian faith he would immediately be recognized as the new Emperor of the East and together the men would usher in a new era of a revitalized Roman Christendom, west and east standing together. Of course, nothing came of it and there is doubt that the letter ever even reached the eyes of the Sultan.

Aging and ailing Pius II refused to give up on his goal. He stripped the papal apartments to fund his crusade and sent letters across Europe trying to convince the Christian princes to send forces to stop the Turks who had overrun Serbia. Yet, as usual, no help was forthcoming. Throwing caution to the wind Pope Pius II gathered his own meager forces, confident that God would provide others, took the pledge of the Crusaders and set out from Rome to Ancona on the Adriatic; determined to go and fight the Turks himself if no one else would lend assistance. It was a move rich in courage and faith but was pushing his frail frame beyond the limits of human endurance. After arriving at Ancona where ships from Venice were to ferry his troops across to the Balkan battlefield Pope Pius II died on August 14, 1464.

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