1590 was a fraught year for the Catholic Church. The Spanish Armada had gone down to defeat as persecutions increased in England, while a Protestant prince threatened to become King of France. The German states were ever restless, and Austria braced for a resumption of Islamic Ottoman attacks. Yet signs of hope abounded as well. The Council of Trent had solidified Catholic teaching and its reforms were beginning to spread throughout the Church, as missionaries were spreading the faith to the furthest corners of the globe. The selection of a leader for the first worldwide institution in history was a delicate task, one which fell to 54 cardinals upon the death of the strong Sixtus V, on August 27.
The college itself was delicately balanced in several senses. First, the old national predilections still held, with Italians, Spaniards, and French making up the bulk of the cardinals. Indeed the rest of Christendom was represented only by two Germans and the solitary Englishman William Allen. The college was divided in another way however, between cardinals who had fully embraced the reforms of Trent, and those who continued to live in rather worldly manners. While the balance was tipping in favour of reform, it was still on a knife’s edge.
After a week of inconclusive balloting which saw the defeat of the worldly Cardinal Colonna, the conclave finally settled upon Giovanni Battista Castagna, a quiet, kind man who had long been in papal service, and was known to be a reformer, but not a fire-breather. Castagna took the name Urban, disused for 200 years, in order to remind himself to be thoughtful and courteous to others. He did it also to tie his papacy to the city of Rome itself, having had long experience in the governance of the papal states, and wanting to continue the exemplary city-planning of his predecessor Sixtus V.
Urban VII was selected for his tireless career in papal service. He had been a brilliant student, obtaining a doctorate in both civil and canon law. He served as an assessor for benefices on a diplomatic journey to France before his ordination, setting the stage for a long career of legatine responsibilities. In 1553, at the age of 32, recognised for his uprightness and skill, he received appointment as bishop. He did not remain a diocesan for long, since his administrative skill put him in high demand at the curia. He spent several successful terms as governor of various cities in the Papal States, bringing justice and order to often chaotic regions. In 1561 he was in residence at the Council of Trent, where he headed commissions and made expert interventions in Marriage law and on the residence requirement for bishops. While there he became fast friends with St. Charles Borromeo, and sealed his membership in the party in favour of Church reform.
1564 saw his appointment to one of the most significant diplomatic posts in the Church, as envoy to the court of Philip II of Spain. There he spearheaded negotiations which led directly to the alliance that crushed the Ottoman navy at Lepanto. Having gained the trust of Philip and the popes, he was again dispatched to the delicate post of nuncio to Venice, where resurgent Ottoman naval power had driven the city to a peace treaty with the Muslims. For this service he was recognised with a red hat in 1583. While he did not favour the election of Sixtus V, he and the new pope gained each others’ respect, and Castagna continued to serve in significant diplomatic roles.
Upon his election as pope, he undertook immediate efforts to relieve the poor of Rome and to continue the reform of the Church. He annulled several burdensome taxes, ordered a census of the poor of the city to coordinate relief, and made a subvention to lower bread prices. Urban made a quixotic fight against nepotism among the cardinals, one destined to fail. He demonstrated his humility by ordering that all incomplete civil engineering projects would bear Sixtus’ coat of arms when they were finished, and not his own. He was committed to finishing the great dome of St. Peter’s and continued Sixtus’ programme of public works so as to give employment to the poor of the city, but it is merely a legend that he banned smoking.
The heat of August in Rome is terrible however, and it sometimes creeps into September. On the night of his election, Pope Urban VII was afflicted by the torrid temperature and by mosquitos. Rome and the surrounding area was a haven for these bearers of malaria until the early 20th century. It appears he contracted the disease and fell sick almost immediately. He tried to move to the better air of the Quirinal palace but was prevented by tradition, for he had not yet been crowned. Day by day he sickened and, on 27 September 1590, during the celebration of mass in his room he attempted to raise himself during the elevation but fell back with his arms crossed on his chest. By the conclusion of mass the pope was dead, having served as the successor of Peter for only 12 days, the shortest reign in papal history. He left his fortune to the charity of the Annunciation at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva for the subvention of dowries for poor girls, and was later buried at the Dominican church. While his papacy was fleeting, his example of unstinting service to the Church remains.
Donald S. Prudlo is the Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the Department of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Tulsa.
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