Nicolo Sfondrati born 1535
Gregory XIV, belonged to a noble family of Milan, founded by Conrad, a German, who, in the time of Otho IV, established himself in Italy.
The mother of Nicolo, Anna Visconti, died, and by the Caesarean operation Nicolo was brought into the world on the 11th of February, 1535. The infant, though for some time very weak, gradually gained a little strength. In the course of years he studied, successively, at Perugia, Padua, and Pavia, at which last he received the doctorate. While still young, he became a member of the household of Charles Borromeo. On the 12th of March, 1560, being then twenty-five years old, he was named Bishop of Cremona by Pius IV, who sent him to Trent, in which council he drew up the celebrated decree which prohibited the plurality of benefices. The Holy See was so satisfied with the services of Nicolo that without his own consent he was promoted to the purple by Gregory XIII, on the 12th of December 1583, under the title of Saint Cecilia.
The sacred electors having entered into conclave, to the number of fifty-two, on the 8th of October, named as governor of it Octavius Bandini, who was afterwards a cardinal. there were several candidates in view for the tiara. Cardinal Montalto supported Cardinal Scipio Gonzaga, who opposed that design with a persistency as noble as it was outrageous, and compelled Montalto to abandon his project.
A great number of votes were united on Cardinal Gabriel Paleotto, but he had not a sufficient number; two new cardinals arriving, thirty-six votes were requisite. At length, on the 5th of December, 1590, at about noon, the fifty-six electors elected, with open votes, Cardinal Sfondrati, then aged fifty-five years. He thus on the instant found himself honored with a charge which he had not expected or desired. At the moment he was so astonished that, turning to the cardinals, who saluted him as Holy Father, he said: God forgive you! What have you done?
However, he burst into tears, and refused to walk, and his voice was choked with sobs. The sedia gestatoria was brought in, and he was carried in spite of himself into the Basilica of the Vatican, amidst the acclamations of the populace who wished him a long reign.
It is known that Gregory XIII gave the purple to Nicolo, and that he endeavored to refuse it, exclaiming: Why, there is a host of prelates more deserving of it than I! When the cardinals elected him pontiff they experienced still greater resistance, but only became the more animated to conquer each new repulse. Although he would not utter a word, it was necessary that a name should be selected for him, if he should persist in not selecting one for himself. That of Gregory was pronounced, and a feeling of gratitude, evidenced by a slight smile, was his only reply; but it was taken for a tacit consent. That slight sign was taken advantage of to prepare for the ceremony of the coronation of Gregory XIV, which took place on the 8th of December.
On the 13th of the same month Gregory took possession of Saint John Lateran.
While he was cardinal, his modesty, his knowledge, and the purity of his morals endeared him to Saint Philip Neri and Saint Ignatius Loyola. Gregory deeming it offer the purple to Saint Philip, the saint declined it, alleging the same reasons that had formerly been urged by Gregory himself; and, while warmly thanking him, would not accept that honor. It was related that when Saint Philip went to pay his respects to Gregory, the latter rose, hastened to meet him, and said to him: We are greater than you in dignity, but you are far greater than we in sanctity.. He immediately ordered the saint to be seated, an even to resume his biretta.
To show his respect for the virtues of Ignatius, Gregory, in 1591, confirmed the institute and the constitution of the Society of Jesus.
We shall here see the famous Arnaud d'Ossat, afterwards cardinal, figure in a remarkable manner. He will be more particularly spoken of when honored with the full confidence of Henry IV of France. At present we confine ourselves to mentioning his proceedings in the service and name of Queen Louise of Lorraine, who wished the Roman court to cause solemn obsequies to be celebrated in honor of Henry III, King of France, her deceased husband. But that prince had died excommunicated, and it was difficult to obtain such a compliance from the court of Rome, which had not deigned to make a reply. D'Ossat at length obtained a brief, but it could not have been quite satisfactory to Her Majesty. The pope, after congratulating Her Majesty upon her having had Masses said, and having imposed upon herself fasting and almsgiving for the salvation of souls, proceeded thus: The ornamentation of a tomb, the show of mourning, and the funeral pomps, are consolations for the survivors, not benefits to the dead. For pious souls who, free from sins, have flown to the Lord, it matters little that their bodies have a sordid tomb, or none; even as the costliest tomb does nothing for the impious and those who are still bound in the bonds of sin.
Following the example of Gregory XIII and Sixtus V, the pope publicly renewed, by the constitution Romanus Pontifex, that of Saint Pius V which forbade to alienate or grant in fief the property of the Roman Church. The whole city of Rome applauded that just and courageous act. At that precise time Alphonsus II, Duke of Ferrara, visited Rome, accompanied by a suite of six hundred gentlemen. Gregory gave him a magnificent reception, lodged him in the palace, and treated him the same as he would have treated the most powerful of sovereigns. The secret object of Alphonsus's journey was to solicit, in favor of another family than his own, the D'Este family, the reversion of the duchy of Ferrara. Alphonsus was the last of the house of Este who had enjoyed that duchy, and before dying he wished to present that possession to a friendly family, instead of restoring it to the Holy See, which was the sovereign of the duchy. Gregory intrusted the examination of that demand to thirteen cardinals, and, on their report, decided that he could not grant that favor without infringing the constitution Romanus Pontifex.
Unfortunately, attacked by a feeling of nepotism, Gregory named as cardinal his nephew Paulus Emilius Sfondrati, who was only thirty-one years of age.
By a new constitution Gregory confirmed that given by Pius IV regarding wagers upon the length of life and the death of the pontiffs, and upon the creation of cardinals. Some persons engaged in that illicit and indecent wagering, in order to save themselves from loss, sometimes disturbed the elections; and others, to increase their chance of winning, did not blush to circulate calumnies against worthy men who were thought likely to be raised to the purple.
He forbade the Capuchins to administer the sacrament of penance, in order that they might have the more time for the contemplation of divine things. But Clement VIII, in 1598, again permitted them to hear the confessions of the faithful.
He published a law upon the immunity of the churches, and rendered many decrees concerning promotions to bishoprics and other consistorial dignities.
After consulting the cardinals, the pope issued a bull, at the solicitation of Cardinal Bonelli, a Dominican, nephew of Saint Pius V. That bull granted to the cardinals who belonged to a religious order the right to wear red hats. Till then they had had to wear hats of the same color as the habit of their order. On the 9th of June the pope himself, previous to leaving the Quirinal Palace for the church of the Holy Apostles, to hold a papal chapel, placed the red hats on the heads of Cardinals Bonelli and Berner, Dominicans; Boccafuoco, Minor Conventual; and Petrochini, Hermit of Saint Augustine.
Gregory erected into a religious order the congregation of the Regular Clerks, Ministers to the Infirm, founded at Rome by Saint Camillus de Lellis, priest of Buclano, in the diocese of Chieti. By the constitution Ex Omnibus of the 8th of March, 1586, Sixtus V had approved the congregation, but declared that the vows must be spontaneous.
In the castle of Zagarolo, an estate situated twenty miles from Rome, which belonged first to the house of Colonna, then to that of Ludovisi, and then to that of Rospigliosi, the final correction was given to the Bible. That care had been intrusted to six able theologians, presided over by Cardinal Mark Antony Colonna.
Few persons had as yet noticed the tendency towards nepotism from which Gregory had been unable to free himself. That disease of the pontifical court soon manifested If more fatally. The pope named his nephew Hercules Sfondrati general of the Holy Church, and sent him into France at the head of an army of six thousand Swiss, two thousand Italian infantry, and a thousand horse. These troops were to assist the French Leaguers, who were fighting against Henry IV. Subsequently the pope sent into France, as his nuncio, Marsilius Landriani, who was the bearer of two monitions. One of those documents concerned all persons who should espouse the party of Henry, and the other was especially directed against such nobles as should not abstain from encouraging heresy.
Spondanus affirms that, besides these monitions, Hercules Sfondrati was provided with a bull which directly excommunicated Henry of Navarre.
That was the last effort of this pope's power. He was suddenly taken ill. He was removed to the palace of Saint Mark, at Rome, which the republic of Venice had momentarily restored, and that building was surrounded by gates and guards to prevent approach. But the condition of the pope was not to be ameliorated, and he himself considered he was in great danger. Then he had all the cardinals summoned around him. He represented that his incapacity for government was still further increased by his infirmities, and he entreated that, even during his life, they would elect a successor. That demand was in opposition to a host of constitutions that had always been respected. The cardinals at once declared that they would not consent to be guilty of such an act. Then he exhorted them to choose, after his death, a successor worthy of the pontificate, and to choose him promptly, without cabals and without contests.
To the other sufferings of Gregory were added those of the disease known by the name of the stone. Life was no longer for him anything but a long torture.
Campana relates that, to relieve the sufferings of the patient, even pulverized precious stones and gold were administered to him. Muratori, on that subject, remarks: This good pope, then, was surrounded either by stupid physicians or culpable ministers. The pope soon sank under the violence of his sufferings, and died on the 15th of October, 1591, at the age of fifty-six. He had governed ten months and ten days. He was interred in the Vatican, towards the middle of the Gregorian Chapel, near Gregory XIII, in a tomb almost destitute of ornament.
This pontiff, although he yielded to nepotism was distinguished for his noble virtues. During his short pontificate he expended considerable sums in favor of the poor. Some of his ministers did not serve him with that sentiment of obedience which a minister ought never to forget. During a scarcity the pope himself was left to see personally to the care of obtaining a supply of grain. A great number of people in Rome and the vicinity died, nevertheless, in consequence of that scarcity. Gregory personally visited the sick, and only consented to take a little nourishment after he had assisted those who were on the point of sinking under so much suffering.
All admired his constancy, his piety, his temperance, and a fund of moral purity, which had made him remarkable from the period of his being created a bishop. Little inclined to interfere in foreign politics, he unfortunately listened, sometimes, too trustingly to Philip II, who was the avowed enemy of Henry IV of France. The bull which was issued against the latter prince, who was already prepared to learn and to profess our holy religion, retarded the success of that difficult negotiation. Threats were the least likely of all means to succeed with Henry IV.
This biographical data is from The Lives and Times of the Popes by The Chevalier Artaud De Montor. Published by The Catholic Publication Society of New York in ten volumes in 1911. The pictures, included in the volumes, were reproduced from Effigies Pontificum Romanorum Dominici Basae.