On this day in the year 1878, Blessed Pius IX died, ending the longest documented papal reign in history. (I will explain below why I qualify with “documented”.)
He was born Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti in 1792 in Senigallia, a town on the Adriatic coast of the northern Italian region of the Marches, then part of the Papal State. After receiving his education in Volterra and Rome, he entered the company of the Pope’s palace guards known as the Guardia Nobile, but was released from service because of a seizure disorder from which he suffered. (The precise nature of this illness has apparently never been determined.) This would normally have prevented him from entering the clergy as well, but with the patronage of Pope Pius VII, he was able to begin his theological studies, and was ordained a priest in 1819. In 1824, he traveled to Chile on a diplomatic mission, the first future Pope to visit the New World. In 1827, Pope Leo XII appointed him bishop of Spoleto; Gregory XVI, who was elected in 1831, moved him to Imola 5½ years later, and in 1839, made him a cardinal.
On Gregory’s death in 1846, Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti was elected to the Papacy, and took the name “Pius” in honor of the Pope who had made it possible for him to enter the service of the Church. He was crowned on June 21.
Prior to his reign, nine among the successors of St Peter (numbering 254 at that point) had reigned for more than 20 years, but none had ever reached the 25 years traditionally ascribed to Peter himself. For many centuries, therefore, it had been part of the papal coronation ritual that as soon as the cardinal archbishop of Ostia placed the crown on the new Pope’s head, he would say to him, “Numquam videbis annos Petri. – Thou shalt never see the years of Peter”: a way of reminding him, amid the glories of the Church’s highest office, that like all Popes, he is the lesser steward of Another.
But Pius IX did in fact live to see the years of Peter, surpassing the 25-year mark in 1871, and living for more than 6½ years beyond that. This custom was then removed from the coronation rite, and his successor, Leo XIII, reigned for exactly 25 years and 4 months. (St John Paul II, who beatified Pius IX in 2003, also surpassed it, reigning for a bit less than 26½ years.)
I began this by saying that Pius IX’s is the longest documented papal reign, because there is no ancient document which tells us precisely how long St Peter reigned. Some traditions say that he was Pope for 25 years, others for 32. The second number makes better sense of the traditional dates of the last year of the Lord’s earthly life, ca. A.D. 33, after which Peter assumed the leadership of the Church, and of Peter’s death at the hands of Nero, ca. A.D. 64. There is also a very ancient tradition that Peter was bishop of Antioch before he came to Rome, and one way of reconciling these different stories, an explanation which strikes me as the most plausible, is that Peter was Pope for 32 years, but bishop of Antioch for 7, and of Rome for 25. Pius IX would therefore have surpassed his years in the latter role, but not the former.
The photograph below shows a statue of St Peter in the nave of the Vatican basilica, made by Arnolfo di Cambio at the very end of the 13th century. On the wall above it is a mosaic portrait of Pius IX, with the inscription, “Pio IX Pont(ifice) Max(imo), qui Petri annos in pontificatu Romano unus aequavit, clerus Vaticanus sacram ornavit sedem xvi kal(endas) Quint(iles) a(nno) MDCCCLXXI. – For Pope Pius IX, who alone equaled the years of Peter in the Roman Pontificate, the clergy of the Vatican decorated the holy throne. June 16, 1871.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Fczarnowski, CC BY-SA 3.0)