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Pope Leo XIII
Papacy began 20 February 1878
Papacy ended 20 July 1903
Predecessor Pius IX
Successor Pius X
Ordination 31 December 1837
by Carlo Odescalchi
Consecration 19 February 1843
by Luigi Emmanuele Nicolò Lambruschini
Created Cardinal 19 December 1853
by Pope Pius IX
Personal details
Birth name Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci
Born 2 March 1810
Carpineto Romano,
département of Rome, French Empire
Died 20 July 1903
(aged 93)
Apostolic Palace,
Rome, Kingdom of Italy
Previous post
Coat of arms
Other popes named Leo
Papal styles of
Pope Leo XIII
Reference style His Holiness
Spoken style Your Holiness
Religious style Holy Father
Posthumous style None

Pope Leo XIII (2 March 1810 – 20 July 1903), born Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci to an Italian comital family, was the head of the Catholic Church from 20 February 1878 to his death in 1903. He was the oldest pope (reigning until the age of 93), and had the third longest pontificate, behind Pius IX (his immediate predecessor) and John Paul II. He is the most recent Pope to date to take the name "Leo" upon being elected as Pope.

He is known for intellectualism, the development of social teachings with his encyclical Rerum Novarum and his attempts to define the position of the Church with regard to modern thinking. He influenced Roman Catholic Mariology and promoted both the rosary and the scapular. He issued a record eleven encyclicals on the rosary, approved two new Marian scapulars and was the first Pope to fully embrace the concept of Mary as mediatrix.

Early life

Born in Carpineto Romano, near Rome, he was the sixth of the seven sons of Count Ludovico Pecci and his wife Anna Prosperi Buzzi. Until 1818 he lived at home with his family, "in which religion counted as the highest grace on earth, as through her, salvation can be earned for all eternity".[1] Together with his brother he studied in the Jesuit College in Viterbo, where he stayed until 1824.[2] He enjoyed the Latin language and was known to write his own Latin poems at the age of eleven.

In 1824 he and his older brother Giuseppe were called to Rome where their mother was dying. Count Pecci wanted his children near him after the loss of his wife, and so they stayed with him in Rome, attending the Jesuit Collegium Romanum. In 1828, Giuseppe entered the Jesuit order, while Vincenzo decided in favour of secular clergy.[3]

He studied at the Academia dei Nobili, mainly diplomacy and law. In 1834 he gave a student presentation, attended by several cardinals, on papal judgements. For his presentation he received awards for academic excellence, and gained the attention of Vatican officials.[4] Cardinal Secretary of State Luigi Lambruschini introduced him to Vatican congregations and to Pope Gregory XVI, who appointed Pecci on 14 February 1837, as personal prelate even before he was ordained priest on 31 December 1837, by the Vicar of Rome. He celebrated his first mass together with his priest brother Giuseppe.[5] He received his doctorate in theology in 1836 and doctorates of civil and Canon Law in Rome also.

Provincial administrator

Shortly thereafter, Gregory XVI appointed Pecci as legate (provincial administrator) to Benevento. The smallest of papal provinces, Benevento included about 20,000 people.

The main problems facing Pecci were a decaying local economy, insecurity because of widespread bandits, and pervasive Mafia structures, who often were allied with aristocratic families. Pecci arrested the most powerful aristocrat in Benevento, and his troops captured others, who were either killed or imprisoned by him. With the public order restored, he turned to the economy and a reform of the tax system to stimulate trade with neighboring provinces.[6]

Upon completion of the tax reforms, Gregory XVI appointed Pecci to be administrator of Spoleto, a province with 100,000, and then Perugia with 200,000 inhabitants.

His immediate concern was to prepare the province for a papal visitation in the same year. Pope Gregory visited hospitals and educational institutions for several days, asking for advice and listing questions. The fight against corruption continued in Perugia, where Pecci himself investigated several incidents. When it was claimed that a bakery was selling bread below the prescribed pound weight, he personally went there, had all bread weighed, and confiscated it if below legal weight. The confiscated bread was distributed to the poor.[7]

Nuncio to Belgium

In 1843, Pecci, only thirty-three years old, was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Belgium, a position which guaranteed the Cardinal's hat after completion of the tour.

On 27 April 1843, Pope Gregory XVI appointed Pecci Archbishop of Damiette and asked his Cardinal Secretary of State Lambruschini to consecrate him. Pecci developed excellent relations with the royal family and used the location to visit neighbouring Germany, where he was particularly interested in the resumed construction of the Cologne Cathedral.

Upon his initiative, a Belgian College in Rome was opened in 1844, where 102 years later, in 1946, Pope John Paul II would begin his Roman studies. He spent several weeks in England with Bishop Nicholas Wiseman, carefully reviewing the condition of the Catholic Church in that country.[8]

In Belgium, the school question was then sharply debated between the Catholic majority and the Liberal minority. Pecci encouraged the struggle for Catholic schools, yet he was able to win the good will of the Court, not only of the pious Queen Louise, but also of King Leopold I, strongly Liberal in his views. The new nuncio succeeded in uniting the Catholics.

Archbishop of Perugia

Papal assistant

Pecci was named papal assistant in 1843. He first achieved note as a popular and successful Archbishop of Perugia from 1846 to 1877. In 1847, Pope Pius IX granted unlimited freedom for the press in the Papal States, which, after many years of restrictions, was highly welcomed and popular.[9] In the following year, in 1848, revolutionary movements developed throughout Western Europe including France, Germany and Italy.

Pecci, who was highly popular in the first years of his episcopate, became now the object of attacks, both in the media and in his residence.[10] The papal minister Rossi was assassinated and Pope Pius IX had to flee to Gaeta. In the following months, Austrian, French and Spanish troops reversed the revolutionary gains, but at a price for Pecci and the Catholic Church, who could not regain their former popularity.

Provincial council

Pecci called a provincial council, in order to reform the religious life in his dioceses. He invested in the enlargement of the seminary for future priests and in new and prominent professors, preferably Thomists. He called on his brother Giuseppe Pecci, a noted Thomist scholar, to resign his professorship in Rome and teach instead in Perugia.[11] His own residence was next to the seminary, which aided daily contacts of the students with the de facto head of the seminary, Archbishop Pecci.

Charitable activities

Pecci developed several activities in support of Catholic charities: He founded homes for homeless boys and girls, and for elderly women. Throughout his dioceses he opened branches of a Bank, Monte de Pieta, which focused on low-income people and provided low interest loans.[12] He created soup-kitchens, which were run by the Capuchins. In the consistory of 19 December 1853, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals, as Cardinal-Priest of S. Crisogono. In light of continuing earthquakes and floods, he donated all resources for festivities to the victims. Much of the public attention turned on the conflict between the Papal States and Italian nationalism, aiming at these states' annihilation so as to achieve the Unification of Italy.

Defence of the papacy

Pecci defended the papacy and its claims. When Italian authorities expropriated convents and monasteries of Catholic orders, turning them into administration or military buildings, Cardinal Pecci protested but acted moderately. When the Italian state took over Catholic schools, Pecci, fearing for his theological seminary, simply added all secular topics from other schools and opened the seminary to non-theologians.[13] The new government in addition to the expropriations levied taxes on the Church and issued legislation, according to which all Episcopal or papal utterances are to be approved by the government before their publication.[14]

Organizing the First Vatican Council

Pope Pius IX announced an ecumenical council, which became known as the First Vatican Council, to take place in the Vatican on 8 December 1869, Pecci was likely to be well informed, since his brother Giuseppe had been named by the Pope to be one of the persons to prepare this event.

In his last years in Perugia, Pecci several times addressed the role of the Church in modern society. Pecci defined the Church as the mother of material civilization, because the Church upholds human dignity of working people, opposes the excesses of industrialization and developed large scale charities for the needy.[15]


In August 1877, on the death of Cardinal Filippo de Angelis, Pope Pius IX appointed him Camerlengo, so that he was obliged to reside in Rome. Pope Pius died on 7 February 1878, and during his closing years the Liberal press had often insinuated that the Italian Government should take a hand in the conclave and occupy the Vatican. However the Russo-Turkish War and the sudden death of Victor Emmanuel II (9 January 1878) distracted the attention of the government. The conclave proceeded as usual, and on the third ballot Cardinal Pecci was elected by forty-four votes out of sixty-one.


Social Teaching

Pope Leo XIII
Rerum Novarum

Pope Pius XI
Quadragesimo Anno

Pope Pius XII
Social teachings

Pope John XXIII
Mater et Magistra
Pacem in Terris

Vatican II
Dignitatis Humanae
Gaudium et Spes

Pope Paul VI
Populorum progressio

Pope John Paul II
Laborem Exercens
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis
Centesimus Annus
Evangelium Vitae

Pope Benedict XVI
Deus Caritas Est
Caritas in Veritate

Pope Francis
Lumen fidei

Social Teachings of the Popes
Solidarity (Catholic theology)
Tranquillitas Ordinis

Notable Key Figures
Gaspard Mermillod
René de La Tour du Pin
Dorothy Day
Oscar Romero
Joseph Bernardin
Hillaire Belloc
G.K. Chesterton

As soon as he was elected to the papacy, Leo XIII worked to encourage understanding between the Church and the modern world. When he firmly re-asserted the scholastic doctrine that science and religion co-exist, he required the study of Thomas Aquinas[16] and opened the Vatican Secret Archives to qualified researchers, among whom was the noted historian of the Papacy Ludwig von Pastor. He also re-founded the Vatican Observatory "so that everyone might see clearly that the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible devotion."[17]

Leo XIII was the first Pope of whom a Since he was born in 1810, he also became the earliest-born notable person who was filmed.

Leo XIII brought normality back to the Church after the tumultuous years of Pius IX. Leo's intellectual and diplomatic skills helped regain much of the prestige lost with the fall of the Papal States. He tried to reconcile the Church with the working class, particularly by dealing with the social changes that were sweeping Europe. The new economic order had resulted in the growth of an impoverished working class, with increasing anti-clerical and socialist sympathies. Leo helped reverse this trend.

While Leo was no radical in either theology or politics, his papacy did move the Church back to the mainstream of European life. Considered a great diplomat, he managed to improve relations with Russia, Prussia, Germany, France, England and other countries. Pope Leo XIII and Prince Nikola of Montenegro concluded in Rome on 18 August 1886 a Concordat. The signatories were Cardinal Ludovico Jacobini (1832-1887) for the Holy See, and Secretary Jovan Sundecic (1825-1900) for Montenegro.

Pope Leo XIII was able to reach several agreements in 1896, which resulted in better conditions for the faithful and additional appointments of bishops. During the Fifth cholera pandemic in 1891 he ordered the construction of a hospice inside the Vatican. That building would be torn down in 1996 to make way for construction of the Domus Sanctae Marthae.[20]

His favorite poets were Virgil and Dante.[21]

Foreign relations


Pope Leo XIII began his pontificate with a friendly letter to Tzar Alexander II, in which he reminded the Russian monarch of the millions of Catholics living in his empire, who would like to be good Russian subjects, provided their dignity is respected.

After the assassination of Alexander II, the Pope sent a high ranking representative to the coronation of his successor. Alexander III was grateful and asked for all religious forces to unify. He asked the Pope to ensure that his bishops abstain from political agitation. Relations improved further, when Pope Leo XIII, due to Italian considerations, distanced the Vatican from the Rome-Vienna-Berlin alliance and helped to facilitate a rapprochement between Paris and St. Petersburg.


Under Otto von Bismarck, the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf in Prussia led to massive reprisals against the Church. Under Leo, compromises were informally reached and the anti-Catholic attacks subsided.[22]

The Centre Party in Germany represented Catholic interests and was a positive force for social change. It was encouraged by Leo's support for social welfare legislation and the rights of working people. Leo's forward-looking approach encouraged Catholic Action in other European countries where the social teachings of the Church were incorporated into the agenda of Catholic parties, particularly the Christian democratic parties, which became an acceptable alternative to socialist parties. Leo's social teachings were reiterated throughout the 20th century by his successors.

In his Memoirs[23] Kaiser Wilhelm II discussed the "friendly, trustful relationship that existed between me and Pope Leo XIII." During Wilhelm's third visit to Leo: "It was of interest to me that the Pope said on this occasion that Germany must be the sword of the Catholic Church. I remarked that the old Roman Empire of the German nation no longer existed, and that conditions had changed. But he adhered to his words."


Leo XIII was the first Pope to come out strongly in favour of the French Republic, upsetting many French monarchists.


However, in light of a hostile anti-Catholic climate in Italy, he continued the policies of Pius IX towards Italy, without major modifications.[24] In his relations with the Italian state, Leo XIII continued the Papacy's self-imposed incarceration in the Vatican stance, and continued to insist that Italian Catholics should not vote in Italian elections or hold elected office. In his first consistory in 1879 he elevated his older brother Giuseppe to the cardinalate. He had to defend the freedom of the Church against what Catholics considered Italian persecutions and attacks in the area of education, expropriation and violation of Catholic Churches, legal measures against the Church and brutal attacks, culminating in anticlerical groups attempting to throw the body of the deceased Pope Pius IX into the Tiber river on 13 July 1881.[25] The Pope even considered moving his residence to Trieste or Salzburg, two cities in Austria, an idea which the Austrian monarch Franz Josef I gently rejected.[26]

United Kingdom

Among the activities of Leo XIII that were important for the English-speaking world, he "Saepe Nos" that was addressed to all the Irish bishops. Of outstanding significance, not least for the English-speaking world, was Leo's encyclical Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of the Anglican orders, published in 1896.

United States

The United States at many moments in time attracted the attention and admiration of Pope Leo. He confirmed the decrees of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), and raised James Gibbons, archbishop of that city, to the cardinalate in 1886.

American newspapers criticized Pope Leo because they claimed that he was attempting to gain control of American public schools. One cartoonist drew Leo as a fox unable to reach grapes that were labeled for American schools; the caption read "Sour grapes!"


Pope Leo is also remembered for the First Plenary Council of Latin America held at Rome in 1899, and his encyclical of 1888 to the bishops of Brazil on the abolition of slavery. In 1897, he published the Apostolic Letter Trans Oceanum, which dealt with the privileges and ecclesiastical structure of the Catholic Church in Latin America.[27]


His role in South America will also be remembered, especially the pontifical benediction extended over Chilean troops on the eve of the Battle of Chorrillos during the War of the Pacific in January 1881. The Chilean soldiers thus blessed then looted the cities of Chorrillos and Barranco, including the churches, and their Chaplains headed the robbery at the Biblioteca Nacional del Perú, where the soldiers ransacked various items along with much capital, and Chilean Priests coveted rare and ancient editions of the Bible that were stored there.[28] Despite this, one year later Chilean President Domingo Santa Marìa issued the Laicist Laws, which separated the Church from the State, this being considered a slap in the face for the Papacy.


Pope Leo sanctioned the missions to eastern Africa. In 1879 Catholic missionaries associated with the White Father Congregation (Society of the Missionaries of Africa) came to Uganda and others went to Tanganyika (present day Tanzania) and Rwanda.


The pontificate of Leo XIII was theologically influenced by the First Vatican Council (1869–1870), which had ended only eight years earlier. Leo issued some 46 apostolic letters and encyclicals dealing with central issues in the areas of marriage and family and state and society.


As Pope, he used all his authority for a revival of Thomism, the theology of Thomas Aquinas. On 4 August 1879, Leo promulgated the encyclical Aeterni Patris (“Eternal Father”) which, more than any other single document, provided a charter for the revival of Thomism—the medieval theological system based on the thought of Aquinas—as the official philosophical and theological system of the Catholic Church. It was to be normative not only in the training of priests at church seminaries but also in the education of the laity at universities. Following this encyclical Pope Leo XIII created the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas on October 15, 1879 and ordered the publication of the critical edition, the so-called "leonine edition", of the complete works of the doctor angelicus. The superintendence of the leonine edition was entrusted to Tommaso Maria Zigliara, professor and rector of the Collegium Divi Thomae de Urbe the future Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum. Leo XIII also founded the Angelicum's Faculty of Philosophy in 1882 and its Faculty of Canon Law in 1896.


Pope Leo XIII performed a number of consecrations, at times entering new theological territory. After he received many letters from Sister Mary of the Divine Heart, the countess of Droste zu Vischering and Mother Superior in the Convent of the Congregation of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Porto, Portugal, asking him to consecrate the entire world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, he commissioned a group of theologians to examine the petition on the basis of revelation and sacred tradition. The outcome of this investigation was positive, and so in the encyclical letter Annum Sacrum (on May 25, 1899) he decreed that the consecration of the entire human race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus should take place on June 11, 1899. The encyclical letter also encouraged the entire Roman Catholic episcopate to promote the First Friday Devotions, established June as the Month of the Sacred Heart, and included the Prayer of Consecration to the Sacred Heart.[31] His consecration of the entire world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus presented theological challenges in consecrating non-Christians. Since about 1850, various congregations and States had consecrated themselves to the Sacred Heart, and, in 1875, this consecration was made throughout the Catholic world.


In his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus, he described the importance of scriptures for theological study. It was an important encyclical for Catholic theology and its relation to the Bible, as Pope Pius XII pointed out fifty years later in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu.[32]

Ecumenical efforts

Pope Leo XIII fostered ecumenical relations, particularly with the East. He opposed efforts to Latinize the Eastern Rite Churches, stating that they constitute a most valuable ancient tradition and symbol of the divine unity of the Catholic Church.

Theological research

Leo XIII is credited with great efforts in the areas of scientific and historical analysis. He opened the Vatican Archives and personally fostered a twenty-volume comprehensive scientific study of the Papacy by Ludwig von Pastor, an Austrian historian.[33]


His predecessor, Pope Pius IX, became known as the Pope of the Immaculate Conception because of the dogmatization in 1854. Leo XIII, in light of his unprecedented promulgation of the rosary in eleven encyclicals, was called the Rosary Pope. In eleven encyclicals on the rosary he promulgates Marian devotion. In his encyclical on the fiftieth anniversary of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, he stresses her role in the redemption of humanity, mentioning Mary as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix.

Social teachings

Church and state

Leo XIII worked to encourage understanding between the Church and the modern world, though he preferred a cautious view on freedom of thought, stating that it "is quite unlawful to demand, defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, or speech, of writing or worship, as if these were so many rights given by nature to man". Leo's social teachings are based on the Catholic premise, that God is the Creator of the world and its Ruler. Eternal law commands the natural order to be maintained, and forbids that it be disturbed; men's destiny is far above human things and beyond the earth.

Rerum Novarum

His encyclicals changed the Church's relations with temporal authorities, and, in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, for the first time addressed social inequality and social justice issues with Papal authority, focusing on the rights and duties of capital and labour. He was greatly influenced by Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, a German bishop who openly propagated siding with the suffering working classes in his book Die Arbeiterfrage und das Christentum. Since Leo XIII, Papal teachings expand on the rights and obligations of workers and the limitations of private property: Pope Pius XI Quadragesimo Anno, the Social teachings of Pope Pius XII on a huge range of social issues, John XXIII Mater et Magistra in 1961, Pope Paul VI, the encyclical Populorum Progressio on World development issues, and Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. Leo XIII had argued that both capitalism and communism are flawed. Rerum Novarum introduced the idea of subsidiarity, the principle that political and social decisions should be taken at a local level, if possible, rather than by a central authority, into Catholic social thought. A list of all of Leo's encyclicals can be found in the List of Encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII.

Canonizations and beatifications

He canonized the following saints:

In addition, he beatified Gerard Majella in 1893 and Edmund Campion and Ralph Sherwin in 1886. He also approved the cult of Cosmas of Aphrodisia.[34]


  • One of the first audiences Leo XIII granted was to the professors and students of the Collegio Capranica, where in the first row knelt in front of him a young seminarian, Giacomo Della Chiesa, his eventual successor Pope Benedict XV.
  • While on a pilgrimage with her father and sister in 1887, the future Saint Thérèse of Lisieux attended a general audience with Pope Leo XIII and asked him to allow her to enter the Carmelite order. Even though she was strictly forbidden to speak to him because she was told it would prolong the audience too much, in her autobiography, Story of a Soul, she wrote that after she kissed his slipper and he presented his hand, instead of kissing it, she took it in her own hand and said through tears, "Most Holy Father, I have a great favor to ask you. In honor of your Jubilee, permit me to enter Carmel at the age of 15!" Pope Leo XIII answered, "Well, my child, do what the superiors decide." Thérèse replied, "Oh! Holy Father, if you say yes, everybody will agree!" Finally, the Pope said, "Go... go... You will enter if God wills it" [italics hers] after which time two guards lifted Thérèse (still on her knees in front of the Pope) by her arms and carried her to the door where a third gave her a medal of the Pope. Shortly thereafter, the Bishop of Bayeux authorized the prioress to receive Thérèse, and in April 1888, she entered Carmel at the age of 15.
  • While known for his cheerful personality, Leo also had a gentle sense of humor as well. During one of his audiences, a man claimed to have had the opportunity to see Pius IX at one of his last audiences before his death in 1878. Upon hearing the remarkable story, Leo smiled and replied, "If I had known that you were so dangerous to popes, I would have postponed this audience further".


Leo XIII was the first Pope to be born in the 19th century. He was also the first to die in the 20th century: he lived to the age of 93, the longest-lived pope. At the time of his death, Leo XIII was the second-longest reigning pope, exceeded only by his immediate predecessor, Pius IX. Leo was not entombed in St. Peter's Basilica, as all popes after him have been, but instead at the very ancient basilica of St. John Lateran, his cathedral church as Bishop of Rome, and a church in which he took a particular interest.

See also



  • Remigius Bäumer et al. Marienlexikon, Eos, St. Ottilien, 1992
  • Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners, A History of the Popes, Yale University Press, 1997
  • August Franzen, Remigius Bäumer, Papstgeschichte, Herder Freiburg, 1988
  • O'Reilly, Bernard. Life of Leo XIII — From An Authentic Memoir — Furnished By His Order. 1887. New York: Charles L. Webster & Company.
  • Thérèse, of Lisieux, Saint. Story of a Soul — The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Third Edition 1996. Washington, DC: ICS Publications. Translated from the original manuscripts by John Clarke, O.C.D.
  • Benno Kühne, Papst Leo XIII, C&N Benzinger, Einsideln, New York and St. Louis, 1880
  • Josef Schmidlin, Papstgeschichte der neueren Zeit, München, 1934
  • Quardt, Robert. Der Meisterdiplomat. 1964 Kevelaer, Germany: Verlag Butzon & Bercker. Translated by Ilya Wolston. The Master Diplomat — From the Life of Leo XIII. New York: Alba House.
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia (edition of 1913, see also under External links)

External links

  1. REDIRECT template:Catholic Encyclopedia poster
  • The Life of Pope Leo XIII, His Supernatural Visions, St Michael Prayer, Rerum Novarum Summary and Encyclicals
  • Vatican
  • Pope Leo XIII, overview of pontificate
  • Etexts of his encyclicals and other documents
  • Pope Leo XIII: text with concordances and frequency list
  • Life and Acts of Pope Leo XII (1883)
  • Find a Grave
Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Filippo de Angelis
Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church
22 September 1877–20 February 1878
Succeeded by
Camillo di Pietro
Preceded by
Pius IX
20 February 1878–20 July 1903
Succeeded by
Pius X

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