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François-Joachim-Pierre de Bernis

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A French cardinal and statesman, b. 1715 at Saint-Marcel-d'Ardèche; d. at Rome, 1794. The Bernis family possessed many titles of nobility but was almost reduced to poverty. François, the youngest son, was destined for an ecclesiastical career and sent to St.-Sulpice. He left that institution at the age of nineteen to go into the world to retrieve the family fortune. The title of Abbé, by which he was known, meant in those days little more than the tonsure and the black gown; it certainly meant only that to him. Young Bernis was a worldling in the full sense of the word, but success was slow in coming. His noble birth gave him access to the chapters of Brioude and Lyons ; his ready wit and courteous manners opened to him the mansions of the wealthy, and the French Academy admitted him in recognition of certain literary essays whose principal merit was gallantry; but all this only concealed, without relieving, his poverty. It was at this time that Bernis was introduced to the future Madame de Pompadour, an acquaintance which soon meant a pension of 1500 livres and, later, the appointment as ambassador to Venice.

Once at Venice, Bernis rapidly rose. He succeeded in adjusting some differences between the Venetians and Pope Benedict XIV, and thus won the favour of the latter. The knowledge he had acquired of European diplomacy made him valuable to his Government, and partly in view of possible preferment in the Church and partly through a desire of breaking with the past, Bernis received the subdeaconship at the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. In 1756 Louis XV recalled him to make him his minister of foreign affairs, but his tenure of office was short and full of trials. The alliance of France with Austria against England and Prussia resulted in the Seven Years' War in which France was the loser, and Bernis was held responsible for both the alliance and its consequences. It is true that this new policy had been practically inaugurated by Rouillé, Bernis's predecessor in the foreign office; that the worthlessness of the French generals, all creatures of Madame de Pompadour, and not Bernis's carelessness or incompetency, was the true cause of the defeats of the French; that the treaty of Paris, which terminated the war, insured to the French some appreciable advantages; yet, despite this, Bernis lost the favour of the people and, along with it, the friendship of Madame de Pompadour. He tendered his resignation, and was, by a harsh letter of Louis XV, banished to the Abbey of Vic-sur-Aisne, near Soissons. Pope Clement XIII was the only one to remember him. Just as the fallen minister was going into exile, he received a papal motu proprio making him cardinal (1758).

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Bernis profited by his six years of enforced retirement, receiving the diaconate and the priesthood. In 1764, after the anger of the king and Madame de Pompadour had subsided, he was sent to Albi as archbishop. His zeal there won him the esteem of all and prepared him for a still higher position, that of ambassador of France at Rome (1769). Bernis's influence in Rome was considerable. It was felt in the conclave of 1769, which elected Ganganelli, and in that of 1774, which elected Braschi. In the suppression of the Jesuits by Clement XIV, Bernis is far from deserving all the blame that is put on him. It is well known that he personally regretted the measure, and that as ambassador he tried to avert it by assisting the wavering pope in securing the delays for which he had asked. But the pressure exercised by the Bourbons of Spain, Naples, and France, and the passive attitude and tacit consent of Austria brought the negotiations to an abrupt termination. When the French Revolution broke out, Bernis held, in the national church of St. Louis des Français, a solemn funeral for the martyred Louis XVI; he also placed his palace at the disposal of the princesses of France who had sought refuge in Rome, and finally resigned his post rather than take the constitutional oath. The last three years of his life he spent in Rome in comparative poverty, devoting himself to the French exiles and fully justifying the epithet, "Protector of the Church of France ", bestowed upon him by Pope Pius VI. The French colony in Rome erected a magnificent mausoleum in his honour, and the church of St. Louis received his remains.

Bernis's life has too long received but scant appreciation because of the levity of his youth, which he was the first to regret and called the delicta iuventutis meæ . The publication of his "Mémoires" in 1878 has put a new construction on many things and given us a truer and better opinion of him. Although the first part of his life cannot be defended, still, from the time of his ordination at Venice and Soissons, the courtier took a higher view of the sanctity of the priestly character, and was no discredit to it. Bernis was a writer of no mean talent. His "Poésies" show a bright imagination and a facile pen; his "Letters" are not inferior to Voltaire's; and the poem "Religion vengée", though lacking the calm beauty of Racine's similar production, still has inspiring passages. Didot published Bernis's Oeuvres mêlées en prose et en vers" (Paris, 1797), and Masson edited his "Mémoires" (1878).

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