1799: Andrea Serrao, Bishop of Potenza

On this date in 1799, the Bishop of Potenza was lynched by the faithful.

Andrea Serrao English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a late disciple of the reformist Jansenist movement which tended among many other things to such Enlightenment-friendly notions as liberty of conscience, the reduction of the papal authority, and “regalism” — the doctrine of secular supremacy over ecclesiastical.

According to Owen Chadwick’s The Popes and European Revolution, Serrao as Bishop of the southern Italian city of Potenza

found a cathedral in disrepair, a seminary closed for the last eleven years. He raised the money for a rebuilding of the cathedral, reopened the seminary, of which the products were suspect for their ideas of liberty. He was as strong a reformer as [fellow Jansenist Bishop Scipione de’]Ricci,* and with many of the same ideas. He held a diocesan synod which is unknown because the acts were afterwards destroyed by government; but evidently its conclusions resembled those of Ricci’s Synod of Pistoia. He may have been more radical than Ricci, for he wanted clergy to be allowed to marry.

In December of 1798, Bourbon authority collapsed in the Kingdom of Naples — which ruled all of southern Italy, including Potenza — leading to the formation of the Parthenopean Republic. Serrao fully embraced it, “and urged them to obey the new government; and at the end of his address the people cried ‘Long live the French government. Long live liberty!’ and rushed out into the piazza to plant a tree of liberty. Bishop Serrao then accepted the office of civil commissioner of Potenza.” (Chadwick again)

But this Republic was destined for an imminent and bloody conclusion.

The most immediate reaction, and the one that led to Serrao’s abrupt death, was the summons of Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo to a popular anti-Republican movement, called Sanfedismo (“Holy Faith”). In early February, a bare two weeks after the Parthenopean Republic’s establishment, Ruffo ventured from the royal refuge on Sicily and landed at his native Calabria like Che Guevara, with nothing but a handful of companions.

“Brave and courageous Calabrians, unite now under the standard of the Holy Cross and of our beloved sovereign,” Ruffo’s summons to a resistance implored. “Do not wait for the enemy to come and contaminate our home neighbourhoods. Let us march to confront him, to repel him, to hunt him out of our kingdom and out of Italy and to break the barbarous chains of our holy Pontiff. May the banner of the Holy Cross secure you total victory.”

Ruffo’s message was a winner and almost instantly began attracting holy guerrillas by the hundreds; in a few months’ time, Ruffo secured the surrender of the Republicans in Naples itself, by which time his army is reputed to have numbered 17,000.

And even in its earliest promulgation, it attained — seemingly to Andrea Serrao’s surprise — strength enough to overwhelm that tree of liberty stuff in Potenza within days of Ruffo’s landing. Back to Chadwick:

When Ruffo’s bands drew near to Potenza, many peasants and some priests regarded Bishop Serrao as ‘the enemy of the Pope, the king, and God’. Warned to escape, he said that he trusted his fellow-citizens. When the professors and students at the seminary wanted to make a bodyguard, he forbade them to arm.

Very early on 24 February 1799 soldiers of the Potenza guard smashed the tree of liberty, and raided the bishop’s palace. They came upon Serrao still in bed, and killed him with two shots of a pistol. Bleeding to death, he uttered the words ‘Long live the faith of Jesus Christ! Long live the Republic!’ The guards broke into the seminary next door, and murdered the rector as his students fled. After sacking palace and seminary they cut off the heads of bishop and rector and carried them in triumph round the city on pikes.

* There’s an interesting public domain biography of Ricci which, without any direct reference to Serrao, delves into the theological and political conflicts of the age that would have been of interest to our principal.