Sunday, 7 September 2014

Cardinal Merry del Val on the Character of Pope Pius X

by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val,
Secretary of State under Pope Pius X

THE lovable character of Pius X and the kindness of his heart are attested by all who ever came in contact with him, and there is only one voice to praise what is generally spoken of as his 'goodness'. Nor is this indeed to be wondered at. So striking a feature of his individuality could not fail to impress the minds of the thousands who approached him during the eleven years of his pontificate, not to mention all those who had experienced the unfailing charity and sweet devotedness of the humble village curate in Tombolo, of the parish priest in Salzano, or who had known him intimately when he laboured in their midst as Chancellor of Treviso, Bishop of Mantua and Cardinal Patriarch of Venice.

Add to this his fatherly interest in every case of trouble or of suffering that happened to come before him, the generous help of his advice and counsel even in matters that might well seem trifling except to those concerned, the material assistance and liberal subsidies that he lavished both in public and in private, with such extreme delicacy of regard for the feelings of those he benefited, and it will be readily understood why the 'goodness' of Pius X will never be forgotten and why so many are content to speak only of this conspicuous lineament of his personality, which so truly reflected the love of the Divine Master.

But to imagine that this attractive characteristic in Pius X describes the man or in any way sums up his gifts and powers would be an total misapprehension; nothing could be further from the truth. Coupled with that 'goodness' and happily blended with the tenderness of a father’s heart, there was in him an indomitable strength of character and an energy of will to which all must testify who really knew him.

He held himself in complete control and controlled the impulses of his ardent temperament. He was quick to give way in matters which were not essential and ever ready to consider and accept the opinion of others where no principle was at stake; but weakness in him there was none.

When one or other grave question arose in which the rights and liberty of the Church required to be stated and upheld, when the purity and integrity of Catholic truth stood in need of assertion and defence, or ecclesiastical discipline had to be maintained in the face of laxity or worldly influence, then Pius X would reveal the full strength and energy of his character and the fearless vigour of a great ruler conscious of the responsibility of his sacred office and of the duties he felt called upon to fulfil at any cost. It was idle then for anybody to try to shake his constancy; every effort to intimidate him by threats or to flatter him by specious pleas and appeals to mere sentiment was inevitably destined to failure.

Monsignor Baudrillart, of the French Academy and Rector of the Catholic Institute in Paris, writes as follows in an article in the Revue Pratique d’Apologétique (15 Août-1Septembre, 1914) which is well worth reading some passages:

“His look, his word, his whole being express three things: goodness, firmness, faith.Goodness was the man himself; firmness was the leader; faith was the Christian, the priest, the pontiff, the man of God. 'Tu autem, O homo Dei'. This exclamation of the apostle rushed to one’s lips from the heart, when one was admitted to this Pope’s presence. How far away one was from human maneuvers and political devices! How sure one was that one would hear nothing but the word of God from his mouth! How impossible one knew it would be to resort to the slightest equivocation or diplomatic ingenuity in his presence! One told him things just as they were, quite simply, and waited for his reply, with the firm, resolve to do whatever he should say, to the best of one’s power.

“There were times when that answer seemed somewhat hard! With what energy would the Pope order us to root out the weeds from that part of the Church which he had entrusted to our care! We looked at him; we read in his sad gentle eyes, light in their depths but veiled with a shadow, words such as these: ‘I, too, suffer, I suffer more than you do, for I have to act in every direction to repress and to strike, I the father, the father of all; but that is the duty of my office, the duty I cannot escape; the Church’s peril urges me on, peril from without, and yet worse peril from within; have I any right to consider whether I suffer?’ . . .

“Pius X was the most supernatural of men; that Deus providebit (God will provide) which was forever on his lips is the very expression of his whole religious and moral being. And that is why, once he was certain that his duty was to act in this or that way, he paid no further heed to the consequences, confident that God would draw a greater and lasting good from a lesser and passing evil.

“He had the clear vision of the upright; and a clear vision that no falsehood or sophistry or hypocrisy could manage to deceive... Quietly with unshaken calm he denounced and condemned evil wherever he saw it; no consideration could make him bend., Pius X showed himself a ruler. His name will remain forever linked with the reorganizing of the Roman Courts and Congregations, and the codifying of Canon Law, a colossal work soon completed, which will bring simplicity, light, strength, and unity into the government of the Church.

“No Pope was ever more a reformer, no more modern, than this fearless adversary of Modernist errors. Faithful to his watchword, he undertook to restore and renew everything in Jesus Christ.

“Governments may have feared or set themselves against him. He was loved, tenderly loved by the people, by all the good and simple faithful, because he was a saint, because he was a father.”

Not less striking or emphatic in this respect are the words of His Eminence Cardinal Mercier in his Lenten Pastoral of February 2, 1915. I may be allowed to quote the following extract:

“The winning kindness of the Holy Father had none of the soft sentimentality of the weak. Pius X was strong. It is currently reported that he was the writer of a short prayer which priests have to say at certain times for their bishop. It runs as follows:

“Stet et pascat in fortitudine tua, Domine, in sublimit ate nominis tui (Strong in Thy strength, O Lord, let him stand and feed the flock in the sublimity of Thy name).

“And this, unless I am mistaken, is the charac­teristic note of the late Pope - a wonderful combina­tion of fatherly tenderness with a force of character that made him master of himself and imparted to his soul steadiness of equilibrium, filling his expression with that blending of gravity, serenity, condescension, and almost of playfulness, which so strongly attracted everyone by its charm.

“The public looked on with wonder, sometimes with anxiety, and admired the virile Pontiff in his hand-to-hand struggle with Modernism.

“In the days of Luther and Calvin, had the Church possessed a Pope of the temper of Pius X, would Protestantism have succeeded in getting one-third of Europe to break loose from Rome?

“Pius was a man of keen insight and decision. He would not let himself be seduced by the cajoleries of reformers, naively ambitious of infusing the veins of the Church with new blood, and dreaming of modernizing her to suit the fancies and errors of up-to-date Protestantism and Rationalism. True to Catholic Tradition, he blazoned forth the axiom that in the fifth century, St. Vincent of Lerins, himself the disciple of a martyr-bishop of the third century, St. Cyprian, used against those who favoured a doctrinal advance which the Christian conscience would have felt to be not an improvement but a revolution, wherein all the treasures of the past would have disappeared: Nihil innovetur nisi quod traditum est (No innovations: cleave to tradition).

“His plan once laid down, the Pope pursued it, both as a whole and in detail, in the sphere of doctrine and also of discipline, in scientific works, in the Press, in literature, in the teaching of Seminaries and of Universities and even in the persons of those whom he loved most; he pursued its fullest realization, I say, with an energy and perseverance that were sometimes disconcerting.

“When we survey from afar this line of action, many-sided yet one, broad. and yet penetrating, we are unanimous in our admiration of our great Pope’s force of character, and in thanking Providence for saving Christianity from an immense peril, not only of a single heresy but of all heresies com­bined, amalgamated together in a more or less treacherous way.”
(Leltre Pastorale et mandement de Carême de 1915)

We have evidence of this spirit and strength in weighty Encyclicals and in various enactments issued by Pius X during the whole course of his pontificate, in his public allocutions, in his frequent addresses and exhortations of all kinds, and also in his private correspondence.

It is well to state here that the Holy Father very often wrote out the minutes of important documents or furnished copious notes and material for their compilation. Several of these neatly penned auto­graphs, as well as many private or unpublished letters of his, are in my possession and I am able to quote from his own manuscripts.

Though the same energy and strength of character were not absent by any means from his dealings with individual cases in which he could not avoid adminis­tering reproof or punishment without failing in the accomplishment of a solemn duty, the severity of Pius X on such occasions was ever coupled with the tenderness of his fatherly affection, and, when obliged to cause distress to those at fault, he felt for the guilty and their pain was his.

As an instance, among several others, I can well remember how one morning the Holy Father con­fided to me that he was about to receive in audience a person who had very grievously erred and had betrayed his sacred duty. It was a sad story. The Pope’s direct intervention had become inevitable, for the delinquent had thrown off all restraint and seemed little inclined to repent or accept correction. I found His Holiness looking very sad and tired. He acknowledged to me that he had spent a restless night thinking over the approaching interview and the necessity of his speaking with the utmost severity. He was however determined to carry the matter through, he said, but it would cost him a great deal, for he realized what a blow it would undoubtedly be for the unfortunate culprit. ‘Say a Hail Mary for me, Eminence,’ he added, ‘in order that God may bless this audience and that the poor fellow may not rebel and force me to go further.’

A few hours later the Holy Father was beaming with joy. ‘Do you know, all went well,’ he exclaimed, with a smile. ‘The unhappy man ended by acknowledging the truth of all I said. I did not spare him, but, thank God, he has submitted and now we must do what we can to help him on.'

When he thus inflicted correction, the severity of his countenance and the solemn resonance of his voice were most impressive and generally produced an overwhelming impression upon the person who had incurred his displeasure, but his was the anger of the lamb, the anger that sinneth not.

Sickness, fatigue or pain endured by others, especially by persons whom he knew more intimately or whose services he employed, even in menial offices, infallibly aroused his deepest sympathy, nor did he seem to rest until assured that they had found relief. ‘Do not worry over the...’ he would write, ‘you have made good provision for that, and worry still less over me, for, enjoying sufficient health, as I do, I always live contented and happy in the well­being of those who are dear to me; whereas the fear alone that they should suffer causes me anguish. Therefore be of good heart.’ Or again: ‘You must not be anxious on account of the fears expressed by the Rev. N. N. The choice was made after full consideration and let us trust that the Lord will bless his apostolate. In any event, however, the respon­sibility is not solely yours, but mine also and we shall share it in peace. Therefore be of good heart.’

And yet, though nothing could surpass the sensibility of his affectionate temperament, in Pius X there was no trace of weak sentimentality or of unreasonable emotion. As Cardinal Mercier rightly says, Pius X had a strong character. If others lost control over their feelings and gave way in his presence to an excessive display of mere sentiment, ‘Esto vir . be a man,’ was the reply which rose constantly to his lips and which he accompanied with a firm and energetic gesture. Indeed it is my opinion that the sheer sense of humour, which he certainly possessed, would alone have sufficed to prevent him from allowing his emotions to gain the mastery beyond the limits of reason.

I may illustrate this remark by an anecdote. In 1912 the restored Campanile of Saint Mark’s, Venice, was to be solemnly inaugurated. The Holy Father had naturally taken the keenest interest in the recon­struction of this historic monument, so dear to the heart of every Venetian. He had himself laid the first stone of the new building and, no doubt, many cherished memories lingered in his mind in connec­tion with the old Campanile. He had carefully followed the progress of the work through all its stages and he had made a gift of one of the new bells.

Shortly before the joyful celebration that was to commemorate the completion of the great enterprise, a report went about in the Press that the Italian Government intended setting up a direct telephone wire between Venice and the Vatican, in order to enable His Holiness to hear the chime of Saint Mark’s. Then followed the announcement that the Pope’s medical advisers had intervened and put an end to the proposal on the grounds, it was asserted, that the Holy Father would experience too intense emotion and that this might prove detrimental to his health. He was very much amused by all this gossip.

As a matter of fact the idea of asking the Italian Government to provide a direct telephone line from Venice to the Vatican had been suggested by some eager friends of the former Patriarch, but Pius X set the proposal aside, so he told me himself, nor had the doctors held it their duty to interfere, nor had any fear been expressed regarding the impression likely to be produced upon His Holiness’ feelings.

He laughed heartily over the whole story and com­menting upon it, with a merry twinkle in his eye, he said: ‘Do they take me for a young lady? I did not consent to the suggestion made by those good folk, among other reasons, to tell the truth, because in all probability I should have been the last person to hear anything distinctly. You may be sure that the line would have been tapped and I should have heard little or nothing. Moreover, I have to listen to bells enough in Rome, and indeed too many.’

When making this remark, the Holy Father was alluding perhaps to the endless tolling of the bells of St. Peter’s, in close proximity to his own rooms and which on certain occasions proved somewhat trying. But those familiar with the Italian expression sentire troppe campane will realize that he was referring chiefly to the inevitable conflict of opinions, appeals and complaints with which he had constantly to deal.

He had a cheerful, loving heart, a strong and manly will, and it was this disposition, supported by his confidence in God, which helped him to bear so bravely the weight and worry of his arduous office.

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