The Pope of the People

From the February 24, 1939, Issue

As I stood on the steps of St. Peter's last year, the ancient Roman street leading up to the basilica was being torn down and widened. It seems to me nothing could symbolize better the inner character of the reign of Pope Pius. For to the very gate of the Church there have come in our time great movements of destruction and change. They have been given power to tear down the old and to erect rather hectically something that seemed to them better or at least appeared to be a proof of their restless craving for the new. But, perhaps (who knows?), the final effect of what they are doing may only serve to widen the approach that leads to the immemorial, the unchanging Church.

When the eleventh Pius went out into the loggia of his cathedral and blessed the world, he expressed the confident hope that in his time the Church was to enter with renewed enthusiasm into the life of mankind. By temperament a man indifferent to mere precedents and averse to sanctifying cobwebs, he found himself Pope in an age that seemed big with courage and desire. Men appeared to feel that at length, in the wake of a destructive universal war, they could proceed to realize dreams fostered long since in the deepest thought of Christianity. The outlawry of war, the growth of a better understanding  among peoples, the solution of baffling economic problems which had caused so much partisan fighting—these things and more besides were to be brought about by utilizing the moral earnestness of survivors who had come close to seeing the end of western civilization. The Pope himself had gone much among men. He had learned to know, in the capitals of Europe, priests of great zeal and breadth of view, some of whom he would  later make  cardinals of  the Church.  It had grown clear to him that underneath the strife and quarreling which sundered nations lay an untapped fountain-source of ethical conviction and religious fervor.

Therefore his earliest deeds were acts of innovation so startling in essence that we are not yet able to evaluate them. He proceeded to settle the Roman question by authorizing a stroke of the pen which wiped out fifty years of accumulated bitterness. With similar directness he endorsed whatever was helpful and Christian in the social ideals of the time; and his encyclicals on peace, the labor situation, forms of government, and political ideologies are great documents in this sense above all, that they do not retreat from the facts of the twentieth century into the region of the merely abstract or ideal. They show that he wanted, sincerely wanted, to help make the world a better place to live in. To the conduct of the religious life he added even more of counsel and of guidance. It will take a long time to make clear all that is contained in the concept of Catholic Action, which runs so clean a knife through so many gordian knots of custom. Nor is there any of us who can even guess the future that may develop out of what he contributed to the cause of Church Union or to the deeper realization  of the missionary impulse.

Yet precisely this man—who combined the vigorous peasant blood of northern Italy with a vast and fertile scholarship—was destined in the Providence of God to see a great part of the world turn away from Christianity with a fury that often suggests ancient examples of the possessed. He saw "Holy Russia," wrapped in the mantle of its sloth and its sin, no doubt, but holding nevertheless against its breast the sacred icon of a profound and touching faith, embark on a social experiment that combined a quest for absolute justice with a thirst for ostracizing God. Mexico cried out to him from beside the altars of its despoiled churches and the bodies of its martyrs. Spain became the scene of fearful destruction, not of burning cities merely but of private holocausts too fearful even to contemplate. In Germany, a fantastic new Caesar arose, bent on reeling off once again, in a still more harrowing version, the film of 1914, if the goal were clearly the triumph of the Aryan race. In far-off China, prosperous mission fields were racked with war and rape, bringing before the eyes of Sisters of Charity scenes that not charity itself could change. Even in his own Italy the Pontiff beheld deeds which must have reminded him of ten of beleaguered predecessors going forlorn among the battle-flags and the endless poor.

In all this panorama of violence and disorder, of faithlessness and persecution, there was hidden something more awful than rapine. An ancient legend tells of a hermit who saw in his vision a host of camels writhing in death inflicted by swarms of almost invisible venomous insects. He saw the great animals dash themselves to death in fury, one against the other; he heard the ghastly clamor that rose on the desert night air. But then he saw the meaning of his vision, and it was more horrible than that—men dying in the spirit not by reason of their wrestling with passions and lusts, but because there had filtered into their souls poisons which they had not so much as seen. And of Pius XI it must be said, gratefully and sorrowfully, that to him there was given the bitter cup of such a scene. Out of old literatures and new philosophies, along the devious routes of tendencies hardly discerned, there crept a doctrine the mysterious power of which could deceive even the elect.

And again the man to whose greatness one bows, realizing that to succor it there was given a draught of Divine comfort, saw clearly—more clearly than any of the rest of us can—what medicines were needed. It would not do to have recourse to the treasury of grace in a passive sense alone. The old fear of the Apostle lest he might, hardly knowing, eat and drink unworthily had come once again to haunt mankind. What was needed was a clear profession, a vigorous but still prudent reassertion, of the unalterable Testament. And so the Pontiff who had gone out into the world boldly proved himself also capable of retreating from it. He made us all see a little of what he saw—that the supreme temptation of the time is to sunder Catholicism from Christianity; that the Divine authority over the human conscience cannot be delegated to any earthly power anxious to mold the character of the citizen; and that the supreme ethical postulate is and must always be freedom. There were times when these things seemed to hang by a thread—when even many Catholics felt that for the sake of "social order" one could make an alliance with the enemies of the deepest essence of the Christian faith. It took a great deal of personal courage to point out the errors in the doctrine of l'Action Franaise, to proclaim the inner corruption of the Nazi creed in the encyclical "Mit brennender Sorge," and to resist within Italy itself the perfidy of a new racist gospel.

Therewith the systole and diastole in the age-old history of the See of Peter were made plain anew. The Church had gone out into the world like a friend; and it went again into hiding, the perennial enemy of the pride of men. But the seal was placed anew on its covenant with the Spirit of God. This Pope, who was so eager to add new names to the roster of saints, will be re­membered in history as the Pontiff of an age of saints. And these are they who, in a dozen sorely tried lands, kept their faith and his to the end. Among them are the martyrs of the Church in Spain and Mexico, the victims of Hitler's concentration camps and pogroms, and the lonely worshipers of the Russian East. Thousands have laid down their lives, without rancor and for no merely human cause. The mystery of their sacrifice is of the same texture as their Pope's insight. The terrible austerity of their repose is the only sign we need that the foundations of humanity do not move.

The world has laid him to rest with them. Silence has come once more into the rooms of the Vatican, and the music of the long requiem eddies round the two-thousand-year-old graves of the Apostles. Remembering that the glory of this world passes, even as a candle's flame is soon merged in the darkness, we think of the silence that hushes a great voice and of the end of one man’s kindness. There is a strange solemnity about the coda that brings to a close a singularly good life; and it is well we should listen to it quietly, and not think of too many personal, human things to say.

And yet it seems to me that we should remember one thing about the man, which is independent of his office and apart from the stirring times in which he lived. That is the deep, singular, almost old-fashioned courtesy of his mind. 

"I am a man, and everything human interests me,” he might have said. Few Pontiff’s ever have  quoted with such distinguished simplicity the great poets of their race. Every writer must have got a little thrill when Pope Pius cited Manzoni. And what scientist could have failed to respond to one who often seemed  to concentrate his attention on the question of religion's relations with  the  sciences, and who was certain  that every modern invention could  serve the cause of Christ? It is  doubtful whether he ever listened to anyone with greater pleasure than to Marconi; and  though  political tension in Europe has necessarily curtailed  the use of the Vatican radio station, that none  the less remains a tribute to resolution with which he faced the problem of propaganda. 

Books and libraries were, of course, “pet hobbies,” since the Pope himself had been a librarian. Yet one has an especial fondness for the crisp, intimate discourses spoken to "honeymoon  pilgrims," which show that like the great majority of priests in his native region he was first of all a pastor, anxious to guide aright young families and future citizens.

I have emphasized this quality of intellectual courtesy, which is entirely compatible with firm and vigorously expressed convictions, because nothing else reveals so well the inner character of Catholic culture. The age in which the Pope lived came to be, with quite startling suddenness, the period of hatred and bias almost unparalleled—the era of frantic boasts and more than foolish words, of reckless charges and counter-charges, and of "evidence" that violates every canon of truth. But from the beginning of Christianity there has existed no doubt that  truth is the supreme analogy by which we rise to the perception of  Divine truth, and that therefore every shred and scrap of obtainable verity is a sacred thing. And quite similarly there underlies the other Christian mandate of charity another analogy of method—the course of charitable conduct is the line of  spiritual beauty, of harmony between human action and the Divine command, which reveals at  every point the ineffable radiance of Eternal Loveliness. To us all, the dead Pontiff left the bequest of an example in which truth and charity were mingled in the sense of our tradition.

That is why the world which is not Catholic respected him so deeply. It may not always have endorsed his conduct in matters of policy, or surmised the ultimate objectives to which his thought was directed. But it realized that in him there was not only represented the "power that makes for righteousness," but also the force that has been accumulated by centuries of human living in the spirit of Christian culture. And accordingly one may well believe that no missionary he sent out to any distant post, or any enterprise of preaching to which he gave form and benediction, wielded even nearly so convincing an influence as did his own example. There are many thousands of good men and women outside our communion who feel that in him the people of the world have lost a great, disinterested friend. Among the wreaths laid at his grave will be numberless invisible ones from the poor of all creeds whom he aided in suffering persecution for justice’s sake. There will be heard there the murmured thanksgiving of the one afar off, giving thanks for the greatest boon in all the world—the cup of spiritual cold water given on a parched day.

We lay our wreath there too. The course of this magazine has lain in the light of Pope Pius's teaching. It may be said without fear of exaggeration that nowhere else did men write with a deeper sense of their indebtedness to papal guidance, even when they did not quite understand to what end that guidance was leading them. Looking back, one can speak only, with a sob in one's throat, of what that has  meant-of  high  ideals not realized in the collective life of man, of wide­spread defeat, and of endless human pain. But one can think also of the joy of the elect into which the Pontiff has gone, sundering the time-bound battle from the timeless victory.

[For more from our 1930s archive, click here]

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