Pope Pius Xi


WHEN I first saw the Pope, he was already in the Sedia Gestatoria. For three hours, on February 12, 1922, we had been waiting in St. Peter’s, so crowded that there was hardly room to move an arm amongst those 80,000 people. And then a brilliant procession had begun to move up the length of the basilica. After the clergy, the Swiss guard, the noble guard, and the Pontifical Guard came many heads in plain white mitres; and then again a flash of color, and a burst of music. It was the choir of the Sistine Chapel, singing the great anthem Tu es Petrus: ‘Thou art the rock, and on this rock I will found my Church.’ One’s mind was filled with this great conception — that amidst all the changes and chances of the world, amidst the vicissitudes of opinion, the wars of religions, and the strife of sects, in the seething seas of these interminable uncertainties, the Almighty had set up as a rock one man to bear witness to the truth that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Satan had desired the disciples, but Christ had prayed for Peter that his faith should not fail.

This conception — of a man chosen and confirmed by God to assert that the Church was Christ’s, and Christ was God — was that with which the music greeted the man we saw far down the basilica borne high above us on a moving throne. For such is the Sedia Gestatoria. And then the melody of human voices ceased, and another music filled the mighty temple. It was the majestic cadences of the Papal March played with the penetrating resonance of the silver trumpets. What music had one ever heard so kingly, or so touching? As that resonance swelled through the hearts of the tens of thousands of people, they burst into shouts: ‘Viva il Papa!'Viva il Vicario di Gesù Cristol

All the while, amid the surge of music, the stately throne passed slowly on, bearing one who looked more like an image than a man as he sat above the great ostrich-feather fans; but at last, when his train filled the temple, we saw him move his hands in blessing, and at last we saw his face. It was that of a benignant and scholarly man, greatly moved. It was not a markedly Italian face; his complexion was not dark, and his features had an almost English look, the type that one associates with a Victorian bishop. His figure looked robust, his skin clear.

This was the man, Achille Ratti, who had been born at Desio, near Milan, in 1857, the son of a Lombardy weaver; he had grown up in Milan, become noted as a scholar, lived for years as an administrator of the Ambrosian Library at Milan, till, as he was nearing sixty, he had come to succeed the noted German scholar Ehrle as Prefect of the Vatican Library. There Pope Benedict XV had seen in him a remarkable cosmopolitan gift. As Mr. Laurence Binyon once said to me, a man in a great museum or a great library is not working as a recluse; he is in one of the meeting places of distinguished men, in one of those avenues where the great come, and linger, and pass on. Such had been, through the long years, the life of Achille Ratti. At last in 1918, when Poland was constituted a State, the Pope sent him, at the age of sixty-one, from the Library into Diplomacy. He entrusted him with the difficult Polish legateship, and in 1919 made him Papal Nuncio at Warsaw. There he had to organize the relations of Church and State in a Court whose boundaries were still subjects of dispute; where millions had lived under Germany and Austria as well as under Russia; where millions of Catholics worshiped in the Greek rite; and where on all alike pressed the menace of a Bolshevistic invasion which approached the very precincts of Warsaw.

Once, lunching with Sir Horace Rumbold when he was British Ambassador in Madrid, I heard something of Monsignor Ratti’s work in Poland. ‘There are not many people who can say they have dined with the Pope,’ said the Ambassador, ‘but I am one of them.’ ‘And what is he like?’ I asked. ’He is a splendid man; he stayed there till the very end and showed the greatest resource and courage.’

Resource and courage! They are the gifts of the mountaineer. During the winter evenings he looks long at his maps; he makes his plans, he measures his powers, he trains his muscles, and in the summer he goes amidst the rocks and snow to ride their dangers. Such, summer after summer, had been the sport of Achille Ratti. He loved the Alpine heights, the air that comes cool down one’s throat, the rocks that give forth streams of living water welcome to thirsty lips, the tenacity and endurance which carry skill and muscle along the ledges and up the mountain face, the views down over gorge and forest to the far sparkle of the stream. So, with the training and discipline of the mountains, Achille Ratti had added pleasure to his acquaintance with men, to his study of the documents of learning, to his administration of the venerable libraries.

In 1921 the Pope brought him back to Milan as Archbishop. He had by long experience learned the life of the great city where his brother had risen to some eminence as an engineer. He reigned on the seat made glorious by Saint Ambrose and Saint Charles Borromeo. But his family motto was Raptim transit. He is carried swiftly on. And when Cardinal Mercier came to Milan on his way to Rome after the death of Benedict XV on January 22, 1922, he found that Archbishop Ratti had already left Milan. Cardinal Mercier had an exhilarating presentiment, that he would never return. ‘Raptim transit,’ said Cardinal Mercier; ‘he must now proceed to the highest office of all’ — and Cardinal Mercier was right.

At that time there was no cardinal in the world who had a more glorious fame than Désiré Mercier. His philosophic enterprise, his spirituality, his leadership of the Belgian nation after it had been deprived of its government; his combination of diplomacy with daring and of both with holiness; the graciousness, the distinction, the heroic charity which made his tall figure like a column of light, suggested to many that he should be the Pope. But he knew that at that moment one must have in the central office a more neutral figure. His choice was Cardinal Ratti, and in the succeeding years there was no one whose voice carried more weight in the Vatican than that of Cardinal Mercier.


Apart from the question of neutrality, it was absolutely essential at that moment that the Pope should be an Italian. The time had come to solve what was called the Roman Question: to adjust relations between the Vatican and the Kingdom of Italy. Of course, when the Italians took the Papal States by force in 1870, they despoiled the Church, arrogating to themselves its resources and its possessions; the King took for himself the very palace of the Quirinal in which the reigning Pope had been elected; and in return for all this they proposed to make the Pope their pensioner at the rate of £130,000 a year. Now it would never do for the Pope to be the pensioner of any single State, let alone a State pulsating with heady nationalism, a State which before long was to produce such an uncompromising imperialist as Benito Mussolini. No, the proposed arrangement must be rejected. The spoliation must be denounced for what it was.

But, as the years went on, the Holy See saw that if it had lost something by being robbed, it had on the other hand gained much. The administration of Rome and the Papal States had become an embarrassment. The Vatican had been freed for better things. But on one point it was, of course, absolutely clear: that it must be independent of the Italian State, and that this independence must manifestly appear as such. At the same time, it must try to sanctify the Italian State. The Church was established and maintained in Italy, but the Quirinal had no direct relations with the Holy See.

Already, at Milan, Achille Ratti had spoken of the Papacy as Italy’s greatest glory; he had made it clear that he cherished Italy’s future. He was prepared to take a lead in moves of conciliation, which were very generally desired. So, as soon as he was elected Pope, he went straight to the balcony above St. Peter’s and gave the ancient blessing of the Popes, to the City and to the World — the blessing that had not been given since the seizure of Rome. Some people thought of this as a sign of a mind which made swift decisions; but, as a matter of fact, it had been generally agreed upon before the Conclave began.

Events rapidly assisted the Vatican’s will for conciliation. The Pope was crowned on February 12, 1922. In November of that year, Mussolini, after marching on Rome, became the Prime Minister of Italy, and immediately redintegrated religion in the life of the Italian State. He recognized papal titles and the degrees of the Catholic University; he put back the crucifix in the schools and arranged for priests to teach in them; he ordered officials to take part in religious processions, and he gave every facility for the functions of the Holy Year in 1925. But it was not until January 1929 that he arrived at the final arrangements for a Concordat, and the Treaty of the Lateran was finally signed on February 11, the seventh year after the Pope’s coronation.

Perhaps I may be permitted to recall what I wrote about that event in the Atlantic for June of that year. The Treaty recognized the absolute independence of the Vatican to the extent of about a square mile of territory including St. Peter’s, the Apostolic Palaces, and the Pope’s Garden. It guaranteed to give the Pope a special railway station, should he require it for ceremonial visits. It recognized the full sovereign rights of t he Papacy as an international power, while the Pope agreed not to enter international congresses, or become a party in international disputes. Finally, it gave financial restitution. Italy made a money payment of 750,000,000 lire, and gave 5 per cent bonds for a further 1,000,000,000 lire. By this means the Vatican was assured an income of something like two million dollars. Yet the total sum given did not reach the amount which Italy would have paid had she been asked to live up to the stipend of 500,000 dollars which she originally offered in 1870. Of course, in a practical sense, this money arrangement has bound up the resources of the Holy See with the fortunes of the Italian State; but not in principle. So far the arrangement has worked. Time will show the final result.

The other part of the Lateran agreement was a concordat. By this arrangement the Italian State recognized the Canon Law, gave the Pope the free appointment of dignitaries in the Italian Church, and exchanged a Nuncio from the Pope for an Ambassador to him. The Italian Government promised, furthermore, to prevent in Rome anything which could impair the sacred character of the city, while the Church promised to make its dioceses march with those of the provinces of the Kingdom of Italy. The Bishops were to swear fealty to the head of the State. The State accepted ‘instruction in Christian doctrine according to the traditional Catholic forms’ as the foundation and the culmination of its teaching in schools and universities. Finally it recognized the organizations as ‘Catholic Action’ in so far as they confined themselves, under the Bishops, to the diffusion and development of Catholic principles.

Such was the Treaty of the Lateran; and it is that for which Italians honor Pius XI as the Pope of Conciliation. They put him with Mussolini as the man who enabled them to harmonize, and practically to identify, their religion with their patriotism, for which they are very grateful indeed. Of course the arrangement has not always worked quite smoothly, because from time to time the designs of Mussolini encroach. But when they do the Church protests, and after a time conciliation is again attained. That through the ages has been the history of the Church, and the history of Italy. In the very week of his death, the Pope was at issue with Mussolini over the question of racial marriages. But now for ten years the Treaty has been in force in Italy to the distinct advantage of both the Church and the State.


The Pope aimed at no other object so precise as this; but the great object of his reign was conciliation among the nations of Europe. In 1922, the results of the war were bombarding Central Europe with the artillery of economic ruin. Austrian currency had collapsed in the preceding summer; Germany’s was to follow in the autumn of 1922. In the spring of 1923, France invaded the Ruhr, and the Vatican protested, sending a special envoy to the invaded region. At that time the biggest battle of Pius XI was against the intransigence of France, and especially of its Royalist paper Action Française, which went so far as to tell him — in polite but vigorous terms — that he didn’t know what he was talking about. Now, as the treatment of one nation by another is even more important than the treatment of one man by another, the Pope was being virtually told that, though he was called the Teacher and Father of Christians, he was incapable of guiding them. His answer was clear. He repudiated the Action Française; he placed it on the Index, and excommunicated its editors. Such a move was no less than necessary; otherwise the French would really have been without leadership from the head of their Church on a subject essential to the peace, and therefore also to the spiritual life, of Europe.

That struggle, in which he finally routed his enemies, was the culmination of the first five years of his Pontificate. Then followed seven years which centred on the economic crisis. In his last five years the Pope was constantly preoccupied with a still greater difficulty of aggressive nationalism — from the very Germany whom he had spent his first five years in defending. For, in spite of all his efforts, the French overreached themselves; the economic crisis provoked a final reaction in Central Europe, and the result was the victory of National Socialism.

At first it seemed possible that the Hitler Government, which recognized religion as a support against Communism, would come to an understanding with the Holy See. Hitler sent Herr von Papen to negotiate a concordat, in which finally the Pope obtained practically all he considered necessary. The clergy were not to interfere with National Socialism, but neither was it to interfere with them. But it is one thing for Herr Hitler to sign an agreement, and another for him to keep it; and the latent conflict soon came to a head over education. The Hitler system aims at eliminating from a boy’s mind every influence that conflicts with its own partisan view of history, its own national claims, its readiness for war. It presents a Christian leader with difficulties very similar to those presented by Action Française, but in even fiercer form. And the danger is the greater because this is not a party of a few brilliant intellectuals, but one that has control over the eighty millions of the armed German people. Furthermore in its racialism, its persecution of the Jews, its attacks on the religious orders, and the attitude of certain of its government newspapers towards the Jewish element in the Bible, it is as dangerous to the Christian tradition of culture as it is to the peace of Europe.

The conflict was inevitable, and the Pope could not have showm himself a greater friend to Germany than in warning Hitlerism against its errors. He pursued this course with that intrepid faith and that tenacity of purpose which were the outstanding features of his character. The consequence was that he gave the whole world a moral leadership which earned him the admiration of the Protestant countries, and which was nowhere more appreciated than by the German Christians, whether they were Catholic or Lutheran. In fact, this great international figure, the Pope of Rome, now became the chief bulwark of German Lutheranism. The freedom Hitler was compelled to give to the Catholic Church as an international force, particularly strong in Italy, he could not refuse to German Protestants. And, in defense of the Bible and its revelation, Catholics and Protestants acted together.

If the Pope was forced out of some of his strongholds of influence on Germany, he had one profound consolation: it was to see the people there crowding to Church as they had never done before. All over Germany there was a religious revival. ‘For the first time in history,’ the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne said to me, ‘our great Cathedral is too small.’ Nor can I forget what I heard from other priests. ‘If the Hitler movement were to receive no check, it would soon bring us to greater disasters than 1914. We know well the nature of our task: it is not merely the Church we have to save, but Germany itself.’ Such was the result of the leadership which Pius XI gave to German religion. It is a result only strengthened by the absorption of Austria and the Sudetenland, for they have made Germany a predominantly Catholic Reich.

The struggle is not over, but, as a famous German asked, ‘Where Bismarck failed, can Hitler succeed?’ As for Pius XI, he himself quoted the French proverb, Qui mange du Pape en meurt: ‘Eat up the Pope if you like, but you will die of it in the end.’ Herr von Papen himself said to me when I was lunching with him at the German Legation in Vienna: ‘The political systems of the world all change; the Church survives. For the very reason of her struggles she survives. In the words which Macaulay adapted from Drydcn: Still doomed to death, the milk-white hind is still fated not to die.’


But there were times when Pope Pius XI felt those deep doubts of Europe which are so common in the United Slates. He saw it menaced with a war, and with a paganism, which he could not guarantee to prevent. In the days when he probed his heart with this deep questioning, he found a shining assurance in the very continents of Africa and Asia where there were fewest Christians. For in the Dark Continent there came a wondrous dawning: thousands upon thousands were being born again by water and the Spirit, born to be partakers of the life of Christ, born to receive in Holy Communion the foretaste and the pledge of the infinite riches. This rapid success of missionary endeavor spread to India, Ceylon, and China. The Pope determined to make provision for it by removing these growing movements from dependence upon Europe, or from the venom of its appealing nationalisms. He consecrated for China alone no less than sixty bishops. In the Holy Year of 1925 he inaugurated a Missionary Exhibition which showed his men and women at work among the pagodas of China, among the African Hottentots, in the lands of the banana and the rice field, the mango and the palm. The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, the year before, had given an impressive picture of the organization of material resources; the Pope showed his orders at work in the sacrifice of self, in the service and the healing of men benighted, in administering the mysteries of redemption and hallowing the name of the Heavenly Father, in spreading what Saint Paul had called ‘the glorious gospel of the Blessed God.’

One of the Pope’s remarkable innovations was to allow in China the veneration of Confucius. In the moral and philosophic teachings of that ancient guide he saw something akin to the work of Plato and Aristotle, whom Raphael had painted on the walls of the Vatican in the centre of Greek and Roman writers. For this great humanist Pope had not forgotten that the Church draws her wisdom from every source where wisdom can be found.

His relations with India were not confined to missionary work. It was one of his especial consolations to receive into union with the Holy See that ancient community, the Christians of Malabar, who claimed their origin from the Apostle Thomas and whose head was the Patriarch Mak Ivanios. This was one fruit of a design which the Pope had very much at heart: the reconciliation of Christians, the unity of Christendom. In this he united with the generous lead given by Cardinal Mercier in response to the advances of Lord Halifax, the father of England’s present Foreign Secretary. From his young manhood, Lord Halifax had centred his personal attraction, his brilliant gifts of brain and fortune, his beautiful character, on one dream — the reconciliation of the Anglican Church with the Holy See. Pope Pius XI gave his blessing to all that Cardinal Mercier and Lord Halifax did for this great end. And the Conversations of Malines remain as a signpost for a work to be resumed in drawing all Christians of the West together, that they may be one in the mystery of their Faith.

But not less — nay, even more — did the Pope commend this work of conciliation between Rome and the various national Churches of the East. Often his advances were uncompromisingly rejected; for, to tell the truth, ‘No Popery!’ is a much fiercer cry in Greece or Jerusalem than it is in Germany or Western Europe. But the Pope persevered, making the most of the fact that there were many millions in Rumania, in Poland, and in Armenia who worshiped with rites indistinguishable from those of peoples cut from unity with, and in fact militantly adverse to, the Holy See. His heart was especially tender with sympathy for Russia, where so many had suffered for their religion and so many were the victims of militant paganism. The hope he nourished was that as religion dawned once more upon those regions of steppes and cities, on those Russian territories so vast that they had been soberly computed to equal the surface of the moon, it would dawn not as the exclusive property of imperial nationalism, but as a radiance to share with other Christians, as an impulse of love that could add to the great wave of intercession which poured towards himself, something that could take advantage of his solicitude, something that would find in the Holy See a focus for the irradiation of their unity with all the other Christians of the world. In their venerable liturgies, he said, were veins of gold, in their traditions and their saints a treasure of which the West hardly dreamed.

To assist in this work, the Pope encouraged the Benedictines to found in Belgium a priory for the study of Russia and its Christianity. These monks tended at times to take a greater interest in the Western world; for, to tell the truth, a Protestant who knows his Bible is a great deal closer to Roman Catholicism than the vague and uninstructed adherent of, let us say, the Church of Greece. But some narrow minds in England resented this generous movement, and protested so loudly that the Monks of Union were restrained from showing any interest in Western Europe.

Finally the Pope had to face the fact that, for the present at least, the move towards religious revival, or religious unity in Russia, must cede its place to a struggle against the aggressive side of Communism. Communism, as a force of militant atheism, not only continues to stifle religious instinct in Russia, but has recently menaced France and worked havoc in Spain. When the Spanish War began in 1936, the Republican Government was in full diplomatic relations with the Holy See; but later in the year, after a fierce scuffle in Spain’s very Embassy to the Holy See, the Republicans were routed, and the emissaries of Franco installed themselves. They were formally recognized a few months later, and the Pope in one of his most beautiful allocutions spoke of the love he felt towards all his sons, even those who were responsible for insults to himself and for crimes. He advocated towards them patience and charity. These beautiful and generous words were afterwards echoed by the Spanish Bishops in their appeal for intercession and conciliation. On the very day the Pope died he saw Franco’s troops arriving at the French frontier of Catalonia; he had heard for a month of the joy with which they had been received by the people of Catalonia; and he died knowing that militant Communism had been defeated and discredited in Western Europe.

Exactly four weeks before, he had had another special consolation. It was to receive Mr. Chamberlain, and with him that Lord Halifax whose father had been so long known and esteemed at the Vatican. The Pope spoke of reactionary regions and of the duties of democracy, of racial persecution and the need of helping refugees. He spoke of the close attention with which he had watched British policy, of the pressing evils of the time, and of the confidence which, in spite of all, he felt in the future. Courage and readiness he felt sure would still live on among those that spoke the English language. ‘You know better than I do,’ he said finally, ‘what is in the English race.’


For more than two years the Pope had been living as an invalid, his limbs having begun in the terrible extreme of his illness to suffer from the actual corruption of death. But the gallant old man, already eighty, recovered, and lived on for two years. Exhausted and fragile as he was, he did not live those two years in vain. Europe surmounted terrible dangers, but none of the sinister agencies working for war succeeded, and, even though at a high tension, peace was maintained.

In the middle of his reign Pius XI had to confront the breakdown of American business, and the consequences which shook the world as though by a universal earthquake and thus called forth the most noted and far-reaching of his pronouncements, the Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which was followed shortly after by another beginning with the touching words Caritate Christi Compulsi — ‘Constrained by the Love of Christ.’

These both dealt with our modern citizenship, where politics and economics are so closely intermingled. The Pope sketched from precise experience the danger of materialistic sovietism, the danger of a State which claimed a hold over man’s every freedom; and, with equal clearness, the danger of a financial system founded on stocks and shares, where a single group of men, responsible to no one, perhaps almost unknown, and even without a clear sense of their own aims, could sway and control the lives of millions. He also complained of excessive taxation, especially in the form of death duties, which can disturb the economic unity of a property, a business, or a family. He pointed to the need of corporations in which workmen could discuss with their directors and proprietors the due apportionment of profits, and where all could work together in harmony for the good of the State.

In fact, the Pope practically said that apart from the danger of excessive nationalism, militarism, and undue exaltation of the State, the system that Mussolini had inaugurated in Italy had much to recommend it: it avoided the dangers of a materialistic Communism and of irresponsible capital. It lodged power neither in trusts and combines nor in the system of a centralized bureaucracy headed by a tyrant. These are subtle and illuminating documents which cast a light down the avenues we are treading. No thinker can afford to ignore them.

Such, then, were the contributions of Pius XI to the history of this age of tension, of restless diversion, of disturbing change, of trampling nations organized for campaigns more often unjust than just. They were the contributions of a trained mind and resolute character: a character confident, and at times almost stubborn, but also spiritual and sweet.

Once, welcoming a gathering of Italian youths in the Cortile of San Damaso, I heard him speak, in ringing tones, of Rome as ‘sanctified even to-day by the presence of the Vicar of Christ on Earth.’ He had that assurance, — not in himself, but in his office and in the promises of Christ, — and it added an unflinching force to his authority; but with it went also a love for natures which, like the crocus, lay their face to earth. And, in speaking of how some of these have been made the saints of to-day, I once heard him say of Divine Providence that it not only gives us all we need of food to eat and air to breathe, but gives with an exquisite, delicate intuition that surpasses the tenderest solicitude of human affection; it offers us at each particular moment those aids, those consolations, those loves, which best help to make us pure and holy, and lead us in themselves to everlasting joy.