The Humour of Pope Pius IX

Author: Most Rev. Jacques Martin


Most Rev. Jacques Martin
Prefect of the Pontifical Household

The centenary of Pius IX's death has drawn attention again to the pope of the longest pontificate in history: the pope who lived through the exile in Gaeta and the Roman Republic of 1848, the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception and of Papal Infallibility, the celebration of the first Vatican Council and the end of the temporal power of the papacy.

It has been said of Pius IX that he was at once the most loved and the most hated of all popes: the most dissimilar judgments have been passed on his multiform activity during the thirty-two years of his reign. Allow us to recall here a secondary but characteristic aspect of this astonishing figure. Pius IX partly owed his immense popularity to his joviality, his witticisms, and the art he possessed of grasping the comic aspect of a person or of a situation. Pius IX was a pope full of humour.

In the very first months of his pontificate, in 1846, he had to deal with a curious problem. A deputation came to ask him—as temporal head of the Papal State—for authorization to offer a crown of laurel to a Miss Esler, a ballerina who was famous at that time. "There is nothing in that", the pontiff observed, "against the honour of the Church or the safety of the State. But if I were you I would offer, rather than a crown, a pair of sandals, since you intend to reward her feet and not her head!"

After the troops of General Oudinot, in 1849, had liberated Rome from the short-lived Mazzinian republic and had enabled the Pope to return, it was the French army that for nearly twenty years ensured order. From 1856 to 1862 it was commanded by a curious character, General de Goyon, whom a Belgian diplomat, Baron de Beyens, described as "the man who has most amused the Romans since Caracalla". At the end of his mission, the General went to take leave of Pius IX and sadly, but not without a certain pride, showed to him the letter of his minister.

"I have just been called to Paris, called and not recalled, as Your Holiness can see!"

"Certainly, General," Pius IX replied, "but I am very much afraid that you will find the 're' again in Paris!"

There were not just French troops in Rome at that time. The Pope, too, had his army, and in 1866 the commanding officer of the papal Zouaves was a rather stout Swiss, Colonel Allet. One day, among the Lenten preachers, a Jesuit named Alet was presented to Pius IX.

"You have the same name as my Colonel", the Pope observed.

"Yes, Your Holiness, but with one 'l'...

"Oh! it's true, my Colonel has two ailes (= wings, same pronunciation as the letter 'l'), but I assure you that he would have great difficulty in flying in spite of that!"...

Pius IX followed the Catholic movement in France with great interest and he was in touch with its main representatives. Louis Veuillot, who was converted in Rome during a first stay in 1838, returned in 1853. "You have not been in Rome since my Pontificate?" Pius IX asked him on receiving him. "No, Holy Father", the impetuous publicist replied, "otherwise you would have seen me already! I came to Rome for the first time fifteen years ago to be converted".

"Ah yes, you came for baptism, and now you come for confirmation".

After baptism and confirmation, marriage: that of Frédéric Ozanam supplied him with the subject for an unexpected witticism. One day he was speaking to Father Lacordaire, who seemed rather to deplore the event than to rejoice at it. "My friend Ozanam", the Dominican said, "has fallen into the trap of marriage!" "What", the pontiff answered; "do you mean to say that Our Lord established six sacraments and a trap?"

Furthermore, Louis Veuillot narrates in one of his letters how one day he had to present to Pius IX the Superior General of the Sulpicians, Monsieur Carrière. The Pope, after expressing to the venerable ecclesiastic his joy at receiving him, invited him to sit down. But the chair indicated was covered with newspapers. The embarrassed visitor made a vague gesture to clear it. "Pooh!" The Pontiff said, "they are revolutionary papers, you can sit on them!"

Among the French personalities with whom Pius IX was in correspondence was the Comte de Chambord, who had taken refuge in Frohsdorf in Austria, in the eventually fruitless expectation of one day ascending the throne of his fathers. It seemed possible for a moment in France, immediately after the unhappy war of 1870, that this dream would come true, on condition, however, that the Pretender would accept the tricolour. Pius IX pointed out with common sense that good things could be done with the tricolour, since he had returned to Rome with it after the 1848 revolution. But nothing could convince the Comte de Chambord to renounce his white flag, and, consequently, his throne. Pius IX was not particularly astonished, and, wit that he was, drew the conclusion of the adventure with a quip that is just in his style: "And all that", he exclaimed, "all that for a napkin!"

His excursions in Rome sometimes gave Pius IX the opportunity for picturesque meetings. The story is told of a poor fishmonger whom the authorities had just forbidden to sell his goods in the open air. The Pope's carriage passes, The man rushes up: "Holy Father, I'm ruined!" He tells his story in tears. Pius IX pulls him to his feet: "Bring me something to write on". The good man had no paper except that with which he wrapped up his fish. He handed a sheet to the pontiff, who writes in his own hand this rescript of a new kind: "Let him fry his fish where he likes, when he likes, and as much as he likes! Pius IX".

Another time it is an old gendarme who throws himself at the Pope's feet during his drive walk in Villa Borghese.

"Holy Father, I've been in the service for twenty-five years, and they refuse to let me retire!" The pontiff replies, "Look at the way of the world. It is just the opposite that happens to me. I have not yet been in service for twenty-five years, and they want to pension me off at all costs!"

The trials and disappointments that accumulated in the course of the years did not succeed in destroying the Pope's good humour. In the last years he had also to cope with physical pain: his legs were less and less able to carry him. One day there arrived from France for an audience a noble woman with a pompous way of speaking. She wished at all costs to make the head of the Church accept some sumptuous gift.

"Do you want my mansion in Paris? My castle in Dauphiné? My jewels?... Speak, Holy Father, speak. I will not get up until you have told me what I can offer you".

"Get up, my daughter, get up, you would run the risk of remaining on your knees until doomsday. What I would like, you cannot give me: I would need a pair of new legs!"

It was so true that a rather painful operation was necessary. But even then the aging pontiff did not lose his sense of humour. At the end of the operation, the surgeon, Costantini, ventured to ask his august patient if he had suffered. "If I suffered? You made me see more stars at midday than Father Sacchi (1) shows at midnight!"

The anxieties that the evolution of political events caused Pius IX affected him even more, it can be imagined, than his personal infirmities. To a prelate who was trying to reassure him by reminding him of the divine promises regarding Peter's boat, be replied: "Certainly, the boat is secure from shipwreck; but that will not prevent those who are in the boat from getting a good mouthful if they do not look out for themselves and if Providence does not come to their help!"

He could not endure the delays of the first Vatican Council in defining papal infallibility. He is said to have remarked one day: "If these bishops do not hurry up, they will have to be fed on potatoes!" In fact, the maintenance of the Council Fathers for months and months ended up by seriously depleting the pontifical finances. "They are afraid of declaring the pope infallible," Pius IX said, laughing, "but they are not afraid of making him go bankrupt!"

Some months later, it was the temporal power of the popes that went bankrupt. But in this hour, the most tragic one in his existence, while the cannons thundered and the Piedmontese troops were penetrating into Rome by the breach of Porta Pia, what was Pius IX doing? The Minister Andreotti recounted it recently in a charming book. It is hardly credible; Pius IX was composing a charade!! (cf. Giulio Andreotti: La Sciarada di PapaMastai).

On 20 September 1870 the last act of a long tragedy had been reached. Pius IX, in the playful tone that was his wont, summed it up as follows in an audience to Italian Catholic youth in 1874. Commenting on the text of St John: "yoursadness will change into joy", he said: "Let us hope that, as the joy of the beginning of this pontificate changed into sadness, so its end will change into joy!" And he recalled his memories: "When, on 17 June 1846, the seclusion of the conclave came to an end to enable many people to get a closer view of the new Pope, everything was joy and merriment. Some members of the diplomatic Corps had hastened to penetrate into the Quirinal chapel, and one of the most eager to approach the Pope was the minister of the King of Sardinia. The Pope, clad in the pontifical vestments, was preparing to present himself to the people from the balcony. The minister of the King of Sardinia anxiously seized the train of the pontifical vestment, happy to be the first to be able to render the new Pope a service. This exterior act of cordial understanding between the Holy See and Piedmont was followed by an exchange of affectionate letters which more officially confirmed the harmony. So far, joy and friendship. Later everything became sad. Piedmont took from me the whole robe of temporal powers, and on 20 September 1870 it penetrated into Rome, this time not to carry, but to take away by violence, the train which still remained of the robe that had been torn off. And that was how joy changed to sadness!"

Pius IX has been reproached for having let himself be carried away by his wit to pass rather cutting judgments on some persons—particularly those in his entourage—without bothering too much about the dignity with which they might be clad. It is quite certain that the defects of the persons with whom he was familiar could not escape his perspicacious eye. The case is often quoted of a prelate of modest intelligence, whom Pius IX, in the course of a drive in the Roman Countryside, met riding a donkey. "Look!" he exclaimed, "Mons. X has achieved a crown!"

In the same way he had for a long time among his privy chamberlains a German nobleman of the Hohenlohe family. Of him he liked to say that, though he had three aitches in his name, hewas not worth one. ("Not to be worth an 'h'" [non valere un'acca] is an Italian expression which means not to be worth a straw). Having become a cardinal and having withdrawn to his castle in Schillingsfürst, Hohenlohe, after the events of 1870, had taken it into his head to attract the Pope there, and he spoke highly of its charms. On the letter that contained the strange invitation, Pius IX was content to write: "Hohenlohenian aberrations!"

More amusing, but too long to tell, would be the adventures of Cardinal d'Andrea, a fiery Neapolitan, rather too fond of the "new ideas" and of Prince Humbert of Savoy. He had suddenly left Rome for Naples without troubling beforehand to ask for the Pontiff's authorization. After useless recalls to order and a series of adventures which ended up by tiring the patience of Pius IX, the latter had to bring himself to deprive the recalcitrant cardinal of the purple and depose him from his episcopal see of Sabina. "Poor d'Andrea", he said to those around him, "he is crazy three days a week. If only one knew which!..." It is only just to add that the rebellious cardinal yielded in the end and died forgiven and rehabilitated.

Such was Pius IX: a heart of goldand a devilish wit. One may wonder whether, giving free rein in this way to his tongue—or his pen—this holy man always succeeded in keeping within the limits authorized by Christian charity. A thorny problem, the answer to which it is better, perhaps, to leave to the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The beatification cause of Pius IX is, in fact, before it. If in the course of the trial, the "devil's advocate", as he is called, were to find himself short of arguments, he could perhaps find quite a rich subject to exploit by sifting in a severe spirit of criticism the innumerable flashes of wit that faithfully accompanied this great pope throughout the vicissitudes, sad or joyful, of the thirty-two years of his pontificate.


1) Father Sacchi was a Jesuit Astronomer, then famous throughout Europe.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 March 1978, page 8

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