Pius IX Revisited: 1878-1978

Author: Rev. Regis Barwig


Rev. Regis Barwig

[This article from 1978, was written for the centenary of the death of Blessed Pius IX, by the U.S. liaison for the Postulation of the Cause of Beatification of the Servant of God, Pope Pius IX, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II, 3 September 2000.]

On 7 February 1972 there was constituted at Rome the Association of Promotors of the Cause of Beatification of the Servant of God, Pope Pius IX. The Association's purpose is threefold: to diffuse Pius IX's spirit of faith; to make known the singular virtues of the Servant of God; and to advance the cause of his beatification. This latter had already been begun by Pope St Pius X in 1907, at the prompting of Don Orione, and had been sustained for more than sixty years by outstanding personalities of the Church's hierarchy and of the Catholic laity.

On the occasion of the centenary of his death, some reflection on his life and work is profitable. In a particular way, the English-speaking world is in his debt. It was Pius IX who restored the Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850, and established more than one hundred and twenty-five dioceses and archdioceses in the United States. Considering the tumultuous times in which he manned the Barque of Peter, these accomplishments, to mention only two specific and large categories, cannot be viewed as other than colossal. Further, at least 125 religious communities of women in the United States were founded in the course of his pontificate. The over-all growth of the Church during his long reign points to the establishment on both the Old and New Worlds of 29 archbishoprics, 132 bishoprics, 3 apostolic delegations, 33 vicariates apostolic, 15 prefectures apostolic. This includes the restoration of the English hierarchy with an archbishop at Westminster and twelve other local Ordinaries, as well as an archbishop and four bishops for Holland, and a Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Furthermore concordats were concluded with Russia, Tuscany, Spain, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Austria, Portugal, Naples, Wurttenberg, Baden, Honduras, Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua and San Salvador.

Friend of Don Bosco

The, man who was to become the beloved friend, patron and confidant of St John Bosco, and associated with so many men and women of great personal holiness in the course of his long reign, was born Count Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, in Senigallia on May 13th, 1792. Ordained a priest on April 11th, 1819, he was attached to the Holy See's diplomatic mission to Chile from 1823 to 1825, then appointed archbishop of Spoleto on May 25th, 1827, at the age of thirty-five. He was successively named bishop of Imola on February 9th, 1833 and created a cardinal on December 14th, 1840. He succeeded to the Chair of Peter upon the death of Gregory XVI, June 16th, 1846. When he died on February 7th, 1878, it was the longest pontificate in the history of the Church. He had been only fifty-four years of age upon his election and ruled for nearly thirty-two years. His insignia was the Cross, his motto: Crux de Cruce.

Pius IX was particularly distinguished for his defense and explanation of Catholic doctrine. This is evidenced in the numerous solutions at which he arrived in controversial matters, or for the reproof of erroneous doctrines which rocked the foundations of society itself. The historian, Roger Aubert, remarks that Pius IX's role was important in matters of doctrine and that he "issued warnings or condemnations against Ontologism and Traditionalism; against the teachings of certain philosophers and theologians, notably Anton Günther and Frohschammer; and against the tendencies of the school of Döllinger".

De Fide Catholica

Referring to the First Vatican Ecumenical Council, the same historian notes that the Constitution De Fide Catholica "was characteristic of Pius IX's positive contribution and marked a strong effort to eliminate the last traces of the naturalistic Deism of the Enlightenment and to refocus Catholic thought on the fundamental data of revelation". He lived in an age that had followed upon the incredulity of Voltaire, Diderot and others, and inwhose teachings traditional values were discarded in the name of a much-heralded liberty, by a liberalism which served up the most crude negations of liberty itself. Among the most important documents of his reign (apart from the definition of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mother of God and the celebration of the First Vatican Ecumenical Council) first place, without doubt, is held by his Encyclical Quanta cura of December 8th, 1864, with its accompanying Syllabus ofErrors,listing eighty condemned and proscribed propositions. In the history of the Church, it might be recalled, the cataloguing of errors is no novelty: the errors of Wycliffe and Hus were solemnly condemned in 1414; those of Luther in 1520; those of Baius in 1563: and those of Jansen in 1567.

Syllabus of Pius IX

The Syllabus of Pius IX,however, is of superior value to those previously promulgated, for in Pius IX's condemnation the evil condemned was not an isolated tenet in the current of thought of one or another man, but rather, what was condemned was an entire age with a complexity of heresies. Above all, the most serious and widespread philosophical errors were denounced: pantheism, which confused God with nature; materialism, which sustained the existence of matter alone; rationalism,which recognized human reason alone as the unique and exclusive source oftruth; indifferentism, which stated that every religion is equally good and true; and finally, liberalism, as embodied in the atheist State and in indiscriminate and absolute liberty in matters of worship, teaching, and communications.

Moreover, in a more generic manner, but with specific references and documentation, Socialism and secret societies were condemned, as well as the theory which avers that the State is the origin and source of all rights.

The publication of the Syllabus appeared to be a betrayal of the contemporary world, of science and civilization, of progress and of the rights of the State and of peoples. The Pope was accused of obscurantism, fanaticism and medievalism. In view of the clarity of his exhaustive documentation, such accusations, though comprehensible, given the distress it caused some, were of the customary and facile sort. But looking back, our perspective must necessarily be less myopic, and our enthusiasm for novelties ought to be much less heady. In reality, what was accomplished in such a document turned out to be a true benefit to society, for it denounced the occult evil of doctrines that have led men, time and again, to the shedding of blood, and have produced the most bitter fruits and ruin in their wake.

Laid foundation

Through the Syllabus,along with other countless documents which preceded and followed upon it, above all the positive work of the Council, Pius IX projected the entire doctrinal teaching of modern Pontiffs. He set the keystone for the work of reconstruction under Leo XIII. In germinal form his teaching became a complete basis for the condemnation of modernism by Pius X. Further, his teachings embody the principles that would come into play in the numerous battles against immorality, violence, and aberrations of a false nationalism and racism, especially during the two pontificates of Pius XI and Pius XII respectively. Further, the deep admiration of John XXIII for the pastoral figure of Pius IX took into account as well a special concern for the Diocese of Rome, while the problems and complexities of history in the present, make the pontificate of Paul VI not altogether unlike that of his predecessor of a century ago.

To his gifts of intelligence, Pius IX joined the gifts of grace which had matured in his soul since childhood. He was possessed of a deep, invincible, clear faith in the final triumph of the Church, and he did not hesitate, as even a cursory perusal of his pronouncements and addresses attests, to resist with intrepidity and with a severity that might make some shudder, any and all enemies of truth, even the most powerful political figures and institutions. This was his norm in public as well as in private life. As he once remarked, "If Cabinets have their politics, I have mine, too. And my politics is: 'Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.’"

Man of prayer

All who lived with him testified that he was a man of profound prayer, a man habitually steeped in converse with God and contemplation of things divine. In the midst of the myriad preoccupations of his pontificate he found time for long hours to be spent before the Blessed Sacrament, whether in the daytime or at night. This spirit of prayer was conjoined to his pastoral sense. As Aubert has noted, "Notable were his touching simplicity, his great goodness, his serene courage in adversity, his lively practical intelligence, and his fervor that aroused the admiration of all who saw him at prayer and corresponded with his intimate sentiments. Still more remarkable were his pastoral virtues, his care to act always as a priest, and even under the torment of the Roman Question to comport himself not as a sovereign defending his throne, but as a man of the Church cognizant of his responsibility before God for the defense of Christian values menaced by the rise of laicism, rationalism, and impiety."

From the earliest days of childhood he had been devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to the Immaculate Virgin, "the greatest grace of my pontificate", as he liked to describe her. He frequently employed the discipline and the hairshirt, was abstemious in food and drink, and never allowed himself more than five hours of sleep a day. As Pope, he did not disdain to preach like a simple priest, to administer the Sacraments in churches and hospitals, or, as in 1857, to travel to Umbria to convert, confess and absolve a man who, to all appearances, was a street criminal. More than fifty years ago, Carlo Prati chided those who would remove from the lives of the Popes "every activity in any way picturesque, individual or impromptu". He added that "If Gregory VII and Innocent III, Julius II, Leo X and Pius VII, indeed Pius IX himself until 1870 displayed their personality at every turn and therefore lived a life at once individual and original, it was because they constantly engaged in public life and maintained in unbroken contact with their subjects."

Love for all men

In this regard, Pius IX was characteristically openhearted, embracing all men, faithful followers and rebels, friends and enemies. He published a solemn decree of amnesty within one month of his election. A month before his death, learning that the King of Italy, who had confiscated the material goods of the Church, was near death, he exclaimed, "I will do everything in my power so that Victor Emmanuel may appear before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ with my pardon in hand". His goodness reached the heights of the extraordinary and heroic. His years at Spoleto and Imola were replete in outstanding public and private charity. His fraternal love knew no distinction of race, nationality, or religion. One day, while passing through the Jewish ghetto in Rome, he saw a poor man lying unconscious in the street, a multitude of bystanders looking on and making no effort to assist him. The Pope ordered his carriage to stop, and he alighted. Someone in the crowd shouted: "Holiness, leave him alone, he's a Jew!" The Pope responded in a severe tone: "Is it possible, perhaps, that a Jew is not our neighbor?" He then ordered the man lifted into his carriage, took him to the hospital, and there left an offering to cover the expenses. The same charity was evidenced in the course of the cholera epidemic of 1867. When he visited the soldiers of Garibaldi who were being held prisoners in Castel Sant'Angelo, he moved them to tears with his remark, "Lo, my friends, here before you is the 'vampire of Italy,' as your general calls me; oh, why have you taken up arms against me, a poor old man?" He sent a message by word of mouth to Garibaldi in 1867: "Tell him that the old man he calls the 'vampire of the Vatican' has compassion for him and loves him, and proved it today by celebrating Holy Mass for him".

Sad years for the Church

The years of Pius IX's reign were years of universal and great sadness for the Church as he stood virtually helpless in the face of a political situation which daily grew worse; partially due to the intensifying onslaughts against religion and morality at every level, partially owing to the utter confusion and social retrogression resultant upon the intestine and petty squabbling of the various political factions within the Italian State. Although he showed himself openminded to the cause of Italian unity, he wouldnot make war against Austria. Consequently, the Quirinal Palace was attacked by revolutionaries and Pius IX withdrew to Gaeta in the Kingdom of Naples, returning to Rome after its occupation by the French in 1849. From the time of his return in 1850, the temporal power of the papacy declined, until with the sacking of Rome by Victor Emmanuel on the infamous day of September 20th, 1870, the Pope became a virtual prisoner within the Vatican.

But if the Pope proved himself an exemplar of Christlike goodness and charity, he also stood forth like a lion of undaunted firmness in the defense of the cause of Christ and His Church. Apart from the firmness he demonstrated with respect to the Italian situation, he was indomitable in his resolve to proceed with firmness against certain policies of Napoleon III, and made his loud and clear reply: "Non volumus, nonpossumus, non debemus"—"We willnot, we cannot, we must not." His strength in the face of the cruelty of Bismarck's Kulturkampf was highlighted when the political authority opposed the raising to the cardinalate of the Archbishop of Poznan, Monsignor Mieczyslaw Halka Ledochowski, who later became Prefect of the Propaganda.His celebrated retort to Bismarck was: "Tell Bismarck that he is a power that will pass away, we are a power that remains forever."

Pius IX died in Rome on February 7th, 1878, having ruled the Church of God for thirty-two years, the first Pope to equal and exceed the quarter-century that Peter governed the Church at Rome. He was entombed in a simple crypt of his own choosing in the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside-the-Walls. Though in the course of his reign as a temporal sovereign literally millions had passed through his hands, offices and dignities of every sort had been at his disposal, and his family was noble and in easy circumstances, still the fortune which he bequeathed to his heirs did not come to a half a million lire. This entire freedom from nepotism offers a striking proof of the moral ascent and purification achieved by the papacy in the course of the ages and crowned in his example.

His life had been filled with disappointments and sadness. He had suffered daily treachery, insult, and persecution. In retrospect, the impartial historian will judge him one of the greatest pontiffs of all time, worthy to stand beside Gregory VII for his fearless and heroic constancy, beside Pius VII for his untold sufferings, and beside Pius X for his personal sanctity of life. And, without a doubt, Pius XI, who resolved the Roman Question, gained much strength from the example of his predecessor, which in no small measure encouraged him through the trying years before the ratification of the Lateran Treaty.

Striking spiritual success

Since the death of Pio Nono numerous favours have been ascribed to his intercession in both the physical and spiritual order. On the vigil of the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Marian Year of 1954, Pope Pius XII approved the introduction of the Apostolic Process for his beatification.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church,surely an objective source, notes that "Though an apparent failure from a political point of view, the pontificate of Pius IX was one of striking success in its spiritual and ecclesiastical achievements". This, of course, is quite true, as his successors in the Chair of Peter have had reason to attest with gratitude.

It is time, surely, that the pontificate of Pius IX should be revisited, not to deduce all sorts of arguments against the things he did, but rather to face simply and plainly the fact that in him history presents an extraordinary man who will not in character and personality be lent to facile exploitation in a series of posthoc, ergo propter hoc theorems. One need only go to his writings and pronouncements, including countless addresses to audiences of every variety, his Encyclicals and other Apostolic missives, as well as non-public communications. It is necessary to sift the wheat from the chaff, to commence to study without professorial preconceptions, for Pio None's greatest hours are at once hours of paradox and deprivation, hours of deep spiritual refinement and, even at times, of mystic exaltation. In the last third of our twentieth century his pontificate and his writings should be of special interest, for they deal very much with the question of revolution, terrorism, political opportunism, militant atheism, corruption of faith, morals, and culture, scandal to the young, murder in the streets and a generally moribund liberalism-rationalism, whose death throes seem forever to be postponed. Though he would have been the first to disclaim it (and he does in one of his addresses), Pius IX appears very much like John the Baptist, truly a voice crying in the wilderness. His outspokenness, even after a hundred years, is refreshing. His sense of humour and undoubted gifts of oratory, as well as a profound openheartedness and familiarity, make him come alive and beam splendidly.

Quite apart from theological and political questions, volumes could be filled with the true stories and the legends that so abound in humour. One small anecdote will suffice in this regard. In his last several years, physical pain aggravated the heavy burden of his mental anguish. He was tormented by varicose veins and walking became altogether very difficult and painful. Through it all he maintained his serenity and a sparkling wit. He was requested one day on behalf of a distinguished Catholic lady (who, it is said, had already canonized him in her mind) to be so gracious as to give her a few pairs of his old stockings, for the stockings, she contended, that had touched the Pope must certainly possess the power to work miracles and, of course, cure her of her rheumatism. "Surely" Pius IX responded with amusement, "she is welcome to all my old stockings, if she wants them, but I forewarn her they will work no miracles, otherwise they should have begun by curing my varicose veins!"

Denounced communism

Alas, to some critics, Pius IX is a convenient figure on whom to pin every possible allusion of excess and backwardness. One would think that he had written nothing other than the Syllabus, which continues to burn modern ears as it did in his own day. But even in this, one must see everything in clear context as a worthy device classically—and dramatically—utilized by Papa Mastai-Ferrettito assail precise errors. Therein matters concerned with Church-State relations must be viewed, first of all, in terms of a particular tradition in which Pius IX had freely, deliberately and unequivocally placed himself, as well as in terms of the drastic conditions in which the Church and society at-large found itself in his day. He would, however, prove to be comprehending of particular application of his viewpoint in a given instance as made, say, by a Newman, or a Dupanloup. But what is most important, and must be clearly and determinedly underlined, is that the essential evils condemned by Pius IX remain essential evils. Oftentimes, too, his attitude on religious indifferentism is looked upon as xenophobic, but it must not be forgotten that a certain valid irenicism characterized his own spirit and in a practical manner he was no laggard in this regard, having invited the Orthodox bishops to take their place in the Vatican Council, an invitation which, for various reasons, was declined.

Harsh criticisms

Likewise, we must see his denunciation of Communism, secret societies, Freethinking, for what such have proven to be, namely, totally at variance with, if not inimical to, the Catholic Christian Faith. That is why, too, it would hardly be historically honest to say that now his views should have an apology appended to them, or shelved as somehow embarrassing. In fact, quite to the contrary, these can be studied with great profit for, as matters are viewed with greater objectivity, it is possible to note that things have not changed all that much, and that the Church and society face much the same ferment, though on a grander, more intensified scale.

Last but not least, Pio None's simple piety, not without sentiment, but never sentimental, tells us much about his fatherly goodness and righteous indignation, his forgiveness and correction: all together a mosaic that is the best portrait of his sparkling personality and gracious character. From him we have much to learn; because of him there is much for which to be thankful to his and our Lord.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 February 1978, page 9

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