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from issue no. 04 - 2006

A Spanish aristocrat at the side of Pope Sarto

The work in the Secretariat of State of Raffaele Merry del Val, which overlapped perfectly with the eleven years of Pius X’s pontificate, was so much a part of the government of the Venetian Pope that in some matters the historians struggle to distinguish between the work of the superior and that of his minister

by Gianpaolo Romanato

Above, the first page of L’Osservatore Romano of 9 August 1903, the day of the coronation of Pius X; left, a shot of Saint Peter’s Square in early 1900s; above, in the center of the photo, Cardinal Merry del Val

Above, the first page of L’Osservatore Romano of 9 August 1903, the day of the coronation of Pius X; left, a shot of Saint Peter’s Square in early 1900s; above, in the center of the photo, Cardinal Merry del Val

Two very different personalities, Pius X and Raffaele Merry del Val, his Secretary of State. The former was born in 1835 in the Venetian countryside. His father was a minor clerical worker in the Austrian administration, his mother illiterate. He experienced poverty, passed his life between country presbyteries and provincial curias, far from the limelight, from fashionable society, from the drawing rooms and corridors of power. The latter, born in London in 1865 into a wealthy family of European nobility, at home among ambassadors and crowned heads (his father was Spanish representative in London, Brussels, Vienna, Rome), multilingual, he had the privilege of being accepted into the Academy of Pontifical Diplomacy when not yet ordained priest. Immediately launched into Vatican diplomacy, he became a bishop at thirty-five and a cardinal at thirty-nine.
They had only two things in common: a rock-like faith in God and unlimited devotion to the Church. What was sufficient to cement a relationship of collaboration and mutual esteem that is without equal in the history of the Church. The work in the Secretariat of State of Raffaele Merry del Val, which overlapped perfectly with the eleven years (1903-1914) of Pius X’s pontificate, (it is the only case in the list of thirty-four successive Secretaries of State from 1800 to today) was so much a part of the government of the Venetian Pope that in some matters the historians struggle to distinguish between the work of the superior and that of his minister.
The doubt is to do with the role played by Merry del Val: executor or inspirer? A question probably badly put, both because the functioning of the government structure of the Holy See leads the decision-making back to the Pope in any case, and because historians are finding out that Pius X exercised much greater control over his subordinates than had been previously thought. Then if one considers their age difference, thirty years exactly, it seems even less persuasive to think of a pontiff “manipulated” by his young collaborator. We can add that the extraordinary devotion of Merry for Pius X (he was the origin of the petition initiating the process of canonization; on the 20th of each month, the day of the Pope’s death, he celebrated a mass for the repose of his soul; he asked to be buried «as close as possible to my beloved Father and Pontiff Pius X») makes the hypothesis even more improbable. It is more credible to think that there was full understanding between the Venetian pope and his minister on the shaping criteria for the politics of the Church, ad intra and ad extra. So, they reasoned in unison and operated together.
Raffaele Merry del Val grew up in England, where his father was Spanish ambassador, then in Belgium and then once again in England. A sincere vocation to the priesthood, mediated by the Jesuits, came to him early. Arriving in Rome at twenty to complete his training in the Pontifical Scottish College, he there began one of the most dazzling careers in all of ecclesiastic history. Leo XIII in fact placed him in the Academy of Pontifical Diplomacy, made him a monsignor when he was not yet a priest (he would be ordained in 1888) and used him for diplomatic missions to England and Germany. The mastery of the main European languages was certainly not enough to justify so much attention. Obviously the scion of the distinguished English family Merry, of Irish descent, and of the even more illustrious Spanish house of the del Val, must have shown proof of abilities beyond the ordinary.
After his degree at the Gregorian he became one of the most influential and heeded personages in pontifical Rome, especially in regard to the question of Anglicanism. A perfect knowledge of the milieu and the language, frequent crossing of the English Channel and the esteem of Cardinal Vaughan conferred great authority on him. Charged by Leo XIII with the thorny question of Anglican ordinations, he led the Holy See to the negative response that would be made official in the Bull Apostolicae Curae, which he drafted. On the basis of a procedure by then three hundred years old, Leo XIII confirmed the «nullity» of «ordinations carried out under the Anglican rite», thereby denying the apostolic succession of its bishops. The rapprochement of the Anglicans with the Catholics, which had been underway for some time, thus encountered a great obstacle to progress, while the young prelate gained credit as spokesman for a line of doctrinal austerity alternative to the political one of Cardinal Rampolla.
Raffaele Merry del Val

Raffaele Merry del Val

The following year he carried out a long mission to Canada, in the role of apostolic delegate. Caught up in the dispute between the opposite temptations of entrenchment and yielding the young local Catholics were inundating Rome with requests for help. Merry kept the balance there, especially in regard to the problem of Catholic schools in Manitoba, and was given public recognition by the Pope in the encyclical Affari vos (December 1897). In amicable words, Leo wrote that «our apostolic delegate has perfectly and faithfully performed what we sent him to do». On his return to Rome, he was made head of the Academy of Pontifical Diplomacy and nominated bishop. He had made rapid progress in his career thanks to solid historico-legal study, an innate capacity of relating to anyone, and with the «promptness», as Benedict XV was then to say, with which he resolved problems. But it was known to all that the capable diplomat was a severe and austere priest, of an ascetic discipline in life.
An unforeseen circumstance made the final leap possible. When the Pope died in 1903 the prelate who carried out the function of Secretary of the Sacred College died also. Taken by surprise, the cardinals had no hesitation and asked Merry to substitute him. It was thus that the young Anglo-Spanish prelate (he was then thirty-eight years old) found himself managing director and a leading figure, even though only in an executive position, in the most dramatic conclave in modern history: that of the Austrian veto and of the clash between the bloc of French cardinals and the Austro-Germanic-Polish front. The candidacy of Cardinal Rampolla, who had been Leo’s Secretary of State for sixteen years, got demolished in the clash, and the Francophile line, anti-Italian and against the Triple Alliance, was soundly defeated. Even though he had no right to vote, Merry was at the center of the whole event, as his diary, recently published by Luciano Trincia, shows. It certainly didn’t escape him that the unexpected election of the Patriarch of Venice put an end to an entire cycle of Vatican politics: the policy that after 1870 had staked everything on the recovery of an international political role for the Holy See and at the restoration of temporal power.
Extraneous to the Curia, but well aware that he must fear it, Pius X, who before the conclave had never met Merry, identified him as the person capable of keeping it under control. He was well acquainted with it, but did not belong to the Rampolli group, and above all he was too young, too devoted to the papacy to stand against it. The words in which Pius X told him of his appointment, on the evening of the election itself, 4 August 1903, when the young bishop, having now performed his specific function, went to take leave of him, indicate the depths of his solitude: «I have not yet decided anything. I don’t know what to do. For the moment I have nobody. Remain with me as pro-secretary of State and then we’ll see». Two months were enough to persuade him that it was an inspired choice. On 18 October he nominated him Secretary of State and beforehand announced his appointment as cardinal. It was the second surprise of the pontificate, after his election: for the first time a non-Italian prelate, not yet a cardinal and not yet forty- years old, had become Secretary of State. The words in his praise from Pope Sarto on 11 November 1903, the day of the conferral of the red hat, were unusual enough to merit quoting in full: «The good fragrance of Christ, my Lord Cardinal, that you have everywhere spread, in your temporary residence also, and the multiple works of charity to which you have continuously dedicated yourself in the priestly offices, especially in this our city of Rome, have gained for you, with admiration, universal esteem». The Pontiff’s positive assessment was more of Merry’s moral world than of his capacities, referring to his charity work among the young people of the Trastevere area to which he gave himself ubsparingly.
The history of the pontificate of Pius X is known. Relations with foreign countries worsened all round, even to the point of rupture. The best known case is that of France, where in December 1905 a law separating Church and State was passed. Six years later it was turn of Portugal, which passed an even more brutal law. There were analogous tensions in various Latin American countries. The Pope didn’t do much to modify the course of events. He protested, wrote very strong encyclicals, but was very careful not to pursue diplomatic means.
In the French case, the law provided that what were known as the cultural associations, from which the ecclesiastic hierarchy was excluded, should adminster Church property, becoming an alternative pole to the bishops. The aim was obviously that of breaking up the hierarchic constitution of the Church, even though not everyone so perceived it. The Pope was perfectly well aware of the nub of issue and set himself firmly against it. It was nothing less than legal suicide, as was said, since the French Church, forced by Rome not to accept the law, (the Pontiff wrote three encyclicals dedicated to the French case in less than a year), lost its legal status and its entire patrimony along with it, including the very churches where the religious functions were daily celebrated. But it regained its freedom and the full control of episcopal nominations that had been earlier transferred to the State by the Napoleonic Concordat. The choice of Pius X (“between the ‘good’ and the ‘goods’ of the Church I chose the former”, the Pope is reputed to have said), who later gained the approval of Aristide Briand, the inspirer of the law («the Pope was the only one to see things clearly», he wrote), cancelled in one blow three centuries of Gallicanism, of national Church, bringing French Catholicism back, from the point of view of discipline, to full fidelity to Rome.
Pope Pius X blessing the pilgrims to the Vatican

Pope Pius X blessing the pilgrims to the Vatican

It was a fundamental turning point – «a sad and traumatizing event», as John Paul II described it in a letter to the French bishops, written last year, on the the centenary – which wrong-footed contemporaries and continues to divide historians, as one can see by comparing the positive judgment on the Pontiff’s work expressed by the Swiss scholar Martin Grichting at the conference on Pius X in Venice in May of last year (the proceedings are soon to be published by the Institute of Canon Law of the Patriarchal Seminary) and the much more cautious view of Giovanni Sale in Civiltà Cattolica of 5 November 2005. This was the occasion that brought out that anti-temporal idealism - as it has been defined - of the Church which, in the judgment of various scholars, was the revolutionary aspect of his pontificate, the true innovation in relations between the Church and the world.
With Pius X, in short, an entire epoch in the history of the Church came to an end, that of involvement in politics, of diplomatic intrigue, of belated links between thrones and altars, of bishops in top hats and cardinals of court, of opposition to certain countries and concessions to others. Different from his predecessor, he never engaged in “foreign politics”, he never attempted to weaken on the international front countries that were hostile to the Church, he never attempted to exploit to his own advantage the rivalries, the interests and the alliances of the various nations. And this line, which has not been given sufficient attention by the historians, was not a tactical withdrawal, but a precise strategic choice, as he said one day to Nicola Canali, then a young note-taker in the Curia: «You’re young, but you must always remember that the policy of the Church is that of not engaging in politics and of always following the straight and narrow path ».
Merry del Val backed this political approach loyally and with conviction, as he did the plans chosen for the renewal of the Church, from the abolition of the right of veto to the transformation of the Curia, to the codification of Canon Law. The reform of the Roman Curia, passed in 1908, directly concerned his jurisdiction, which was extended, but within a scheme of government in which the Secretary of State was only the penultimate of the five Vatican offices. In short, the Secretary was not the driving force of the Church of Pius X (something which would come about with the reform of Paul VI, sixty years later), but the eleven congregations, at the head of which was the Holy Office. Perhaps this is the reason why the role of Merry del Val overlapped almost to the point of fusion with that of the Pope, different from that of the two Secretaries of State, Rampolla, who preceded him, or Gasparri who succeeded him. Engaging in little or no foreign politics and paying attention to governing and renewing the Church, Pius X removed from the Secretariat of State much of the room for manoeuvre that had made it an autonomous agent and strengthened its connection to the papacy itself.
The cover of Le Petit Journal of March 1906, depicting the serious clash between the inhabitants of the Haute Loire and the authorities after the passing of the law on the separation of State and Church

The cover of Le Petit Journal of March 1906, depicting the serious clash between the inhabitants of the Haute Loire and the authorities after the passing of the law on the separation of State and Church

This bond became even closer during the course of the Modernist episode, till now considered by historians as the real sore point of Giuseppe Sarto’s pontificate. Much has been written about the issue and it is still one of the undecided questions about the doings of the Secretary of State himself. But whether Merry del Val was the leading player or had a secondary role, was executor or inspirer, does not seem decisive for judgement. What is decisive is the fact that he was fully participant in the anti-modernist line of the Pope, a convinced supporter of the need of blocking the demands for renewal. In his memoirs Ernesto Buonaiuti does not spare broadsides against the «enigmatic and sinister» Spanish cardinal, against his «hauteur and pomposity ». They are harsh judgements, the outcome also of the personal bitterness of the person expressing them. But at a hundred years’ remove they represent important evidence on the role then exercised by the cardinal and his office.
It was inevitable that a Secretary of State so closely identified with the Pontiff he had served should not be confirmed by his successor. As soon as he was elected pope, on 3 September 1914, Benedict XV nominated Cardinal Ferrara, who died almost immediately, and then Pietro Gasparri: Merry del Val received treatment that had been reserved ten years before for his predecessor Rampolla: he became Secretary of the Holy Office (the prefecture of the Congregation was then reserved to the Pontiff), a position he held up to his sudden death on 26 February 1930, following on an operation for appendicitis.
Those sixteen years must have been difficult, especially the early ones, those of the pontificate of Giacomo della Chiesa, a man whom Merry del Val did not like, though respecting him, and by whom he was not liked, even though respected. The diary of Carlo Monti, an Italian diplomat who was very close to Pope Benedict, published by Antonio Scotta, reports the story that the cardinal’s residence, the small villa in Santa Marta, the “little Vatican”, as it was known, was the meeting place and center out of which discontent about the successor to Pius X made its way into the world. The Pope knew of it but was unconcerned («what can they do?» he’s supposed to have replied, without losing his composure, to those who warned him). Thus the good name of the Spanish cardinal outlived him and in 1953, during the pontificate of Pius XII, who had indeed begun his career under him, a process of canonization was initiated for him also, simultaneously with the glorification of Pius X, proclaimed blessed in 1951 and saint in 1954. But after the death of Pope Pacelli and the beginning of the conciliar season nobody has since spoken of raising the Spanish cardinal to the altars.

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