Few in Imola mistook Bishop Mastai for a religious liberal, much less a Freemason. He was well liked by most, even loved by some. A consistent discovery in researching Pius IX is how everyone, friend and foe alike, remarked on his striking personal appearance, and personality:
“He lived with us as though he were one of us,” wrote a seminarian about his bishop, “understanding our weaknesses…and managing to make us love his gentle gravity and respect his lovable kindness. Simply the thought of him made us behave well.”1
An associate recalled that Mastai’s face,
“with its expression of goodness, intelligence and dispassionateness, makes a pleasant impression; his features, which it would be an understatement to describe as kindly, have nothing common or trivial about them, the overall effect being one of great dignity. The natural shape of the mouth is enhanced by a detail which only a very careful observer will notice: his habit of living for others and the sustained attention he pays to the various personalities and ideas that come before him have given his upper lip a nervous oscillation which lends an inexpressible grace to his smile.”2
There is no record of Joseph Mazzini being one of the personalities that came to Bishop Mastai’s "sustained attention" in Imola. Yet Mazzini was there all the while, plotting revolution in Romagna with his new organization, “Young Italy,”3 a secret society that was a knock off of the Carbonari - the most influential Masonic group in Italy. Mazzini had been a Carbonari during the , to whom Mazzini belonged during the revolts of 1831.4
If Mazzini owed an organizational debt to the Carbonari, he owed a debt of ideas to French priest Felicite de Lammenais. The two were comrades for several years until Mazzini became disillusioned when, in his view, Lammenais did not apostasize from the Church far enough.
Along with Lord Palmerston and the House of Rothschild, Mazzini is usually portrayed by Churchmen as the darkest of all the dark geniuses (according to the Church's color scheme) arrayed against the Church in the nineteenth century. Not that Mazzini was shy about thinning his own ranks: it was widely assumed he assassinated Nubius, the leader of the Alta Vendita, the highest Carbonari lodge in Italy. The murder was simply business as usual, since the by-laws of Mazzini’s Young Italy explicitly mention assassination, execution, and the wreaking of implacable vengeance in a matter of fact manner.6
"Having wrenched the scepter of the dark Empire from that body, (Mazzini) continued with consummate ability to direct the revolutions of Europe,”5 was the view of a Church historian. Although nothing ever proceeds that smoothly, Mazzini at least had his hands on the levers. His secret plans for violent revolution belied his public rhetoric about his “Faith In Humanity.” In this religion, which Mazzini believed would replace Christianity, “Humanity is the only Messiah.”7
If Bishop Mastai never made Mazzini’s personal acquaintance in Romagna, he would know him well enough later. Halfway through Mastai’s stint at Imola, Anna Maria Taigi died in Rome. During the last years of her life “she beheld in the fullest detail the conspiracies of the secret societies, particularly as directed against the head of the Church and the superior ranks of the clergy.”8
She gave herself over to physical mortifications and penances so relentless they hastened her death. She became a victim soul in response to the visions she saw in her sun, visions that now horrified her. “Rome battered by revolution,” millions dying “by the sword in war and civil strife, other millions in unforeseen death.” Even worse were the spiritual chastisements:
“She saw the earth enveloped in flame; darkness covering it; immense edifices flung down; the earth and the heavens as it were in agony…She saw lightning, and in the midst of the lightning laymen falling into the abyss, (along with) ecclesiastical dignitaries and also priests and men and women of religious orders…(One day) she looked into her sun and saw the destiny of those who had died during that day. Very few, not as many as ten, went straight to heaven; many remained in purgatory, and those cast into hell were as numerous as flakes of snow in mid-winter.”9
These visions have a timeless quality to them that evoke other prophecies over the centuries: the end times of St. Francis of Assisi; the three days darkness of St. Padre Pio; the fiery visions from Akita, Japan; and of course the visions associated with the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima, where souls were also described as snowflakes falling into hell. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church there have been many violent visions of the end times. Often these visions come from saints, who see the Earth devoid of faith and suffering all manner of strife and torment prior to Christ's second coming.
Whether Anna Maria was seeing the present, the future, both, or neither, is difficult to say. She died an old, worn out, remarkably peaceful woman. Years earlier she had seen Pope Gregory’s successor, a young priest in Chile. After describing his physical appearance, she foretold that this young priest would take the name Pius IX, and that “This gentle and benevolent pontiff will be favored by special light and guidance from heaven…in the latter years of his life he will possess the gift of miracles…”10
Pope Gregory died 9 years after Anna Maria, in 1846. An unyielding opponent of the Revolution, Freemasonry, liberalism, and freedom of the press, Gregory was vilified – after his death - even within the Church; not for what he opposed, but for the violence with which he dealt with unrest in the Papal States. Given the continual political unrest in Rome and the States, the conclave to elect Gregory's successor began before all the foreign cardinals arrived. It was thought best to elect a new pope quickly. Cardinal Mastai boarded his carriage and began a jolting, jarring trip on the rutted road to Rome.
The carriage stopped in the small market town of Fossombrone. It was a hot, dusty day, and the Cardinal wanted to rest. A crowd gathered, and there was much speculation about the upcoming conclave. Finally Mastai blessed everyone, and entered his carriage. As the story goes, a flash of white descended from the sky and landed atop the carriage. It was a white dove. For the crowd it was an unmistakable sign from Heaven. Immediately shouts of “Ecco il Papa! Viva il Papa!” ("Behold the Pope," "Long Live the Pope") arose with the cloud of dust stirred up by the departing carriage. Witnesses said the dove remained perched on the carriage roof until it was out of sight.
Mastai missed the whole thing. He remained unsuspecting until the conclave elected him on June 16, 1946. The result also surprised the cardinals. For a moment the new pope lost his composure and wept. Then he gathered himself, and strode onto the balcony at the Quirinal Palace to give the waiting crowd his first blessing. A shout went up: “Quanto e bello!” How handsome he is!” Even an enemy would remark upon:
“…the clear, musical voice of Mastai, whose name henceforth was to be absorbed into that of Pio Nono…the fair, comely face with a ray of beatified light upon it as his hand was uplifted to bless the tens of thousands in the Piazza below; a very God on earth he seemed for the moment, and as such to be worshipped on bended knee.”11
That is the constant tendency of the Revolution: worshiping man instead of God. When man is found wanting he is cannibalized – all in the name of the rights of man. Later popes would figure out how to compromise with the Revolution in order to keep churches open and contribute to the common good. Pius IX's role was to make clear the differences between the church of the nineteenth century and the Revolution. He did this so well for so long that even centuries later ideological enemies of Pio Nono cannot suffer the Church honoring Pius IX for his work.
The drama of Pius IX's papacy unfolded like a passion play over three decades. In the eyes of the Revolution, Pio Nono was an insufferable reactionary who opposed progress at every turn. In punishment, the Revolution took away almost everything material that belonged to Rome. One other unspoken sin deserving of punishment may have been this: Pius held up a mirror for all the world to see the true face of the Revolution, and at times the Revolution could not suffer its own visage.
1 CRC September 2000, online edition.
3 Hales, op. cit., p. 37.
4 Carlton H.H. Hayes, The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism, Richard R. Smith, Inc., New York, 1931, pp. 151-154.
5 Dillon, op. cit., pp. 50-51.
6 Ibid., p. 65.
7 See Bessieres, op. cit., p. 235. This was not the faith of his childhood. Mazzini was raised a Catholic by his Jansenist mother. As an adult he claimed to believe in a transcendent God and a distinct heaven, but these beliefs do not appear to have made a significant difference in his life.
8 Edward Healy Thompson, M.A., The Life of the Venerable Anna Maria Taigi, The Roman Matron, Fr. Pustet & Co., New York and Cincinnati, 1883, p. 304.
9 Bessiere, op. cit., pp. 166-7, 178, 184-5.
10 Rev. Richard Brennan, Life of Pope Pius IX, (Benziger Brothers, 1878, pp. 72-3.
11 Frances Minto Elliot, Roman Gossip, Leipzig Bernhard Tanchnitz, 1896, p. 43.