It was 1881 and Italy’s Prime Minister was a Freemason named Agostino Depretis.1 Said to possess “an instinctive prejudice” against Christianity, Depretis championed a free press - except when priests tried to publicly criticize his government. Consequently, the Vatican thought it prudent to move the coffin at night.
A modest procession quietly left the Vatican basilica with lanterns and candles lighting the way for the dead pope's coffin trip to the San Lorenzo basilica. They were soon accosted by a group called “a well-known band of bad men” bent on heaving the coffin into the Tiber River. The reigning pontiff at the time, Leo XIII, remarked:
“as their numbers and audacity increased so they went on increasing in their efforts to create tumult and terror... they uttered the most atrocious blasphemies... the funeral cortege was hemmed in by crowds of angry men...again and again they attacked the procession with volleys of stones or with blows…again and again hurled a shower of stones at the hearse, crying out repeatedly that the unburied body should be cast forth…This shameful scene lasted all through the long route, during the space of two hours.”2
The "bad men" were Freemasons.3 The coffin contained the corpse of Leo’s predecessor, Pope Pius IX. Reaction to the September 3 2000 beatification of Pius IX proved that despite the passage of a century Pio Nono (his nick name) remains as well hated as ever. Time magazine, the Washington Post, and the New York Times were negative to the point of bitterness in their coverage of Pius’ beatification. “These are dismal times for Catholicism,” warned the London Financial Times, calling the beatification a “tragic mystery,” and characterizing Pius as “dripping with vanity.” After vilifying reigning pope John Paul II as an arch-reactionary, the grimly hysterical article concluded by calling for his resignation.4
Critics in Europe took their cue from a daylong seminar held by an Italian Jewish organization5 that threatened to break off dialogue with post-conciliar peace brokers in the Vatican. Another Jewish organ, the magazine Shalom, called Pius a “womanizer,” a “gambler”, “arrogant,” “cruel”, and a “sinister” figure.”6
Time magazine spoke of Pius IX’s “ham-fisted treatment of the Jews,”7 a reference, perhaps, to Pius’ involvement in the controversial Mortara case. In 1858 six year old Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy living in the Papal States, was taken from his family to be raised Catholic, after it was discovered that the boy, when seriously ill as a baby, had been secretly baptized by the Mortara family’s Catholic servant. Despite an international uproar over the event, Pius IX refused to order the return of young Edgardo to his family. In fact, he took a special interest in the boy, who grew up to become a priest, and spent much of his adult life trying to convert Jews.
Mortara’s great-great niece, Elena, joined hundreds of other Jews who came to Rome to protest on the night before Pius’ beatification. The next day, in his beatification sermon, John Paul II remarked:
“By beatifying one of its sons, the Church does not celebrate particular historical choices he made, but rather points him out for imitation and veneration for his virtues and praising the divine grace that shines in them.”8
These remarks, The Jerusalem Post reported, were “met with regret in Israel over its insensitivity to Jewish concerns.” The Post went on to express a marked preference for that “righteous gentile,” John XXIII, also beatified, over the villainous Pio Nono, who, according to the Post, was not merely “an extreme anti-Semite,” but “a rigid traditionalist”9 to boot.
Joining the chorus were Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx, and seventeen other prominent Vatican II theologians who, in the journal Concilium, denounced Pius IX for being against “reform,” and for being mean to the Jews. And the international organization We Are Church proclaimed the beatification of Pius IX “disgraceful.” 10
So things haven’t changed much since that dark night in Rome over a century ago: Pius’ enemies are still trying to throw him in the river. Talk about sore winners. The Revolution drove Pius IX from Rome, took the Papal States and much other Church property, and ended up taking Rome itself from the Church. The twentieth century saw more success: an Ecumenical Council proclaimed as “the French Revolution in the Church,” by the progressive Council Fathers, and a “counter-Syllabus” by Cardinal Ratzinger. What more could be hoped for?
It seems Pius’ enemies don’t realize they have won; or, perhaps, they sense maybe they really haven’t won. For when Pius’ body was exhumed last year prior to his beatification, his body was found to be “almost perfectly preserved,” his face exuding a “striking serenity.”11 His body was placed in a crystal casket for all to see.
Incorruption is one of many signs of predilection bestowed upon Blessed Pope Pius IX. His patron was the Blessed Virgin Mary, and his papacy – the longest in history - was part of the remarkable influence many claim that Mary exercised in the nineteenth century. In Europe secret societies like Freemasonry sought to suppress Christianity. Opposing the anti-Christian revolution was the Catholic Church, particularly Blessed Pius IX, of whom his biographer, E.E.Y. Hales, concludes:
“It was Pio Nono’s fate, after travelling, with sympathy, in his earlier years, more than half way to meet the Revolution, to be compelled, though not naturally a fighter, to turn and withstand its pretensions. It was his glory that he confronted the tempest without flinching, and was faithful to the end.”12
As Pius himself put it, during one of the innumerable crises during his thirty-two year pontificate: “I have the Blessed Virgin with me, I shall press on undeterred.”13 Since one of the titles of Mary is Destroyer of Heresies, perhaps it was her intercession that helped Pius wrestle so mightily and for so long against the Revolution. It is hoped this brief examination of the life and times of Pius IX will illuminate this point. I will also examine some of the serious charges made about Blessed Pius IX by placing his words and deeds in their historical context - something seldom done in the English language.
1 See Denis Mack Smith, Italy, A Modern History, Revised Edition, The University Of Michigan Press, 1969, p. 222, where the non-Catholic Smith describes Depretis’ (not his real name) policies as reflecting “an instinctive prejudice against” the Church.
2. Right Rev. Bernard O’Reilly, The Life of Pope Leo XIII, From His Personal Memoirs, The John C. Winston Company, 1903, pp. 440-442.
3 Inside The Vatican, March 2000, p. 51.
4 London Financial Times, September 8, 2000. The article, in all its melodramatic, semi-coherent glory, is worth a read.
5 Called Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities. Their presentation in June 2000, in Rome, was entitled “Pius IX, the Church and the Jews, Between Religion and Politics in the Risorgimento Era.”
6 As quoted by Inside The Vatican, August-September 2000, p. 71.
7 Time Magazine, September 4, 2000.
8 The Jerusalem Post, September 4, 2000.
9 The Jerusalem Post, September 5, 2000.
10 Inside The Vatican, August-September 2000, p. 73.
11 As reported in Newsweek, September 4, 2000.
12 E.E.Y. Hales, Pio Nono, Creator of the Modern Papacy, P.J. Kennedy &N Sons, New York, 1954, p. 331.
13 CRC September 2000, online edition, p. 1.