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Sunday, 2 November 2014

Pope Pius IX - years 1863-1869. 'Miracle' of St Agnes Basilica, and 'The Mortara affair'.

 In May 1863 Pius IX undertook a journey to the provinces of the south of Latium, also called the Ciociaria, visiting towns which he had not previously visited,  both as Supreme Pastor  to his flock  , and to reaffirm his temporal rights over territories which Italy was coveting,  In the space of ten days he visited nine of the region’s principle towns, meeting delegations from both town and country. He also arranged for Papal troops, together with the French troops stationed in Rome, to take whatever  action was necessary to curb the banditry by wandering Neapolitan brigands active in those areas.


In September 1864 the French and Italian governments concluded a secret agreement to deal with the Roman question, an agreement which precluded Pope Pius IX, the principal party concerned.
This agreement, aimed ultimately at the unification of Italy, included a stipulation that the Italian government ‘would not  attack the Holy Father’s present territory, and would obstruct if necessary by force, any attack coming from outside the territory’; also it would ‘bear the cost of a proportion of the debts of the former ecclesiastical states’. France, for its part, would gradually withdraw her troops from the Papal States within the space of two years.

 Meanwhile the Pope was fully occupied in attempting to re-establish the Italian hierarchy decimated by the various annexations of the Papal States. A total of nine bishops or archbishops had been brought to trial and condemned, thirty others had been tried and acquitted, five others had been banished from their dioceses and held in Turin, and forty-one had chosen the path of exile. Added to this number were tens of dioceses lacking a bishop, either because the Italian government was refusing to allow the consecrated bishops to take possession of their sees, or because the nominations, which initially depended on the civil authorities, had not been made.
 In April 1865 as a result of a written request from the Pope to King Victor Emmanuel, two envoys  arrived in Rome from Turin, to discuss this matter with Cardinal Antonelli. Initially the discussion progressed well, but then contrary to earlier promises, the envoys insisted that all new bishops must swear an oath of loyalty to the King. The Holy See, which did not recognise the legitimacy of the Kingdom of Italy, could not accept this, and the talks collapsed.
The proponents of Italian unity, Mazzini, Cavour, and Garibaldi, were Freemasons, and at this time Italian Freemasonry was attempting to unify its disparate groups.  The failure of the Venezzi mission   persuaded the Pope that Freemasonry was an increasingly influential and dangerous threat, and in an allocution in  September 1865 he  strongly condemned  “this perverse society of men, commonly called Masonic, which initially existed in shadows and in obscurity, has finally come out into the light of day, to the ruin both of religion and of human society.” He dismissed as a grave error the claim that Freemasonry “has no other aim but to help people and succour them in adversity.” He went on, “What claims are made by this association of men of all religions and of all beliefs? What is the purpose of these clandestine meetings and this oath that is so strictly required of initiates, who commit themselves never to reveal anything about these matters? And what is the meaning of the terribly severe punishments incurred by initiates if they should fail to keep faith with their oath?” The Pope solemnly recalled the prohibition against Catholics taking part in these ‘baneful assemblies’ under pain of excommunication. 

                                                     Coat of Arms of Pope Pius IX (courtesy of Peter Crawford)

 In the following months various Masonic publications retaliated by  alleging that the Pope himself had been initiated as a young man into the Lodge of Palermo, or that  he had been initiated as a young priest at Philadelphia on his way back from Chile. Both unsubstantiated allegations were strongly denied.

                                                                                Pope Pius IX

 The question of Catholic participation in Italian political life became particularly acute once the Romagna, the Marches, and Umbria had been detached from the Pope and annexed. The question was whether Catholics should get themselves elected to the Italian parliament in order to try to counter-balance the influence of the anti-clericals, or would it be better for them  to abstain from all participation in political life, until the Roman question had been solved. Pius IX urged the latter course, recommending instead, working with the hierarchy and  setting up associations for the purpose of defending the Church and the interests of Catholics in all the domains; social, economic, cultural, and educational. This was particularly important  as the religious orders, who in the past had devoted their resources to charitable and educational tasks, found their work restricted or prohibited by the infamous ‘Law on the Convents’. (see earlier post).  One result of the Pope’s condemnation of freemasonry, was the significant growth  of the ‘Catholic Movement’, exemplified by various organisations of Catholic Action.

In 1866 Prussia and Italy allied in a war against Austria, in which the Austrian forces were subsequently defeated, with the kingdom of Italy then annexing Venetia. Meanwhile France continued to withdraw troops from Rome, a process that was complete by December of that year.
Italy was now in a strong position, and once again two envoys visited Rome to negotiate. They stayed until the following March, with the talks on this occasion proving fruitful for the  Pope, in that he was able to nominate thirty-seven bishops and archbishops, twenty in different Italian provinces including the sees of Turin and Milan, and seventeen in the dioceses of the Papal States. Additionally agreement was reached regarding the State taking on part of the public debt contracted by the Holy See for the territories that had been annexed, and the improvement of the railway system. These accords made it possible to remedy in part, the great distress existing in certain Italian dioceses. The envoy's request that the annexations should be recognised as legitimate, was firmly rejected.

                                                         'Feed my Lambs'  by Raphael. 
                             Christ appointing Peter as Head of His Church.

In June 1867 in Rome, the commemorations celebrating the eighteenth centenary of the martyrdom of  Saints Peter and Paul unfolded in a spirit of relative optimism. Pius IX wanted this commemoration to demonstrate the Church’s unity around the Chair of Peter, with all the Bishops of the world  invited, and the occasion marked by the canonisation of  several martyrs, confessors, and virgins. On the day, the Pope was surrounded by 46 Cardinals, all the oriental Patriarchs, almost 500 archbishops and bishops, 20,000 priests, and about 150,000 of the faithful. At the conclusion of the celebration, in an address to the bishops, the Pope officially announced that he would summon an Ecumenical Council, although no date was fixed.

About two months later, a so-called ‘Peace Congress’ took place in Geneva involving various European revolutionary movements. The guest of honour was Garibaldi, who in his  propositions, which  included ‘World government’ and ‘Pacifism’, revealed his hatred of the Church, stating:-
‘We declare that the Papacy, the most noxious of sects, has fallen’;
‘The priesthood of ignorance and revelations must be replaced by the priesthood of enlightenment, truth and justice.’
 And in his final address:-
'There will be no improvement until priest-craft is defeated’. 
Interestingly, the Congress had to wind up in a hurry as the Swiss authorities became alarmed at the threatening tenor of the meetings, to the extent that they would have intervened had the Congress continued.

In October the same year, Garibaldi assembled a volunteer army in Florence, invaded the Papal States and gained possession of Monte Rotondo. In Rome his men exploded a large bomb in a barracks of the papal Zouaves, killing twenty-seven people. By early November Garibaldi’s troops had taken possession of Viterbo and were threatening the north of Rome, but were then defeated by a combination of Papal and French troops at the battle of Mentana. The towns of Viterbo and Monte Rotondo, abandoned by Garibaldi’s troops, were soon re-occupied, and the French and Papal Zouaves returned to Rome where they received a victor’s welcome.

                                                                    Battle of Mentana 1867

The Pope was well aware that one victory does not win a war, particularly a war going far beyond the frontiers of Italy, a spiritual as well as  territorial war waged against the Church by her enemies. For the Pope, the defence of his temporal sovereignty was driven more by religious motives than political, for his temporal sovereignty made possible the free exercise of his spiritual mission. In his view those hostile to his temporal sovereignty were in league with the Church’s adversaries.

For the Pope, unity within the Church centred around the Holy See, was of prime importance. In June1868, when addressing  the Cardinals who had come to Rome for the anniversary of his election, he said:-
    “The struggle between good and evil is as old as the world, and this struggle has followed the Church in her development down the centuries. We see this intense struggle before our very eyes, here in Italy, where profanations, spoliations, and insults succeed one another without interruption. It is most intense against Rome, which evil men have targeted. Here Satan is bending all his strength to destroy the centre of Catholic unity, in order to set up the centre of abomination. Yet this ceaseless, pitiless war has produced a salutary reaction in our favour. People of high aspirations have come over to our side; all good men are coming forward in our defence. Every day we are visited by priests and bishops from the remotest lands. They come here seeking light and strength at the tomb of the Apostles. This light and this strength are indeed here, in the Holy City.”

In April 1869,  Pius IX celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his priestly ordination, with guests and visitors from across Europe. The ceremonies and festivities lasted for several days, and included  solemn High Mass in St Peter’s; a banquet for 1500 people- including the exiled King and Queen of Naples;  the Pope celebrating Mass at  the hospice where he had said his first Mass; and a visit to the Basilica of St Agnes in memory of the miracle of April 12, 1855. The celebrations ended with the Pope addressing the Catholic Association of Italian Youth:- ”I am with you, and you are with me. Together we must fight against error, we must confront our enemies and try to extirpate the poison from their hearts, and shield those who have not yet been affected."

This emphasis on the importance of unity was repeated in his allocutions to the faithful, both religious and lay, in the months leading up to the Vatican Council:- “ Be united and then you will be strong, strong against hell and against those evil men who attack you and what you are bound to defend and bound to love, namely justice, truth, the Church, the Holy See’
 (to be continued)

 (Ack. 'Pope Pius IX, the Man and the Myth' by Yves Chiron. Published by Angelus Press)


Miracle at the Basilica of St Agnes, April 12, 1855.

A few words on the miracle of April 12, 1855, at the Basilica of St Agnes. (courtesy of

                   Miracle of the Basilica of St Agnes, Rome. April 12, 1855.

Extract from the New York Times of 13 April 1905:
ROME, April 12. -- an interesting ceremony took place this morning in the Basilica of St Agnes, 2 miles outside of Rome. The building stands over the catacombs, where among others, the body of St Agnes is buried.
While Pius IX on April 12, 1855 was receiving the College of the Propaganda in the Basilica, the floor gave way and all present were precipitated into the catacombs, 20 feet below. Nobody was injured, and this, by some persons, was considered a miracle.
The only living survivors of the accident are the Rev. Dr. Richard L. Burtsell of Rondout, N.Y., and Archbishop Rubian, the resident representative of the Armenians in Rome (both young seminarians at the time). In the Basilica this morning Dr. Burtsell celebrated High Mass and Archbishop Rubian intoned the Te Deum and bestowed the benediction on the members of the College of the Propaganda.
The Pope later in the day received Dr. Burtsell and Archbishop Rubian. The Pontiff took the occasion to speak of Pius IX. He says that many persons were urging him to begin the informative process towards his canonisation.
"Miracle of the Basilica of St Agnes," the Pope continued, "is one of the events which will be brought forward to establish the fact that Pius IX performs miracles. It is a good thing that there are living witnesses to give evidence."

"The Mortara Affair"
It also seems appropriate to mention here what became known as the ‘Mortara Affair’, in which Pope Pius IX was accused of abuse of power in his capacity as sovereign of the Papal States.
Edgardo Mortara Levi was born on 26 August 1851 to a Jewish family in Bologna. Contravening both the laws of the Papal States and Jewish practice, his parents put him into the care of a young Christian domestic servant, Anna Morisi. In August 1852 the little Edgardo fell gravely ill, and as he appeared  in danger of death, the servant baptised him, but in secret, supposing that the parents would have been opposed. As soon as he received baptism, the little boy quickly recovered.
    This event remained unknown for several years, until Anna Morisi casually mentioned it to friends, who in turn told the Archbishop of Bologna who then instructed the Dominican Father Pier Feletti, the town Inquisitor, to investigate the matter. He concluded that the baptism had been validly carried out and that consequently, Edgardo had to be considered a son of the Church, which in turn needed to provide him with a Christian education.
    The parents refused this, and in June 1858 the Inquisitor ordered the Pontifical Gendarmerie to remove the boy from his family and to take him to the Roman Catechumenate in Rome, where he would remain under the protection of the Pope. The boy’s parents were allowed visitation rights.
    There was immediate public outcry, with influential liberal voices, newspapers, foreign ministries and Chancelleries, throughout Europe, seizing on the issue and using it to discredit the Church. They accused the authorities in Bologna, and also the Pope, of having violated the boy’s human rights as well as the demands of nature. The Italian, French, and above all the British government were particularly active.
    The Pontifical position was vigorously defended by the Catholic Press, and in particular Louis Veuillet, editor of L’Univers, who accused the British government of hypocrisy, having interned in Anglican orphanages the children of Catholic soldiers, both English and Irish, who had died in battle. These orphans were educated in the observances of that religion which had persecuted their ancestors.
    Pius IX defended the Inquisitor of Bologna and refused to return Mortara to his parents. He commented,‘I would rather do anything than take away from Christ a soul which He has redeemed with His blood’.
    Supported by noted theologians, including Dom Gueranger, the Pope made the following points:- 

'By the laws of the Church it is forbidden to baptise an infidel by force, and  consequently it is forbidden to baptise a child against the will of both its parents.'

'However, if the child is in danger of death, then it is permitted to baptise him even against the will of his parents. The baptism then imparts to the child not the faith of his parents, but that of the Church, making him a Christian ‘ex opera operato’ without the need for any consent.'

'Once such a child has been baptised, having become a son of the Church, the Church has a duty to provide him with an education in conformity with the received Christian faith. Consequently, if the child’s parents refuse to provide such an education, the Church has the right to bestow it on him and to substitute itself for the family in its educational role, in virtue of the principle of subsidiarity. In this case, indeed, the rights of the family (which belong to the natural and divine order) are superseded by the superior rights of the Church (which belongs to the Divine and positive order); the law of God the Creator is included and superseded by that of God the Redeemer and Saviour, who realises himself in the Church.'

Pope Benedict XIV in his Instruction ‘Postremo mense’ published in 1747, laid down that although it is not licit to take a child away from infidel parents in order to baptise it, once the baptism had occurred the ecclesiastical authorities had the duty to provide the new son of the Church, and the new citizen of the Papal States, with a Christian education.

The political storm lasted for almost a year but the Pope stuck to his guns, and eventually  the controversy died down. There were negative consequences, for when Piedmont ‘acquired’ the Pontifical Legations in 1859,  both Inquisitor Feletti and the Gendarmerie involved, Lt Col Dominicis, were arrested and put on trial for ‘abuse of power’, ‘abduction’ and ‘violent removal of Edgardo Mortara.’ The Dominican’s defence was a refusal to recognise the secular jurisdiction over an affair which had been conducted according to the superiority of divine positive law over divine natural law. Furthermore the defence counsel emphasised that it was wrong to accuse Feletti for the simple fact of having carried out the law then in force, to which he, both as a prelate and a citizen, was beholden. The trial ended on 16 April 1860 with the acquittal of both defendants.

In 1870 when Rome was invaded by the Piedmontese army, the Prefect of Police sought out the young Edgardo in order to ‘liberate’ him and ‘satisfy public opinion’. By this time however he had decided to become a priest. Fearing that the government would force him to return to his family, the young man fled to the Tyrol. He was fluent in nine languages, and from 1872 onwards he devoted himself to preaching the Christian faith in Italy, France, Belgium, and Spain, especially to Jews. He always carried out his mission under the guidance and protection of Pius IX, whose spiritual son he considered himself to be and whose name he had added to his own. The Pope had entrusted him to the care of the Bishop of Poitiers, the saintly Edouard Pie. When the Pope died in 1878 and Bishop Pie in 1880, Edgardo wrote that this double loss left him ‘like an orphan’

Father Edgardo Mortara, with his mother and brother (1880)                             
Some years later, Edgardo became gravely ill, but recovered after recourse to Pius IX. He spent his final years preaching devotion to the Sacred Heart, and died in Belgium on 11 March 1940, aged 89 years.

(ack. ‘Blessed Pius IX’ by Roberto de Mattei. Published by Gracewing.)

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