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A Profile of Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, Secretary of State of Pius X

by Gianpaolo Romanato

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  • Description:
    At the eightieth anniversary of his death, L'Osservatore Romano published this profile of Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, secretary of state to Saint Pius X from 1903 to 1914. The author of the portrait is Gianpaolo Romanato, a professor of Church history at the University of Padua, a member of the pontifical committee for historical sciences, and one of the leading scholars on the popes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Larger Work:
    L'Osservatore Romano
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, February 26, 2010

Pius X and Rafael Merry del Val. It is hard to imagine two personalities more different from one another. The former was born in the Venetian countryside to a family of very modest means, which knew hardship and probably hunger as well. He was able to go to school thanks to a scholarship, and spent his entire life, before his election to the papacy, among the poor people, in rural rectories and provincial chanceries, far from the spotlight and from places of power.

The latter, on the other hand, came from one of the most prominent families of the continent, had received a cosmopolitan and polyglot education, and was at home in the embassies and most exclusive circles of every European capital.

Their lives, which seemed destined to go separate ways, crossed almost by accident and ended up being so closely interwoven that it is hard to separate them even today.

FROM SECRETARY OF THE CONCLAVE TO SECRETARY OF STATE

The meeting took place during the dramatic conclave of 1903, the one in which Austria vetoed the election of Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, and which over the span of four days, at the seventh ballot, brought to the papacy, with the name of Pius X, the relatively unknown patriarch of Venice, Giuseppe Sarto.

By a singular coincidence, the secretary of the college of the consistorial congregation, who was also the secretary of the college of cardinals and therefore of the conclave, Monsignor Alessandro Volpini, had died almost at the same time as Leo XIII. In great haste, the cardinals chose as his successor Merry del Val, who at the time was president of the pontifical academy of ecclesiastical nobles, and had been ordained a bishop only three years before.

The choice had been made from a pool of three names. The two rejected candidates were the substitute at the secretariat of state, Giacomo Della Chiesa, the future Benedict XV, and Pietro Gasparri, who was then the secretary for extraordinary ecclesiastical affairs. The preference shown to the youngest and least experienced of the three was interpreted as the first defeat of the Rampolla coalition, and a foreshadowing of what would happen at the conclave.

So Merry del Val, who could not vote because he was not a cardinal, had to shoulder the heavy burden of preparing and conducting the most difficult conclave of the past two centuries.

Sarto had met him, was able to evaluate him while the circumstances of his election were maturing, and a few hours after he became pope, informed him, leaving him stunned, that he had decided to keep him as interim secretary of state. "I don't have anyone so far," he is said to have told him. "Stay with me. Then we'll see."

Giving the key role of the pontificate to this Spaniard – the first non-Italian to head the secretariat of state – who was only thirty-eight years old, young enough to be the son of the 68-year-old pope, elicited comments and reservations that weighed upon later events. After a trial period of just two months, Pius X dispelled the uncertainty and on October 18, 1903, appointed him secretary of state and made him a cardinal. From that moment, the life of Merry del Val would never again be separated from that of the pontiff.

FROM AMBASSADOR'S SON TO THE POPE'S AMBASSADOR

Who was Rafael Merry del Val, the eightieth anniversary of whose death we are commemorating? Born in 1865 in London, where his father was the Spanish ambassador, he grew up between England and Belgium, and in 1885 was sent to Rome by the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, to complete his preparation for the priesthood at the Pontifical Scots College.

Here began one off the fastest-moving careers in all ecclesiastical history. According to his biographer, Pio Cenci, it was Leo XIII himself who placed him in the academy of ecclesiastical nobles and used him for diplomatic missions in England, Germany, and Austria even before his priestly ordination. He knew the main European languages perfectly, but linguistic expertise is certainly not enough to justify so much attention. In a pontifical curia that was laboriously seeking to regain its international role and scope after the loss of temporal power in 1870, the descendant of the illustrious English Merry family and of the even more illustrious Spanish house of del Val must have demonstrated extraordinary ability to have risen through the ranks so quickly.

After graduating from the Pontifical Gregorian University, he became one of the most influential and consulted figures of pontifical Rome, especially when it came to problems regarding Anglicanism. His perfect knowledge of the environment and of the language, his frequent trips across the English Channel, and the esteem of Cardinal Vaughan gave him great authority.

Entrusted by Leo XIII with the thorny question of the validity of Anglican orders – at the uncertain, hesitant beginning of the ecumenical journey – he led the Holy See to the negative response, made official in September of 1896 with the bull "Apostolicae Curae," of which he was the main architect. On the basis of practice that had stood for three hundred years, and of an exhaustive historical investigation, Leo XIII confirmed the "nullity" of the "ordinations carried out with the Anglican rite," thereby denying the apostolic succession of those bishops. The reconciliation of Anglicans and Catholics, which had been proceeding for some time, came to an abrupt halt, while the young prelate established himself as the spokesman of a stance of doctrinal austerity that was different from, if not incompatible with, the policy of Rampolla, who was secretary of state at the time.

The following year, he went on a long mission in Canada, as apostolic delegate. Torn between the opposing temptations of severity and laxness, young Canadian Catholicism had asked for help from Rome. Merry del Val acted with moderation there, especially in relation to the problem of the Catholic schools in Manitoba, and was publicly recognized by the pope for this in the encyclical "Affari Vos" of December 1897. In words that were highly unusual for an official document, Leo wrote that "our apostolic delegate has carried out perfectly and faithfully that for which we had sent him."

Back in Rome, he was made head of the academy of ecclesiastical nobles, and was made a bishop. His extremely rapid ascent was due to his solid historical-juridical education, his innate capacity to relate to anyone, and to the "swiftness," as Benedict XV would later say, with which he solved problems.

But everyone knew that the capable diplomat was a priest of great piety, with monastic habits and an austere, ascetic lifestyle.

In 1903, as previously mentioned, came the decisive leap to the top of the Vatican organizational chart, favored first by the unexpected death of Monsignor Alessandro Volpini – he was not even sixty years old – and then by the unexpected decision of the newly elected Pius X.

THE RIGHT MAN FOR A POPE FAR MORE RELIGIOUS THAN POLITICAL

To the new pope, elected precisely to mitigate the excessive political exposure of the Holy See that had taken place during Rampolla's tenure, Merry del Val, who was widely known to be an outsider to that administration, seemed to be the right man to make the transition.

He moved gracefully in the diplomatic world, could handle the problems of international politics, and understood the Roman curia perfectly. In other words, he had everything the pope lacked. By appointing him as secretary of state, Pius X was counting on all of this. But he was also counting on his youthfulness and on his boundless devotion to the papacy: he would be a faithful coworker who would never stand against him.

But Pius X had certainly taken into account one of Merry del Val's other qualities: his life of piety. The praise that pope Giuseppe Sarto addressed to him on November 11, 1903, the day he received the cardinal's berretta, is so unusual, even in its language, that it deserves to be quoted in full: "The good odor of Christ, lord cardinal, that you have spread in every place, even in your temporary dwelling, and the many works of charity to which you have dedicated yourself constantly in your priestly ministry, especially in this our city of Rome, have won for you, with admiration, universal esteem."

The positive assessment of the pontiff, more than at the political capacities of his coworker, was aimed at his moral character, at his works of charity among the young people of the Trastevere neighborhood, in which he exerted himself without reserve. An essentially religious pope chose for himself a secretary of state with his own characteristics.

The events of Pius X's pontificate are well known. Relations with states deteriorated across the board, even to the point of open division. The best-known case is that of France, where the law of separation between Church and state was passed in December of 1905. Six years later it was Portugal's turn, which approved an even more brutal law. There were similar tensions in various Latin American countries. The pope didn't do much to alter the course of events. He protested, he wrote very strongly worded encyclicals, but he carefully avoided trying diplomatic channels.

In the case of France, the law stipulated that "associations of worship," from which the ecclesiastical hierarchy was excluded, would manage Church property, becoming a counterweight to the bishops. The intention to dismantle the Church's hierarchical constitution was clear, even if not everyone had perceived it.

The pope grasped the heart of the problem perfectly, and staunchly opposed it. It was a real and proper "legal suicide," as it has been called, since the Church of France, required by Rome not to accept the law – in less than a year, between 1906 and 1907, the pontiff wrote three encyclicals dedicated to the case of France – lost its legal standing and with it its entire patrimony, beginning with the churches in which religious services were held every day.

But in this way, the Church of France regained its freedom and full control of the appointment of bishops, which up until then had been granted to the state by virtue of the Napoleonic concordat. Pius X's decision – between the "good" and the "goods" of the Church I have chosen the former, the pope would say – which afterward would obtain the applause of Aristide Briand, the inspiration of the law – "the pope was the only one who saw clearly" – had with a single blow wiped out three centuries of Gallicanism, of a national Church, bringing French Catholicism back, even in disciplinary terms, to complete fidelity to Rome.

It was a fundamental shift – "a painful and traumatizing event," as John Paul II called it in the letter to the French bishops written on the occasion of the centenary of the law – that caught people at the time off guard, and continues to divide historians. This was the occasion that led to the emergence of the anti-temporalistic idealism that, in the view of various scholars, was the truly revolutionary aspect of the pontificate, the great novelty in the relationship between the Church and the world that emerged in the decade of Pius X and Merry del Val.

So with Pius X, the end came for an entire season of the Church's history, that of interference in politics, of diplomatic entanglements, of outdated connections between throne and altar, of the bishops "in cilindro" and the "cardinals of court," of the opposition toward some states and concessions for others.

Unlike his predecessor, Pius X never engaged in "foreign policy," he never tried to weaken on the international stage the countries that demonstrated hostility toward the Church, he never tried to exploit for his own advantage the rivalries, interests, and alliances of the various nations. And this stance, which has not yet received the attention that it deserves from the historians, was not a tactical retreat, but a precise strategic decision, as pope Sarto said one day to the future cardinal Nicola Canali, at the time a young recorder of minutes in the curia: "You are young, but always remember that the Church's policy is that of not engaging in politics, and of always going by the right path."

BETWEEN CHURCH RENEWAL AND CURIA REFORM

Merry del Val supported this policy with loyalty and conviction, just as he did with Pius X's decisions of radical Church reform: from the suppression of the right of veto in the conclave to the reform of the curia to the codification of canon law.

The overhaul of the Roman curia, approved in 1908, directly concerned its competencies, which were expanded, but within a plan of governance in which the secretariat of state was second from the bottom among the five Vatican offices. The heart of Pius X's curia was not the secretariat of state, as it would be under the reform of Paul VI sixty years later. The heart was represented by the eleven congregations, with the Holy Office placed at the top.

This may be the reason why Merry del Val's role coincided, almost to the point of merging, with that of the pope, unlike the role of his predecessors and successors. By engaging in little or no politics, and attending to governing and renewing the Church, Pius X took away from the secretariat of state much of the leeway that made it an autonomous actor, and strengthened its bond with the papacy itself.

This bond became even closer during the saga of modernist Catholicism, which until now has appeared to historians as the true "punctum dolens" of Giuseppe Sarto's pontificate.

Much has been written about this unraveling, and one of the unresolved matters concerns precisely the operation of the secretariat of state. But whether Merry del Val played a leading or supporting role, a role of action or inspiration, does not seem to be a decisive element of judgment. What is decisive is the fact that he was a full participant in the pope's antimodernist stance, a staunch supporter of the urgency of stopping those instances of renewal in which both saw the looming danger of a catastrophic crisis of faith.

WITH PIUS X, EVEN ON THE PATH TO SAINTHOOD

It was inevitable that a secretary of state so closely identified with the pontiff he had served would not be confirmed by his successor.

As soon as he was elected pope, on September 3, Benedict XV in fact appointed as secretary of state first Cardinal Domenico Ferrata, who died almost immediately, and then Pietro Gasparri. We thus find at the head of the Church the two bishops – Della Chiesa and Gasparri – who had been leapfrogged by Merry del Val on the eve of the conclave in 1903.

For the former secretary of state, the sixteen years he had left to live must have been a difficult period. He received the same treatment from Benedict XV that Pius X had reserved ten years earlier for Rampolla: he became secretary of the Holy Office – the prefecture of this congregation was at the time the prerogative of the pontiff – a function that he held until his sudden death, which happened on February 26, 1930.

Merry del Val maintained a boundless devotion to Pius X: he was at the origin of the petition that opened his canonization process. 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 most beloved father and pontiff Pius X."

But his time had passed, even if in 1953, during the pontificate of Pius XII – who had begun his own career under del Val – his canonical beatification process was opened, in conjunction with the ascent to the honors of the altar of Pius X, proclaimed blessed in 1951 and a saint in 1954.

(English translation appeared in Chiesa)

© Copyright 2010 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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