Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The regal papacy remembered

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 06, 2015

I will confine most of my ongoing excerpts from Henri de Lubac’s notes on the Second Vatican Council to the linked article, but there is real humor in the theologian’s record of the two Latin inscriptions which identified, at that time, a newly installed elevator in the Vatican. Apparently this was the first electric elevator there; it had replaced an earlier water-driven conveyance.

The inscriptions were in Latin and broken into separate lines like verse, though I’ll present them in English prose. They were written by Cardinal Antonio Bacci, who was then the Secretary of Briefs to Princes—which means he was in charge of communicating the Holy See’s thoughts to the few remaining kings and queens in what was once Christendom. De Lubac remarks elsewhere about how unnecessary that office had become. But here he reports the inscriptions without comment.

Clearly he found them humorous, relics of the regal papacy that future popes would soon leave behind. The inscriptions represent, in fact, a certain incongruity that was characteristic of the inner workings of the Church as late as the 1960s. Of course there are many incongruities among the members of the Church, both harmless and harmful, in every age. They are a moving target. But here is a peek less than sixty years into the past.

1. In the first vestibule off the Belvedere courtyard:

In order that those who come to the Vatican might be able to move up and down more conveniently and quickly, Pius XII, Supreme Pontiff, has taken care to put in place, in the year 1956, this double elevator, moved by electric power and easily approached by means of a level walkway accessible to wheelchairs.

2. In the second vestibule, near the elevator itself:

From this place from which movement was given to the mechanism of the old elevator by the tenacious effort of the water, having caused the foundations of the pontifical palaces to be dug out, having caused a new work to be carried out up to the Courtyard of Saint Damasus, in this place, Pius XII, Supreme Pontiff, has ordered that the access to the elevator, moved by electricity, and which ascends from the bottom toward the top, be opened.

Today these would be taken as parodies of how courtiers used to describe the simplest actions of their lords, almost as if they were fresh miracles. These inscriptions were indeed written by a master of communication with princes. It was the tail end of a very different time.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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