Leo XIII, by Frank Murphy

Pope Leo XIIIOn the seventh of February, 1878, Pope Pius IX died in the Vatican, and the whole world paused in its affairs and turned to watch Rome. “For now,” men said, “something is going to happen.” Storm had gathered over the See of Peter. In the darkness of the night, the remains of the late Pontiff were carried to their resting place outside the walls of the city. The enemies of the Church saw in the secret, midnight procession a symbol. They shouted after the few, sad carriages and pelted them with stones. “Here,” they cried, “is an end of the Popes. The Cardinals cannot be allowed to elect another. The Government will take possession of the Vatican. . . . The lamp has flickered into darkness; it shall never be relit.” And, indeed, if you know the history of the closing years of the gentle Pius IX, darkness had settled on the waters. The Bark of Peter seemed hidden in the storm.

Our grandfathers remember the time.

Europe seethed with revolution. Italy herself was tossed with passionate political conflict. Religious and anti-clerical hatred gathered forces against the Papacy. The Papal States, territory which the Popes had governed over a thousand years, from the days of Pepin and Charlemagne, were invaded and the Pope driven into the garden of the Vatican. Hardly a Pontiff so gentle as Pius IX; hardly a Pontiff who withstood such storms. And, in the midst of it, he died.

And now it was thought that something unusual would take place. The Quirinal, wherein the last four Popes had been elected, was in the hands of the ‘Revolution’. It was expected that it would now seize the Vatican itself. But the usual thing occurred. Another successor to Saint Peter sat in the ancient Chair. He took the name of Leo XIII and, if men looked for a symbol, well, here was one: the motto of the new Pontiff was “Lumen in Coelo” ‘light in the heavens’. On his ancient family escutcheon there shone a bright, solitary star. And that star, in our dark days of political and economic ill, is the one guiding light.

Pope Leo XIII, whose family name was Pecci, was born on the 2nd of March, 1810, at the small town of Carpineto, an eagle’s nest of a place, pitched high above the Valley of Latium, between two gigantic rocks. His parents were of the nobility, and if there be any who still read the books of Lord Lytton, they may be interested to learn, as may be the lovers of Wagner, that the young Joachim Pecci was a descendant, through his mother, of the celebrated Cola di Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes. Significant this for Rienzi is called the friend of the people.

Bred on that lofty mountain-crest, he would have about him through life, we would expect, ever the air of the hills — a man lean, straight, broad of shoulder, bright and piercing of eye. There, in the hill country he acquired that alert vigour which characterised him not only mentally, but bodily, so that the intimates of his household said of him, even in his late years, “The Pope always runs.”

His early education was in the hands of the Jesuits. His career was brilliant. From the first, a keen relish for classic literature distinguished him, likewise a happy gift of composition.

He wrote prose and verse, carrying off the first honours in Latin and Greek, and shaping that style which was afterwards to earn for him the reputation of being one of the first Latinists of the time. Yet he was not one-sided. His masters saw to that. His intellect was developed, as well as his imagination. To his honours in the classics, he added first prizes for physics, chemistry and mathematics. And even greater success followed him into philosophy and theology.

Nor was his life all study. His disposition was lively. He sharpened His pen at epigrams and charades. He spent his holidays in his native hills, hunting and fowling.

The time arrived when the young student entered upon his studies for the priesthood. He entered an academy for ecclesiastics who were destined for a diplomatic or administrative career under the Pontifical Government. In the year 1837, he was ordained priest.

The brilliant career of the young Monsignor had set him apart as a promising administrator, and almost immediately, he was appointed Governor of Benevento. Here he gave an example of practical government. His province was but 46 miles in extent, but it was important enough for Talleyrand to have desired it, and to have been installed there as prince by Napoleon during the Emperor’s temporary possession of the States of the Pope.

After the withdrawal of the French, government was well-nigh impossible. Secret societies, smugglers and brigands abounded, terrorising the countryside, taxing the towns, blackmailing the rich, plundering widely. Face to face with these well-organised bands of desperate men came Monsignor Pecci.

He succeeded. His pontifical troops made a sudden and concerted attack upon the strongholds of the outlaws, and the people were overjoyed to see one morning the most dreaded chief of all led in chains through the streets.

Strict justice was done. Brigandage and smuggling disappeared, agriculture flourished, taxation was lessened, roads were built, order and security restored. The third year of the young prelate’s rule saw a transformed State.

So successful was he at Benevento that he was transferred to Perugia. There he was equally successful. And shortly, at the age of thirty-three, he was appointed Papal Nuncio at the Court of Brussels.

His stay at Brussels must be passed over quickly. Sufficient to say that he was appreciated as a statesman and as a churchman. But one incident stands out with peculiar interest to English-speaking people — the visit of the future Pope to England. Leopold I, the King of the Belgians, a shrewd judge of men, estimated the Archbishop highly and made of him a close friend and adviser. It is interesting, too, to learn that that fascinating figure, the Baron Stockmar, who managed so adroitly the back-stage movements of royalty, also prized Archbishop Pecci. We may be sure that the King’s niece, Victoria of England, was frequently discussed. Eventually, warmly recommended by the King, the Nuncio visited England and was received there by the Queen and her Consort with a special welcome, due to the friend of her uncle, Leopold. In England, the Archbishop stayed a month. Next he returned to Rome, whither he was recalled; thence to be sent once more to Perugia; this time as its Bishop.

Here was another field of work — the care of the pastor, rather than the official duties of the diplomat. And at Perugia, he spent thirty years. It was a long time, but it was not the secluded labour that you may imagine. It was an eventful, anxious rule; a swift moving drama of tragedy. For Pius IX had succeeded Gregory XVI, and through the troubled reign of Pius there was Perugia and its Bishop set in the path of the invader. The freebooters of Garibaldi swept down from the north, taking Perugia in their sweep; committing all manner of massacre, sacrilege and outrage; and this but one of the cares on the shoulders of the Bishop. Perugia was a storm centre, and his hands were full. Nevertheless, he found opportunity between the struggles to give his attention to that social study which afterwards, as Pope, distinguished him. He founded savings banks for the people, stores for their grain against the lean times, night schools for artisans, and reinstituted those Monti di Pieta, (the institutional pawnbrokers run as a charity,) in glorious imitations of which are familiar to Australian people.

And here at Perugia came the honour of the Cardinalate.

Meanwhile, Pius IX, from the throne of Peter, saw, one by one, the States of the Church invaded and annexed. In 1860, he was left but one small province and the ancient Papal city of Rome. In 1870, that, too, was taken. The Papal Palace of the Quirinal was appropriated; the Vatican alone left as a precarious refuge for the helpless Pontiff. There he retreated and made protest, and, protesting, he died. Almost immediately, the Conclave was held. The Cardinal Bishop of Perugia was given the Fisherman’s Ring.

Leo XIII commenced his reign.

It was a troubled world that Leo looked out upon. The spirit of revolution was in the air. The working classes, fretting under inhuman and slave conditions of the new industrial era, were restless. It is no wonder. The authority of governments was either set at naught or seemed inept. The ancient framework of Christianity, as men saw it, was decayed and tottering.

Leo lost no time. He set about writing his first Encyclical — his letter to the world (Inscrutabili Dei Consolo). It is significant, thoughtful and to the point. He diagnoses the world’s sickness, and everyone, be he Catholic or Protestant, has here something to think about if he is interested in preserving Christianity in Europe. “From the very beginning of Our Pontificate we have before our eyes the sad spectacle of the evils which assail mankind from every side. There is a widespread subversion of the cardinal truths, on which the very foundations of human society repose. There is a wicked disposition of men’s minds, which is impatient of all lawful power. There is a perpetual ferment of dissension, begetting internal strife, cruel and bloody wars. There is a contempt of the laws of morality and justice; an insatiable yearning for the transitory goods of earth, carried to the insane pitch of causing many unhappy persons to lay violent hands on themselves. There is an inconsiderate administration, a squandering, an upsetting of the public property and revenues, and there is the brazen impudence of men, who, when they deceive their fellows most, make them believe that they are the promoters of patriotism, of liberty, of right of every kind. There is, in fine, a pestilential virus, which creeps into the vital organs and members of human society, which allows them no rest, and which forebodes for the social order new revolutions ending in calamitous results!” Good words these, which apply even more so to our own day.

And what is the cause? Simply this. The Pope continues: “Men have despised and rejected the holy and august authority of the Church, which, in the name of God, is placed over the human race and is the avenger and protector of all legitimate authority.”

That is not Papal platitude. It is the assertion of the truth that the history of civilisation is the history of the Church; a truth to which even the Rationalist and the Protestant give testimony. But, at least, everybody, whatever he or she may think of the Catholic Church, cannot but admit that it does represent an immense moral force. Therefore, what the Pope has to say is worthy of attention. If he claims a remedy, it is worth knowing the prescription.

Yet it is an astonishing thing that men who have eyes to see, men who are sincerely interested in the condition of the people, do not take the trouble to find out what suggestion the Church offers — that Church which knows mankind so well and has achieved such giant things for humanity throughout its long life. Yet of all men, the Pope is most expert; of all men, he ought to know. For, remember, he is the inheritor of the experience of two thousand years. For two thousand years, a Pope has sat upon the Throne of Peter, looking out upon the world. He holds the helm, which has steered our civilisation through its long, stormy history. And, surely, since he has brought mankind, as even Protestants testify, from the dark lands of paganism, through stress and shoal, to the better society that we know, surely his experience is of value.

Surely, his logs, surely, his charts are worth inspection.

Especially if they can be had for the negligible sum of twopence.

Now, if I may digress, to give point to what I write, let me put up as an illustration, Benedict XV, the Pope of the war years of 1914-18. He appealed for peace and was ignored. He addressed a Letter to the heads of the belligerent peoples. In that Letter, he laid down bases for a just and lasting peace. Again, he was ignored. Then, in the course of time, when the treaty of peace was drawn up by the nations, he was not only ignored another time, but was actually debarred from the proceedings. With the exception of the League of Nations, which was an attempt at arbitration, not one of the Pope’s Christian principles was incorporated. So followed the unrest and distrust, of post-war years to our own days of 1937. Now we see men, forced to learn by their own bitter experience, suggesting the principles, which the Pope of twenty years ago suggested as solutions of the difficulty — the condonation of war debts,(that is, a pardon by treating the debtors as if the debts had not occurred,) the reduction of armaments, and others. Of the Pope’s practical insistence on the abolition of compulsory military service, we hear hardly a word. For the popes have no authority to effect these things. So the rulers build their guns again and bolster up their artificial frontiers, and are afraid.

Now, in regard to Leo XIII, he is not less helpful upon social problems, and they are not less acute.

Particularly, Pope Leo XIII is the Pope of the workingman. His most famous Encyclical is on the “Condition of Labour.” (Rerum Novarum) That Letter has become known, among those who have made an adequate study of social writings, as the Magna Charta of the workingman. It is the workingman’s text-book, and he should carry it in his pocket. He should have it by heart. Yet in the perplexities, industrial and economic, of the day, while the thoughtful workman and social reformer screws his courage to the reading of newspaper leaders and all manner of bewildering handbooks, and still more bewildering pamphlets, the little Letter of Leo, with its penetrating intelligence and welcome lucidity, is hardly read. And men say, with incredible ignorance: What does the Church offer the workingman?

At the time when Leo XIII wrote his famous Letter upon the “Condition of Labour” in 1891, many things, accepted now as ideal, were regarded as revolutionary. The new economic conditions had divided society into two classes. “The first,” to quote the present Holy Father, (Pius XI,) commenting on Leo’s Letter, “small in numbers, enjoyed practically all the comforts, so plentifully supplied by modern invention; the second class, comprising the immense multitude of workingmen, was made up of those who, oppressed by dire poverty, struggled in vain to escape from the straits which encompassed them.”

“This state of things,” continues Pope Pius in his Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, “was quite satisfactory to the wealthy! On the other hand, the working classes, victims of these harsh conditions, submitted to them with extreme reluctance!” At last, Leo XIII, “urged,” as he said, “by the responsibility of the Apostolic Office,” startled the Christian world with the Voice of Christ.

And his Letter, as the Protestant, W. T. Stead, remarks, “for many a long day will serve as a text for the social reformer.”

Now, here is some of the Encyclical: “It has come to pass,” says the Pope at the outset, “that workingmen have been given over, isolated and defenceless, to the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition. The evil has been increased by rapacious usury, which, though more than once condemned by the Church, is, nevertheless, under a different form, but with the same guilt, still practised by avaricious and grasping men. And to this must be added the custom of working by contract, and the concentration of so many branches of trade in the hands of a few individuals so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the masses of the poor a yoke little better than slavery itself.”

That is not beating about the bush.

Then the Pope discusses the suggested remedy of the ‘Socialists’, who offer to solve the problem by transferring private property to the State. “But,” says Leo, “the proposals are so clearly futile, for all practical purposes, that, if they were carried out, the workingman would be the first to suffer. Moreover, they are emphatically unjust.” Pope Leo defends private ownership, which may seem to some a paradox, since the Socialists are correct in saying that in private ownership is set that iniquitous power which deprives the workingman of a decent, comfortable livelihood. But the Pope rightly points out that the iniquity of private ownership lies not in the use, but in the abuse, of it; an abuse which the Church has consistently condemned, but which has sprung up and got its stranglehold on society only since society has shaken off her authority.

But the right use of property, the Pope says, is the workingman’s protection. It is the natural right of man. It gives security to the individual, to the family, to the State. Leo goes on to stress that capital and labour are mutually indispensable, but that the Church is necessary to preserve harmony by reminding each class of its duties to the other, especially the duty of justice. Thus, she teaches the workman “to carry out honestly and well all equitable arrangements freely made; never to injure capital . . . never to employ violence . . . never to engage in disorder.” On the other hand, he says: “The rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workingman’s earnings, either by fraud, or force, or usurious dealing, and with the more reason because the poor man is weak and unprotected!”

And many things the Pope treats: — the family, as the original and important unit of society; the State, its rights, its duties and its limitations; its obligations towards the worker; the definite obligation of using surplus wealth for the benefit of one’s fellows; the evils of excessive taxation; workmen’s associations or trade unions; strikes, their causes and effects.

In condemning competition, free and unrestrained, the thing falsely echoed among men as the soul of trade, he touches the spot.

And he suggests that in the guild idea, blessed by the Church, lies the remedy. And he shows how through history, as Cobbett, the Protestant, says, the Church “provided, and provided amply, for all the wants of the poor and the distressed!” But the most important part of the Letter is that upon the just wage and hours of work. “The first concern of all,” it runs, “is to save the poor workers from the cruelty of grasping speculators, who use human beings as mere instruments for making money. It is neither justice nor humanity so to grind men down with excessive labour as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies.” Pope Leo makes suggestions for hours, proportionate to the kind of work engaged in; lays down rules for the employment of women and children, and stresses the need for proper rest and recreation.

Then, as to wages, this is very important today.

“We are told,” says the Pope, “that wages are fixed by free consent, and, therefore, the employer, when he pays what was agreed upon, has done his part and is not called upon for anything further. The only way, it is said, in which injustice could happen would be if the master refused to pay the whole of the wages, or the workman would not complete the work undertaken.”

“But this mode of reasoning is by no means convincing . . . for there are important considerations which it leaves out of view altogether. To labour is to exert oneself for the sake of procuring what is necessary for the purposes of life, and, most of all, for self-preservation. . . . Therefore, a man’s labour has two notes or characters. First of all, it is personal, for the exertion of individual power belongs to the individual who puts it forth, employing this power for that personal profit for which it is given.”

“Secondly, a man’s labour is necessary, for without the results of labour a man cannot live. Now, if we were to consider labour merely so far as it is personal, doubtless it would be within the workman’s right to accept any rate of wages whatever, for, in the same way as he is free to work or not, so he is free to accept a small remuneration or even none at all.” “But this,” says the Pope firmly, “is a mere abstract supposition; the labour of the workingman is not only a personal attribute, but it is necessary, and this makes all the difference. The preservation of life is the bounden duty of each and all, and to fail therein is a crime. It follows that each one has a right to procure what is required in order to live, and, the poor can procure it in no other way than by work and wages.”

“Let it be granted then,” continues Leo, “that, as a rule, workman and employer should make free agreements, and, in particular, should freely agree as to wages. Nevertheless, there is a dictate more imperious and more ancient than any bargain between man and man — that the remuneration must be enough to support the wage-earner in reasonable and frugal comfort.” That, I might add, includes sufficiency for a wife and family. “Now,” says the Pope, “if, through necessity or fear of a worse evil, the workman accepts conditions because an employer or contractor will give him no better, he is the victim of force and injustice.” And, though conditions are better now than when those words were written, there is still urgent need for them to be made a basis of legislation.

And so the Letter runs on. “If a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him to maintain himself, his wife and his children in reasonable comfort, he will not find it difficult, if he is a sensible man, to study economy, and he will not fail to put by a little property.” The consequence of this, the Pope maintains, is that property will become more equitably divided, the gulf between vast wealth and deep poverty will be filled, and a true patriotic spirit will dwell in a community to whom their fatherland is something more than a name.

The assistance of the Church, says the final paragraph, will never be wanting, and for its pastors there is a careful word that each will throw himself into the conflict with “all the energy of his mind and all the strength of his endurance”; by every means to “strive for the good of the people.”

All this that men “be persuaded that the primary thing needful is to return to real Christianity, in the absence of which all the plans and devices of the wisest will be of little avail.”

Truly, poor humanity, particularly oppressed humanity, has no greater friend than the ceaseless watcher in the watch-tower of the world. The Pope’s day is long. He rises early. The Sacrifice of the Mass begins his working day, and there is no harder worker than he. Till the close of the day, he is busy with affairs of heaven and earth, with his Ambassadors, his secretaries, his Bishops and his people from every small corner of the world.

And at night, when the busy day is done and the Papal household retires to rest, when the windows of the Vatican are darkened, one by one, the light shines in the private study of the Pope, where he watches and prays, thinks and writes for the welfare of the world.

We have his Letters, his Encyclicals, the fruits of his labour. Just as Saint Peter before him sent his epistles, or Letters, from that very same city, exhorting and blessing the flock under his care, so his successor still writes, still exhorts, still blesses. And the burden of his writing is ever the same:

“There is no other name under heaven given to men, wherewith we must be saved, save the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“Neither is there salvation in any other.”

– from the booklet Five Figures of the Faith, by Frank Murphy; published by the Australian Catholic Truth Society in 1937