His Holiness Pope Pius XI, A Pen Portrait, by Cardinal Francis Aidan Gasquet

Pope Pius XIThe election of Cardinal Achille Ratti to succeed Pope Benedict XV has been welcomed by all the world. Probably few of the preceding two hundred and sixty-one Supreme Rulers of the Roman Catholic Church, now numbering some 300,000,000 souls, have been better known beyond the limits of their own subjects in the ranks of scholars than was Monsignor Ratti for his far-reaching culture and erudition. If to this reputation there be added the extraordinary charm of his personality, we can understand the chorus of approbation which has greeted his election by the College of Cardinals. Many letters of enthusiastic welcome have been received from scholars in London, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester – to name only these, where he is known personally and appreciated.

Achille Ratti was born on May 30th, 1857, in the small Lombard town of Desio, in the great Metropolitan diocese of Milan, over which he was subsequently to become Archbishop. His family belonged to the middle class, his father being the manager of the silk business belonging to the Contadi Pusiano. Achille was one of six brothers, only one surviving, with a sister, to welcome his brother on his elevation to the Papal throne. He received his first education in his thoroughly Christian family circle, and was as a small child committed to the care of a worthy priest, Giuseppe Volonteri, who kept a school for boys at Desio. He quickly showed his aptitude for studies, and was much influenced by his uncle, Don Damiano Ratti, an exemplary priest and a zealous pastor of souls, in whose house at Asso he used to spend his summer holidays. Here he became known to the then Archbishop, Monsignore Luigi di Calabiana,who soon recognised and appreciated the youth’s love of study, his solid piety, and the gravity of his words and actions.

Desiring to embrace the ecclesiastical state, he first went to the local Seminary; and, after taking his degree in Letters, entered the Theological Seminary at Milan. In all these places he distinguished himself by his great ability and by his more than ordinary application. He was in consequence sent by the Archbishop to the Collegio Lombardo, in Rome, to follow the course of studies in the Gregorian University; and there he took degrees in Philosophy, Theology, and Canon Law. He was ordained priest in 1879; and following his brilliant success in the Roman University, he returned to Milan in 1882, and, after a brief experience of pastoral life, was recalled to the Theological Seminary as Professor first of Theology, and Sacred Eloquence. Here he spent five years; and then, in 1888, he was appointed a Doctor of the Celebrated Ambrosian Library at Milan. Here he remained for twenty-three years, and was the devoted assistant to that wonderful man. Dr. Ceriani, then the head of the library. Ceriani was perhaps at that time the most famous of Oriental scholars in Europe; and to him learned men from all parts of the world came for advice and instruction. The present writer had known him well during his stay of some months in England in the ‘fifties of the last century, when he was an honoured guest of the house of his family in London. During the last of several visits paid to Monsignor Ceriani in Milan, the writer was introduced by the famous scholar to Dr. Achille Ratti, as one who would be his worthy successor at the Ambrosian Library. This he became in 1907, when Dr. Ceriani died at a ripe old age, and Dr. Ratti was unanimously chosen to succeed him. It would be impossible to speak in detail of the contributions to Italian literature and history which proceeded from the pen of Monsignor Ratti during this period. He became known and honoured for the courteous and ever ready welcome he gave to all students who consulted the famous Library, and for the way in which he placed at their disposal his knowledge and advice. He was served with enthusiastic devotion by his helpers in the Library. His charming personality drew the hearts of all students to him; and there must be at present many who will call to their memory the happy relations they had with him. Dr. Ratti was an organiser as well as a student, and he introduced great and necessary improvements in the Library.

In 1910 Pope Pius X called Monsignor Ratti to Rome, first to assist the Prefect of the Vatican Library, Father Ehrle, and on the latter’s retirement, in the spring of 1914, he succeeded him. Here he remained to the end of May, 1918, when, to the great grief of all in the Library, he was appointed to other work. During the few years he had been in the Vatican Library he had done much to organise the work; and, as at Milan, so in Rome, he won the affectionate regard of all under him.

To return to Dr. Ratti’s work in Milan: above all things, the learned Doctor of the Ambrosian Library was a priest of God. In the midst of all his professional labours as a scholar, he was a zealous priest. During the first years after his ordination, when he was teaching at the Seminary, the nuns of the Order of the Cenacle opened a convent in Milan. The Archbishop appointed the young Theological Professor their first chaplain; and as long as he remained in the city he devoted himself with untiring energy to the work which grew up in connection with the new foundation. He was the chief co-operator in all the good works which the Sisters undertook for the social care of young girls and women. He personally directed them, and gave them the sound practical but simple religious instructions they needed. Besides this, the learned Prefect of the Ambrosian Library found time personally to teach catechism to little boys at the Church of the San Sepolcro even on Sunday afternoons and Feast days, and to prepare them for their First Communion.

Besides being a profound student and scholar, as well as a devoted priest, Monsignor Ratti was also a man of action in a different field. It is of interest to many English readers to know that the new Pope has been all his life a professional Alpine climber, the conqueror of peaks and passes. The first Italian ascent of Monte Rosa to reach the summit of Dufour was made by two Milanese priests in 1889. One was Achille Ratti, and the other was his friend, from childhood, a Professor from the College of Saint Charles, who died a few years ago as its Rector. These were companions in many an arduous Alpine climb. They both possessed the same spirit, and regarded their excursions as something more than an exercise of muscular strength. They looked on them as a proof of the superiority of man over nature, and as a means of gaining and getting a fuller knowledge of the wonders of God’s creation. The ascent of Monte Rosa had indeed many dramatic moments which called forth the imperturbable sangfroid and the indomitable persistence of the climbers. They reached the summit only after two days and after having been obliged to pass the night with their two guides on a rock amidst the eternal snows. Setting out on their return, they crossed the hill on Zumstein which had never been before attempted; and, delayed by unforeseen circumstances, only reached their destination on the Italian side after passing yet another night in the open. Meantime the rumour of a catastrophe had been sent by wire, as it was deemed impossible that anyone could have been able to spend two nights on the mountains without shelter; and the appearance of the party on the third day caused wonder and excitement. Monsignor Ratti has written in the Collazione Club Alpino Italiano a vivid account of their adventure. The peak, he says, was conquered, but only at 8 p.m., when, “driven by the wind, which at this height was insupportable, and obliged by the darkness to seek shelter, we descended until, at some thirty metres, we found a ledge of rock almost swept clean of snow.” The aneroid marked 4,000 metres (about 15,180 feet), and here they were forced to remain till daybreak, unable to do more, for fear of being precipitated into the abyss below. They were just able to stamp their feet to prevent their being frozen. The coffee, wine and eggs they had with them had been frozen solid; they had only a few drops of Kirschwasser between them; and their situation prevented them from taking any sleep. Dr. Ratti’s thrilling description of this night passed among the stupendous peaks of Monte Rosa, with the silence broken only by the thunder of a great avalanche on the glaciers below them, is worth reading for the sake of its poetical language and as a testimony of his calm review of the critical situation. Two days after reaching Riffelberg from this expedition Monsignor Ratti and his friend made the ascent of the Matterhorn, which he negotiated without staying at the hut; but, being once more overtaken by the darkness, he was compelled to spend the night in the open. The following year he ascended Mont Blanc by the Rochar and descended by the Dome Glacier, a feat which at that time had not been otherwise attempted. On one of these climbs, Monsignor Ratti saved the life of a guide who had fallen into a crevice and hung suspended by the rope which bound the climbers to one another. Monsignor Ratti, calm and undismayed, supported him, and by his strength, little by little drew him up to the firm ground on the glacier.

When, in 1914, Monsignor Ratti became Prefect of the Vatican Library, he brought to the task all his previous preparation under his great and venerated master, Ceriani, and his subsequent training in the management of the great Library at Milan. During the turmoil of the War, the new Prefect was able to stand aloof from all party politics and parties, and proved himself the humble follower of the impartial attitude of the Vatican. When the Armistice put an end to the strife of nations, he threw himself into the work of reconstituting the scientific international character of the relations of the Vatican Library with students of all countries.

Under the direction of Monsignor Ratti, the Library and the other collections joined to it, such as the Christian and the Profane Museums, the coins and medals and the work of restoration of manuscripts, continued to expand and grow in importance and utility. The system had been begun under Father Erhle, and Monsignor Ratti was well prepared to supervise its progress. Even when a simple doctor of the Ambrosian Library, he had on more than one occasion come to Rome to study the Vatican method of repairing decaying codices, and had spent much time with the workmen engaged on this delicate business, so as to know in practice as well as in theory the methods to be employed to secure the best results. During the years of his rule at the Library the catalogue of the manuscripts was one of his special cares; and he began to plan a single catalogue of the printed books which had made great progress. A catalogue of the Codices Vatkani (9,852-10,300) was published; and a third volume of the Codices Uriinatey and another volume of the Vaticani (10,301-10,700), saw the light in 1920-1921. Several volumes of the Vatican publication Studi e testi were issued in spite of printing difficulties arising out of the war; he endeavoured to secure the Chigi Library which was for sale, but the price demanded was beyond the means of the Holy See.

The Vatican Library, besides being a great centre of study and research to which the learned men of the world congregate, has connected with it and under its administration collections of great archaeological value, visited by great numbers of travellers. The immense halls in which these are housed, though decorated in the barocco style, represent in the paintings and frescoes on their walls the story of Rome in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the rooms are exposed miniatures, illuminations and autographs of almost priceless value. The two museums of Christian and Profane art contain unique collections. Among the classical are the mural frescoes removed from Ostia and elsewhere, including the classical “Nozze Aldobrandine.” All these treasures were under the charge of Monsignor Ratti, who, in one of the rooms, collected together the volumes of addresses presented at various times to the Popes Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius X. He placed them in show cases, so that the beautiful bindings which enclosed the signatures of millions of faithful children of the Church from all parts of the globe might be seen by all.

In addition to his administrative work at the Vatican, Monsignor Ratti found time to continue his own literary and critical work; and he contributed two papers to the Ponttjicta Accademia Romana di Archeologta. In this way he knew how to unite the work of a wise governor and a man of science; and in both he was loved and appreciated by his colleagues and by all his staff. He was consulted by students from all parts of the world, who were ever grateful for his courteous kindness and the help he was ready to give to all who sought it.

On April 25th, 1918, Monsignor Ratti was taken from his studies and his beloved Vatican Library, to the regret of everyone who knew him, and sent to Poland to inquire into the ecclesiastical state of that country and to try to bring some kind of order into the chaos resulting from the world war, and from the change of Government in consequence of the constitution of the country as a national entity. The appointment caused great surprise, but subsequent events proved the wisdom of the choice. The task entrusted to him was very difficult; but he possessed many qualities of mind and body which ensured success. Poland, after the Peace of Brest-Litowski, was still occupied by German troops under the Bavarian General Von Beseler; and a Council of Regency was constituted composed of the Archbishop of Warsaw, Von Kakowski (now Cardinal), Prince Lubonirski and the Baron Ostrowski, but the people regarded it with suspicion and believed it to be merely an instrument of German domination. The position was critical, and called for great tact and diplomatic skill. Monsignor Ratti at once made it known that his mission was purely ecclesiastical and had nothing to do with politics, and he scrupulously confined himself to this mission. His prudence and upright dealing soon won all who came in touch with him, and materially assisted in the settlement of the country and the restoration of confidence in the Government.

The good results of this mission, so quickly obtained, caused the Holy See to enlarge his mission and to extend his jurisdiction as Visitor to Russia. This forced Monsignor Ratti to undertake a prolonged journey, during which he was everywhere received with enthusiasm as the Pope’s representative. His first care was to provide for the ecclesiastical needs of the vast district, which had been almost totally ruined by the break-up of the Russian autocratic rule and by the chaos brought about by the Great War. Through his good offices many prisoners and hostages, including the Archbishop of Mohilew and the Bishop of Minsk, were released by Bolshevists. In Poland, it was mainly through his influence that two articles in the new Polish Constitution were introduced, the one declaring that the Catholic religion occupies the first position in the State, and the second that no measures concerning the Catholic religion should be taken without preliminary consultation and agreement with the Holy See.

In recognition of the work already done by Monsignor Ratti, the Pope in July, 1919, nominated him as Nuncio to Poland, and he was consecrated by Archbishop Kakowski at Warsaw on the 28th of the October of that year. But the circumstance which, perhaps beyond others, brought out clearly all the exceptional qualities of the man, his calmness and firmness, and we may almost say his heroism, was the Bolshevist invasion of Poland in July, 1920. The Polish people were in a state of panic, and the Government itself was in despair. Those who had not been able to fly before the invaders prepared for all the expected horrors of a Bolshevist conquest. All the Foreign Ministers abandoned the capital when the advancing enemy were at its gates. Monsignor Ratti alone remained at his post, and never for a moment lost his calm determination and self-possession. His attitude was a source of strength to those who were forced to remain, and will never be forgotten by the people. His confidence in God’s protection was justified by the unexpected failure of the attack and by the almost miraculous saving of the city from the Bolshevist hosts.

In the Consistory of the 13th of June, 1921, Pope Benedict XV created Archbishop Ratti Cardinal and Archbishop of Milan. Two days later when giving him the red biretta the Pope spoke of him as follows: “If we turn to the second of these Porporati we hear a thousand voices of praise uplifted from the ranks of scholars and of students of diplomacy. Oh! What wonderful harmony of these two from which the words ‘Diplomatic Studies’ are taken. See, the students of the Diplomatic Schools rejoice for the former Prefect of the Ambrosian Library of Milan and of the Vatican in Rome because of the zeal with which he was always aided in research and in the making known the treasures buried in ancient charters and documents. See, the students, and with them the masters of Diplomacy, offer praise to the apostolic Nuncio of Poland, who with earnest firmness, with exquisite tact, with imperturbable sincerity, has succeeded in bringing about concord between the State and the Church in times of great difficulty and amid perilous circumstances. The sacred purple once again manifests itself as the highest honour bestowed as the reward of previous merits. We salute the new Cardinal as one who will by his new honour give help to the Pope in the government of the Church.”

To Englishmen it will be of interest to know that the present Pontiff has more than once visited our country, knows our language, and can speak it slightly. He has worked among the manuscripts at the British Museum, at Oxford, and elsewhere. The last time he came to England was for the Roger Bacon celebration at the University of Oxford in 1914. At the luncheon in Merton College, Monsignor Ratti spoke in Latin, and his theme was completely to dispose of the idea prevalent that Friar Bacon’s studies had been stopped, and he himself had been imprisoned by orders from Rome as a dangerous man. In fact, he quoted the order of the Pope given to the Franciscan General that Bacon was to be allowed paper and pen and ink, and to write as he wished. And now this versatile scholar, the deeply learned man, sits upon the throne of Saint Peter, and is called to direct the millions of people in communion with the Roman Church. He has a great task, without doubt, but he brings to it eminent qualities of head and heart. He is a man of great physical strength, and one who has the courage of his opinions. He is one who thinks before he acts; and, above all, perhaps, he is a man with a great heart, who draws all who meet him to himself. Besides, he is always self-possessed. One small instance may suffice: On the very day of his election as Pope, within a few minutes of his giving his blessing to the world from the loggia of Saint Peter’s, passing through the Sala Ducale on the way to his room he saw the English Secretary of one of the Cardinals, and this Secretary had just lost his mother. At that absorbing moment he took the hand of the priest and, expressing sorrow at his loss, promised to remember his mother in his prayers.