Pope Sarto's Eminence Grise
Pope St. Pius X and Rafael Merry del Val: It is hard to imagine two personalities more different. The former was born in the Venetian countryside to a humble family which knew hardship and probably hunger as well. Before his election to the papacy, his entire life was spent in rural rectories and provincial chanceries, far from the spotlight and from places of power.
Merry del Val (1865-1930), 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. The lives of these two ecclesiastics, which seemed destined to travel on separate ways, crossed almost by accident and ended up so closely interwoven that it is hard to separate them even today.
From Ambassador’s Son to the Pope’s Ambassador
According to Merry del Val’s biographer, Pio Cenci, Leo XIII himself placed del Val at the Academy for Noble Ecclesiastics due to his noble lineage and linguistic skills, as he had mastered perfectly the main European languages. Not yet a priest, the Pope used him for diplomatic missions in England, Germany, and Austria. In a pontifical curia that was laboriously seeking to regain its international role and scope after the loss of temporal power in 1870, this descendant of the illustrious English Merry family and of the even more illustrious Spanish house of del Val was a God-send. Merry del Val’s rapid ascent was due, in addition to his family background, 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.
After graduating from the Pontifical Gregorian University, he became an influential figure of pontifical Rome, especially on the Anglican question. His perfect knowledge of the environment, 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, 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 following year, he went on a long mission in Canada as apostolic delegate. Young Canadian Catholicism, torn between the opposing temptations of severity and laxness, 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.
From Conclave Secretary to Secretary of State
At the time the Conclave of 1903 convened after the passing of Leo XIII, Merry del Val was a bishop and president of the academy of ecclesiastical nobles. By a concourse of circumstances, he was promoted in extremis secretary of the Conclave at the death of Leo XIII. Hence, although he could not vote as he was not a cardinal, Bishop del Val had to shoulder the heavy burden of preparing and conducting the most difficult conclave of the past two centuries.
The first meeting with Cardinal Sarto took place during the Conclave, 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. The young Merry del Val, who was sent to fetch him and encourage him to accept his nomination, had a first glimpse of the sanctity of ‘his’ Pope, whom he found lost in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, begging to elude the cross of the papacy. As the Conclave was coming to an end, Sarto had seen the prelate in action and was able to evaluate him. Hence, a few hours after he became pope, Sarto informed him, to his astonishment, that he had decided to keep del Val as interim Secretary of State. “I don’t have anyone so far,” he is said to have told him nonchalantly. “Stay with me. Then we’ll see.”
But St. Pius X, with his keen intuition, observed and scrutinized del Val daily, and delayed not in understanding that this was the “man of God” whom Providence had placed beside him in his Pontificate. 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. He blessed him and with paternal affection said: “Accept: it is the will of God. We will work together, and suffer together for love of the Church,” echoing in this way, the “Courage, Eminence” which Merry del Val had whispered to Cardinal Sarto a few months previously, when encouraging him to accept the Pontificate.
Pius X had certainly taken into account another of Merry del Val’s qualities: his life of piety. The praise that Pope Sarto addressed to him on November 11, 1903, the day he received the cardinal’s berretta, is so unusual 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 [he ran a youth club in the Trastevere with his own subsidies], have won for you, with admiration, universal esteem.” An essentially religious pope chose for himself a secretary of state with his own characteristics.
French novelist René Bazin praised the move by Pope Pius X, who “in naming Cardinal Merry del Val as his Secretary of State, showed that he possessed one of the primary qualities of a Prince, which is to know men and to choose his ministers for the good of the kingdom. To suddenly place the young prelate in such a high position, required courage: but Pius X had recognized in Rafael Merry del Val an extraordinary character and a superior intelligence.”
In his first Consistory, the pope explained to the cardinals that he had personally observed his “noble gifts of soul and of character, as well as his outstanding prudence in dealing with the affairs of the Church. I chose him because he is a polyglot: born in England, educated in Belgium, of Spanish nationality, and living in Italy; the son of a diplomat, and himself a diplomat, he is acquainted with the problems of all countries. He is very modest, he is a saint. He comes here every morning and informs me of the all the questions concerning the world. I need never make an observation to him, and he knows no compromise.”
Church Curia and Church Reform
Merry del Val moved gracefully in the diplomatic world, could handle the problems of international politics, and understood the Roman curia perfectly. One might say that the new secretary of state had everything the pope lacked. St. Pius X usually referred to Merry del Val as “his” cardinal. Camille Bellaigue had heard the pope saying to him: “To separate myself from Cardinal del Val? I would rather be separated from my head.” On several occasions, he said that “he knew not how to thank Our Lord enough for giving him such a precious collaborator.”
The task of “foreign policy” was not quite as primordial in St. Pius X’s agenda as it had been for Leo XIII. Yet, the pope had to deal with various international crises which demanded all his attention and that of his faithful collaborator, the most noteworthy being France’s dramatic separation of Church and State in 1905. Faced with an obvious blackmail, with a single blow, the pope’s firmness wiped out three centuries of Gallicanism, of a national Church, bringing French Catholicism back to complete fidelity to Rome. 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, continuing with the reform of the curia, and including the codification of canon law.
The reform of the Roman curia, approved in 1908, directly concerned the expansion of its powers, but in such a wise as to have the secretariat of state 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 the role of Merry del Val 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.
On the deadly threat of modernism and the decisive action of the papacy during this inside crisis, much has been written and many have criticized the pope’s actions, deemed too harsh on the protagonists. Again, Merry del Val more than anyone else, had the keen understanding of the gravity of the situation and could not afford the universal flock to be gangrened by such internal toxins. The cardinal’s anti-modernism predated his elevation to the office of Secretary of State. He opposed the heresy of Americanism, condemned by Leo XIII’s Apostolic Letter of 1899, Testem benevolentiae. That same year, he spoke out against the book, External Religion, written by future modernist George Tyrrell, and wrote to Cardinal Vaughan about the heresies of the scientist St. George Jackson Mivart. He promised papal approbation of Vaughan’s plan for the hierarchy’s joint pastoral letter condemning Liberal Catholicism in 1900.
Once in a position of authority as the pope’s right arm, Merry del Val wrote the cover letter to Cardinal Richard of Paris for the decree of the Holy Office to place five of the Abbé Alfred Firmin Loisy’s books on the Index of Forbidden Books, and repudiated Loisy’s subsequent limited submission. He wrote the letter of 1904 dissolving the Italian Opera dei Congressi, thereby bringing this Italian lay body directly under the Church’s authority, in accordance with the principles of legitimate Catholic Action. He favored a similar subordination to the Church of the center party in Germany. In 1910, he participated in the papal condemnation of the French Liberal movement of the Sillon.
After the pope’s death, Cardinal 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.” At his death in Rome in 1930, his body was carried by young men from the Trastevere to the crypt of St. Peter’s and buried near the tomb of Pius X. The inscription on his marble cenotaph reads Da mihi animas—Coetera tolle (“give me souls—take the rest”), a mystical application of Abraham’s words, “Give me the persons, and the rest take to thyself” (Gen. 14:21). At the request of the Spanish hierarchy the cause for his canonization was introduced in 1953. The informative process was completed in 1956 and published in 1957. His cause, however, has made little progress since Vatican II.