On a warm sultry day in Rome with the humidity wilting the air, I ducked into the courtyard of an old palace bearing a large banner over its entry portal: “Museo di Roma. Walking through a courtyard to the ground floor exhibits, I found myself staring at on old railroad carriage. A placard indicated that this had been the personal railroad car of one of the fascinating ecclesiastical figures of the 19th century. When the car’s black lacquer had been fresh, and gilded handrails glistened, the rail carriage was emblematic of a figure that broke into the world’s view like a sunburst of brilliant promise.
Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti was born in 1792 and entered the seminary when he was 14. At the age of 35 he was appointed Archbishop of Spoleto, on the foothills of the Apennines north of Rome where he earned a reputation for organizing relief efforts, visiting prisoners in jail, and promoting efforts to assisting street children. The tall, affable prelate was elected to the papacy as a compromise candidate in 1846, took the name of “Pio Nono” (Pius IX). At the beginning of his reign, the 54 year-old Pontiff was hailed as the savior of Italy, and showered with praise, poems, and musical tributes.
The kingdom that the new pope inherited was an uneven assortment of mostly isolated, thinly inhabited provinces. Roads were poor, access to Rome was difficult, and visitors relatively few. In the face of political unrest, Pius IX engaged in a series of efforts to modernize the Papal States, taking steps to improve health care, build a telegraph system, and install gas lighting in Rome. Pio Nono was particularly enthusiastic about railroads, both as a means to unify his kingdom and to promote access to Rome. By 1860, his new papal railroad system — built and equipped by Spanish and French contractors — comprised 200 miles of track connecting Rome to the seacoast and major cities of the region. Taking advantage of the new technology, the pope traveled widely through his territories.
An account of a railroad visit by the pontiff in May of 1863 to the hill-town of Frosinone south of Rome, describes how an enormous number of peasants clogged the roads to meet the pope, whose arrival was celebrated with music and fireworks. At each stop along the railway journey similar scenes were re-enacted, and when the papal train finally returned to Rome, a crowd of 10,000 admirers greeted Pio Nono at the Central Station.
Access to Rome caused by the completion of his railway line to Northern Italy, rendered the Eternal City accessible to large numbers of Catholic visitors, who in turn spread accounts of their audiences with the amiable, outgoing, “Pope of Prayer.” Pio Nono’s popularity helped mold the image of the papacy, as we know it today, and his deep devotion to Mary and the Sacred Heart, struck a deep chord among Catholic faithful. During the course of his long pontificate, young men flocked to the priesthood, and large numbers of Religious orders of women were founded, papal control over worldwide Catholic missionary activity was firmly established, and such efforts were strengthened in the Far East and in the southern hemispheres. The Pope also advanced church doctrine in important areas, promulgating the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In 1868 Pius IX, convened the First Vatican Council at which time the Dogma of Papal Infallibility was defined.
Meanwhile the political situation of the Holy See deteriorated. Troops of the newly created Kingdom of Italy, ostensibly coming to the aid of local insurrections, picked off province after province, shuttering schools and convents, and confiscating church property. In turn, the Pope excommunicated the King of Italy and those working with him. Catholics were forbidden to vote in national elections or run for office in the new government. Radical elements railed against the Church as outmoded, an outmoded relic of the past, The Pope countered that these properties “pertained to the entire Catholic world,” and denounced the invasion of his territories as “sacrilegious attacks.”
By 1860 the provinces under effective papal control were reduced to the area immediately surrounding Rome – a situation that remained unchanged for remainder of the decade, even as Catholics throughout the world contributed money (the origins of “Peter’s Pence” annual collection), and wrote letters in support of the beleaguered pontiff.
Having grown up in a world where cross and crown were sacrosanct, and with a limited education, the Pope had difficulty grasping the social and intellectual forces sweeping through Europe. Responding in his characteristically direct manner, Pio Nono had published a Syllabus of Errors of 1864 in which he famously rejected the “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization” to which the Church had fallen victim.
On the 15th of April 1869 the Holy Father celebrated his 50th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood in Rome, and Rome swarmed with pilgrims arriving by train to honor the Holy Father. A new papal anthem by the French composer Gounod was performed, and delegations from all the royal houses of Europe were in attendance, including all the Roman princes.
Convinced that it would only be a matter of time until the restoration of the Papal States, Pius IX continued to invest in civic improvements, pushing the construction of a new central train station, and industrial district centered on a new church of the Sacred Heart for which he laid the cornerstone in spring of 1870. When the Franco Prussian War broke out shortly thereafter, French forces that had been protecting the Rome and the port city of Civitavecchia were suddenly withdrawn, and on September 20 Italian troops marched into the Eternal City.
The aging pope adamantly refused to make a settlement with the new government. Instead, he declared an indefinite period of mourning and secluded himself within the papal palace as a self-declared “prisoner of the Vatican. Here he remained for the next eight years until his death at the age of 85, convinced to the end that the Church would regain its lost territories.
The restoration never happened. Not until 1929 was an accommodation finally reached with the Italian government, creating the City State of the Vatican, as we know it today.
During the beatification ceremony of Pius IX in 2000, Pope John Paul II described his 19th century predecessor as a man, “much loved, but also hated and slandered” who did not hesitate to acknowledge his “human faults and shortcomings.” Despite limitations of background and temperament, Pius IX fulfilled St. Peter’s function as rock of the Christian community. As we look forward to a new Pope, we pray that the shoes of the fisherman will be filled with a man capable of leading the Church through challenges of a very different age.
Larry Mullaly Feb. 28, 2013