Tag Archives: Pius XI

Elizabet: The Vatican in the 1920s

“May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work done.”

                                                 John Henry Cardinal Newman, Sermons

These past two weeks airwaves and blogs were abuzz with sentiments about Mother Church, most of it negative. Commentators, often disclaiming any religious affiliation, offered opinion on issues ranging from sex abuse, to the Latin Mass, to the meaning of the word “Church.” Deep down, the assault on bishops and pope felt as if muggers had invaded our neighborhood. In the middle of such thoughts, I remembered Elizabet.

Elizabet was the mother of a friend who introduced me to her on an evening cruise up the Rhine River in August 1990.  She was 92 years old at the time. I spoke no German and she no English, but after some time sitting beside one another at the rail of the ship, I ventured: “Si parla Italiano?” She nodded, smiled broadly, and as dusk slowly edged into darkness we spoke in Italian. She told me of her life.

Elizabet had grown up in the Catholic town of Gladback west of the Rhine, and soon after World War I studied law at the University of Cologne. She was very attractive (her sister always said: “too attractive”).  Elizabet had already turned down several offers of marriage when, in 1923, she obtained work as a secretary in the German Embassy to the Vatican in Rome. It was a difficult time for the Church. Italy was suffering from an economic depression, and The Vatican, having never acknowledged the existence of the Italian State, had sealed itself off from the world for the previous 50 years. The Pope was regarded as “a prisoner of the Vatican,” and chose to remain confined within its walls, attended to by a small remnant of nobility bearing titles they had inherited from the now-defunct Papal States.

Once each week Elizabet, dressed in black and with her head covered by a veil, entered this anachronistic world accompanying a group of German pilgrims to a papal audience hall located high above the entry to St. Peter’s Basilica.  She described her experience ascending the great staircase, passing the Swiss guards and coming into the presence of Christ’s Vicar, surrounded by papal chamberlains and chair-bearers and footmen. In these relatively small gatherings,

Pope Pius XI would speak briefly with the visitors while Elizabet  transcribed his remarks.
Pope Pius XI would speak briefly with the visitors while Elizabet transcribed his remarks.

The Pontiff, former Italian Archbishop Achille Ratti was an impressive spiritual figure, who despite his self-imposed isolation, was emerging as a significant figure on the world stage. Elizabet never spoke with the Pope, but over time he began nodding in recognition to her during this weekly encounter, in what she described as a “sympathetic but distant relationship.”

During her time in Rome she also became acquainted with the darker sides of this isolated Church-state: the petty bureaucratic struggles within the Vatican, human vanities and weakness. During the four years in which she worked at the German embassy, she became aware of priests whom she described, “as not following their faith in respect to chastity.” One day, a priest to whom Elizabet was making her confession propositioned her.  The experience deeply shook her, and sometime thereafter she stopped frequenting the sacraments, and returned to Germany.

For more than a decade, Elizabet described herself as having no religion. The faith of her youth was gone. She married, and had a child that died soon thereafter. Then, for reasons unclear, she joined a group of young intellectuals taking part in a German Catholic Study Movement, and slowly, painfully, over time found meaning in Catholicism. She returned to the sacraments, but in coming to believe again in a loving Savior, she found she no longer needed a perfect Church.

The river, catching the last rays of daylight, had turned a cobalt blue, and a cool breeze wafted across the ship as it turned in the center of the navigation channel and began its return toward the lights of Cologne.

Elizabet had mothered two other children, and survived the bombings of World War II.  She was still in good health, and when climbing stairs with her son-in-law, a medical doctor, still held his hand lest he fall. But now, she told me, she was ready to die. She was absolutely certain that she would be with God after death. There was steadfastness to her faith that was remarkable.

The ship docked and I never saw her again. But on trying days, I am reminded that the Church we love is not the Pope’s church, nor the bishops’, but Christ’s. We can love our faith tradition, and respect its leaders and their ministries. But they are not ends in themselves. Christ’s promise to the us that the “gates of hell will not prevail,” does not guarantee that we will never have trying times, only that in the end, God’s love will conquer all human deficiencies, and at the close of our days bring us to a safe place of rest.

Larry Mullaly July 2007