The news of the death of Leo XIII, on July 20, 1903, came as a blow to the whole Catholic world. The old man of ninety-four, whose wonderful intelligence had remained unimpaired until the very end of his life, had guided the bark of Peter with sure and unswerving hand during the twenty-live years of his pontificate. His blameless life, his lofty ideas, and his indomitable moral courage have been borne witness to by men who had small sympathy for the Catholic Church. "The original attitude of Leo XIII towards the new social forces," wrote the Quarterly Review, "will make his pontificate a memorable epoch, not only in the history of the Roman Church, but in that of all Christian countries. His personal conception of the duties of the Church towards the labouring classes was catholic in the broadest and best sense of the term. It was such a conception as befitted the chief pastor of Christendom." And this was only one side of the activity of the great statesman and pope who had passed away. "Pray that God may send to His Church a shepherd after His own heart," said Cardinal Sarto when he announced to his people at Venice the news of the pope's death. Little did he think how that prayer was to be answered. Yet Leo XIII himself not long before his death had said to an intimate friend, "If the conclave chooses a cardinal not resident in Rome, it is Cardinal Sarto who will be elected."
The announcement of the death of Leo was sent to all the cardinals throughout the world, with the intimation that the conclave for the election of his successor would be held on the 31st of July. It was not until the 26th that Cardinal Sarto was able to set out. He laughed at the apprehensions of his sisters that he might not come back to them. His secretary, Don Giovanni Bressan, was busy putting together what was necessary for the journey. "Where is Don Giovanni?" asked the cardinal of his niece Amalia. "Go and tell him that a journey to Rome is not a journey to America."
"Get the conclave over and come back quickly," said Amalia.
"Sooner or later," replied the Cardinal, "it does not matter. In the meantime you go to Possagno for a change of air and I will pick you up on my way back." But the sisters were sad, and refused to be comforted.
The whole city turned out to greet the patriarch as the gondola made its way to the station; from every balcony and bridge good wishes and farewells followed him. At the station there was a regular ovation, poor and rich crowded round him to kiss his ring or catch a word from his lips. With tears in his eyes he thanked them for that demonstration of affection, and for the love they bore him.
"One more blessing! one more blessing!" pleaded the people, "who knows if you will ever come back?"
"Alive or dead, I shall come back," was the answer.
The train began to move, and from its window Cardinal Sarto unknowingly looked his last on his beloved Venice; it was good-bye for ever.[*] He had written to the Lombard College for rooms, and there he remained until the opening of the conclave. A Venetian lady who lived at Rome, having come to see him, expressed a polite wish that he would be the new pope. Cardinal Sarto laughed. "It is sufficient honour," he replied, "that God should make use of such as I to elect the pope."
[*] The story that he had taken a return ticket does not seem to be true but he planned to return to Venice immediately after the coronation of the new pope.
A French cardinal (Lecot of Bordeaux) who did not know him spoke to him one day. "Your Eminence is an Italian archbishop?" he asked.
"I do not speak French," replied Cardinal Sarto, in Latin; "I am the patriarch of Venice."
"Ah! if you do not speak French," answered his questioner, "you will not be eligible for the papacy."
"Thank God, no," was the answer; "I am not eligible for the papacy."
"I think the election will be quickly over," said Cardinal Sarto to an Italian journalist who came to visit him in Rome. "The pope will probably be elected at the second scrutiny."
"I venture to disagree with your Eminence," was the reply, "and on these grounds. I hope—for I think it is permissible—for a cardinal who resides in his diocese. Not that the cardinals of the curia are wanting in breadth or in experience, but as a rule those prelates who live in the provinces are in immediate contact with the people. They have a better chance of seeing things from the inside than those who occupy an official post in Rome, important and indispensable though these may be. But of necessity the non-resident cardinals are less well known in Rome than those of the curia, their candidature must therefore be slower and the election longer."
The election of a pope is one of the most solemn deeds of the Church, and is safeguarded by strict regulations. On the death of the pontiff the Cardinal Chamberlain, as representative of the Sacred College, assumes charge of the papal household, notifying to all the cardinals of the Church the death of the pope and the impending election. Every cardinal has the right to vote in the conclave, but he must be present in person to do so. Each one may take with him a secretary, who is generally a priest, and a servant. In the meanwhile a large portion of the Vatican palace has been walled off and divided into apartments or cells for the conclavists. Access to it can be had through one door alone, which is left open until the conclave begins, when it is closed and barred from without by the Marshal of the Conclave, and from within by the Cardinal Chamberlain. All communication with the outside world is then at an end until the result of the election is announced.
The conclave opens officially (now) not later than eighteen days after the pope's death. The cardinals assist at Mass and receive holy communion from the hands of the Cardinal Dean, who solemnly adjures them to elect as pope him whom they believe to be the most worthy. They assemble in the Sistine Chapel, where the actual voting takes place. The stall of each cardinal has a canopy overhead and a small writing-desk in front. The door is shut and bolted and the voting begins. Each cardinal having written the name of his candidate on the paper provided, deposits it in a chalice on the altar, taking as he does so the required oath: "I call to witness the Lord Christ, who will be my judge, that I am electing the one whom before God I think ought to be elected." The ballots are then counted and read aloud, and if no candidate has received the necessary number of votes, they are burnt in a little stove together with a handful of damp straw. As the chimney of this stove extends through a window of the chapel, the colour of the smoke or sfumata can be clearly seen by those outside. Not until the election is made are the ballots burnt without the accompanying straw, when the clear white smoke is the first notification to the people that the pope is elected. Voting takes place twice a day, morning and evening, until a majority of two-thirds of the votes has been attained.
The veto was the alleged right of certain Catholic rulers to object to the election of a cardinal of whom they do not approve. It was exercised rarely and has never been formally approved by the Church. Although Pius IX had forbidden any interference by the secular power in a papal election, an attempt was made to exercise the veto at the conclave which resulted in the election of Pius X. At the third scrutiny, in which Cardinal Rampolla came first with twenty-nine votes, Cardinal Puzyna, Bishop of Cracow, who had accepted the mandate of the Austrian government in the name of the Emperor Francis Joseph, read (it is said after signs of severe embarrassment) a declaration excluding Cardinal Rampolla, without giving any reason for the exclusion.
The cardinals protested against the interference, and the votes in Cardinal Rampolla's favour were found to have increased by one in the evening scrutiny. But Cardinal Sarto's had been mounting steadily from the beginning and continued to do so until they reached the number of fifty.[*]
[*] The opinions of those best qualified to judge seem to agree that Cardinal Rampolla's failure to be elected was quite uninfluenced by the Austrian action. Soon after his election Pius X definitively abolished the exercise of the veto.
At five o'clock on the 31st of July the Cardinals, sixty-three in all, assembled at the Vatican. At nightfall the last door was closed and bricked up; the conclave had begun. At the first scrutiny Cardinal Rampolla had twenty-four votes, Cardinal Gotti seven, and Cardinal Sarto five. There was nothing alarming in this; but when, at the second scrutiny, the votes in favour of the Patriarch of Venice had doubled, and at the third doubled again, it was another matter, and his anguish was obvious to all. With trembling voice and tears in his eyes, he spoke to the Cardinals, begging them to give up all thought of him. "I am unworthy, I am not qualified," he pleaded, "forget me."
"It was that very adjuration, his grief, his profound humility and wisdom," said Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, "that made us think of him all the more; we learnt to know him from his words as we could never have known him by hearsay." The voting continued. In the evening of the second day Cardinal Sarto, who at the last scrutiny had obtained twenty-four votes, on returning to his room found several of his colleagues who had come to beg him not to refuse the burden if God should call upon him to bear it. "I was one of those who went to visit him in his cell in the evening, to try to induce him to accept," said the American cardinal. "Those who had gone before had shaken his resistance, so that I almost hoped he would resign himself to what seemed to be inevitable." On the third day the votes for Cardinal Sarto went on increasing, until on the morning of the fourth day fifty out of the sixty-two were in his favour, eight more than the forty-two required for a valid election.
They asked him if he would accept, but he had already accepted in his heart after a most grievous inward struggle. "I accept," he said, with tears.
"What name will you take?" they asked him. "I will be called Pius," he replied.
Pale and trembling, he was clothed in the white cassock, the ring was placed on his finger, and he was led to the throne to receive the obedience of the cardinals. When at last the pope returned to his cell he remained for long in prayer before the crucifix. The faithful servant who had come with him from Venice begged him several times in vain to take some food. At last he rose, and, turning to his secretary, Monsignor Bressan, with something of his old serenity: "Come," he said, "it is the will of God."
Immediately after his election, when leaving the balcony from which he had given his first blessing inside St. Peter's, Pius X expressed his wish to go and visit Cardinal Herrero y Espinosa, Archbishop of Valencia, an old man eighty years of age who was lying sick in his cell. He had been taken ill a few days before and had received the last sacraments. The pope blessed and prayed over him. Three days later the man for whom the doctors had declared there was little hope was well enough to get up. He returned soon after to Spain, cured, as he himself always declared, by the prayer of Pius X.
The news of the election was received with joy in Italy. Outside of that country Pius X was little known. "What kind of a pope will he be?" was the question on many lips. The world had not long to wait for the answer. Two months had scarcely passed before his first encyclical letter rang through the Catholic world.
"It matters not to tell with what tears and earnest prayers we sought to avoid this appalling burden of the pontifical office," he begins. "We could not be other than disturbed at being appointed the successor of one who, after having most wisely ruled the Church for well-nigh six-and-twenty years, showed such power of genius and so shone with virtue that even adversaries were constrained to admire him."
Going straight to the heart of the world's unrest, the pope lays bare the cause of the disease—"the falling away from and forsaking God, than which there is nothing more nearly allied to perdition. As, borne up by God's might, we set our hand to the work of withstanding this great evil, we proclaim that in bearing the pontifical office this is our one purpose, 'to restore all things in Christ, so that Christ may be all in all'." Beautiful words, which embody the teaching and the work of a lifetime spent in God's service. No empty ideal either, but the one that Giuseppe Sarto had set steadfastly before himself from the very day of his consecration to the priesthood, to which he had devoted himself strenuously ever since.
He foresaw the hostile judgments that were to be expected from certain quarters on every action of the head of the Catholic Church. "There will be some, assuredly, who, measuring divine things by those that are human, will study our mind to wrest it to earthly ends and the aims of parties. To cut off this vain hope of theirs, we affirm in all truth that in human society we desire to be nothing, and by the help of God we will be nothing, but the minister of God whose authority we bear. God's cause is our cause, to which we are determined to devote all our strength and life itself Therefore, if any ask of us a token to show forth the purpose of our mind, we shall ever give this one alone—'to restore all things in Christ'."
"To this, therefore," he continues later, speaking of the evils that follow on the forsaking of God, "must we direct all our efforts, to bring the race of men under the dominion of Christ; when once this is done, it will have already returned to God Himself. How many are there," he laments, "that hate Christ and abhor the Church and the Gospel through ignorance rather than perversity, of whom you may rightly say that 'they blaspheme whatever things they know not'; and this is to be found not only in the common people, but among the cultured and even those who enjoy no mean learning. It cannot be agreed that faith is quenched by the growth of science: it is more truly quenched by want of knowledge." Speaking of those who are hostile to the Church, "Why may we not hope," he says, "that the fire of Christian charity will dissipate the darkness, and bring them 'the light and peace of God'? Charity is never wearied by waiting."
"A 'shepherd of souls' was the verdict of the Catholic world on reading the encyclical. 'Gentle and strong' was the judgement of a well-known American bishop. But there was another side to the character of the pope which later on became evident. 'Pius X,' wrote one who had known him intimately at Venice, 'is a man of keen intelligence, and of great culture, thoroughly well up in the philosophy, literature, and social movements of the times'." But first and foremost a shepherd of souls. The world was right in its judgement.
One of the first actions of the new pope was to order the distribution of four thousand pounds amongst the poor of Rome, and half that amount amongst the poor of Venice. "Is it not rather a large sum?" suggested the almoner respectfully, "considering the actual state of things?"
"Where is your trust in God's Providence?" asked Pius, and the money was given.
He could no longer go to his beloved poor, but word was given that they should come to him. Sunday after Sunday they were gathered, parish by parish, in the courts of the Vatican to hear from the lips of the pope himself a simple sermon on the gospel of the day. "Love God, and lead good Christian lives," such was the burden of his teaching; but there was more teaching still in the warm welcome that awaited them, in the tender charity that shone forth in every word and movement. "Sweet Christ on earth," was what St. Catherine of Siena loved to call the successor of St. Peter. Surely the name must have often come to the lips of those whose privilege it was to be much in the presence of Pius X.