THE height of everyone’s desire in Rome is to see the Pope. It is possible to catch a glimpse of the King and Queen at the opera or theatre, driving on the Pincio, or through the Gardens of the Villa Borghese, but with the Pope it is a more difficult matter, as he never leaves the Vatican, and one must have the entree to guarded rooms in order to see him.
There are various ways to accomplish this, the usual one being through some influential person. An American who brings a letter to the Bishop of the Catholic College here, at once receives from him, gratis, a letter of introduction to His Holiness.
However, not everyone can get a letter to the Bishop, or to a Cardinal, or even to a prominent priest. Another way, and the one used by some travelers, is ‘through the porters of the leading hotels. In some mysterious way a permit may occasionally be procured in this manner, for evidently some one who can obtain tickets sells them to speculators who take them to the prominent hotels where the guileless guests may pay as high as they please for them. As no one is expected to pay to see a Pope, the latter way is, of course, unjust and illegal, and the church receives none of the money, only these enterprising speculators.
It was almost impossible to get a glimpse of the late Leo KIII., but the people find this Pope more accessible, and he is so desirous of receiving the faithful, that it is feared he is greatly over-taxing his strength, and that his small weekly receptions will soon have to be abandoned on that account.
Every woman present is required to wear a black gown, and nothing on her head but a black veil; the men wear full dress, although it is daytime. The invitations to these so-called receptions are not issued until twelve o’clock of the same day, and being so fortunate as to receive cards, we arrived at the Vatican door at the oppointed hour of three and showing our permit, were immediately passed up the great stairway by the Swiss Guard. These Guards are dressed in the same picturesque costumes that Michael Angelo designed for them, outdoing in blacks, yellows and reds, Joseph’s coat of many colors, and standing so erect with their great spears in their hands, they looked just ready to be painted and framed.
Their duty is, first and last, to protect the Pope, an honor considered so great that their pay is a mere pittance. The loyalty of a Swiss Guard has always remained above reproach, and even in the French Revolution, when the terrifying mob burst into the Tuileries, yelling to the soldiers to give up their swords, it was the Swiss Guard on duty before Marie Antoinette’s door who alone had the courage to refuse, for he heroicly replied: “A Swiss Guard only gives up his weapons with his life,” and then paid without a murmur the price of his loyalty.
To reach the height of one’s desire one must also reach the top of the Vatican. The marble stairway ascends until it seems one must be near heaven, and yet higher and higher on it goes, until one is reminded of the tired child who said the walk had all gone out of his legs. The Guards stand on every landing, and eye one as searchingly as a Pinkerton detective, with no need of X-rays to see through to the other side.
At last we came to a large open court, after crossing which, to another hallway, one more long flight of marble steps makes the way of the transgressor very hard. “Upward and onward” could be the motto of the Vatican; but finally the goal was reached, and an old servant in red silk stockings, knee breeches and red brocaded velvet coat, showed us into a great room, magnificent with priceless frescoes, illustrating scenes from various Popes’ lives. Here several more red liveried men stood ready to take one’s wraps, and then we were passed on to a gentleman in full dress, who knew, without a word of inquiry, better than any clairvoyant, just who each one was. He escorted us through four private rooms, one hung with wonderfully fine tapestry, each filled with about twenty waiting guests, and seated us in the first room. The walls here were hung with the most exquisite crimson moire, the carpet was red velvet, the hangings red and green, and the ceiling was resplendent with the Pope’s crest, the mitre and the keys of heaven that were given to St. Peter. On two marble tables with marvelously wrought gold-bronze legs, stood an oil lamp, although the building is now lighted with electricity, and also a very large bronze crucifix. The rooms of the Vatican impress one with their quiet elegance. The materials used show at a glance that nothing better could be made; the silks have shimmer, and the velvets a texture, that exceed anything in the Royal Palace, while the frescoes and tapestries are so valuable they are seldom shown to the eyes of the outer world.
There were twelve people in our room, and the black dresses were of all kinds, from jetted nets, lace and satins, to cloth tailor suits, and the women try to assume, with their black lace veils, an angelic expression, each one thinking she resembles, in that drapery, a Madonna! Almost everyone had a bunch of rosaries to be blessed. Both men and women drew. off their gloves, and at promptly quarter after three a man in the doorway made a signal, and forming a circle, we all sank on our knees.
There was a stillness of death. Then quietly, and as unostentatiously as a snowflake, in came the Pope. He appeared so suddenly, so unheralded, and with such an absence of pomp or ceremony, it took me several seconds to realize that in that simple, kind looking old man, robed in white, I was really seeing Pius X., the Pope of Christendom. His secretary, Cardinal Merry del Val, stood at his side and pointed out the various guests who were of special distinction. Then the Pope walked around and took each person in turn by the hand and said a few words in blessing. All good Catholics kissed his hand while he greeted them.
When he came to bless me, in my eagerness to see the real man back of the Pope, I could not keep both eyes closed for very long, and looking straight into his kind, blue eyes, his sincerity was so impressive, one felt instinctively he could never be anything but a father to his people.
He was dressed all in white broadcloth, with white moire sash, and little moire cap on the back of his head, going well with his heavy gray hair. From a gold chain around his neck hung a crucifix set with emeralds, and his red shoes had little gilt heels. He is of medium height, rather stout, with a peas-ant’s ruddy complexion, but his eyes have a tired look, that shows how trying the confinement of the Vatican must be to him.
He spoke in a low voice and, after addressing each one, he stood in the middle of the room and, making the sign of the cross, blessed us all together and then passed softly into the next waiting room. There were about one hundred present, and in a short time his greetings were over and he continued on for a walk in the garden, while we retraced our steps down the great stairway, leaving the “Prisoner of the Vatican” alone in his glory.
In 1871, when Victor Emmanuel II. united Italy, Pope Pius IX. was against him, and after the King’s victory the Pope was deprived of his so-called temporal power, meaning the control of the lands owned by the church. Since that bitter defeat the Popes have refused to go out into the city that was formerly their own, and so they have remained ever since shut tip in the Vatican. All that is left to them in Rome are the Vatican and Lateran Palaces and they receive an annuity of $645,000 from the crown as indemnity.
The Castle of Gondolfo, just outside the city, is also theirs, and there is a plan to have Pius X. spend his summers there, that he may have the much needed change to cooler air and yet, so to speak, be under his own vine and fig tree. To reduce expenses he is cutting down the pay list of the Vatican, doing away with unnecessary officials, changing the singing for church services, and making many improvements. It is also hoped by the “Whites,” or King’s party, that he will assert himself over the Cardinals’ objections, and, burying the old feud, go out again into Rome.
His sisters, good peasant women, who had bought third-class tickets to Rome and were quite annoyed when they were provided with a private car, live near the Vatican and see their brother twice a week. The Pope himself, as Cardinal Sarto, had a return-trip ticket to Venice from the conclave, so little did he think he would be the chosen one of all the Cardinals.
He may not be like Leo XIII., a learned scholar, nor yet a crafty statesman, and the only nobility about him is in his daily life, yet everyone who sees him must feel he will be some-thing better than a great or wise Pope for he will certainly be a good one. Undoubtedly it will be with him as it was with Sir Galahad who, of all the gallant knights, was the one to see the Holy Grail”for his strength was as the strength of ten, because his heart was pure.”