REMINDER: Friends, today starts the first full day of the interregnum between Pope Benedict XVI and his successor. As it is the duty of every Catholic to pray for the outcome of a papal election, we strongly encourage you to join in the novena – which begins today – called for by Bishop Fellay, begging Almighty God that the Cardinal Electors may be docile to the will and direction of the Holy Ghost.
As this is our first meeting of “book club” it’s safe to say that future book days may be different in scope, tone, and substance. But for today, let’s take a brief look at the book as a whole, then delve into a summary of the first chapter, and conclude with some particular takeaways from this chapter.
The introduction to Pope Pius IX: The Man and the Myth, immediately sets the tone for the book. It’s clear at the outset that Chiron is not sitting down to write simply a hagiographical work. The problem, as Chiron sees it, is that most biographers of Pius IX have fallen into two extreme camps: Detracting the pope simply because they despise what he stood for, or seeing everything in his life through the pre-determined light of sanctity and a desire to emphasize this, even at the cost of real historical observations (which is not to say that Pius IX is not a saint). Thus, the author insists, quoting an earlier biographer that there is a duty to “pass the works of Pius IX’s apologists and his detractors through the sieve of a severe criticism.” (pg. x)
This is an important point. Removing entirely from the question of Pius IX, it is important to restate again and again that the Church has nothing to fear from a deep and serious study of history, even (and perhaps especially) those points which are most controversial in our modern age. Thus, we may rejoice that the author takes, at the outset, an insistence that he will seek to write a comprehensive biography of the Pope, and we may say, to follow the evidence wherever it will lead him.
The first chapter of this book takes us from the birth of Giovanni Maria, Giovanni Battista, Pietro, Pellegrino, Isidoro Mastai-Ferretti (commonly called Giovanni Maria) through his 17th year, at which point, finishing his schooling (that stage of schooling, anyway), he received the tonsure at the hands of the Bishop of Volterra.
Obviously, this chapter of his life is a shorter one in the biography. Though the period in question accounts for 20% of his life, it is obvious that the most important years of Giovanni Maria (as priest, bishop, and pope) were ahead of him. And while it is necessary for Chiron to skip over them, we should look critically at them to see what events or dispositions would be of lasting influence to him.
Anyone who has reached adulthood, and a certain maturity of reflection, will admit that from a formative perspective, the years of boyhood through the beginnings of manhood are undoubtedly the most important. It is these years that leave a lasting influence, and these years which create the parameters in which the rest of one’s life will be lived. And, so, what does Chiron tell us of this influence?
There seem to be two “decisive” elements in the life of Pius IX (and we certainly don’t pretend that these are all encompassing).
The first is that of his mother’s piety. In this account, the biographer brings three elements to light:
Sacrifice of First Fruits: While this may not have a definitive bearing (in the sense of drawing a connection) between any later action of Pius IX as pope and his early years, it clearly shows a formative element, and the lasting influence of his mother. What it tells us is that the young Giovanni Maria was taught to make regular sacrifices, hitting directly against his own desires (who doesn’t desire the first apple or pear as it comes back into season for the first time that year) in honor of the Blessed Virgin.
The second element of Daily Mass speaks for itself. It would seem impossible to argue that this practice did not greatly affect his desire to become a priest.
Finally, Chiron mentions something just briefly, concerning the French Occupation of the Papal States. The revolutionaries even imprisoned the Pope, at this time Pope Pius VII (having previously done the same to Pius VI). Certainly the Mastai family felt righteous indignation at such an affront to the Holy Father and his prerogatives; but what is the point brought out by the biographer, which must have impressed itself upon him during his studies? That the future pope’s mother taught him explicitly to pray for the Church’s enemies, offering up prayers for their conversion, as well as the obvious prayers they offered for the persecuted Holy Father.
If, as we said, the impressions of childhood form us deeply, is there any doubt that he returned to these thoughts in later years when he too, as Vicar of Christ, suffered persecution, and offered up a boy’s simple prayer for the conversion of his enemies?
After his mother’s piety, there is one other element that must have been deeply formative for the young boy: boarding school. Without going into much detail or discussion, the rigorous life (both academically and personally) required by the Piarist Fathers would have continued the mother’s teaching of prayer and self-renunciation. In this way, through the rigors of his schooling, the lessons of his undoubted sadness at times to be separated from his family, and through an exact and demanding discipline, he was prepared for a true manhood, even though he could not, at that time, see just how much that control, and ability to suffer would be needed.
Looking at these points, and any other points you found interesting, please leave your comments below. Please try to confine your comments only to the book at hand, and only to the introduction and first chapter of this book. And just as a reminder, next week, we will read and review Chapters 2-5!
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