"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
Dr Sutherland attended an audience with Pope Pius XI in Christmas 1930.
At Christmas 1930 I was in Rome, and the rector of the English College arranged a private audience with Pius XI. This was a distinction because the Pope all day is giving public audiences to hundreds of people. At night he works in his study at the top of the Vatican, where the light is on until one and two, and he is up at six. His predecessor, Pius X, during the Great War made many fruitless efforts for peace, and Cardinal Merry del Val, his greatest friend, thought that the War had broken his heart. If the present Pope could ensure peace he would place all mankind in his debt. Is it possible? Suppose he invited each of the Powers to send an ambassador to a round-table conference at the Vatican, each would state in simple language the difficulties of his country, her aims, grievances, and fears. Having heard all, the Pope might suggest measures of give-and-take based on equity and justice. If these were accepted the nations could without reservation enter into a real pact that would ensure peace and disarmament for a hundred years. The Pope is the only man in the world who might been trusted as an impartial arbitrator. He is an Italian, but he alone has the same interest as all countries. As things are, the nations do not trust their League. They know the League to be a hot-bed of intrigue, the happy hunting ground of cranks, and an earthly paradise for shorthand-typists. Since the Grand Academy of Lagado there has been nothing like it on earth, and what nation, with the possible exception of Andorra, would allow the League to enforce its decision by arms. Japan thought herself the victim of intrigue, and left. So did Germany. Meanwhile Europe is arming as she never did before.
The younger generation in Britain do not want war, those who fought in the last war never want to see another, and yet the flower of England may be slaughtered in Europe through the folly of a few old men, so old that they were too old to fight in the last war. In their treaties of peace they sowed the seeds of war. And if the Pope did make such an offer, what then? At the worst, he could only meet with a rebuff, and at the best he might save civilisation. Europe is spending two and a half millions sterling per day on armaments in 1934. To what end? That we may all enjoy the pestilence, famine and ruin.
That night in my hotel the hall porter announced a messenger from the Vatican, and brought in a well-dressed young man who handed me an envelope marked “Gratuit.” Inside was my card of admission. I thanked the young man, but he did not depart.
“What does he want?” I asked the porter.
“How much does he expect?”
“As its a private audience, he expects a pound.”
“Well, he won’t get it,” and I gave him five lire, which he pocketed without saying thank you.
Just before I arrived in Rome some of the English martyrs had been beatified in St. Peter’s, and tickets of admission had been sold in the hotels. News of this reached the Pope, who took steps to prevent a repetition of the scandal. There are hundreds of lay officials who do part-time work for the Vatican, and these are always on the look-out for tips, even from visiting bishops and cardinals.
Next morning, in the evening dress or “frack,” I went to the Vatican. Outside I met Dr McMillan, a Doctor of Divinity from the English College who was to be my guide. On handing the card of admission to Monsignore Cacchi, I asked if I might be able to keep the half with the sketch of a lady wearing a black mantilla, a plain black dress with a high collar and a long shirt, beneath which were the tips of two black shoes were visible. Below the sketch was a note that this costume was not de rigueur, but was intended to indicate how women should be dressed for an audience. I wished to show it to some of my lady friends in London, and was allowed to keep it.
We went to a long walk through large rooms with painted ceilings and walls hung with tapestry. There are a thousand rooms in the Vatican, and in those through which we passed hundreds of people were waiting. In one room were French, in another Dutch. At the end of a long gallery we sat on chairs beside the tapestry and waited. In another room the Duke of Abruzzi was having an audience. By the curtained door in front of us stood a Noble Guard, armed with a sword. As we waited I told Dr. Macmillan some amusing anecdotes, until an electric bell concealed in the tapestry behind me suddenly rang. This startled me, “Why the devil do they hide bells behind the tapestry?” “Yes,” said Dr. Macmillan, “I thought you’d get the wind up sooner or later. Most people do. The bell means the Pope is on his way here. Now we kneel.” As we knelt I watched the Noble Guard who stood at attention with his hand on the hilt of his sword. When the Pope entered the Noble Guard genuflected, drew the sword, seized it by the blade, and offered the hilt to the Pope, who acknowledged this old-world salute with a nod. The Pope crossed the room, and I kissed the ring which by tradition belonged to St. Peter. Dr. Macmillan did the same, and the Pope spoke to him in French: “You are in attendance on him? Does he understand French?” “Parfaitment, Votre Sainteté,” was the reply, and I began to perspire. True, that I understand French, but Dr. Macmillan had never heard me speak that language, or he would have given the Pope some warning of what he might expect.
Then to me the Pope said in French:
“You are an English doctor? You have a Guild of Catholic doctor in England? Is it not so?”
Being expected to speak, I answered, “Oui, mon père.”
“Good,” said the Pope, “and the Guild publishes a journal, The Catholic Medical Guardian, in which we sometimes read with interest.” He paused and continued: “A few years ago you fought birth control in England. Is it not so?”
“Oui, mon père.”
“We followed that case with interest, and for you it must have been an anxious time.”
At this point I intended to tell him that I could have done nothing about birth control without support of Cardinal Bourne, but what I actually said in French was: “Anything I did about birth control was in spite of Cardinal Bourne.”
This information so surprised His Holiness that he turned to his chamberlain and exclaimed, “Si, si, si, si, Cardinal Bourne.” From the face of the chamberlain I knew they were both smiling. then the Pope turned and said: “Now we will speak English. I can speak English. Yes?”
“You speak very good English, sir.”
Finally he said: “Now I am going to give you my blessing, and in blessing you I give my blessing to all English doctors, not only Catholic doctors, all doctors. And in blessing you, I give my blessing to your family, and to all your friends.”
I bowed my head…
Pius XI gives the impression of great mental and physical power. As I left the Vatican I thought of him as a scholar sitting for months in the reading-room of the British Museum, and as a mountaineer standing on great Alpine heights. There are certain men with whom an ordinary man would not care to have a disputation. For me, Napoleon is one and Pius XI is another.
Once outside the Vatican I said: “Let us have glass of the wine of Frascati.”
Over the wine I recounted my errors in French…
“And I called him ‘mon père.'”
“He wouldn’t mind that a bit, and after he gave you his blessing he did something unusual—he stroked your hair.”
“Well, it’s a blessing I didn’t call him ‘Monsieur le Curé.'”
From A Time to Keep.
Please note: The next post will be published on 2nd April 2019.