Leo XIII - Pontiff of a New Era

Author: LOR


L’Osservatore Romano


"Completely absorbed by enthusiasm for studies (I was then teaching literature in the episcopal seminary of Caltagirone and running the Schola Cantorum), the external world was indifferent and unknown to me. It was the following year that the first window opened for me on to that world, when the encyclical on the working-class question Rerum Novarum was published in May 1891. We young people, who loved Leo XIII as the modern pope, the reforming pope, the pope of genius, were fascinated by it". The testimony is of Luigi Sturzo, then twenty years old; and it gives us a glimpse of the fact that Leo XIII had already won the triple enthusiastic title in public opinion, even before the appearance of the famous social encyclical, with the already abundant series of documents and important acts of his pontificate.

Its intention—outlined from the first encyclical Inscrutabili Dei consilio of 21 April 1878—was "to reconcile unchanged tradition with the modern spirit and to open a dialogue between the Catholic Church and the world that had emerged from the revolution" (Oskar Köhler). It can be affirmed, in fact, that he opened a new era in the history of the Church, giving it a charge of courage and optimism, without which it is impossible to imagine his successors on Peter's chair. W. Goetz rightly states that Leo XIII succeeded in giving all believers a new sentiment of interior confidence before the world; and in his Storiadei Papi nel XX secolo O. Schwaiger considers him the most important not only of the popes of his century, but also of all the popes between Benedict XIV and Pius XI.

At the moment of the death of Pius IX (7 February 1878), the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church was Cardinal Gioachino Pecci who had come to the Curia only a few months before from Perugia where he had been an excellent bishop for thirty years. The task of organizing the conclave, therefore, fell upon him. An extraordinary conclave, since, for the first time in the history of papal elections, the choice of the Roman pontiff took place after the loss of the Patrimonium Petri. Not a few cardinals, including Franzelin, Ledochowski and Manning, had already spoken out in favour of holding the conclave outside Rome, in fact outside Italy. In the course of the first congregation of cardinals (the day after the death of Pius IX), a minority of eight cardinals declared they preferred Rome; but already the day afterwards the votes in favour of the transfer of the conclave to Spain were reduced to five, while the candidature of Rome imposed itself with thirty-two votes.

In the presence of sixty of the sixty-four members who composed the Sacred College, the conclave opened in the Vatican on 18 February, after an agreement had been reached, for the choice of an Italian candidate of moderate tendency. On the morning of 10 February there took place the first ballot, in which Cardinal Pecci obtained 19 votes, Cardinal Bilio 6 and Cardinal Franchi 4. In the afternoon ballot, the votes for Pecci went up to 26, Bilio got 7 and Franchi only 2. On the morning of 20 February Gioachino Pecci was elected with 44 votes. He took the name of Leo XIII,as a tribute to Leo XII, who favoured his admission to the Roman College.

The new pope was sixty-eight years old. Tall, slight, delicate, cold and somewhat distant towards visitors, solemn and majestic, he was an intellectual of vast culture and a thinker who delighted in broad syntheses and wide perspectives. He was capable of assuming his responsibilities in every circumstance and possessed the art of command, united with the very tenacious and sometimes facetious one of obtaining help with efficient, continuous and exhausting collaboration. A skilled diplomat and an acute observer, he had been able to realize the deep, irreversible changes that the stormy transition from the millenary rural civilization to the young industrial civilization was making in the outlook and behaviour of individuals and in social, political and cultural institutions. It is likely that in his long episcopate in Perugia (which passed, in 1860, from pontifical to Italian rule), Pecci prepared himself, in a certain way, for the Roman pontificate. This can be deduced from the heightened tone taken on, after 1870, by his pastoral letters, in which stress is laid insistently on "the possibility and the desirability of reconciliation between the Church and a well-understood modern culture" (O. Köhler).

"New course"

With challenging gestures that have something paradoxical about them, Leo XIII starts the dialogue with the modern world and the plan of a policy intended to confer new prestige on the Roman See: at the death of Pius IX it seemed isolated and exposed to the growing hostility of all those who did not intend to renounce the "new Course" of things and of institutions.

His preparation, his long experience had convinced him that it is ideas that change the face of the earth. Leo proposed to substitute true ideas for the erroneous ideas swarming within old Christendom: to the spread of these ideas in all social strata, was due, to a great extent, to social decay and the break between world and Church. The Church, cannot limit itself to the defensive and to the reiteration of condemnations, notifying, according to circumstances, that this direction or other is unacceptable, harmful and deadly. Catholics need positive watchwords. And the first positive word is the return to the wisdom of a reliable philosophy: people must be taught to think straight. Therefore, after the first encyclicalsInscrutabili Dei Consilio and Quod Apostolici Muneris in 1878—in which he takes up a stand against "the universal subversion of the principles by which the social order is sustained, as by a foundation", we have, in 1879, the great "Aeterni Patris" (De philosophia christiana ad mentem sancti Thomae Aquinatis Doctoris Angelici in scholis catholicis instauranda).

In this, Prof. O. Köhler points out, should be seen not only a precise philosophical and theological guide-line for Catholic schools, but "the basis of the whole programme of Leo XIII's pontificate. All the other doctrinal manifestations and all the initiatives of Leo can be brought back, without violence, to this document". In the renewal of Thomist philosophy, the encyclical points to the universal key for the solution of the problems of the modern world, not excluding those connected with the political order and socio-economic organization. For the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, about the real nature of freedom and the fundamentally divine origin of authority, contains an invincible force to overcome those principles of the "new order" (reference is made to the consequences of the 1789 Revolution) from which real order and the real common good have been uprooted. A gold thread is indicated to us, which runs through all the innovating encyclicals on freedom, authority, democracy, the working-class question.

One understands with what zeal, tenacity and systematic action the Pope personally saw to the implementation of the directives, contained in the encyclical, reconstituting St Thomas's Academy in Rome, approaching important University Professors, stimulating in the whole of Europe the reflourishing of neo-scholastic studies through institutes, meetings and reviews. And one can surmise another aspect of Leo's policy in the eighties, aimed at the elimination of the Kulturkampf.

From 1841 Mons. Pecci had been able see, in Perugia cathedral, the tomb of Innocent III, who died in the Umbrian city in July 1216. For thirty years, then, as Bishop of Perugia, the future Leo XIII had the opportunity of thinking about the admirable programme of the great medieval pope, who came, moreover, from the same region as himself, since both were from the diocese of Anagni.

In his first encyclical, Inscrutabili Dei Consilio, alongside Leo the Great, Alexander III, Leo X and St Pius V, Pope Leo quotes Innocent III as an exemplary figure by whom be will be inspired in his plan of restoring the greatness of the papacy, which has educated peoples and moulded civilizations. There are a good many quotations from the writings of Innocent, written in Leo's own handwriting in the margin of his documents.

Drawing up his own programme for the union of the Eastern Churches, Leo points to Innocent's eagerness for unity, Nobilissima Gallorum Gens, with which a vast European policy is outlined, contains a quotation from Innocent's letter to the Archbishop of Reims, recalling the predilection of the Church for her "first-born", not second to anyone in obedience to the Apostolic See. But that in the mind of Leo XIII his own plans for the restoration of the freedom of the papacy, the unity of the Church and universal peace, tallied with the ambitious aspirations, the tenacious commitment and the inexorable activity of Innocent, was proved by the decision he took in 1892 to transfer the remains of his great predecessor from Perugia to Rome. They were placed in the Lateran basilica, recently restored, "so that they might continue to speak to the whole world of the church-symbol of Catholic unity". Pope Leo replaced the ideal of the crusade and the extension of papal sovereignty to all peoples in order to guarantee universal peace—on which Innocent had set his heart—with that of the restoration of social order and above all the "mobilization of Christians from the roots", in order that they might Christianize public institutions, instilling religious spirit into all forms of activity.

And perhaps it was again in memory of Innocent III—who, after the death of Henry VI, had to decide between two rival candidates for the empire—that, on Bismarck's proposal, Leo XIII agreed to become an arbiter between rival imperialisms. The Pope, moreover, had not failed to recall, in the encyclical Diuturnum (1881) that throughout the centuries the Church "had been a prompt reconciler of tranquillity, recalling everyone to duty and curbing greed partly with gentleness, partly with authority".

If he agrees to recognize that the period of Christian princes is over, Leo XIII sees just in democratic institutions the possibility of opening new spaces for the presence of the Church, whose prestige is spreading as well as her missionary concern, her contribution to international peace, and her religious and cultural influence.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 April 1978, page 2

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