World Travel - An Audience with the Pope
( Originally Published 1903 )
I HAD no difficulty in getting past the doorkeepers the next morning. They remembered me from the day before, and I did not have to produce the card which had been given me. I was passed on, as before, to a reception room, and soon the gentleman with whom I had talked came to see me. He brought good news. He told me that he was sure the Pope would be glad to have me presented, and appointed a time for the audience. I was surprised at my success. I knew that the aged Pontiff was far from well, and that there were a great many demands upon his time.
Rome was thronged with pilgrims during the whole of this jubilee year, and the Pontiff was holding daily receptions of persons from every quarter of the globe. He was visited by several foreign princes and princesses, and, curious to say, mostly by Protestants. The most notable pilgrim by far, was the German Emperor, who was the first crowned head to enter the Vatican since 187o, and the first German ruler since the Reformation. He had two audiences with the Pope, accompanied once by Prince Henry, and once by the Empress. He was required to observe the usual rules which are imposed upon Protestant princes who are guests at the Quirinal. He drove from the residence of the King to the Prussian Legation, where he changed carriages, and when he arrived at the Vatican he was treated as if he had just arrived from Germany. It was even said that one of the dignitaries asked him if he had enjoyed a pleasant journey. Had the Emperor William been a Catholic prince, visiting at the Quirinal, he would not have been received at all by the Pope, who was very firm respecting this point of dignity.
The Pope and the Public
In the intervals between the visits of the titled persons, the Pope received hundreds of more humble pilgrims. There was a continual stream of visitors of every condition flowing into the Vatican at the audience hour, and their stimulated curiosity was always well justified by what they saw and heard. No one could possibly have been disappointed in the appearance and personality of Leo XIII, for he was the incarnation of all that is spiritual in man.
There were surprisingly few rules to be observed at the audiences. I was told that I could appear in my ordinary street clothing, for the Pope would understand that I was merely a boy who had traveled from America with a desire to exchange a few words with him. There is indeed a special ceremonial which must be observed by Catholics, but Protestant visitors to the Pope were always absolved from this. I was told, for instance, that instead of kissing the slipper, as the Catholics do, it would be sufficient for me to kiss the episcopal ring. The Pope himself desired as much freedom of manner as was possible under the circumstances, and visitors were always encouraged to feel at their ease by the officials in attendance. A friend of mine who was introduced, told me that the introducer said to the Pope, " Mr. So-and-so, of London, a Protestant, but a good man," that " but," of course, struck my friend as being quite superfluous, but the Pope smiled, and enjoyed the humor of it.
When my audience had been arranged for, an hour was named for my appearance, and when I arrived at the appointed time I knocked first at the portone, that wall of bronze which separated the voluntary prisoner from the world. When the door was opened, I was led up interminable marble stairs and through endless galleries, which were peopled with masterpieces of art. Every-where there was silence, solitude, the overwhelming majesty of great memories and bygone centuries. It seemed to me that in mounting those solemn steps the most powerful monarch must experience a sense of personal insignificance; he could say, with Goethe's Egmont, " I see before me silent and pensive spirits who weigh in shadowy scales the destiny of princes and of peoples."
How the Audience was Conducted
At the end of the long ascent, in those aerial chambers which embrace a panorama of the Eternal City, I was met by a discreet Chamberlain, who con-ducted me to the salon d'attente. There I discovered that I was by no means the only visitor, for there was assembled in the stately room a truly cosmopolitan company. There were men of every race and clime; bishops, missionaries, pilgrims, arrived from all parts of the earth. They were there to take their turn at speaking with the Holy Father, to tell him of their work and hopes and prayers, and thanks to these faithful informants, the Pope was able to keep in daily touch with the Church all over the world. It may be said without exaggeration that at every moment he was cognizant of what was passing at every point of this earth, and he was able to govern, with a perfect knowledge of events, the scattered multitudes whose souls were in his keeping.
While I sat in the salon, a door opened, giving egress to one of those missionaries, who was returning, perhaps, to Peru, to China or to Australia, armed with instructions from his Holiness which were appropriate to the precise needs of his flock. Then another visitor had his few moments with the Pope, and one by one the waiting number passed in and out. Finally it came my turn, and I was ushered into a small salon which was furnished in stately simplicity. The walls were draped with yellow silk, and several chairs were ranged along the two sides of the room. A crucifix stood out from one wall, and at the back, beneath a canopy of crimson damask, a pale, white form was seated upon a gilded chair. He looked so very slight, so frail ; like a soul draped in a white shroud. He sat upright in the chair, so pale and slender that at first his person was scarcely visible ; he was like a little earthly clay in a covering of white cloth. He appeared even whiter than in the paintings and photographs which I had seen, but he was also more human and more touching, less of a sovereign, more than an apostle, almost a dear grandfather.
Leo XIII at Close Range
And yet, as I approached him nearer, he didn't impress me as being so very feeble, after all. He seemed, in fact, to be enjoying a very intensity of existence, and his whole life was apparently centered in the hands grasping the arms of the chair, in the piercing eyes, in the warmth and strength of his voice. Certainly he seemed much less than ninety-one years old when he began to speak. He spoke freely and easily and questioned me by word and look. He appeared eager for details of my experiences and for information regarding America, and I was all in a glow that he should find anything in me to interest him.
His smile has been often described, and it never failed to impress his visitors. It was continually playing over his features, and when it was most in evidence a tender, timid kindliness seemed to lurk between his lips and peep out unawares. His long, delicate, beautifully chiselled hands gripped the arms of the chair as he leaned forward, and rested easily in his lap when he reclined. At times his voice sounded far off, as if it were more accustomed to rise in prayer to heaven than to descend to earthly conversation.
One did not think of death when in the presence of Leo XIII. Although he appeared so spirituelle, he spoke as if he expected to live for many years to come. There was nothing of the despair of old age in his manner or conversation, and he was as eager and as enthusiastic as a youth of twenty-one. It is reported that Cardinal Rampolla once said to a diplomat : " Leo will not die, he will slowly fade, and one day his faithful valet may find his master gone without any warning whatever." And this prediction was very nearly true.
My audience lasted longer than I expected it would, and as I moved to depart his Holiness continued speaking, as if he were loath to have me go, as if I were the last person he expected to see that day. It would be impossible for me to forget the look, the gesture, the ring of the voice, with which he followed me as I retired backward toward the door. The inflections of those last words will remain with me always. I emerged from the room in tears ; I felt that I had been as near to heaven as man can be on earth. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but the surroundings and the sound of his voice were enough to account for my feelings.
A Saintly Life
Now that the noble, saintly life is ended, there will be many eyes bedimmed with tears at the memory of his presence. He will be mourned by those who looked upon his face and also by those who felt the influence of his wonderful career. His influence upon the Vatican and the Papal Court can hardly be exaggerated, for it has been great, indeed. It is said that the atmosphere of the place is totally different from that which existed before the election of Leo XIII. His austere life has been a timely warning to some of those who had borrowed their standard of living from some of his predecessors in the holy office. Probably he will not go down to history as a reformer, and he would not wish to be known as such, but nevertheless he will be remembered for a great reform in the life about the Vatican.
Many anecdotes are related in Rome to illustrate the moral character of the dead Pontiff. It is said that while he was serving as Nuncio in Brussels, a baron, the ambassador of one of the great Powers, showed Leo a not very decent picture of a woman, enameled upon his snuff-box. The future Pope looked at it, and returning it to the owner, he said, " It is Madame la Baroness, I suppose." The baron made haste to pocket it and went elsewhere for consolation. Leo XIII. has a right to be judged, to be respected, and to be honored as a man who has done much good in his time, by men of all creeds and of every faith. Of few Popes can it be said that their political influence throughout a long reign has been so steadily and so universally exerted in behalf of the weak and down-trodden of every race and clime, and it would not be surprising if the dead Pontiff is known to history as Leo the Good.