Cardinal Merry del Val, Papal Secretary of State
( Originally Published 1907 )
The office of His Eminence is precisely like that held by the Secretary of State in America, being the first place in the papal cabinet or ministry, and concerned chiefly with foreign affairs. It gives the holder of the office a peculiar distinction in church circles, removing him as it were beyond the reach of ordinary criticism, as his acts are considered the acts of the Pontiff himself. Strictly speaking, the Pope has no longer a cabinet or ministry in the usual sense of the word. That institution vanished with the temporal power. The affairs of the Church are administered in departments, at the head of each being one or more Cardinals, as the situation demands. Thus the Missionary Department is looked after by a bureau known as the Congregation for Propagating the Faith ; its head, or Cardinal Prefect, is one of the most influential officers in the Church, and under him is a host of clerks for the despatch of business. The State Department has for its head the Secretary of State, and its business is transacted by another host of clerks, commonly known as Minutanti.
Cardinal Merry del Val is of Spanish blood and birth, with an Irish strain in his immediate ancestry. His father was long Spanish ambassador to the Vatican, and his brother was tutor to the King of Spain. He himself gained part of his education in England where he learned the language and customs of the country, and, what was still of greater service to him later, the spirit of the English-speaking nations, who are playing, and are still to play, so great a part in the history of human progress. It was formerly the custom for young men of noble birth, who wished to become priests, to study in the Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics in Rome. Usually they entered upon the diplomatic career afterwards, mounting by slow but sure steps to the highest places in the government of the Church. Pius X lately abolished this Academy, and he has all but abolished the diplomatic career for prelates. It is said that he holds to the opinion that all priests should be preachers of the gospel of Christ, not mere diplomats, and that there should be no aristocracy of birth in the training and career of the clergy. Young Merry del Val was among the last to enjoy a really fine opportunity. He was made Arch-bishop of Nicosia and sent on various diplomatic missions. In 1896 Leo XIII sent him as a delegate to Canada; then to represent him at the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897; and finally to be present at the coronation of Edward VII, after which he became president of the Academy in which he had been trained. Cardinal Rampolla was his patron, the eminent Secretary of State to Leo XIII. He made the young Archbishop the secretary of that conclave which gave Cardinal Rampolla thirty votes, and might have chosen him as Pontiff but for the objection of Austria. Pius X was the man chosen instead. After his coronation there was considerable delay and doubt as to his choice of a secretary of state. The Archbishop of Nicosia was named as the successor of Cardinal Rampolla, who had already retired to the apartments occupied by the Archpriest of St. Peter's, and Merry del Val was at once elevated to the purple.
He became a Cardinal at an unusually early age for these times. In former days the position was so sought for by the aristocracy of all countries that powerful families vied with one another to obtain the honor of the cardinalate for some of their own members. A Cardinal may easily become a Pope, and in the Middle Ages the Pope was the King of Kings. Youthful princes of the blood royal were made cardinals at the age of fifteen. A Cardinal could address a reigning monarch as Cousin, which was an epithet permitted only to royalty. The necessity of curbing family ambition and preventing abuse finally led to laws which shut out any but ecclesiastics from the position of Cardinal. Little by little both laws and circumstances reshaped the Sacred College of Cardinals, as the whole body is called, and now a member must be at least thirty years of age, and in sacred orders be-fore he can enter the ranks of the Princes of the Church, as they are often called. As a body the Cardinals have really only one duty; the election of a Pope. As individuals they are employed in the direction of the departments of the Church within the city of Rome, and outside it in the government of dioceses.
Through the hands of His Eminence Merry del Val passes every important detail of the State Department. Few realize what that means in his case, The Pope has direct diplomatic relations with most Catholic countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Austria and the Spanish-American countries ; and indirect relations with almost every country on the earth, either because of the Catholic millions resident therein, or through the wonderful missions carried on among pagan nations. He deals with England because of the Irish and the missions in the Far East; he deals with France and Germany, not only because of the numerous Catholics in those countries, but because of the powerful missions under their patron-age in remote Eastern nations; he deals with the United States because of the Philippines ; and so on down a long list of relations which shows the far-reaching labors of the greatest Christian organization in existence. Merry del Val has an office requiring long and severe labor, as well as prudence and skill. His preoccupied but candid gaze gives you a hint of his personality. The face is calm, reposeful, neutral. He is of slight and graceful build, moves with ease and dignity, speaks English perfectly, can talk of England and America with a certainty and sympathy rare in a European, and appreciates deeply the large measure of liberty enjoyed by the people living under constitutions so finely and generously interpreted. With his youth, his high birth, his sure knowledge of modern times and needs, it is not surprising that the youngest member of the Sacred College should already be considered papabile, that is, a likely candidate for the Papacy.
For our next position consult the map and find Position 21 in one of the Pope's apartments on the floor below, near the southeast corner of the palace.