The Pope and Anti-Semitism: Interview with Leo XIII
Séverine is at this moment in Rome where she went on behalf of the Le Figaro to ask His Holiness Leo XIII what must be thought of the issue of anti-Semitism. The project, which seduced us with its originality and which we left, of course, all liberty to the author to develop, is well worthy of this very curious page here from the Sovereign Pontiff in the Vatican and his very interesting papal declarations.
Wired from Rome on August 3 1892.
Since anti-Semitism claims to be orthodox and tends to present itself if not inspired by, at least emanating from the Church, it seemed to me terribly interesting to go to consult the supreme head of the Church, he who blames and forgives, the incontestable pilot of Catholic conscience.
I did not go to ask the Holy Father to make a pronouncement—the Pope’s political situation would forbid him this, as it does from every debate where his veto is not immediately necessary and from every intercession that might raise arguments or polemics and upset such and such power or such and such party beyond strictly technical questions on points of dogma or matters of faith. In a word, I was not trying to know what Leo XIII condemned… only what he did not endorse.
And there, right up front, is a casuistry that I am not used to. I usually prefer clarity to such subtle distinctions—but such is the way at the Court of Rome!
Everything here proceeds in halftones, barely revealed nuances and gradations, rarely surpassing the midpoint on the scale rising toward intensity. At the Vatican, just as in the dark rooms where everyone walks with muted footsteps and talks in muffled voices, so too everyone thinks in whispers. Steps slow down and eagerness folds its wings, voluntarily, forcing itself to develop within the narrow framework of the ecclesiastical domain.
Hence, thundering radiance, soaring wonder, when there is an exception to the rule, a rupture of this reserve, a decisive action—it is done with repressed excitement, with restrained flight. Therefore, you must read between the lines, listen between the words…
I would be ashamed, I would consider it disgraceful and disloyal to attribute to the Holy Father a single word that was not absolutely exact or even to add to what he was pleased to answer. So, if he did not even once say to me, “I condemn”, but ten times in one hour said, “I do not approve,” I leave it to the Catholics to conclude what they want from this attitude.
For my part, beyond and despite my own opinions—maybe exactly because of them—I respect everything grand, even if it is opposed to my ideals or differs from them in a few points. And I would rather lose the best arguments in the world than give grief to those of this throneless king, this old man who is so touching and august, incapable of anathema, raising his right hand only to bless, absolve and spread the divine indulgence over all creatures, whatever their race, whatever their religion!
A brief parenthesis is called for here that will seem pointless to those who know me, but I still have to add, seeing fairly easily what kind of anti-Semite response will follow—after yesterday’s slander will come tomorrow’s slander.
Although I belong to the “cheap press” according to some sectarians and although I am—as everyone knows!—“corrupted” by rue Laffitte, I will be cynical enough to state that I have undertaken this of my own accord. I have not written this article “to order.” It was my project, as I sometimes have ideas that are my own and that I carry out because it pleases me… for the love of the art!
I allowed myself the unheard of luxury of taking mercy on the Jews without getting paid—the clarification of the term does not frighten me—by the Israelites… my socialism is not hung up on questions of belief or origins, its only enemy is the Grabber, yid or goy. He steals from the poor… that’s good enough for me!
And I am with all the poor: lamentable Hebrews wandering in the steppes, crossing Europe on foot, like beasts of burden dragging their carts on which their elderly sick are piled; their children and some rags escaped from disaster, battered and broken down in the court of the Chief Rabbi of Paris, completely exhausted, staggering and starved—poor wretches plundered by the Catholic financiers over there like the farmers and workers of Christendom are plundered by their wealthy coreligionists here.
How can we talk about a race war or a religious war?
“I’m hungry,” says the poor man.
And an echo, broken and strained, but still haughty, answers from the Vatican: “All the goods of nature, all the treasures of grace belong in common and indistinctly to all of mankind” (Encyclical of May 15 1891, chapter III).
I arrived here without references and without support. I had no ally but my stubborn will and a letter from a comrade for a high dignitary of the Holy See. But I believe in that magnetism that works across distance and time, that shortens the one and removes the other, under the influence of an ardent will that impregnates the atmosphere between the goal and the effort, that brings them together, inevitably, without which we have nothing to do but hypnotize our dreams…
And here I am sitting in one of the rooms in the Vatican, lost in the huge space, me with my black dress, my black veil, my gloveless hands and not even the humblest jewelry, just like all the devout who come here only to satisfy their pious curiosity. Their hearts, certainly, are not beating as fast as mine—and yet God knows how calm it would be if my job happened to send me into the palace of any monarch. I know what scepters are worth and what crowns weigh under the heavy fist of the crowd or the light finger of destiny.
But the Pope! All the memories of my pious little childhood rise up like a flock of sparrows out of the grass in the cemetery. Just yesterday didn’t I say to the cleric who was explaining to me the ceremonial triple greeting (one at the door, one in the middle of the room and one in front of the Holy Father’s chair), “Like in the month of Mary, then?” recalling the time when I was on duty in the chapel, responsible for replacing the flowers and fomenting revolts—already!—between two Aves. He looked at me, pleasantly surprised, then with an indulgent nod, “Yes, like in the month of Mary.”
It is my great fear to commit some blunder. Not that I am bringing an ounce pride or worried about not knowing proper etiquette, but because any negligence—on my part— might be taken as offensive arrogance and in very bad taste. Also, I keep repeating the formulas, like repeating the catechism before the recital… in days gone by.
How huge the Vatican is to get to this little area where the Pope is confined to live. And how high up it is! You have to climb the front steps, march down the monumental gallery, stared at by the Swiss Guard who are dressed like the Reiters of Julius II, climb the marble staircase—three floors that are really like six—enter the Cortile San Damaso, climb three more floors, also twice as big, and walk through so many rooms that it makes your head spin and you end up seeing nothing. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of a marvelous tapestry: Christ greeting the sinner woman huddled at his feet, looking for a refuge against human cruelty…
All of a sudden, in the solitude and silence, I hear cannon fire, as discordant as a wrong note. It tells the Romans that it is noon. And then in answer, one after another, like old ladies scampering off to mass, all the clocks in the palace chime. There are loud ones and slow ones, lively and tired ones, little ones with shrill tones and big ones with contraltos. It is a familiar carillon with naïve grace.
Footsteps slide over the marble, which glistens like it was water; a barely audible whisper in that melodious idiom; a soutane bows and waits, then walks in front, bows lower at the threshold of the next room and is gone, as if he vanished into the wall…
It is my turn for the audience.
I enter and bow three times. A hand takes hold of mine and raises me up gently.
“Sit down, my daughter, and welcome…”
Very pale, very straight, very thin, not very much to be seen of the earthly matter in that sheath of white cloth, the Holy Father sits at the end of the room in a huge armchair backed against a shelf with a dolorous Christ atop.
The light coming from the front falls perpendicular on the admirable face, drawing out the planes, the modeled sharpness, the “primitive” structure in the pictorial sense of the word, invigorated, animated, galvanized so to speak by such a young, vibrant soul so combative for the good, so understanding of moral miseries, so sympathetic to physical suffering that his gaze is as stunning as a miraculous dawn rising over a sunset.
The incomparable portrait by Chartran can only give a hint of the intensity of his gaze. But still there is a rather splendid brilliance and all the crimson that blazes behind the snow-white soutane puts a glow in his cheeks, a sparkle in his eyes that mellows in reality. To express my impression I would say that I found the Pope “more white”, with a radiance more intimate and more moving; less the sovereign and more the apostle—almost the elder. A tender, timid bounty, it would seem, lurks in his frown and is only betrayed in his smile. At the same time, his long, sturdy nose reveals the will, the inflexible will—that knows how to wait!
Leo XIII is like one of those models of Le Pérugin and like all those portraits of patrons that we see in the paintings of sanctity in the windows of ancient cathedrals, kneeling, in profile, dressed in wool, with elongated fingers humbly clasped together, at the apotheosis, the nativity, the triumph of the holy and the glory of God.
He also seems to me to incarnate the coat of arms of his family, the blazon of Pecci, with his slim, stately stature like a pine fir that stands like an “I” against the blue sky and beneath his eyelids that morning-star brightness, harbinger of the dawn, fluttering at the summit of the grand heraldic tree.
But what attracts and holds your attention almost as much as his face are his hands, long, slender, diaphanous hands whose purity of design is incomparable. Hands that, with their agate nails, look like they belong to a precious ivory ex-voto brought out of its case for some celebration.
His voice sounds like it comes from a distance, exiled by use in prayer, more accustomed to rise toward heaven than to fall upon us. And yet in conversation it comes back with an occasional reminder of that more serious tone that cuts off its Gregorian chant. Then a trifle, a local accent spices his remarks with a peculiar, national flavor. Although the pontiff expresses himself very correctly, very eloquently in French, that ultimate Italian exclamation “Ecco!” (There you are!) keeps popping up; he slaps out these two syllables like a little whip that spurs on or turns aside the conversation. And then his gentle words start to take off, stray, go wherever the Holy Father wants to go.
I follow him respectfully, keeping in mind as we go the answers he wants to give me, prompting them with brief questions when I can, noticing how much his thought, always with an evangelical essence, willingly dons the Latin peplos to be translated into harmonious, rhythmic sentences, revealing the thoughtful and erudite man of letters.
When I spoke of Jesus pardoning his executioners, alleging their ignorance as an excuse for their savageness, when I asked if, above all, it was not a Christian duty to imitate his example:
“Christ,” Leo XIII says, “spilled his blood for all men, without exception; and even in preference for those who do not believe in him and persist in this ignorance and so need to be redeemed all the more. For them he left a mission to his Church: lead them to the truth…”
“By persuasion or persecution, Holy Father?”
“By persuasion!” the Pontiff answers ardently. “The work of the Church is only kindness and fraternity. It is error that it must get hold of and strive to bring down. But any violence to people is contrary to the will of God, to his teachings, to the character that I have donned, to the power that I have at my disposal.”
“So, the religious war?”
“The two words do not go together!” And the hand that wears the episcopal ring makes a categorical gesture.
“There remains, Holy Father, the race war…”
“What races? All of them came from Adam, whom God created. What does it matter if individuals, depending on their latitudes, do not have the same skin color or do not look the same seeing that their souls have the same essence, imbued with the same ray? If we send missionaries among the infidels, heretics and savages, it is because all humans, all of them, you understand, are God’s creatures! There are some that are fortunate enough to have the faith and others to whom it is our duty to give it, that’s all! They are equal before the Lord since their existence is the work of his common will.”
Then the pontiff adds, “Even when there was a Ghetto in Rome, our priests went everywhere there, talking with the Israelites, doing their utmost to know their needs, taking care of their sick, striving to inspire enough trust to discuss the texts and finally to convert them!”
“And when the people wanted to massacre the Jews?”
“The Jews put themselves under the protection of the Pope… and the Pope spread his protection over them!”
“Except,” the Holy Father resumes, “if the Church is an indulgent mother with ever-open arms for those who come to it just like for those who come back, it does not follow that the impious who refuse it should be its favorites. It is not angry with them; they are its sorrow, its wound, but it keeps its preference for the faithful who console it, who are its pious and fervent sons. So, in the end, if the Church has a mission to defend the weak, it also has a mission to defend itself against every effort to oppress her. And now after so many other plagues, the reign of money has come…”
The successor to Saint Peter straightens up his stiff chest even more and with a sudden hardness in his eyes says, “They want to conquer the Church and rule the people with money! Neither the Church nor the people will let them do it!”
“So, Holy Father, the grand Jews?”
Under the veil of his eyelids the sparkle has gone. And suddenly fading his voice responds, “I am with the simple, the humble, the dispossessed, those whom Our Lord loved…”
I understand that this subject is closed and I do not press it. Moreover, now Leo XIII is talking about France, about the deep feelings he has for it, about his desire to see it prosper under whatever government it chooses. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, with a little mischief in the corners of his mouth and in his eyes, “And your people, what do they think of the Pope? Are they happy with him?”
“Holy Father…” Because I do not know what to say, truthfully.
He sees my confusion and with good-heartedness, rubbing his hands, “Come, come, don’t be afraid.”
I build up my courage and say, “Holy Father, would you allow me to use a very brazen word toward you?”
“Go on, go on!”
“Well, although the monarchists are upset with the Pope, the republicans in the government loathe him… it’s a ‘competition’!”
The word is greeted with a little laugh, very hushed, very discreet. “And the socialists?”
“For the socialists in the government, the leaders, more competition.”
“And the people?”
“The people? I never allow myself to speak in their name. They are rather undecided, I believe, a little distrustful… they’ve been deceived so often! But still, a Pope who cared for them… and suppressed the cardinals would surprise them!”
The long pale hands made a satisfied gesture. Then, smiling, “However, I do not want to be king of France! (sic)”
Now, as I dare not interrupt him, his thin voice, alone, breaks the silence. “So when will they all understand that the Church does not want and has nothing to do with politics, that it listens and stays outside, keeps well away from it? My master said: My kingdom is not of this earth. Therefore, mine is not either! I aspire to the dominion of souls because I want their salvation, because I desire the kingdom of brotherhood among men, the repression of discord, the advent of holy peace, holy mercy! And nothing but this… only this!”
The tall, old man is almost standing up and his eyes, even more luminous, are shaded in mist. He stays quiet. So, very quickly, almost in a whisper, pleased as I was to hear something good about France, in this city officially full of other tendencies, I say, “Holy Father, you know Abbot Jacot, that renegade from Alsace-Lorraine, who preaches to our people over there, your spokesperson? Is it true? Do you approve of what he does?”
“I find it regrettable,” the pontiff answers solemnly. “I love France. I am always looking toward it when I speak from the depths of these rooms where I have wandered for fifteen years… without ever leaving!”
“Without ever leaving!” he repeats melancholically, this captive without straw or dungeon, this prisoner of his lonely dignity, but more shackled by his invisible bonds than by heavy chains of iron.
I bow to take my leave. The long pale hand poses gently on my forehead: “Go, my child, and may God watch over you!”
 Le Figaro, August 4 1892.
 Off Boulevard des Italiens in the 9th arrondisement in Paris.
 The month of May in the Catholic Church is consecrated to the Virgin Mary.
 Cavalry formed in the 16th century and widely used in religious wars.
 Théobald Chartran (1849-1907), French painter whose portraits included such famous figures as Sarah Bernhardt and Theodore Roosevelt and whose caricatures appeared in Vanity Fair.
 Pietro Perugino (1450-1523) was an Italian Renaissance artist famous for his religious paintings.
 Auguste Jacot (1845-1919), germanophile priest awarded the Order of the Red Eagle by Wilhelm II in September 1892.