How I Interviewed the Pope

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Pope Leo XIII, 1810 - 1903, born Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci, after the painting by Theobold Chartran exhibited in the Champs-Elysees Salon of 1892. From La Ilustracion Española y Americana, published 1892.

Pope Leo XIII, 1810 – 1903, born Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci, after the painting by Theobold Chartran exhibited in the Champs-Elysees Salon of 1892. From La Ilustracion Española y Americana, published 1892.

 

How I Interviewed the Pope[1]

 

Hey, come on! All this noise for such a simple thing? So much excitement because the vicar of Christ, imitating his Master, allowed a visit from if not his little children at least one whose thoughts (a naïve flock) timidly approach everyone’s Father, the white Pastor of Christianity?

And so much anger, too, against both the Sovereign Pontiff who trampled etiquette under the heel of his mule and dared to revive the serene, evangelical tradition, and against this newspaper “that is not a sanctuary”, has bitterly invaded the neighboring sacristies—and against me, as well, a humble woman who was doing her job conscientiously and not really expecting any attack to come from what she did.

I had not taken into account the “professionals”, more papist than the Pope; those for whom he is less a chief than a commodity; who allow him to be understood by no one but themselves or do not allow him to voice any opinion that contradicts theirs—an opinion so reduced, so faded, so shrunk, so made in their image when it reaches the public that he does not turn his head to listen or see, being apathetic to such a pale reflection and weak echo.

Leo XIII is the prisoner only of his enemies!

And some of those who call themselves his servants really seem to be bent on perpetuating the antagonism that saddens him, on veiling him in shadow, on forbidding him any relation with the crowd of people who look up to him and reach out to him. Their intolerance mounts a jealous guard around him whom their mission is to defend and not to isolate.

They prefer, it seems, the Pope to be unknown instead of popular, remote instead of revealed. Their selfishness adapts to what their duty should want to see abolished—like the judges whom the end of crime, the return of the Golden Age would put out of work in a new society and so they acclimate themselves to it.

Of course, in this criticism I do not mean to include the whole Catholic press, a part of which, in this present case, has been extremely courteous and absolutely loyal. But it is impossible not to be alarmed at seeing the devious resentment that some piously restrained papers show because I spoke of Leo XIII with respect and sympathy in a popular newspaper and because I gave a portrait of him that I certainly believe true and might even bring him closer to people.

Insulted rather than praised—that seems to be the watchword of these strange papal partisans. And then the almost imperceptible campaign begins, quite petty in any case, of innuendoes, hesitations, hints and insinuations.

How can you not say that I lied; maybe I “amplified”, mistranslated, altered… Or maybe it was the telegraph transmission… And while some declare that they will forget about the Pope for the anti-Semite proscription if he does not want to make one, others criticize Saint Peter’s Bankroll—asserting that he is the product of huge donations even though one just has to look at the parish accounts to see how rare are the big offerings but how frequent the little coins—while the “faithful” of the Holy Father reprimand him, I naturally have my role in their bad mood and my account of little offenses.

#

I was not troubled any more than was reasonable.

Certainly when I undertake and especially when I succeed in some difficult task, let’s even say unusual given the goal of my trip and the nature of my opinions, I have to figure on rampant spite. I put myself at risk and it is only fair. I do not know how, without falling into ridicule, to not suffer it with good grace.

When the Spectator, in a brilliant column, full of Attic style, conjures up the risqué aspect of my move—I’m the first one to smile and marvel at these fireworks, even if my seriousness feels a little burned. When Messieurs Pichon, Pelletan and Lepelletier, the lay trinity, unleash or declare anathema on my impertinent head, the cheeky Sicambrian[2], I almost feel cheerful. Messieur de Kerohant attacks me by treating me as a libertarian, which is pretty nasty when I am only defending, isolated and alone, and sometimes taking sides with its ides, Free Thought! And when the Triboulet says that I am burning to pour petrol in the cellars—I who forgive all excess for which poverty is both the cause and the absolution but do not allow myself, even for this, to commit any—I admit I remain indifferent to its fantasy.

All this, or nearly all, remains in the domain of judgment. If it is fair, so much the better! If it is unfair, so much the worse! But when we enter the domain of facts, it is something else.

And although I prefer to stay calm and cool, now I have to drop it. Point by point I am going to respond very clearly.

#

I did not arrive in Rome with “letters of recommendation.” Only one reference had been sent from Paris at the same time that I requested a justifiable audience, which I addressed to His Eminence Cardinal Rampolla, as follows:

July 9 1892

Monseigneur,

I would like to request, through your intercession, a private audience with His Holiness.

Who am I? My name will mean something to you. It is that of a servant of the poor following your law; of a woman who was Christian and remembers it to love the children and defend the weak; of a socialist who, although not in a state of grace, has kept intact in her wounded soul a deep respect for the faith and veneration of the august elders and captive sovereignty.

The pen that is writing to you, accustomed to other defenses, has more than once, even against its political coreligionists, dared to affirm its independent admiration for His Holiness’ concern for the disinherited of this world.

It is this Vatican policy, so true to Christ’s spirit, so encouraging for those who dream of fraternity, so Christian in the most sublime aspect of the word, that has suggested to me the idea of coming to Saint Peter’s successor to attempt what no Catholic has dreamt of doing—and the audacity to write to Your Eminence.

I am sent by the Figaro, accredited by Monsieur Magnard, its editor-in-chief, to request His Holiness to make a statement on the question that is again threatening to divide men, to sow discord and hatred among them, to spill blood in fratricidal battles.

I would like His Holiness to deign to make a statement on anti-Semitism, convinced as I am that after He has spoken there will be no more Christians to rebel against His view.

Finally I desire personally, if it is possible, to make a favorable portrait of Leo XIII in writing as my compatriot Monsieur Chartran did in painting.

I pray to Your Eminence that my wish be granted; my fate is in your hands.

With all due respect, etc.

Séverine

 

And here is the response:

Madame,

I received your letter of this past 9th and showed it to the Holy Father. His Holiness sees no difficulty in accepting a private audience with you, as soon as you will let Him know, through my intercession, when you will arrive so that He can accommodate your wishes. It is important, therefore, that you inform my of your arrival so that I can organize the audience that is the purpose of the your trip.

Meanwhile, I will take this opportunity to assure you of my respectful sentiments.

Cardinal Rampolla.

Rome July 15 1892

 

So, I got on the road, not absolutely certain of success but with some reason to hope and wishing it with all my heart, not for my ego but to do something beautiful and good—if possible!

I was not “received in a simple audience like the Pope grants all pilgrims.” I had not come on a pilgrimage. I was sent by the Figaro with a specific goal and that was how I saw the Holy Father. One detail alone will suffice to show the significance of this reception: I entered the room where Leo XIII was present at 12:15 and I left at 1:25—after an hour and ten minute interview.

Finally, my visit took place on Sunday, July 31. I used the rest of the day to write down my impressions right away because I feared the shadow of error and worried about any false interpretation… I would say a false intonation! And the following Monday at 11 o’clock sharp I gave to Monseigneur Rampolla—the head of Christianity after the Pope—my entire article concerning Him, portrait and interview, from the words “Very pale, very straight, very thin…” all the way to my signature.

The minister of State asked me remove four lines of personal judgment of the kind that might raise difficulties for the Holy See. I did so voluntarily. And the copy that left the Vatican that day is such as appeared here without a syllable—I swear to it—being changed.

This is my response to the scandalized members of the Catholic press, to the Pharisees who prefer to deny rather than to believe and who would recrucify Jesus for being improper if he came back to us in his poor robe of whiten linen, barefoot on the rocky road, bowing down to the poor, consoling the afflicted…

They make your gentle benediction, Holy Father, heavy to bear and your effect on souls they would snatch away—unless we remember you!

 

[1] Le Figaro, August 9 1892.

[2] Ancient Germanic peoples who became Franks, the Celtic ancestors of the French.

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