A New Pope
Outside the Vatican gate, a small crowd gathered, applauding the black sedans as they slowly made their way inside the medieval wall. In recognition or appreciation, or simply from habit, each arriving cardinal waved a hand in ecclesiastical benediction from his backseat. Standing on either side of the gate was a harlequin-clad Swiss Guard, his white-gloved hand raised to his gleaming helmet in salute. A little later, once the last cardinal had found his room in the Apostolic Palace, six officials scurried through the long, cold halls, each swinging a bell. A voice shouted "Extra omnes!" as the last of the outsiders exited. Clutching a massive antique key chain, a Chigi prince, the conclave's ceremonial marshal, locked the heavy door from the outside. Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the chamberlain, locked it from within. The windows were sealed. It was Thursday, February 2, 1922. The doors would not open again until there was a new pope.
Only two weeks earlier a persistent cough had begun to bother Pope Benedict XV. Although he was a small, frail man who since childhood had walked with a limpthe Vatican gossips called him the "little one"he was not old and had enjoyed good health during his seven years on St. Peter's throne. But what began as bronchitis quickly turned into pneumonia, and the sixty-eight-year-old Benedict took last rites. The next afternoon, lying on his simple iron bed, he lost consciousness. The following morning, January 22, he was dead.
Giacomo Della Chiesa had been an unusual choice when the genial but repressive Pius X died in 1914, just as the Great War began. When the fifty-two cardinals assembled in late August that year to elect a successor, Della Chiesa had been a cardinal for only three months. Born to an aristocratic but far-from-wealthy family, respected for his intelligence and good judgment, he did not look the part of a pontiff. Although dignified in bearing, and courtly in manners, he was undersized, with a sallow complexion, an impenetrable mat of black hair, and prominent teeth. Everything about him seemed slightly crooked, from his nose, mouth, and eyes to his shoulders.
As a young priest, Della Chiesa worked in the Vatican Secretariat of State, which deals with the Holy See's relations with governments around the world. There he made his way through the ranks until 1913, when he was sent to Bologna to become its archbishop.
Some believed that Della Chiesa's departure from the Vatican was the work of Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, Pope Pius X's secretary of state and his main partner in the crusade to stamp out any sign of "modernism" in the clergy. Pius X worried that modern ideas were replacing the Church's centuries-old teachings. Particularly noxious, in the pope's view, were beliefs in individual rights and religious freedom, along with the heretical notions that church and state should be separated, and that faith should come to terms with the lessons of science. Believing Della Chiesa to be too moderate, Merry del Val wanted him far from the seat of Church power.
On the tenth ballot, Della Chiesa reachedjust barelythe two-thirds vote required. One of Merry del Val's fellow hard-liners, Cardinal Gaetano De Lai, humiliated the new pope by demanding that his ballot be examined to ensure that he had not voted for himself.
Pius X had died at a frightening time for Italians, but his successor's death, in 1922, came amid even greater unrest. Many feared that revolution could erupt at any moment, although they differed on whether it was more likely to be sparked by the socialists or the fascists. The Great War, which the elite had hoped would help unify the hopelessly divided Italians and rally the population around the government, had done neither. Over half a million Italians had died, and even more had returned wounded. A demobilized army came home to find few jobs. The country's political leaders seemed incapable of finding a way out of the crisis.
Excerpted from The Pope and Mussolini by David I. Kertzer. Copyright © 2014 by David I. Kertzer. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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