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 limp—the 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 reached—just barely—the 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.
The Socialists—whose numbers had been growing for decades—had hoped to ride the tide of popular anger to power. Workers occupied factories in Turin, Milan, and Genoa. Agricultural laborers struck, threatening the old rural landowner class. Only two years earlier, in 1917, a communist revolution had brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia and destroyed the old tsarist order. Energized by their example, Italian protesters dreamed of a future when workers and peasants would rule.
But the Socialists had to face a violent threat of their own. Shortly after the war, Benito Mussolini, thirty-five years old and formerly one of the country’s most prominent Socialists, founded a new fascist movement. It drew heavily on disaffected war veterans. Fascist bands soon sprang up in cities throughout much of the country. Its first recruits came, like Mussolini, from the left and shared his hatred of the Church and the priests. But Mussolini quickly turned from vilifying priests and capitalist war profiteers to denouncing Socialists, guilty of opposing Italy’s entrance into the war. Recruits began streaming in from the extreme right.
From their headquarters in the cities of northern and central Italy, black-shirted fascists crowded into cars and rampaged through the countryside, burning down union halls, Socialist meeting rooms, and the offices of left-wing newspapers. Mussolini had little direct control over these squadristi, who were led by local fascist bosses dubbed ras. Beginning in 1919 and with increasing frequency and size over the next three years, the bands attacked Socialist officials and activists, beating them and forcing castor oil down their throats. The squadristi took sadistic delight in using the oil, which produced not only nausea but humiliating, uncontrollable diarrhea. Panicked Socialist mayors and town councilors fled, leaving a large swath of Italy under the control of fascist thugs.
These “punitive expeditions” also took aim at members of Italy’s Catholic political party. The Popular Party was a new attempt by Italy’s Catholics to compete for political influence. That the Vatican looked kindly on the establishment of a Catholic party in Italy was a new development. In 1861 Victor Emmanuel II, king of the Savoyard state based in Turin in the northwest, had proclaimed a new Kingdom of Italy, having annexed much of the Italian peninsula. Among the territories he acquired by a combination of rebellion and conquest were most of the lands long ruled by the popes. Only Rome and its hinterland remained as part of the Papal States. Then in 1870 the Italian army seized Rome as well, declaring it the new nation’s capital. Pope Pius IX retreated to the Vatican, vowing not to leave its walls until the Papal States were restored.
The pope excommunicated the king and forbade Catholics to vote in national elections or run as candidates for parliament; he was hoping to gain international support to return Rome to papal rule. But as the nineteenth century wore on, this prospect seemed ever more remote. A new threat meanwhile arose with the rapid growth of the socialist movement. Popes from the time of Pius IX, in the mid-nineteenth century, had regularly condemned socialism. In 1891, in his famous encyclical Rerum novarum, Pope Leo XII had charged socialists with “working on the poor man’s envy of the rich.” He blasted their proposal to abolish private property. By the dawn of the new century, the Vatican had made clear that socialism was one of the Church’s most formidable enemies.
With the expansion of the right to vote in Italy in the early twentieth century, the Vatican’s voting ban became untenable. Unless the Church did something, the socialists would likely come to power. In November 1918 Luigi Sturzo, a Sicilian priest, met with Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, to discuss his plans for a Catholic party, to be called the Italian Popular Party. It would offer a progressive platform intended to lure peasants and workers away from the socialists. It was formally launched early the following year with Benedict XV’s blessing. By 1922 it was among the country’s largest.
The conclave that year turned into a showdown between two factions. On one side were those cardinals dubbed the zelanti, the intransigents. They looked back nostalgically to the days of Pius X, eager to resume the Church’s crusade against the evils of modern times. On the other side, the moderates, dubbed the “politicians,” hoped to continue Benedict XV’s more middle-of-the-road and outward-looking policies. Pius X’s secretary of state, Rafael Merry del Val, led the zelanti. Pietro Gasparri, Benedict’s secretary of state, was the champion of the moderates. The conclave was shaping up as an epic battle over the direction the Catholic Church would take in the twentieth century, made all the more dramatic by the uncertainty of its outcome. It seemed doubtful that either faction could obtain the two-thirds vote required for election, and there was no obvious compromise candidate.
If Cardinal Gasparri was sometimes called the pecoraio, the shepherd, it was not in the pastoral sense. Sixty-nine years old at the time of the conclave, he came from a peasant family in a small sheep-raising village in the Apennine Mountains of central Italy. The nickname—which he delighted in himself—came with the Italian connotations of being a country hick, a parvenu amid the sophisticates of the Vatican hierarchy. When he was a child, his family followed its herd into the mountains each spring, returning each fall to the valley, where they sent Pietro to the local parish priest for school lessons. A bright child, he entered Church seminaries for his later education, but unlike many in the high Vatican diplomatic service, he did not attend Rome’s prestigious Pontifical Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics, which traditionally drew on sons of the aristocracy.
Gasparri grew into a short, rotund adult, a priest who seemed to move without his feet ever leaving the ground. His dress “showed an unusual indifference to neatness.” But he was popular with the diplomatic corps, making up in bonhomie what he lacked in polish. Gesticulating broadly, eyes sparkling, and laughing often, he was constantly pushing his red skullcap back into place. Gasparri saw himself—and was seen by others—as having a mountain peasant’s shrewdness, intuition, tenacity, and capacity for hard work. “His black, intelligent eyes,” one observer noted, “betrayed his finesse.”
On the evening of February 2, the conclave began in the Sistine Chapel; each of the fifty-three cardinals was provided with a seat at his own small table. Among those absent were the two cardinals from the United States, still on a ship somewhere in the Atlantic. The thirty-one Italians constituted a majority, and only with strong Italian support could anyone be elected. At the altar at the front of the chapel stood a large crucifix and six burning candles. Every time a vote was called, the cardinals approached the altar one at a time, in order of seniority. At the foot of the altar, each got down on his knees, spent a moment in prayer, and recited a Latin vow pledging to choose the man whom he believed God would want elected. He deposited his folded paper ballot and then bowed before the cross before returning to his seat.
Two votes were held each morning and two in the afternoon. Three cardinals, chosen by lot, counted the ballots. Over the next days, the solemn rite was repeated fourteen times, marred only once when, as he rose from his chair, a Dominican cardinal bumped into his table, draining an ink bottle over his white cassock.
Twelve cardinals received votes. On the second day, Merry del Val reached what would be his high of seventeen. Gasparri received twenty-four votes by the sixth ballot but remained stuck at that number for the seventh and eighth as well. Outside the Vatican, a large crowd of Romans—both the curious and the devout—waited anxiously. “Only one thing is certain,” the French paper Le Figaro reported, “no one knows anything.” Cardinal Gasparri spent the night after the eighth ballot lying awake in bed, aware that he would never become pope. The following morning, before the third day of voting began, he went to see the conclave’s most junior member, Achille Ratti. He told the surprised Ratti, who had been made a cardinal only a few months earlier, that he would urge his supporters to switch their votes to him.
Ratti was born in 1857 in the small town of Desio, in the deeply Catholic Brianza region just north of Milan, where his father managed a silk factory. His mother, a devout Catholic, was the kind of organized and intimidating woman who seemed born to run something much bigger than a household. In later years Ratti often spoke of her with deep affection and respect, but he never talked about his father. At the time of his birth, Desio and Milan were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Ratti’s earliest memory was of his father telling him at age two that French and Savoyard forces were battling the Austrian army nearby. Within weeks the patchwork of duchies and kingdoms that had long composed the Italian peninsula dissolved, and a new unified Italian nation took shape.
There being no school in Desio, at age ten Achille was sent to live with his uncle, a parish priest in the tiny town of Asso, near Lake Como. The frequent presence of neighboring priests, a gregarious lot, warmed his uncle’s household. Achille decided that he too wanted to be a priest and soon went off to a seminary. He returned each summer, not to his parents but to his uncle. The seminary enforced a ferocious discipline. Priests were to be obeyed without question, and rules were to be followed to the letter. None of this bothered the studious boy. His classmates called him “the little old man,” for Achille would rather be left alone to his meditations than play with the other children.
In 1875 Ratti entered Milan’s seminary to prepare for the priesthood. He read voraciously, not only the Italian classics such as Dante, but also English and American literature. He expressed such concern for the challenges faced by Mark Twain’s Jim, Huckleberry Finn’s enslaved sidekick, that his classmates dubbed him l’africano. Although the nickname would not stick, Achille pronounced himself pleased with it, telling his classmates he would one day serve as a missionary in Africa. Ratti’s favorite author was the great Milanese writer Alessandro Manzoni. One day many years later, when he was pope, his master of ceremonies entered his study and, as was the custom, got on his knees to await instructions. The pope was pacing the room, absorbed in reading aloud a passage from Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed. Twenty minutes passed before he stopped and took note of the kneeling cleric. The pope apologized for the delay but added with a smile: “These are pages that are worth listening to on one’s knees, Monsignor!”
After four years in Milan, Ratti moved to Rome to continue his studies at the recently opened Lombard College. Rome had been ruled by popes for over a millennium, but nine years earlier it had been conquered and was now the capital of the newly unified Italian nation.