A Vatican Sermon

A Vatican Sermon  (1904) 
by Booth Tarkington
Extracted from Harper's magazine, Vol. 109, 1904 pp. 69-74. Apparently, a thin layer of fiction on a factual event.

The choir-girls whispered, gossiped, chuckled, now and then breaking into open laughter, which did not shock, as it might from a choir in church; yet the court was a church at the time, since the day was Sunday and the Pope was coming there to preach. Their laughter was but part of the murmur of gayety that was everywhere.

A Vatican Sermon


UNDER the gay sky of a winter Sunday, nearly all the cabs in Rome were scurrying" towards St. Peter's. There was one long parade of them returning along the Tiber embankment, having discharged their loads, and there was an endless double file of the reckless little flea-bitten vetturas trotting into the Borgo, these overcrowded with laughing Italian families—grandmothers, parents, daughters-in-law, and children, heaped up pleasantly like fruit and flowers in peddlers' carts. They crossed the St. Angelo bridge, passing that statue of St. Peter which, Pasquino said, once grew so alarmed at the number of people Pope Sixtus V. was hanging, for petty offences, from the battlements of the castle near by, that it called over to the statue of St. Paul: "I fear I must be leaving. Sixtus will surely hang me for cutting off Malchus's ear!" When the double file reached the piazza in front of the church, it broke into brisk disorder: the pathetic little horses galloped for the arch to the left, which leads into the Via delle Fondamenta, the iron tires making an intolerable clatter on the uneven flag-stones. They passed through the arch, and so on, round St. Peter's, to the Swiss Gate of the Vatican, where the people dismounted hurriedly and joined the pedestrians. Every one held in his hand a slip of white paper—a printed invitation. These were presented for the inspection of the Papal Gendarmes and the Swiss Guards—the former fine enough with their cocked hats and white belts, the latter more mediæval-looking than the Yeomen of the Guard, gaudier than bumblebees, and showing no signs of overwork.

The stream of people went through the gate, through a small court and a couple of passages, to emerge upon a great court, the Cortile di San Damaso, which is enclosed partly by the palace, partly by a large open gallery. The roof of the latter was now crowded, the figures of the people silhouetted to the view of those below, against the rich blue sky that curves down over Italy on a clear day, almost as rich, almost as blue, as the summer sky over the United States. The court itself was not crowded by the eight or nine thousand persons who were standing about in groups, the murmur of their chatter and laughter rising through the warm air to those who were leaning from open windows of the palace.

Against the arcade, opposite the gallery, stood a very large platform, higher than the heads of the spectators. It was hung with red velvet and gold, and between two columns which rose over a dais on the platform long red velvet curtains depended, underneath the papal arms carven upon the stone front of a small balcony. The dais supported a great red and gold chair, the papal throne. Upon each side of the throne stood rigidly a tall, steel-helmeted Swiss Guard in his brilliant stripes, long pike in hand. In spite of the stateliness of this pair, the whole picture was (to an American) so strangely theatrical that it seemed only plausible that the two guards would presently draw the curtains to disclose an old-fashioned tableau: "Marmion and Constance" possibly, or "Joan of Arc before her Judges," to be followed by a declamation, "I speak not to implore your grace," for the benefit of the Ladies Missionary Adjunct.

The Society of the Daughters of Mary had entered in procession, girls in white dresses with long veils; and with the banners of the society borne proudly in the van, they took places nearest the platform, for it was to them, particularly, that the Pope would speak.

Seated upon the steps of the arcade, to the left, were twenty or thirty young girls in gray, with lace scarfs upon their heads, a choir of novices; beyond them was a band of many pieces. The choir-girls whispered, gossiped, chuckled, now and then breaking into open laughter, which did not shock, as it might from a choir in church; yet the court was a church at the time, since the day was Sunday and the Pope was coming there to preach. Their laughter was but part of the murmur of gayety that was everywhere.

But the people were waiting for the Pope happily. Even the papal lay nobles, in their evening dress and silk hats, with gold chains and orders clinking together across their white shirt-fronts, looked cheerful. There were many country people, and many poor, but they were the "respectable" poor; there were no beggars, no cripples, none of the deformity, rags, and dirt that make so much of Rome only less hideous than parts of Naples. Better still, there were no postal-sellers, no venders of cheap cameos nor peddlers of folding photogravures encircling the spectator. Florentines, Neapolitans, soft-spoken Venetians, and a few dark Sicilians were there with the Roman crowd. There were Germans wearing the Emperor's mustache, and Frenchmen with heavily rimmed monocles. There were about a hundred or so tall Americans and English, the former eagerly interested and looking so, the latter the same but not looking so.

Where the crowd was thinnest and the open spaces were largest, below the gallery, stood two young people whose nationality was marked—partly by their keen, humorous, expectant eyes; somewhat, too, by the fashion of their clothes. The young man was broad-shouldered, but he wore a short coat two inches broader and flared, slightly, above the hips; the girl's plain long coat "gave her a waist," and her shoes were, perhaps, too dainty. More than their nationality was marked, however, in her way of keeping her slim gray glove tucked through his arm all the while, and in their both showing openly that while they dwelt in a more exalted sphere, still the world was a beautiful, if remote, spectacle, fondly arranged for the two to look at, now and then, as a momentary diversion from their permanent vocation of looking at each other. They were a Chicago bride and groom on their wedding-journey; and they had been given tickets by Father Murphy of the American College "to see the Pope."

They looked about them with the unreasonable surprise that Americans might be expected to feel in such a place: the sense of unreality that much velvet and gold and a throne flanked by guards in helmets and long hose must produce on people who naturally expect raw planking, bunting, and a glass of water on a deal table to furnish the color of public dignity. But they did not look very long, and fearing that they were recklessly consuming too much of eternity in loose observation of the evanescent, were turning to each other again, when the young man was made aware of a hand fluttering at him over the heads of a group near by, and of a frenzied voice that cried:

"Hi! 'Ere! Zees way!"

Quite at a loss, the youth could but stare, until the owner of the hand and the voice, a small, dapper Italian, was at his side, plucking earnestly at his sleeve and repeating: "Zees way! 'Ere!"

"What is the trouble? Are we in the way?"

"In what way? No! Come weetha me!" exclaimed the sacrilegious intruder. "You too far back! I show good place! Come!"

He was all staccato; and he made use of more gestures in twenty seconds than many a legislative orator might employ in a whole session. He turned sharply and began to work a path toward the red platform—an easy task of which he made as much as possible, vociferating in Italian to his countrymen, calling greetings to acquaintances here and there, and saying everything thrice over with shoulders, arms, and hands; looking back, continually, to shout cordial encouragements to the bewildered Americans, who followed him without knowing why.

"’Ere! Squeege! Push! I show you! Keep your both elbow out alway, in crowd, like me! Shove! You see? Push! Elbow out both side; nobody can press you, lady, w'en you keep both elbow out. Shove! Good for zees pipple to get some shove!"

Thus heartening his passive followers, he led them to within a few feet of the red platform, stopping at a vantage-point whence they faced the throne.

"Aha, gentiman! Is it better? You satisfy? Behole wair you are! Now you can see Pawp nice w'en 'e come. I 'ave arrive you 'ere, becaus' w'y? Eh? You trav' all ze way from Cincinnat' to see Pawp, I sink you mus' see 'im nice. So I arrive you 'ere."

In the space of three minutes he had taken as complete possession of the pair as if he had bought them. They offered no resistance, and finding themselves in a better position, were grateful. Their bustling little proprietor was neatly dressed and, except for his trifling mustache, clean-shaven. He was calm and self-contained for his kind—which means that had he been an American he must have been thought to labor unsuccessfully with overmastering emotion. When, from a far corner of the court, came the wail of a baby (of course there were babies there), he leaped as high as he could to shake his forefinger at it and ejaculate, "’Sh!" as if a baby could not cry at a Pope! He was not alone in this action, however. Half the Italians present exhibited their sense of responsibility for the baby's conduct, and the multitudinous "'Sh!" and the sight of so many people jumping up and down and waving their hands either amused or horrified the child into instant silence.

A gentleman coming quietly out of the palace into the arcade created a stir among the various officials and unofficials lounging there. A dozen of these hurried forward to greet him. He was a stout, elderly man; his frock coat was trim, almost dandified, and not new; his silk hat had known many ironings; his gray mustache had a slight, cavalier upward twist; and he looked very happy. Deferential groups followed him and surrounded him; and when he paused to address any person, that person took on, at once, an air of profound attention, bending forward a head cocked to pelican solemnity, as if called into a consultation of state—the manner of the county chairman to whom the United States Senator says something just before the speech.

"’Tis ze Pawp brozzer!" exclaimed the new guardian of the young Americans. "Look how all gentimans bow! He not reech: Pawp family poor pipple; not fine, reech family—ver' poor,—but like many here. No diff' now! See all gentimans make bow and bow. An' look,—see yo'ng gentiman black mustache, bal' head in front, lean agains' marber colun? He Pecci. Gentimans don' run and bow so much to 'eem, now. Treat ver' nice, but not like new Pawp brozzer. An' look—other way—see gentiman w'ite 'airs, w'ite mustache, front of ze ban'; he great composer, great musician, gr-r-reat frien' of me; goin' lead ze ban'. Yo'ng girl, all in same clothes—novice—they goin' sing. That w'y I am 'ere. My frien', that great composer, he make special compozitzion for to-day. He write to me, las' night, to me, his gr-r-reat frien', that I shall be 'ere for his great special compozitzion. An' w'y? Beckoss I am jawnlis!"

"Jawnlis?" The young couple could make nothing of the word.

"Jawnlis! Yes. Me, I am jawnlis. Make report to newspape'! You un'stan'?" He jerked a pencil from one pocket, a crumpled sheet of blank paper from another, and made, in half a minute, half a hundred imitations of a man writing, including all the gyrations incidental to the act as he conceived it—writing furiously for a second, pursing his lips with energy; pausing then, plunged into abysmal thought in the effort of composition; pirouetting out of it, happily relieved by a shining idea; writing again more violently, turning the sheet to go down the other side, not forgetting to stab it with periods and slash it with dashes, his hand fluttering to high poises, then swooping down like that of an old-fashioned piano-pupil "showing technique," and completing the masterpiece almost as quickly as a melodrama heroine does her letter of farewell to the cruel guardian.

"Write!" he cried. "Write, write, write! You un'stan'? Write! So! Write in newspape'! Jawnlis! So! Critichise compozitzion make for to-day. 'E write me special. W'y? You can imaginate! I am jawnlis, man of newspape'! An' I am his gr-r-eat frien'. You un'stan'. Yes, I am jawnlis." With that the journalist laid his forefinger along his nose—a gesture which, in Italy, usually denotes not a sly or facetious intention, but the contrary.

"It take brain," he said, impressively, but with an undercurrent of melancholy expressive of the loneliness of his isolation, "great brain. Sank God, I haf brain! Zees pipple all roun' you, zey haf not brain. No! Bigot! Stupid! Myself, I am a Liberal. But zees man, zees Pawp who is goin' come 'ere, I like 'eem! Ees a good man. 'E liberal inside. 'E frien' of ze King; I hear they eat dinner sometime long ago, an' make good frien' togeth'. Good man; not meddle politic, only preach; talk only spirchal power, no temporal. 'E belief all real Christian Kingdom ees spirchal; preach ole Christian doctun. Ev'rabod' like 'eem, excep' only some cardinals. If 'e goin' be temporal, come out Vatican, try to get temporal power, I be firs' to 'ate 'eem; I be ze firs' to 'it 'eem—I knock 'eem down! I am a Liberal! No bigot! You expec' me go to confessional? Tell my troub' to priest? Pouf! Aha! Whoo! You no fool zees chick! Ha, ha! You 'ear? 'No fool zees chick!' I been America; I know ze slank. Bell-boy teach me. Yes! Been at Cincinnat'! See!" He laid violent hands upon the collar of his coat and threw it forward to expose the trade-mark of a Cincinnati clothing-house sewn into the lining of the collar. His attitude may be easily translated to the familiar. It was: "Behold the birthmark! I am your father, the Duke."

"Only three time I wear 'eem," he continued. "That 'ow I know you. My clothe' made in Cincinnat'. I see you far back in crowd. 'Ha! Fine lady,' I say, 'good family. American! Cannot see.' I bring you good place. I would lay down my life for American! I am gentiman—gentiman troo and troo!" His voice shook; he hovered on the verge of pathos, but suddenly adopted the gallant as more becoming. He placed his left hand upon his right chest, bowed, and repeated:

"Gentiman troo an' troo! You see, I say it from my hearts, weetha my 'and on my hearts!"

A bell within the palace tinkled. There had been an agreeable sound of chatter, sounding from everywhere in the court, but the bell was a signal for the mere murmur to heighten in pitch and rise to a sudden resonant noisiness, which was like the coming of heavy April rain through sunshine to fall on a tin roof. It increased again, like a quick rattle of hail, as, with a wide flash of brass and silver, the instruments rose simultaneously to the mouths of the musicians. The Papal Anthem leaped out jubilantly from the horns; a kind of reverent quickstep it is; and the great melody of it took its way through the clamor of the ten thousand, like a soul-stirring procession passing down a shouting street. Another bell was struck. At that, into the anthem there broke a deep and splendid roll of drums. These were the heralds of the coming of the presence. They rolled out their long salute, while a dozen stately and glittering officers filed slowly out upon the platform and ranged themselves in a semicircle, flanking each side of the dais. They were followed by as many ecclesiastics in purple and red; and now the clamor of the crowd grew into an uproar, then suddenly rose to thunder as there appeared a single figure, all in magnificent white, amidst the mass of red and gold and purple. There was a storm of hats and handkerchiefs on the air, and the cheering filled the court like a solid as the Pope passed to his throne. The officers and ecclesiastics knelt as he went by them; and to the young Americans, who had, all at once, found inexplicable tears in their eyes, it seemed quite natural that these dignitaries should kneel.

For Pius X. has the effect of pathos; perhaps it is the transparent and touching quality of the simple goodness that is in his face. Many a town in the United States has been blessed with a citizen (but usually not more) whose look was of this type; a strong and kindly "Uncle Billy Jackson," an old fellow carrying the radiance of a life spent in good works, the service of those in need; one whose hale greeting on the street made the recipient better and gayer all day; that rare thing, a genial philanthropist, whose heart and hand and scanty store were not for the orphan alone, not for the unhighly-educated alone, but for all who lacked, or sinned, or mourned; for the grieving child, the lame dog, the drunkard, for the stranger fallen sick.

Looking upon the Pope, one feels the great pity of it that the man should be a prisoner; for a prisoner he is, not merely out of sentiment, as so many lightly think, or voluntarily, or because of his own sense of right, not even because it is his policy; but because the policy of the powers of his organization confine him. The satisfaction of being his own jailer, which was his predecessor's, is denied to Pius X. One remembers well his sorrow in the great trust which he had not sought, and thinks of that beloved Venice which he will never see again.

There was something about him, too, which made the little bride lean closer to her young husband, as she said, huskily: "He seems so like the good bishop in Les Misérables. I know he'd have given Jean Valjean the stolen silver!"

The Pope stood in front of the throne, smiling a little, and looking down upon his people; for his they were, from the moment they saw him. Nor was it difficult to be sure he liked them. You hear, in Rome, that it will not be long before Pius X. will be as difficult of access as was his predecessor; but, in whatever manner his present small liberties may come to be curtailed, one thing is certain: that he will always want the people to come to him. He would go to them, if he could. Perhaps one might add, he will if he can.

In all that happy and enthusiastic crowd, it is probable that no one, Roman or stranger, lacked the feeling that the Pope liked him, individually, and would have been glad to know him in a friendly, easy way. Yet there was not a touch of the politician. The man's doctrine was in the beauty of the expression of his fine, rugged peasant face; that doctrine which had pleased the Liberal, the true and fine solution of the anomalous situation of the Church of Rome, and which the Church will accept when there are no politicians among its princes to urge the pity of the faithful with the "prison" theory. It is a return to Christianity. It is simple enough, surely: all power is spiritual power; therefore, why should the Church seek the shadow of temporal power which is itself a shadow? This is not less nor more than "Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's." The incapacity of the Jews to understand the difference between spiritual and temporal power was a factor in the martyrdom of Christ. Should the Vicar of Christ seek—as the Master did not seek—a thing and not the spirit?

Pius X. is of a good height, strongly made, even stout, and has a fine grace of carriage; his dignity is as great as his position, but utterly without haughtiness or pomposity or pride of office. He has none of the "magnetism" of the "popular preacher," actor, or orator; nevertheless, he is remarkably magnetic; it is the magnetism of unmistakable goodness and good-will to all the world.

"Viva il Papa!" thundered the crowd. Every one was laughing with excitement and the sheer pleasure of seeing him, and because he smiled a little.

"See!" cried the journalist, seizing the arm of the young man from Chicago. "Look, my frien' the composer; 'e will speak to me! Aha! I am 'ere, my frien'!" He waved his crumpled bit of paper over the heads of the people, shouting reassuringly to the leader of the band, who, looking very anxious, was now mounted upon a stool in front of the novices, baton in hand. The leader nodded affably. "’E speak to me, you see? Great composer! Excuse. I must make attensh' for my critichism."

The full joyful voices of the novices rose in the open air over the pulsing instruments. It was as if the young girls had, all at once, bloomed gloriously into music. The people listened intently; yet no one looked at the singers; rarely an eye wandered even for a moment from the Pope.

"It is like music set not to words," whispered the little bride, "but to a face."

The journalist made some hieroglyphics upon his sheet of paper, spread upon his elevated knee—a storklike attitude perfectly at variance with the ponderous responsibility of his expression, which would have made that of Atlas, in comparison, seem a vacation schoolboy's. He listened in silence for three minutes, but the strain was too great. He thrust the paper in his pocket and turned to the Americans.

The composer, his air of anxiety replaced by one of relief and pleasure, was acknowledging the hearty plaudits of the people. The Pope bowed and smilingly waved his hand to him; at which the cheering broke out again, lasting until the Pope came forward and stood, near the edge of the platform, to speak to the Daughters of Mary—and to all the people. Silence fell instantly; there was only the faint, multitudinous rustle as every one leaned forward a little, intent to listen.

His voice, mellow, clear, and resonant, yet gentle, has in it the quality of lofty and practical goodness that is in his face. It is a strong voice, too, with the strength of the man who could give an incorrigible lout a fine beating for the good of his soul; and it is what might be called a "brave" voice. A man with that kind of voice will not be afraid of anything that might happen to himself only. But, more than these things, it carries to one who hears it the benediction that exhales from the spirit of Pius X. to all the world, all the time.

While he was speaking, the great clock, high over his head, belled out the hour, four. So intent were the people not to lose a syllable that a thousand unconscious whispers reproved each solemn stroke, saying "’Sh!" to the bell.

Quite silently, and without so much as the sound of a foot scruffing the pavement, the crowd had drawn forward and closer, leaving no groups and open spaces, until, at last, they formed a dense press; so that when the Pope raised his arms for the benediction and the people knelt to receive his blessing, the whole mass surged back like one large receding wave.

The Chicagoans were expecting the congregation to file out in decorous silence after the benediction, and they were infinitely surprised, and delighted as well, when the people, rising, began to cheer again with all their hearts. The enthusiasm which had greeted the coming of the Pope burst out, many times intensified by the silence which had pent it up; and it was the greater because the feeling for the man had grown deeper every second. His coming had thrilled the people; at first sight they had liked him; now they loved him. Women were crying and laughing and shouting, "Viva il Papa!" at the same time; the handkerchiefs were out again, overhead, like whitecaps on a running sea. The music flared up, only to be drowned, and above everything sounded the regular, volleyed cheering of the students of the American College.

Pius X. smiled down upon it all from the red throne. One of his attendants had brought him a beautiful red hat and long red coat, for now the western hills were casting their cold shadows over the city.

The journalist had lost his charges in the confusion, and they were making their way, slowly, toward the arch through which they were to descend to the Bernini steps. The little bride, awed and full of many thoughts, walked lingeringly, her head over her shoulder, looking back wistfully. She pressed her husband's arm.

"Jim, you don't believe they'd hurt him, that Curia, or anybody, do you?"

"No, no; all that's just talk," answered the Chicagoan, reassuringly. "Some people like to talk that way; they think it makes them more interesting. Besides, I don't think a man that looks like the Pope would be apt to try to do anything he couldn't do. He looks pretty strong, to me."

"There's something so sad about him," she said, "something so sad and so kind!"

They reached the arch, and she stopped for a last look at the picture they would never see again. The racing sea of white-caps was still beating up to the red wall of the platform; above it the banners tossed and rocked like stricken sails. The silver-shot blue of the late afternoon sky bent in like a canopy over the brown palace walls; the brilliant semicircle of officers, helmeted guards, and prelates glittered about the red throne, whereon sat the central figure of all the world—so it seemed at that moment—the good and simple-hearted old man in his gorgeous white and red, his kindly eyes beaming good-will from under the splendid hat.

"Ah, isn't he wonderful!" said the little bride; and then, in her girlish tenderness and admiration, she found the inadequate and incongruous word that is luminous with the human meaning the Pope of Rome had for her: "Oh, isn't he a dear!"

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1946, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.