'Anti-Semitic' Pius IX moves towards sainthood

Frances Kennedy
Monday 04 September 2000 00:00 BST

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The Pope beatified one of his most controversial predecessors yesterday, a man his critics describe as an anti-Semite, a child snatcher, an opponent of Italian unification and father of the dogma of Papal infallibility.

The Pope beatified one of his most controversial predecessors yesterday, a man his critics describe as an anti-Semite, a child snatcher, an opponent of Italian unification and father of the dogma of Papal infallibility.

Pius IX, who reigned from 1846 to 1878, was the last Pope-King before the Catholic Church's temporal power was swept away. The decision to put Pius IX on the path to sainthood has enraged Jewish groups, liberals and reformist Catholics.

Also beatified was one of the most popular popes of modern times, John XXIII, in what Vatican-watchers see as a way to limit the controversy and maintain the balance between conservative and reformist factions within the church. Beatification, conferring the title "Blessed", is a preliminary stage before canonisation.

The Vatican newspaper, l'Osservatore Romano, tried to stress the similarities between the two disparate figures, by citing their common devotion to the Virgin Mary and noting that John XXIII once expressed a desire to have Pius made a saint.

Nearly all the 100,000-strong crowd gathered in St Peter's Square had come to celebrate John XXIII, known as il papa buono (the good pope), who paved the way for the liberalising Second Vatican Council, the end of the Latin Mass and a more open approach to the world. His simple manner, perhaps deriving from his peasant origins, and his famous speech "Go back home and give your children a kiss from me", made him a legend.

The faithful roared with applause when the drapes covering the huge tapestry of his kindly face were pulled back. Applause for Pius IX was polite, verging on tepid.

In his homily, the Pope tried to put Pius' pontificate in a historical context, alluding to his limitations. "By beatifying one of its children, the church does not celebrate particular historical choices but points him out for imitation and veneration for his virtues," the Pope said. He added that Pius, who reigned longer than any pope since St Peter, had been "much loved, hated and slandered".

Clerics defending the Vatican decision, which comes after 15 years of debate, said opponents were judging the events of 150 years ago with today's values.

Critics, however, say the facts speak for themselves, first and foremost the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child, from his family in Bologna in 1858. He was seized by Papal police at the age of six and raised with other Jewish children in the Vatican because some years previously a nurse had had him secretly baptised. By law, Jewish children who had been baptised had to be raised as Christians. Edgardo became Pius IX's personal ward and his family never saw him again.

"To kidnap a child, take him to a convent, make him a priest and tear him away from his family is atrocious," said Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome, in an interview with La Repubblica newspaper, "and has left deep scars in the community."

While supporters of Pius say he removed the walls that surrounded the ghetto in Rome, the capital's Jewish community say he increased anti-Jewish restrictions and excluded them from public life. He also referred to Jews as "dogs". In this "Jubilee Year", in which the Roman Catholic Church is supposedly asking forgiveness for its past sins, Jewish groups have found the move a contradiction.

The deep divisions regarding Pius' place in history were evident in Rome on the vigil. In the basilica of San Lorenzo in Lucina, black mantillas, old family jewels, antiquated insignia and elaborate robes were the order of the day in a mass to honour Pius IX. Rome's aristocrazia nera - the "black aristocracy" whose power has steadily waned since the Papal States gave way to a unified Italy - turned out in force to celebrate "their pope", the "Pope-King". But prominent figures who had been expected to attend, including the former Prime minister Giulio Andreotti and the central bank governor Antonio Fazio, were absent.

Across town, Jewish communities, reformist Catholics, evangelical groups and radicals gathered on the spot where two revolutionaries were decapitated by papal forces in 1846. Among those present was Elena Mortara, a descendant of the brother of Edgardo, the Jewish child abducted on the Pope's orders.

Marco Panella, a maverick Radical MP, said regardless of spiritual judgements, "Pius IX exercised his power in a ferocious manner". Italy's biggest Masonic lodge, the Grande Oriente, also opposed the beatification because Pius obstructed the unification of Italy.

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