I Once Met Pius XII

Pope Pius XII writes one of his wartime Christmas radio messages.
(CNS photo/courtesy of Libreria Editrice Vaticana)

I enjoy the I Once Met column in The Oldie. If you are a fan Richard Ingrams edited two anthologies. James Lees-Milne’s diary entry for Tuesday 14th September 1948 qualifies for, although I don’t think has appeared in, I Once Met. He was on holiday in Rome and was granted an audience with the Pope (Pius XII) at Castel Gondolfo.

Castel Gandolfo

Tuesday 14th September

My cold very much worse. Am feverish and my nose pours. All day without any intermission the rain also pours and pours. After a bad night I get up early and catch a tram – over one hour – to Castel Gandolfo. Am feeling very nervous because I can think of nothing special to say to the Pontiff. Arrive at the village at 10 … then at 10.30 I walk to the Palace, a shapeless building of yellow wash towering above the village. At the gate are a crowd of Boy Scouts and the Catholic Youth. I edge my way through and wave my official invitation to the handsome Swiss guard in his fantastic Michelangelo uniform of yellow and blue stripes. I am passed from one guard to another, from one officer with a red plume to another, from one gentleman usher to a cosy butler, or major-domo, and left in the fourth chamber hung with crimson brocade and, over a table, one large crucifix. The green marble door heads have “Pius XI. Pont. Max. A.V.” carved on them. So this suite is fairly contemporary. It is all right but not outstandingly opulent. I sit on one of the gold chairs with crimson brocade upholstery, and wait.

Presently a very distinguished old lady in black, with black veil, and wearing pearls and a few good jewels , comes in. She has what was once a beautiful face with deep black shadows under her eyes. I rise from my seat and make a gesture of politeness. She does not recognise my presence but, grasping her rosary and muttering prayers, prostrates herself with utmost reverence before the crucifix. When I next look up I hear her say, “Giovan signore, ho grand fame”, which surprises me. She dives into a capacious bag, extracts a biscuit and nibbles it. She tells me that the Pope has suddenly had to see several cardinals just arrived from South America, and our audience will be postponed indefinitely. She draws me to the window and looks out upon the lake, which she supposes is the sea. She is Brazilian and says, “An English Catholic, what a contradictory thing to be”. She speaks with great volubility about the splendid qualities and strength of the English. Then she discourses very knowledgeably on religion. All our troubles today are due to our divorcing religion from everyday life, and even the pious only give lip-service to God. She directs me never to neglect the Holy Ghost in my prayers and thoughts, admitting that it is difficult to distinguish Him from the other Two. She assures me that through years of unhappiness she has reached absolute contentment through her religion. I admire and like her, but wish she would offer me a biscuit.

We are then joined by a superior young Italian Monsignore carrying a precious parcel wrapped in tissue paper and an uncouth young American from Texas. For one hour we four are together, shunted by the major-domo from room to room in a sort of silent musical chairs. It is what I suppose the after-life may be, namely thrown among the same people who have died the very moment as oneself, and moving through the mansions of Purgatory towards Heaven. We pass other people without making any contact. However, a young priest in a wheelchair, in a deathlike apathy and presumably the last stages of consumption, is pushed past us. I saw his face on returning from his audience wreathed in ghastly smiles. It was an expression of resigned beatitude.

The Texan, much to my surprise, produced from a trouser pocket a gold wristwatch, a gold pocket-watch, a gold pencil and chain, and a gold cigarette case. He asked me if I supposed the Holy Father would accept them as a souvenir. I said I was sure he would not, but advised him to consult the Brazilian lady whose fourth audience with a different Pope this was to be. The American said, “I don’t think a cheque would be quite the same thing. I could not afford 100,000 dollars and I dare say he has enough money to go on with”. After a pause he said, “I am going to be quite homely with the Pope. What are you?” And finally when we had reached the last state room and the Brazilian had complained of hunger pains and asked him for a biscuit, the Texan produced a Chesterfield cigarette and invited her to smoke.

By this time purple Monsignores were running in all directions. Whenever His Holiness was ready for the audience a vicious little bell rang and cassocked liverymen fairly scampered to open and shut doors. We were constantly moved along, now from chair to chair, the pace gradually slackening. The drill was very effective. First the Brazilian lady disappeared, and returned radiant, her hands full of parcels, saying, “He is wonderful. He is so good and kind. May you all have every happiness and blessing from this visit. Arrivederci.”

Suddenly, instead of the three of us who remained being called singly into the next room the door opened and in stepped swiftly a tall, erect, brisk figure, all in white, wearing a white beretta. Until I saw an attendant Cardinal genuflect I did not realise it was the Pope. He went straight to the Texan ahead of me – this was prearranged for the three of us were spaced on our chairs at intervals. The Pope without wasting a second talked to him with much affability. With one nervous movement the Texan fumbled in his trouser pocket, but mercifully thought better of it. The Pope turned, the Texan left, and the Holy Father approached me. I walked towards him and fell on both knees. The next one and a half minutes remain but vaguely registered. He held out his hand for me to take and I just noticed the the ring, as I kissed it, to have a large dark stone encircled with lesser gems, not diamonds. His presence radiated a benignity, calm and sagacity that I have certainly never before sensed in any human being. All the while he smiled in the sweetest, kindliest way so that I immediately fell head over heels in love with him. I was so affected I could scarcely speak without tears and was conscious that my legs were trembling. His face was strong and healthy, not handsome, but made beautiful by his extraordinary charm. I noticed his nice strong teeth like old ivory. He spoke a gentle, hesitating English. Asked me where I lived and when I said London, said something of it being a “dear place”. I told him I had witnessed the ceremony at St Peter’s with Sir D’Arcy Osborne and had been impressed by the crowd of Catholic Youth. He said, “Did you see how beautiful it was. I am so glad. I want to bless you and all those dear to you”, and beyond a few other polite, but trite, remarks I can recollect nothing.

He then handed me a little blue envelope embossed with the papal arms. It contained a not very expensive medal with his head on one side and his arms (heraldic) on the other. I knelt for his blessing and passed on. In turning to leave I noticed a Cardinal slip into his hand, held out behind with desperately waggling fingers, another little envelope for the next guest. I walked back through the state rooms now filled with groups of young men carrying some large images and awaiting their turn for the papal audience.

Got back to Rome in time to lunch with …

This is an extract from “Midway on the Waves” by James Lees-Milne.