Return of the Non-Prodigal Son

24 November 1894 - Venice, Italy

My word! What a day! All of Venice is celebrating the return of Giuseppe Melchior Sarto. He was born in the nearby village of Riese. Now he returns to Venetia as Cardinal Sarto, the Patriarch of Venice.

This is more than just a celebration of “local boy makes good.” Venice is a no longer the powerful city-state that it was. It’s no longer a power at all. That Sarto has been allowed to enter the city is a triumph for Venice.

Venice started out as a refuge for nearby towns trying to escape the barbarian invasions in the 5th century. They began creating islands out of the marsh to build on. It slowly developed into a trade center and acquired an impressive navy to protect itself from pirates. By the 12th century, Venice had become a “super-power.” It was so powerful, it paid for a 4th Crusade that never made it to the Holy Land, but instead sacked it’s former master, Constantinople, and carted off a good many artworks as plunder. (I’m not sure if Venice ever came up with a believable excuse for that one.) They also acquired a lot of land.

The Republic of Venice and it's empire
(click on to enlarge map)
Then hard times came. While Venice was a big fish in the Mediterranean, her Medieval navy was left behind in the “New World Race.” Portugal found a sea route to the Far East, destroying Venice's trade monopoly from the overland route established by Marco Polo. A thirty year war with Turkey about that time took most of the eastern portion of her empire. The Black Plague devastated Venice in 1348, 1575 and 1630 taking up to a third of her population each time. Finally in 1797, the Republic of Venice fell to Napoleon Bonaparte, who then lost the city to Austria. In 1866 Venice became part of the Kingdom of Italy.

Italy in the 16th century
(click on to enlarge)
We now think of Italy as a country that has always held “the boot,” but that is something that only came about in the 19th century. After the fall of the Roman Empire Italy became a collection of warring city states. One of those was “The Papal States.” It’s 16,000 square miles has been whittled down to 110 acres within living memory, swallowed up by the Kingdom of Italy. It was not a happy merger, and the King and the Pope are still arguing over what rights the Vatican City has. That won’t be ironed out until 1929.

Which brings us to why Cardinal Sarto was denied entry into Venice. When Pope Leo XIII appointed Sarto Protectorate of Venice last year, King Unberto I protested, saying he had the right to appoint the position. So the King refused to let Cardinal Sarto into Venice until today. Politics! They can get messy.

Cardinal Giuseppe  Sarto
Venice is overjoyed to finally get her Cardinal. This afternoon a steamship of the Royal Marine carried Sarto down the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Cathedral, where he will hold mass tomorrow. Every church bell in the city was ringing and throngs lined the canal or hung out of windows, to wave white flags and cheer. The Cardinal, dressed in Scarlet robes, blessed them, which brought even more cheers. The only thing missing was a marching band and cavalry escort, but they would have drowned. Parades can be a problem in Venice.

This event is the major focus of my trip. You may wonder why the University of Venice would pay for me to come here to bring back recordings of this happy but seemingly minor incident? That’s because in 1903, Giuseppe Sarto will be sent on a new assignment by the Vatican when he is elected pope. He will take the name Pope Pius X not because he thinks he’s more pious than anyone else, but because he will hope he can live up to the name.

Pope Pius X will be a bit controversial. Perhaps in reaction to the power the Kings of Italy have taken, or because he is from conservative working class roots, Pius will try to bring back the good old days by trying to eradicate modernism in the church and reinstate old traditions. He will go so far as to revive Gregorian chants. He will however renovate communion to include children as young as seven.

Pope Pius X
Despite the controversies, Pius will be a beloved pope. Sarto was born the son of a postman and a seamstress, and he will never forget his humble beginnings. He is always trying to help the poor and sick. As Pope he will beat the government to natural disasters with relief for the victims. He will drive the Swiss Guards balmy by sneaking out at night unescorted to visit hospitals. He will die only a few days after the start of World War II, his sorrow at failing to stop it being a contributing cause of his death. He will be well remembered for his benevolence and compassion. Perhaps it was inevitable so many sick will pray to him until he will be finally canonized in 1954.

Despite all the pomp surrounding him, Sarto did not strike me as an arrogant man. He seemed to pay less attention to the wealthy in the crowd and more to the underprivileged. I don’t think this was for show. He has a kindly, if serious, face. I’m not at all sure how this canonization thing works. I had a priest explain to me once that the Church does not have the power to create saints--it can only acknowledge them. Cardinal Sarto looks pretty saintly to me.

1 comment:

  1. As a kid back in the Chicago area, I remember visiting a church dedicated to Pius X. Once in a while they'd hold services for healing--now I understand why. :) It's so cool to actually read the history--and get a first-person viewpoint!

    ~ mousewords


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