Feast of Leo XIII (July 20)   Leave a comment

Above:  His Holiness, Pope Leo XIII

Image in the Public Domain

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GIACCHINO VINCENZO PECCI (MARCH 2, 1810-JULY 20, 1903)

Bishop of Rome

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I want to see the church so far forward that my successor will not be able to turn it back.

–Pope Leo XIII, quoted in Robert Ellsberg, All Saints:  Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 308

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That successor, St. Pius X (1903-1914), turned the Church back for more than half a century, until Popes St. John XXIII (1958-1963) and Blessed Paul VI (1963-1978) presided over the Second Vatican Council (1959-1965).

One of the patterns in organized Christianity since the Enlightenment has been conflict between traditions (especially in theology) and the modern world.  Sometimes, as Leo XIII understood well, conflicts have been unnecessary–even detrimental to the Church, while having their origins in the Church.

Giacchino Vincenzo Pecci, born in Carpinto, near Rome, on March 2, 1810, came from lesser nobility.  At an early age he manifested a keen intellect, which he used throughout his life.  Pecci, studying at Viterbo (1818-1824), the Roman College (1824-1832), and the Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics (1832-1837), joined the ranks of priests in 1837.

Father–later Archbishop, Bishop, and Cardinal–Pecci engaged with the realities of industrial Europe.  He, the Titular Archbishop of Damietta in 1843 and simultaneously the nuncio to Belgium (1843-1846), served as the Bishop of Perugia (1846-1878).  Our saint, Cardinal Pecci from 1853, modernized the curriculum of the seminary in his diocese, encouraged Scholastic theology, and, by 1878, had become the Camerlengo of the Church.  In 1878, Blessed Pius IX, a reactionary Supreme Pontiff who preferred Medieval Catholicism, favored the divine right of kings, considered constitutional government incompatible with Christianity, and practiced Anti-Semitism, died.  Pecci, as the Camerlengo, was in charge between Popes. In February 1878 he became the next Pope as Leo XIII.  He was 67 years old and not in the best of health.  The man predicted to be a stop-gap Pope served for a quarter of a century, until 1903, dying at the age of 93.

Leo XIII stood firmly within Roman Catholic tradition, for better and worse.  In some ways he was quite conservative when he should not have been.  He sought the restoration of Papal temporal power, the Index survived, and, in 1896, the Church declared Anglican holy orders invalid, for example.  Yet Leo XIII was also relatively progressive.  In 1879 he elevated Father John Henry Newman (1801-1890), suspected of heterodoxy, to the College of Cardinals.  (How conservative must one have been to call Newman too liberal?)  This decision upset many conservatives in the Church.  When Leo XIII recognized the French Third Republic he scandalized French Roman Catholic monarchists.  Lifting Blessed Pius IX’s ban on Roman Catholics voting in Italian elections was another indication of liberalism.  Roman Catholicism and representative government, Leo XIII declared, contradicting his predecessor.

Economic justice was crucial, Leo XIII.  He condemned Marxism, communism, and laissez-faire capitalism.  The Pope wrote in favor of labor unions, the right of collective bargaining, a living wage, and safe working conditions.  All of this was a matter of ethics and the dignity or work, for the Supreme Pontiff.

Leo XIII was also open to science and scholarship.  He encouraged some critical scholarship of the Bible (St. Pius X did not encourage any.), reopened the Vatican Observatory, opened the Vatican Library to scholars without regard to creed, and encouraged Roman Catholic scholars to do their work objectively.  The author of 86 encyclicals in 25 years stood within the strain of Roman Catholicism that found faith and reason compatible.  That strain included St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose theology Leo XIII had long encouraged people to study.

Leo XIII, while affirming his papal authority (of course), engaged the non-Roman Catholic Christian world.  The 1896 decree about the invalidity of Anglican holy orders was a setback, but he did call non-Roman Catholic Christians “separated brothers.”  St. John XXIII (1958-1963) did the same in a more ecumenical age.  Leo XIII also invited “separated brothers” to reunite with Holy Mother Church.

Leo XIII would have made St. Justin de Jacobis (1800-1860) glad.  The Pope encouraged evangelization, especially outside Europe.  Leo XIII also favored educating indigenous priests, an effective strategy in missions.

Leo XIII, aged 93 years, died at the Vatican on July 20, 1903.  He was simultaneously conservative and liberal, by the standards of his time.  He foreshadowed reforms that started decades after his death.

Consider ecclesiastical politics, O reader.  The reactionary Pius IX is a Blessed, on the path to canonization.  Leo XIII is not even a Venerable.  Pius X, slightly less reactionary than Pius IX, is a full saint.  The less one says and writes about Pius XII, a Venerable, the better.  John XXIII, who opened Vatican II, is a full saint.  (How can Pius X and John XXIII both be full saints?)  Paul VI, who concluded the Second Vatican Council, is a Blessed.  The very nice John Paul I, who forgot to take his medicine and therefore had a brief Pontifficate, is a Venerable.  And John Paul II is a full saint, due to a fast-tracked canonization process.  To some extent one can identify the legacy of Leo XIII in each of his successors.  The legacy of Leo XIII is especially strong in Pope Francis.

I, as an Episcopalian, a member of a church with valid holy orders, belong to a tradition that teaches that history makes saints.  I count legacies, not miracles.  I, one of those “separated brothers” of whom Leo XIII and St. John XXIII wrote and spoke, hereby enroll Leo XIII, Servant of the Servants of God, in my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MAY 21, 2018 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF CHRISTIAN DE CHERGÉ AND HIS COMPANIONS, MARTYRS OF TIBHIRINE, ALGERIA, 1996

THE FEAST OF EUGENE DE MAZENOD, BISHOP OF MARSEILLES AND FOUNDER OF THE CONGREGATION OF THE MISSIONARIES, OBLATES OF MARY IMMACULATE

THE FEAST OF SAINT FRANZ JÄGGERSTÄTTER, AUSTRIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR AND MARTYR, 1943

THE FEAST OF JOSEPH ADDISON AND ALEXANDER POPE, ENGLISH POETS

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Almighty God, you have raised up faithful bishops of your church,

including your servant Pope Leo XIII.

May the memory of his life be a source of joy for us and a bulwark of our faith,

so that we may serve and confess your name before the world,

through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Ezekiel 34:11-16 or Acts 20:17-35

Psalm 84

1 Peter 5:1-4 or Ephesians 3:14-21

John 21:15-17 or Matthew 24:42-47

–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), 60

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