Pope Leo XIII
It was in a gloomy atmosphere that the first conclave since the fall of Rome gathered, but that conclave produced a pope who would lift up the hearts of Catholics, and indeed of all men of good will throughout the world, the great Leo XIII.
Gioacchino Pecci was born at Carpineto on March 2, 1810. After education at the Jesuit college in Viterbo, the Roman College, and the College for Nobles, Pecci hesitated about becoming a priest; but in 1837 he made his decision and plunged wholeheartedly into the priestly life.
In 1838 Gregory XVI sent Pecci to rule Benevento as a legate. He gave the district a taste of good government by running down the bandits who infested the area. Moved to Perugia in 1841, Pecci started a bank for the poor and introduced other reforms. In 1843 he went as nuncio to Belgium, and when recalled in 1845 he was made bishop of Perugia. Pius IX made him a cardinal in 1853. Pecci ruled his diocese in such a manner as to foreshadow his career as pope. He insisted on religious instruction and on the study of Aquinas. He spoke out against the social evils of the day.
When the Piedmontese took Perugia from the Papal States in 1860, anticlerical politicians made life miserable for Catholics. Pecci stood up to them, registering eighteen protests; yet such was his diplomacy that despite his manly defense of church rights, he got along with the government. In 1877 Pius IX called him to Rome and made him camerlengo. After Pius died Pecci succeeded him as Leo XIII.
It was as a leader in ideas that Leo Is truly great. He saw the need for emphasizing the value of St. Thomas, and he recalled Catholic thinkers to the study of Aquinas. He encouraged biblical studies, and while rightly cautious about certain “critical” tendencies of the age, he left the way open to continued improvement. To historians Leo was a true friend. He opened the Vatican archives to research, and he urged scholars to tell the truth and tell it whole.
Above all, by his encyclical Rerum novarum, Leo brought Christ into the factories and slums. As Christ once scourged the buyers and sellers in the temple, so now did His Vicar flail those who defiled God’s human temples by cruel economic and social measures. Critical of both extreme socialist and capitalist solutions to the day’s problems, Leo laid down Christian norms to guide men to a better social system. Published in 1891, Rerum novarum was hailed by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Though Leo XIII died on July 20, 1903, his influence lives on.
A. Chartan. Portrait 1891
St. Joseph’s Seminary, Yonkers, New York.
The last moments of Leo XIII, July 20, 1903.
Tomb of Leo XIII, by Julio Tadolini.