In Saints and Sinners, Eamon Duffy’s masterful history of the papacy, Duffy tells the story of the journey of Pope Pius VII to Paris, where he had been summoned by Napoleon to bless Napoleon’s coronation as emperor of France. It was a humiliating episode for Pius. Napoleon had invaded Italy in 1796, annexing part of the Papal States. His regime had kidnapped Pius’s predecessor, Pius VI, who died a captive while traveling under guard from Rome to France. Pius VII had had been forced to recognize a Feast of ‘St. Napoleon,’ to accede to the appointment of Napoleon’s uncle as a cardinal, and to endure such other indignities that all over Europe he was being contemptuously referred to as Napoleon’s chaplain.
But, as Duffy writes, Pius’s humiliating journey to Paris in the autumn of 1804 turned into a triumph. “Wherever the Pope went, he was mobbed by emotional crowds. His carriage drove between lines of kneeling devotees, men pressed forward to have their rosaries blessed, women married by civil rights under the Revolution to have their wedding rings touched by the Pope.”[i]
In short, the dignity of the papacy, undermined by Napoleon, Europe’s most powerful ruler, was restored by the devotion of the simple people of France. It is a reminder that the greatest patrimony of the Catholic Church is the faith of common men and women.
Dorothy Day gives us a similar reminder in her autobiography when she explains why she was drawn to the Catholic Church: “It was the Irish of New England, the Italians, the Hungarians, the Lithuanians, the Poles, it was the great mass of the poor, the workers, who were the Catholics in this country, and this fact in itself drew me to the Church.”[ii]
Senator Edward Kenney’s funeral mass in Boston provides us with another kind of reminder. The Catholics of America, by and large, are no longer poor. The phrase “White Anglo Saxon Protestant” as an indicator of the nation’s elite is antiquated and obsolete. Today, the country’s elite—its doctors, lawyers, statesmen and industrial leaders--are as likely to have Irish Catholic or Italian Catholic roots as to be Anglo Saxon Protestants.
Let us thank God for our Hispanic immigrants—with their simple and steadfast faith—who have replenished our Catholic Church with the poor. Let us welcome them to our country and do our part to protect them from discrimination and abuse. We are, after all, the Church of the poor.
[i] Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 266.
[ii]Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), p. 107.