I have been reading Fr John Horgan’s His Angels at our Side (EWTN/Gracewing) which I will blog about shortly. Meanwhile, one of his many reflections has caught my attention. Writing on the need for spiritual humility – probably the hardest of all the virtues to attain – he mentions the celebrated Secretary of State to Pope St Pius X: Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val.
Every so often, his name comes up in reading, always as the expression goes – very apt in this instance – “on the side of the angels.” The latest reference I read mentioned that Merry del Val was one of a small minority in the hierarchy to champion the integrity of Padre Pio, the Capuchin friar and stigmatic, when his many enemies in the Church wanted him silenced as a fraud.
Fr Horgan writes, “My own favourite teacher of spiritual humility is not yet beatified, though we may certainly hope for that day to come: Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val (1865-1930) an extraordinary man of exceptional gifts.” He relates that Merry del Val, the son of the Spanish ambassador to England, entered the papal diplomatic corps while still a seminarian; “Handsome, multilingual and a talented horseman, he seemed destined for great things.” At the very young age of 38 he was secretary to the conclave of 1903 that elected St Pius X as pope.
Fr Horgan continues, “The new pope recognised all his talents and made him his secretary of state and cardinal. For eleven years, he worked at the side of a saint who became a second and beloved father to him and so he became the second most powerful man in the Church.”
Despite the grandeur of his public office, Merry del Val privately “poured all his money into an orphanage and boys’ club in the poorest neighbourhood of Rome, wore a hair shirt and frequently used the discipline on Fridays in memory of the Passion. Why did he do all this?” Horgan reflects that the Cardinal “was acutely aware of the temptations to pride and selfishness that were constantly around him [in the Vatican]. He knew his own talents, gifts and responsibilities – and he knew that if he did not live entirely for Christ he would be the unhappiest of men.”
Merry del Val supposedly composed the Litany of Humility, discovered only after his sudden death at the age of 65. Horgan comments, “You only have to read it through to have some sense of how much it meant to the man who wrote it and what it cost him to come to such a place in his own spiritual life. What courage he had to put the thoughts of his mind and heart down on paper in these words!”
The Litany includes: “From the desire of being honoured, Deliver me, Jesus”; “From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus”; “From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus”; “That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it”; “That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it”. These heartfelt petitions remind us that great public position in the Church is beset with many temptations to self-seeking and vanity. Giving in to them always leads to corruption in some form, as we have seen in recent months.
Driving home this evening I heard on the car radio during the five o’clock news that Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington has just resigned. We need more princes of the Church cast in the mould of Raphael Merry del Val; in other words, we need men seeking holiness rather than high office.