Knowledge of Church history is one of the most helpful things in keeping our balance as Catholics. A few hours’ reading will make clear that nearly all the things that disturb faithful Catholics have happened before. The first encyclical of Pius VII, Diu Satis (May 15, 1800), gives us an excellent example.
At the outset we might be puzzled by the place where the encyclical was issued. “Given at Venice in the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore.” Why in the world was the pope there? Pius VI had died in exile in August of the preceding year. In France the Church was outlawed, Rome itself was occupied by French troops, the cardinals imprisoned or scattered. To many, both friends and foes of Catholicism, it seemed that the end had finally come. The German poet Novalis, admirer of medieval Christendom, wrote toward the end of 1799 that “The old Papacy lies in its grave and Rome for the second time has become a ruin.”
But it was not to be. Under the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor, 35 cardinals painfully assembled near Venice and elected the new pope. Before he left Venice he addressed the bishops of the Catholic world in his first encyclical. In the midst of ruin on every side, Pius could say nothing better than to repeat truths which every Catholic should know.
…men should realise that all attempts to overthrow the “House of God” are in vain. For this is the Church founded on Peter, “Rock”, not merely in name but in truth. Against this “the gates of hell will not prevail”, “for it is founded on a rock”.
Today’s Church – weak and divided, often speaking with an unclear voice, increasingly seen as irrelevant by her own children – faces the unusual prospect of liturgical services hindered by public health measures taken to combat the coronavirus. In a situation not altogether different Pius VII, who contemplated “cities, towns, countryside, states, provinces, kingdoms, and nations” which had been “attacked, defeated, destroyed and made wretched” (no. 10) by the assaults of false philosophers and revolutionary armies, could offer nothing better than the unadulterated Gospel. So we too must remember his words: “Consolation and cure…can be sought and hoped for only from the teaching of Christ”. In his time, so today, there is nowhere else to go, nowhere else to look for hope.
The Church at the end of the 18th century saw the secure order of Christendom overturned. Over two centuries later we see a Church that to some likewise appears about to expire. Pius VII ended his encyclical by inviting the bishops to join in his prayer that “the Church may have peace to be built up as it walks in the fear of the Lord and in the consolation of the Holy Spirit”.
We cannot do better. For it is only the teaching and power of her Lord that will heal and restore the Church, and that will make clear to everyone that “all attempts to overthrow the ‘House of God’ are in vain”.