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My favorite pope.

March 15, 2013


I admire Pope Hadrian VII. You don’t remember him? Well, he was fictional. Sort of.

Hadrian is the subject of a novel of that name but the character is a self portrait of the author Fr. Rolfe, aka Baron Corvo, aka Frederick William Rolfe. Rolfe’s life ambition was to be an RC priest. He was thwarted so long and consistently that he, although remaining in the communion, saw the Roman church in UK as a conspiracy organized to make him miserable.

In his 1904 novel Rolfe imagines himself not only a vicar, but the Vicar of Christ.  And what a Pope he is! Everything one wishes a contemporary pope would be: modest, generous and above all moral. He relinquishes all temporal power, sells all the Holy See’s golden chalices, platens and tchotchkees to eliminate poverty and forbids churches and priests any income except free will offerings (no BINGO, no raffles, no rummage sales). When a cardinal asks Hadrian what’s to become of priests whose flocks won’t give, he’s told “Starve and go to heaven.”

There’s a marvelous scene where Hadrian dresses down the vicar general of the Society of Jesus, the Black Pope. He instructs the Jesuits to, in a nutshell, not be so jesuitical.

Don’t pretend to be Superior Persons. Don’t give yourself such airs. Don’t gad about in hansom cabs quite so much. Don’t play billiards in public-houses. Don’t nurture jackals. Try to be honest. Don’t oppress the poor. Don’t adore the rich. Don’t cheat either. Tell the truth: or try to. Love all men and learn to serve. And don’t be vulgar.

Tell the truth: or try to. Love all men and learn to serve. And don’t be vulgar. There’s a catechism worth repeating. Hadrian believes the role of his church is to teach all people to love God by loving their fellow men. But what exactly does he mean by “love?”


The author, Fr. Rolfe in happier days at the seminary. Fr. stands for Frederick, of course.

The English pope ponders this a long time and finally has his epiphany in a chance conversation with an idealized little boy in a sailor suit (who happens to be the crown prince of Italy).

“You always try to be a good sailor—and to give no trouble——”

“Give no trouble? What not to father?” the prince inquired as the very notion clashed with his preconceived idea of the uses of fathers.

“No: not to your father.”

“Nor to Missy [English governess]?” The round face become a little longer.

“No: never to ladies on any account.”

“To whom then may I give trouble, if I may not give it to Father nor to Missy?” He felt that he had put a poser.

“Don’t give it.”

“What not to anybody?” This was a matter, a dreadful matter, which anyhow must be pursued to the bitter end.

“Not to anybody.”

The child’s great brave eyes considered the Apostle attentively: then they wandered to his sisters, to the governess, to the nurses; and came back again. Hadrian returned his gaze, very gently, quite inflexibly. The boy must learn his lesson now. Prince Filiberto pondered the novel doctrine from all his little points of view; and at last grasped the consequence like a man.

“Ah well, then I suppose I had better keep it myself.”

The content of that saying was to Hadrian like a thunderbolt. It was Love—yes, that was the quintessential Love, from the clear eyes and stainless lips of childhood—to keep one’s troubles [to] oneself. For in that way one relieved others.

Other tenets naturally rise from this central doctrine: know that everyone has their own troubles; do what you can to help them.

Alec McGowan as Hadrian in the dramatization by Peter Luke

Alec McGowan as Hadrian in the dramatization by Peter Luke

Hadrian proves to be quite an unconventional pontiff and just because he practices what he preaches.

  • He pays his debts and expects to be paid what he’s owed
  • He’s modest in dress and manner and lives frugally—he walks instead of being driven, or carried.
  • In his “Epistle to America,” he refutes the rationalized bullying and selfishness we know as Subjectivism (it didn’t have a name in yet because its evil genius, Ayn Rand, was also un-named and in vitro).
  • He refuses to indulge blackmailers and meets scandal head-on by telling the truth.

And when he discovers that two of the nice young seminarians in his household are in love, he buys them a farm where can live together happily and still good Catholics.

Hadrian determines that all the world’s problems are caused by politics, so he draws up a plan to implement his Doctrine of Love on a global basis. He divides the world into 5 super states (3 empires, a kingdom and a republic) with himself as the moral eminence gris. On the day his master plan takes affect he’s assassinated by a disappointed blackmailer and labor agitator, and dies in the arms of the Kaiser.

Rolfe’s papal doppleganger isn’t perfect. He likes being the center of attention and throwing his weight around. He has a tendency to enjoy the sound of his own voice, and he smokes. Rolfe/Rose loves making a point of forgiving those who have wronged him and of not noticing insults. So much so that he’s a perfect personification of François de La Rochefoucauld’s quip “Humility is the worst form of conceit.”

I had high hopes for the Pope Emeritus when he took the name Benedict. By doing so he averred  that the Church would be an example and champion of morality and justice. He failed. Francis has gotten off to a better start through his choice of name and his first words to his flock, “Buona sera!”

Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier are good role models. The new pope should look to the example of Hadrian VII if he truly wants to lead by example rather than just words.

handsome and hunky Jesus by Caravaggio.

Hadrian commissions an anarchist goldsmith (they meet at an assassination attempt) to design a new crucifix with a handsome, gym-built Jesus who will look triumphant in his suffering. “Flagellation of Christ” by Caravaggio could have been a model.

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