Today marks the anniversary of the death of His Holiness Pope Leo XIII in 1903. According to an ancient tradition, St Peter had been Pope for 32 years, one less than the years of Christ’s earthly life, but had spent the first seven of those in Antioch, and was therefore bishop of Rome for only 25. No Pope had ever matched the length of his Roman tenure, and for many centuries, during the papal coronation ritual, after the cardinal-bishop of Ostia had crowned the new Pope, he would say to him in Latin, “Numquam videbis annos Petri – thou shalt never see the years of Peter”, as a reminder of his mortality and the end of all earthly power and glory. However, Bl. Pius IX reached his 25th year in 1871, and continued to reign for nearly seven more years. This ceremony was then omitted from Leo’s coronation, and his papacy lasted for 25 years and 5 months, the fourth longest after John Paul II, Pius IX and Peter. At the time of his death he was 93, the oldest serving Pope in history.
(Pope Leo XIII in 1887)
Pope Leo was a highly talented Latinist, and a great lover of classical literature. A story is told that he was once sitting in the Vatican gardens and reading, when a cardinal came across him and asked if he was reading the Bible, to which the Pope replied with a “No” brief enough to make it clear that he did not wish to be interrupted. But the cardinal persisted: “Perhaps the breviary?” “No.” “A volume of devotion?” “No.” “The life of a Saint?” “Will your eminence be so kind as to leave us in peace with our dear Horace?”
Our friend and mentor Fr Reginald Foster admired Leo very much, and used to say (jokingly, to be sure) that if he himself were ever elected Pope, he would choose the name “Leo XIV” in his honor. Fr Foster also loved to tell the story that Leo once woke up in the middle of the night and began energetically ringing the bell for a servant, saying in Italian, “Il piede! Il piede! – the foot! the foot!” The servants naturally thought that the Pope had hurt his foot and wanted a doctor. In fact, he had gone to sleep after working on a Latin poem and getting stuck with a metrical problem in the middle of a foot of verse. The solution had come to him in his sleep, as such solutions sometimes do, and what he actually wanted was a pen and paper so he could write it down immediately before he forgot it.
In 1887, the Jesuits of Woodstock College, a seminary of their order outside Baltimore, published a collection of some of the Pope’s Latin poems, accompanied by their own English metrical translations. Here are a few brief examples; the book may be seen and downloaded for free from the website archive.org. ( https://archive.org/details/latinpoemsofleox00leoxuoft/mode/2up )
To Fr Vincenzo Pavani, S.J.
Nomine, Vincenti, quo tu, Pavane, vocaris
Parvulus atque infans Peccius ipse vocor.
Quas es virtutes magnas, Pavane, sequutus
O utinam possem Peccius ipse sequi.
In childhood’s hour I joyed to claim
As mine, o Vincent, thy dear name;
Ah! could I claim not name alone,
But virtue great as thou hast shown!
(A note explains that Pope Leo’s baptismal names were Joachim, Vincent, Raphael and Aloysius. “His mother, through her devotion to St Vincent Ferrer, called him Vincent; but his own choice in later years was Joachim.”
Expressa solis spiculo
Nitens imago, quam bene
Frontis decus, vim luminum
Refers, et oris gratiam.
O mira virtus ingeni
Novumque monstrum! Imaginem
Naturae Apelles aemulus
Non pulchriorem pingeret.
(The Triumph of Truth Over Falsehood, a fresco on the ceiling of the Gallery of the Candelabra in the Vatican Museums, 1883-7, by Domenico Torti. The relatively new art of photography is represented in lower part, while in the upper section, the older, more established arts such as painting and sculpture submit themselves to the figure of Truth. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons by Jean-Pol Grandmont,
Sun-wrought image! All may see
Bright and beaming writ in thee
Gracious features, thought-crowned brow.
Eyes with living light aglow.
Modern wit is master here:
Not Apelles, Nature’s peer,
Could with truer pencil trace
Thy unlabored, clear-cut grace.
(Apelles was a Greek painter of the later 4th century B.C., whom Pliny says “surpassed all those before and after him. The “new” art of photography was invented when Pope Leo was 12, and over the course of his long life went from one remarkable improvement to another, becoming ever more popular. Pope Leo is also the earliest-born person ever to be filmed. )
De Se Ipso
Justitiam colui: certamina longa, labores,
Ludibria, insidias, aspera quaeque tuli.
At fidei vindex non flector: pro grege Christi
Dulce pati, ipsoque in carcere dulce mori.
Justice I sought, and toil and lengthened strife
And taunts and wiles and every hardship, life
Have burdened: I, Faith’s champion, do not bend;
For Christ’s flock sweet the pain; sweet, life in bonds to end.
(Pope Leo inscribed this on a portrait of himself. “Bonds” refers to the de facto imprisonment of the Popes within the Vatican City, after the Kingdom of Italy unlawfully annexed the Papal state in 1870. Pope Leo accepted his election knowing that he would never again be able to step out of the sliver of territory, less than a fifth of a square mile, with the walls of the city.)