By Vatican News
On 20 September 1870, troops under the command of Italy’s Victor Emmanuel II broke through the defenses of Porta Pia, signaling the end of the Papal States.
Commemorating the 150th anniversary of that event this year, the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, in collaboration with the Historical Office of the General Staff of the Italian Army, organized an International Meeting of Studies from 1 to 2 October in Rome.
The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, gave a lecture on Friday highlighting the significance of the anniversary for the Holy See. The event saw many religious, civil and military authorities, as well as numerous sholars in attendance.
The Breach of Porta Pia
Cardinal Parolin explained that the breach of Porta Pia 150 years ago was never considered by the Holy See as a military event. Rather, it was the sign of a struggle against the Pope’s temporal sovereignty by people inspired by anti-religious Enlightenment ideologies.
He said the original purpose of the Pope’s temporal sovereignty, which began on 14 April 754 with the Quierzy Agreement, signed by Pepin the Short and Pope Stephen II, was to ensure the Pope’s independence from any political power and his protection during armed conflicts.
Clarifying further, he pointed out that the historical context of the mid-1800s was one of anticlericalism marked with a growing rift between the state and the Church. This came to a head between 1866 – 1867 with the enactment of laws that ordered the suppression of religious congregations and orders.
The Cardinal recounted that despite facing immense pressure from political powers, Pope Pius IX strove for the independence of the papacy, writing the Encyclicals “Respicientes ea” in 1870 to all the bishops of the world and “Ubi nos” in 1871, because he knew that it would serve the common good of the universal Church.
Popes and the Roman question
The election of Pope Leo XIII in 1878, Cardinal Parolin said, “opened new horizons in the life of the Church both on the doctrinal and pastoral level.” However, he too did not change the position taken by his predecessor.
Succeeding Pope Leo XIII was Saint Pius X, who was elected Pope in 1903. He published the Encyclical “Il fermo proposito” with which he authorized Catholics to take part in elections for the first time after the “non expedit” of 1868. He granted wide exceptions to its application, entrusting the responsibility to bishops in dioceses. Saint Pius X also chose to no longer insist on the restitution of the papal states, thus opening the door to the resolution of what is known as ‘the Roman Question’.
World War I strongly marked the pontificate of Benedict XV (1918 – 1922). In the eyes of the Italian government, Benedict XV was the one who not only took away the “non expedit” but accepted the formation of a party of Christian inspiration – the Italian Popular Party. In 1921, the Italian government recognized the validity of the passports issued by the Holy See, even though it was not yet recognized by Italy as a sovereign state.
Pius XI and the Lateran Pacts
Cardinal Parolin recalled that, in February 1922, Pope Pius XI was elected as supreme pontiff. During his pontificate, relations between the Italian government and the Holy See began to pick up as regards finding a solution to the Roman Question. The crucifix was once again allowed to be hung in classrooms, and schools could once again teach religion.
In order to find a solution to the effects of the Porta Pia event and the Roman Question, the Holy See, in 1926, requested for a territory with full sovereignty, recognized as a state by Italy, and financial compensation for the lost papal states. In return, the Holy See would recognize the Italian State within its defined borders.
Eventually, on 11 February 1929, Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini, and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, on behalf of the Holy See, signed the Lateran pacts granting the Holy See independent statehood and putting an end to the Roman Question.
Working towards the future
Popes from Pius XI onward have continued to keep alive the relationship between the Holy See and the Italian government.
Cardinal Parolin noted that, on 16 April 1966, Pope Paul VI visited the seat of the Roman municipality at the Campidoglio where he gave a speech on the Church’s thought on the Porta Pia event. At the end of his speech, Paul VI gave the city a symbolic gift of the medieval flag of Rome bearing the image of St. George, as a gesture of “communion of intent” between the Pope and the magistrates of the city.
Four years later, on 28 December 1970, Paul VI welcomed the city council of Rome, led by Mayor Clelio Darida, to the Vatican, and used the occasion to call for peace between the Holy See and the Italian government.
Other Popes who have visited the City Council include Pope Saint John Paul II on 15 January 1998 and Pope Benedict XVI on 9 March 2009.
In conclusion, Cardinal Parolin said the Porta Pia event can be rightly viewed as an “interruption” or “trauma”. However, he added, in the bi-millenial history of the Church 1870 represents a single stage. We should therefore consider the history of relations between the Holy See and the Italian State as a progressive evolution.
He also pointed out that the Church preserves the historical memory of the Pope’s temporal sovereignty, but the Pope’s relationship with the world is now qualified by its pastoral dimension. Cardinal Parolin pointed out that the pastoral aspect is the “most authentic dimension of the papacy.”
“From Porta Pia to the present day,” he concluded, “there is no doubt: in the memory of the Holy See, there is the certainty of the action of providence.”