How, beloved Sons and Daughters, could the warm and heartfelt greetings that the lofty words of your illustrious representative conveyed to Us in your name fail to find their response in the offerings We now raise to God on your behalf? Unvanquished by the sorrows of the present hour, We feel, at this moment, a sweet consolation and a profound joy, for in our persons We see before Us a kind of representation of Our beloved Rome. To such an eminent condition, the disposition of Divine Providence has seen fit to raise you in the course of history; you are aware of this and at the same time you feel thereby a sense of legitimate dignity and of weighty responsibility.
By privilege of birth, you have been placed by God in His wisdom like a city atop a mountain; you cannot therefore remain hidden (cf. Matt. 5:14). In addition, He has destined you to live in the middle of the twentieth century, now in a moment of great hardship and anguish. And though you are still highly placed and at a dominant position, it is no longer in the same manner as your ancestors. Your forebears, living in their strongholds and their lonely castles, formidably defended and of difficult access—with towers and manors scattered throughout Italy, including the Roman province—had therein a refuge against the incursions of rivals and malefactors and organized therein an armed defense, and from those heights descended to do battle on the plain. You too, and your progeny, attract the gaze of those from the valley below. Consider the great names that you bear, rendered famous in history by military valor, by social service worthy of every praise and benefit, by religious zeal and holiness; what crowns of glory surround them! The people have exalted them and sung their praises through the voices of their writers and poets and through the hands of their artists; but they have also judged, and still do judge, with implacable severity, at times to the point of injustice, their errors and faults. If you seek the reason for this, you shall find it in the high office, the weighty responsibilities to which even a common honesty or a simple and ordinary mediocrity, to say nothing of failures and downfalls, are unsuited.
The responsibilities which you, beloved Sons and Daughters, and which the nobility in general, bear in regard to the populace today are hardly less weighty than those which once weighed upon your ancestors in centuries past, as history tells us in no uncertain terms.
If, indeed, we look at the peoples who once univocally and harmoniously professed the Christian faith and civilization, we see today vast fields of religious and moral ruin; few are the regions of the ancient Christian West in which the avalanche of spiritual catastrophe has not left traces of its devastation.
Not that everything and everyone has been overwhelmed and oppressed; indeed, We do not hesitate to assert that rarely in the course of history have keenness and firmness of faith, dedication to Christ and readiness to defend his cause in the Catholic world been more open, manifest and strong as they are today—so much so, that in certain ways a comparison can be made with the early centuries of the Church. Yet in the very comparison, the other side of the coin also appears. Now, too, the Christian front is up against a non-Christian civilization; indeed, in our own case—and this makes the situation worse in comparison with the early centuries of Christianity—against a civilization that has strayed from Christ. This de-Christianization is so powerful and audacious today that it all too often becomes difficult for the spiritual and religious atmosphere to spread and remain entirely free and immune from its poisonous breath.
It is useful, however, to recall that this movement toward unbelief and irreligion found its starting point not from below but from above, that is to say, in the ruling classes, in the upper tiers of society, the nobility, the thinkers and philosophers. We do not, mind you, mean all the nobility, much less the Roman nobility, which has greatly distinguished itself for its loyalty to the Church and to this Apostolic See—and the eloquent and filial expressions We have just heard are yet another luminous demonstration thereof—but rather, the nobility of Europe in general. Does one not clearly perceive in the Christian West in the last few centuries a spiritual evolution which, horizontally and vertically, breadthwise and lengthwise, so to speak, has been progressively undermining and demolishing the Faith, leading to that devastation visible today in the multitudes of men without religion or hostile to religion, or at least animated and confused by a profound and ill-conceived skepticism toward the supernatural and Christianity?
The vanguard of this evolution was the so-called Protestant Reformation, during whose vicissitudes and wars a large part of Europe’s nobility broke away from the Catholic Church and appropriated her possessions. But unbelief properly speaking spread in the age that preceded the French Revolution. Historians note that atheism, even in the guise of deism, had become widespread at that time in high society in France and elsewhere; belief in a God who was Creator and Redeemer had become, in that world given over to all the pleasures of the senses, something almost ridiculous and unseemly for cultivated minds avid for novelty and progress. In the greater number of the salons of the greatest and most refined ladies, where the most arduous questions of religion, philosophy, and politics were tossed about, literati and philosophers, champions of subversive doctrines, were considered the finest, most eagerly sought ornaments of those worldly meeting-places. Impiety was fashionable in the high nobility, and the writers most in vogue would have been less audacious in their attacks on religion if they had not enjoyed the approval and incitement of the most elegant high society. Not that all the nobility and all the philosophers set their sights on the immediate de-Christianization of the masses. On the contrary, religion was supposed to remain, for the simple people, as a means of governance in the hands of the State. They, however, felt themselves and thought themselves to be above faith and its moral precepts, a policy that very quickly proved to be deadly and shortsighted, even when considered from a purely psychological perspective. With inexorable logic, the people, powerful in goodness and terrible in evil, always know how to draw practical conclusions from their observations and judgments, however well-founded or mistaken they may be.
Take the history of civilization of the last two centuries: It clearly reveals and demonstrates the damage to the faith and morals of nations wrought by bad examples being set and handed down from above, the religious frivolity of the upper classes, the open intellectual struggle against the revealed truth.
Now, what conclusion are we to draw from these lessons of history? That today salvation must begin there, at the place where the perversion had its origin. It is not in itself difficult to maintain religion and sound morals in the people when the upper classes set a good example and create public conditions that do not make a Christian education immeasurably onerous, but rather promote it as something sweet and to be imitated. Is your duty not the same, beloved Sons and Daughters, you who, by the nobility of your families and the offices you often hold, belong to the ruling classes? The great mission which to you and to very few others has been assigned—that is, first to reform and perfect private life in yourselves and in your homes, and then to apply yourselves, each in his place and in his share, to bring forth a Christian order in public life—does not admit postponement or delay. It is a most noble mission, rich with promises, especially at a moment when, in reaction to a devastating, demoralizing materialism, a new thirst for spiritual values has been emerging in the masses, and minds are opening up to religious things, in a move away from unbelief. These developments allow one to hope that the lowest point of spiritual decline has by now been left behind. To all of you, therefore, falls the glory, by the light and appeal of good examples raising themselves above all mediocrity, of working together to make these initiatives and aspirations to religious and social good achieve their happy fulfillment.
What can We say of the efficacy and power of those generous souls of your class who, convinced of the greatness of their vocation, have dedicated their lives in full to spreading the light of truth and goodness—those “grands seigneurs de la plume,” as they have been called, those great lords of intellectual, moral, and religious action? Our voice could never praise them too much. They have the high merit of being good and faithful servants of the Divine Master, and they put to excellent use the talents granted them.
We should like to add that the duty of the nobility must not remain satisfied with shining like a beacon that casts its beam for navigators but never moves. Your honor is also that of being on the lookout, from high atop the mountain on which you are situated, ever ready to espy in the valley below all the pain, suffering, and hardship, and to descend there, eager to alleviate these sorrows like compassionate comforters and rescuers. In these disastrous times, what a vast field offers itself to the devotion, zeal, and charity of the Patriciate and Nobility! How many examples of virtue by illustrious families come to comfort Our heart! Indeed, if responsibility in the face of need is great, the action of him who would take on such a burden is all the more glorious as the burden is heavy. You too, in this fashion, shall prove yourselves more and more equal to your rank, for the heavenly Father, who has in a special way destined you and raised you up to be the refuge, light, and succor to a world in distress, will not fail to reward you with superabundance of graces for worthily fulfilling your lofty vocation.
Yes, yours is a lofty vocation indeed, and in it Christian spirit and social standing unite and urge you to make that self-sacrificing goodness shine forth, winning for you praise and gratitude from your fellow men, and even greater and nobler praise from God, the just rewarder of good deeds done to one’s neighbor, which He takes as having been done to Himself. Never cease, therefore, to do your utmost so that by your generous actions not only will your beneficent names be honored, but the people will honor the Christianity that animates your life, inspires your activity and raises you up to God. And now invoking God, beloved Sons and Daughters, to bestow his heavenly favor on your families, on your children with their sublime smiles, on the youngsters in serene adolescence, on the bold young men, confident and brave, on the mature men of virile resolve, on the old men of wise counsel who gladden and sustain your illustrious houses, and especially on the dear and valorous ones who are not here today, objects of your anxious thoughts and especial affection, We give you Our most deeply heartfelt paternal Apostolic blessing.