Little was your worry, beloved Sons and Daughters, that the present trials, which interrupt and disturb the calm continuation of family and social life, might prevent you from coming, as in past years, to offer Us, with filial devotion, the homage of your best wishes. This tragic, sorrowful time, so full of anxieties and cares, brings with it grave, imperative responsibilities, the moral resolve and steps to be taken toward the reconstruction of human society upon the cessation and tranquilization, in a peaceful tomorrow, of this enormous worldwide cataclysm. Never before have prayers been more needed, nor offerings more opportune. We thank you, with the deepest emotion in Our heart, for those you have made to Us through the voice of your illustrious representative, and especially for the concurrence of intentions and actions that We are ever certain of finding in you. When the house is afire, the first concern is to call for help to put out the flames; but after the devastation, one must repair the damage and rebuild the edifice.
We are witnessing today one of the greatest conflagrations in history, one of the profoundest political and social upheavals in the annals of the world; yet it shall be succeeded by a new order, the secret of which lies still concealed in the will and heart of God, Who providently rules the course of human events and their conclusions. Things of this earth flow like a river in the course of time: Of necessity the past gives way to the future, and the present is but a fleeting instant joining the former with the latter. This is a fact, a motion, a law; it is not in itself an evil. There would be evil if this present, which should be a tranquil wave in the continuity of the current, became a billow, upturning everything in its path like a typhoon or hurricane and furiously digging, by destruction and ravage, a gulf between what has been and what must follow. Such chaotic leaps as are made by history in its course constitute and mark what is called a crisis, in other words, a dangerous passage, which may lead to salvation, but whose solution is still wrapped in mystery amid the smoke of the conflicting forces.
Anyone who closely considers, studies, and ponders our most recent past, cannot deny that the existing evil could have been avoided and the crisis warded off by virtue of a natural manner of conduct: that is, if each and every one of us had decorously and bravely fulfilled the mission assigned him by Divine Providence.
Is not human society, or at least should it not be, like a finely tuned machine, in which all the parts work together toward the harmonious functioning of the whole? Each part has its own role, and each must apply himself toward the best possible progress of the social organism; each must seek to perfect it, according to his strengths and virtues, if he truly loves his neighbor and reasonably strives for the common good and welfare.
Now what part has been assigned in a special way to you, beloved Sons and Daughters? What role has been allotted particularly to you? Precisely that of facilitating this natural development, the role that in the machine is fulfilled by the regulator, the fly-wheel, the rheostat, which take part in the common activity and receive their part of the motive force so as to ensure the operational movement of the apparatus. In other words, Patriciate and Nobility, you represent and continue tradition.
This word, as we well know, resounds disagreeably in many ears, and it is justifiably unpleasant when pronounced by certain lips. Some misunderstand it, others make it the mendacious label of their inactive egotism. Amid this dramatic dissent and confusion, more than a few envious voices, often hostile and in bad faith, more often ignorant or deluded, ask you bluntly: What are you good for? To answer them, you must first come to understand the true meaning and value of this tradition, of which you must of necessity be the principal representatives.
Many minds, even sincere ones, imagine and believe that tradition is nothing more than memory, the pale vestige of a past that no longer exists, that can never return, and that at most is relegated to museums, therein preserved with veneration, perhaps with gratitude, and visited by a few enthusiasts and friends. If tradition consisted only of this, if it were reduced to this, and if it entailed rejection or disdain for the road to the future, then one would be right to deny it respect and honor, and one would have to look with compassion on those who dream over the past and those left behind in face of the present and future, and with greater severity on those who, spurred by less pure and respectable motives, are nothing but derelict in the duties of the now so very mournful hour.
But tradition is something very different from a simple attachment to a vanished past; it is the very opposite of a reaction mistrustful of all healthy progress. The word itself is etymologically synonymous with advancement and forward movement—synonymous, but not identical. Whereas, in fact, progress means only a forward march, step by step, in search of an uncertain future, tradition also signifies a forward march, but a continuous march as well, a movement equally brisk and tranquil, in accordance with life’s laws, eluding the distressing dilemma: “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait!” [If youth knew, if the aged could]; like that Lord of Turenne of whom it was said: “Il a eu dans sa jeunesse toute la prudence d’un âge avancé, et dans un âge avancé toute la vigueur de la jeunesse” [In his youth he had all the prudence of advanced age and in his advanced age all the vigor of youth] (Fléchier, Oraison funebre, 1676). By virtue of tradition, youth, enlightened and guided by the experience of elders, moves forward with a surer step, and old age can confidently pass on the plow to stronger hands, to continue the furrow already begun. As the word itself implies, tradition is a gift handed down from generation to generation, the torch that at each relay one runner places in and entrusts to the hand of the next, without the race slowing down or coming to a halt. Tradition and progress complement each other so harmoniously that, just as tradition without progress would be a contradiction in terms, so progress without tradition would be a foolhardy proposition, a leap into darkness.
The point, then, is not to go against the stream, to backstep toward lifestyles and forms of activity already eclipsed, but rather to take and follow the best of the past and go out to meet the future with the vigor of unfailing youth.
In this manner, your vocation, grand and laborious, is already radiantly defined, and should win you the gratitude of all and raise you above the accusations that might be leveled at you from either side.
As you prudently seek to help true progress advance toward a saner, happier future, it would be unjust and ungrateful to reproach you and dishonorably brand you for the cult of the past, the study of history, the love of sacred customs, and unshakeable loyalty to eternal principles. The glorious or unhappy examples of those who preceded the present age are a lesson and a light to guide your steps; and it has already been rightly stated that the teachings of history make humanity a man forever moving but never growing old. You live in modern society not like immigrants in a foreign country, but rather as exemplary and illustrious citizens, who want and intend to collaborate with their contemporaries toward the recovery, restoration, and progress of the world.
There are ills in society, just as there are ills in individuals. It was a great event in the history of medicine when one day the famous Laennec, a man of genius and faith, anxiously bending over the chests of the sick and armed with the stethoscope he had invented, performed auscultation, distinguishing and interpreting the slightest breaths, the barely audible acoustic phenomena of the lungs and heart. Is it not perhaps a social duty of the first order and of the highest interest to go among the people and listen to the aspirations and malaise of our contemporaries, to hear and discern the beatings of their hearts, to seek remedies for common ills, to delicately touch their wounds to heal them and save them from the infection that might set in for want of care, making sure not to irritate them with too harsh a touch?
To understand and love in Christ’s charity the people of your time, to give proof of this understanding and love through actions: This is the art and the way of doing that greater good that falls to you, doing it not only directly for those around you, but also in an almost limitless sphere. Then does your experience become a benefit for all. And in this area, how magnificent is the example set by so many noble spirits ardently and eagerly striving to bring about and spread a Christian social order.
No less offensive to you, and no less damaging to society, would be the unfounded and unjust prejudice that did not hesitate to insinuate and have it believed that the patricians and nobles were failing in their honor and in the high office of their station in practicing and fulfilling their duties and functions, placing them alongside the general activity of the population. It is quite true that in ancient times the exercise of professions was usually considered beneath the dignity of nobles, except for the military profession; but even then, once armed defense made them free, more than a few of them readily gave themselves over to intellectual works or even manual labor. Nowadays, of course, with the changes in political and social conditions, it is not unusual to find the names of great families associated with progress in science, agriculture, industry, public administration, and government—and they are all the more perceptive observers of the present as well as confident and bold pioneers of the future, since with a steady hand they hold firm to the past, ready to take advantage of the experience of their ancestors but quick to be wary of the illusions and mistakes that have been the cause of many false and dangerous steps.
As custodians, by your own choosing, of the true tradition honoring your families, the task and honor of contributing to the salvation of human society falls to you, to preserve it from the sterility to which the melancholy thinkers jealous of the past would condemn it and from the catastrophe to which the reckless adventurers and prophets dazzled by a false and mendacious future would lead it. In your work, above you and as it were within you, there shall appear the image of Divine Providence which with strength and gentleness disposes and directs all things toward their perfection (Wis. 8:1), as long as the folly of human pride does not intervene to thwart its designs, which are, however, always above evil, chance, and fortune. By such action you, too, shall be precious collaborators of the Church, which, even amid the turmoil and conflict, never ceases to foster the spiritual progress of nations, the city of God on earth in preparation for the eternal city.
Upon this your holy and fruitful mission, which, We are confident, you shall continue to fulfill with firm resolve, proceeding with a zeal and devotion more needed than ever in these very dark days, We pray for the most abundant heavenly grace, while with all Our heart We give to you and your families, to your loved ones near and far, to the sick and the healthy, to the prisoners, the lost, and those exposed to the bitterest sorrows and dangers, Our paternal Apostolic blessing.
Discorsi e Radiomessaggi di Sua Santità Pio XII (Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, January 19, 1944), pp. 177-182.