Friday, December 12, 2014

An audience with Pope Pius XII

As the Roughams were a distinguished recusant family which had produced a martyr in the 16th century, a cardinal in the 17th, a venerable in the 18th and, moreover, since Edmund and Judith were newlyweds, a private audience with the Pope had been arranged for them. Unfortunately, they had not known this when they left England, and had not brought the proper clothes – a long-sleeved black evening dress for Judith and tails for Edmund, even though the audience was for 10 o'clock in the morning. They had to hire them. With a tuck here and there, Judith's dress was vaguely presentable, but Edmund's tails were green with age, shiny from cleaning and cut to encompass some important gentleman of more than twice Edmund's girth.

"The Pope must think it awfully funny," said Edmund, "every day to see different faces emerging out of the identical kit."

"I suppose," Judith answered, "he looks upon the laity much as we look upon the priest. It's the same old vestment no matter who's inside."

Anyway, they got there on time and were duly placed in a small antechamber, scarcely more than forty feet wide each way, though which the Pope was to pass. They did not have to wait long. At a sign from a rotund monsignor they fell on their knees. Pope Pius XII appeared.

He was not as tall as he looked in his photographs, but quite as emaciated. The eyes were black and burning. Was it zeal, was it anguish? He had a trick of looking through you, not focusing on you at all. The fine, aquiline nose was not unlike what Edmund's might become at his age. But the mouth! At rest it seemed shapeless and melancholic, almost fish-like, but it could twist into any shape and would suddenly give a smile as innocent as a baby's. Lastly the hands, the most beautiful Judith had ever seen. Edmund had fine, aristocratic hands, but they were not as beautiful as the Pope's.

He came up to them where they knelt, fingering some little cards which doubtless gave him details about the people to whom he was giving audience. His English was quite fluent although it had an unexpected American accent.

"Mr. and Mrs. Rougham. You come from an old recusant family." His eyes unfocused and he looked into eternity. "Your family must have suffered much. You have the Beato Gregorio among your ancestors. It is easy to bear suffering oneself, from moment to moment. But to suffer in your wife, in your children, hopelessly, from generation to generation, this the English Catholics have done. They are dear to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to ours.

"Mrs. Rougham, you are a newlywed. We shall say a special prayer that you are fruitful in children who can bear suffering, who do not flinch at the Cross. Men have stopped looking at the Cross. Priests will turn it out of their churches. You look at it. Teach your children to look at it.

"The persecution of Catholics is finished in England, by the mercy of God, but to suffering there is no end. You will find the enemy within the Church, not without. We see it coming from our exalted position on the summit of the Rock. We can see far from where we stand. You will suffer more than your ancestors, Mr. Rougham, but they must remain an example to you. There is only one nobility in man: suffering nobly borne."

He suddenly broke off, refocused on them and gave them his most beautiful baby smile. "Is there anything special you would like to ask of us?"

Of course they had prepared nothing. They had even forgotten the rosary they had especially bought to be blessed. But Judith was terribly moved and said quite spontaneously: "Yes, Holy Father! You spoke of the Cross. At home we have a crucifix which as been in the family since before the Reformation. In front of it each generation of Roughams has prayed. In a strange way it was the cause of my conversion. I want you to bless it; really bless it. It isn't physically here, but that is what we want you to bless. It has baby angels catching the Precious Blood from the sacred wounds."

The Pope's mouth twitched into a series of strange shapes. He unfocused. There was an appreciable pause. Then: "We do bless it. The arms of that crucifix will ever be outstretched in suffering and in mercy over you. The mercy of God is so incomprehensible to man that it makes us suffer. Yet mercy it is. The angels' little cups of mercy have to be drunk to the dregs in suffering. You will do it. I know you (he dropped into the singular) although I have never seen you before. And you have all my affection, although I shall never see you again. For your part, whenever you are at home, we (he reverted to the plural) command you once day to fall in front of your cross for just one minute in silent adoration, and we grant you a plenary indulgence at the hour of death.

"Now we impart our Apostolic Blessing…"

He laid his hands lightly on their heads. The baby-smile reappeared as he said: "Goodbye, Mr. and Mrs. Rougham – and teach your children to cling to the Cross." He passed into the next antechamber.

Judith and Edmund picked themselves up. They had been kneeling the whole time. They joined hands and waited in silence until they were escorted out of the Vatican into the brilliant midday sun of a cold and clear February day.

"Gosh, what an experience!" said Edmund, which was all either of them could say.

— Bryan Houghton, Judith's Marriage, 1987, pp. 56–59.