A questionnaire for Apostolic visits at the time of saint Pius X

Aurelio Porfiri

I must say with great sincerity that, despite my love for history and tradition, I don’t think I can be considered a person who lives in the past. I am well aware that the past is not all that perfect and that many problems lie in looking back, as is in our present.

For example, if we look at the Church, we complain a lot about the current condition of the clergy and with good reason. In the past it was not that they had no problems with the clergy, just remember that the modernist crisis of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had the most important protagonists in the clergy. Yet there is a difference, and it is in the approach that one has towards sacred things. This certainly must be seen as a clear change of perspective and must be carefully considered.

Take for example the Personal Regulations and Apostolic Visitor Questionnaire, a list of questions that those who visited the dioceses on behalf of the Holy See had to answer and then report to their superiors in Rome. From these questions we understand what was of particular interest to the Holy See. Father Lorenzo Bedeschi (1915-2006), to whom so much is owed for his studies on modernism, reports one in his book Lineamenti dell’antimodernismo. Il caso Lanzoni (1970, Guanda). It is a 26-page pamphlet that bears the date of July 1, 1904 and is attributable to the work of Gaetano de Lai (1853-1928), at that time secretary of the Congregation for the Council (a Congregation no longer existing that was established to supervise the application of the decrees of the Council of Trent) member of the commission for the formation of the code of canon law (see the entry DE LAI, Gaetano di Rocco Cerrato in the Encyclopedia Treccani). Don Gaetano de Lai (who was made later a Cardinal) was one of the most important figures of the Roman curia at the time of Saint Pius X, together with the Secretary of State Cardinal Raffaele Merry del Val (1865-1930). The questionnaire was signed primarily by Cardinal Vincenzo Vannutelli (1836-1930), who was at that time the prefect of the Congregation for the Council.

The questionnaire, marked as “confidential” is very detailed and full of questions of all kinds. For example, speaking of the Diocese in general, it asks if sanctuaries exist, how they are administered and how many people flock to them and what advantage they bring to piety and divine worship. Speaking of the people, it asks “whether there is a practice of Christian life in general, with a sentiment of faith and frequency of sacraments; or indifference or external worship and a religious practice of formality reign, without spirit, and without the exercise of the virtues essential to Christianity”. Obviously then it goes into detail asking about Baptisms and Funerals, about how the Easter precept is observed. There is obviously a lot of attention given to the clergy, especially to the parish priests of whom, among other things, it wonders “if they do the Marian month in May. And if they try to foment piety and devotion with all those means that usually suggest a holy zeal for the cause of God, in particular by lending themselves easily to listening to Confessions, by multiplying pious exercises, by arousing the faithful to attend Mass, to the visit to the Most Holy Sacrament, to the recitation of the Holy Rosary; and also with the dissemination of good books and periodicals, and with some of those pious institutions among children, artisans, young girls, adults who are approved and advised by the Church, etc”. There was a lot of attention, as we see, given to the liturgical participation of the people. We recall that less than a year before, Saint Pius X had promulgated his Motu Proprio on sacred music.

Speaking more specifically of churches and liturgical ceremonies, it asks how churches are kept, how clean they are, the care of the altars and if everything possible is done to ensure the decorum of the house of God. There is much emphasis on the dignity of the church that it must also be reflected in sacred art and sacred music; one question specifically asks whether secular music has been eliminated from the worship of God to introduce truly sacred music. The questionnaire goes into great detail with regards to the investigation into the life of seminaries and also concerning the pastoral action and morals of the Bishops. It is very clear how great importance was attached to the personal piety of future priests, and the absence of signs in this sense must certainly have alarmed the vocation of the seminarian. Let us not forget that we are already in the midst of a modernist climate, which was publicly addressed from 1907 onwards with documents of extreme importance in the pontificate of Saint Pius X. So it was ensured that the ideas of the reformers did not win the hearts of young priests. This battle claimed many victims, on both sides.

A few months earlier, Pope Saint Pius X replied to the wishes for the feast of Saint Joseph (March 18, 1904) and in front of the Sacred College he delivered a speech in which, among other things, he said: “While we therefore give heartfelt thanks to the Sacred College, let us raise our mind and our heart to the sweetest Patron of the universal Church, so that, upon completion of the vows offered to us, he may obtain for us from the Sovereign Giver all good light and help in the exercise of our arduous ministry and to the Church that effective and benign protection, so much needed in the harsh and perilous struggles of our time. And these struggles are certainly not lacking even today. And indeed if we turn our gaze to the conditions of the great Catholic family, we undoubtedly find very solid arguments of consolation, seeing the beautiful and close union of the Episcopate with this Apostolic See, the affectionate movement of peoples towards the center of the unity and the fruitful and ever-growing development that Catholic works are taking place in all nations. On the other hand, however, we have a great deal of concern and bitterness in seeing how ardently Catholic principles are opposed, how persistently they are scattered among the multitudes of fatal errors, no less to the Church than to the civil consortium and with what aberration they are destroyed in some places institutions and salubrious works, founded by the Church with so much concern and with so many sacrifices for the moral and material good of the people”. The struggle against these errors will be one of the constant concerns of the pontificate of Saint Pius X, a struggle that will include that of the dignity of divine worship, because modernist ideas and certain reforming ideas of the liturgy have much more in common than what we could possibly think.