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Pope Pius XI Issues the Encyclical “Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio”: December 23, 1922

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.

“Gladly do We offer Our life for the Peace of the World!” These words were among the last spoken by Pope Benedict XV. The day after he uttered them, January 22, 1922, at 6 o’clock in the morning, the pope of peace “with great holiness fell asleep in the Lord.” Once again, in perilous times, the Church—and the world—was left without a shepherd.

The conclave to elect the new pope opened February 3, 1922; three days later, the cardinals had made their choice—Cardinal Achille Ratti, the archbishop of Milan, a close friend of Benedict XV. A theologian and scholar, Ratti had served as head of the Vatican Library and as the pope’s nuncio to the new nation of Poland. He took the name Pius XI and announced that he would guide his reign by the motto, pax Christi in regno Christi—“The Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.”

Pope Pius XI
Pope Pius XI

The new pope explained this motto in his first encyclical, Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, issued December 23, 1922. “Since the close of the Great War, individuals, the different classes of society, the nations of the earth have not yet found true peace,” wrote Pius. Nations were still rivals; public life was clouded “by the dense fog of mutual hatreds”; the war between the rich and poor classes continued, because each class seeks “to rule the other and to assume control of the other’s possessions.” Even family members were at odds with one another, said the pope, for the war had torn fathers and sons away “from the family fireside” and had weakened the sense of morality. The people of his day, said the pope, refused obedience to rightful authority and were failing to live up to their obligations. “In the face of our much praised progress,” wrote the pope, “we behold with sorrow society lapsing back slowly but surely into a state of barbarism.”

The treaties that had ended the war, said the pope, did not bring peace; for, “this peace . . . was only written into treaties. It was not received into the hearts of men, who still cherish the desire to fight one another and to continue to menace in a most serious manner the quiet and stability of civil society.” Because of human weakness, no human institution by itself can bring peace. True peace, said Pius, can only come through justice and love, which are the fruits of the grace of Christ, communicated through his Church. “It is therefore,” wrote Pius, “that the true peace of Christ can only exist in the Kingdom of Christ—pax Christi in regno Christi.”

Pope Pius XI made it his task “to bring about the reestablishment of Christ’s kingdom,” not only in individual hearts, but in society and the state as well. In Italy, he had taken steps to bring about a reconciliation between the anticlerical Liberal government and the Church. Such a reconciliation had to include settling what was called the “Roman Question”—what to do about the Italian government’s theft of the Papal States in 1870. Like his predecessors, Pius XI demanded that the government restore his sovereignty over at least some of the territory taken from him; only thus could the Church be truly independent of the state.

Benito Mussolini, photograph by G. G. Bain
Benito Mussolini, photograph by G. G. Bain

After October 1922, though, the pope had to deal with the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, which, at first, was more anti-Catholic than the previous Liberal government had been. Yet, beginning in 1924, Mussolini began to speak as if he respected the Church and the Catholic faith of the Italian people. To prove his respect, he restored control of primary schools to the Church; he made religious instruction (given by priests and religious) mandatory in all Italian schools; and he abolished several anticlerical laws. Though in 1925 the pope condemned certain Fascist acts of oppression against the Church, it was clear that Mussolini was seeking some sort of reconciliation with the pope.

Though he had his doubts about Il Duce’s goodwill, the pope believed he had to act as if Mussolini sincerely wanted reconciliation. Thus, in 1926, when Mussolini expressed a desire to settle the Roman Question, Pius XI agreed to talks with the government. They were an opportunity, he thought, to restore both the Church’s independence and her influence over Italy. The talks resulted in a treaty between the Holy See and the kingdom of Italy, signed at the Lateran Palace in Rome on February 11, 1929.

Brass in an Age of Barbarism

In 1922, Francis Poulenc was just beginning his rise to fame as a composer. That year, he composed the first version this Sonata for Horn, Trumpet, and Trombone. Many years later, in 1936, following the tragic death of a friend, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a car crash, Poulenc found the peace of which Pius XI spoke in Ubi Arcano. Having visited the church of the small French village of Rocamadour, Poulenc wrote: “As I meditated on the fragility of our human frame, I was drawn once more to the life of the spirit. Rocamadour had the effect of restoring me to the faith of my childhood.”

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