Converting the Pope

TownsendThe nineteenth century was (among many other things) the era of the missionary. We have published a number of missionary narratives, including the exploits of the Baptists Carey, Marshman and Ward, ‘the Serampore missionaries’, in India; the ‘Labours and Travels in Mesopotamia, Persia, Arabia, Turkey, Abyssinia, and England’ of Henry Aaron Stern, a German Jew who converted to Christianity; the work of Isenberg and Krapf in Ethiopia; the Baptist minister and abolitionist James Phillippo’s fifty years in Jamaica; and numerous missionaries who set off for Australasia and the Pacific islands, among them the unfortunate John Williams, who actually was eaten by cannibals in 1839.

These serious, sincere and devoted men – and many other men and women like them – believed that they were obeying the commandment of God to bring Christianity to the heathen, and while saving their souls would also ameliorate their physical condition, with (Western) education and agricultural and industrial techniques. The Reverend George Townsend (1788–1857) wanted to convert only one person: but he realised that his task was likely to be more difficult than most, since his target was Pope Pius IX.

Pius IX

Pius IX

Pio Nono was one of the most extraordinary men to have been elected to the pontificate. He was (apart, allegedly, from St Peter himself) the longest serving pope (from 1846 to 1878), he convened the first Vatican Council, and was the last pope who was also a secular ruler over the Papal States in Italy, which were abolished in 1870. Upon his election, he was regarded as liberal-leaning and in favour of the unity of Italy, and this made him popular at home and abroad. But as the secular authority of the papacy deteriorated, so the pope seemed to want to tighten his spiritual grip, with such dogmas as papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception of Mary.



Townsend, on the other hand, believed that the Catholic Church had, over nearly two millennia, become more and more detached from the teaching of Christ. The Reformation had been a necessary corrective, and, in Townsend’s opinion – and in that of many other clergymen – the Protestant churches (and especially the Church of England) were the true inheritors of the pure, primitive church. Rome, with its superstitious and non-scriptural accretions of rituals, saints and especially Mariolatry, to say nothing of its claim to universal authority over all Christians, had long ago left the true path to salvation.

He was greatly distressed at the various schisms between sects: ‘Infidelity triumphs in our mutual hatreds.’ But unlike the members of the Oxford Movement – Pusey, Keble and Newman – he did not see the way forward as one of closer union with Rome upon Rome’s terms: ‘I am compelled to believe, that submission to Rome is the worst evil that can befall the Church of God. For Rome is charged with two errors which forbid the possibility of unity … and so long as the Church of Rome continues its unholy warfare against the word of God, that Church must and will be deemed … the first chief cause of the infidelity which now threatens Christianity.’

After years of pondering this problem, Townsend (by now a prebendary of Durham Cathedral) decided to go to Rome, and to demonstrate to the pope, by courteous argument, the error of his ways, hoping to persuade him to summon a general council of all the Christian churches which would result in reformation and reconciliation. He set off on 22 January 1850 with Mrs Townsend – a useful interpreter, as she could speak French and Italian, though he assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that she would not be able accompany him to meetings with senior Catholic clergy.

Having obtained, as etiquette required, a letter of recommendation from the archbishop of Paris to the pope, and having seen the sights of, and around, Paris (he was especially struck by the Sèvres porcelain), Townsend and Mrs set off to Lyons in a diligence, thence by steam boat to Vienne, Valence (where he was appalled by a piece of ‘popery’ involving the bowels of the deceased Pope Pius VI), Avignon, Nimes, Arles and Marseilles. Sailing to Genoa, they went via Pisa and Livorno to Civitavecchia, and to Rome – where they discovered that the pope was away in Naples, and nobody knew when he would be back.

From 20 February to 12 April, the Townsends ‘did’ Rome, visiting churches and galleries, and continually contrasting their splendour and beauty with the squalor of the modern city: in a striking metaphor, he compares Rome to the rotting body of a nobleman, confined in golden chains. They discovered acquaintances from England, including the archaeologist Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, with whom they made several excursions. (Townsend also mentions using Mrs Jameson’s Sacred and Legendary Art as a guidebook.)

At last, the pope returned: there were processions and illuminations to welcome him back, but ‘I was assured they were not to be compared with those which had been exhibited when the pope was popular’; and indeed he had heard subdued hissing among the crowds on the processional route. Another fortnight passed before the summons came: 4.30 p.m. on 25 April 1850.

Townsend worried about his formal memorandum, which had to be translated into Italian, and about what he should wear. Mrs T, to her husband’s surprise, was allowed to accompany him, and he further worried whether her translation would be equal to the occasion if the pope chose to speak Italian. (It was.)

‘No Quaker could have received us with more simplicity than Pio Nono, no sovereign with more dignified courtesy, no Presbyterian with more plainness.’ After some preliminary chat between the pope and Mrs T – was she enjoying her visit, etc. – they moved into Latin. The pope’s answers to Townsend’s urging about a general council of all the churches was – as predicted – negative: the cost was one argument, but the more telling one was that ‘the Church’ had already decided on various contentious issues, including that of the number of sacraments, so there was no room for further discussion.

Townsend left his memorandum behind, in the hope that it might do some good. They returned to their apartments to find their servants in tears: they had assumed that the couple had been imprisoned or assassinated by some cruel Catholic machination. There followed another farcical misunderstanding: two papal emissaries told him that the pope wanted to converse further with him, but would not be able to do so until after Townsend’s return from a planned visit to Naples.

San Gennaro, by Caravaggio. The liquifying ceremony now happens once a year, on 19 September, but then it happened more frequently.

San Gennaro, by Caravaggio. The liquifying ceremony now happens once a year, on 19 September, but then it happened more frequently.

The Townsends accordingly went, and were present at the so-called miracle of San Gennaro – the liquefying of a phial of the saint’s dried blood. Townsend did not find the spectacle edifying: he thought he detected that the miracle took place immediately after the prince of Naples signified to the archbishop that he was going to be late for breakfast; and he was barely saved by his wife’s intervention from having to kiss the holy relic. And on returning to Rome, he found that someone had blundered: the pope had not requested a further interview, but had said that Townsend was welcome to make another appointment if he wanted to.



On that basis, the Townsends left Rome, on 27 May, downcast, but still up for sight-seeing, and firm in the belief that at some time in the future a pope would be elected who would reach out to the other Christian churches as a partner or brother, and not as an overbearing father. His disillusion with Pio Nono was sadly completed shortly afterwards by the pope’s ‘folly and presumption’ in creating English Catholic dioceses and appointing bishops to them, ‘as if we were either a Heathen or a Popish country’.


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