Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val: a perfect example of a servant of the Church

By Professor Roberto de Mattei

In an age in which the hurricane of confusion is assailing the Mystical Bride of Christ, the great figure of one clergyman stands out as an ideal model for all those who want to serve the Church today: the figure of Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, Archbishop of Nicaea and Secretary of State under Saint Pius X.

The second child of Marquis Rafael and Countess Giuseppina de Zulueta, Rafael Merry del Val was born on 10 October 1865 in London, where his father was then Secretary of the Spanish Embassy. Given the different nationalities of his ancestors, in his veins flowed the blood of illustrious families of Ireland, Spain, England, Scotland, and Holland: in particular, the blood of his paternal family was ennobled by that shed by one of his glorious ancestors, Saint Dominguito del Val, crucified, when not yet seven years old, by Jews out of hatred for faith in Christ on Good Friday of 1250.

From a very young age Rafael Merry del Val had no doubts about the ecclesiastical vocation that Providence opened to him in a dazzling way: he became in charge of pontifical missions at 22, with the title of “monsignor” ​​even before he was ordained a priest, president of the Pontifical Academy of Ecclesiastical Nobles at 34, archbishop at 35, cardinal and Secretary of State at 38, alongside a pope destined to go down in Church history as a giant!

Yet Rafael Merry del Val followed this path out of obedience, not out of inclination: his dream – summarised in the epigraph he wanted carved on his tomb: “Da mihi animas, coetera tolle” – had been to dedicate himself to the apostolate. Zeal for the conversion of Protestants, especially Anglicans, had led him to choose the Scottish College of Rome for his studies, but Leo XIII, receiving him in an audience, had firmly told him: “No! Not at the Scottish College, at the Academy of Ecclesiastical Nobles!” The future cardinal Merry del Val obeyed the Pope’s wish and in obedience found the perfection of his vocation. Almost at the end of his earthly life, closing one of his letters of 28 October 1928, he wrote: “How the years have flown! … Forty years a priest, twenty-eight that I have been a bishop and twenty-five as cardinal. How different my life has been from that I had hoped and prayed for! God’s will be done!”

Leo XIII had intuited the virtues and abilities of the young clergyman, but it was his successor who would inextricably link his name to his pontificate. In the conclave that followed the death of Leo XIII, the votes of the Sacred College had gone to Giuseppe Cardinal Sarto, Patriarch of Venice. While in the silence of the Pauline Chapel he begged the Lord to remove the tremendous chalice of the pontificate from his lips, the future Saint Pius X saw a figure draw up beside him: it was Msgr Merry del Val, secretary of the conclave, who had come with the order to repeat the appeal of the cardinal dean, whispering these simple words: “Courage, Eminence!”

The next day the Patriarch of Venice ascended the Chair of Peter with the name of Pius X. In the evening, the new pope granted his first audience to Msgr Merry del Val, who was saying goodbye. Placing his hand on the young prelate’s shoulder, he said in an almost reproachful tone: 

“Monsignor, do you want to abandon me? No, no: stay, stay with me. I haven’t decided anything yet: I don’t know what I am going to do. For now I have no one; stay with me as Pro-Secretary of State… then we’ll see. Do me this charity.”

This first meeting sealed the fate of two men so different by birth, education, and temperament, but united in one mind and in one heart by the inscrutable designs of Providence. On 18 October 1903, with a letter in his own writing, Saint Pius X appointed Msgr Merry del Val Secretary of State and cardinal.

When Msgr Merry del Val received the news, he begged and pleaded with the Pope to assign someone else to this position. After listening to his reasons, Saint Pius X simply replied: “Accept! it is God’s will. We will work and suffer together for the love of the Church.”

In the Vatican court, it was somewhat surprising that the Pope had assigned such a young and, moreover, non-Italian prelate to such an office. To a cardinal who had ventured a timid observation on the youth of Msgr Merry del Val, Pius X replied with these words: 

“I chose him because he is a polyglot. Born in England, educated in Belgium, Spanish by nationality, lived in Italy, the son of a diplomat and a diplomat himself, he knows the problems of all the countries. He is very modest, he is a saint. He comes here every morning and informs me of all matters in the world. I never have to explain anything to him. He also has no foibles.”

From that time forward, for eleven years, in an intimate and profound union of mind and heart, without interruption and without uncertainty, Cardinal Merry del Val bound his life to that of the intrepid Pontiff, supporting him in all battles, starting with the epic one against modernism.

“Eleven years,” observes Msgr Dal Gal, “‘cor unum et anima una’ with his Pope and with his Sovereign, with his Master and with his Father, in every event and in every affair, in joy and pain, amid the anguish of Gethsemane and in the glory of the Resurrection, amid the ephemeral jubilation of the Church’s enemies as in the greatness of the same faith and the same immortal hope.”

On the evening of 19 August 1914, Cardinal Merry del Val had the comfort of receiving the last avowal of the dying pope. The holy pontiff, who could no longer speak but was still lucid, clasped his Secretary of State for a long time with both hands, wanting to express to him in this silent gesture all his gratitude for his unlimited dedication to the papal throne and to his person.

In the conclave of 1922, which according to the account of one of its protagonists, Cardinal Gasparri, was one of the most contested in history, Cardinal Merry del Val was close to being elected to the pontificate. An election that would perhaps have changed the course of the Church’s history in this century.

Cardinal Merry del Val was a perfect example of a true aristocrat, not only of blood, but above all of spirit. In him, as is typical of true nobility, magnificence and grandeur were associated with the deepest simplicity and humility.

When he passed through the streets of Rome – the French academician René Bazin noted – “he was the object of universal admiration: one looked at him with interest, one greeted him with fondness”; but when he appeared in the splendor of the Vatican Basilica it seemed that an irresistible charm emanated from his person. “Cardinal Merry del Val, seated on the throne, with liturgical vestments,” an American journalist recalls, “in his marvelous figure gave the idea of ​​the majesty, grandeur, and universality of the Church.”

Until his death, as Archpriest of the Vatican Basilica he celebrated the liturgical ceremonies with scrupulous accuracy and with incomparable dignity. Crowds of Romans and foreigners came flocking to these as if to an event. In his princely dignity he embodied, against all pauperism and egalitarianism, the splendor of the Roman Church.

This magnificence was never separated from a profound humility: it was indeed the fruit of his interior life. “The Holy Mass of the most pious Cardinal,” one prelate testifies, “was the revelation of his interior life and the soul of his entire apostolate.” One Polish princess was able to say: “Only once did I see Cardinal Merry del Val praying in St Peter’s. It is to him that I owe my return to the Catholic Church.”

The litany of humility he recited every day as well as the sackcloth he wore under his cassock were an expression of that profound Catholic spirit which manifests itself in denying oneself everything in order to offer all greatness and all splendor to the Church, in perfect abandonment to Divine Providence.

In the morning offering, which he recited every day before celebrating Mass, the Prince of the Church prayed like this: 

“I am willing, O my God, to accept from Your hands, and in the way that pleases You most, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, long life or short life, honours or misfortunes, friendships or aversions, and so on with other things, choosing only what is most in keeping with Your glory. And if You are good enough to call me to imitate You more closely and intimately in poverty, ignominy, and suffering, O dear Jesus, here I am, ready.”

Until the day of his unexpected death on 26 February 1930, when he was still at the height of his powers, Cardinal Merry del Val remained within the Church the point of reference for all those who took the brilliant pontificate of St Pius X as their ideal. In 1953, when Pius X was being elevated to the honours of the altar, his cause for beatification was introduced and he was proclaimed Servant of God. Accepting honours as a cross, Cardinal Merry del Val always sought obscurity for himself and exaltation for the Holy Church. Now, alongside Saint Pius X, he awaits the triumph of that Church which he served so faithfully and which from Heaven protects all those who fight for this triumph.