visit to Rome was more successful and enjoyable than could perhaps have been expected. For the Italian capital had been suffering under one of the worst spring periods of weather in recent memory — just as bad as England.
And such climatic quirks make the sun-conscious Romans positively neurotic, not to mention the ugly build-up of political tension which was erupting everywhere while I was there.
Today, in fact, April 25, marks the exact anniversary of 30 unbroken years of rule by the Christian Democratic Party. Their posters around Rome modestly remind the citizens that in that time many good things have happened as well as many that are less good, but, above all, in an atmosphere of liberty.
The current polarisation into bloody and vicious Fascist and Communist factions in crossfire over the heads of the still
predominant centrist Democristiani is a horrible affair, but not quite so bad as some observers have tried to make out.
The Communists can claim the support of about a quarter of the electorate; the Fascists (and they really are Fascists of the worst possible kind) less than 10 per cent. The latter, in consequ,ence, have to make up for their unpopularity by shouting loudest. The Christian Democrats should, thus, just about win through in the coming elections, but possibly with less room than ever for coalition manoeuvring.
* * * * All this makes it interesting to recall the two post-war heroes, from Church and State, in the new democratic Italy. These, of course, were Signor de Gasperi, Christian Democratic leader, and Mgr John Baptist Mancini, a man once in something of the same position that Mgr Benelli is in today, and ultimately a dynamic and courageously liberalminded pro-Secretary of State to Pius XII.
Without the behind-thescenes help of Montini — the intrepid anti-Fascist youthleader of the pre-war days — it is possible that his long-time friend de Gasperi could have never so successfully have established his party as a liberal but moderate platform for the highest ideals of both Christianity and democracy when translated into political terms.
But no one knows better and, at times, more ruefully the immense difficulties of trying to let such high ideals break through the soft and soundless but impenetrably selfish barrier of human nature than this same Montini, now that, 30 years later, he rules over the Church as Pope Paul VI. He, of course, is the man on whom all eyes have turned during this Holy Year.
* * * * I myself was present, with my family, when thousands of eyes were not just turned, but positively glued, on him at his weekly audience in the new audience hall in the Vatican on Wednesday of last week.
Pope Paul being the third of three Popes I have either met or seen at close quarters, it is inevitable that one should make comparisons between the effect they have all had on audiences, big and small.
Pius XII produced awe. I saw him often talking to crowds. His histrionic and dramatic impact was electrifying. But it took the occasion of sitting beside his desk in a completely private audience at Castelgandolfo (an unforgettable experience I must admit) to convince me that he was really human! With Pope John, on the other hand, the humanity overflowed on every conceivable occasion. The lack of outward austerity contrasted fascinatingly with that particular Pope's rare combination of intense spirituality and wholly relaxed, quite unconscious flair for popular rapport.
The flavour, incidentally, of his reign is masterfully sketched in a new book on Pope John by Paul Johnson; 1 have just been reading an advance copy of it, prior to its publication, by Hutchinsons, next month. The assessment is brilliant and mercifully most economical in terms of words — usually the kind of book that takes longest to write.
With Pope Paul, however, the atmosphere at audiences is very different. There is always the fear that somehow it might not quite come off, because the Montini "charisma" is of a subtle kind. I have quite often met him alone, or as a member of a small group, and once, with my wife, presented him with a hefty book of documents I had translated dealing with the Holy See and the Second World War.
You inevitably think the almost wax-like mask, now more pronounced than of former years, will not relax. But then come the unmistakable signs of recognition, understanding and almost burning warmth. All of this takes on a somewhat different form at public audiences, such as the one I attended last week. The Pope is known to be unwell and overtired; but as he reaches out to individuals in the crowd (he and my son Robert shook each other warmly by the hand!) and starts speaking, an amazing inner strength seems to surge into his whole being.
And the audience, after a suspenseful and almost tantalising start, works itself up to a climax that possibly exceeds anything ever generated at the more predictable occasions presided over by Pope Paul's two predecessors, at which initial enthusiasm could not always sustain itself at top pitch until the often long delayed, ending to the proceedings.
* * * *
For our seats in "front row centre" — at the audience I have just mentioned — I am indebted to someone who has .become one of my best friends in Rome, the British Minister to the Holy See, Desmond Crawley.
I am now putting this friendship at risk by giving a purely factual report of reactions in Rome, as I picked them up last week, to the sad news that on June 1 he will be leaving his Legation and bringing his five years in Rome to an end. (I hasten to add that I would probably not dare to comment in such fashion were I merely giving my own personal opinion, much as I may agree with the reactions in question.) For it is generally agreed that her Majesty's Government has not been more brilliantly and fruitfully represented at the Holy See at any other period in recent memory. This goes back at least to the immediate postwar years, my own first acquaintanceship being with Sir Victor Perowne.
But things then were still "difficult" in every sense, despite the memorable efforts of Sir D'Arcy Osborne who, of course, belonged to a different era.
It is now, when tensions. both political and religious, have eased off, that diplomatic tasks have paradoxically increased in complexity. The post-Conciliar atmosphere has necessitated the most delicate of bi-partisan reaction to growing detente and ecumenical activity.
The presence of an able and charming permanent head of the Anglican Centre in Rome (Dr Harry Smythe) has helped; But there are always those, particularly perhaps on the worldwide "Roman" side, whose fears tend to drown the applause of well-wishers.
Apart from which this kind of diplomatic mission to a "Church-State" is unique and extraordinary. When lucky enough to be at lunch at the British Legation. on this same visit (and enjoying a fairly long talk with the famous and powerful but disarming and charming Archbishop Benelli, the man reputed to be nearer than any other to the Pope) I felt it to be both a sad and joyful occasion. For it was one of the occasions on which Desmond Crawley, with his delightful wife Daphne, was saying "good-bye" to the Holy See by giving a luncheon in the' archbishop's honour.
In the presence of several distinguished fellow-diplomats and their wives, accredited to the Holy See from other countries including Portugal and Egypt, the British Minister concluded the lunch by thanking Mgr Benelli and paying a farewell "tribute" to the Vatican Secretariat of State.
To this the Archbishop replied with more than merely perfunctory cordiality. The modesty of the Minister, moreover, in the course of the remarks he made, enhanced the reports I had been hearing of the immense success of his difficult but important years of service to both the British Foreign Office and the cause of more genuinely close and more profoundly understanding relations between Britain and this tiny "State" with its vast spiritual empire. The latter counts its adherents from countries as diverse as Ireland (both North and South!), Vietnam, Soviet Russia, Israel, the Arab States, the countries of the British Commonwealth, "stateless persons", the Third World, and States that are in varying stages of concord or disagreement with the interests and policies of Britain.
Some of the thornier problems that concern a British Minister to the Vatican can thus be imagined if they cannot officially be known about in their entirety. It is far from being all cocktails and ceremonial dressings-up for the Minister from Anglican Britain to the centre of a world that is both Catholic and, in this context, extremely Roman.
The ideal companion suggested last week for a Rome visit was of course the 1975 Catholic Forces Yearbook, not that of 1945 as appeared.