THE NAME of Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val is unlikely to ring many bells except with our older clergy and laity. Yet the Cardinal, who was one of the most controversial Princes of the twentieth century Church, was the only Englishman to miss becoming Pope not once but twice.
This is a particularly appropriate year to consider his cause for canonisation, and to ask what prevented him from the Papacy, although considered papdbile in the 1914 (Benedict XV) and the 1922 (Pius XI) conclaves. February 26 was the 54th anniversary of his death in Rome at the age of 65.
Born in 1865 in London, the son of an official in the Spanish Embassy with Irish and Zulueta family connections, Raphael Merry del Val and his brother Pedro were educated at St James's School, Baylis House, Slough. The school, established since 1830, was housed in a 17th century red brick mansion — the earliest Catholic preparatory school, which dated from 1823, at Richmond.
Founded by the Butt brothers, William Henry (1787-1878) and James Palmer (1789-1873), it continued under the former's son, William Henry Butt (II) (1829-1909) until 1907, when Baylis House closed. A small kindergarten was continued by granddaughter, Mary Butt (1863-1955), in the Windsor Road, Slough, until the 1930's. Baylis House became an hotel, and is now a management centre.
The school had produced some well-known Bishops and priests! John Butt became Bishop of Southwark (1885-97), a former Crimean Chaplain to the Duke of Norfolk. William Lewis Keatings (1859-1928) was the army bishop from 1917, and Joseph Butt (1852-1942), a nephew, became Vice-President of the Beda in Rome, Auxiliary to Cardinal Bourne at Westminster in 1911, and Archbishop (See of Nicopsi) in 1938. Fr Joseph John Butt (1821-54) founded the St Leonards-on-Sea Mission, and built Holy Trinity at Brook Green, Hammersmith.
Among the old scholars of Baylis could be numbered Seymour Hicks, star of stage and screen, the Domeca brothers of Jerez sherry wine fame, and the five Thornton brothers; the last of whom, Frederick, (1885-1975), described in 1975 to the writer, what life was like for a Baylis boy, when Victoria was Queen.
From 1877 at Ushaw, Raphael Merry del Val sensed a vocation for the priesthood. In Rome, after his ordination (1888), he came under the ever-selective eye of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903). He was sent to the Papal Diplomatic Training College (Capranica), served on several Papal Commissions, including that on Anglican Orders (1898). and attracted the attention of many Cardinals. At the Conclave formed on Pope Leo's death, he was appointed Consistorial Secretary (1903).
It was his fateful task to convey to the trembling Cardinal, Giuseppe Sarto of Venice, the decision of the Conclave — would he accept the papacy? Sarto demurred. "Corragio! Eminenza!" pleaded the young Conclave Secretary. Sarto relented and became Pius X (now Saint).
The newly-elected Pius X then selected Merry del Val as Secretary of State. This time it was Monsignor del Val who demurred. "Corragio! Raphael!" chided the gentle Pope. Cardinal Merry del Val then became the faithful and loyal aide in what was one of the most critical phases of the 20th century papacy.
With success came also criticism. An anti-Merry del Val faction arose; particularly among the French and Colonial hierarchy. It was related to Pope Pius's refusal to surrender control of the Church in France to the state, and, his condemnation of the Modernist theological movement.
At the 1914 election following the death of Pius X, Merry del Val's name was =long the papabile (fit for nomination). French antipathy precluded his election in the early ballots. The diminutive Cardinal della Chiesa of Bologna, became Pope — as Benedict XV, until his death in 1922.
Came the second Conclave and Merry del Val was again papabile. But many French members of the Sacred College remembered the eminence grise of Pope Pius's pontificate. Hence the Roman Conclave aphorism: . . Chi entra papabile — ischa Cardinale . (In as Pope — out as Cardinal). The mountaineering Archbishop of Milan, Achille Ratti, succeeded as Pope Pius XI, The glorious Pope of the Missions . .
Merry del Val continued to serve the Church in many capacities: in Church Music, in certain missions for Pius XI, in retreats for the clergy, but above all (the deciding factor for sainthood) in his holiness, prayer, and his good works among the poor children and the impoverished community suburb of Trastevere.
Here his name is revered and respected to this day — the Cardinal Priest Titular of he Church of Santa Prassede and Archpriest of St Peters.
English visitors to Rome were made welcome by the genial, urbane Cardinal with the English manners and faultless diction. Cardinal Heenan once recalled that as a young student in Rome he saw the great Cardinal Prelate, richly robed, process through St Peter's but stopped to greet English students — to speak affably and humorously to invite them to tea and tennis. ". . The most affable and Anglophile of the Princes of the Church. . ." (Heenan).
World War I had, as with his Master Pius X, saddened him. His health declined in the later years. Seated in his garden in Rome he may often in his last years recalled the lush Slough meadows by Baylis House, the boating and bathing in the Baylis Lake, remembered the fragrant roses along the Lime Walk, and the mistletoe in the elm tree tops in winter when the boys skated and played snowballs.
It was at Baylis in all the innocence of childhood and exhuberance of youth he laid the foundation of his future sanctity and fame, as each day. brought new sensations of delight and interest. Let us pray for the cause of Raphael Merry del Val, Prince of the Church, but ever the friend of the poor and helpless. What a patron he would make in the late 1980's for social workers — and for tennis players alike.