Friday, August 09, 2013

Did the Pope Sponsor King Billy?

First published in the Western People on Tuesday.

Father Hoban’s column the week before last had to do with sainthood, and how tricky it is for popes to claim a halo. Interestingly, a quick look at the list of the Blessed, those who are next in line for sainthood shows a pope who may or may not have had a role in the history of this country and – if the rumours are true – not at all for the better.

There are a number of parallels to be drawn between Blessed Pope Innocent XI, who reigned from 1676 to 1689, and the current Pope Francis. Reform of the Roman Curia was said to be a major reason behind Francis’s election this year, and Innocent was a zealous reformer himself. Both men’s natures were frugal – they didn’t care for ceremony and enjoyed living humble lives.

Jorge Bergoglio father was an accountant. Benedetto Odescalchi’s family were gentry, but very minor gentry. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps by founding a bank, and lending money to those whom they thought were good for paying it back. This fact will be significant in Innocent’s later career.

We Irish are inclined to moan about the EU but the reality is that the history of Europe before the founding of the Common Market was continual and unceasing war between the different states and noble families. When Innocent ruled the Papal States, he helped King John III of Poland lift the siege of Vienna in 1683 and rout the Turks who were threatening from the east. You’d think that would have made Innocent a hero in Christendom. It didn’t.

The most important man in 17th Century Europe after Pope Innocent was King Louis XIV of France, the so-called Sun King. Louis wanted to be boss himself and did his best to undermine papal authority by getting councils of bishops to say, in not so many words, that maybe England’s Henry VIII had a point, and the pope shouldn’t be telling divinely appointed kings what they’d do or to whom they’d bend the knee.

You can imagine how little Innocent cared for these onions. And another King who had the gift of giving Innocent a pain in his neck was James II of England. James had converted to Catholicism while in exile in France, and got to be good buddies with Louis XIV while he was there.

Innocent thought that James could have been a little more subtle in the way he went about restoring Catholicism to England, and he was also a bit worried that this restored English Catholicism would a French-flavoured Catholicism, instead of Rome’s own hard drop.

As every schoolchild knows, it wasn’t only the pope who thought James II needed to draw in his horns. A Protestant delegation travelled to William III of Orange, married to James’s daughter Mary, and told him that now was the time for a Glorious Revolution.

William arrived in Devon in November 1688, James’s reign imploded and the only fighting that was done was here, in Ireland, where lives mattered less.

All that is on the record. What is less widely known is that the Glorious Revolution arrived at just the right time for William of Orange, because at the time he got the call the man who would become King Billy was up to the feather in his tri-corn hat with debt. He hadn’t a shilling, and what was worse, he owed money.

Internal Dutch politics meant that the House of Orange wasn’t popular at all in the middle of the seventeenth century and therefore the House of Orange had to get itself some bridging finance to keep things ticking along. And bridging finance they got, from an Italian banking family based outside Milan.

Once William sat on the English throne, he was able to pay off his debts and still have the price of his Friday night porter. And who were those Italian bankers who got their money back? Why, they were the Odescalchis – those same Odescalchis whose brother sat on the Throne of Peter, invested with the power to loose and to bind.

Pope Innocent XI was beatified by the Venerable Pope Pius XII in 1956. Innocent’s actions at the Battle of Vienna had a poignant echo in 1956, when the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest and the west seemed in as much danger from an Eastern invader as it did in 1683. But that’s as far as it’s got for Innocent, who waits on for his elevation.

Italians enjoy conspiracy theories like no other nation. The idea that Pope Innocent XI winked at the fall of Catholic England because, Protestant or not, William of Orange would be able to pay his debts to the Odescalchi family if he were King of England is exactly the sort of intrigue that delights them.

Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, the journalists who discovered details of payments between William of Orange and the Odescalchi family in the Vatican archives, claim that the novel they wrote based on their findings caused them to be run out of town by the Vatican, and they now live in Vienna. This is all grist to the rumour mill.

Is the story true? Well, who knows? Money has a well-earned reputation as the root of all evil but could Innocent XI be so fond of it that he would support someone whom he considered a heretic? Or was it the case that at least William never pretended to be something he wasn’t, unlike the treacherous Sun King of France?

Father Hoban wondered in these pages how it was that only five popes have been elevated to sainthood in the past 900 years. If all their cases are as complex as that of Innocent XI, it’s a wonder that even five of them have made it over the line. It’s hard to be a saint in the city.