America’s Leading Vaticanist, John Allen:
John L. Allen, Jr. is an American journalist serving as editor of the website, Crux: Taking the Catholic Pulse. He specializes in news about the Catholic Church. Before moving to the Boston Globe, he worked for 16 years in Rome, covering all things about the Vatican and the Pope. He was also was the senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, is an analyst of Vatican affairs for CNN and NPR.
Roman Catholicism is a sprawling, wildly diverse community of 1.2 billion people spread over every nook and cranny of the planet, and sometimes, when its fault lines and internal tensions seem especially sharp, it almost defies belief that the Church has held together as long as it has. Theologically, of course, one would say that the agent of unity is the Holy Spirit. Sociologically and politically, however, there’s no question what keeps the Church from spinning apart: It’s the pope. No other religious group with a global following has such a clear center of authority. (Try asking yourself sometime, for instance, who’s in charge of Islam, or Judaism, or Hinduism, and you’ll get the idea.)
One could almost say that to be Catholic – in a very loose, non-catechetical way of putting things – means to take the papacy seriously. That doesn’t imply agreeing with popes on all points, and certainly not believing that absolutely everything in Catholic life does or should pivot on the pope, but rather, at some pre-conscious, gut level, just to be fascinated by the whole thing.
Over twenty years of covering the Vatican, I’ve met all kinds of Catholics who exude that instinct. I’ve dined with “Black Nobility” in Rome, who still believe popes should be ruling over central Italy as secular monarchs. I’ve met liberal theologians from Western Europe who’ve spent their careers making arguments as to why the papacy should be deconstructed — which is, of course, a backhanded tribute to the office. I’ve met countless ordinary Catholics who weep, who become speechless and almost paralyzed, to be in the physical presence of a pope – even if that means being stuck in the back of a vast crowd, when they would have had a better view of the action staying home and watching it on TV.
For enthusiasm, commitment and sheer passion, however, I’ve never met anyone quite so passionate about popes as Fr. Richard Kunst of the Diocese of Duluth in Minnesota. I was in Duluth this week to speak at the College of St. Scholastica, which afforded me the chance to reconnect with Kunst. Over the years, he’s put together one of the most remarkable collections of papal memorabilia you’ll ever see outside the Vatican museums. You can find an overview of his collection on-line at http://www.papalartifacts.com.
Kunst has a little bit of everything. There’s an 1870 letter signed by Pope Pius IX, for instance, thanking Bishop Pierre de Dreux-Breze of Moulin for his support for dogma of papal infallibility at Vatican I, written the day before the dogma was pronounced.
Kunst has all the lead seals that were used to block off portions of the Vatican during the 1978 conclave that elected Pope John Paul II, and he’s also got the vestments St. John Paul wore on his 1993 trip to Denver for World Youth Day.
He’s got papal coins and holy cards, Swiss Guard uniforms and heraldry, postage seals from the era of the Papal States, bricks from the holy door at St. Peter’s Basilica, and pretty much everything else one could imagine. Recently he came back from Rome having convinced Pope Francis to autograph a baseball.
Basically, if a pope signed it, touched it or wore it, Kunst probably has it. All in, he’s got several hundred items in the collection – thousands, actually, if you count papal coins.
Kunst’s story is that as a high school senior, he had an assignment in a government class to write a politician. He wrote U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who sent a signed photograph, and the collecting bug was planted. Kunst eventually had the signatures of 16 U.S. presidents, stretching back to Martin Van Buren.
In 1995, Kunst says, he saw a dealer catalog offering three papal signatures. He had to take out a loan from his sister, but he got two of them – from Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, both from their time as cardinals.
In parallel fashion, Kunst was moving toward the priesthood. Once ordained, he said, he had a steady income to devote to his collection, and it took off in earnest. He says that aside from his ministry as a priest – he’s currently pastor at St. John the Evangelist in Duluth – this is his life’s work, and he devotes 75 percent of his small salary to scouring the world for new additions.
After seeing him this week, I asked Kunst to put in one sentence why he does all this. In the classic fashion of a collector, however, he couldn’t resist adding an item, and gave me two.
“It gives a unique opportunity to have a tangible connection to the men who were the Vicars of Christ,” he said. “It is a collection for the purpose of fostering love for our Holy Fathers.”
Kunst says that someday he hopes a big-time Catholic college or university will provide a suitable museum-quality setting for the collection. I understand that desire, though part of me hopes it stays in Duluth and becomes a pilgrimage destination, because there would be something entirely apt about that happening in a place that’s by no means a crossroads of Catholic culture.
It would be a good lesson, in other words, in the universality of the Church.
Wherever it ends up, the take-away from all this is simple. What most Catholics have in limited doses, Father Richard Kunst has in spades … this unavoidable, ineradicable, spiritual DNA-level conviction that the papacy, whatever else one makes of it, just matters. —John Allen, Jr.
Here is the interesting story John Allen refers to: the July 16, 1870 letter written by Pope Pius IX, the day before the Doctrine of Infallability was pronounced at the 1st Vatican Council. It is another incredible story involving just one of the Papal Artifacts, which are a part of this Collection.
Pius IX: A Very Important Vatican I Letter, Signed
Every artifact that is a part of this Collection comes with a story uniquely its own, and this letter, acquired by the Curator of Papal Artifacts, is no different. The letter was written in Rome and signed by Pope Pius IX on July 16, 1870. It was written to Bishop Pierre de Dreux-Breze, Bishop of Moulins. The most intriguing part of this special recognition by the Pope is the timing: it was written the day before the Dogma on Papal Infallibility was pronounced at the First Vatican Council.
Known to be a controversial topic that was not supported by all Council participants (among them, Cardinal John Henry Newman), the Pope needed bishops to come to his aid, and the Bishop of Moulins is one who did. There is speculation he may have given a speech, during the time leading up to the vote, encouraging those in attendance to be in support of this dogma. Consequently, it is surmised the Bishop was rewarded with this communication, signed by Pope Pius IX, on the day before the dogma of infallibility became the law of the Church.
Unlike today, when information is dispersed in such a timely manner, at that time, there must have been frantic activity to reproduce individualized copies of the dogma for each bishop to read. Having key bishops campaigning was a necessary component of its successful passage.
Having access to such a communication is an incredible addition to this Collection.
Translation of Pope Pius IX’s Timely Letter to the Bishop of Molines:
1 PIUS P P IX
2 Venerable Brother, greeting and apostolic blessing. Never
3 can the piety of our children not be a matter of gratitude for us, (our children) who,
4 motivated by pure feelings do not forget to express and witness to them openly to us.
5 And so, Venerable Brother, we willingly receive the letter (which is) proof of your
6 and most of your Clergy’s outstanding piety and loyalty,
7 thereupon declaring to Us Your and their adherence and veneration toward Us
8 and this Apostolic Chair and the authority of its Supreme magisterium,
9 as well as Your and their burning zeal;
10 and the new splendor attaches to the prerogatives of that Chair assigned to it by Divine will from
11 the Authority of the Oecumenical Vatican Council.
12 Demonstrations of this sort are all the more pleasing to Us because,
13 as you point out, We are able to seize upon a certain argument of those which we have received
14 (an expression) of that singular devotion which the entire Clergy of Malines
15 exhibits toward Us and this Seat of truth. And so, when we offer praises to
16 Your episcopal zeal and virtue, Venerabile Brother, from You
17 we also make known that you should indicate the paternal feeling of Our soul to Your
18 Clergy : nor do We omit to entreat the Most Clement God that
19 He pour out over You and Your Clergy the rich bounty of his grace,
20 amd that he may generously grant that the examples of the good and their piety at this time
21 may help to preserve and increase the faith of the weak. To You moreover
22 Venerable Brother, bearing witness to and confirming the distinguished good will with which
23 We embrace You in the Lord, We very lovingly impart the generous Apostolic Benediction of all
24 the heavenly host to You yourself and to all your Clergy, and Faithful Laity
25 entrusted to your care.
27 Given in Rome, at St. Peter’s, on the 16th day of July, in the year 1870
28 in the twenty-fifth year of our Pontificate.
29 Pius PP. IX.
Papal Artifacts is grateful to Professor John Adams for his generosity in both the translation of this letter and his research into the probable reasons why this bishop was given such special treatment by the Pope.
About the First Vatican Council:
This council was summoned by Pope Pius IX by the bull Aeterni Patris of 29 June 1868. The first session was held in St. Peter’s basilica on 8 December 1869 in the presence and under the presidency of the Pope.
The purpose of the council was, besides the condemnation of contemporary errors, to define the Catholic doctrine concerning the Church of Christ. In fact, in the three following sessions, there was discussion and approval of only two constitutions: Dogmatic Constitution On The Catholic Faith and First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, the latter dealing with the primacy and infallibility of the bishop of Rome. (It is the controversy surrounding the dogma on the infallibility of the Pope that is the concern of the artifact featured here.)
The discussion and approval of the latter constitution gave rise, particularly in Germany, to bitter and most serious controversies which led to the withdrawal from the Church of those known as “Old Catholics”.
The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war led to the interruption of the council. It was in fact never resumed, nor was it ever officially closed. As in other councils at which the Pope was present and presided, the decrees were in the form of bulls, at the end of which was the clear declaration: “with the approval of the sacred council”. Very large numbers attended this council, including, for the first time, bishops from outside Europe and its neighboring lands. Bishops from the eastern Orthodox Churches were also invited, but did not come.
The decrees of the council were published in various simultaneous editions. Later they were included in volume 7 of Collectio Lacensis (1892) and in volumes 49-53 of Mansi’s collection (1923-1927). The collection which we use is that entitled Acta et decreta sacrosancti oecumenici concilii Vaticani in quatuor prionbus sessionibus, Rome 1872. Comparison with other editions reveals no discrepancies, indeed absolute agreement.
John Allen, Editor of Crux Now
It is no small thing to have America’s Leading Vaticanist, John L. Allen, Jr., come to visit your town to give a talk at your Benedictine college only to end up meeting the Curator of Papal Artifacts, probably America’s Leading Popeaholic. John Allen then chose to write a first-rate column about him and his Collection in Crux, where he is the editor.