The Pope’s Jest

Humour can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle.
G.K. Chesterton

On the 9th of December, 1886, Pope Leo XIII goofed. Or maybe not.

It was an auspicious month for the Catholic Church in Britain. The Holy Father had already approved the beatification of 54 English martyrs (including Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher) on December 4th, and then five days later he introduced the cause of an additional 261 martyrs, declaring them all Venerable. Prominent among the latter was Fr. William Harcourt, the underground Jesuit superior of London who, along with four other Jesuits, suffered execution at Tyburn on June 20, 1679, for conspiring against King Charles II.

That conspiracy, a scandal now known as “The Popish Plot,” was the scurrilous invention of one Titus Oates and his associates. Oates, a serial perjurer, accused Harcourt and his confreres of planning to kill the king – a whopper that gained credence only because of widespread fear at the time that virtually all Catholics were anti-royalist fanatics.

By the time of Pope Leo’s declaration, however, Catholicism in England was fully legal again, and the faithful were well on their way to rebuilding their Church after centuries of outright persecution. Still, British Catholics continued to face discrimination and ill treatment on account of their convictions, and the Holy Father’s actions were no doubt an important encouragement and sign of hope for the entire resurgent English Catholic community.

So what’s the Pope’s goof? It’s this: There was no English Jesuit named William Harcourt – surprise! “Harcourt,” it turns out, was a pseudonym for William Barrow, S.J., the real Jesuit superior in London and a very real Tyburn martyr. Despite the misnomer, Pope Leo’s official introduction stood, and Pope Pius XI went on to beatify William “Harcourt” in 1929.

We’re left with the obvious question: How could Pope Leo have flubbed so publicly, officially, and badly? Is it possible that he didn’t know Blessed William’s real name?

On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t a goof at all. Maybe, just maybe, Leo was pulling an elaborate prank – a possibility that would have been entirely in keeping with the Pope’s cheery nature.

To be sure, Leo XIII was a strong church leader and staunch defender of the Faith, but it turns out he had his lighter moments and was known as quite the comic. “He had a strong sense of humor,” one newspaper reported shortly after the Pope died in 1903, “and a vein of sarcasm.”  For example, a visitor once boasted to Leo that he’d previously participated in one of Pope Pius IX’s last audiences before he died. Pope Leo responded, “If I had known that you were so dangerous to popes, I would have postponed this audience further.”

Another time, a woman of royal blood painted a portrait of Pope Leo and presented it to him for his approval and autograph. Apparently the lady was blessed with more piety than artistic talent, for the portrait was awful – so bad, in fact, that the Holy Father couldn’t resist being a wise guy, signing the painting in Latin, “It is I; be not afraid. Leo XIII.”

It’s that kind of subtle, off-the-cuff humor that could’ve been at play in Pope Leo’s decision to retain Fr. Barrow’s false identity for his official canonization process. Surely the Holy Father knew what the great martyr’s real name was, and so it seems more than possible that the jovial pontiff had decided to play a kind of canonical prank that simultaneously served multiple purposes.

To begin with, Pope Leo would’ve been keenly aware that Fr. Barrow and other undercover priests depended on subterfuge to preserve their lives and ministry. In that sense, Barrow was truly indebted to the phantom Harcourt, as were the Catholics he served, and perhaps Leo wanted to enshrine a cheery acknowledgement of that reality. If so, Leo would’ve been following St. Joan of Arc’s reasoning when she explained why she carried her battle standard – a religious banner that represented God’s special care for her – at Charles VII’s coronation: “It had borne the burden,” she said. “It was quite right that it receive the honor.”

Moreover, it seems plausible that Leo also intended to create an inside joke that poked a little fun at persistent English anti-Catholicism. By granting official status to a martyr’s false identity, the false charges, false testimony, and, above all, false understanding of the Faith that led to the loathsome Popish Plot were thrown into relief. The permanent deceit of a Blessed William Harcourt on the liturgical calendar became a permanent indictment against the deceit of his accusers.

This is all speculative, I know, but let’s say I’m right, and the Pope did intend a bit of silliness by substituting a false identity for a martyr’s true name in an official declaration. Doesn’t that make you squirm a bit? Did the Holy Father go a bit far under the circumstances?

Naah. “Life is serious all the time,” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “but living cannot be serious all the time.” He went on to add that we “joke about death-beds, but not at death-beds,” which is to say that even though persecution and dying for the Faith are serious matters, we who are living free now must be able to make light of such sobering perils, or else we’ll surely shrink before their fearsome potentialities.

Yet joking about martyrdom can be tricky, even for a Pope. And if that’s what Leo did – and particularly if nobody ever “got it” – what was the point?

Henry Allen points us in the right direction in his review of two recent book on the science of humor and laughter. At one point, Allen distinguishes jokes and riddles from “social humor” – the category of humor that would encompass the papal Harcourt jest:

This is the humor that arises at unpredictable moments among roommates, family members or people in bars, the kind of laughing that exists only in unique contexts, a humor you can’t explain, saying only: “You had to be there.”

Exactly. That Pope! Chuckling all the way to the consistory.

image: Via Shutterstock, the site of the “Tyburn Tree”, the name for the gallows where many faithful English Catholics lost their lives. 

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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