Rorate Caeli

“Vatican’s dear citadel / Besieged of hell?”: A Poem Written by Pope Leo XIII

Although educated Catholics know Leo XIII as a prolific author of encyclicals, especially on Catholic social doctrine and on the Rosary, fewer are aware that he wrote a considerable body of poetry, including liturgical hymns, sonnets, ballads, and other popular forms. What follows is a (poetic) English translation of one of the poems, copied out of an old volume that I have long since lost the title of. The poignancy of certain lines struck me, in light of the events of recent days and years. (UPDATE: A kind reader sent in the exact reference! The book is called Poems, Charades, Inscriptions of Pope Leo XIII: Including the Revised Compositions of His Early Life in Chronological Order, published in 1902.
Lines written on New Year’s Eve, 1900
Pope Leo XIII

A noble nurse of all the arts,
The Age departs:
Let who will sing the truths it taught,
The marvels wrought.

Me rather shall its sinful years
But move to tears,
As in a backward glance I see
Its infamy.

Shall blood of men be my lament,
Or scepters rent,
Or Vatican’s dear citadel
Besieged of hell?

The glory, Rome, that crowned thy brow,
Where is it now?
Of old, all nations loved in thee
Thy Pontiff’s See.

O godless laws, count up your gains:
What truth remains?
A shrineless Justice, lo! it stands
On shifting sands.

Hark ye the new hierophant
Of Science, chant
His song to Nature’s soulless clod
As to a god!

And yet man’s birthright from on high
He will deny,
And search to find a single root
For man and brute.

O to what hideous depths is hurled
The proud, proud world!
Kneel, then, O mortal man, to God,
And kiss His rod.

Him only, Truth, and Life, and Way,
Learn to obey,
Who only, through the fleeting years,
Can dry thy tears.

The pilgrim hosts to Peter’s shrine
His Hand divine
But now hath led—a portent viewed
Of Faith renewed.

Jesus, who on Thy throne sublime,
Shalt judge all time,
Make the rebellious will obey
Thy sovereign sway!

Scatter the seeds of gentle peace
Till war shall cease;
And to their native hell exile
Tumult and guile.

One dream let hearts of kings pursue—
Thy Will to do;
One Shepherd let the earth behold,
One Faith, one Fold.

Long ninety years my course is run—
Thy Will be done.
My prayers the crowning grace to gain,
Be not in vain!