William Cardinal O’Connell was a man to be reckoned with. His nickname in the archdiocese of Boston that he ruled for 36 years was “Number One”. Born in 1859 to Irish immigrants, the youngest of eleven children, his father, a textile worker in Lowell, Massachusetts, died when William was four. A gifted student, he earned gold medals in philosophy, chemistry and physics at Boston College. Studying for the priesthood at the North American Pontifical College he was ordained in 1884. After serving as pastor in parishes in Medford and Boston, he was made rector of the North American Pontifical College in 1895.
He was made Bishop of Portland Maine in 1901. In 1905 he received the assignment of papal envoy to Japan. In 1906 he was named Coadjutor Archbishop of Boston, raising some eyebrows from the perception that he had actively campaigned for the job. In 1907 he became the second Archbishop of Boston and in 1911 was made a Cardinal, the first Archbishop of Boston to receive that distinction.
He made strenuous efforts to get to the Conclave of 1914 and 1922, although arriving late on each occasion. In 1922 he became the first Cardinal to fly, traveling by air from Boston to New York after having an ocean liner held for his boarding. When he arrived late he made representations to the newly elected Pius XI that more time needed to be given between the death of a pope and the conclave to give time for cardinals outside of Europe to get to Rome. The Pope agreed and the time was lengthened. Cardinal O’Connell participated in the Conclave in 1939.
O’Connell would live until 1944 firmly in control of his Archdiocese to the end. Politicians feared him for his political power was immense when he chose to exercise it, as he did in 1935 to defeat a state lottery and in 1942 to defeat a proposed law legalizing forms of birth control. The only man who matched his power in Massachusetts during his life was Calvin Coolidge, and he and Coolidge had a wary respect for each other.
Only once did scandal touch “Number One” and that was when he learned that his beloved nephew, a priest, had secretly gotten married. He stripped his nephew of his priestly functions and severed his relationship with him.
He had vehement opinions about everything. He believed that the crooners of the thirties and forties were moral degenerates: “No true American man would practice this base art. Of course, they aren’t men…If you will listen closely [to crooners' songs] you will discern the basest appeal to sex emotion in the young.” His tongue could be acerbic. Of the future Francis Cardinal Spellman he once opined: “Francis epitomizes what happens to a bookkeeper when you teach him how to read.” He did not believe in ecumenicalism. In 1908, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the diocese of Boston, he triumphantly crowed, The Puritan has passed, the Catholic remains! His contemporaries viewed him as a force of nature, one describing him as a battleship in full battle array. They do not make many clerics like him now, and more is the pity. Agree or disagree with them, I prefer men who say what they mean and mean what they say, a type that has grown rarer in the past half century.
The Conclave of 1922 lasted for five days and took 14 ballots before a Pope was elected. Achille Ratti was an unusual combination of scholar and athlete, both a papal librarian and a mountaineer. Born in 1857, he was ordained in 1879. A scholar, he earned three doctorates. In 1911 he was made Vice-Prefect of the Vatican Library and in 1914 he was made Prefect. No doubt he would have been personally happier if he could have spent the remainder of his life in one of the great libraries of the world, but in 1918 Pope Benedict appointed him Apostolic Visitor to the newly independent Poland. Rapid promotion followed, with Ratti being named Bishop and titular Archbishop in 1919. In 1921 he was appointed Archbishop of Milan and a Cardinal. Chosen as Pope by the Conclave of 1922, he chose to reign as Pius XI. His reign would be dominated by his battles against Communism, Fascism and the anti-clerical regime in Mexico. This paragraph from Mit Brennender Sorge, the Papal encyclical that condemned the Nazi regime, summed up the core of Pius’ papacy:
Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.