The Bavarian-born jurist Theodulf Mertel died 125 years ago

The last cardinal who was not a priest

Rome - A baker's son from Bavaria who crowns the Pope? A deacon with a cardinal's hat? It's all been done before – and even in one person. A story from the last years of the Papal States.

Published  on 10.07.2024 at 00:01  – by Alexander Brüggemann (KNA)

When Theodulf Mertel died 125 years ago, on 11 July 1899, in the central Italian mining town of Allumiere, he had an extremely remarkable church career behind him. Indeed, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) is even said to have described him as the "best man of the 19th century" - and made Mertel the executor of his will. In any case, the Bavarian-born lawyer was one thing: the last cardinal to date who was not a priest. And a layman who put the crown (tiara) on a pope's head.

The ways of the Lord are unfathomable, so they say. In any case, Theodulf's father, the pious baker Isidor Mörtl or Mertel from Eglfing am Pfaffenwinkel in Upper Bavaria, chose to cross the Alps to start a new life in the Papal States with his wife Maria Franziska, a woman from Vorarlberg. As a baker, he provided for the miners of Allumiere north of Rome, who extracted the mineral alum stone there on behalf of the Pope.

A non-clerical prelate

The director of studies Martin Eckart from Huglfing, who died in 2017, has researched Mertel's biography in detail. According to this, Theodulf was born on 9 February 1806 as the first son of the family in Allumiere. He attended a religious school, studied law in Rome and by the end of the 1820s, at just over 22, was a doctor of law and canon law. And it's a small world in the Papal States: after Mertel had set up as a lawyer in his home town, he was called to the Roman Curia by Pope Gregory XVI in 1831.

The talented lawyer held various positions there, including defending the needy in legal matters, and gradually climbed the career ladder. In 1843, now President of the Vatican Civil Court, he was given the honorary papal title of prelate for the first time - even though he was not a member of the clergy.

Bild: ©KNA

Pius IX was Pope from 1846 until his death on 7 February 1878.

Mertel delivered his masterpiece when the revolution broke out in Italy in 1848 and Pius IX also had to flee Rome temporarily. Allegedly, Mertel completed a draft constitution for the Papal States with 69 articles literally overnight, which the Pope nodded off without any changes. The modest lawyer thus earned the unreserved trust of Pius IX - who was personally quite complicated - and moved into the Vatican's inner circle. From 1853, Mertel was Minister of the Interior and Justice of the Papal States, and from 1863 even head of government.

In March 1858, the Pope gave him the cardinal's hat - against his express wishes, as it was said. He also refused to be ordained a priest. However, with his ordination as a deacon in May, Mertel formally belonged to the clergy.

Executor of the Pope's will

As a cardinal, Mertel also took part in the First Vatican Council in 1869/70. In the debate on papal infallibility, the jurist did not argue, but urged very precise formulations and strong ecclesiastical political restraint in its application. When Italian unification troops occupied Rome and annexed the Papal States, the Council was broken off on 20 October 1870. It was Mertel who drafted the letter in which Pius IX protested against the end of the Papal States, which was contrary to international law.

Probably out of gratitude as well as trust, Pius IX made him his executor - which ultimately put the cardinal in an awkward position. One summer night in 1881, he accompanied the secret transfer of the mortal remains to the Roman basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le mura. There were riots and an angry crowd tried to throw the Pope's coffin into the Tiber.

Mertel's cardinal coat of arms
Bild: ©Wikipedia Gemeinfrei/Leo Gesellschaft Wien

The cardinal's coat of arms of Theodulf Mertel.

But before that, the Bavarian-Italian immigrant child Theodulf Mertel experienced the greatest honour of his life: a baker's son, who was never ordained a priest, crowned the new pope. After Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci was elected as Leo XIII (1878-1903), the cardinal protodeacon in charge fell ill and was unable to preside over the coronation ceremony in the Sistine Chapel. Cardinal Mertel took over - and put the tiara on his new boss.

Leo XIII also entrusted Mertel with numerous tasks as a lawyer, diplomat and scientist and made him Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church in 1884. After 1889, at the age of 83, things became quieter around Mertel. From then on, he devoted himself even more to charity and science, such as Roman archaeology and new discoveries in the early Christian catacombs. He was committed to caring for the deaf-mute and disabled and financed the studies of poor candidates for the priesthood.

Friend of Abbot Mendel

Mertel also supported his native town of Allumiere, where he was fascinated not only by local history, but also by geology and mineralogy. He was friends with the Moravian-Austrian Augustinian abbot, biologist and founder of the theory of heredity Johann Gregor Mendel (1822-1884).

Almost blind and lame, Theodulf Mertel - the "cardinal who was never ordained a priest", as the international press headlined at the time - died in his home town at the then unusual age of 93. The municipalities of Eglfing and Allumiere entered into a town twinning agreement in 2000. In Rome and Eglfing, streets are named after Mertel.

by Alexander Brüggemann (KNA)