Life with a Mission: Cardinal Willem Marinus van Rossum C.Ss.R. (1854-1932)

In the Catholic world at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Dutch Cardinal Willem Marinus van Rossum C.Ss.R. was a well-known person. Less than a century later, he seems to have disappeared from the national and international recollection, a fate which is undeserved. In his days, he was one of the main personalities within the highest circles of the Roman Catholic Church; as the ‘Red Pope’, or Prefect of Propaganda Fide, he presided over the worldwide missionary areas. In the Netherlands, Catholics venerated him as the icon of a successful emancipation process. Who then was Willem van Rossum, and why should we honour his memory?

This volume is a first response to these questions in the form of a collage, attempting to summarize his life and character. Van Rossum was born in 1854 in a rather poor family in Zwolle. He was a Dutch Catholic schoolboy; altar boy; orphan; seminarian; Redemptorist; priest; theologian in the tradition of St. Alphonsus de Liguori; canonist; for 36 years and four pontificates, a member of the Roman curia; from 1896, consultor of the Holy Office; involved in the creation of the first systematic Codex of Canon Law; cardinal; President of the Biblical Commission; protector of numerous religious institutes; Major Penitentiary; cardinal-priest of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme; from 1918, Prefect of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide; more a manager and a strategist than a philosopher or mystic; administrator of the missions and catalyst of a new international missionary zeal; symbol of a bygone Catholic world and the personification of Dutch Catholicism. On the eve of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, but long after Mussolini had taken over Italy, after a tour to Copenhagen in 1932, he passed away in his native land and was buried in the Redemptorist convent of Wittem. He lived during a time that was characterized by industrialization, modernization, the belief in progress and the triumph of liberalism, but also during the time of the Great War (World War I), the emerging criticism of the colonial system, rising fascism and national-socialism and the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. In that same year, Mussolini and Cardinal Gasparri signed the ‘Lateran Treaties’, whereby the Catholic Church was able to recover some of the political autonomy it had lost with the annexation of Rome by the young Italian state in 1870.

In order to retrieve the memory of Cardinal van Rossum, as the epitome of Catholicism of his time, the editors of this volume organized an ‘international expert meeting’ on his life and work at the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome (11-12 June, 2009). A group of academics and archivists, amongst them the authors of this volume, engaged in a preliminary exploration, consisting of several in-depth investigations into the object of their research. Their aim was to elucidate the person and activities of Willem van Rossum, to gain insight in the sources – either their richness or poverty – in the Vatican, the Netherlands and elsewhere as well as the key issues that played a role in the life of this ‘prince of the Church’.
Prof. Bernard Stolte and Cardinal Ivan Dias
The meeting, which was attended by the current Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Cardinal Ivan Dias, was very fruitful, which is corroborated by the contributions of this volume. Several new insights were gained and new questions arose: for example, the importance of the theological heritage of St. Alphonsus in Van Rossum’s life and ecclesiastic career, his involvement in therealization of the anti-modernism oath and other activities revolving around the anti-modernism debate within the Catholic Church as well as his place in the development of a new missionary awareness and policy in the world devastated by the Great War. Furthermore, it became clear that Van Rossum’s life as a curial cardinal could
not be fully understood without taking his Dutch Catholic background and Redemptorist lifestyle into account.

Vefie Poels, Theo Salemink, Hans de Valk (eds)

Design: Frank G. Bosman