Monday, 17 August 2015

Pope Paul VI and the Loch Ness Monster

Bishop Stephen Platten, associate Anglican bishop in the Diocese of London and Southwark, had a Credo piece in The Times on Saturday, August 8, 2015 about a man and pope I regard highly: Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Paul VI. Bishop Platten mentions Pope Paul’s visit to the UK and Ireland “in the 1930s”. I wrote of this in the pages of Flourish, the monthly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Glasgow, in 2004, the 70th anniversary of the very first papal Nessie Hunt. The editor, Vincent Toal, kindly even used the working title I had given my piece, the text of which I reproduce below.

Pope Paul VI

The Loch Ness Mons…ignors

WHAT, you might very well be inclined to ask, has the Loch Ness Monster got to do with the Catholic Church? Not to worry, I have to tell you that our illustrious editor asked the very same thing. So, like him, just read on…

As the future Pope sat reading the English newspapers in his office in the Department for the Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Holy See, the section of the Secrertariat of State which at that time dealt with foreign governments, he must have reflected that if it said it in The Times of London, then, of course, it must be true.

And it did say it.

“About three weeks ago,” wrote Lt Comm RT Gould RN (retired) on December 9, 1933, “I started for Inverness to make an independent investigation of the evidence about the Loch Ness ‘monster,’ of which many accounts have appeared in the Press.”


The first reported sighting by Mr G McQueen, the Automobile Association scout for the Loch Ness area, had occurred about four months earlier, in August 1933. That the first person reported to have seen Nessie ― although he knew not at the time that that was indeed the creature’s name ― was associated with an organisation the acronym for which was simply the initials AA might surprise few. However, Nessie was again spotted on August 24, and this time by three entirely respectable young ladies. The Misses Rattray and their friend, Miss Hamilton, saw Nessie from the loch side at Alltsigh. A third sighting followed at Fort Augustus on the first day of October, and a fourth on November 23 from Temple Pier, Drumnadrochit.

Of these four sets of eyewitness accounts, Commander Gould seemingly was most impressed by the third, that of Mr BA Russell MA, the Fort Augustus schoolmaster, who had seen Nessie on October 1. The Commander noted that the dominie had recorded his sighting “in almost ideal conditions.” He continued:

“He was on an eminence, overlooking the southwestern extremity of the Loch, and about 100 feet above the water level. The day was brilliantly sunny, and the surface of the Loch as smooth as glass, there was no haze, and the creature was in view for 12 minutes (10.10am to 10.22am) moving slowly from left to right at a maximum distance of 800 yards and a minimum of 700. What he saw, and subsequently sketched, was a serpentine head and neck, arched like a swan’s, dark in colour, rising fully five feet out of the water and turning occasionally from side to side. He saw nothing of the body, but a V-shaped ripple spread off from the neck at the point where it met the water. The creature ultimately sank slowly and disappeared.”

It has to be said that not everyone was as convinced as Commander Gould was as to the existence of Nessie. On the very day his article appeared, WT Calman, Keeper of Zoology at the British Natural History Museum, penned a Letter to the Editor of The Times. Published on December 11, he wrote:

“Sir, In recent months I have been frequently asked: “What theory has the Natural History Museum about the Loch Ness ‘monster’?” And I have replied: “The Natural History Museum does not deal in theories, only in specimens.” If any one will send us the Loch Ness ‘monster’ in the flesh we are quite prepared to tell them all we can discover about it. Meanwhile its story can be safely left in the very competent hands of Commander Gould, and its personal safety in those of the Chief Constable of Inverness-shire.” 

However, it seems that in the Vatican the future Pope was less sceptical than Dr Calman. Mgr Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini (thankfully, simply known as Battista to his family and friends) noted that Commander Gould had supplied his readers with both a handy map indicating how to get to the various areas where Nessie had been sighted and sketches to facilitate easy identification of the exotic creature. And so Mgr Battista set about making his plans for his summer holiday in 1934.

He arranged that two of his best friends would accompany him: Mgr Mariano Rampolla, like himself a middle-ranking Vatican official, and; Mgr Antonio Riberi, Counsellor in the Papal Nunciature in Dublin (Archbishop Paschal Charles David Robinson OFM, first Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, lent the intrepid trio his car).

Would anything have been more natural than that Mgr Montini and his friends should seek advice from their English and Scottish colleagues, respectively Mgr (later Cardinal) William Godfrey, Rector of the English College, and Mgr (also later Cardinal) William Theodore Heard, auditor of the Sacred Roman Rota?

Cardinal Heard being a proud Scotsman, there can be no doubt that he would have keenly followed all the stories about Nessie; and their can be little doubt, too, that he would have been proud that such an important official as Mgr Battista Montini wished to pay her his respects. Moreover, Heard had close personal links with the Benedictine’s of Downside Abbey. In his Bermondsey days he had worked both as a layman (Protestant before becoming Catholic in 1910) and as a curate (1921-27) with the Fisher Club, which later became the Downside Settlement.

Was it, then, Scotland’s future Cardinal who suggested to Mgr Montini that a visit to Downside followed by a trip north to its sister Benedictine establishment in the Scottish Highlands at Fort Augustus would prove an effective smokescreen to hide from general view their true purpose in heading to Loch Ness? Having visited the beatific Benedictines, who would have suspected that he was in fact only interested in the blessed beast of the inland deep?

During that July/August of 1934 Mgr Montini and his friends visited Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight before heading for Downside. The good Monsignor recorded in his diary (but in Italian, of course):

Downside Abbey is a relatively recent monastery, magnificently built but not yet complete, with a most beautiful Gothic church. It is one of the leading colleges of England. It stands on a hill, surrounded by trees and meadows and offers superb views. At Quarr Abbey the atmosphere was French. Here everything was English, the language, the customs, the food, everything. But meeting and understanding have been greatly helped not only by the presence of Mgr Riberi, who is known here, but by a simplicity and cordiality that owe much to Englishness and, even more, to the ever courteous and hospitable Benedictine tradition of kindness.

The Roman monsignori then headed for Fort Augustus, but as a further diversion stopping en route at Glasgow, at St Francis’s, Cumberland Street, a Franciscan Friary. Their stay there was most likely facilitated by Mgr Riberi’s boss, Archbishop Robinson, who had allowed the intrepid trio use of the nunciature limousine for their safari. The first Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Mgr Robinson was an Irish Franciscan, one of the worst kind, and so his Scottish confreres would have doubtless taken the view that his young friends would have to be accommodated and so he humoured.

The Cumberland Street Friary is now closed, but its records are kept at Blessed John Duns Scotus, Ballater Street. The Father Guardian kindly lent your humble but esteemed scrivener here a copy of a note drafted in 1975 to permanently record this historic visit to Glasgow.

From the Gorbals the monsignori travelled without further ado to Loch Ness-side and their appointment with Nessie. “Scotland,” Mgr Montini recorded, was “poorer but more picturesque than England.” Fort Augustus was “a welcoming oasis of prayer and Catholic education in a Protestant country.” He and his travelling companions joined in the singing of Mass which, he noted, inspired not so much thoughts of home, but of the heavenly home (casa nostra quassu). But Mgr Montini’s diary, sadly, makes no mention of his search for Nessie.

When they left Fort Augustus, the travelling companions returned first to St Francis’s and then travelled on to Dublin where they spent four days at the Nunciature in Phoenix Park.

Of Mgr Montini’s holiday experience, Peter Hebblethwaite writes that it was then that he had had his first inklings that Anglicans were not just Protestants. He had concluded that he was disposed to like the English, and this at a time when they were unpopular in Italy. Hebblethwaite notes that Montini had recorded that in Scotland and Ireland, as well as in England, he had “felt what a great thing is the brotherhood of the Catholic Church.” Montini had then added: “We talk and travel about, we discuss and think, we pray and discover how big the world is and how small we are.”

Of course, compared to Nessie how small we all seem. But of the three holiday companions, two went on to achieve great stature in the Church and the world and the other, of whom I have been able to find out but little, was associated by ties of kinship to one of the most controversial prelates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mgr Rampolla was a grandnephew of a cardinal who had once occupied one of the highest positions in Holy Mother Church, and who was almost elected to the very highest. Many regard His Eminence Mariano Cardinal Rampolla, Marquesa del Tindarro, as the best Pope we never had in the 20th century. Others, I believe entirely mistakenly, if not also scurrilously, revile him as the Freemason who nearly became Pope. His Eminence was Secretary of State under Pope Leo XIII. He narrowly failed to be elected Pope in 1903 when Cardinal Puzyna, a predecessor of Pope John Paul II as Cardinal Archbishop of Cracow, announced to the Conclave that Franz Josef, Austro-Hungarian Emperor, would not tolerate him as Pope and so wished to exercise his (claimed) veto. (To his credit, shortly after the Conclave Pius X acted to ensure that this would be the last occasion on which any temporal power would ever be able to seek to affect the outcome of a Papal election.)

It is believed that the party arrived in Dublin in time for the announcement on August 13, 1934 that, despite his comparative youth, just 37 years of age, Mgr Riberi was to be appointed to a senior position within the Secretariat of State and was to be consecrated bishop by Pietro Cardinal Fumasoni Biondi, Prefect of Propaganda Fidei, on October 28 and provided to the titular archiepiscopal see of Dara. Archbishop Riberi would later go on to become Papal Nuncio to China (1946-51), to Ireland (1959-62) and to Spain (1962-67). And on June 26, 1967 he was elevated to the Sacred College by his long-time friend and fellow Nessie hunter, Battista Montini: Pope Paul VI.

No comments: