At age 18, while studying in a city near his home, Aeneas Sylvius de’ Piccolomini heard a friar preaching. He was impressed and entered church life, but without giving up his vices. Aeneas worked his way up the religious ladder, and was elected as Pope Pius II at age 53. He understood world politics as few did, and he was brilliant. He was a grammarian, geographer, historian, novelist, and orator. But he wasn’t pious. He wrote explicit love stories, fathered children here and there, and instructed young men in ways to “indulge” themselves.
He also had something to say to princes. On September 26, 1460 Pius called European leaders together in Mantua to discuss his life’s dream—a new crusade against the Turks. He preached three hours at the opening session, telling the princes they must emulate Stephen, Peter, and Andrew who were willing to lay down their lives in holy warfare. The Turks have robbed Christianity of its greatest treasures, he said—Jerusalem, where Christ lived; Bethlehem, where he was born; the Jordan River, where he was baptized; Calvary, where he was crucified; Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians. Joshua had fought for this land. So had Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. Earlier crusaders had demolished Muslim strongholds and liberated Christian sites. “O! That Godfrey were once more present, and Baldwin and the other mighty men who broke through the ranks of the Turks and regained Jerusalem!”
His message greatly stirred the assembly, and for a moment the princes appeared ready to rush from the room to undertake a new crusade. But the pope was followed by another preacher, Cardinal Bessarion, who spoke for another three hours. By the end of the day, the princes were so worn out by the preaching they had no passion for the cause.
The congress became mired in political rivalry, and the promises made there were never kept; the days of the crusades were over. Yet Pope Pius continued dreaming of one, and his dying words were, “Pray for me, for I am a sinner. Bid my brethren continue this holy expedition.”
It takes strong winds to move a large sailing ship, but the captain uses only a small rudder to make it go in any direction. Our tongues are small too, and yet they brag about big things. (James 3:4,5a)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Sept. 26.