Sean T. O’Kelly was the first person elected by popular vote to the office, in 1945. He was a Fianna Fail hardliner, noted for his anti-Treaty sentiments during the Civil War, his loyalty to De Valera, and, as I will discuss now, his unshakable faith in the Catholic religion and church.
O’Kelly served two terms in the office, and they were quiet years. Ireland became a Republic in 1948, making O’Kelly the unquestioned head of state (having previously competed with the English monarchy).
As President, O’Kelly was a major diplomatic figure, and travelled around Europe meeting other leaders and heads of state. One of these was Pope Pius XII.
It was not the first time that O’Kelly had met the leader of the Vatican City, having previously met with Pope Pius XI in 1922 in the aftermath of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and again in 1933 as part of an Irish delegation taking part in a Holy Year pilgrimage. The second time, the two had a lengthy conversation on the dangers of communism, with the Pope expressing distaste at the possible rise of the movement in Ireland, making O’Kelly promise to pray for its downturn.
O’Kelly was an intensely religious man, and a very proud one. He was a prominent member of the Knights of Saint Columbanus, an Irish religious fraternal organisation, to the extent that he was accused of giving the group information from government cabinet meetings. When O’Kelly became President, he had great expectation of being inducted into the “Supreme Order of Christ”, the highest order of chivalry that the Pope could bestow. Traditionally, all Catholic heads of state were inducted into the order at some point.
During a visit to the Holy See in 1950, yet another pilgrimage, President O’Kelly and the Pope discussed the looming threat of communism in Eastern Europe, with the Soviet Union encroaching on the freedom of numerous countries on its borders. Inherently against the concept of organised religion, communism was seen as an enemy force by the Vatican, though they were careful not to air this view too publically. O’Kelly was no great admirer of Stalin, sharing the Pope’s distrust and suspicion of Moscow.
After the visit came the slip. Being interviewed later in Paris, O’Kelly said the following, which was soon being printed in numerous publications:
”Pius XII expressed to us his conviction that in spite of the present difficulties and persecutions by the communists, the Catholic Church will triumph.
”His Holiness assured us that communism will be overcome and that this will happen during his pontificate.”
The Vatican was embarrassed and outraged. O’Kelly had, in a stroke, revealed the Pope’s true feeling about the Soviet Union, damaging the already strained relations between the USSR and the Vatican even further. The Church severely censured O’Kelly for his actions, issuing an official protest to the Irish government, while the Vatican’s official newspaper called O’Kelly’s recollection of the meeting into question. The last line in particular was attacked as something the Pope would never be likely to claim.
Of course, it would not have taken a genius to guess at the Pope’s true feeling on communism and communist governments, but the Pope was (and is) a political as well as religious leader. Any conversations he might have with someone, in private, should not, in the Vatican’s view, have been aired publically after, especially when Pius was trying to soften Soviet moods towards the Russian Church.
O’Kelly was not, to his immense disappointment, inducted into the Supreme Order of Christ. The official excuse was that the Vatican was phasing the Order out, with O’Kelly being awarded the lesser prize of a level within the Pian Order. Of course, it was generally considered that the snub was a result of the gaffe. After all, O’Kelly’s successor, De Valera, was inducted into the Supreme Order without fuss.
What does this teach us about the office? That it is one that comes with a high degree of diplomatic importance, importance that cannot be underestimated by the office holder. His/Her words carry a great deal of weight, and being on the same level as other heads of state comes with responsibility. O’Kelly forgot this for a crucial moment. Perhaps his pride at being taken into the Pope’s confidence got the better of him.
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