An Appreciation on the Centenary of his Death By H. E. G. ROPE r1HARLES JANUARIUS ACTON, the second son of Sir John Francis Acton, Bart., was born in Naples on March 6th, 1803, and died there just a hundred years ago, on June 23rd, 1847. His family was a cadet branch of the Actons of Aldenham, near Bridgnorth, Shropshire. His father, in a highly adventurous career, played some part in England's naval history, rose to greatness in the kingdom of Naples, and comes into the life of Lord Nelson. His romantic story, with his marriage, by dispensation, late in life, with his own niece, lives again in the masterly pages of Archbishop Mathew 's Acton. That marriage was celebrated, so to speak, in double, first at Sir William Hamilton's house in Palermo, doubtless in order to gain for it English legality, and then in the Chapel Royal, with a nuptial Mass in the presence of King Ferdinand and his Queen, in February, 1800.
Charles Acton learnt his first rudiments from the Abbe de Mazenod, later Bishop of Marseilles (1837-61). His father, who had inherited Aldenham and the baronetcy in 1791 on the death of his cousin, the convert Sir Richard Acton, died in 1811, and Lady Acton took the three children to England. The boys were sent to a school kept by the Abbe Guicquet (Gillow spells it " Queque," and the D.N.B. "Quegne") at Richmond, and then, on the understanding that their religion should suffer no interference, to Westminster School, whence, since the pact was not faithfully kept, they were removed to a Protestant school at Isleworth. "It was at Richmond, in Surrey," Wiseman tells us, "that he first was admitted to communion by the Rev. M. Beaumont : and he used to relate, with great delight, how it was on that happy day, by the banks of the Thames, that he formed the resolution of embracing the ecclesiastical state. He was then at a Protestant school at Isleworth."1 Lastly, a Protestant clergy man in Kent was their tutor until they entered Magdalen College, Cambridge, in 1819, in which year Kenelm Digby, soon to be a Catholic, took his B.A., where the Cardinal's arms and hat were later blazoned in the oriel window and where his portrait is now in the combination room. As Catholics they could not take their degrees, and left in 1823.
An eager, diligent student, Charles was sent to the Accademia Ecclesiastica, in Rome, where Professor Fornari, later Cardinal, was his' private tutor. An essay he had to write attracted the notice of the Cardinal Secretary of State, Somaglia, and Leo XII made the shy, modest scholar a chamberlain, and attached him to the nunciature at Paris. Pius VIII (1829-30) recalled and promoted him Vice-Legate, giving him choice among the four legations under Cardinals. His choice was Bologna, with its scope for the study of provincial administration and the application of civil law. In 1829 he went to England to marry his sister Elizabeth to Sir Robert Throckmorton. On the death of the Pope he left Bologna, where the plotted revolution presently broke out. Gregory XVI, who succeeded in February, 1831, made him an assistant judge in the Civil Court at Rome and Secretary to the Congregation of Disciplina Regolare (regarding religious orders), and, in January, 1837, to his dismayed astonishment, Auditor of the Apostolic Chamber, leading to the dignity of Cardinal. This he at first declined, but accepted under obedience. Made Cardinal in petto in 1839, he was proclaimed in January, 1842, with the title of S. Maria della Pace. When Cardinal Weld died in April, 1837, Mgr. Acton became chief adviser to the Holy See on English affairs. As Cardinal he was appointed Protector of the Venerable English College. The Catholic Directory of 1843 gives his portrait by T. Uwins, R.A., engraved by T. Periam. In the row of England's pictured Cardinals in the Venerabile at Rome his features are strangely attractive, retiring, almost bashful, yet keenly intelligent, deeply reflective, with a halfsuppressed wistful playfulness. His delicacy of conscience was charmingly illustrated in his will, when he expressed the wish that fourpence should be paid to every pastrycook in Cambridge, for a sponge cake he had eaten as a student at a shop whose name he could not remember.
"Many who saw him knew little of his sterling worth," Wiseman tells us. "So gentle, so modest, so humble was he in his own esteem, that his solid judgment, extensive acquirements, and even more ornamental accomplishments, were not easily elicited by a mere visitor or casual guest. It used to be said, by those who knew him in early youth, that his musical powers and genial wit used to form, combined, an inexhaustible fund of innocent cheerfulness ; and certainly his countenance seemed to have retained the impression of a natural humour that could have been easily brought into play. But this was over-ruled by the pressure of more serious occupation, and the adoption of a more spiritual life. The soundness of his judgment and his legal knowledge were fully recognized by the Bar, for it was familiarly said, by advocates qf the first rank, that if they could only know M. Acton's view of a case, they could make sure of what would be its ultimate decision.2 In like manner, when he was officially consulted on important ecclesiastical business, and gave his opinion in writing, this was so explicit, clear, and decisive, that Pope Gregory used to say that he had never occasion to read anything of his twice over. The greatest proof which the Pope could well have given him of his confidence was to select him, as he did, to be his interpreter and only witness in the important interview between him and the late Emperor of Russia. Of what took place at it, not a word was ever breathed by the Cardinal beyond this, that, when he had interpreted the Pope's first sentence, the Emperor turned to him in the most respectful and finished manner, and said, 'It will be agreeable to me if Your Eminence will act as my interpreter also.' Immediately after the conference. . . Cardinal Acton wrote down, at the Pope's request, a minute account of it ; but he never allowed it to be seen." Gregory XVI was worthy of his name, and Nicholas, like Attila before and Ribbentrop later, left the apostolic presence overawed.
Mgr. Acton was eminently a peacemaker. Highly valued and trusted by Gregory XVI, he set himself, on taking up his new post towards the end of 1837, to compose the differences between the English Vicars Apostolic and the Regulars. To him it fell to explain to the former that they had misconceived a decree regarding the building of churches by the regulars, and needed the permission of the Bishops, as much as before. It fell to him to play a decisive part in the matter of restoring the Hierarchy. It is rather curious that, precisely because he was ultramontane, Mgr. Acton was opposed to the restoration, at least at that time. It would seem that his influence was decisive in postponing the Hierarchy's return, on the ground that "the English throughout their history had been factious, and were not to be trusted with more and more independent power."3 Some who supported him, notably Cardinal Castracane of the Propaganda, appealed to Lingard's history, whence Acton had probably drawn his own convictions, although, when he wrote later to Lingard, he found the historian on the other side. Ullathorne tells us that he committed his reasons to writing and "had always said to Dr. Grant when he was his secretary, that 'everybody in England, Bishops and regulars, tries for the Hierarchy, in the hope that his own power will become greater thereby ; and all will be disappointed in this hope.' "4 If Acton delayed the return of the Hierarchy, he was eager for the increase of Apostolic Vicariates, a transition surely providential, and most zealous for the advance of the Faith. In April, 1846, Ullathome, who had excused himself from accepting a Bishopric in Australia, in the founding of whose Hierarchy he had played a great part, was appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Western District. On April 28th he wrote to the Prior of Downside : "Yesterday brought me a letter from His Eminence Cardinal Acton in which he informs me that, 'after much prayer and counsel,' His Holiness has been pleased to nominate the person who now writes to you to the Western District of England." The Cardinal urged acceptance upon Dr. Ullathome in words which reveal his own character. "If honour d and riches had gathered round the mitre which is now hanging over your Lordship's head, then perhaps your virtue might find out some motives to allege as a plea of excuse for refusing the offer. But in the present circumstances, my Lord, it is pain, trouble, and labour which are offered to you, and therefore I trust that, through love for Christ and His Church, you will immediately accept the offer. "6 Acton was ever thoughtfully ready to help his fellowcountrymen. He obtained a private audience with Gregory XVI for Faber, not yet a Catholic ; he advised Fr. Spencer to make his novitiate as a Passionist in Rome ; he promoted the first Passionist foundation in England. He wanted his nephew, John Acton, to be educated in England. "The King of Naples came to Rome principally to provide a good Bishop for his metropolis, and pressed acceptance of the See on Cardinal Acton, who, however, inexorably refused it. When a lamentable accident deprived the then reigning family of its first-born, I well remember that the bereaved mother wrote to him as a friend, in whom she could confide, to tell her griefs and hopes, and obtain through him what could alleviate her sorrows. As to his charities, they were so unbounded that he wrote from Naples that he had actually tasted the distress which he had often sought to lighten in others. He may be said to have departed hence in all the wealth of a willing poverty."' His health, never robust, began to give way. At the Conclave which elected Pius IX in 1846 Acton received nine votes. But in that year he sank under a heavy attack of ague, after a short retirement at Palermo, and then at Naples, where he died under the roof of his Jesuit hosts on June 23rd, 1847. These last months brought out a most attractive side of his character, quite independent of the learning and exceptional legal judgment for which he was noted, his love of the poor and suffering. So generous, so strenuous had been his help to the plague-stricken in Naples that he could truly say he had shared personally in the distress he had sought so eagerly to relieve. This alone should preserve and endear his memory to his fellow-Catholics, nay, and to all his fellow-countrymen.