In the few years that were sped since then, however, Sister Colomba had acquired the great reputation of which Matarazzo tells us, so that, throughout the plain of Tiber, the Dominicans were preaching her fame from convent to convent. In December of 1495 Charles VIII heard of her at Siena, and was stirred by a curiosity which he accounted devotional the same curiosity that caused one of his gentlemen to entreat Savonarola to perform " just a little miracle " for the King's entertainment. You can picture the gloomy fanatic's reception of that invitation.
The Pope now took the opportunity of his sojourn in Perugia to pay Colomba da Rieti a visit, and there can be no doubt that he did so in a critical spirit. Accompanied by Cesare and some cardinals and gentlemen of his following, he went to the Church of St. Dominic and was conducted to the sister's cell by the Prior the same who in Cesare's student days had refused to have the bells rung.
Upon seeing the magnificent figure of the Pontiff filling the doorway of her little chamber, Sister Colomba fell at his feet, and, taking hold of the hem of his gown, she remained prostrate and silent for some moments, when at last she timidly arose. Alexander set her some questions concerning the Divine Mysteries. These she answered readily at first, but, as his questions grew, she faltered, became embarrassed, and fell silent, standing before him white and trembling, no doubt a very piteous figure. The Pope, not liking this, turned to the Prior to demand an explanation, and admonished him sternly : " Caveto, Pater, quia ego Papa sum ! "
This had the effect of throwing the Prior into confusion, and he set himself to explain that she was in reality very wonderful, that he himself had not at first believed in her, but that he had seen so much that he had been converted. At this stage Cesare came to his aid, bearing witness, as he could, that he himself had seen the Prior discredit her when others were already hailing her as a saint, wherefore, if he now was convinced, he must have had very good evidence to convince him. We can imagine the Prior's gratitude to the young cardinal for that timely word when he saw himself in danger perhaps of being called to account for fostering and abetting an imposture.
What was Alexander's opinion of her in the end we do not know ; but we do know that he was not readily credulous. When, for instance, he heard that the stigmatae were alleged to have appeared upon the body of Lucia di Narni he did what might be expected of a sceptic of our own times rather than of a churchman of his superstitious age he sent his physicians to examine her.
That is but one instance of his common sense attitude towards supernatural manifestations. His cold, calm judgement caused him to seek, by all available and practical means, to discriminate between the true and the spurious in an age in which men, by their credulity, were but too ready to become the prey of any impostor. It argues a breadth of mind altogether beyond the times in which he had his being. Witches and warlocks, who elsewhere and even in much later ages, and in Protestant as well as Catholic States were given to the fire, he contemptuously ignored. The unfortunate Moors and Jews, who elsewhere in Europe were being persecuted by the Holy Inquisition and burnt at the stake as an act of faith for the good of their souls and the greater honour and glory of God, found in Alexander a tolerant protector and in Rome a safe shelter.
These circumstances concerning him are not sufficiently known; it is good to know them for their own sake. But, apart from that, they have a great historical value which it is well to consider. It is not to be imagined that such breadth of views could be tolerated in a Pope in the dawn of the sixteenth century. The times were not ripe for it; men did not understand it; and what men do not understand they thirst to explain, and have a way of explaining in their own fashion and according to their own lights.
A Pope who did such things could not be a good Pope, since such things must be abhorrent to God as men conceived God then.
To understand this is to understand much of the bad feeling against Alexander and his family, for this is the source of much of it. Because he did not burn witches and magicians it was presently said that he was himself a warlock, and that he practised black magic. It was not, perhaps, wanton calumny; it was said in good faith, for it was the only reason the times could think of that should account for his restraint. Because he tolerated Moors and Jews it was presently said by some that he was a Moor, by others that he was a Jew, and by others still that he was both.
What wonder, then, if the rancorous Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere venomously dubbed him Moor and Jew, and the rabid fanatic Savonarola screamed that he was no Pope at all, that he was not a Christian, nor did he believe in any God ?
Misunderstood in these matters, he was believed to be an infidel, and no crime was too impossible to be fastened upon the man who was believed to be that in the Italy of the Cinquecento.
Alexander, however, was very far from being an infidel, very far from not being a Christian, very far from not believing in God, as he has left abundant evidence in the Bulls he issued during his pontificate. It is certainly wrong to assume and this is pointed out by l'Espinois that a private life which seems to ignore the commandments of the Church must preclude the possibility of a public life devoted to the service of the Church. This is far from being the case. Such a state of things such a dual personality is by no means inconsistent with churchmen of the fifteenth, or, for that matter, of the twentieth century.
The whole truth of the matter is contained in a Portuguese rhyme, which may roughly be translated:
Soundly Father Thomas preaches. Don't do as he does; do as he teaches.
A debauchee may preach virtue with salutary effect, just as a man may preach hygiene without practising the privations which it entails, or may save you from dyspepsia by pointing out to you what is indigestible without himself abstaining from it.
Such was the case of Alexander VI, as we are justified in concluding from the evidence that remains.
Let us consider the apostolic zeal revealed by his Bull granting America to Spain. This was practically conceded as the very terms of it will show on condition that Spain should employ the dominion accorded her over the New World for the purpose of propagating the Christian faith and the conversion and baptism of the heathen. This is strictly enjoined, and emphasized by the command that Spain shall send out God fearing men who are learned in religion and capable of teaching it to the people of the newly discovered lands.
Thus Alexander invented the missionary.
To King Manuel the Fortunate (of Portugal), who sought his authority for the conquest of Africa, he similarly enjoined that he should contrive that the name of the Saviour be adored there, and the Catholic faith spread and honoured, to the end that the king " might win eternal life and the blessing of the Holy See."
To the soldiers going upon this expedition his Holiness granted the same indulgences as to those who fought in the Holy Land, and he aided the kings of Spain and Portugal in this propagation of Christianity out of the coffers of the Church.
He sent to America a dozen of the children of St. Francis, as apostles to preach the Faith, and he invested them with the amplest powers.
He prosecuted with stern rigour the heretics of Bohemia, who were obscenely insulting Church and Sacraments, and he proceeded similarly against the " Picards " and " Vaudois." Against the Lombard demoniacs, who had grown bold, were banding themselves together and doing great evil to property, to life, and to religion, Alexander raised his mighty arm.
Then there is his Bull of June I, 1501, against those who already were turning to evil purposes the newly discovered printing press. In this he inveighed against the printing of matter prejudicial to healthy doctrine, to good manners, and, above all, to the Catholic Faith or anything that should give scandal to the faithful. He threatened the printers of impious works with excommunication should they persist, and enlisted secular weapons to punish them in a temporal as well as a spiritual manner. He ordered the preparation of indexes of all works containing anything hurtful to religion, and pronounced a ban of excommunication against all who should peruse the books so indexed.
Thus Alexander invented the Index Expurgatorius.
There is abundant evidence that he was a fervid celebrant, and of his extreme devotion to the Blessed Virgin in whose honour he revived the ringing of the Angelus Bell shall be considered later.
Whatever his private life, it is idle to seek to show that his public career was other than devoted to the upholding of the dignity and honour of the Church.