Pius XII was known in his own time as the Pope of Peace, whose authority and sanctity allowed him to rise above the various factions and argue for a peace based on truth. This is more or less a necessary quality of every papacy in history, but the immediate context here reaches back to Pius IX; from his time on, all of the popes, now politically confined to the area around the Vatican, had the dual task of attempting to prevent or mitigate highly destructive wars in the troubled continent of Europe and the world while still safeguarding doctrine in the face of contemporary challenges.
Eugenio Pacelli’s talents in this diplomatic domain were noticed immediately. From almost the time of his ordination, every pope from Leo XIII on had favored him, and he worked closely with every pope from St. Pius X to his great friend Pius XI. Even as a student before entering the seminary, he was already influenced by St. Augustine and the great doctor’s definition of peace as "the tranquility of order," a phrase later used by St. Pius X "in his general program of ‘restoring all things in Christ.’"
This emphasis on peace and order—inherited from his predecessors and demanded by the times—was the cornerstone of his pontificate. It is even reflected in his papal coat of arms: In the center is a dove with an olive branch perched on three hills above water. This recalls the dove Noe sent out to see if the floodwaters had subsided, the dove of peace. The hills traditionally connote Rome, but it is easy to see in the three hills not only the Holy Trinity, but also the three theological virtues that rise from the water of grace.
So, it is not just any peace the Vicar of Christ seeks, but a peace that is the fruit of truth, of the ideas and ideals of Catholicism. The motto is Opus justitiae pax, from the Book of Isaiah: "And the work of justice shall be peace, and the service of justice quietness, and security for ever." In other words, there can be no true and lasting peace without due reverence for Christ the King. Pius was a teaching Pope, uninterested in the false peace that disregards doctrine; he was the Pope of peace and the Pope of orthodoxy because the two are intertwined.
The Pope is always a man with a past, almost always with a long career in the Church before being called to the highest office. Eugenio Pacelli was born in 1876 in Rome itself (making him the last Roman Pope to date), to a family with a long history of serving the Papacy. Families like the Pacelli’s were known as the "Black Nobility" for standing by Pius IX when the Papal States were lost in 1870. Eugenio’s grandfather, Marcantonio Pacelli, a lawyer, was a trusted official under Pius IX and was directed by him to found the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
The future pope was born to Filippo and Virginia Pacelli (see photo) in a house just a few steps away from the Church where the great Apostle of Rome, St. Philip Neri, is buried. Highly intelligent as a child, Eugenio initially seemed destined for the law like his father and grandfather, but decided after high school to enter the seminary.
Ordained in 1899, he offered his first Mass in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major before the "venerated picture [of Our Lady], Salus Populi Romani" and near where Pope St. Pius V is buried. Father Pacelli was first assigned to parish work in Rome while continuing his education: he went on to earn doctorates in theology, philosophy, and canon law and already showed his linguistic ability by becoming conversant in several languages. Not surprisingly, he was soon sent to the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, then called the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, where he would spend the rest of his career.
The young clerical diplomat lived during the transition from the late Victorian Age to the Modern Age, a time of extraordinary changes. For example, the man who in his seventies had contemplated the nuclear age had been chosen at twenty-five to give the Vatican’s condolences to King Edward VII on the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. After the death of Pope Leo XIII in 1903, now Monsignor Pacelli served St. Pius X in high-level diplomatic affairs and in the codification of the Code of Canon Law. Pacelli was standing at St. Pius X’s side when the saint roared to Austrian Ambassador as World War I was beginning: "I bless peace, not war!"
With Europe "in the throes of hatred, bent upon slaughter, wallowing in blood," Msgr. Pacelli worked closely with Pope Benedict XV to try to put an end to the war as soon as possible. However, "it was only too obvious that any political initiative of the Holy See would be badly misinterpreted. It is little wonder, therefore, that . . . the Vatican . . . had to remain completely aloof from all rivalries among the great powers." As with the Avignon residence of the Popes in the fourteenth-century, there are historical examples of disasters that follow when the Papacy even appears to take sides. To aid in the search for peace, the Pope himself consecrated Pacelli bishop on May 13, 1917 and sent him as Nuncio to Bavaria, and then, eventually, all of Germany.
On the same day that Pacelli received the fullness of the priesthood in the Sistine Chapel, Our Lady appeared to three shepherd children in the small town of Fatima, Portugal.
A Wartime Pope of Peace
After the war, and faced with the troubles created by the Treaty of Versailles, Archbishop Pacelli worked hard with Pius XI—Benedict XV having died in 1922—for peace. In those days, the Vatican attempted to influence affairs and safeguard the Church by means of concordats: agreements between the Church and governments in order to allow certain freedoms, especially in the choice of bishops and the freedom to educate the youth. No fewer than forty of these agreements were signed between the World Wars. The most important of these is the 1929 Lateran Pact with Italy that created the Vatican City-State and the one in 1933, with Germany, for which Pacelli was responsible.
Years later, Cardinal Pacelli was asked if he regretted signing a concordat with Hitler. His reply shows the Church’s aim: "I have never regretted that agreement with Germany . . . if we had not had a Concordat we should have had no legal standing in our protests."
Nevertheless, even before the concordat Archbishop Pacelli spoke out against the rising tide of Nazism, realizing the dangers of the national socialist philosophy. "It has been calculated that out of forty-four official addresses which [Archbishop Pacelli] delivered during his stay in Germany, at least forty had distinct anti-Nazi implications." Having read Mein Kampf as soon as it was published and observing the signs of the times, Archbishop Pacelli knew what he was dealing with: in 1927 he said that "[t]he conflict between Christ and Antichrist is taking gigantic shape."
At the end of 1929, Archbishop Pacelli was created a cardinal and then appointed the Secretary of State. In effect Pius XI’s Prime Minister, Cardinal Pacelli and the Pope worked as one. Pacelli was involved in the composition of two important encyclicals published in 1937: Mit brennender Sorge ["With burning concern"] against the paganism of the Nazis and the anti-communist encyclical Divini Redemptoris.
The clouds of war loomed again when Pius XI died in February of 1939.
Cardinal Pacelli became Pius XII on his birthday, March 2, on the third ballot—unanimously except for his own vote. As he foresaw, his entire pontificate involved fighting against the great error of our age: atheistic materialism in various totalitarian forms. In the words of Nazareno Padellaro, "Pius XII received the tiara as though it were a helmet."
Without forgetting communism, the immediate cause of concern was what he called the "satanic spectre" of Nazism, which soon allied with the fascism of Mussolini. Three days after Pius’ coronation, Hitler invaded and annexed Czechoslovakia. In spite of various negotiations, when Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin in August, Pius knew that war was inevitable; it began that September.
Faced with another world war, Pius "prepar[ed] to assume his role as mediator in the European crisis . . . [he] therefore could not possibly take sides himself nor directly antagonize those whom he still hoped to persuade to enter . . . negotiations." On the other hand, his views were known.
In a Berlin newspaper on the morning after his election is an editorial that reads: "The election of Cardinal Pacelli is not accepted with favor in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism and practically determined the policies of the Vatican under his predecessor."
Unable to keep the world from war, Pius had a few simple goals: to use the moral authority of the Church to bring the war to an end as soon as possible; to prevent the destruction of the city of Rome; to engage in relief efforts; and "to denounce unceasingly all tyranny and all crimes against humanity."
A Papal Scourge of Nazism and Communism
The events of those terrible years from 1939-1945 are today debated more hotly than they were even at the time. As is well known, the discussion centers on Pius’ response to the Holocaust. In what is called the "Pius Wars," both professional historians and those with various other agendas accuse the Pope of not doing enough to save the Jews in particular during this time. Of course, his memory also has its defenders. To even review the literature would require an entire conference, so let me simply list some of the major issues as quickly as possible.
Within a year of his election, Pius wrote his first encyclical: Summi Pontificatus, which decries racism and is clearly antithetical to Nazism and Fascism. The encyclical demonstrates that while the Pope cannot take political sides, he can never forget that ideas are what wars are really about.
Nevertheless, Pius was "determined to preserve [the Vatican City-State’s] neutral status." Not only does the Church’s prudential neutrality stem from the fact that the Pope is the Father of all men and the Church their mother, but also on a practical level, had Pius overtly chosen a side, the Vatican may well have been destroyed: either by Mussolini’s fascists, or by the Nazis who occupied Rome in September of 1943, or by the Allies during the bombing campaigns of the conquest of the Italian peninsula in 1944. The result for the rest of Church in Europe—already hard-pressed—is difficult to accurately imagine.
Pius engaged in "vast relief activities during the war years" based on his experiences as Nuncio during World War I. From locating missing persons to providing material goods to refugees, the Church aided tens of millions.
While decrying tyranny and war in more general terms, especially in his famous wartime Christmas messages, Pius led a Church that, according to the Jewish theologian Pinchas Lapide, saved "at least 700,000 but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands." The names of martyrs such as St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein as well as the infamous "priest block" at Dachau are well-known facts.
In Rome itself, the city of which he was the bishop, Pius "intervene[d] on numerous occasions to soften Nazi wrath or to aid members of the underground . . . . Resistance leaders [later] declared that without the sanctuary afforded by the Pope and the clergy of Rome the underground movement would hardly have been able to survive, much less operate."
Toward the end of 1943, having seized control of the city, the Nazis ordered the Jews of Rome to be sent to concentration camps. "Unremitting papal pressure, however, is believed responsible for the unexpected return of some of the victims, three weeks later. In the meantime, throughout the city, priests, nuns and other religious, often at great personal risk, smuggled Jews to places of sanctuary . . . . secret asylum was extended to more than five thousand fugitive Jews during the Nazi occupation of Rome." That is about five times as many as Oskar Schindler saved—and just during some months in Rome.
Not only did many Jews praise Pius after the war, but also the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Dr. Israel Zolli, eventually converted, taking Eugenio as his baptismal name. Even John Cornwell, author of the anti-Pius book Hitler’s Pope, has since mitigated his criticism, acknowledging that given the Axis occupation of Rome the Pope had to be extremely careful with his public statements.
Finally, in light of recent developments and research, on July 1, 2012 the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem changed Pius XII’s inscription to note a "considerable number of secret rescue activities" by the Church.
It was by no means only the Axis powers that caused Pius concern. In spite of the Pope’s pleas, Rome was bombed more than once as the great armies battled for control of the peninsula. The first Allied bombing took place on July 19, 1943. The famous Basilica of San Lorenzo was severely damaged; the Pacelli family burial plot in an adjacent cemetery was destroyed; among the gutted buildings the "[d]ead, wounded, and injured lay where they had fallen." Pius rushed to the scene with Monsignor Montini (the future Paul VI) who had scooped up over two million lire from the Vatican treasury to give to the poor. Even so, after the war, "to travellers [sic] visiting Rome who . . . have marveled at the almost miraculous preservation of the city’s shrines, the response of the average Roman is . . . ‘It was the Pope . . . .’"
As if to presage the last days, the war ended with consuming flames: fire-bombed cities and the infernal specter of the atomic mushroom cloud. Nazism and fascism had been politically defeated, but as Pius had realized decades before, the great worldwide scourge of communism—with "more material strength than the others had ever known"—was now upon the west in the new nuclear age.
Pius wrote a number of encyclicals decrying communist tyranny: Luctuosissimi Eventus and Datis Nuperrime in 1956 for the people of Hungary suffering under communism and Ad Apostolorum Principis in 1958 about the Church in communist China. Before this, in June of 1949, Pius approved a decree excommunicating all who willfully embrace communism. While Cardinal Mindszenty was being tortured in prison and millions suffered and died the GULAG, Pius again waged the war of ideas, fighting against Russia’s errors, pitting Christ the King against atheistic materialism. The so-called Cold War featured conflicts all over the world: Pius lived to sorrow over the Korean War and could have guessed that something like Vietnam would happen.
The Teaching Pope
During wartime and peacetime, in season and out of season, the Pope has a duty to feed the flock, to confront contemporary ideas in order to safeguard the Faith. Pius’ various teaching acts were not, of course, confined to the encyclicals already mentioned. He confronted some of the chief errors of the time in Humani Generis (1950), which Romano Amerio calls "a third syllabus," recalling those of Pius IX and St. Pius X. Often remembered as the encyclical that allows freedom to research the scientific claims of evolution while firmly upholding the Church’s dogmas in this regard, the majority of Humani Generis concerns neo-modernism, or as the subtitle indicates, "some false opinions which threaten to undermine the foundations of Catholic Doctrine." An entire conference could be given on this encyclical alone, so let me just give a few, brief moments. Pius foresaw the dangers of what we today call the ecumenical movement: "There are many who, deploring disagreement among men . . . desire to do away with the barrier that divides good and honest men . . . they aim not only at joining forces to repel the attacks of atheism, but also at reconciling things opposed to one another in the field of dogma . . . some . . . seem to consider as an obstacle to the restoration of fraternal union, things founded on the laws and principles given by Christ and likewise on institutions founded by Him. . . . [And] some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation."
The neo-modernist wants the dogmas of the Church to be striped to a bare minimum so that then "a way will be found to satisfy modern needs, that will permit of dogma being expressed also by the concepts of modern philosophy, whether of immanentism or idealism or existentialism . . . . Some . . . affirm that this can and must be done, because they hold they hold that the mysteries of faith are never expressed by truly adequate concepts but only by approximate and ever changeable notions . . . ." Echoing St. Pius X, Pius calls on all priests to be well instructed in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.
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In the 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, the Pope defines and expounds upon the doctrine that the Body of Christ is the Catholic Church, a concept hotly debated at the Second Vatican Council and since.
Another 1943 encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, calls for further research into Sacred Scripture while upholding the Vulgate as the Church’s official text.
The Marian Pope
Finally, Pius was a Marian Pope. He remains the last Pope to define a Marian dogma in an act of the extraordinary Magisterium: the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in the Apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus at the end of the 1950 Holy Year. Four years later, in Ad Caeli Reginam, he promulgated the feast of the Queenship of Mary.
From the time of his episcopal consecration, Pius was linked to Our Lady of Fatima. As Pope, he consecrated the world in 1942 and Russia specifically in 1952 to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He remains the Pope who has come closest to fulfilling all of Our Lady’s conditions by mentioning Russia by name, although he did not do the consecration in union with all of the Bishops. Our Lord appeared to Sister Lucy in 1943 and told her that the 1942 consecration of the world would shorten World War II. Further, we have the official testimony of Cardinal Tedeschini that Pius saw a repetition of the Miracle of the Sun four times in the Vatican Gardens in 1950, and deemed the vision a heavenly confirmation of his plan to define the dogma of the Assumption. It was during Pius’s reign that Sister Lucy wrote her memoirs; in April of 1957 the two texts of the Third Secret arrived in Rome—one was kept in the papal apartment itself—but it is unknown if he actually read the Secret before he died a year and half later.
The Traditionalist Pope
The Pope is not just a head of state or a teacher; he is also called to feed Christ’s sheep through the liturgy. In 1947 Pius wrote the great encyclical Mediator Dei, which continues St. Pius X’s liturgical reform while warning against the dangers of destroying the liturgy in the name of going back to primitive times.
The concerns of the encyclical recall an often quoted statement by then Cardinal Pacelli in 1931: "This persistence of Mary about the dangers which menace the Church is a divine warning against the suicide of altering the faith, in her liturgy, her theology, and her soul . . . . I hear all around me innovators who wish to dismantle the Sacred Chapel . . . ."
A central part of the current crisis is, of course, the liturgy, both the Novus Ordo itself and how it is said in various places of the world. Just a few quotations from Mediator Dei show how this project was advanced enough to be condemned: "The temerity and daring of those who introduce novel liturgical practices, or call for the revival of obsolete rites . . . [or] are bent on the restoration of all the ancient rites and ceremonies indiscriminately . . . deserve severe reproof. . . . Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts . . . ."
One can only imagine how Pius would react in our current climate of Communion in the hand and Clown Masses!
Having decried misguided primitivism and other liturgical deviations on the one hand, in 1955 Pius ordered the restoration of the Holy Week liturgy to its more ancient form, so that, for example, the great events of our Redemption would be celebrated closer to the time the events actually took place. Continuing St. Pius X’s emphasis on frequent Holy Communion, Pius decided to reduce the Eucharistic Fast to three hours, encouraging the faithful to approach the altar.
Pius had the joy to decree the canonization of some well-beloved saints: the first "American" saint, Mother Cabrini; the saint of chastity, Maria Goretti; the saint of the Miraculous Medal, Catherine Labouré; the apostle of Our Lady, Louis de Montfort; St. John Bosco’s great student Dominic Savio; and the canonization Pius himself longed to do before he died, Pope Pius X.
The Pope also has the mission of spreading the Faith, that all men may become a part of Christ’s mystical body. With modern technology making travel and communication increasingly rapid, Pius kept a truly worldwide vision. "Thus at St. Peter’s Basilica in an unprecedented ceremony on the feast of Christ the King in 1939, he raised to the episcopacy twelve missionary representatives of widely different peoples and races from all over the world." In 1951 he wrote Evangelii Praecones about the missions in general, and later, looking again to the vast continent of Africa, he wrote Fidei Donum, thanks to the initiative and suggestions of his Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (pictured here with Pius XII).
Despite his office and the graces that come with it, every Pope remains a man with his own personality, so I have to tell a few stories. What Pius XII was physically, you can see from the photographs: tall and thin, statuesque, radiating authority; but when carried in on the sedia gestatoria, he would nevertheless reach out to people from it and, after the procession, would immediately leave it to join the crowd.
Pius loved to meet with all sorts of people, from military men and sports stars to newlyweds and children. Combined with this imposing presence was a real charisma that everyone who met him felt. When a person was received in an audience, he had the Pope’s entire attention, so matter how seemingly insignificant the subject.
Pius was particularly renowned for his work ethic; until his illness in 1954, he often worked long into the night, always rising at just before half past six in the morning. During those years, it was common in the middle of the night see a lone, lighted window "high up in the dark façade of the Vatican . . . a beacon amid the wilderness of the Earth; a guarantee of certitude written across the winding scroll of time; a signal of hope, an earnest of better things to come when the dark shadows have dispersed."
Not only did he act as his own Secretary of State after his first one died in 1944, but also he wrote his own speeches, delivering them without a text or notes thanks to an amazing memory. He kept birds in his private dining room and would allow his favorite—a goldfinch named Gretel—to fly around as he worked; sometimes she would perch on his shoulder during mealtimes.
The End of a Great Pontificate
Essentially having worked himself to exhaustion, at the end of 1954, Pius seemed to be on his deathbed. Despite his wishes that it not be revealed until after his death, it was leaked to the press and confirmed that the Pope had a vision of Our Lord at the Vatican on December 2nd. Not there to take him, but rather to strengthen him, Our Lord stood at Pius’ bedside "silent in all His eloquent majesty" and then departed. Pius recovered and reigned for almost four more years, dying at Castel Gandolfo on October 9, 1958.
At Pope Pius XII’s death, the Church seemed stronger than ever, having not only survived the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century but also clearly established herself as a moral voice against the errors that brought about such destruction. Pius himself was widely hailed, by many Jews as well, as the great Pope of Peace and a symbol of authority.
American Bernard Baruch, a Jew, said, "[h]e epitomized the heights of nobility to which the human soul can rise." Universally regarded as a saint at his death, Catholics, the Orthodox, and even Protestants "felt [him] to be the most Christ-like of [the] time." Even the communists of Castel Gandolfo came to see his body before it was taken to Rome. In 2009, he was declared Venerable and, despite political pressure, his cause appears to be advancing.
Due to the current crisis of the Church and because Pius was the last of the Popes before the Second Vatican Council, traditional Catholics are sometimes accused of pining for the 1950’s as if the reign of Pius was some sort of perfect, golden age of the Church. I know of no informed person who actually thinks this. As evidenced by, for example, the doctrinal encyclicals mentioned above, what really happened was that Pius tried to hold various forces back, forces that were unleashed during the very different pontificate of John XXIII.
As Michael Davies notes, there was in the pre-conciliar Church a Modernist fifth column, the ‘pernicious adversaries’ condemned by St. Pius X . . . which, like some malignant virus, . . . waited for the right conditions to enable them to proliferate and infect the entire organism. Before the Council the Church was indeed, as Pope John [XXIII] claimed, ‘vibrant with vitality’; there are few signs of vitality in the decomposing body of the post-conciliar Church—but the forces which drained her vitality away existed long before the Council was called.
As is so often the case in Church history, the worst enemies of the Bride of Christ are those within. So, the Pope of Peace was a wartime Pope, not only during the terrible physical conflicts that defined the era, but also—as all Popes must be—on the supernatural level, protecting the flock from the wolves within and without. Let me end with some lines by Cardinal Cushing, which paint a final portrait of this good and faithful servant of Our Lord:
This was a true picture of Pius XII, the Vicar of Christ, the Pastor of his own flock and of those "other sheep" for whom Christ prayed. Standing at the altar was the "Great High Priest" intoning with every priest all over the world: "Credo in Unum Deum" and beseeching the people to take up the chant, "Patrem omnipotentem," not, as he said, "as a quiet confession but as a war song befitting days of battle, a war song, fervent, vigorous, staunch and impelling to action."