By Barry Michaels
Barry Michaels is the author of "Saints for Our Times: New Novenas and Prayers" (Pauline Books and Media).
The death of Pope Pius XII on Oct. 9, 1958, brought to a close one of the most difficult and dramatic pontificates of the 20th century. The 50th anniversary of his death offers an important opportunity to reconsider the man and his ministry.
Eugenio Pacelli was born on March 2, 1876, the third of four children in an upper-class family that lived in Rome. His father was a lawyer who often served the Vatican.
Young Eugenio was academically gifted but physically frail. At the age of 18, he entered the seminary and began studies at the Gregorian University. Because of his poor health, he received permission to continue living at home during his seminary years.
Pacelli was ordained a diocesan priest on April 2, 1899, and celebrated his first Mass at Rome's historic Basilica of St. Mary Major. After two years as a parish priest, he was assigned to work in an office of the Vatican's Secretariat of State, where he helped prepare the first Code of Canon Law, published in 1917.
That year, Father Pacelli was named nuncio (the pope's diplomatic representative) to Bavaria, an important post as World War I raged. He was ordained a bishop in the Sistine Chapel, immediately receiving the rank of archbishop. Three years later he became the first apostolic nuncio to the German Weimar Republic.
Pope Pius XI named Archbishop Pacelli a cardinal in December 1929 and Vatican Secretary of State in February 1930. He held this post until Pope Pius XI died in February 1939.
Gathered in conclave to select a new pope, the cardinals elected Cardinal Pacelli after only three ballots on March 2, his 63rd birthday. He received 61 of the 62 votes. (He didn't vote for himself).
With tensions between nations already running high, peacemaking was at the top of the new pope's agenda. His coat of arms bore the image of a dove holding an olive branch in its mouth.
Pope Pius XII immediately called for an international peace conference but was ignored. With the Nazi invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, six months after his election, World War II began.
For six years, Pope Pius' work for peace was intense.
In hundreds of speeches and radio addresses in many languages, he called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. He tried to forge peace through personal involvement in the Vatican's worldwide diplomatic network. And he also founded the Vatican Information Bureau to provide information on prisoners of war and missing soldiers to their families, regardless of their nationality or religion.
When the Allies bombed Rome in July 1943, Pope Pius XII went directly to the most devastated area, where he comforted the residents, administered last rites to the dying and distributed money to people whose homes had been destroyed. He also worked to defend the Jews during the Holocaust, though the extent and effectiveness of his efforts have been debated for decades (see sidebar).
Besides being a peace-builder, Pope Pius XII was also a zealous teacher of the faith. In 19 years as pontiff, he published 41 encyclical letters. Several of these were groundbreaking and historic, paving the way for teachings that would be taken up by the Second Vatican Council shortly after his death.
Mystici Corporis Christi (1943) taught that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, rather than just a human and social organization.
Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) encouraged the use of Scripture among Catholic laity and its study by Catholic scholars, including the limited use of the historical-critical method, which had been viewed with suspicion within the Church.
Mediator Dei (1947) presented a rich theology of liturgy, initiated some liturgical reforms and criticized misguided reforms that contradicted Church teaching. This encyclical shows that the teachings of Vatican II in this regard are founded in the thought of Pope Pius XII.
Pope Pius XII was only the second pope in Church history to invoke his charism of ex cathedra infallibility -- that is, his protection from error by the Holy Spirit when proclaiming a solemn teaching by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority.
On Nov. 1, 1950, after soliciting the opinions of the world's bishops, he proclaimed the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven to be Catholic dogma. In an apostolic letter, Munificentisimus Deus, he affirmed that Mary's body was taken with her soul to heaven after she had "completed the course of her earthly life." The wording left open the possibility that Mary had experienced death before her Assumption.
This important declaration was not the only sign of the Pope's intense devotion to Mary. He also consecrated the world to her Immaculate Heart in 1942 and instituted the feast of the Queenship of Mary in 1950.
Much has changed in both the Church and the world since Pope Pius XII was pontiff. But the impact of his teaching and ministry remain powerfully with us more than half a century later. TCA