She now is with God, but years ago an elderly nun who once taught Church history in a Catholic college told me that Pope Pius XII, who governed the Church from 1939 to 1958, did not get his due. She regarded him as one of the most important pontiffs in the 20th century, a time characterized by great popes.
Her opinion came back to me recently, and was confirmed, when I watched on EWTN a panel discussion featuring four theology professors from the Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), including Dr. Scott Hahn.
It was fascinating. Usually, people think that Blessed Pope John XXIII brought into being the Second Vatican Council, almost as if the Holy Spirit whispered in his ear one day.
Vatican II, however, in many respects, belonged to Pope Pius XII, although he died four years before its first session convened. In fact, the council’s 14 documents quote Pope Pius XII more often than any other source, except Scripture itself.
He had wanted a council, but World War II and the Cold War caused him to pause before taking the step.
Actually, World War II laid a pall across many aspects of Pius’ extraordinary papacy, but it did not keep him from reflecting and writing. Hahn mentioned on EWTN that Pius XII wrote no fewer than 40 encyclicals, a record no other pope has yet surpassed. His encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (“Inspired by the Divine Spirit”) put Catholic biblical scholars at the front of Scripture study. His encyclical Mediator Dei (“On the Sacred Liturgy”) set the stage for the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Mystici Corporis(“On the Mystical Body of Christ”) was a keystone of the council’s profound teaching about the nature of the Church.
Not only did his writings influence so many pronouncements of Vatican II, but he was the first pontiff to address medical-moral ethics in any modern sense. Soon after the war he totally revised the liturgies of Holy Week, making available to Catholics — including us today — the breathtaking ceremonies of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter that had been amended, some virtually to the point of extinction, for centuries.
Pope Pius XII relentlessly reminded Catholics, and the world, of the threat to civilization posed by communism. His opposition to communism was not simply political. He warned that any system that rejected God outright could bring nothing good, and incredible harm, to people. Communism, thank God, now virtually is a thing of the past, except in pockets here and there. The pope’s advice about removing God from life is well worth considering today, however.
He had a great vision of the universality of the Church. When he was elected, most of the cardinals were Italians. Wanting to bring Catholics across the world into the process, he nominated the first cardinals from Cuba, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, India, China, Armenia, Croatia and southern Africa, and named more cardinals from the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina. He honored heroes of resistance to Nazism and communism by giving them Red Hats.
Sadly, outrageously, the great legacy of Pope Pius XII has suffered because of charges that he looked the other way as millions of Jews were slaughtered under Adolf Hitler. The charges have gone so far into the public mind that many believe the pope actively abetted this terrifying chain of events. It is nauseating.
Thank God that more and more experts in history are coming forward to denounce these charges. Pope Pius XII did much to rescue Jews. Remember that.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.