Pope Pius XII: The Priest and the Man

From 1939 until his death in 1958, Pope Pius XII guided the Roman Catholic Church, contending with World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War and an ever-changing world. Throughout these years, those in need turned to the Church for assistance, and through his bishops and priests, Pius tried to help. Rescuers pointed to him as their inspiration, and the press hailed him a champion of the downtrodden. Yet today, scarcely 50 years after his death, few people truly “know” Pope Pius XII. 

The Church’s 262nd pope was born in Rome on March 2, 1876, as Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli. Young Eugenio was an exceptional student. He considered a career in law but decided instead to study for the priesthood. He was accepted into the Capranica and also took classes at the Gregoriana. His demanding schedule caused him to develop a hacking cough, and the family doctor warned that he was on the brink of tuberculosis. Pope Leo XIII, however, permitted Pacelli to live at home while completing his courses. He was ordained on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1899. 

Codifying Canon Law

The Church had a diplomacy-training program for exceptional young clerics, and two years after Pacelli was ordained, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri asked him to join it. Although he had wanted to be a parish pastor, the young priest went where he was needed. In 1904, Pope Pius X named Pacelli a monsignor and assigned him to work with Gasparri on the project to codify canon law. For the next decade, Pacelli served as a research aide in the office of the Congregation of Ecclesiastical Affairs. 

In 1914, Pope Pius X named Gasparri Vatican Secretary of State, and Pacelli was promoted to Secretary of the Congregation of Ecclesiastical Affairs. When World War I broke out, Pacelli and Gasparri were charged with maintaining liaison with the hierarchies on both sides and organizing a massive relief program. 

In 1917, the papal nuncio to Bavaria passed away. With Germany at the center of a war that affected most of Europe, Pope Benedict XV needed a replacement immediately. He consecrated Pacelli as bishop in a special ceremony in the Sistine Chapel, and at the same time elevated him to the rank of archbishop. He then sent Archbishop Pacelli to Bavaria. 

Pacelli became a common sight in the streets of Munich. He was there as German soldiers returned home to an economy that provided no jobs and rampant inflation. Fighting in the street eventually turned into a brief communist overthrow and the eventual evolution of Nazism. Pacelli’s nuntiature was once sprayed with machine gun fire, and another time a band of communists held him at gunpoint. Nevertheless, Pacelli was credited with helping 65,000 prisoners of war return home. In 1920 he was also appointed the first nuncio to Germany, and he established a second nunciature in Berlin. 

Cardinal and Secretary of State

In 1929, Pacelli was recalled to Rome and elevated to the cardinalate. Early the next year he was named Secretary of State. Working closely with Pope Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli opposed the expansion of nationalistic politics, particularly in Italy and Germany. In 1933 he negotiated on behalf of the Vatican for an agreement that was instrumental in protecting Catholic interests in Germany. While this concordat was controversial, it gave the Holy See standing to object to Nazi abuses, and it prevented priests from being forced to join the Nazi party (as many Protestant pastors had to do). 

Pope Pius XI put great faith in Cardinal Pacelli. At a time when such travel was rare, he sent Pacelli to France, Hungary, the United States and Buenos Ares on his behalf. He said: “Pacelli speaks with my voice.” By the time Pope Pius XI passed away in 1939, Cardinal Pacelli had been groomed to take over. His election was welcomed in virtually every nation except Germany. 

Opposition to Nazi Ideology

In his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, the new Pope Pius XII made clear his opposition to Nazi ideology. He wrote that, in the Church, “there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free. But Christ is all and in all.” Just weeks after German tanks had rolled into Warsaw, he wrote of “our dear Poland, which, for its fidelity to the Church, for its services in the defense of Christian civilization. . .has a right to the generous and brotherly sympathy of the whole world.” 

Members of the German High Command considered overthrowing Hitler and installing a new government. They recruited an envoy to ask the Pope to help broker an agreement with the British. Pius dictated a letter to the British leadership declaring that he was ready to intervene for reasonable peace terms. He also forwarded information about German troop movements. Unfortunately, the Allies did not act quickly, and the plan collapsed. Pius, however, had done his part. 

As the Bishop of Rome, that city was particularly close to Pius’s heart. He first tried to keep Italy out of the war. When that failed, he sought assurances from both sides that they would not bomb the Italian capital. Yet bombs fell on Rome several times, including a heavy raid on the morning of Monday, July 19, 1943. Pius watched from a window as waves of bombers dropped their explosives. After the bombing stopped, he went to the streets to comfort the injured, administer last rites, and provide necessities to those in need. One month later, when the district of San Giovanni was bombed, he was again among the first on the scene. 

Encouraged Separate Peace

Pius encouraged the Italian leadership to seek a separate peace with the Allies, but Mussolini would not hear of it. King Victor Emmanuel III deposed Mussolini in July 1943. Hitler, sensing that the King might seek an accord with the Allies, sent his troops into Italy and occupied the capital of his principal ally. 

On Sept. 26, 1943, Nazi officials demanded 50 kilograms of gold from the Roman Jewish community. Otherwise, the deportations would begin. When the community was unable to come up with the full amount, Chief Rabbi Israel Zolli went to the Vatican. When he explained the situation, Pius offered an open-ended loan of any amount needed. The community eventually raised the money on its own, but Zolli, who was sheltered by the Church during the occupation, converted to Catholicism after the war, taking Eugenio as his Christian name. 

Despite the ransom being paid, within a month the Gestapo arrested almost 2,000 Jews. Pius engaged in frantic diplomatic efforts that contributed to the release of almost half of them. It is commonly estimated that the Church under Pius XII saved more than 800,000 Jews. With papal encouragement, a vast underground of priests, religious and laity throughout Europe served as a covert organization dedicated to protecting all refugees from the Nazis. Seminaries, convents, rectories and the Vatican itself became safe havens. Some former “guests” told of immediately switching from a Jewish prayer to the Ave Maria whenever there was a knock on the door. 

These efforts so enraged Hitler that he ordered preparation of a plan to invade the Vatican and kill or kidnap Pope Pius. A German official warned the Vatican about this, and Pius called the Curia together to discuss such an eventuality. Fortunately, the invasion never came to pass. 

Nine months of Nazi occupation ended in June 1944. There was a massive march to Vatican City. People streamed into the square and called for the pope, who spoke to the cheering crowd, thanking God for saving Rome. Soon thereafter he welcomed General Mark Clark and the American troops. 

After the war, Pius XII enjoyed near-universal acclaim for saving Rome and aiding European Jews. He turned his attention to trying to help people recover from the ravages of war. Papal money was sent to every war-torn nation and distributed without regard to race, creed or nationality. 

Pius had long feared that a Soviet victory would mean that Eastern Europe would fall to Communism, and much of it did. The Soviets established several satellite governments that were beholden to Moscow. In many of these areas, governments brought the Church to its knees. Pius actively worked to limit the Communist influence in Western Europe, especially in Italy. 

Spread the ‘Black Legend’

Communists fought back by spreading the “black legend” that Pope Pius XII had been silent about the Holocaust. His opposition to the Nazis had been well documented in the press, so it was not until the 1960s (after his death) that this charge gained any credence in the West. In 1963, Soviet agents helped produce and translate a play entitled “The Deputy,” which charged Pius with culpable silence. Soviet agents fomented debate so that, as Thomas Merton wrote, “The Deputy” became “a systematic attack on the papacy aimed at discrediting the Church herself.” The false idea of an uncaring wartime pope took hold and it remains today. 

Extraordinarily Accessible

Until failing health forced him to restrict his activities, Pius XII was extraordinarily accessible. He celebrated more public Masses and held more private audiences than any of his recent predecessors had, and each week he held a special audience just for newlyweds. He also used television and radio to reach out directly to the people.

During his pontificate, Pius expanded and internationalized the Church by creating 57 new bishoprics, 45 of them in America and Asia. He also caused the percentage of Italians in the College of Cardinals to drop to less than half, paving the way for the eventual election of a non-Italian Pope. He replaced colonial bishops with native hierarchies, approved the “Dialogue Mass,” and relaxed communion fast rules. 

As an ardent devotee of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Pius consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart in 1942, and he established the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1945. In December 1949, Pius formally recognized the ecumenical movement and permitted Catholic scholars to dialogue with non-Catholics on matters of faith.  

That same year the Holy Office issued a decree stating that incorporation into the Catholic Church was not necessary for salvation. In 1950, Pius issued an ex cathedra proclamation defining the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. 

Pius XII’s most memorable document on the priestly life, Menti Nostrae (1950), called on priests to rediscover the life of holiness through prayer:  

The first striving of a priestly soul should be toward the closest union with the Divine Redeemer, toward the complete and humble acceptance of the precepts of Christian doctrine, and toward such a diligent application of those precepts at every moment of his life that his faith will illumine his conduct and his conduct will be a reflection of his faith.  

. . .Strive with all your strength to reproduce it in yourselves, and recall His words of exhortation: “For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you also should do.” 

Pope Pius encouraged Catholic nuns to study theology, Scripture, and psychology. He even considered calling a council which might have completely changed the face of the Church, but he ultimately decided against it due to the complexities and expense involved. His work, however, encouraged Pope John XXIII, to convene the Second Vatican Council. As others have concluded: without Pacelli, Vatican II would have been unthinkable. 

Jewish Leaders Paid Tribute

Pope Pius XII died on Oct. 9, 1958. Messages of condolence poured in from all around the globe. He was praised for his courage and his compassion. Jewish leaders, in particular, paid tribute for all he had done to save victims of the Holocaust. The Jewish Post & News (Winnipeg) echoed the sentiments of many when it noted: “There probably was not a single ruler of our generation who did more to help the Jews in their hour of greatest tragedy.” 

Looking back today, we can say that in the midst of the 20th century’s most horrific crisis, Pope Pius XII was a true and sure defender of the Church and protector of humanity. Historians at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints have concluded that he led a life of “heroic virtue.” He has been declared venerable, and the cause of his beatification is still underway. TP

MR. RYCHLAK is a lawyer, jurist, author and political commentator. He is the Associate Dean For Academic Affairs and the Mississippi Defense Lawyers Association Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, and is known for his published works, career as an attorney, and writings on the role of Pope Pius XII in World War II.