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Pope Pius XII - The Italian Pope During the Second World War

  • Category(s): Modern Popes
  • Created on : 28 November 2013
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


A Pope who proudly upheld the Papacy and the Vatican during the Second World War and would not regard the Axis powers with anything but disdain.

1. Introduction

Pius (Pacelli by birth) was an Italian Priest ordained in 1899 who became Vatican Secretary of State (the most senior position in Roman Catholicism below the Pope himself) from 1930-1939. He was elected Supreme Pontiff and Holy Father on 2nd March 1939 and died on 9th October 1958, aged 82 years. His predecessor has been Pius XI – Achille Ratti – who reigned in the 1920’s and 1930’s and was distinguished by his Anti-Fascism and introduction of the Feast of Christ the King, at the end of November each year. Why did Pius XI choose Pacelli to be his Secretary of State? I say because the future Pius XII had great skill in diplomacy and knowledge of Christendom combined with a deep pastoral approach to his Priestly vocation as his papacy would bear out.

2. Why have some observers past and present sought to undermine the sanctity of this pope: Pius XII?

Probably on account of his veracity, which these writers shy away from. Pius XII’s life was dedicated to spreading the gospel and goodness. Paradoxically such figures as Pius XII can get a bad press as others seek to denigrate them, out of envy and misunderstanding of their noble and graceful features. There is no doubt contemporaries, including certain senior Jewish figures, have defended his reputation in World War II. Interestingly Pope Benedict XVI, John XXIII and Paul VI have all rallied to his support.

3. What is the main plank in the argument of derogatory criticism against Pius XII?

Essentially that he did not condemn sufficiently strongly and specifically the atrocities in the 1939-45 War, particularly the extermination of the Jews.

4. What is my reply?

We need to enter Pacelli’s frame of mind. He is not a man to state the obvious. The USA political and diplomatic arms and Britain’s – both belligerents – could do that exercise of judgementalism much better than His Holiness, as they did in the Post- War Nuremberg Trials. Pius XII had no troops, ships, aircrafts or bombs – he was a non-combatant and wisely remained neutral in this total war never to return, we devoutly intend. If he had put his Vatican State into the firing line the Germans would have occupied his Vatican City without doubt and he would conveniently have “disappeared” in Nazi hands. His moral influence, Papal dignity and priestly power would have vanished overnight. So long as Pius XII was there in Rome, as the pinnacle, Catholics in Germany and occupied Europe knew he was their ultimate representative and Christ’s Vicar and Bishop of Rome. He had to play his cards carefully or risk a total debacle.

The Papacy under Pius XII in the 1939-1945 War had to go undercover and operate covertly. Every time High Mass was offered in St Peter’s Rome during this War, by Pius XII, it was offered consciously and subconsciously for the suffering millions, alive and dead, all over the world. Even Hitler and Stalin, complete atheists, were included in these prayers at these High Masses. Like it or not Christ is the fount of all Holiness and operates in this way, through St Peter’s successor to alleviate and ameliorate the lot of the flock of the Church. Pius XII – like all Popes of modern days, the ultimate Shepherd on earth, was no different to his immediate predecessors and successors. John Paul II (Pope) was the man of great physique and the strong good Shepherd who learned his pastoral Catholicism in pre-war and wartime Poland – a country beloved by Pius XII. The main function of a priest is to offer Holy Mass for everyone’s betterment. The Pope is no different yet he has enormous prestige as Head of the Terrestrial Church, of whom Christ is the Bridegroom. Thus to throw caution to the wind and severely put at risk the safety of the Holy Father would have damaged the Church irreparably and imperilled the lives and salvation of so many worldwide. Pius XII knew Germany well in the interwar years and that the Nazis would have had no hesitation in liquidating Himself and effectively shutting down the voice of Catholicism, where it really mattered in Rome, if he had provoked Hitler unduly. Do not doubt the Masses offered by Pius XII – the Holy and Living sacrifices of Christ Himself on the Altar had enormous effect all over the world, in this world wide conflict, on a scale never seen before. The Nazis could not have cared less about these Masses. But they would stop at nothing to silence a belligerent Pius XII who had condemned their brutal annexation of Catholic and Holy Austria, when they carried out that appalling act of unlawful defiance to the Allies and the Versailles Treaty (1919), in March 1938. Hitler would not forget Pacelli’s opposition to his Anschluss when he was Vatican Secretary of State under Pius XI.

5. Conclusion

How do Pius XII’s words and deeds match up to what he should have done as Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church? There is no doubt before becoming Pope and during his papacy he condemned brutality and inhumanity, both by the spoken word and the written word, as you would expect. He knew from Rome he had to give the lead to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, such was the scale of indiscriminate suffering and slaughter, particularly in Catholic Poland. This was coming and had happened, as he realised in 1940.

What about his actions? He did order the convents in Rome to be opened to the Jews when the Panzer tanks rolled over the Brenner Pass and the German Army occupied Rome and Italy. His main deed was to keep the Vatican City intact and thereby ensure prayers and Masses continued to be said for Germany, the allied forces and the occupied zones all over the globe. His Judgement was impeccable and he was prepared to risk historical rebukes for the sake of Christ and His Church. As Christ Himself said “my Kingdom is not of this world or my armies would fight for me”. Pius XII applied that teaching in his Papacy and we can be thankful for his eternal elucidation of these gospel words. Make no error he supported the Allies but Christ pleaded to His Father on the cross “why hast though forsaken me”. Yet Christ knew His Father had not deserted Him. Pius XII did not want war and pleaded for peace in 1939. He knew he could not stop the killing singlehanded but that is why he pleaded for an end to the suffering in the same plea to the Almighty Father. Christ had made the man who instituted the sacrifice of Holy Mass.