Fifty-three years ago this month, Pope Pius XII passed away.
On the 50th anniversary, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, celebrated Mass to mark the occasion and gave a thoughtful homily.
A noble tribute to possibly our time’s most maligned man.
A great man, hailed as a hero in his time—personally responsible, in the estimation of Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide for the rescue of some 860,000 Jews during the Nazi persecution of Europe—has been defamed in death as a coward or Nazi sympathizer by those aiming to harm the Church.
Rabbi David Dalin has done yeoman’s work rehabilitating Pius XII, calling him “a righteous gentile” in a series of articles, and publishing a carefully documented book on the subject: “The Myth of Hitler's Pope: Pope Pius XII And His Secret War Against Nazi Germany.”
We know where the lie began: a German playwright who was also a Communist sympathizer penned “The Deputy” in 1963, which claimed that the Church was responsible for the holocaust because Pius XII was so focused on defeating Communism he ignored Nazism. Soviet propaganda also promoted the “black legend.”
No one who actually lived through the war and remembered Pius’ actions could believe such a thing; but younger people fell for the lie—even many Catholics.
I’ve adored Pius XII since reading a biography of him years ago.
His courage, prudence, heroism and sanctity during the war years are slowly being rediscovered, but I can’t wait for his writings to be re-examined, in particular his teaching on the role of women (to whom he must have given great thought, since he defined the dogma of the Assumption and proclaimed the Queenship of Mary).
Pope Benedict said of him, in a passage especially powerful when we recall that Benedict himself was witness to these things:
“…once [Rome] was occupied, he was repeatedly advised to leave the Vatican to safeguard himself, his answer was always the same and decisive: ‘I will not leave Rome and my place, even at the cost of my life.’
“His relatives and other witnesses refer furthermore to privations regarding food, heating, clothes and comfort, to which he subjected himself voluntarily in order to share in the extremely trying conditions suffered by the people due to the bombardments and consequences of war. And how can we forget his Christmas radio message of December 1942? In a voice breaking with emotion he deplored the situation of ‘the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline,’ a clear reference to the deportation and extermination of the Jews.”
“[Pius] often acted secretly and silently because, in the light of the concrete realities of that complex historical moment, he saw that this was the only way to avoid the worst and save the largest possible number of Jews. His interventions, at the end of the war and at the time of his death, received numerous and unanimous expressions of gratitude from the highest authorities of the Jewish world, such as, for example, the Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir, who wrote: ‘During the ten years of Nazi terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and commiserate with their victims’; ending emotionally: ‘We mourn a great servant of peace.’”
Benedict’s conclusion is striking as well, coming from someone who survived World War II.
“In this world of ours, which, like then, is assailed by worries and anguish about its future; in this world where, perhaps more than then, the distancing of many from truth and virtue allows us to glimpse scenarios without hope, Pius XII invites us to look to Mary assumed into the glory of Heaven. He invites us to invoke her faithfully, so that she will allow us to appreciate ever more the value of life on earth and help us to look to the true aim that is the destiny of all of us: that eternal life that, as Jesus assures us, already belongs to those who hear and follow his word.”
The internet has made the cliche about a lie traveling “round the world before the truth puts its boots” on true on a daily basis.
Maybe the take-home message of Pope Pius XII is: even in the media age, the Lord still sees not as man sees, for man looks on the outward appearance, while the Lord looks on the heart.
Or perhaps he simply invites us to reflect: how quickly what “everyone knows” changes, and with what little cause.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.