Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini, the 93-year-old president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Health Workers, spoke with CNA on January 28 about his personal experience with Pope Pius XII and how his example moved him to save Jews during World War II. He expressed his "great joy" and "satisfaction without limits" at Pope Benedict's recent declaration of Pius XII as Venerable.
In what he called the "dawn" of his priesthood, during "the Great War," Cardinal Angelini lived through the bombings of Rome as an assistant pastor in a Roman parish, a position that gave rise to his first contact with Pope Pius XII.
"Among the living and the dead, in the midst of the rubble, that is how I found him for the first time," the cardinal told CNA. "There he was. The Holy Father approached and I admired immediately the greatness of his character, the greatness of his spirit, of a pastor not only endeared, but tied to the souls of the entire world, but in that moment present to his Roman faithful."
The Pope had left his Vatican residence that day to survey the damage of Allied bombardments on the Nazi-occupied city and to be present among the people. He did so, added the cardinal, "before the sirens had ceased," thus risking being caught in the middle of another air raid.
He said that what he witnessed in Pope Pius XII were the actions of "a true man."
In him, related the cardinal, he saw "a heart, a soul, an intelligence, an emotion, a love, (and) that he interpreted and lived the grief of others.
"The Pope gave the impression of being disposed to giving his life to save the people and the people prayed for him, and I, in the midst of the people, prayed with the Pope."
This was the Cardinal Angelini's first experience with Pope Pius XII, but they got to know each other through various initiatives he was involved in as a priest.
According to the prelate, their bond is a lasting one.
"As I have always remained faithful to him," said the cardinal, signaling to a bronze bust of the late-Pope resting on a table behind his office desk, "he never leaves me, and I will never leave him."
The Holy Father called on him years later to work with promoting health care in the city, a spiritual jurisdiction in Rome which the cardinal called "a diocese within a diocese." Then-Father Angelini performed so well in his position that he was consecrated a bishop at 40 years of age. This set him on the path to be chosen to head the Pontifical Council for Health Workers at its establishment by Pope John Paul II in 1985.
Reflecting on the lasting influence of Pius XII on his life, Cardinal Angelini shared that from the late Holy Father, he "learned everything that a modest priest could learn from the Supreme Pontiff of the Vicar of Christ," citing specific lessons he learned in "the life of prayer, sacrifice, moral rectitude, loyalty to the church and love of poverty."
"I also admired his spirit of simplicity and... poverty," added the cardinal after relating the story of having seen the basic conditions in which Pius XII personally lived.
In addition, the prelate expressed his admiration for "the heroism of faith that he had... the heroism he had in the face of the truth, in affirming the truth and in defending the truth."
Speaking of the Pope's role during World War II, the cardinal referred to him as the "defensor civitatis, the defender of the city" who "flung himself against the enemies not only of Rome but of Christ and peace."
"To state today that the Pope did not have the courage to speak," continued Cardinal Angelini emphatically, "means not recognizing Pope Pacelli even in a photograph, because he was not a man of half measures, he was not a man of arrangements, but he was a man of 'yes' (and) 'no.' "
The cardinal explained that he risked his own life to follow the example set by Pope Pius XII, "hiding Jews, accompanying them in the street" and transporting Jewish possessions by truck to safe places out of the reach of the Germans. He said they were "driven, also moved by his example, by his words" to save the Jews.
Saying that he has read about the possible miracle involving Pope Pius XII under investigation by a diocese in southern Italy, Cardinal Angelini said that although he didn't know whether it was true, "It wouldn't be a surprise, no surprise."
At the conclusion of the interview, he also recalled his reaction to the news that Pope Benedict had declared Pius XII "venerable" on December 19, 2009. The news brought him "great joy” and “a satisfaction without limits," the cardinal said, reiterating that it was "no surprise” to him. "The only surprise,” he added, “is that it took so long."
On Feb. 3, Cardinal Angelini will celebrate the 70th anniversary of his priestly ordination.