By Cardinal Justin Rigali
“Pius XII was the most warmly humane, kindly, generous, sympathetic (and, incidentally, saintly) character that it has been my privilege to meet in the course of a long life.” So wrote Sir D’Arcy Osborne, British Minister to the Holy See during World War II and a non‑Catholic, to the London Times on May 20, 1963.
October 9 is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XII. Pope Benedict will celebrate a Memorial Mass for him in Saint Peter’s Basilica on October 5 and he has said: “It is my great hope that this year, which marks the fiftieth anniversary of my venerated predecessor’s death, will provide the opportunity to promote in‑depth studies of various aspects of his life and works” (Address, 18 September 2008). In light of these facts, I thought it would be opportune this week to reflect briefly on the life of him who was called “Pastor Angelicus,” the Angelic Shepherd.
Pius XII was pope during an extraordinary period in human history (1939‑1958). He was elected on the eve of World War II and he served through to the atomic age and Cold War. The volume of his talks and writings is incredible. He wrote 43 encyclicals during his pontificate, gave numerous discourses on a wide variety of subjects and his body of teaching is quoted repeatedly in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
The entire life of Eugenio Pacelli, as he was known before his election, seemed to be a preparation for his becoming a successor of Saint Peter. Born into a noble Roman family, he was ordained a priest in 1899. After completing further studies in Canon and Roman law, he became a Professor of Law at the Roman Seminary and was also assigned to work in the Secretariat of State.
During the First World War, he was sent to Bavaria as the Pope’s representative, or Nuncio. During this period, he transmitted appeals for peace from Pope Benedict XV (1914‑1922) and was especially effective in many fields of charity towards prisoners of war and the wounded of all the various armies. He later became the Pope’s representative to all of Germany, acquiring in the twelve years he spent in that country a great affection for the German people.
Pope Pius XI (1922‑1939) recalled him to Rome in 1929, created him Cardinal and shortly thereafter named him his Secretary of State. In that role, he made several extended journeys outside of Rome, which was unusual for a Papal Secretary of State at that time. In the course of these journeys, which included a visit to the United States (including Philadelphia) in 1936, he not only represented the Pope but also acquired a profound knowledge of the conditions of the Church in various parts of the world. With the death of Pope Pius XI in 1939, as the world teetered on the brink of war, Cardinal Pacelli was elected Pope on March 2, his sixty‑third birthday, taking the name Pius XII.
Appeals for peace
The new Pope’s first efforts were taken up in appealing for peace. “As a diplomat, Pius XII saw war approaching and instructed the papal representatives to Germany, Italy, France, Poland and England to learn whether mediation by the Pope would be considered. He tried to awaken in world leaders the full realization of what they were about to do” (Shepherd of Souls, Margherita Marchione, p. 54). Pope Pius followed this appeal with a radio message, broadcast to the entire world, in which his words had the ring of a prophecy. He said: “Nothing is lost with peace; all can be lost with war” (Radio message, 24 August 1939). The devastation visited upon the world in the six years of war which followed this appeal made the pope’s prediction all too accurate.
He asked the bishops in the countries affected by war to remain at their posts. When there was a real possibility of his being kidnapped by the Nazis during their occupation of Rome, a possibility confirmed when Nazi documents were unsealed, he followed his own instruction and refused to leave Rome. He gathered the Cardinals resident in Rome, absolved them of their responsibility to share his fate and instructed them that if he were captured or killed they were to gather wherever they could and elect his successor. He was faced with the agonizing plight of trying to remain neutral so that he could serve all alike, Catholic and non‑Catholic, while condemning the horrors of war.
The magisterium of Pius XII
The expression magisterium refers to the body of teaching Pius XII transmitted during his nineteen years as Pope. Although one third of his papacy was overshadowed by war, he did not neglect his other responsibilities as teacher and shepherd. In the very midst of war, as a way of reminding a world so caught up in the physical that there was also a spiritual aspect to life, Pius wrote his great Encyclical on the Church: Mystici Corporis. The theology contained in this Encyclical’s explanation of the nature of the Church was completely incorporated into the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium).
Pius XII made clear that the lay faithful are an integral part of the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Catholic Church, and reminded all that “if at times, there appears in the Church something that indicates the weakness of our human nature, it should not be attributed to her constitution, but rather to that regrettable inclination to evil found in each inspanidual, which her spanine Founder permits even at times in the highest members of His Mystical Body, for the purpose of testing the virtue of the Shepherds no less than of the flocks, and that all may increase the merit of their Christian faith” (Mystici Corporis, 62). In other major encyclicals, Pius XII addressed errors concerning the origin of man and original sin (Humani Generis) and the nature of the Sacred Liturgy (Mediator Dei). In his Encyclical on Scripture (spanino Afflante Spiritu), he introduced new norms for the study of the Bible and urged scholars to study the Scriptures in their original languages and allowed for the historical setting of texts of Scripture to be taken into account when analyzing their meaning. He also encouraged greater use of the Bible in sermons and programs of education for adults.
In 1950, having consulted the bishops of the world, he used his infallible authority to proclaim as a dogma of faith the constant teaching of the Church that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (Munificentissimus Deus, 44).
In the face of advances made in the field of science, he clarified the teaching of the Church concerning the use of “extraordinary means” to prolong life and enunciated the principles by which forms of natural family planning could be used.
Pope Pius XII and the Liturgy
In addition to his Encyclical on the Liturgy, Pius initiated a number of far reaching reforms. He reduced the Eucharistic fast from midnight to three hours before receiving Holy Communion for food and one hour for drink, allowing water to be taken at any time. He permitted Mass to be celebrated in the evening and he restored the Liturgy of Holy Week so that it would be once again celebrated at times of the day appropriate to the mysteries being commemorated, instead of early in the morning. He simplified the rubrics of the Mass and spanine Office and gave to priests the faculty of administering the Sacrament of Confirmation in emergency situations.
Pope Pius XII and the Jewish people
Both during and after the Second World War and at the time of his death, Pope Pius XII was universally praised, especially by representatives of the Jewish community, for the assistance he and the Catholic Church had given to the Jewish people in their dark hours of need. We can quote a brief summary here: “Rabbi Elio Toaff, Chief Rabbi of Rome, said after the death of the Pope: ‘More than anyone else, we have had the opportunity to appreciate the great kindness, filled with compassion and magnanimity, that the Pope displayed during the terrible years of persecution and terror, when it seemed that there was no hope left for us.’ At the United Nations, Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mrs. Golda Meir, said: ‘We share the grief of the world over the death of His Holiness Pius XII. 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 to commiserate with their victims.’ Dr. Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote in his letter of condolence on Pope Pius’ death: ‘With special gratitude we remember all he has done for the persecuted Jews during one of the darkest periods in their entire history.'” (A Question of Judgement: Pius XII and the Jews, Doctor Joseph Lichten, Jewish Virtual Library). The Chief Rabbi of Rome during the War, Israel Zolli, actually became a Catholic as a result of the charity Pope Pius XII had shown to his people and even took the name “Eugenio” at his Baptism.
As we recall the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XII, you may wish not only to recall his memory but also read further into his activities. You may find the works of Sister Margherita Marchione, Professor Ronald J. Rychlak and Rabbi David Dalin, as well as the above quoted article by Doctor Lichten to be especially helpful.
May the “Angelic Shepherd,” who guided the Church with such wisdom and charity during such a difficult period, continue to watch over the Church and the present successor of Saint Peter.
2 October 2008