Pope Pius XII

Young Eugenio Pacelli

Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli was born on March 2, 1876, in Rome, Italy to parents Filippo and Virginia Pacelli (nee Graziosi). Pacelli was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1899, consecrated as a bishop in 1917, and was eventually made a Cardinal in 1929. He was elected Pope by his fellow Cardinals on March 2, 1939, following the death of his predecessor, Pope Pius XI. Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, at the age of 82.

Diplomatic background

Pacelli had a good grounding in diplomatic and state affairs. He was appointed to the Vatican Secretariat of State as a priest and he represented the Vatican on a number of occasions by meeting various world leaders and dignitaries. He was involved in the Vatican’s negotiations and interventions that tried to bring World War I to an end. He was familiar with Germany and German politics because he lived there for several years as Apostolic Nuncio (a diplomatic post in the Vatican that is equivalent to an ambassador) between 1920 and 1929. He was also involved in diplomatic negotiations between the Vatican and the Soviet Union to try to resolve the persecution of the Church in Russia.

Pacelli was made a Cardinal in December of 1929 by Pope Pius XI. Soon after, in February of 1930, he was appointed Cardinal Secretary of State, which is responsible for the Vatican’s foreign policy and foreign relations. On behalf of the Vatican he negotiated four treaties (concordats) with the German states in attempts to reinstate the Church’s authority in the area of education and freedom of association and publication by and within the Church in Germany. One of these treaties was the Reichsconcordat signed in 1933, when Adolf Hitler was Chancellor of Germany. This treaty was controversial because of its timing. Many critics viewed the treaty as a form of approval of the National Socialist Party in Germany. However, Pacelli himself held an anti-socialist position. Between 1933 and 1939, he protested to Germany regarding 55 violations of the treaty. Pacelli drafted an encyclical issued by Pope Pius XI in 1937 entitled Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern), which denounced the Nazi regime. It was clearly addressed to the German authorities and it was written in German rather than in the customary Latin.

World War II

Pope Pius XII
Photo by: Bundesarchiv Creative Commons

World War II broke out in 1939, the first year of Pius XII’s pontificate. He called for peace from the leaders of Europe and used his diplomatic training to try to avoid war. The Vatican observed strict impartiality during World War II just as it had done in World War I. This did not prevent Pius XII from trying to keep Mussolini’s Italy out of the war or from warning the Allies of the imminent invasion of the Low Countries in 1940.

His first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (On the Limitations of the Authority of the State), set out the importance he attached to impartiality of the Vatican and contained a strong attack on totalitarianism. Unable to prevent war, Pius XII used a series of radio broadcasts to urge peace and to condemn the evils of modern warfare. Although expressing sympathy for the innocent victims, he did not go so far as to condemn the Nazis outright. He was wary of reprisals of further violence against those already suffering at the hands of the Nazi regime as had happened earlier when Dutch bishops had publicly criticized its actions. More Jews were subsequently deported from Holland than from any other western country.

Life-Saving Initiatives

Despite the Vatican’s careful neutrality, there were a number of initiatives undertaken by the Pope which have been credited with saving many thousands of lives. Pius XII established the Vatican Information Service to help refugees and instructed the Church to provide discreet aid to the Jews, thereby saving many lives. Many Jews were able to take refuge in church buildings, including the Pope’s own summer residence, Castel Gondolfo. He brokered the release of some Roman Jews rounded up in 1943, although most were sent to Auschwitz. He was instrumental in obtaining the entry into South America of many Jews who had converted and took personal responsibility for the care of children of Italian Jews deported from Italy. After he secretly intervened when a boatload of Jewish refugees heading for Palestine was refused permission to land in Istanbul and held prisoner in Rhodes, they were transferred to a camp in southern Italy where they were found safe in 1943. He invited Jews to join the Vatican Palatine Guards to enable them to stay in Vatican City (their numbers swelled from about 400 to about 4,000).

Controversy and Praise

Pope Pius XII in Regalia

Critics of Pius XII have denounced him for his perceived lack of action to oppose Hitler’s Nazi regime and its actions against and large scale extermination of Jewish people. As evidence, they cite his decision to not openly condemn Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, seeing this as anti-Semitic behavior implicitly condoning the Holocaust. In recent years, he has been vilified by Jewish academics and commentators for the actions they believe he could and should have taken.

Pius XII’s supporters, however, have hailed him as a champion of peace whose diplomacy and actions during World War II have been misunderstood and misinterpreted. By way of evidence, they point to his desire to broker peace, to avoid further harm, to be able to help more Jews by not bringing down further retaliation from the Nazi regime, and to have Vatican City as a refuge. They see his insistence on impartiality as being a sign of fairness rather than the indifference attributed to him by his critics.

He was praised by Jewish leaders of the time and subsequent commentators for his actions, including Jewish physicist Albert Einstein and Golda Meir, then Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs. It appears that most criticism has occurred in relatively recent years rather than the time during World War II itself and shortly thereafter, when Pius XII was held in high esteem by Jews and Christians alike.

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