Pius XII: The Pope of Charity

Pope Pius XII visits the San Lorenzo neighborhood in Rome in this undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy of Knights of Columbus)

Pope Pius XII was in the spotlight during a recent symposium in Rome, “Pius XII, the Pope of Charity.” The event, which took place on March 12, was organized by the Comitato Papa Pacelli – Associazione Pio XII and its president, Emilio Artiglieri—a lawyer of the Roman Rota—in conjunction with the Pontifical Lateran University.

Among other things, the symposium was aimed at celebrating the 75th anniversary of the election of Eugenio Pacelli to the chair of Peter as Pius XII (on March 2, 1939), and presenting Artiglieri’s book Pius XII, the Pope of Charity (Velar Publishing Company, Bergamo, 2013). Artiglieri’s work is a handy biography of Pius XII, particularly important—in the words of Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who presided over the proceedings and authored the foreword to the book—for having so brilliantly and effectively managed to recount, despite the limited space, “the most characteristic and human aspects of Pope Pacelli’s multifaceted and so rich personality, offering us a detailed valuable picture of this shining protagonist of our recent past.”

In his foreword, the senior prelate further states that “prudence” and “simplicity” are the two key concepts necessary to fully appreciate the real caliber of this “man of God,” who did all that was possible (and even impossible) against the evil of his time.

For his part these concepts and their implications were echoed by Bishop Enrico dal Covolo, rector of the Lateran and postulator of the cause of John Paul I. In his welcoming address to the participants in the symposium, Bishop Dal Covolo further elaborated on them by pointing out that “prudence” and “simplicity” always “guided any decisions taken by Pius XII, most of all in one of the darkest and most dreadful periods of mankind’s history.” His decisions were the obvious outcome of a commitment that, if pursued till the ultimate consequences, “make us experience what ‘losing one’s life’ means” in the evangelical sense. He was saying this, he went on, for the historical witness of Pius XII “to be for all of us an incentive ‘to review’ our position in history, since we are all called ‘to lose our own life’ because of the Gospel.” The senior prelate concluded with the hope that this concise biography would not only put in historical perspective this great pope’s pontificate, but also shed light on other aspects of his legacy, namely his steadfastness in pursuing peace and justice, as well as his humble, immense charity and extraordinary wisdom.

This latest symposium promoting the cause of Pius XII focused on a number of aspects of this charity, as evidenced in the very titles of his biography, the related event, and most of the speeches delivered.

For example, Father Marc Lindeijer, SJ, who is assistant general postulator of Jesuit Sainthood Causes, cites four eyewitnesses to described how Venerable Pope Pius XII constantly and, one can rightly say, even heroically practiced the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. These witnesses were his butler Giovanni Stefanori, who met Pacelli in 1909; Sister Maria Conrada Grabmair, who was responsible for the cooking and cleaning of the papal apartment from 1938 to 1958; Jesuit Guglielmo Hentrich, for 16 years (1942-1958) a member of the papal private secretariat; and Cesidio Lolli of L’Osservatore Romano, who, after the election of Pope Pacelli, used to be received by him at least two or three times a week to submit drafts of speeches that were to be published in the newspaper.

Pius XII in his everyday life had to endure pestering people and forgive offenses, a reality that goes a long way toward refuting the umpteenth anti-Catholic “black legend” of a papal court where the pontiff was a haughty, snobbish person living in the splendid isolation of his ivory tower, detached from real life. Pope Pacelli’s admirable heroism, Father Lindeijer contended, certainly also applied to the way he endured the calumnies and slanders of Nazis and Communists. In this regard, he often used to say: “I don’t care for my person, but I must act for the reputation of the Church not to remain tainted” (L’Osservatore Romano, March 12, 2014).

Another speaker, Belgian scholar and permanent deacon Dominiek Oversteyns, perhaps for the first time gave a detailed account of the number of the Jews in Rome who were saved by the actions of Pius XII.

Persecuted Jews in Rome during the Second World War were a group well-defined and quantifiable. In the eight months from the raid of October 16, 1943 to the liberation of Rome on June 4, 1944, they were estimated to number at least 9,926 (with some 8,000 Rome natives) and nobody, Oversteyns argued, could have remained indifferent to their fate, much less the bishop of Rome. “According to a vast literature and historical research in the archives of religious institutions,” he said, “we can say that the Church of Rome indeed has not remained indifferent, on the contrary, thanks to her more than half of the Roman Jews could survive the Nazi persecution.”

According to available figures, 1,697 Jews were killed in various circumstances, with only 117 Jews surviving the deportations. Of the 8,112 Jews who remained in Rome, 4,169 found refuge in at least 234 monasteries, 344 in the Roman pontifical colleges and parishes, and 161 in the Vatican, while 1,670 Jews survived under the protection of Delasem in private homes in Rome. Delasem stands for Delegazione per l’Assistenza degli Emigranti Ebrei (Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants) and was a Jewish resistance organization that worked in Italy between 1939 and 1947, which Pius XII himself supported with food and money.

To sum it all up, Oversteyns stated that of the above 9,926 Jews, 64 percent were in one way or another helped by Pope Pius XII. Despite several attempts, the Pope could not stop the raids, but certainly managed to save many Jews from deportation. In particular, the Belgian scholar noted, the Pope’s effective strategy was adopted with charity and prudence, in the very limited room of action left to him by the Germans, and essentially consisted of forming small groups of Jews to be hidden in many different places, so that the probability of saving them was the greatest.

The speaker also recalled that Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome, praised “the great compassionate goodwill and generosity of the Pope” during the persecution. In fact, Toaff said that the Jewish community of Rome was convinced “that what has been done by the clergy, the religious institutions and Catholic associations to protect the persecuted cannot have been done unless expressly approved by Pius XII.”

Toaff’s predecessor, Israel Zolli (1881-1956), went much further. Zolli, Chief Rabbi of Rome from 1939 to 1945, converted to Catholicism after the war ended, taking the name Eugenio Maria Zolli in honor of Pope Pius XII, who was born Eugenio Pacelli. Historians generally agree that this decision was motivated in part by the gratitude for and admiration of what the Pontiff did for the Jews in Rome under such trying circumstances.

Another specific aspect of the Pontiff’s wide-ranging charity was what Professor Giulio Alfano of the Lateran’s department of philosophy termed “political charity,” which essentially resulted in the full support given to the Comitati Civici (Civic Committees) to mobilize Catholic consensus and thus fend off the Communist threat at the crucial April 18, 1948 general election, the first democratic election following the downfall of fascism.

As aptly recalled by Prof. Alfano, the terms agreed upon in the 1929 Lateran Pacts, or Concordat, between the Holy See and the Italian state—at that time under the Mussolini-led fascist government—were, in 1947, incorporated into the democratic Constitution of Italy. Those terms stipulated that the lay arm of Italy’s Catholic Church, Azione Cattolica (Catholic Action), was not allowed to directly enter the political fray. Therefore Pius XII had the brilliant idea of resorting to Luigi Gedda, medical doctor and president of Gioventù Italiana di Azione Cattolica (Italian Youth of Catholic Action), whom he had establish the Comitati Civici nationwide. They were established on February 8, 1948, and within a few weeks their number grew to more than 20,000. Their rapid spread around the country was made possible by the financial and organizational support they were granted by the episcopate, as well as through the capillary action of their parish churches, expressly urged by the Pope.

The crucial 1948 election saw two opposing sides facing up to each other: the Christian-inspired bloc, led by the Christian Democrats, and the Fronte Democratico Popolare (Popular Democratic Front), consisting of a coalition led by the Italian Communist Party and including the Italian Socialist Party. Ultimately, the Christian Democrat-led coalition triumphed with more than 48 percent of the vote, while the opposing coalition garnered slightly less than 31 percent. The crushing defeat of the Fronte Popolare was probably also due to the Pontiff’s input for the Comitati Civici to plan the electoral campaign, and the ensuing election as a watershed option between two opposing visions, between a Christian society and an anti-Christian society.

The symposium also emphasized the all-encompassing charity of Pius XII, which could not have been more aptly and symbolically represented than by the famous picture showing him, with open arms, imploring God’s mercy for the people at San Lorenzo district, where he had rushed to bring comfort to the people still under bombardment. In his address at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday on March 28, 2013, Pope Francis said that priests should be “shepherds who have the smell of their sheep.” On that occasion in the San Lorenzo district, it was also underlined at the symposium, Pius XII did not limit himself to only have “the smell of his sheep,” but he also had “the blood of his sheep,” as was shown by his blood-stained cassock at the end of his visit. 

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About Alberto Carosa 42 Articles
Alberto Carosa is a Catholic journalist who writes from Rome, especially for US Catholic newspapers and periodicals.