Paul VI was never one of my heroes—he was the pope of my teens and early 20s, and as a personality he made little or no personal impact on my thinking. He was just the pope: quiet, pious, dignified, and presumably getting on with papal activity in a quiet, pious, and dignified way. I was, of course, aware of passionate opposition to Humanae Vitae, and also, as a journalist on a Catholic weekly, encountered the occasional ill-printed leaflet denouncing him, produced by extreme right-wing groups, sede vacantists, and/or conspiracy theorists. And there was a group announcing that he had been kidnapped and replaced by a doppelganger; you could tell it wasn’t the real pope by looking at his ears. However, most ordinary Catholics just saw Paul as a good man, doing perhaps the most testing job in the world.
And then when he went to God, we had the drama of the election and loss of John Paul I, and the election of John Paul II—and we moved into a new era. It was exciting—no other word for it—being a Catholic writer/broadcaster/lay activist in the era of St. John Paul the Great, and I look back with gratitude.
But my understanding of Paul VI underwent a dramatic change a few years ago, when I started to research the topic of Pius XII and the Jews in Rome in World War II.
I was working on a book, since published, about Mother Riccarda Hambrough, one of the Brigettines who helped to re-found the Order with Mother Elisabeth Hesselblad at the start of the 20th century. Mother Riccarda—born Catherine Hambrough in 1887, baptized Madeleine when her parents converted to the Catholic Church four years later—joined the Order in Rome in 1911, taking the name Riccarda in honor of the English Brigettine martyr St. Richard Reynolds. By the 1930s the Brigettines were running a successful guest house and retreat center in the Piazza Farnese, in the original 14th century house where St. Birgitta of Sweden had lived when in Rome. When the Germans took over Rome in World War II, and Jewish lives were in danger, the Brigettines successfully hid a number of Jewish people in the house—part of a massive rescue campaign in which some 80 percent of the Jews in Italy escaped slaughter.
It was an unforgettable experience to sit in the Casa di Brigida—still today a popular guest-house—talking to an elderly Jewish gentleman who, as a teenager, lived there with his mother, uncle, and other relatives. His personal story began with his mother’s friendship with Mother Elisabeth and the latter’s willing offer of help to the family into the house when danger threatened. He remembered the kindness of Mother Elisabeth and of Mother Riccarda, and the latter’s absolute conviction that the British would win the war. He also remembered the hunger, the soups made from whatever scraps of food were available—“I used the wonder if perhaps Mother Riccarda went out into the piazza and gathered herbs and leaves, because sometimes that’s all there seemed to be in the soup” —and the relief, in late 1944, when French troops arrived and hammered on the door, calling out that they were under command of General de Gaulle and that freedom was at hand.
But what I had not known until I researched the story were the details of the organized hiding of so many Jewish people across Rome, in convents and monasteries, in Castel Gandolfo and in private homes.
And while main credit must go to Pius XII—who received massive gratitude from the Jewish community and the state of Israel in the years after the war—the detailed work, the running-around on discreet errands, and the passing on of secret messages were down to his assistant, Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini. By the time Montini became Pope Paul VI in the mid-1960s, the years of World War II seemed distant: people were interested in the Second Vatican Council, in new debates about liturgy and ecumenism, and the Church’s role in the modern era. A whole chapter of Paul VI’s earlier life was ignored and is only now emerging as biographers and commentators take the longer view.
In World War II, hiding people in religious houses wasn’t done via a broadcast on Vatican Radio, or a general letter inviting religious superiors to attend a planning meeting in the Vatican. This was wartime, under Nazi occupation. Things were achieved in secret conversations, notes passed in carefully-worded language, quick errands run by a monsignor hurrying with a message. Msgr. Montini was involved in dangerous work; he and all who helped to hide Jews took risks, and knew they were doing so.
Pius XII was emphatic that all Jews must be helped—there was to be no question of urging them to become Christians, or setting other limits. Msgr. Carroll-Abbing, who was running Boys Town in Italy during the war, met with the pope several times through his rescue work and would later recall, “Most of the Jews under my care were unbaptised and committed Jews…they wanted to continue to practice their faith while in hiding and the Pope explicitly told me: ‘Do what is necessary enable them to continue to practice their faith according to their sacred Jewish rites’” (quoted in The Pius War, Lexington Books, Lanham, Maryland 2010, p.135). Pius XII sent a personal letter to convents and monasteries formally lifting their usual cloister rules so that Jewish families could be hidden there—this meant, for example, that nuns could care for men as well as for women and children within their convents, which was how the Piperno family could be hidden by the Brigettines.
The help for Jews had begun before the war, when things were already beginning to look dangerous in Italy; in 1938 Msgr. Montini telephoned Dr. Guido Mendes, a Jewish longtime friend of Pius XII, to ask if he needed help, and the family was provided with Vatican documents enabling them to get to Switzerland.
As pope, Paul VI brought the Second Vatican Council to a successful conclusion: its documents include the famous Nostra Aetate statement of religious toleration and of respect for the Jewish people. Back in 1955, as a monsignor he was offered an honor from a visiting Israeli delegation for his wartime help for Jews, but he refused it, saying that he had done no more than his duty and that any honor should go to Pius XII.
There were many, many stories of enormous courage in World War II, and young Msgr. Montini’s quiet acknowledgement was quite right. But it is fair for history to note his acceptance of his duty and the fact that he carried it out to the best of his ability. The courage then was echoed by courage of a different sort years later: he spoke insistently on the Church’s need to engage with the modern world in the face of endless criticism for doing so; he issued Humanae Vitae against considerable opposition; he endured shocking slanders; he faced the murder by terrorists of Prime Minister Aldo Moro, one of his closest friends for whose life he had pleaded so publicly. Even today, his memory is attacked, and groups including Archbishop Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X challenge his canonization, expected later this year. I think their successors will one day come to see that they were wrong—as they will also recognize the wrongfulness of their opposition to St. John Paul II.
My own researches revealed what I should have recognized earlier: this was a pope following a path opened by Pius XII of walking alongside the oppressed and engaging with the specific needs of a fairly grim 20th century. He suffered for that, he should be honored for that, and we can invoke his intercession as a saint in the years ahead.
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