This month marks the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, the bloodiest conflict in human history that claimed an astonishing 85 million human lives, the majority of them civilians. Amidst this bloody darkness, three future popes were remarkable examples of compassion, integrity, and heroism.
Between 1931 and 1934, Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope St. John XXIII, was the papal nuncio to Bulgaria, and from 1934 to 1944 he served as nuncio to Greece and Turkey. Those were difficult missions, especially since Catholics, in all three countries, were a tiny and unpopular minority. In particular Greece, where Catholics had committed many atrocities during the Crusades and whose island of Crete was for many years oppressively ruled by the Republic of Venice, has a strong tradition of anti-Catholicism.
Yet in all these places Roncalli built trust and gained friends. Invaded and occupied by Bulgaria, Italy, and Germany during World War II Greece endured a brutal occupation and crippling famine. The British blockade of food to the country only increased the Greeks’ misery. The papal nuncio was deeply affected by their plight and took specific steps to help them. During an audience with Pope Pius XII, he persuaded the pontiff to appeal to the British to allow grain to Greece. Roncalli also pleaded (without success) to the German commander of Athens to spare the lives of Greek partisans slated for execution. He worked closely with the International Red Cross to provide humanitarian aid to Greek war victims.
Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany during the War. As the Holocaust was underway in 1943, Archbishop Roncalli used his Bulgarian contacts and successfully pleaded to King Boris III to cancel planned deportations of the country’s Jews. As nuncio to Turkey, Roncalli helped Jews from across occupied Europe to secure visas to escape to Palestine through neutral Turkey and sometimes successfully intervened in various concentration camps and ghettoes to spare Jews from execution or deportation.
During his pontificate, John XXIII began the process that would radically transform the Church’s attitude towards the Jews. As pope, he removed the prayer for the conversion of the “perfidious Jews” from the Good Friday liturgy. While the greatest changes would be implemented after John XXIII’s death, such as Nostra aetate, Vatican II’s declaration on non-Christian religions, he undoubtedly set in motion the process that made such change possible.
It is a great injustice that John XXIII has yet to be recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial, as a Righteous Among the Nations, an award given to Gentiles who aided Jews during the war. Other diplomats, including Angelo Rotta, the papal nuncio to Budapest, have been distinguished as such.
As pope, John XXIII was a true builder of bridges between nations and religions. His kindness and humility made him the first celebrity pope, whose popularity extended beyond the Catholic Church, in part because of the rise of television and modern media. His conciliatory nature was on full display during the War.
Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, marked the beginning of World War II. For the next five and a half years, the country suffered terribly, losing a sixth of its population. Poland’s German masters wanted to completely exterminate its Jewish population and to partly kill off its Slavic majority. This inevitably involved the destruction of Polish culture, as Poles were to be slaves of the Nordic “master race,” and the killing of the nation’s elites.
Among the groups targeted by the Germans were Polish clergymen. Half of all Polish priests were deported to concentration camps; according to Guillaume Zeller’s fine book on clerics imprisoned at Dachau, the oldest Nazi camp, Poles made up 84 percent of the priests killed there. Paradoxically, the resulting dearth of priests influenced the future Pope John Paul II’s vocation.
During the War, Karol Wojtyła lived in the Dębniki district of Krakow with his father, who died in 1941. At that time, Wojtyła received the sacraments at the nearby Salesian parish. Because the presbytery had emptied as its priests had been shipped off to concentration camps, Jan Tyranowski, a layman and mystic, was in charge of the parish’s youth ministry program.
Tyranowski introduced the young Wojtyła to the works of Spanish mystics such as Saints John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. He encouraged the future pope to consider a vocation to the priesthood, and Wojtyła entered the illegal underground seminary (all Polish universities had been closed by German authorities) in 1942.
During the occupation of Krakow, Wojtyła was an actor in the Rhapsodic Theater, which performed classic dramas by Polish playwrights like Juliusz Słowacki and Adam Mickiewicz. Wojtyła and his friends celebrated Polish culture, banned by the Germans, at great danger to themselves.
It has often been noted that the young Karol Wojtyła’s experience as an actor contributed to his charisma and made him an outstanding public speaker who preached the Gospel to more people than anyone since St. Paul. However, the cultural dimension of his career as an actor has often been ignored. John Paul II understood the importance of culture in the clash of ideas, and his wartime experience reinforced him in this perspective. What made his visits to Poland in 1979, 1983, and 1987 so damaging to Communism was that he spoke so much about Polish culture, based on the country’s Judeo-Christian roots and not on Marxism. During his sermons, he did not speak about economics, or geopolitics, or even use the word “communism”.
The importance John Paul II placed on culture was not limited to his native country. He made many visits to Africa. In his best-selling 1995 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he explains similarities between African animist beliefs and the incarnation and how they facilitate the evangelization of the continent. Pope St. John Paul II spoke many languages and wherever he went, he displayed deference to local beliefs, traditions, and literature.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Christianity is forgiveness. For decades, many Poles harbored understandable resentment against the Germans for what had happened between 1939 and 1945. Karol Wojtyła was not one of them. In 1965, Cardinal Bolesław Kominek of Wroclaw drafted a letter on behalf of the Polish bishops to their German counterparts asking for forgiveness and expressing forgiveness for Nazi war crimes against Poles. This was a major turning point in Polish-German reconciliation; West Germany recognized Poland’s postwar borders only five years later. Karol Wojtyła was a major promoter of Kominek’s letter.
John Paul II is cherished by Jews around the world more than probably any other Christian leader. His numerous historic gestures of reconciliation, such as his becoming the first pope to make an official visit to a synagogue, proved moving to many Jews. He had numerous Jewish friends in his hometown of Wadowice. Many have often asked if Wojtyła himself was engaged in the rescue of Jews in occupied Poland. In January 1945, Karol Wojtyła, a young seminarian, saved a starving and hungry Jewish girl, Edith Zierer, at the Krakow train station. While undoubtedly a very kind act, this occurred after the Red Army had entered the city, and so it does not merit the distinction of Righteous Among the Nations.
When Joseph Alois Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005, the mainstream media constantly reminded audiences that the new bishop of Rome had served as a member of the Hitler Youth. If your sources of information about the new pope’s life was a Washington Post headlines or Comedy Central, you could perhaps be forgiven for believing that he was a former Nazi.
Undoubtedly, this revelation fit in with the common image of Ratzinger as a rigid doctrinaire, the panzerkardinal, as he had been dubbed in his native Germany, an image the mainstream media had crafted during his twenty-three-year tenure as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
People do not choose their nationality or the epoch that history assigns them to. They do, however, have agency over whether or not they act decently in the face of evil. Joseph Ratzinger did not choose to be a German between 1933 and 1945, but he did choose to reject Nazism.
Starting in 1939, membership in the Hitlerjugend was mandatory for all German boys aged fourteen and above; thus the young Ratzinger was conscripted into the organization. During the war, the future pope was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit as a Luftwaffe auxiliary, but engaged in no hostilities. In late April 1945, as the Allies were getting closer to Bavaria, Joseph Ratzinger deserted and ran away to his family home, where his parents greeted him with joy. When asked by biographer Peter Seewald in his Last Testament if he was aware of the fact that, if caught, he would have faced execution, the Pope emeritus replied: “I knew that if I was standing there at my post when the Allied forces arrived I would be shot immediately, so things could actually only end badly.”
Joseph Ratzinger came from an anti-Nazi family. While the most recognizable German opponents of Nazism are Lutherans such as the pastors Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Hans and Sophie Scholl, in the 1937 Reichstag election the Nazi Party was most successful in Protestant majority regions and got the fewest votes in traditionally Catholic states including the Rhineland and Benedict XVI’s native Bavaria.
Joseph Ratzinger, Sr., a police officer, was a vocal opponent of Nazism, and as a result of his views he frequently lost his job and had to move his family around Bavaria throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The victims of Nazism include 300,000 people whose only “crime” was that they were mentally ill or had disabilities. Among them was Benedict XVI’s fourteen-year-old cousin with Down syndrome, killed in 1941 as part of the Third Reich’s euthanasia program.
Pope Benedict XVI was molded by Bavaria’s traditional Catholic heritage. This is reflected in his papal coat of arms, which includes the bear tamed by St. Corbinian, who evangelized Bavaria, which symbolizes Christianity’s civilizing of pagan culture. At a young age, Joseph Ratzinger and his family were confronted with a pagan ideology. As a priest, bishop, and pope, Benedict XVI has been a formidable opponent of what he himself has called “the dictatorship of relativism,” paganism in a new wineskin. While not as immediately lethal as Nazism, today’s moral relativism likewise stands in stark contrast to the Christian vision of the person as made in God’s image.
The Second World War was one of the cruelest events in human history, a time when so many men abandoned God and committed acts of horrific evil. Yet amidst the surrounding depravity acts of kindness, if too few in number, did occur. Three future popes – John XXIII, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI – displayed great compassion and courage during this time, and the war was for them a formative experience foreshadowing their Petrine ministry.
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