On the 60th Anniversary of Summi Pontificatus

by Sr. Margherita Marchione, M.P.F.

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On the 60th Anniversary of Summi Pontificatus


In this article, Sister Margherita Marchione, M.P.F. recounts the horrific truth of Europe during World War II, the monstrosities committed against the Jews, and the false accusations against Pope Pius XII claiming he did not speak out against the Nazis. She states facts that should put to rest any lingering doubts in the minds of those who admonished Pope Pius XII, including several letters of gratitude from Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

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On Aug. 24, 1939, while the Nazi and Communist governments were signing the Non-Aggression Pact — which included Poland's partition between Germany and the Soviet Union—Pope Pius XII sent a radio message from Castel Gandolfo calling Adolf Hitler to negotiation and peace.

The Pope pleaded: "Today, when the tension of spirits has reached a level that makes the unleashing of the tremendous whirlwind of war imminent, in a spirit of paternity We make a new and heartfelt appeal to governments and peoples: to the first so that laying aside accusations, threats and the reasons for reciprocal mistrust, they try to resolve present differences through the only suitable means, that is, loyal, joint agreements. To the peoples so that in calm and serenity, and devoid of uncontrolled agitation they will encourage efforts for peace on the part of their leaders." "Nothing is lost with peace; everything can be lost with war," the Pope stated. But his efforts to stop Hitler's army from invading Poland proved unsuccessful. He could only exhort his representatives to oppose the racial laws and to intervene on behalf of persecuted Jews. The Nazis invaded Poland Sept. 1,1939.

Then, on Oct. 20, 1939, Pope Pius XII issued his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (on the unity of human society). It was greeted with the front-page caption of The New York Times, in very large print, "Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violators, Racism; Urges Restoring of Poland" (Oct. 28, 1939).

Even before the war, as Secretary of State under Pope Pius XI, the voice of Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was raised. In 1937, he helped draft the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, a strong condemnation of Nazi ideology. When elected Pope on March 2, 1939, the Nazi press accused him of being anti-German, and the International Communist newspaper called him a relentless opponent of Hitler.

Pope Pius XII's encyclical Summi Pontificatus condemned racism and totalitarianism: "There reigns in thousands of families death and desolation, lamentation and misery. The blood of countless human beings, even noncombatants, raises a piteous dirge over a nation such as Our dear Poland, which, for its fidelity to the Church, for its services in the defense of Christian civilization, written in indelible characters in the annals of history, has a right to the generous and brotherly sympathy of the whole world, while it awaits, relying on the powerful intercession of Mary, Help of Christians, the hour of a resurrection in harmony with the principles of justice and true peace" (no. 106).

Summi Pontificatus clearly condemned fascist laws and the rights assumed by the state: "No, Venerable Brethren, safety does not come to peoples from external means, from the sword, which can impose conditions of peace but does not create peace. Forces that are to renew the face of the earth should proceed from within, from the spirit. Once the bitterness and the cruel strifes of the present have ceased, the new order of the world . . . must rest on the unshakeable foundation, on the solid rock of natural law and of Divine Revelation" (nos. 81-82).

Long before any major voice in Europe condemned the Nazis, a powerful anti-Nazi Vatican decree condemning anti-Semitism was issued March 25, 1928. Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, who for many years represented the Vatican in Germany, helped prepare this statement: "Moved by Christian charity, the Holy See is obligated to protect the Jewish people against unjust vexations and, just as it reprobates all rancor and conflicts between peoples, it particularly condemns unreservedly hatred against the people once chosen by God; the hatred that commonly goes by the name of anti-Semitism."

As nuncio in Germany, Cardinal Pacelli applied this teaching and spoke out repeatedly against the outrages of Nazism. In 1933, when he was Vatican Secretary of State, he negotiated a concordat with the Germans to protect the rights of Catholics.

Summi Pontificatus encouraged scores of protests, personally signed, that were sent to the German foreign minister and to the German ambassador. These are published texts: one so damning that it was included in the official documents used against the Germans on trial at Nuremberg. Among those on trial was Herr von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister. He was asked if they had received protests from the Vatican. He replied: "We had a whole desk full of them."

Addressing the prelates of the Roman Curia, Pope Pius stated, on Dec. 24, 1939, that in order to establish world peace with order and justice, it was necessary (1) to assure each nation, whether large or small, its right to life and independence; (2) to free nations from the burden of an arms race through a mutually agreed upon, organic and progressive disarmament: (3) to rebuild and create international institutions while bearing in mind the weaknesses of previous ones; (4) to recognize, especially in the interests of European order, the rights of ethnic minorities; (5) to recognize above all human laws and conventions — "the holy and immovable divine law."

Speaking in French, Vatican Radio condemned forced labor, invoking "the curse of God" on whoever abuses the liberty of men in this respect (Feb. 19, 1943). Broadcasting in German in April 1943, Vatican Radio protested a long list of horrors, including "an unprecedented enslavement of human freedom, the deportation of thousands for forced labor, and the killing of innocent and guilty alike."

In his allocution to the Cardinals of June 2, 1943 (published that same day in L'Osservatore Romano), Pope Pius XII clearly referred to the Jews: "Do not be astonished…They are those who, because of their nationality or their descent, are pursued by mounting misfortune and increasing suffering and extermination." The Germans and Italians were so astonished that they suppressed this section of what the Pope had said from all their reports. But the Vatican wireless broadcast it to Germany.

In his letters to the bishops, Pope Pius spoke out in favor of a peace "with justice for all and for each of the belligerents, [a peace] that need not be ashamed when measured by Christian principles and, for this reason, a peace carrying in itself the guarantee of security and of time" (Letter to Cardinal Michael Von Faulhaber, Jan. 18, 1940).

Pope Pius was aware that his messages were not reaching the German episcopate. In a message to the German bishops, dated Aug. 6, 1940, he clarifies his position: "After seeing and experiencing during the years of Our work in Germany how harshly the German people had to suffer the continuing and humiliating effects of their defeat, and after Ourselves witnessing the way in which the previous peace treaty's lack of proper balance has brought forth as a fatal consequence the contrasts whose elimination by violent means has the earth tremble today, We can only express our ardent hope that when the war ends, at a time known only by Providence, the eyes of the victorious will be opened to the voice of justice, equity, wisdom and moderation, without which no peace treaty, no matter how solemn its ratification may be, can last and can have the happy consequences desired by all people."

Pope Pius XII did not want to provoke reprisals against the Church in Germany. In keeping with Vatican protocol, he delegated the task of speaking out to the bishops. He explained to Cardinal Conrad von Preysing (April 30, 1943): "We give to the pastors who are working on the local level the duty of determining if and to what degree the danger of reprisals and of various forms of oppression occasioned by episcopal declarations — as well as perhaps other circumstances caused by the length and mentality of the war — seem to advise caution to avoid greater evil despite alleged reasons urging the contrary."

Writing to the Archbishop of Cologne (March 3, 1944), Pope Pius spoke about "the superhuman effort necessary to keep the Holy See above the quarrels of the parties, and the confusion, almost impossible to unravel, between political and ideological currents, between violence and law (incomparably more so in the present conflict than in the last war) to the extent that it is extremely difficult to decide what must be done: reserve and prudent silence, or resolutely speaking out and vigorous action."

Why is it that Pope Pius XII's numerous protests have been and are ignored by the world press? His messages and addresses have been and are available in the records of both the Vatican Radio and the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. His messages are also recorded in other newspapers.

The New York Times' issue of March 14, 1940, stated: "Pope Is Emphatic About Peace: Jews' Rights Defended." Describing Pope Pius' confrontational meeting with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, the story reads: "Twice in two days Pope Pius XII has gone out of his way to speak out for justice as well as for peace, and Vatican circles take this as an emphasis of his stern demand to Joachim von Ribbentrop, that Germany right the injustice she has done before there can be peace…It was also learned today for the first time that the Pontiff, in the burning words he spoke to Herr von Ribbentrop about religious persecution, also came to the defense of the Jews."

As a moral leader and a diplomat forced to limit his words, Pope Pius privately took action and, despite insurmountable obstacles, saved hundreds of thousands of Jews from the gas chambers. Of those mourning his death in 1958, Jews — who credited him with being one of their greatest defenders and benefactors in their hour of greatest need — stood in the forefront.

Father Pierre Blet, S.J., former professor of ecclesiastical history at the Gregorian University in Rome, is the only surviving member of a team of four Jesuit historians who edited the Vatican documents published from 1965-1981 in 12 volumes.

In his book, "Pius XII and the Second World War: According to the Archives of the Vatican" (Paulist Press, 1999), Father Blet greatly expands our knowledge of what Pope Pius XII did to help victims of Nazi oppression in Europe during World War II. He stated that the monumental work of the team "includes the official documents in which the Jewish communities, the rabbis of the world and other refugees, thank Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church for all the help and work in their favor…The Pope was conscious of what he had accomplished to prevent the war, to alleviate its sufferings, to reduce the number of its victims, everything he thought he could do. The documents, insofar as they allow one to probe the human heart, come to the same conclusion."

There are thousands of Vatican documents available. I can add others that I have received. One testimonial, dated July 23, 1999, is from a Jewish survivor, Leone Pontecorvo, presently a well-known attorney in Rome, Italy, who wrote: "I was one of those saved by the Vatican. In October 1943, my father sent me (I was 8 years old) and my brother Bruno [4 years old] to the boarding school of the Sisters (Oblates of Mary in Rome…We were well received and lived a normal life. . .We were happy and followed the routine of the other children with morning and evening prayers, Mass and participation in processions dressed as altar boys! Our stay was rich with episodes that were both moving and entertaining."

Such testimonials contradict Rabbi Marvi Hier's recent statement that, during World War II, Pope Pius XII "sat on the throne of Peter in stony silence, without ever lifting a finger." He also argued that, "the Vatican adamantly refuses to open its files on this period" because the evidence contained in the Vatican archives would prove the Pope's guilt. How can any man of good will continue to accuse Pope Pius XII of not speaking out against the Nazis in the face of overwhelming evidence that he did speak out over and over in many different ways?

In an editorial published in 1941, The New York Times considered the voice of Pope Pius "a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas" and praised the Pope for having "put himself squarely against Hitlerism." A few years later, New York Times journalist Herbert L. Matthews, an eyewitness in Rome, called the Pope "peacemaker and conciliator."

Those who malign Pope Pius XII and the Church also offend the Jews who have testified that they were hidden and "saved" by the Vatican.

The countless false allegations in the news relating to Pope Pius' "silence" distract us from an even more powerful fact about the Pope's response to wartime horrors — his ceaseless labors to help and comfort those suffering from Nazi brutality. My book "Pius XII: Architect for Peace," published by Paulist Press (1999), takes a close look at the papal communication service known as the Vatican Information Bureau. The result is a revelation. It shows a living testimonial to goodness in the face of evil: 20 million messages were transmitted despite the obstacles that abounded (Russia would not respond to the requests for information; in Germany the foreign minister forbade priests to mention the Vatican from the pulpit). The office personnel began with two members; soon, the number increased to 885. This enormous task initiated by Pope Pius was organized and implemented by the Secretariat of State Office in an effort to alleviate, at least in part, the sorrow and the desperation experienced during the war by so many families throughout the world.

The work began in September 1939, when the German army conquered Polish villages; millions were engulfed in misery and many young men did not return home. The family of one missing man did not know to whom they could appeal. With the desperate hope of learning about his whereabouts, his relatives sent a letter from their Polish village to the Vatican. It was the first letter asking for help. By the end of the conflict, 9,891,497 other requests would follow; letters of sorrow and of despair, letters of gratitude and of love.

Not one letter, even those bearing no names, was discarded. For the "difficult" letters, a specific group of nuns (specialists in deciphering and having much patience) was assigned. They had received orders not to give up, regardless of the difficulty. Some letters were addressed to "My son" and signed "Your mother." Often people not of the Catholic faith sent letters to "His Holiness Pope Leo XIII," or "Honorable Father of Christianity" or even "To the Reverend Don Pio XII" and finally there was one: "To Miss Secretary of State." An article in L'Osservatore Romano (Aug. 6, 1967) observed: "Who can count the languages of the Vatican Information Service? Every living, universal, local language (some known only to bishops and missionaries), even dead languages. Also Latin, the language of the Church, a language that became fire as a perpetual Pentecost warming the will and the heart of individuals in the midst of warfare. Tu es Petrus, in 62 languages."

In addition to the Vatican Information Bureau (which closed Oct. 31, 1947), the thousands of auxiliary personnel who participated, not only in Italy, but throughout the entire Catholic world, must be added. The number of requests seeking response reached almost 10 million, and the returning communications surpassed that figure: 11,293,511. To this number must be added the number of messages related to the research and to communication with prisoners and refugees, transmitted via Vatican Radio from June 1940 to May 1945-a total of 1,240,720 and requiring 12,105 hours. While mankind ignored cries for peace, the Vatican Information Bureau proclaimed the Church's language of love during the devastation of war.

Jesse Lynch, an American citizen known as Mother Mary St. Luke, worked there during World War II. She depicts the role of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican with immediacy and spontaneity in her diary, "Inside Rome with the Germans" (Macmillan, 1945), published under the pen name of Jane Scrivener.

This is a vivid and authentic eyewitness account about Pope Pius XII's rescue efforts and those of others in consonance with him. The author describes the months of suspense, hope and despair as food was scarce and the city of Rome was overcrowded with refugees and escaped war prisoners. Many details about the Allied bombings and other historic events taking place in Rome are included.

In her entry for Dec. 3, 1943, there is reference to the courage of L'Osservatore Romano: "Today the Vatican daily, the Osservatore Romano publishes a strong protest against the treatment of Jews; it is called forth by the new directions issued by the 'Republic' to the heads of the Provinces, to the effect that all Jews must be sent to concentration camps. The order was issued obviously at the instigation of the Germans. The Osservatore points out that it is unreasonable, un-Christian and inhuman. Times are bad enough, it says, without our creating fresh sources of suffering and anxiety; we are sorely in need of God's help, which we can gain by exercising charity toward His creatures, and all of us, nations as well as individuals, are in need of that today. Let us take care to be just and merciful and to pay our own debts so that God may remit ours with both justice and mercy."

It is interesting to note that the Osservatore's courageous, bold protest continued to be sold on all newsstands in Rome even after publishing articles as outspoken as this. The diary continues the following day (Sunday, Dec. 4): "The Roman German-controlled press answered the Osservatore by asserting that Jews were considered foreigners, and as such they were potential enemies and therefore might with perfect justice be sent to concentration camps. This evening's Osservatore replies firmly that no decree issued by any political party can change the status of an Italian-born citizen, possessing his nationality by the existing laws of the land; and that, even if enemy aliens were to be sent to concentration camps, the old and infirm, women and children, are exempt. The article is both judicious and moderate, and ends with the words: 'We shall continue to place our trust in wisdom and good will, in justice and mercy; if these are carried into effect all will be spared fresh cause for anxiety, and the end will be equally well attained. From good deeds done, good will accrue to all' (p. 65)."

One must remember that the Vatican, with the bishops, priests and nuns, were under constant surveillance by the Nazis and fascists. Open defiance against the Nazis would have been unreasonable and detrimental since Hitler would have responded with unrestrained retaliation. With exemplary dedication, the Pope not only spoke clearly, but he also chose actions that opened the doors of parish churches, as well as the basements of convents, seminaries and religious institutions, to assist and care for their needs during this brutal period.

To counteract the insidious attacks against the papacy and the entire Catholic Church, "Pope Pius XII: Architect for Peace" endeavors to improve understanding and increase dialogue between Jews and Catholics. It offers an abundance of incontestable evidence which will obliterate these myths and lies. It also includes an annotated bibliography and an analysis of a September 1998 statement by the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations criticizing the Vatican's 1998 document on the Holocaust entitled "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah."

The indictment against the Catholic Church and, in particular, against Pope Pius XII is an injustice. Recent appeals for peace by Pope John Paul II have not been heeded. Will he be accused, as was Pope Pius XII, of not doing enough for peace?


Sister Margherita Marchione, M.P.F., professor emerita of Fairleigh Dickinson University, is author of "Yours Is A Precious Witness: Memoirs Of Jews And Catholics In Wartime Italy," Paulist Press, 1997.

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