A timid Cardinal and library recluse
foresees and fights anti-racial trends
With regard to the Catholic
Church's attitude to the racial laws promulgated by the Fascist regime
in Italy between September and November 1938 it has been written that
"certain belated second thoughts" and the "hospitality given to Jews and
resistance fighters by religious institutes" will not be able to
obliterate the culpable acquiescence of the hierarchy.
The antithesis between
"hospitality from below" and "silence and connivance from above",
between the centre and the periphery, is also a reason widespread among
those who intend to defend the Church's actions in the diversity of her
members in those difficult years. Yet, historically speaking, such a
reconstruction cannot withstand an attentive look at the sources and
events; in short, it seems completely unfounded.
Rather, one can and must
speak of a lively and diversified picture with different positions and
evaluations, if you like, chiaroscuri, [patches of light and
shade].... But it is not legitimate to bring forced generalizations to
bear, disregarding outstanding cases of opposition and open condemnation
of the racist theories and laws, cases that cannot be hastily dismissed
as "praiseworthy exceptions" to a presumed rule but that on the contrary
represent an element that cannot be disregarded and was far from
secondary in the situation that we are recalling.
And this does not only
apply to the brave Pontiff who guided the Catholic Church from 1922 to
1939 but also to important figures in the Catholic hierarchy and the
College of Cardinals: outstanding spokesmen of the Roman Curia, as well
as heads of institutions who worked with determination and clarity under
the eyes of the Pope and of the world and with an unequivocal
These cases ought also to
induce one to be cautious when painting a superficial portrait of a
"prophetic Pope" who in the end was deserted by his Curia, by all
diplomacy and mediation, acquiescent to the incipient barbarities that
were to converge in the tragedy of the Shoah.
Cardinal Giovanni Mercati
(1866-1957), Librarian of Holy Roman Church from 1936 until his death,
was a retiring man all his life. He was far more at ease among the
library shelves than at ceremonies or in a crowd. He governed no
diocese, he did not hold a university chair, he had no students nor did
he promote journals; he never wrote a book that was popular or for the
wider public, and refused to author entries for the "Italian
Encyclopaedia". He travelled very little.
"A guileless and timid
as he called himself in June 1936
he was in the loftiest sense of the term a scholar of the calibre of
Louis Duchesne and Andre Wilmart, "without respite, without bounds", one
of the greatest who lived between 1850 and 1950 and whose life "alone
was worth an academy and a school", as Fr Giuseppe De Luca wrote of him.
Well, this priest from
Emilia, ever exposed and, as it were, resigned to misunderstandings and
trivializations about "bookworms", was actually one of the truly great
historians able to perceive the course of civilization through the
events and vicissitudes of manuscripts and texts. And it has sometimes
been such historians, deemed so abstract and distant from reality, who
have proven to be the best judges of the age in which many of their
contemporaries were living.
The relations between
Achille Ratti and Giovanni Mercati dated back to their common service as
"scholars" of the Ambrosian Library in Milan where the Emilian priest
had assisted the more elderly Lombard priest in 1893 and had worked with
him until 1898.
Their relations lasted and
indeed they became closer in the years that followed, after Mercati
moved to the Vatican where, in 1914, he was joined by the future Pius XI
who became Prefect of the Library. Mercati succeeded him in this office,
as Pro-Prefect in May 1918 and as Prefect in October 1919.
Hence the relationship
between Fr Achille and Fr Giovanni was very close. It continued during
Ratti's brief diplomatic and pastoral experiences and was consolidated
after the Papal election in February 1922.
Pius XI's privileged relationship with the Apostolic
Library was also thanks to his intense human and intellectual friendship
with Mercati. Thus it is not at all surprising that at the Consistory on
15 June 1936 Pius XI willed to raise both Mercati, then Prefect of the
Library, intending him for the office of Librarian and Archivist of Holy
Roman Church, and the Pro-Prefect, Eugene Tisserant, whom he summoned to
become Secretary of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, to the
dignity of Cardinal.
The creation of these two
Cardinals reminded Ratti of the Cardinals created almost a century
earlier in February 1838 by Gregory XVI, who honoured Angelo Mai and
Giuseppe Gasparo Mezzofanti, that is, the "daring Italian" researcher of
the erudite discoverer of Cicero's De re publica, who had won the
enthusiasm of Giacomo Leopardi
and the polyglot Orientalist who had stunned the world.
Yet, in spite of being so
authoritatively proposed, the comparison is not intended to suggest some
vaguely academic atmosphere. In the address of thanks to the Pope, read
on his behalf by Tisserant at the time of the imposition of the
Cardinal's hat on 17 June 1936, Mercati was firm and determined.
He emphasized the Pope's
action not only "for good studies and scholars" but above all "on behalf
of religion and Christian devotion, and in defence of the principles of
morals and the fundamental institutions of human society, threatened by
many new forms of barbarity in the guise of the most progressive types
"These new forms of
barbarity, with the foolish arrogance of claiming to be the measure,
indeed the only source of truth and law and the only salvation of states
and of humanity, almost as if they were God, annihilate the human
personality and freedom, reducing all to a flock of slaves".
It would be hard to find
contemporary parallels to these and to other words of Mercati against
"pride" and the "ungenerous exclusivism whether of race or nation" as
clearly marshalled against the totalitarian and racist involution then
weighing on Europe.
Moreover one should realize
that these words were spoken a little more than a month after the end of
the War in Ethiopia and the proclamation of the rebirth of the Empire
from the balcony of the Venice Palace, and a month before the uprising
which unleashed the Civil War in Spain.
It was the time when
"consensus" was still predominant in Italy, when Hitler had only been in
power for three years, while Western democracies were flattering and
courting the German dictator in that ill-fated policy of appeasement
which lead to the surrender of Munich.
And it should be borne in
mind that Mercati's words preceded by almost a year Pius XI's two famous
documents, against Hitlerism and Bolshevism, Mit brennender
Sorge (14 March 1937) and Divini Redemptoris (19 March 1937)
and seem extraordinarily far-sighted to us today.
As was said then and
confirmed recently by Annalisa Capristo on the basis of unpublished
documents, the words spoken at the moment of the imposition of the
Cardinal's biretta cost Mercati his seat in the Academy of Italy
but was one of the clearest and finest acts of Christian opposition to
20th century totalitarianism and racism, when they had not yet displayed
their potential for death and ruin.
Events were soon to confirm
Mercati's predictions. After the publication in Italy of the
Manifesto of Racist Scientists (July 1938), between the summer and
the autumn an increasing number of measures destined to safeguard the "defence
of race in Fascist schools" and the expulsion of foreign Jews were
brought into force.
From the special, highly
sensitive observatory of the Vatican Library, where, as we shall see,
both Italian and foreign Jews arrived, Mercati took stock of the
evil-smelling tide that was rising. Impelled by thoughts born from
contact with Jewish scholars or scholars of Jewish origin
such as Elias Avery Lowe and the German priest Hubert Jedin, the great
historian of the Council of Trent who had a Jewish mother
on 15 December 1938 (a little more than a month after the "Kristallnacht",
the Reichskristallnacht, 9-10 November 1938) the Cardinal
launched an appeal addressed to American universities to accept scholars
unjustly ostracized by their homelands.
The text, published in
2002, is known to few, hence it is worth making known its essential
parts. It sketches a profile not only Mercati's intricate and laborious
style but also his human and evangelical passion:
"Even though he may not
dare to say so, every unbiased person who is not misled by false ideas
or specious information, by political passion or by other particular
interests, profoundly deplores the fact that in certain States, for the
sole reason of their origin, multitudes of innocent people, including
numerous distinguished and praiseworthy figures, have been
indiscriminately eliminated under the pretext
that applies more or less to any people, state or class and party
of wrongdoings and abuses of a part of the race and of liberating the
country from their influence on all its public and private life.
"They are more or less
ruthlessly stripped of their possessions and by some, the most
vociferous, are scoffingly covered with disgrace and even pointed out to
the young and to others, to be despised. The vast majority, increasingly
fearful of the very powerful, have fled to avoid jeopardizing their
"Thus, merely living has
become very difficult and almost unbearable to these unfortunate ones,
deprived as they are of the common benefits of social and civil life.
They would therefore emigrate
if this were not impossible for the vast majority
and if, for the few who could risk facing the uncertainties and
deprivations of every adult emigrant obliged to find shelter and make
himself a position, difficulties were not created both by his native
country, which cares little for the person but cares much for his money
and does not let him leave with it, as much as by other countries that
are already burdened by unemployment and not willing to accept too many
others who have been purposely reduced to unemployment and poverty by
competing and opposing countries".
Mercati shows with
perspicacity and sensitivity that he understood the hardship of
intellectual emigrants, often no longer young and almost always
considered useless by both those who expelled them and those forced to
accept them. He then brings into play his full capacity for persuasion
in order to present the advantages of an acceptance that would
incomparably enrich the country that opened its doors to them.
"Among the above-mentioned
unfortunate ones, it seems that the most able and active academics who
have given proof of their ability in research and other such
distinguished works are to be recommended in a very special way to the
American universities and institutes that assist scientific enterprises.
"The number of such
researchers and experts is everywhere minimal because they require
special genius, a long and careful training and practice in an unusual
combination of favourable circumstances for the development and
productivity of the mind.
"They are not beginners
whose success and perseverance are to be doubted. They are experienced.
They are men who have tirelessly sought and collected information for
years, considering the inability to work usefully and being unable to
report the results of their efforts to the public as death, banned as
they are from professorships, from laboratories, from academies, from
society, from bookshops and no longer finding publishers for their
"It is of course of great
interest to ensure, even at the cost of sacrifice, that they do not
remain neglected or become disheartened but rather continue and, by
migrating to places under kinder skies, arrive at study centres in both
the old and new worlds.
"By supporting and
assisting them not only is one doing a humanly good deed, a private
charity as one would with any other of their unfortunate companions, but
one is also taking a provident and wise step for the general public,
indeed a universal good, since true scientific progress ultimately
benefits the whole world".
Mercati, not yet satisfied,
went even further. He underlined the specific requirements and
consequent advantages of all those called to accept these individuals.
"Everyone knows how important and how difficult it is for institutes for
higher education to have excellent and capable teachers eager to train
good students and prepare the most able for scientific work.
"North America, like the
most developed and advanced nations, has some of these very able
scholars but not many. Now since even people of indisputable standing
and merit are perfunctorily ostracized in Europe as if there were dozens
of them and they were useless
not even a Grazio Ascoli [the linguist Graziadio Isaia Ascoli
(1829-1907)], a Steinschneider [the Hebrew scholar and bibliographer
(1816-1907)], a Hertz [the physicist, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz
(1857-1894)], or a Traube [the philologist Ludwig Traube (1861-1907)]
would be saved
wealthy America has a unique opportunity (but which we hope will never
be repeated) to choose the greatest and thus promote its schools to an
Finally, the Cardinal felt
it behoved him to explain the reasons that legitimized his intervention,
not for private or factional interests but solely in defence of
humanity: "In the most sorrowful times of the siege and then the
depression and shortage in Germany, I studied how best I could help
German scientific ventures in my own small way, both with my own action
and by asking for and passing on subsidies. Today I do not hesitate to
do likewise in the same spirit for other serious experts of those same
disciplines in difficulty, who arc advocates of what is true and honest,
who are men like us and are also called to the Kingdom of God and to
Mercati's text is
extraordinary for various reasons and not the least, for making no
concessions to making the Jewish people feel guilty, a widespread
practice even among those disposed to defend them.
In Mercati's opinion
wrongdoings and abuses attributed to Jews are in reality "more or less"
identifiable in "any people, state or class and party". Thus
it was not permissible to recall these faults as a pretext for
legitimizing an intolerable persecution.
The Cardinal desired that
the letter remain confidential and not be "given as food to the wider
public", precisely to prevent it from becoming "a pretext for who knows
as he said in a letter to Lowe on 15 December 1938
it would suffice to show it "to those who must be urged to take the
matter into consideration".
However, since Mercati,
solely ad notitiam, sent the text to Angelo Dell'Acqua, at the
time an official at the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical
Affairs, the letter came to the knowledge of Pius XI. Then in the last
weeks of his life, the Pontiff decided to make his own the appeal of the
former member of the Ambrosian and Vatican Libraries.
On 10 January 1939, he
arranged for the document, modified and translated into Latin, to be
sent to all the North American Cardinals, accompanied by a personal
letter from him.
"Looking with human and
Christian eyes at every work of charity and assistance for the advantage
of those who are undeservedly suffering and afflicted, we consider that
the document should also be sent to you.
"We likewise believe that
Our Lord Jesus Christ would not be displeased with this care and good
office for those who belong to the people who were his people, for whom
he wept and, on the Cross itself, invoked mercy and forgiveness! We are
sure that you will welcome this indication with your well-known
generosity and in that profoundly charitable spirit that so deeply
distinguishes you and which without any doubt bears in mind those for
whom the Most Precious Blood of the Redeemer was also poured out".
The Cardinals of Boston
(William O'Connell), Philadelphia (Dionisio Dougherthy), Chicago (George
William Mundelein), and Quebec (Rodrigo Villeneuve), were asked to do
their utmost for the appeal to be accepted in the broadest way possible
the see of New York was vacant at the time subsequent to the death of
Cardinal Patrick Josef Hayes on 4 September 1938.
Although the whole history
of Pius XI's Letter and of Mercati's appeal which preceded it was
described by Alberto Giovannetti in the columns of this newspaper on 26
January 1961, it seems to have been unjustly ignored by those concerned
with the attitude of the Catholic Church and the Holy See to the racist
contributed, to an extent that it would be hard to overestimate, to that
extraordinary translatio studii that took place between Europe
and America between the 1930s and the 1940s, which saw the
trans-Atlantic migration of the best Jewish intellectuals who found in
America not only an asylum and a refuge, but above all the possibility
of a new life, writing an important page in the history of 20th century
To conclude, let us now return to Mercati. The words
published on 17 June 1936, the appeal, confidential yet targeted, fit
into a commitment that he made already before the "crucial and terrible
year  for European Jews" (E. Mendelsohn). The Prefect of the
Vatican Library felt that it was his human and Christian duty from the
beginning of the 1930s to provide shelter in the Vatican Library for
scholars ostracized for racial reasons, thus giving them the possibility
to work and thereby offering them the opportunity to restore meaning to
their uprooted and broken lives.
The list of these scholars to which the Vatican opened
its doors and offered hospitality, often also seeking to find them a
permanent position in another country, is a long one and includes
important names in humanistic research. Among them should be recalled:
Roberto Almagia, Herbert Bloch, Charlotte Busch, Umberto Cassuto, Anna
whose case moved Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, Giorgio La Pira, Monsignor
Giovanni Battista Montini, before his tragic death, after atrocious
torture, on the banks of the Mugnone river on 12 June 1944, where the
Florentine archivist was shot together with another six anti-Fascists
Giorgio Falco, Jacob Hess, Hubert Jedin, Paul Oskar Kristeller, Stephan
Kuttner, Gerhart B. Ladner, Friedrich Lenz, Giorgio Levi Della Vida,
Alexander Turyn and Richard Walzer.
The sequence is more impressive and eloquent than any
other consideration. And all this
it is right to stress
took place a few metres from the Apostolic Palace, under the eyes of the
who was informed of all that was happening in "his" Library
and of the world, in the Vatican, at the centre and in the heart of that
apparatus which, surprisingly, is sometimes depicted as deaf to the cry
of pain that rose from the persecuted.
In the Mercati affair, taking a public stance, practical
dedication and full institutional involvement were interwoven in a
strategy that appeared evident to contemporaries. When on 7 September
and 12 October 1938 Amos Parducci, vice-President of the Lucca Accademy
of Science, Literature and Arts, sent Mercati a personal form to fill
out, at the order of the National Ministry with a view to the censure of
academics of the Jewish race, he received from the Cardinal an indignant
and furious reply.
Only a few weeks later, on 7 January 1939, Agostino
yes, even the "anti-Semite" Gemelli of the Conference on Guglielmo da
Saliceto, Bologna, wrote to Mercati on 9 January 1939 recommending to
him the name of Gino Sacerdote, a former director of the
Electro-Acoustic Institute of the National Council of Research: "in
order to find a post", the Franciscan wrote, "that would permit him to
continue his studies would be an act of praiseworthy merit, and I hope,
Your Eminence, that what you said to me will be possible".
One might continue at length, recalling other aspects of
a multi-facetted action of those who desired to remain without memorial
slabs or monuments, unconcerned as they were with posthumous fame but
anxious only to do their duty as men and as Christians at that time.
May these examples suffice to demonstrate that documents
often deny what is commonplace and induce those who are humbly
respectful of history and of the unequivocal voice of events to avoid