Confidential Audience in 1942 with Pius XII

Author: Paolo Dezza

Confidential Audience in 1942 with Pius XII

Paolo Dezza

The Pope's silence was not out of fear

On 28 June 1964 "L'Osservatore della Domenica" published the account by Fr Paolo Dezza, SJ — Rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University from 1941-1951 — of a highly confidential Audience granted to him by Pope Pius XII. Fr Dezza was later the confessor of Paul VI and of John Paul I, and was created a Cardinal by John Paul II at the Consistory in 1991. The following is a translation of his article, which was written in Italian.

In December 1942, I preached the spiritual exercises in the Vatican for the Holy Father. On that occasion I had a long Audience at which, speaking to me of the Nazi atrocities in Germany and in the other occupied countries, the Pope expressed his sorrow and anguish because, he told me, "They are complaining that the Pope does not speak. But the Pope cannot speak. Were he to speak it would be worse".

And he reminded me that he had recently sent three Letters, one to the man he described as "the heroic Archbishop of Krakow", the future Cardinal Sapeha, and two others to two other Polish Bishops in which he deplored these Nazi atrocities. "They answer me", he said, "with thanks, but inform me that they cannot publish these Letters because they would aggravate the situation".

And he mentioned the example of Pius X who said, when faced with some trouble in Russia: "You must be silent precisely in order to prevent greater evils".

Moreover the falsity of those who say he kept quiet because he wanted to support the Nazis against the Russians and Communism was also clear on this occasion. And I remember that he said to me: "Yes, the Communist threat exists but the threat of the Nazis at this time has become even more serious". And he talked to me about what the Nazis would have done had they won.

I remember him saying this to me: "They want to destroy the Church and crush her like a toad. In the new Europe there would no longer be room for the Pope. They are saying that he can go to America. But I am not afraid and I shall stay here". And he said so in a very firm and assured manner which is why it could be clearly seen that if the Pope remained silent it was not out of fear or for his own interests, but solely because he dreaded aggravating the situation of the oppressed.

For while he was speaking to me of the threat of the invasion of the Vatican he was absolutely calm, sure, and full of trust in Providence whereas in speaking to me of "speaking" he was anguished. "If I speak out", he was thinking, "I shall do them harm".

Therefore, even if in historical terms one could discuss whether it might have been better to speak more or to speak louder, what is indisputable is that if Pope Pius XII did not speak louder, it was only for this reason and not because he was afraid or for any other reason.

The other thing about the conversation that impressed me is that he spoke of all he had done and was doing for these oppressed people. I remember he told me about the first contacts he had sought to make with Hitler on becoming Pope, in agreement with the German Cardinals but which came to nothing. Then he mentioned the conversation with Ribbentrop when he came to Rome but this led nowhere either. In any case, he continued to do what he could, solely concerned not to enter into political or military issues but to keep to what was the Holy See's province. In this regard I remember that when in 1943 the Germans occupied Rome — I was Rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University and welcomed those who came seeking refuge — Pius XII said to me: "Father, do not accept soldiers because, since the Gregorian is 'Pontifical' and linked to the Holy See, we must stay out of this business. But as for others, go ahead: take in civilians or persecuted Jews". In fact, I took in various people.

Among the many accounts of what the Pope did for the Jews at the time is that of Zolli, who was the Chief Rabbi of Rome and during the Nazi occupation sought refuge with a family of workers. Then, once the danger had passed and the Allies had arrived, he converted and became a Catholic with a truly sincere and disinterested conversion. I remember that he came to see me on 55 August 1944 and explained to me his intention of becoming a Catholic.

"Look, it is not a 'do ut des';I ask for the water of Baptism and that is all. The Nazis took everything I had. I am poor. I shall live in poverty, I shall die in poverty but it does not matter to me".

And when his Baptism came, he wanted to take the name of Eugenio precisely out of gratitude to Pope Eugenio Pacelli for all he had done to help the Jews. I myself accompanied him to an Audience with the Pope after his Baptism, in February, and it was then that Zolli asked the Pope to remove from the Liturgy those unfavourable words describing the Jews as "perfidis iudaeis". And it was on this occasion — since he was unable to change the Liturgy immediately — that Pius XII published the Declaration that "perfidi" in Latin means "disbelieving". Subsequently, however, as soon as possible, with the reform of the Liturgy the word was removed.

Pius XII wanted to be certain of saying nothing that could spark reactions that would aggravate the situation. I would separate the two questions. One is: was he right to be silent or would it have been better to have spoken? For me this is a question that one can and must discuss in the context of history. Pius XI, a different character, might even have acted differently. Yet what is obvious to me is that, whether Pius XII had kept silent or had said little, it was not for any other reason than for fear of worsening the situation. Objectively it can be discussed; subjectively there is no doubt about the Pope's intention. He truly sought to do what was best.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 February 2010, page 13

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