Fr. William Saunders

During the Holy Father's recent visit to Germany, mention was again made about the Church during World War II, especially about the role of Pope Pius XII. I remember that long ago you covered this topic. What role did Pius XII play in World War II?—A reader in Arlington

To begin to understand Pius XII's actions during World War II, we must remember the world in which he lived. Hitler had assumed control of Germany in 1933. In July of that same year, he began not only persecuting Jews but also Christians. He infiltrated the German Evangelical Federation (the Lutheran Church), removing leaders who were opposed to his agenda. Many of these ministers died in concentration camps or prisons, like the famous Dietrich Bonhoffer.

The persecution was even more intense for the Catholic Church. Gestapo agents attended Mass and listened to every homily preached, prepared to arrest any priest attacking or criticizing the regime. Chanceries were searched for any "incriminating" documents. Communication with Rome was limited. Nazi propaganda represented the Church as an unpatriotic hoarder of wealth with its clerics portrayed as idle and avaricious. By 1940, all Catholic schools had been closed, and religious instruction confined to the Church itself or at home. Meanwhile, anti-Christian teaching was imparted in the public schools.

Remember, too, that the first concentration camp was established in 1933 at Dachau, outside of Munich. This camp was not so much an "extermination camp" as one for the "political" prisoners, including priests. The camp administration so feared the influences of the priests upon the rest of the prisoners that a special cellblock surrounded by barbed wire was created , Block 26, "Priesterblock" , to isolate them. At Dachau alone, 2,720 priests were imprisoned (of which 1,000 died), and were subjected to the most awful tortures, including the medical experiments of Dr. Rascher.

Such persecution was not confined to Germany. For example, the Church in Poland also suffered severely. During the first four months of occupation following the September 1939 invasion, 700 priests were shot and 3,000 were sent to concentration camps, where 2,600 died. By the end of the war, 3 million Polish Catholics had been killed in concentration camps. Countless other Catholics , priests, religious and laity , in other countries died for the faith during the Nazi era.

Pope Pius XI, who had condemned Nazism in his 1937 encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge," died in February 1939, and Pope Pius XII succeeded him as the successor of St. Peter on March 12. Think of the world , and the Church , Pope Pius XII had inherited.

To make matters worse, by 1940, Hitler controlled Europe and Northern Africa, and was planning the invasion of Britain. The Vatican, officially a neutral country, was isolated. Hitler had plans to depose Pius XII, appoint his own "puppet" pope, and move the Vatican administration to Germany, plans which would have been executed if the war would have gone in the Nazi's favor. Pius XII, who had to ensure the survival of the Church, was very much alone.

Next week, we will address some of the courageous activities of Pope Pius XII during this very difficult time.

Fr. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the July 4, 1996 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.