Pius XII: The Martyrdom of Silence

Author: Emilia Paola Pacelli


Dr Emilia Paola Pacelli

When protest can only harm

"Tace aut loquere meliora silentio": "Be silent or say something better than silence", a famous saying goes. These seem to be the most meaningful words,words filled with the deepest wisdom, indeed of Wisdom with a capital W, that immediately come to mind when we think honestly and objectively of the so-called "silence"—or "silences" as they say—of which some people, as we know, accuse Pius XII.

And it is not by chance that here we wish to refer to Wisdom: because it is impossible to judge correctly or see the actions and teaching of Pope Pius XII in the right light without putting ourselves on the level of faith, that is, without taking into account an inescapable fact: that supreme theological vision of the Church, of history and of the world that guided the policies of his pontificate from within, formed its solid, unified plan and at the same time provided the key for an exact interpretation and understanding of it. Theological vision, as Cardinal Siri explains, "which is essential for objectively attaining the greatest truth and therefore the greatest light on the path to follow"; "a vision of faith, taken to its final and right consequences, ... enlightened by the presence of God",1 which, it must be stressed, precisely because of its authenticity is anything but synonymous with separation and detachment from human reality. Indeed, rooted in charity, it makes the Pope not only a teacher but also a friend and concerned father at the side of every creature, a sharer in every pain, suffering and human tragedy.

"Pius XII", De Gaulle perceptively wrote in his War Memories, "judges everything from a perspective that surpasses human beings, their undertakings and their quarrels. But", he adds, "he knows what these cost them and he immediately suffers with all. One feels that the supernatural burden that he alone carries in the world weighs down his soul, but that he bears it willingly, certain of the end, sure of the way.... His lucid thought focuses on the consequences: the outbreak of ideologies identified with communism and nationalism in a large part of the world. His inspiration reveals to him that only Christian faith, hope and charity can overcome these ideologies. For him everything depends on the policy of the Church, on what it does, on its language, on the way it is conducted".2

Therefore any judgement which in the study of the pontificate of Pius XII ignores or excludes this transcendent perspective, viewing it only from the merely human and horizontal perspective, with, as it were, a "secular" eye tout court, is already mistaken from the start. It offers a partial and distorted interpretation of the facts and so is far from the truth.

If we really want to make an examination of the work of Pope Pius XII without distortions or misunderstandings, we must put ourselves on his wavelength, attuned not only to his mind, but also and primarily to his soul and heart. For it is here, in the depth of his spirit profoundly immersed in uninterrupted intimacy with God, aware of being in his constant presence and, for that reason, concretely close to suffering humanity, that we find the reason and explanation for Pius XII's so-called "silences".

There is the silence of the fearful, the silence of cowards, the silence of traitors, the silence of opportunists, the silence of the indifferent. But there is also the silence of the strong, of the champions of the faith, of the martyrs, of those who suffered bloodshed or otherwise. Historia docet. And this is the case with Pius XII.

Political and diplomatic ability aside, wisdom, strength and far-sightedness, concrete realism that comes only from a correct view of human events precisely that of faith—are needed to choose silence and impose it on oneself, when supreme and very serious reasons demand it, when the destiny of thousands of men and women is at stake and that silence seems the only way not to exacerbate the already harsh destiny of so many unfortunate people. An exceptional virtus and a supreme sense of responsibility are needed to restrain in the depths of one's heart the surge of recrimination and indignation that would otherwise burst forth inevitably from one's conscience to condemn the worst atrocities and the most implacable ferocity: "The Italians are certainly well aware of the terrible things taking place in Poland. We might have an obligation to utter fiery words against such things; yet all that is holding Us back from doing so is the knowledge that if We should speak, We would simply worsen the predicament of these unfortunate people".3 Consequently, "Every word from Us ... to the competent authorities, every public allusion, should be seriously considered and weighed in the very interest of those who suffer so as not to make their position even more difficult and more intolerable, even though unwillingly" .4

And that silence costs so much more and is bitter when one knows it is misunderstood, outrageously misinterpreted and branded with the most slanderous accusations.

Heroic patience and prudence are needed to face the contradictory demands of a pastoral office which, as Pius XII himself admitted, he felt and lived as a crown of thorns,5 an office that often required "almost superhuman effort".6 "Where the Pope wants to cry out loud and strong, it is expectation and silence that are unhappily often imposed on him; where he would act and give assistance, it is patience and waiting [that are imposed]".7 And patience and prudence are also needed to deal with the grip of the anguished dilemma—"it is extremely difficult to decide what must be done: reserve and prudent silence, or resolutely speaking out and vigorous action",8—in the clear knowledge of the incalculable consequences that one word too many could unleash.

A spirit formed in the most rigorous asceticism also is needed to neutralize the temptation of a "sensational and theatrical gesture", certainly satisfying, but which would have catastrophic effects in terms of human costs; i.e., to reject, as Mons. Walerian Meystowicz said, "the way of applause" and choose "very wisely ... the way of duty"9

But there are particular situations in human history where the public condemnations or vehement invectives of prophets, much easier and gratifying for oneself and the world, are of no use or advantage, but prove to be very harmful since they are the potential cause of indescribable suffering for many human beings and are therefore inexcusable before God.

The Vicar of Christ, in fact, is fully aware of the tremendous responsibility that rests on his shoulders. He cannot take any risks: even the slightest thoughtlessness could have devastating repercussions for thousands of innocent people. There can be only one password: "First of all save human lives!".

Every decision, then, that offers even the slightest probability of inflicting further mortal wounds on the flock which the Master has entrusted to his care and increases the homicidal fury must be immediately rejected from the outset, even though at the moment it would bring him the universal approval of peoples and the acclaim of nations,

But he knows that he must not seek or be concerned about his own personal prestige or listen to earthly audiences, but to his own conscience alone. Only to the Supreme Judge must he give an account of his work and of the sheep Christ has given him to pasture. The Pope is free—he reminded Ambassador Dino Alfieri—and God will pass judgement on him if he does not react to evil or does not do what he believes is his duty. "Mind you", he added, "we will all, all, be subject to God's judgement, and earthly successes cannot save us from this terrible judgement".10 If that Judge did not choose the convenient ways of easy and foregone triumphs for himself, but the reality of the most disgraceful scaffold, he has certainly not reserved a better fate for his "good and faithful servants", whose greatness mustindeed be measured, in God's logic, by the bitterness of the cup drunk, often to the last dregs. And we know that the Way of the Cross with its crown of thorns and Golgotha is often accompanied by misunderstanding, ingratitude, calumny, persecution and the "crucifige" that often continues post mortem, but in which the joy of eternal glory already shines, still hidden to most people but clearly visible from the supernatural perspective.

Blessed is divine silence, if it serves to avert every injurious reaction from others, although the inevitable price that has to be paid is an extreme interior crucifixion. Fulton Sheen saw in Pius XII "adry martyr", "a bloodless martyr", not bowed down,he says, like Atlas under the weight of the world, but standing upright under the weight of the cross.

And it is precisely this image which is enshrined in the testimony given about Pius XII in May 1964 bythe Servant of God Fr Pirro Scavizzi and republished by Fr Rotondi on 1 June 1986.11

In 1942, on his return to Rome for the second time from the Russian front with the hospital train he worked on as chaplain for the Order of Malta, this is what Fr Scavizzi says after reporting to the Pope on the outcome of his aid mission to the persecuted, a mission made secretly for the Pope himself, and on the Nazi horrors in Austria, Germany, Poland and Ukraine:

"The Pope, standing beside me, listened to me with great emotion and agitation. He raised his hands to heaven and said to me: Tell everyone, asmany people as you can, that the Pope is in agony for them and with them! Tell them that many times / have thought of excommunicating Nazism, of denouncing to the civilized world the bestial extermination of the Jews. We have heard very grave threats of reprisal not only against our person, but against our poor children who are under Nazi rule, We have received very strong recommendations through various intermediaries that the Holy See not take a drastic stance. After many tears and prayers I have decided that a protest on my part not only would not help anyone, but would arouse even more ferocious wrath against the Jews and would have greatly increased the acts of cruelty because they are defenceless. Perhaps my protest would bring me praise from the civilized world, but it would bring down on the poor Jews an even more relentless persecution than the one they are suffering!".

For these tears, for this silence and hidden agony of heart and soul, we are grateful to Pius XII and, touched, we reverently bow our heads, asking forgiveness—in the name of all honest people and of the hundreds of thousands of men and women whose lives were saved through him—for the outrage committed against his holy and venerable memory.

Everything else, and here is the place to say it, is and must be silence, and naturally prayer.


1 Conference for the 40th anniversary of the election of Eugenio Pacelli, held in Rome at the Synod Hall in 1979, in R. Spiazzi, Pio XII mezzo secolo dopo, Bologna 1991, pp. 163, 176.

2 P. Blet, Pius X11 and the Second World War According to the Archives of the Vatican, Paulist Press 1999, pp. 247-48 .

3 Audience with Italian Ambassador Dino Alfieri, 13 May 1940, in Actes etDocuments du SaintSiège relatifsàlaSeconde Guerre mondiale, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, vol. 1, 1970, pp. 454-455.

4 Address to the Sacred College in response to the greetings for his feast day, in L'Osservatore Romano, 3 June 1943, p. 2.

5 Letter to the Bishops of Germany, 25 September 1939, in Actes etDocuments, vol. II, p. 91

6 Letter to the Archbishop of Cologne, 3 March 1944, op. cit., p. 365.

7 Letter to the Bishop of Würzburg, 20 February 1941, op. cit., p. 201.

8 Letter to the Archbishop of Cologne, 3 March 1944, op. cit., p. 365.

9L'Osservatore della Domenica, "IlPapa ieri e oggi", 28 June 1964, p. 46.

10 Audience with Italian Ambassador Dino Alfieri, 13 May 1940, in Actes etDocuments, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 454-455.

11 Romana beatificationis et canonizationis Servi Dei Pyrrhi Scavizzi Sacerdotis saecularis (1884-1964), Summarium Documentorum, 1994, pp. 559-560.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 November 2000, page 10

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