Pope Pius XII

Author: LOR


L'Osservatore Romano

On the Twentieth Anniversary of His Death - Cardinal Giuseppe Siri
Dawn of a Pontificate - Angelo Martini
Apostolic Activity of Pius XII - Paolo Molinari

Cardinal Giuseppe Siri


After the conclusion of the informative process for Pius XII's cause, it is perhaps premature to attempt a purely historical judgment on the function of his Pontificate. It is not too early, however, to be able to say something.

He was faced by two tasks: to cope with wartime and to cope in good time with the spiritual upheaval—others will call it "transformation"—which the war itself involved.

His behaviour with regard to the war—the second world war—which, at the side of his predecessor Pius XI, he clearly foresaw, is clear. The attempt has been made to cloud it with literary works which are of questionable value for art. People do not concern themselves with little men and imponderable events: the attacks on this Pontiff are, over and above the grave historical distortion, evidence that he was one of the "great".

In coping with the war, he had before him a model, that of Benedict XV, but with the advantage of a widened and updated field and technique. He developed charity in every form; facilitated the exchange of information to calm the anxiety of families; firmly opposed injustices; did not give in to compromises while his own deportation was possible at any moment; and diplomatically limited the consequences of the conflict. The Apostolic Palaces gave hospitality to all the evacuated and fugitives; Rome was substantially safe, even though it suffered wounds. The whole matter is being cleared up, thanks to the opportune publication of documents.

But already during the war, he aimed, with sure intuition, at the "post-war".

The various Christmas messages, which he addressed to the world with courageous freedom, and which still form firm points of reference today, bear witness to this.

In fact, the worst thing about wars is what they leave behind them. They scoop out implacable hatred, they give rise to uncontrollable rancour; the distortion of mentality may be such as to verge, not just on strangeness and irrationality, but on madness itself. The statistics (those that it is possible to have in this field) are eloquent. Movements take on the surging, raging motion of the storm-tossed sea. The most elementary truths are obscured, the concatenation of evil causes and frightful effects spirals on. The exasperation of materialism, of which we are spectators, is also a fruit of the war. For those who remember, a comparison between the period before the first world war, that before the second one, and the period after the last war, is revealing.

Pius XII, not omitting daily care for the Church, prepared on the doctrinal plane the new times, which were to reveal themselves as rich in irresistible and not always reasonable thrusts. He saw clearly. His was a great catechesis. He followed the example of Pius XI, who began a new form of oratorical contact with the multitudes coming to Rome. But he perfected that system, because, as can be seen on closer observation, he followed a logical pattern which was supplied partly by the emergent social and juridical needs and partly by the indications of a growing freedom with regard to revelation.

I think that the many ideas and interpretations, neither serious nor orthodox, go back actually to some works which came out in the thirties, and to which not too many people paid attention. In actual fact there is a close concatenation of trends with that event and almost whispered intellectual digression. He reacted at once, in an orderly, methodical way. He was extraordinarily methodical. I remember one day in Castelgandolfo I found on his desk—which was always uncluttered and tidy—a thick volume in English on "Microphysics". The Pope noticed my surprised look (caused by the subject) and explained to me: in five or six months he was to deliver an address on the subject to a meeting of scientists; he had to speak honestly, with full knowledge of the facts. For this reason he would send for the most recent production in the world on a subject. He struck at the most fundamental errors with perfect theological clarity. He felt the wave of relativism and materialism gradually pour over all human intellectual activity causing damage to the Church, souls, and human society. I heard his successor, the Servant of God John XXIII, say that "Pius XII had written an Encyclopedia''.

His greatness was not only in the body of doctrine and in the seriousness with which he dealt with it, but also in having anticipated what current opinion did not yet perceive, and having, in a certain sense, prepared the remedy even before the harm was done. It is not for nothing that the sayings and writings of Pius XII were among the great sources upon which the Second Vatican Council drew.

He knew that the first attack is made on the intellectual line and that the first defence is established at the same point. Morals are worked out on a practical ground, it is true, but they always need some theoretical justification.

Pius XII carried out his part in constant sacrifice; solitude, constancy, victory over an extremely sensitive temperament, precision of method, the painful effort of always learning by heart what he said in public, after having prepared it scrupulously. The inspiration of constant piety that seemed to emanate from him, enabled him to carry out an extraordinary task, without neglecting concern for aft the Churches. Good manners and courtesy habitually accompanied a man whose very aspect alone often moved the crowds!

Angelo Martini


With offices of responsibility and prestige in the service of three pontiffs, Domenico Tardini was able to approach Pius XI as Sostituto of the Secretariat of State, Pius XII as Secretary for extraordinary ecclesiastical Affairs, and John XXIII as Cardinal Secretary of State.

Endowed with a sense of history, with a ready, fluent pen, he liked to make notes which range from chronologies to remarks in his diary and to memories of events and men that are always inspiring, always of great interest.

The notes we are now publishing are a manifestation of these sentiments and a confirmation of the close contacts between these personalities.

Mons. Tardini shared Pius XI's conviction that Cardinal Pacelli would be his best successor. He writes in a note: "In the consistory on 16 December 1937, the Pope said more or less openly that it was his last consistory and he added in a veiled way that his successor was perhaps present: "medius vestrum stat quem vos nescitis". This is what he said. No one understood clearly whom he wished to refer to. But I understood very well. With the new cardinals there was present, in his capacity as Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, also His Eminence Cardinal Pacelli". Mons. Tardini was so convinced that at the death of Pius XI he predicted that the conclave would be a very short one if he were elected, far more laborious and long in the contrary case.

When on the evening of 3 March the white smoke showed his prediction to be true, he was among the first to rush to the conclave rooms. At once he set to work with Mons. Montini to draft the message of peace to the world which the new Pope delivered, the following morning, before the microphones installed in the Sistine Chapel during the ceremony of the homage of the cardinals.

Emotional experience

In a pause of reflection on 13 March, the Coronation day, Tardini wrote what his sentiments were as he addressed his former superior in the Secretariat, now Pope: "It is really difficult to explain how I enjoyed the first days of Pius XII's pontificate. The joy one feels on seeing raised to the highest peak of the earth—which has something so divine about it—a person to whom one has been very close for several years, with whom an agreeable habit of long daily conversations (at least an hour a day) had been established, is one of the greatest emotions that a believing and loving heart can feel. The first days one almost feels one is dreaming. Accustomed as I was to see Pius XI dressed as Pope, it seemed to me so strange—and how unlikely—that another person should be wearing that attire. At certain moments, it seemed to me almost a joke. How is it possible that there is another Pope?

"The unshakeable conviction of the perennity of the Pope had almost been transformed in me into the certainty of the perennity of Pius XI. I just could not imagine that the Pope was another. Yet it was so. And on the other hand such a sudden and immense change in one who had been up to then my venerated and loved, but immediate superior, seemed to me a dream, something absurd. I do not know to what I could compare the sensations I felt: I saw one who until then had been only one step higher than me, moved far away, almost infinitely. I saw, so to speak, transfigured, transcending human nature, spiritualized, one who, out of his kindness, had always been, more than a father, an elder brother to me."

The white clothes

These impressions are studied more deeply as follows: "Perhaps my sentiments could be compared to those of the apostles when Our Lord 'transfiguratus est ante eos et vestimenta facta sunt alba sicut nix'. Never as then did I understand the lofty significance of everything that is exteriorly a sign and a symbol. These white clothes told me that an immense change had taken place in Cardinal Pacelli's person. Those clothes were enough to renew continually my faith, my veneration."

And he explains this sentiment in the following way: "It is only those clothes, I say, because, as regards the rest, Pius XII had remained the same. The same refined, kind, thoughtful, affectionate manners; the same questions, as of one who doubts or depends: 'Do you think so? Don't you think?...'. The same open, frank, resounding laughter, with his mouth wide open...

"And every day, at the same time as before, Montini and I were with him. Our talks were shorter, but always marked by affectionate cordiality.

"It was partly that faith made that time we spent with the Pope precious to us, partly the fact that, out of veneration and discretion, we spoke very little, and partly that he himself was more in haste, having so many persons who wished to see him and so many things calling him to his daily work."

The Pope, therefore, had not changed. In fact: "When the audience was over, he took leave of us; he got up as he did when he was a cardinal, and accompanied us to the door, continuing his conversation, as in the past."

New attitudes

It was an extraordinary sensation for the two collaborators. Tardini goes on: "It has happened to few people to be accompanied to the threshold by the Holy Father. Yet Montini and I, in spite of our protests and polite attempts to deter him, enjoyed this privilege for several days, that is, until 11 March, the eve of His Holiness's coronation. On 13 March he began to receive the Cardinal Secretary of State and started the audiences on the second floor, in the large library."

He gives further particulars: "Before that day he received us on the first floor, in his apartment and study as Secretary of State. So everything was the same for us: the room, the desk, the arrangement of the papers, our Interlocutor, his gestures, his attitudes, his words. We did not yet hear the "we", it was still unchangingly the "I" of the past. And this is one of the greatest impressions: to witness the slow detachment of a man from what he has been hitherto."

A detachment which, however, is not a break, but rather a transfer to a higher plane which partly conditions, dictating new attitudes, new ways of behaviour, without excluding what his basic temperament, education, and the habit of years has imprinted on his personality. And such Eugenio Pacelli remained in the years of the pontificate. Even if he had a very high awareness of the dignity to which he had been called and felt that he had to present himself in public, behave and speak "as a Pope", his spirit, as could be seen in private life, remained as humble, kind, and thoughtful as ever. Bound to working hours that knew no rest and made no distinction between days, always attending to the papers that the offices sent daily to his desk, he was kept even busier by the work, which has something superhuman about it, of preparing speeches, so keenly awaited and in such demand on the part of the most different listeners, anxious to hear the authoritative word of the head of the Church on the problems of the moment.

Serenity of his last days

Postponing to another occasion the description of his method of work and the elaboration of his addresses, it is worthwhile to show from another note of Tardini's how harassed he was and how his strength was consumed. The Secretary of Extraordinary Affairs writes: "During his long pontificate H.H. Pius XII often spoke of the great fatigue that his addresses cost him. But in the last few months of his life, he used to touch on this subject more and more often. It can be said that no audience passed without his mentioning it. And it was now like a lament. In August he did nothing but speak of the many addresses (some, he said, very difficult and important) which he would have to deliver in September. During this last month, he said to me once: 'Next week I'll have almost an address a day!' It could be seen that this continual effort now wore him out and almost terrorized him. But his iron will made him continue undeterred on his way."

Far more serene and fit to show the deep simplicity and joyous humility already mentioned, is the account of an audience for the children of Villa Nazaret, an. institution created and supported by Mons. Tardini. The audience took place on 30 September 1958, a week before his death, when the troublesome hiccough which had already made him ill in 1954 had started again. Mons. Tardini writes: "Audience for the children of Villa Nazaret. It is the annual feast of my boys. They know that the Pope expects them. I have an audience at 9.30. The one for the Institute is fixed for 10.30."

But the hiccough had been so troublesome during the night that it was proposed to postpone the children's audience. Tardini says: "The Pope would not hear of it. They advise me to shorten the programme. I tranquillize them and, sending for the Mother Superior, I tell her that the Pope is not well, and I remove nearly all the catechetical part from the programme.

"At 9.30 I go to the Holy Father. He says to me sorrowfully: 'The hiccough has come back!', adding that it had been very bad during the night. I say to the Holy Father: 'For Your Holiness there is only one word required, but with Your Holiness it cannot even be uttered: rest!' He makes a sign to me as if to say: 'Leave me alone'."

The audience having been shortened, Pius XII gets up and goes to the Hall where the children are gathered. Mons. Tardini continues: "Then the recitation of poetry begins. I had chosen some poems by Belli: one about Castelgandolfo and its lake, two on Pius IX and another on 'Suffrages'.

"I supposed that the Pope did not know those sonnets. As a boy was reciting the first one, I realized at once that the Pope knew it almost by heart. He came out with some words of it and when the boy was about to say 'tonno tonno' (round), His Holiness drew a circle in the air with his right hand. He did not know the three other poems by Belli and he was surprised when I told him that Belli had a special sympathy for Pius IX."

Low veiled voice

The Pope gave no sign of fatigue or flagging interest. Then, Mons. Tardini goes on, "The recitation of poems in Italian begins ("Angelo" by Pezzani, "Salve Regina" by Zanella, the "Prologo della Nave" by D'Annunzio and finally Psalm 107, recited by five boys)."

Pius XII did not tire. At the end he complimented the boys who had made a great effort to recite really well, congratulating them and, with words of praise, the good Monsignor. He distributed cakes, as at other times, and then withdrew, content and serene.

But one thing had impressed Tardini: his voice. "That low, veiled, and, at certain moments, almost inaudible voice, which always came when he was suffering from hiccough. But in those 37 minutes that he spent with the boys he did not hiccough even once."

This impression of serenity, of slow return to distant things (the memory of Belli's poem) was noted also by other visitors. An Austrian historian, Engel Janosi, who was received in audience on 15 September, heard him speak of the years of the Nunciature in Germany and murmur, staring into the distance, "they were happy years!" They were years of work, of commitment, of dedication to the cause of the Holy See and of the German Church in the country where he represented the Holy Father.

Audiences of his last days, gladdened by the smile of the children, at whom he smiled back! Tardini says: "None of us suspected that that was one of the last audiences that the Holy Father granted on earth. Mons. Nasalli Rocca said to me, after the Holy Father's death, "The Pope's last smile was for your boys!"

It was just so. Pius XII loved children. In their midst he assumed a delightful air of affection and fatherly understanding. He would bend his tall figure down to them.

And it seems beautiful to conclude with this vision of a Pope and children, while we all bear in our hearts the vision of Pope John Paul I at the general audience, two days before he left us, with the boy who was to help him with his catechesis. Just like Jesus, whose representatives the Popes are: "let the little children come unto me, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

Paolo Molinari

It is a time which calls us to reflect on the past and to study what influence Pius XII had and continues to have on the time in which we live. This reflection is all the more urgent just because we sometimes have the impression that, today, we are living in a period of the history of the Church that is very different from that of Pius XII, and the thought may even occur to us that there is a "break" between his age and ours.

Times, in fact, have changed, but there is a deep bond between the pontificate of Pope Pacelli and the life of the Church today. For if we analyse history objectively, we can clearly see that the real, great reforms, in the renewal that has characterized the last twenty years, were prepared, in their essential lines, precisely by Pius XII.

Just think of the impetus given to missionary activity with the Encyclical Evangelii Praecones (2June 1951); think of the care to establish the local hierarchy in Third World countries, particularly Africa and Asia, and of the internationalization of the College of Cardinals.

To realize the positive and fruitful influence of Pius XII's thought on developments in the theological, biblical, and liturgical field, it is enough to refer to the Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (29 June 1943) which is the basic document for all modern ecclesiology; to the Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (30September 1943) which opened new ways to the modern problems of exegetics; to the Encyclical Mediator Dei (20November 1947) which has rightly been called the "Magna Charta" of liturgical renewal.

Spirit of renewal

Just think also of the contribution made by Pius XII to the renewal of religious life with the Constitution Sponsa Christi (21 November 1950) and with the Encyclical Sacra Virginitas (25 March 1954) in which, drawing upon the data of revelation, and of the tradition and teaching of the Church, he stressed the greatness of religious vocation and of the gift of virginity consecrated to God. With a happy innovation in advance of the times, Pius XII proceeded with the official recognition of a form of consecrated life, approving the Secular Institutes with the Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia (2 February 1947).

Without the preparatory work carried out by Pius XII, the Second Vatican Council could not have had the nature, effectiveness and result that everyone recognizes. It is enough to know the conciliar documents to realize how true this affirmation is. A mere statistical datum is sufficient for the purpose: the Council does not quote any other source, except Holy Scriptures, so often as the documents of Pius XII's magisterium. Altogether these references to his teaching, made in the official notes, amount to over 180. This fact takes on particular significance when it is considered that it applies to each of the conciliar documents: the dogmatic Constitutions, the Decrees, the Declarations which are accompanied by notes. And it is not a question of incidental or marginal references but—in most cases—quotations and references concerning fundamental questions. This holds good for the dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, in which Pius XII is quoted as many as 31 times, for Dei Verbum,8 times, for Gaudium et Spes, 25 times. The same imprint can be noted in the Decrees on the of priests, on the renewal of religious life, on the lay apostolate (31 times), on missionary activity (22 times), etc.

A great realist

Obviously the Second Vatican Council did more than codify the magisterium of Pius XII. The Council, in fact, marked great further progress. But at the same time it is undeniable that this progress is to a large extent the logical evolution of Pope Pacelli's work. It is the fruit of a seed which he sowed carefully; its roots are so deeply planted in his magisterium and in his government actions that without them it would be inconceivable historically.

It is unquestionable that Pius XII saw in materialism of every kind, and therefore in indifference to spiritual and religious goods, the greatest danger for the Church and for mankind. He was afraid that this materialism would exercise its influence on the Church, and on the clergy itself, leading to forms of secularism and doctrinal and practical compromises. This he tried with all his might to prevent. But it was also by virtue of the realism that characterized him that Pius XII saw the great opportunities offered by the new times, promoted initiatives and stimulated energies that had often remained latent. Along this line are his indefatigable efforts to promote the sense of civil responsibility among the faithful; to support ecumenical initiatives; to shed light on the significance of sciences with regard to the teaching of the Church, particularly medical and human sciences, and, vice-versa, to stress the importance of this teaching to the advantage of the sciences themselves and of their students.

Diplomatic activity

Who does not remember Pius XII's addresses and his intense diplomatic activity before and during the second world war, and his good offices in favour of prisoners, refugees and the missing? While he did not tire of recalling the belligerents to respect of the norms of law and the duty of peace, he was concerned at the same time to hold up to all a new international order based on justice, freedom and the solidarity of nations and peoples.

Finally, I would like to mention the exercise of charity, active, hard-working and heartfelt, towards anyone in difficulty.

Pius XII was not only a teacher, a planner, a ruler ... he was first and foremost a priest of Christ, and as such he knew that, in all times and in all circumstances, charity has primacy in the action of the Church. The work of charity that Pius XII promoted and carried out during the second world war, and in the post-war period, will always be one of the finest pages in the history of the Church. For this reason his constant appeal to brotherly solidarity among individuals and nations had a very great influence on the renewed conscience of the People of God and contributed considerably to the Church's updating, which he undertook and started with far-sightedness and wisdom.

This last point introduces us to the deepest dimension of Pius XII's person and pontificate. Many people who approached him in the public and private audiences felt almost intuitively that they were in the presence of a wholly spiritual priest, but few people knew or could know with what generosity, élan and perseverance he lived according to the ideals of our Catholic faith. The testimonies gathered in view of his Beatification Cause confirm that he was a man of God, a priest according to Christ's heart, eagerly dedicated to service of his neighbour, in an everyday life of real poverty, humility, and compassion. Anyone who considers the life and activity of Pius XII in the light of his personal holiness, can easily understand why he left such a marked and fruitful trace in the history of the Church up to our days.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 November 1978, page 10

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