The enduring legacy of Pope Pius XII: a 50th anniversary tribute

The enduring legacy of Pope Pius XII: a 50th anniversary tribute

Fr John Walshe

Without the rich and consistent papacy of Pope Pius XII, the decrees and teachings of Vatican II would not have been possible. The magisterium of his papacy followed what Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 called 'the hermeneutic of continuity.' He received the sacred deposit of faith and accepted the responsibility for transmitting it to the men and women of his time.

This involved reverence and a consistent understanding of all that the Church believes and teaches, combined with a deepening expression of the Church's faith aided by valid theological and scholarly insight and research.

Pius XII was Pope from 2 March 1939 until his death on 9 October 1958. The nineteen years of his papacy had seen the horrors of World War II and Europe's rebuilding in the years following.

Church and world

A nagging question about the relationship of the Church to the world was one that needed special attention. Pius XII addressed this with intelligence and deep faith and through his 41 encyclicals and over 1000 addresses and speeches he communicated authoritatively and sensitively to the people of his age, and in a manner that enabled elucidation and deepening of thought in the years to come.

He died, hailed as a saintly and gifted Pope during one of the most trying times of world history and was called by his successor, Pope John XXIII, 'supreme doctor, light of holy mother Church, lover of the divine law.' National leaders and popular newspapers called him 'a fighter for peace' and 'The Pope of Peace' and many members of the Jewish community mourned the passing of one they credited with saving them from the horrors of the Nazis. So what happened after this?

If so many people hailed this Pope at the time of his death, why does the name of Pius XII now often prompt expressions of disdain and criticism?

The power of the media and communications is immense and the negativity towards the memory of Pius XII began in the 1960s, the period of rebellion and revolt against institutions of authority. The shy, warm yet resolute personality of Pope Pius known to his friends and associates was now being replaced by a false persona of 'the weak, cold Church bureaucrat.'

The catalyst for this thought was a work of fiction, The Deputy, by Rolf Hochhuth (1962). In this play Pius XII is presented as a hypocrite who remained silent about the Holocaust. Soon the praise that had been lavished on this Pope began to fade away.

Attempts at defence and explanation were hindered by the inability to access the secret Vatican archives, for it takes decades before these archives can be catalogued and opened to scholars. Currently the archives on the papacy of Pius XI have been opened but it could be another ten years until those of Pius XII's papacy are catalogued and ready.

There is no cover up, just the usual process that is followed by governments and other organisations dealing with sensitive issues involving many people. In spite of this, there is much anecdotal and personal witness to Pius XII's clear, direct and practical interventions on behalf of the Jewish people.

In this regard, it is pleasing to note a growing number of works that objectively assess Pius XII's actions concerning the Holocaust and his dealings with National Socialism. In this 50th anniversary year of his death a non-denominational organisation, known as 'Pave the Way Foundation', is presenting its research on Pius XII's wartime papacy with recorded interviews of papal nuncios and other individuals personally involved in carrying out the Pope's demands to do everything possible to assist the Jewish people.

Pius XII's wartime efforts and works were extensive and complex and the key to understanding policies and actions during this time is to have a deep knowledge of the art of diplomacy as practised by the Church.

During the war years, encrypted messages and personal envoys and messengers replaced the usual open means of communication. The Pope's role is to keep contact with all parties in dispute, present the clear moral teaching and remember that the essential mission of the Church is spiritual: the salvation of souls. The Holy See is not a world power with a force of arms behind it.

The Church, at the Pope's constant and insistent command, opened her convents and monasteries, smuggled people in secrecy and arranged visas for safe conduct for thousands of Jewish people. The Jewish rabbi and writer Pinchas E. Lapide wrote: 'The final number of Jewish lives in whose rescue the Catholic Church had been the instrument is thus at least 700,000 souls, but in all probability it is much closer to ... 860,000' (Three Popes and the Jews, p.118).

The debate and analysis will continue and I am sure that in the ensuing years the clear story of Pius XII's determined assistance to the Jewish people and others fleeing the Nazi horror will be more clearly known and appreciated.

However, the risk in all of this is not just that a calumny is committed against a revered and saintly pope, but that his only legacy or contribution to the Church and society is confined to this one limited area.

Further legacy

So what else is contained in Pius XII's legacy ?

The unique background that Eugenio Pacelli experienced enabled him to be an apposite pope at a time of unique change in the world's history.

He grew up in a family where the grave matters which the Church faced following the unification of Italy were vigorously discussed. His family home offered hospitality to churchmen and politicians who brought immense learning and experience with them.

Eugenio Pacelli had an unshakeable faith, supported by the witness of his parents, and was afforded a broad classical education enabling him to be fluent in Italian, English, French and German.

After a short period as a curate in the Parish of the Chiesa Nuova in Rome, Fr Pacelli commenced his service of the Holy See. He was introduced to some of the great men of that period and was an assistant to the noted codifier of the Canon Law of the Church, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, and Cardinal Giacomo della Chiesa (the future Pius XI).

His work within the Department of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs (the foreign office) became crucial in shaping his future policies and modus operandi. He was involved in close negations for the concordat with Serbia, kept the register of prisoners of war during World War I and assisted in the negotiations with Franz Joseph I of Austria regarding Italy. He was a skilled diplomat, always furthering the good of the Church.

Later, he was sent as Papal Nuncio to Bavaria and then Berlin and was involved in negotiations with the Soviet Union between 1925- 27. Pius XI made Pacelli a Cardinal in 1929 and he was soon after nominated as Cardinal Secretary of State.

Marian papacy

The areas Pius XII addressed during his papacy were many and varied with his most important and extraordinary act being the solemn definition of the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This act, the second 'ex cathedra' definition of a Roman pontiff, took place on 1 November 1950 with the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus. It marked the high point of a papacy that was especially Marian. It also affirmed the fact that the previous decades had given witness to one of the most ardent and fruitful periods of Marian scholarship in the Church's history.

Pius XII had entrusted his papacy to the Blessed Virgin Mary including consecrating the Church and the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on 31 October 1942 at a critical moment of World War II. As well as defining the doctrine of the Assumption, he inaugurated the Feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin in the Roman calendar and called the first Marian Year in 1954.

He has left a Marian legacy to the Church that few could equal, even his successor and ardent servant of the BVM, Pope John Paul II.

In 1943, Pius XII had promulgated the encyclical Mystici Corporis on the nature of the Church. It was the culmination of and response to decades of theological research and debate concerning the nature of the Church of God and the document is crucial to understanding the Church. It was also the necessary precursor of Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

In the decades preceding the encyclical, theologians had begun to rediscover the ancient Pauline concept of the Mystical Body of Christ. This was to replace the overly institutional idea of the Church as a 'perfect society' which had held sway for some time.

The teaching of Pius' encyclical presents the Church as a divine- human reality. The unity that exists between members of the Church is not merely functional or moral, but mystical. The teaching opens up the role of the lay faithful in the life of the Church and places a strong connection between the Church and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The particular genius of the encyclical is that it affords the Church a true and beautiful theology rather than a rationalistic or purely sociological understanding. It is an encyclical that still needs to be studied in depth and placed in continuity with all that preceded it and is a necessary point of reference before one can fully grasp Vatican II's teaching on the nature of the Church.

The other important theological encyclicals in Pius XII's magisterium were Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) and Humani Generis (1950). The former gave papal sanction for the application of certain accepted tools of biblical scholarship to be used in the study of the sacred texts. The latter responded to a range of errors that were undermining the foundations of Catholic doctrine: a theological method that gave too much emphasis to historical analysis and theories of evolution that excluded God's direct involvement in the creation of man, and opened the door to polygenism.

As well as being called the Marian Pope, Pius XII has been hailed as the 'Pope of the Liturgy.'

Pius took up the work of his predecessor Pope St Pius X in encouraging and directing the liturgical life of the Church promulgating the encyclical Mediator Dei in 1947. This encyclical is a masterpiece of continuity and development applying to the sacred liturgy the theological outlook and teaching of his previous encyclical on the Church, Mystici Corporis.

Mediator Dei presents the sacred liturgy as more than the sum of liturgical actions and decrees, for the liturgy is not merely the outward or visible part of divine worship or ceremonial. Like the Lord, the liturgy is a divine-human activity.

The theological principles governing the liturgy need to be known and studied, its outward celebration needs to be faithful and beautiful and the people's participation in the sacred action is to be encouraged and their knowledge of the liturgy deepened.

Had Pius XII's liturgical vision been fully implemented in the years before Vatican II one may question whether the dramatic and at times disruptive changes that followed the Council would have occurred.

Church's mission

Apart from the particular teaching contained in Pius XII's encyclicals, perhaps his enduring legacy is the way he enabled the Church to meet the challenge of the present world. Though by personality and background he was more suited to the days of courtly respect and reticence, he was a man fascinated by science, medicine and the wonders of new discoveries.

He was not, however, intimidated by these and saw no conflict between faith and true science. During his pontificate he gave many talks and messages to a wide range of professional representatives.

Pope Pius XII led the Church through critical days and continually called the members of the Church to remember that the mission of the Church was the mission of her Lord and Saviour. The Church of God on earth did not exist for herself but for the salvation of the world and members of the Church needed to be strong and well educated in their faith, and generous in their engagement with the world for the sake of the world.

Pius XII left a body of teaching, years of practical example and a holiness of life that would enable the Church to confront the essential questions and realities of the world of the twentieth century and beyond.

Fr John Walshe is the parish priest of St Patrick's, Mentone, in the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

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