The Perfect Pattern of a Prelate

Eamon Duffy

  • The Life and Pontificate of Pope Pius XII: Between History and Controversy by Frank Coppa
    Catholic University of America, 306 pp, £25.50, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 8132 2016 1
  • The Pope’s Jews: The Vatican’s Secret Plan to Save Jews from the Nazis by Gordon Thomas
    Robson, 336 pp, £20.00, February 2013, ISBN 978 1 84954 506 8
  • Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII by Robert Ventresca
    Harvard, 405 pp, £25.00, January 2013, ISBN 978 0 674 04961 1

The reputation of Eugenio Pacelli, who reigned as Pope Pius XII from March 1939 until his death in October 1958, is an object lesson in the fragility of popularity and public esteem. Pacelli was a favoured son of Rome’s ‘black nobility’, the cluster of families whose 19th-century fortunes were built on service to the papacy. In these circles, the Pacellis ranked very high, described by one historian as the most important papal family since the Borgias. Eugenio’s grandfather, Marcantonio, was a key financial administrator under Pope Pius IX until the fall of the Papal States in 1870, and then editor of the official papal newspaper, Osservatore Romano. The future pope’s cousin Ernesto was the banker who directed the papacy’s investment policy under Pope Leo XIII, and was largely responsible for the stabilisation of its finances after the loss of the papal territories to the Italian state. Eugenio’s older brother, Francesco, was the lawyer who handled most of the negotiations for the Lateran Pact of 1929, the treaty that normalised the papacy’s relations with Fascist Italy and established the Vatican City State, and with it the political arrangements that still safeguard the spiritual autonomy of the papacy in a secular Italy.

Eugenio was ordained in 1899 and immediately entered papal service as a junior official in the Secretariat of State. His family’s high prestige would have ensured him an auspicious start on the ecclesiastical ladder, but he was in any case exceptionally gifted. Devout, sensitive, memorably distinguished-looking, with long elegant hands, a classic aquiline Roman nose and enormous expressive eyes, he also had a prodigious memory, a lucid legal mind and a gift for languages. Under four popes – Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI – Pacelli steadily grew in esteem and influence. He was the chief draftsman of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which greatly extended the powers of the papacy over the universal church. As nuncio to Germany from 1917 until 1929 he developed a lifelong love of Germany and its culture, and emerged as one of the architects of the papacy’s European diplomatic policy, particularly the concordats, treaties designed to protect the Church’s interests and freedom of action under non-Catholic regimes. As a witness to the Munich Bolshevik putsch in 1919, and the Vatican’s chief contact with Soviet Russia until negotiations collapsed in 1927, he acquired a deep-seated dread of communism that would shape many of his decisions as pope. In 1930 Pacelli succeeded his former mentor, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, as cardinal secretary of state to the fiery Pope Pius XI. He was now the second most powerful man in the Catholic Church, just as the papacy confronted the apparently unstoppable rise of hostile totalitarian powers all over Europe. As secretary of state, he attempted to temper and restrain Pius XI’s increasingly confrontational response to Fascism and Nazi racial theory. But he was also one of the principal authors of the papal encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, a swingeing attack on Nazi ideology, which to Hitler’s fury was smuggled into Germany and read from Catholic pulpits on Palm Sunday 1937.

Pacelli was elected pope in March 1939, in one of the shortest conclaves in papal history. Between then and his death he became a sort of icon, everyone’s idea of what a proper pope should be. It was an image deliberately cultivated, not least in the 1942 Vatican propaganda movie Pastor Angelicus, in which, in the midst of a good deal of Ruritanian pomp and flummery, Pacelli emerged as the very image of spiritual distinction, an austere swift-moving figure robed in white, his arms thrown wide and his face raised to heaven in prayer. In the flesh, as well as on celluloid, he charmed everyone who met him, from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who considered the young diplomat’s exquisite manners and refined intelligence ‘the perfect pattern of an eminent prelate of the Catholic Church’, to D’arcy Osborne, the British government’s representative in Rome during World War Two, who, though often critical of Pacelli’s actions – and inaction – thought him the saintliest man he had ever met, and wished that he was Catholic so that he could receive communion from the papal hands. Sensationally, at the end of the war, the chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, converted to Catholicism and took the baptismal name Eugenio, in gratitude, he explained, for the pope’s efforts on behalf of the Jews during the war. When Pacelli died in 1958 there was an outpouring of admiration: the Israeli foreign minister, Golda Meir, praised Pius as one who, in their darkest hour, had ‘raised his voice in favour of the Jews’.

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