The family Pacelli, grandfather Marcantonio, father Filippo, brother Francesco, uncle Msgr Giuseppe and cousin Ernesto, founder of Banco di Roma and financial adviser to three Popes, were devoted servants of the Papacy. So, when in April of 1917, aged just 41 years, Msgr Eugenio Pacelli accepted his appointment as Nuncio to Bavaria, he accepted in that family spirit of commitment to service to Holy Mother Church. And the Papacy in consequence honoured him with the archiepiscopal dignity.
But this was far from a promotion for Eugenio Pacelli. As Secretary of the Congregation for the Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Holy See, every papal nuncio answered to him. They were all archbishops appointed by papal brief of nomination, but he, a humble monsignore, was their boss!
His modern-day equivalent, the Secretary of the Second Section (Relations with States) of the Secretariat of State, is the Morocco born French prelate, Archbishop Dominique François Joseph Mamberti. Archbishop Mamberti entered the Vatican’s Diplomatic Service in 1986 and held appointments in Algeria, Chile, the UN in New York and Lebanon. Naturally, he also did a stint at head office.
He was nominated as titular Archbishop of Sagona upon his appointment as Apostolic Nuncio to Sudan and Apostolic Delegate to Somalia in May, 2002. From February, 2004, until September, 2006, he served as Apostolic Nuncio to Eritrea. He ceased being a Nuncio when he was appointed to his present position as replacement for the Italian Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo who had been appointed President of the Governorate of Vatican City State in succession to the American Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka. At the earliest opportunity Archbishop Lajolo was himself created cardinal (at the consistory of November 2007).
Archbishop Mamberti’s appointment represented not simply a significant promotion, he was getting closer to the top of the Vatican tree, but also a magnificent statement of both Papa Ratzinger’s and Cardinal Bertone’s faith and confidence in him.
And strange as it may seem, Eugenio Pacelli’s demotion from Secretary for Relations with States to Apostolic Nuncio to Bavaria, taking him not so much lower down the Vatican tree as out of it altogether, was an even greater testament to the faith and confidence both Papa della Chiesa and Cardinal Gasparri had in him!
Pope Benedict XV was himself well experienced in diplomatic affairs. He was a former diplomat, official of the Secretariat of State, President of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy and sostituto, papal chief of staff. He and Gasparri could handle France and the allies. They needed someone they could absolutely rely on to handle the Germans. When the First World War ended, that need became even greater, not less.
Just one example of Pacelli’s diplomatic nous: after WWI, Archbishop Achille Ratti, a diplomatic neophyte, was sent as Apostolic Delegate to Poland. He almost disastrously became involved in the border plebiscite. Pacelli had to intervene to save the day; and, Ratti’s neck. Indeed, by suggesting his recall to Rome and promotion to save face all round, Eugenio Pacelli prepared the way for Achille Ratti to succeed Pope Benedict XV when that good man unexpectedly succumbed to complications of influenza.
It is important to note that from his base in Berlin, for a few years Archbishop Pacelli also had to deal with the Soviets as well as the Germans. He was fluent in Russian. And politics. But the minutiae of his time in Germany is not really worth going into here save to say this. German Catholics, lay or clerical, priest or prelate; Germans of all religions and none; Germans of whatever high or low station in life; Germans of whichever and all of the many and varied political hues; Germans involved in science, the arts, the law and culture: Nuncio Pacelli got to know and came to understand them all in a way no other diplomat of the era did.
When John Cornwell cited as proof of Nuncio Pacelli’s personal anti-Semitism a letter he sent from Munich in 1919 to Cardinal Gasparri, he totally failed to present it in any sort of context. So the least of the very many problems with his thesis of Pacelli as an anti-Semite, as Hitler’s Pope, is that when and where the Nuncio quotes typical German sentiments about, say, the Jewish/Communist revolutionaries, one of whom he had had to face down over the barrel of a gun in his own home, Cornwell ascribes these sentiments to Pacelli himself.
Eugenio Pacelli, after twelve long, hard and at times downright dangerous years in Germany was recalled to Rome and created cardinal priest in the title of Ss. Giovanni e Paolo on December 16, 1929, Two months later, he was appointed Cardinal Secretary of State on February 9, 1930, in succession to his long time mentor, Cardinal Gasparri. On April 1, 1935, he was also appointed Camerlengo.
Such was Pius XI’s faith in Eugenio Pacelli that he was quoted as having said: “When today the Pope dies, you’ll get another one tomorrow, because the Church continues. It would be a much bigger tragedy, if Cardinal Pacelli dies, because there is only one. I pray every day, God may send another one into one of our seminaries, but as of today, there is only one in this world.”
Cardinal Secretary of State Pacelli’s world was still dominated by Germany and the Germans. But, then, so was every other professional diplomat in Europe; and even further afield. And despite all their best efforts, it was clear that war was all but inevitable when Papa Ratti passed away on February 10, 1939. However, as the Romans say: “Pietro non muore”
Peter does not die. On March 2, 1939, his 63rd birthday, after only one day of deliberation and three ballots, the cardinal electors chose Eugenio Pacelli as the new Peter. He was as far as is known only the second serving Camerlengo to be elected Pope (Scotland’s benefactor, Pope Leo XIII was the first). More relevantly, he was the first Secretary of State elected Pope in over 270 years. The last had been Giulio Rospigliosi, Clement IX, elected on June 20, 1667.
This Clement was a man of great culture: a poet, dramatist and librettist, he is credited with having invented the comic opera. The most important task that fell to him during his short pontificate (he died on December 9, 1669) was far from comic. It presaged Eugenio Pacelli’s early days as the principal resident on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace.
In 1668, Clement IX acted as moderator during the Congress of Aix-La- Chapelle. By the so-called “Peace of Aachen” the Triple Alliance of England, Sweden and the United Provinces forced France to abandon its war against the Spanish Netherlands.
On the day following Eugenio Pacelli’s election, from Germany there came clear evidence that they would not accept him as a moderator in any attempt to forestall a conflagration. Berlin’s Morgenpost noted: ‘The election of Cardinal Pacelli is not accepted with favour in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism and practically determined the policies of the Vatican under his predecessor.’”
None deterred, Pope Pius XII issued an immediate impassioned plea, telling the world: “Nothing is lost by peace, everything may be lost by war!”
Pius offered to put the Apostolic Palace at the disposal of plenipotentiaries from the major powers: Great Britain, France, the USA, Germany and the Soviet Union. He would personally welcome them and then, as per the Lateran Treaty provision, leave them to their deliberations with all of his staff, and especially his Secretary of State, Luigi Cardinal Maglione, at their service should they so wish.
This was all to no avail.
But for a consummate diplomat of the calibre, character and intelligence of Eugenio Pacelli there was always going to have to be a Plan B. No one was more aware than he of the true nature of the threat to humanity posed by the Nazi regime. When as Cardinal Secretary of State he had signed the Reichskonkordat on July 20, 1933, he was under no illusions as to the likely manner in which it would be regarded by Hitler’s regime.
Fifty-five letters of protest later, Mit Brenneder Sorge, which clearly and unequivocally condemned National Socialism as incompatible with Christianity, was authored, in German rather than Latin, on behalf of Pius XI to be read from every pulpit in Germany on Palm Sunday, 1937. And, more or less, it was despite the best efforts of the Gestapo. No civil government had anywhere so far condemned Nazism in such an out-of-hand manner!
In his 1942 Christmas Eve radio broadcast Pius XII spoke of his passionate concern “for those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction.”
Again, no civil leader in any Allied country had uttered such a condemnatory rebuke nor made the facts so publicly known. The Nazis themselves recognised it for what it was: a very public denunciation of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. A newspaper editorial said it all for Hitler: “His speech is one long attack on everything we stand for… he is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews… he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice toward the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.”
However, Pius spoke as a religious and not a political leader. He began by stating that “the message of Jesus… is a message which lights up with heavenly truth a world that is plunged in darkness by fatal errors.”
Later he said: “He thus proclaimed and consecrated a message which is still, today, the Word of Eternal Life. That message can solve the most tortuous questions, unsolved and insoluble for those who bring to their investigations a mentality and an apparatus which are ephemeral and merely human; and those questions stand up, bleeding, imperiously demanding an answer, before the thought and the feeling of embittered and exasperated mankind.”
He then went on: “The watchword ‘I have compassion on the multitude’ is for Us a sacred trust which may not be abused; it remains strong, and impelling in all times and in all human situations, as it was the distinguishing mark of Jesus.”
While the Church must by needs stand aside from political, national or international conflicts, nonetheless she “cannot renounce her right to proclaim to her sons and to the whole world the unchanging basic laws, saving them from every perversion, frustration, corruption, false interpretation and error.”
The Nazis, and the world, knew full well what Pastor Angelicus, the subject earlier that year of the first ever film documentary on the life of a Pope, meant to convey. It was, indeed, “one long attack on everything we [the Nazis] stand for.”
After the war was ended, Pius XII wrote to an old friend, Bishop von Preysing of Berlin, whom he would elevate to the Sacred College in 1946. He explained: “We left it to the [local] bishops to weigh the circumstances in deciding whether or not to exercise restraint, ad maiora mala vitanda [to avoid greater evil]. This would be advisable if the danger of retaliatory and coercive measures would be imminent in cases of public statements by the bishop. Here lies one of the reasons We Ourselves restricted Our public statements. The experience We had in 1942 with documents which We released for distribution to the faithful gives justification, as far as We can see, for Our attitude.”
That he was absolutely correct to be generally circumspect is witnessed to by the many tributes paid to him by prominent Jews active in Jewish welfare throughout the war, amongst them Golda Meir, both at the end of the war and at the time of his death. Which death fortuitously gave us Good Pope John, a radical readjustment of the structure of the Sacred College of Cardinals, the first Scottish Cardinal since the Reformation, and Vatican II.