Born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, in Rome, he entered the Secretariat of State of the Vatican in 1901, was professor of ecclesiastical diplomacy at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy from 1909 to 1914, undersecretary of state in 1911, archbishop of Sardes and apostolic nuncio to the Bavarian court in Munich in 1917, and nuncio to Germany in 1920 but moving to Berlin only in 1925.
In 1929, Pacelli concluded a concordat with the State of Prussia. He became cardinal in 1929 and secretary of state in 1930.
Cardinal Pacelli was instrumental in negotiating the concordat between the Holy See and the Third Reich, which was signed on July 20, 1933, by him and Vice Chancellor von Papen.
The Cardinals elected Eugenio Pacelli the 262nd Pope on his sixty-third birthday, March 2, 1939. He received sixty-one out of the sixty-two votes because he did not vote for himself, and was elected Pontiff. After serving the Church under four Popes (Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI) for almost two decades, on March 2, 1939 Eugenio Pacelli took the name of Pius XII and was entrusted with the keys of supreme jurisdiction given to the Prince of the Apostles: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church” The bells of Saint Peter’s pealed on March 12, 1939, as the eyes of countless people turned toward the balcony.
Dressed in a white cope and wearing a silver, gem-studded mitre on his head Pope Pius XII appeared. Cardinal Nicola Canali removed the mitre. Cardinal Camillo Caccia-Dominioni replaced it with the papal tiara and prayed: “Receive the tiara adorned with the three crowns and know that you are the Father of princes and kings, the Sovereign of the world, and the Vicar on earth of our Savior Jesus Christ, to Whom is honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.”
Pope Pius XII’s coat-of-arms showed the symbol of peace: a dove with an olive branch. His motto indicated peace to be a fruit of justice: Opus justitiae pax (Is. 34, 17). His first radio message to the world was, “Peace, gift of God, desired by all upright men, the fruit of love and justice.” He was a man of peace.
Immediately after his election, Pius XII issued a call for a peace conference of European leaders. Documents show that in a last minute bid to avert bloodshed, the Pope called for a conference involving Italy, France, England, Germany and Poland. Pius XII’s peace plan was based on five points: the defense of small nations, the right to life, disarmament, some new kind of League of Nations and a plea for the moral principles of justice and love. Through his public discourses, his appeals to governments, and his secret diplomacy, he was engaged more than any other individual in the effort to avert war and rebuild peace. His request went unheeded.
Pius XII then met with the German Cardinals who had been present in the recent conclave, in order to ascertain the real situation of the Church in Nazi Germany. These meetings provided him with direct proof and information that motivated the content of his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus. Dated October 20, 1939, this encyclical was a strong attack on totalitarianism. In it, Pius XII singled out those governments, who by their deification of the state, imperiled the spirit of humanity. He spoke about restoring the foundation of human society to its origin in natural law, to its source in Christ, the only true ruler of all men and women of all nations and races.
In this encyclical Pius XII reprimanded: “What age has been, for all its technical and purely civic progress, more tormented than ours by spiritual emptiness and deep-felt interior poverty?” The world had abandoned Christ’s cross for another [the Swastika] which brings only death. The consecration of the world to Christ the King celebrates “a penetrating wisdom which sets itself to restore and to ennoble all human society and to promote its true welfare.” Indeed, Pius XII’s encyclicals, discourses and radio messages clearly assert that the only solid foundation for social order is the law of God.
On the eve of World War II, the international position of the Vatican was dangerous and difficult. The anti-Semitic decrees enacted by Mussolini in 1938 were causing bitter conflicts between Italy and the Holy See.
As a diplomat, Pius XII saw war approaching and instructed the papal representatives to Germany, Italy, France, Poland and England to learn whether mediation by the Pope would be considered. He tried to awaken in world leaders the full realization of what they were about to do.
On August 24, 1939, he gave each papal representative the text of a speech asking them to convey it to their respective governments. That evening he read the speech to the world: “The danger is imminent, but there is still time. Nothing is lost with peace; all can be lost with war. Let men return to mutual understanding! Let them begin negotiations anew, conferring with good will and with respect for reciprocal rights...”
During the North African campaign, a boatload of Allied wounded arrived in Italy for hospitalization and imprisonment. A Vatican representative boarded the boat and distributed message forms among the soldiers who immediately filled, signed and addressed them. Within weeks after their capture the families of these American soldiers received information sent airmail by the Vatican to the United States. A wounded son of an Episcopalian family in Washington, DC, was listed by the War Department as missing, because the Nazis had failed to report him to the International Red Cross as captured. The soldier was convalescing in a hospital in Italy, where a Vatican official found him. A Baptist family in Kansas, as an expression of gratitude for news that their son was a war prisoner and not dead, sent the Holy Father their weekly tithe of twenty-two dollars. Communicating with their families, the Vatican described details of injuries, deaths, internment, and photographs of the resting- place or turned over to the office of the American charge d’affaires the belongings of soldiers. This was a sad, yet consoling work of mercy.
On September 1, 1939, Nazi tanks crossed the Polish border. This was the beginning of World War II. In his encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (October 27, 1939), Pius XII condemned Hitler’s actions. On December 28, 1939, the Pope paid a ceremonial call on King Victor Emmanuel Ill and Queen Elena at the Quirinal Palace. The visit was to return that made by the King and Queen a week earlier, and also to demonstrate the Vatican’s support of Italy’s neutrality
Historical records show that Pius XII acted as a link to the British government for a number of German dissidents desiring to overthrow Hitler. The Pope went beyond his usual caution, and maintained these contacts until the German invasion of Denmark and Norway in April 1940. The following month, when the Germans invaded the Low Countries, the Pope sent telegrams to the leaders of these besieged nations with his prayers for their deliverance. Soon after, Mussolini joined Hitler. When Nazis occupied Rome in September 1943, the Pope endeavored to save as many Jews as possible. He immediately issued directives to all convents and monasteries to open their doors to protect Jews. Meanwhile, Pope Pius XII invited Jews and other refugees to join the Vatican Palatine Guards. In a few months, their number increased from four hundred to four thousand.
Everywhere in Europe, persecuted people, the Jews especially, appealed to Pius XII. When some five hundred Jews embarked at Bratislava on a steamer for Palestine, their ship tried to enter the seaport of Istanbul, but was refused permission to land. Captured by an Italian patrol boat, the Jews were imprisoned in a camp at Rhodes. One of the prisoners managed to appeal to Pius XII for help. Thanks to the Pope’s intervention, unknown to the Axis, the refugees were transferred to an improvised camp (Ferramonti- Tarsia) in Southern Italy, where they were found safe three years later, in December 1943.
Pius XII’s pontificate left a lasting mark on the history of the Catholic Church. His life was one of action, inspired by profound piety. Understanding the weaknesses of humanity, the Pope brought consolation, peace and encouragement everywhere. Striving to bring men closer to Christ, Pius XII instituted numerous liturgical reforms: the evening Mass, the new Eucharistic fast regulations and increased lay participation in liturgical functions. The Eucharistic Liturgy was the source from which Pius XII drew strength and wisdom to lead the world.
Pius XII has been called the “Pope of Mary” for his great devotion to the Mother of God, evidenced in the infallible definition of the Assumption. In his prayer to Our Lady of the Assumption, Pius XII asked her to turn her eyes “toward this world, held in the clutch of wars, persecutions, oppression of the just and the weak. And from the shadows of this vale of tears, we seek in your heavenly assistance and tender mercy comfort for our aching hearts and help in the trials of the Church, and of our fatherland. Comforted by our faith in future resurrection, we look to you, our life, our sweetness and our hope.” The consecration of Russia and of the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the solemn proclaiming of the Marian Year, the institution of the feast of the Queenship of Mary, and the proclamation of the Centenary of the Apparitions of Our Blessed Lady to St. Bernadette were also made by Pius XII.
Even as a young man, Eugenio Pacelli showed interest and concern in nature and for all God’s creatures. This affinity continued when he became Pope. At the farm in Castelgandolfo, he would walk about simply enjoying the presence of the animals, especially the sheep, which he often gently touched. Later, when he was in the Vatican, he would take brisk walks each day beneath the cypresses and pines, pausing to admire the beautiful flowers in the Vatican gardens.
Though as Pope he would usually eat his meals alone, that changed somewhat one day after the papal gardener found a helpless bird, which had been injured in the garden. Knowing the Pontiff’s love for nature, the gardener brought the bird to his apartment. Pacelli was fascinated, helped nurse the bird back to health and decided to keep it in his apartment. He named her Gretel. As soon as she was fully recovered, she was given several companions. While the Pope ate, the birds were released from their cages. Twittering, the birds would perch on his shoulder or on the table where they had their own small dishes of seeds. Thereafter at mealtime he was vicariously back in the natural world he knew in the summers of his youth.
Pius XII blended casualness with dignity and many times ignored Vatican protocol during the papal audiences. The story goes that, on some occasions, people filled with repentance would tremblingly ask to go to confession. Always a priest and aware of divine grace at work, the Holy Father never failed to step to a corner with the penitent sinner and grant him absolution, while others waited in awe.
In those days, women admitted to a papal audience had to wear long-sleeved, high-necked black dresses with a mantilla and a veil. A young woman newspaper correspondent during World War II was in a hurry, so her male companions smuggled her past guards to the great Consistorial Hall where the Pope would receive them. But when instructed to form a circle, the conspirators were forced to expose the young lady. As the guards were rushing her away, the Pope entered and signaled them to let her stay. He repaid her brashness with the gentle comment: “Ah, we see you are an American.”
Screening for a general audience was not very intense. In fact, many ladies were not aware they had to dress according to protocol. One day, when asked to kneel, a young girl in culottes and wedgies and harlequin glasses refused. “I got a coat on - isn’t that enough? I’m not a Catholic! Why should I kneel?” Everyone was embarrassed.
As the Pope arrived, the girl continued to abuse the guards. Suddenly the scene changed. The Pope approached her gently; she burst into tears on her knees. He comforted her and stretched forth his hands to raise her up, but she shook her head and begged his blessing. Pope Pius XII blessed her and the rest of the assemblage.
A few days after the liberation of Rome, Lieutenant General Mark Clark, Commander of the Fifth Allied Army, paid his respects to the Pope: “I am afraid you have been disturbed by the noise of my tanks. I am sorry.” Pius XII smiled and replied: “General, any time you come to liberate Rome, you can make just as much noise as you like.”
Leo Longanesi, a renowned Italian journalist and publisher, was indignant over the anticlerical campaigns against the Church. One day he suggested to the Pope that a particular day be designated when all Italian newspapers in Italy would print the full story about the charitable works of the Church during World War II. Pius XII responded: “Only God must be testimony to what is done for our neighbor!”
Although Pius XII would not publicize his own good deeds, others have. It suffices to mention a recent story which is part of the official Italian war record (International Herald Tribune, October 22, 2001). This information is one of the many examples of Pius XII’s actions on behalf of Jewish refugees.
From 1943 to 1945, Leonardo Marinelli was a commander in the Royal Finance Guard in the Aprica internment camp, located in northern Italy. His Diary records an entry for September 12, 1943. The Pope sent Giuseppe Carozzi, a young Italian priest to Marinelli requesting that 300 Jewish Yugoslav internees be given permits to Switzerland. Despite strict Nazi orders forbidding Jews, prisoners of war, or anyone who had not joined Mussolini’s northern Italian puppet Republic of Salo from crossing the border, Marinelli complied with the Pope’s wishes. During the next four days as the group crossed the border, guards were seen “carrying bags for some of the fugitives.”
Later, Marinelli himself was placed in an internment camp by the Nazis. He escaped. In his testimony to the Finance Guard high command in July 1945, Marinelli confirmed what he had written in his Diary.
Pius XII reaffirmed the rights of the family, the rights of parents to supervise their children’s education, and the rights of conscience, stressing the fundamental unity of all mankind under the fatherhood of God.
When there was danger that Rome would be involved in serious fighting between the Allied and German troops, the Pope went to the Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola. He remained on his knees throughout the night, praying before the sacred image of the Madonna del Divino Amore. Joining the Pontiff as he prayed for peace were the clergy and faithful of Rome. The city of Rome was saved!
Pius XII was a minister of peace in a warring world. When he was told that Stalin inquired about the number of divisions in his army, he said: “You may tell my son Joseph he will meet my divisions in heaven.” That was Pacelli’s secret. Even of Stalin he could say “my son.” And mean it. He spoke many languages, but the only language that inspired others, was the language of his heart.
Claims that Pope Pius XII never instructed people to protect Jews during the war, are contradicted by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Anton Zolli.
Israel Zoller was born in Brodj, Galizia, on September 17, 1881. His family name was italianized to Zolli. They were Polish Jews and had been Rabbis for four centuries. In 1920 Israel was named Rabbi of Trieste which then belonged to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He also held the Hebrew Language and Literature Chair at the University of Padova. In 1940 he was deprived of this position by the Fascists and sent to Rome as Chief Rabbi.
Zolli devoted an entire chapter in his memoirs to the German occupation of Rome and praised the Pope’s leadership: “... The people of Rome loathed the Nazis and had intense pity for the Jews. They willingly assisted in the evacuation of the Jewish population into remote villages, where they were concealed and protected by Christian families. Christian families in the heart of Rome accepted Jews. There was money in the treasury for the support of destitute refugees thus hidden. The Holy Father sent by hand a letter to the bishops instructing them to lift the enclosure from convents and monasteries, so that they could become refuges for the Jews. I know of one convent where the Sisters slept in the basement, giving up their beds to Jewish refugees. In face of this charity, the fate of so many of the persecuted is especially tragic.”
Rabbi Zolli is the most important non-Catholic witness to the role of Pius XII in wartime Italy during the Nazi occupation and persecution of Jews. A biblical scholar whose courage and integrity cannot be challenged, Zolli, his wife and his twenty-year-old daughter Miriam, were each hidden my different members of the Roman resistance party Giustizia e Libertà. They were eye-witnesses of the deportation of Rome’s Jews by the Gestapo in 1943.
Zolli asked to be received by the Pope. The meeting with Pius XII took place on July 25, 1944. Notes by Vatican Secretary of State Giovanni Battista Montini confirm the fact that on July 23 Rabbi Zolli addressed the Jewish Community in the Synagogue and publicly thanked the Holy Father for all he did to save the Jewish Community of Rome. His talk was transmitted by radio. On February 13, 1945, Rabbi Zolli was baptized by Rome’s Auxiliary Bishop Luigi Traglia in the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Present for the ceremony was Father Agostino Bea, the Pope’s confessor and future protagonist during the Council with regard to the dialog between religions. In gratitude to Pius XII, Israel Zolli took the name, Eugenio. A year later his wife and daughter were also baptized.
On April 10, 1945, he received Moshe Sharett, director of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, to discuss with him the situation of the Jews in Europe and the future of the Jews in Palestine. On July 23, 1947, prior to the UN decision to partition Palestine, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini wrote to Pope Pius XII “to reinforce the friendly bonds” between the Holy See and the “Arab and Islamic worlds” to “avoid together the dangers of the so serious destroying principles that threaten all the religions, all the beliefs, and all the morals.” Husseini added that “the support of the Venerable Pontifical See to the Arab cause of Palestine” would evoke “vivid gratitude” from the Arab and Islamic worlds.
In the Pope’s reply to Husseini, he spoke noncommittally of “the interest that the Holy See has never stopped to have for this holy land of Palestine” and wished “a just and real peace through comprehension, mutual agreement, respect of the rights of everyone.” He concluded that he would “promote from His high authority and within His spiritual mission the establishment of the harmonic order on which everybody’s happiness depends.”
His views on the situation in Eretz Israel found expression in the encyclicals Auspicia quaedam (May 1, 1948), In multiplicibus curis (Oct. 24, 1948), and In redemptoris nostri (April 15, 1949), in which he recommended that Jerusalem should be internationalized. His attitude toward the State of Israel was reserved.
On June 10, 1948, the Congregation of Rites ruled that the term perfidi Judaei in the Good Friday liturgy be translated into the vernacular as unbelieving and not as faithless as it had been hitherto.
Throughout his papacy. Pope Pius XII was almost universally, regarded as a saintly man, a scholar, a man of peace, a tower of strength, and a compassionate defender and protector of all victims of the war and genocide that had drenched Europe in blood. At the end of the war Western nations paid tribute to his efforts on behalf of the oppressed. When Pius XII died, Jews praised him for his help and were among the first to express sorrow and gratitude for his solicitude during the Holocaust.
Documentary evidence and the testimony of his contemporaries prove that Pius XII was a committed defender and protector of the victims of war and hatred which drenched Europe in blood. Pius XII ordered the Congregation of the Holy Office to issue a formal and explicit condemnation of the mass murder going on in Germany in the name of improving the race. The decree was published on December 6, 1940, in L’Osservatore Romano. At the end of World War II, western nations paid tribute to Pius XII’s efforts on behalf of the oppressed. When he died in 1958, the Jewish communities of Europe praised him for his help and expressed sorrow and gratitude for his solicitude during the Holocaust. In the 1960s, there began a campaign of vilification against Pius XII. Today, his detractors continue to claim that he lacked courage, human compassion and a sense of moral rectitude. Hostile attacks by the media replace the historical record that showed him as a great leader.
Immediately after his death, the world at large proclaimed Pope Pius XII worthy of the title, Saint. Referring to Pius XII’s sanctity in his letter to Margherita Marchione (February 22, 2001), Bernard Tiffany quoted the following letter from Padre Pio’s secretary, Reverend Dominic Meyer, OFM, Cap.: “Padre Pio told me he saw the Pope in Heaven during his Mass. And many miracles have been attributed to His intercession in various parts of the world. Pictures of the Pope have been printed with a prayer for His beatification. But so far I have not seen any with the prayer in English (June 30, 1959).”
In his Diario, one finds a confirmation of the above statement. When Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, Padre Pio was consoled “by a vision of the former pontiff in his heavenly home,” according to Padre Agostino. A more recent confirmation of this event comes from Pius XII’s niece, Marchesina Elena Rossignani Pacelli, to whom Padre Pio repeated the same words. On May 19, 2002, Elena Pacelli confirmed this statement.
The controversy over his behavior during the war has affected the canonization of Pius XII. He was declared “venerable” in 2009, part of the process toward sainthood. This, and subsequent discussion of his being declared a saint, has been vigorously opposed by Jews around the world and some non-Jews as well.
In 2014, Pope Francis said he would not allow the beatification of Pope Pius XII, a step before sainthood, that requires proof that he performed at least one miracle. “There’s still no miracle,” he said. “If there are no miracles, it can’t go forward. It’s blocked there.”
In addition, the historical record, which is becoming clearer as the Vatican archives are opened, may also play a role. Historical facts can dictate “whether it is appropriate or not to do a canonization,” according to Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the head of the Vatican office that scrutinizes the cases for possible sainthood.
D. Fisher, Pope Pius XII and the Jews (1963); E.R. Bentley (ed.), The Storm over the Deputy (1964); G. Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (1964); S. Friedlaender, Pius XII and the Third Reich (1966); L. Rothkirchen, in: Yad Vashem Studies, 6 (1967), 27–53; P.E. Lapide, Three Popes and the Jews (1967), 117–305; C. Falconi, The Silence of Pius XII (1970).
Sources: Pope Pius XII website.
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Ofer Aderet, “The Grand Mufti Asked Pope Pius to Oppose Jewish State, Vatican Documents Show,” Haaretz, (October 29, 2020).
“Scholars ask pope to put Pius XII’s sainthood cause on hold,” Catholic Review, (January 19, 2012).
Nicole Winfield, “Pope Francis says Pius XII’s beatification won’t go ahead,” Times of Israel, (May 27, 2014).
Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli, “Pope Francis to open World War II-era Vatican archives to scrutiny,” Washington Post, (March 4, 2019).