My Christian formation took place in the Church of Pius XII. My parish priests,
my religion teachers were men of the Church of Pius XII. No anti-Semitic
attitudes were transmitted to me, unless one maintains that the Creed, the
Catechism, the Mass, and the Gospels were or are anti-Semitic. For years, I
prayed on every Good Friday for the "perfidi Judaei," knowing since my youth
that "perfidus" in Church Latin means "unbelieving" with respect to Christ.
My high school religion teacher and spiritual director mine, and of many
others in Florence until the time of his death, Fr. Raffaele Bensi, was a
priest of the Church of Pius XII, even though he had been trained for the
priesthood during the two preceding pontificates. He was a priest of the Church
of Pius XII also in his intense activity to help the Jews and the men of the
Italian anti-fascist Resistance conducted during the war.
But I learned from Fr. Bensi that the Church, with the same courage and freedom
with which it sought to help the Resistance and the Jews, also meant to save the
lives of the men on the other side, when the defeated were made beasts to be
The Church of Pius XII was then still the sovereign Church in its judgment of
history, in the decisions its men faced, in the horizons of ultimate choice to
which these were called. It might err, in men just as in this or that act or
judgment, but it drew its capacity for judgment and for jurisdiction from its
own supernatural foundation: and in that, no circumstance founded otherwise
could replace or compel it. This is the meaning of its "perfectio," which is
strictly connected with martyrdom, because collision with other powers even
the most legitimate is certain.
I add that the tested and enlightened humanity that emerged from the second
world war and from its chains of retaliations and massacres understood the
meaning of this limitless and sovereign exercise of charity (and forgiveness) by
the Church, according to which it had one day saved an Italian resistance
fighter and the next day had wished to withdraw from summary execution a German
or a fascist. It was the right to give sanctuary, the right to bind and loose,
as a manifestation of the lofty and meek justice of God.
Fr. Bensi spoke to us with admiration and, at the same time, detachment of the
book "Pastoral Experiences" by the "rebel" Fr. Lorenzo Milani. But Milani
himself, perhaps his most beloved pupil, had been born for the priesthood and
always held to the austere, difficult, virile dialectic of the Church of Pius
XII; he was never "conciliar." Bensi himself had no tolerance for the fashions
and the choruses of the conciliar period; he taught us to keep our minds and
hearts vigilant against catchwords, against "turning points" and "conquests,"
which are always equivocal in a religious tradition.
Thus, even during my time as a young Catholic connected with projects of "reformatio
Ecclesiae" and very close to the political left the 1960's and '70's, to give
an idea the Church's more than spiritualistic transcendence and its ultimate
primacy over the city of man remained for me undeniable facts. This meant a
primacy that was also "social," in the meaning proposed by Henri De Lubac in "Catholicisme."
It meant the Church-as-institution as an irrevocable form of the manifestation
of the Holy.
Together with the Church-as-institution and Rome, which represents it, not even
the "white Father" of my adolescence was ever eliminated from within me by
upheavals or revolts. My Catholic ties to pope Pius XII weathered the test of
the 1960's. The aggression carried out against him by the "Vicar" of Hochhuth
seemed to me and still seems despicable; but in reality it seemed that way
to everyone, even in progressivist Catholic circles. It must be said, however:
persons born, like me, at the time of the war, if they were not subsequently
"remade" ideologically, retain an unparalleled sense of the complexity of daily
life and of history, and an aversion to rhetoric. To the contrary; they retain a
sense of and a need for truth that has little to do with an abstract raging,
whether twenty or sixty years later, over events that have become
incomprehensible in the meantime, even when their details are better known.
Anyone who had told him that Pius XII should have "spoken," "born witness,"
"incarnated the Word," would not have been spared Fr. Bensi's reproof. The
"white Father" did what his conscience told him: and it was the conscience of a
pope; that is, of someone really, and not just rhetorically, responsible for the
universal Church and for the spiritual and, at that moment, even physical health
of many. Pius XII both wanted and knew how to avoid being impeded from action.
And from the safety of his position between spiritual guide and head of state,
he worked in practical ways for the good of many, and to an enormous extent, I
The unfavourable comparison with Gandhi newly proposed in recent days is
unsustainable. The Church, the Christian people, is not a nation, does not
mobilize itself as a great ethnic group; the German army of occupation cannot be
compared to the English troops; the British leaders were not the SS. Pope
Eugenio Pacelli did not have decades before him, but a meager ration of days,
each of which might have been the last of his rule. Nor did Gandhi I hazard to
say have the complexity of a Christian saint; he was imbued from the start
with Tolstoy's simplified Gospel. It is foolish to imagine the pope at the head
of a non-violent demonstration in St. Peter's Square, on any day whatsoever of
1943. Such an exhibition, supposing it would have been thinkable for the
rigorous mind of Pius XII, would not have disconcerted the German high command.
It was, instead, pope Pacelli's impenetrable brilliance and his capacity as a
leader that stopped Hitler at the gates of Vatican City. Words could not have
had any effect on Hitler, but he probably was affected both by the manifestation
of the bond between the Vicar of Christ yes, the Vicar! and his universal
people, i.e. an extraordinary degree of political-religious charisma, and by the
fear that laying hands on the pontiff would have had a delegitimizing, profaning
effect upon him, Hitler, and not only among Catholic peoples.
In short, the only foundation and the only arena of political action that
remained for Pius XII in the face of Hitler was his person, as the "Pope's
body," and his charisma of authority. He wanted these to remain free and
operative, and he kept them so for as long as he could. Pacelli's freedom was
the residual "libertas Ecclesiae," and this represented, and saved, the lives of
It is too simple to insist today perhaps recalling as a counterexample the
sacrifice of Fr. Kolbe that Pacelli, in the midst of that turbulence, should
have gone to meet a personal "martyrium." Martyrdom would have been only a
liberation from the burdens of office, from the daily exercise of charisma. I
have reread "Murder in the Cathedral" by T.S. Eliot. It was published and
performed in 1935, but I don't know if Pacelli was familiar with it at the time.
Shortly before his death the protagonist, Thomas Becket, faces temptations old
("real goods, worthless but real," as he says) and new, presented to the
archbishop by the ultimate Tempter, himself. In the face of the supreme
temptation, that of certain sanctity through martyrdom, Thomas examines and
chooses the option of sufferance, of non-action: neither going towards nor
drawing back from martyrdom.
Pacelli chose action. But there's a difference between him and Becket. Thomas
could rely on the pope to make up for the blood spilled and the void left in
Canterbury by his own defenseless self-offering to his assassins. But Pacelli
was the pope, and there was no principle of order greater than him on the
In Pius XII, therefore, there is manifested the heroism of the one who works
under extreme responsibility, in the exceptional situation: it is the sanctity
of the rock, the marvelous Catholic sanctity that flows from decisive action,
and not from homilies. It is a sanctity that, perhaps after torment, knows it
cannot stop because of torment and indecision.
The miracle of Pius XII is that of the house built upon the rock (Mt. 7:24),
which he kept intact in silence and by virtue of silence and which was
thereby capable of providing shelter and protection in a place that words would
Of course, Pacelli has nothing to do, in part because of his aristocratic birth,
with the famous "clasa discutidora" of Donoso Cortιs. Pacelli had already
experienced the dangerous vacuity of revolutionary wordmongering as a nuncio in
Munich, Germany, in 1919.
Rationality, incarnating the role of the guide "pasce oves meas" and work:
in part because of all these the "gentle Christ on earth" looked upon the horror
with eyes that, in my mind, fortunately do not resemble those of the
Dostoyevskian reprises of Christ so attractive for us. He was a model of
sanctity neither smiling, nor utopian, nor sacrificial.
For this reason, too, it is a source of riches for us and a gift of the
Catholic "complexio oppositorum" that the sanctity of Pius XII should be so,
and that the Church should intend to propose it to us. Raised to the altars, he
will be a lofty model of charismatic responsibility and rational rigor, of which
we have a tremendous need.
For more details on the January 18, 2005 meeting between 130 Jewish rabbis and
John Paul II, see the Newsletter by John L. Allen, Rome correspondent for the
"National Catholic Reporter":