Death of a Pope
Eugenio Pacelli sat in a chair beside the simple brass bed, watching as the once-robust pope, his face shrunken, labored to breathe beneath his oxygen mask. It was late at night, and although Cardinal Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state, was accustomed to sleeping little, he decided to return to his rooms, two floors below in the vast Apostolic Palace, to get some rest. Awakened at four a.m. with news that the pope’s condition had worsened, he rushed back to the pope’s austere bedroom. Sweat poured down the pope’s pallid face as he gasped for air. The cardinal got down on his knees and asked the dying pope for his blessing.
It was early morning, February 10, 1939. For Pacelli, whom the pope had elevated to the cardinalate and appointed to the church’s most influential position after that of the pontiff himself, it was a scene of great sadness. But there was much to be done, for the pope had also appointed Pacelli to be chamberlain, and it was now his job to ensure that all proceeded as it should until the cardinals could elect a successor.
Pacelli’s relations with the pope had been close but not particularly warm. Their personalities could scarcely have been more different and perhaps this was one reason Pius XI had valued him so highly. The tempestuous pope, prone to say what he thought and often seemingly impervious to the opinions of others, depended on the highly disciplined, diplomatic Pacelli to calm the waters he roiled.
The Vatican secretary of state had found himself caught in the middle. Not only did Mussolini’s and Hitler’s ambassadors complain to him about Pius XI and seek his help, but so did many high-ranking churchmen, worried that the pontiff was becoming reckless in his old age. True to his position and his vows, the cardinal would not fail to carry out the instructions the pope gave him. But he found ways to take the sting out of the pope’s more acerbic remarks about the Italian and German regimes.
Pacelli was a skilled diplomat and, despite a certain natural shyness, took great satisfaction in traveling the globe in a way no secretary of state before him had ever done. During his travels, he enjoyed meeting not only with the church’s ecclesiastical elite but with the politically powerful in secular governments. In the fall of 1936, he became the first Vatican secretary of state to visit the United States, spending two months touring the country, picking up honorary degrees at several Catholic universities, and after thousands of miles crisscrossing the country by air, meeting with the American president.
The following year the cardinal was the guest of honor at the dedication of a new basilica in France, taking a side trip to meet with France’s president and prime minister. A couple of weeks after Hitler visited Rome in May 1938, Pacelli left Italy again, this time going to Budapest, where he was the featured speaker at a Eucharistic Congress. His message everywhere was the same: The world was in crisis. It had turned its back on the cross of Christ. Only by returning to the bosom of the church would it be saved.
While Pius XI was apt to bang his fist on his table and raise his voice in dressing down those foreign envoys whose countries’ actions had displeased him, Pacelli sought to win foreign diplomats over by stressing what they had in common. Insofar as he felt the need to register complaints, he did so in a way that suggested he was speaking more in sorrow than in anger.
Relations between Pius XI and the Führer had begun promisingly enough when Hitler came to power in 1933. Indeed, the pope initially harbored some hopes for him, impressed by the strength of his anti-Communist views. Pacelli, who had spent twelve years as papal nuncio, or ambassador, in Germany and knew the country well, remarked at the time that while Hitler was clearly a remarkably talented agitator, it remained to be seen whether he was “a man of government.”
For his part, Germany’s new leader was eager for the church to end its support of Germany’s Catholic Center Party, the largest non-Marxist party standing in the way of his dictatorship. He made a series of conciliatory gestures, pledging to protect religious education and to guarantee a privileged place for the church in German society. It was amid these assurances that Germany’s bishops fell in line with the new government head, and the Center Party was allowed to die. Their understanding was codified with the signing, in Pacelli’s Vatican office only months after Hitler came to power, of a new concordat between Germany and the Holy See. The deal was a huge boost for Hitler’s credibility not only domestically but also internationally, as the papal nuncio in Berlin himself pointed out a few years later in talking with Germany’s secretary of state: “It does not seem possible to me that Signor Hitler has forgotten that, barely seven months after his arrival in power, when diffidence and hostility surrounded him both internally and externally, the Holy See extended its hand to him, contributing with its great spiritual authority to increasing faith in him and strengthening his prestige.” Characteristically, Mussolini took credit for the agreement, having, he said, given Hitler his successful “recipe” for how to ingratiate himself to the Vatican.
Hitler had long viewed the Duce as his role model. At a Munich rally held only days after Mussolini became Italy’s prime minister in 1922, Hitler, then still one of many extremist claimants for attention in the German political firmament, was introduced as “Germany’s Mussolini.” “It marked,” observed Hitler’s British biographer, Ian Kershaw, “the symbolic moment when Hitler’s followers invented the Führer cult.” Over the next years, as Hitler plotted his rise to power, he kept a bust of Mussolini in his office. “Men like Mussolini are only born once every thousand years,” he remarked after meeting the Duce for the first time in 1934. At the pope’s urging, Mussolini took advantage of that meeting in Venice to offer Hitler his advice: it was best to keep the church happy.
Following his meeting with Hitler, Mussolini wrote to Pius XI, reporting what he had told the Führer. He decided it best not to mention, he confided to his ambassador to the Holy See, “all the idiotic things that Hitler said about Jesus Christ being of the Jewish race, etc.” What was important was that by the end of their conversation, Hitler made clear he did not want a religious war. It would be the first of many times the pope and Cardinal Pacelli would call on the Duce to speak with Hitler on their behalf.
Pius XI’s hopes for the German dictator did not last long. The Nazis soon began replacing Catholic parochial schools with state schools, abolishing Catholic youth groups, and limiting church activities to the purely sacramental. “The pope,” a Vatican police informant in late 1934 reported, “has a strong personal antipathy toward Hitler. If it were not for Pacelli who is trying to bring more balance to the situation, the Secretariat of State would be even less tolerant of him.”
Pacelli too would lose patience with Hitler when, in 1935, he launched show trials of large numbers of Roman Catholic clergy, charged with a variety of sexual and financial crimes. The German bishops urged the pope to act, suggesting he issue an encyclical to protest Hitler’s failure to abide by the terms of the concordat. Although Cardinal Pacelli, worried about antagonizing the Führer, advised against such a public protest, Pius XI went ahead. On March 21, 1937, Palm Sunday, bishops and priests throughout the Reich read the encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge (“With deep anxiety”), to their congregations, a shocking development in a country where any criticism of the Nazi regime risked violent reprisal. Predictably, Hitler was furious not only because of the pope’s attack but by his ability to have the text secretly distributed and then read in churches throughout the Reich.
Hitler’s occupation of Austria in March 1938 and its subsequent annexation into the Third Reich had been an embarrassment for Mussolini, for he had considered Austria as something of an Italian protectorate, a buffer between Italy and the powerful German state. Making matters worse, the Führer had informed him of the invasion only a few hours in advance. The next day Hitler triumphally entered Vienna to the ringing of the city’s church bells, a celebratory touch ordered by the city’s archbishop.
With millions more Catholics now under Hitler’s rule, the pope and his secretary of state looked all the more urgently to Mussolini for help. Five days after Hitler’s entry into Vienna, Cardinal Pacelli wrote Mussolini, thanking him “for Your moderating action with Signor Hitler, Chancellor of the German Reich, and for Your intervention against the continuation of the policy of religious persecution in Germany.”
Hitler’s regard for Mussolini, already considerable, had grown further when, shortly after the Führer’s spring 1938 visit to Italy, the Duce announced his new “racial” policy. Mussolini soon rolled out the first of Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws, closely resembling those Hitler had put into effect in Germany three years earlier. “After Italy’s new policy regarding the Jewish problem,” Hitler remarked, “the spirit of the Axis is complete.”
Copyright © 2022 by David I. Kertzer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.