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Pius XII and the scourge of war

· On 19 July 1943 Ally airplanes bomb the city ·

The United States Air Force bombed Rome on 19 July 1943. Fr Egidio Picucci has brought to life that Monday, 70 years ago when the attack targeted mainly the neighbourhood of San Lorenzo, killing about 1,800 people. When the last bomb had exploded, he says, when the rumbling of the planes which had devastated everything and the successive waves had faded, the scene the locals beheld gave rise to general incredulity. The walls left standing looked like the ragged backdrop of a stage carried away by the wind. The people’s morale had hit rock bottom; no one had expected an attack of the kind and all were wandering about, dazed and silent, in the dusty streets heaped with debris. Rome, the Eternal City was no more.

The news that the Pope was to visit San Lorenzo at about half-past five in the afternoon did much to relieve the people from the anguish that oppressed them. At the appointed time there was a general rush to the Basilica. Outside it the people clustered round him, the tears in their eyes more eloquent than their words. Visibly moved, Pius XII opened his arms as if to clasp them to him and never let them go.

To recall the tragic event L’Osservatore Romano published moving accounts of the two visits that the Pope made to the devastated city after the bombardments (the second was on the following 13 August). On learning of the disaster “in a most private manner, with no escort, not even taking the time to inform court dignitaries, at 5:20 pm Pius XII promptly left the Vatican, accompanied only by Msgr Giovanni Battista Montini, Substitute of the Secretariat of State. At the sight of the sorrowful spectacles of devastation, the Pope had his driver stop for some time while he asked news of the victims and the extent of the damage. His striking pallor betrayed his inner suffering. And with a little difficulty, in front of the ruined pronaos of the temple, His Holiness succeeded in climbing down, accompanied by cheers and applause. Heedless of the rough terrain strewn with rubble, the Successor of Peter genuflected, asking everyone to recite the Christian prayer for the victims mourned. He stayed with his children for more than an hour and a half.

The bombs caused incalculable damage to the city’s historic and religious patrimony. They damaged particularly seriously the Cemetery of Verano (where the tomb of Pope John XXIII’s family, the Pacellis, was also hit), as well as the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Work on the reconstruction of the Basilica began in 1946 and was made possible thanks to the dedication, in those years that were so difficult, of Giovanni Battista Montini, Richard Krautheimer and Fr Antonio Ferrua.

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