In the summer of 1939 Europe completed the last stage that led it to fall into the abyss of war. Only 20 years after the catastrophe of the First World War, this abyss was to open with a series of unspeakable atrocities.
In fact, the dismemberment of Poland – subsequent to the Agreement between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, too often forgotten – kindled the blaze that was to rage through a large part of the Old Continent, the Mediterranean Basin and the immense area of the Pacific.
From the monstrous extermination of the Jews, the unprecedented killing of civilians and the destruction of many cities on the Old Continent continued, fraught with new nightmares, until the nuclear epilogue. The annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the conflict unleashed by Japan, and likewise to the six years of the bloodiest war the earth has ever seen.
The lesson of the First World War proved to be in vain. Indeed, it triggered a sequence of injustices and above all the affirmation of totalitarian regimes – Soviet, Fascist, Nazi – which led Europe and a large part of the world to suffer unheard of evils.
Faced by the War, the Church of Rome never abandoned those frontiers of peace over which, with difficulty, she had began to preside at the beginning of the 19th century and, especially, in the last 30 years of the century when the loss of her temporal power actually favoured the expansion of her international influence.
So in the last days of his life Pius x offered himself, as it were, as a sacrificial victim, sensing the approach of the “Great War”, and Benedict XV strove to combat the senseless European tragedy, which – misunderstood and insulted by the opposing parties – he described as a “pointless massacre”. He mobilized, among other things, a “diplomacy of assistance” which, silently and effectively, was to characterize the Holy See's attitude once again in the Second World War.
In their respective diplomatic posts in the heart of Europe in flames, the future Popes, Pius xi and Pius XII directly witnessed the rise of the totalitarian regimes, the cause of the evils brewing. Moreover, since they both came to head the Holy See in the 1930s, they clearly saw the inexorable approach of the war that they endeavoured to avoid with diplomacy, reconciliatory policies and firmness on Catholic doctrine, in substantial harmony that was unimpaired by their very different personalities and temperaments.
It was not by chance that Pius xi's Secretary of State was so quickly elected at the Conclave. And Pius XII immediately had to face the impending situation: “Nothing is lost with peace; all can be lost with war”, was the last, unheeded appeal drafted by the Substitute Montini. Montini was also a close collaborator of the Pope in the tenacious rescue work that had already begun in the Vatican, in Rome, in Italy and in many other countries, where, beside numerous Catholics, the Papal Representatives – such as Roncalli in Istanbul – sought by every means to help the persecuted without distinction.
Thus, while the conflict was raging, Pius XII and those who were to succeed him in the See of Rome, John XXIII and Paul VI by name, were likewise champions of human reason and justice and witnesses of Christ's charity.
Pope Pacelli never ceased to preach peace, both during the war and in the post-war years. He supported the choice of democracy, rejecting the collective blame attributed to the German People, combating the Soviet totalitarianism – which imposed dictatorial regimes on many countries and spawned new evils – and unhesitatingly supported the difficult formulation of a unifying project for that “old Europe which was the work of faith and Christian genius”, yet had been incapable of listening to the Pope's Radio message broadcast on the evening of 24 August 1939.
Although Catholics were able in many ways to make important contributions to reconstruction and reconciliation, the Church of Rome symbolically ended the Second World War with the papal election of Karol Wojtyla – who, in 1989, almost 50 years after its outbreak, dedicated an Apostolic Letter to it – and of Joseph Ratzinger, precisely 60 years after the conclusion of the conflict. The future John Paul II and Benedict XVI had both suffered in the first person as sons of nations in conflict at the time.
From the historical viewpoint, both the choices made by the College of Cardinals showed the shallowness of many predictions based on antiquated political convictions, according to which the elections in 1978 and, especially, in 2005 would have been impossible.
Indeed, the geo-politics of the Church are different. And this is because, in view of the past, they look to the human being and to the future, their gaze fixed on a promise that will not disappoint.
St. Peter’s Square
Feb. 27, 2020
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