After almost three centuries, on 2 March 1939, a Roman who was Secretary of State was once again elected Pope. Seventy years ago, the Cardinals' choice converged on Eugenio Pacelli, the closest collaborator of the deceased Pontiff. The man designated, who was celebrating his 64th birthday that same day, took the name of Pius xii as a tribute to his two Predecessors, Sarto and Ratti, whom he had mainly served.
The Conclave, with only three ballots in less than 24 hours, was among the shortest ever to have been held. For the first time, moreover, the entire College of Cardinals had taken part, in other words including all the American Cardinals, who had arrived too late at previous papal elections.
The Pontificate that was to prove one of the most important in the 20th century thus began in an international situation soon to be on the brink of war. The new Pope, marked by deep piety and recognized as such even by severe critics such as Ernesto Buonaiuti, was with all likelihood the best trained and most brilliant exponent of a papal diplomacy that included even men as extraordinary as the two closest collaborators of the Secretary of State who had just become the Successor of Peter: Giovanni Battista Montini and Domenico Tardini, whom the Pope immediately confirmed in their key roles.
Ever since he had served in the Secretariat of State under Pius x, then as representative in the Germany of Benedict xv and, lastly, as the first collaborator of Pius xi, Pacelli had acquired a unique and first-hand experience of both of Church's situation and international affairs. And the Pontiff put this experience to good use in his service as Pope which he carried out, from the first day to the last, with scruples equal only to his training strict and continuously updated.
Attention to modernity, already very keen in the young Pacelli, was in fact one of the characteristics features of the new Pope. This was later to be recognized by Montini who described Pope Pius xii in a note he wrote immediately after the death of Pope Pius xii described him as "a friend of our time" and, who with his sensitivity extended by the extraordinary five years of John xxiii's Pontificate and the beginning of the Council, followed in Pius xii's footsteps as his second Sccessor. xxx
It was precisely this combination of a rigorous theological, juridical and spiritual training in accordance with the best traditions of the Roman clergy, international openness also in a certain way Roman and marked attention to modernity that was to enable Pacelli in continuity with Pius xi and the Popes that preceded him to help Catholicism, after the appalling tragedy of the war, to face the transition to a new epoch.
Signposts on the way were the election of John xxiii, and then, especially, the Second Vatican Council that Paul vi directed? and brought to conclusion, in addition to initiating its implementation.
The beginning of the Pontificate was nevertheless enveloped in the spreading gloom that in his first Encyclical Pius xii called "the hour of darkness".
Thus the abyss of war and the unspeakable horrors that resulted from it even before the Shoah gaped wide. Pacelli, defenceless like his Church, held firm, tirelessly repeating words of peace and working silently to save as many human lives as possible.
This work of peace continued in the post-war period with the support of reconstruction and democratic decisions was first recognized but subseuqnetly forgotten, indeed obscured by polemical and historically unfounded exploitation.
Seventy years after Pacelli's election a broad and more balanced consensus on his action during the war and on the importance of his Pontificate seems to have returned. This is doing justice to history even before it is done to a great Pope.
St. Peter’s Square
Nov. 13, 2019
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