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In 1934, an anonymous Catholic wrote to Pius XI for peace

Your Holiness, I pray
You go to Geneva

 Santità, io prego  DCM-004
06 April 2024

Ninety years ago, a courageous French Catholic woman embarked on a remarkable mission for global peace. With boldness and faith, she penned a letter to Pope Pius XI, offering her prayers and presenting concrete proposals that, even in retrospect, resonate with profound foresight. Her visionary plea entreated the Holy Father to venture to the League of Nations, the precursor to today’s United Nations, in Geneva. There, she envisioned him rallying the nations of the world toward a spirit of brotherhood inspired by the teachings of Christ, while also advocating for the establishment of a “United States of Europe.” With these intentions, she herself launched a prayer cycle “so that heaven will save you”.

“Marie-Marthe” is the name of the anonymous writer of this singular letter dated January 13, 1934, from which transpires a lived, honest, and profound faith. A feminine faith that does not retreat into the private sphere. The letter, from the Burgundian pilgrimage site of Paray-le-Monial, a centre of spirituality of the Sacred Heart, is kept in the Vatican Apostolic Archive. (AAV, Segr. Stato, 1933 [sic], rubr. 323, fasc 1., prot. 128494)

“Marie-Marthe”, evidently an educated Christian attuned to the pressing concerns of her time, harbored a deep-seated apprehension for the fate of Europe, and aligned herself with the sentiments expressed by Pope Pius XI. Against the backdrop of a continent ravaged by the tumult of the world economic crisis, where despair gripped the populace and governments faltered under the weight of instability, she recognized the looming specters of Adolf Hitler’s ascendance to power in Germany and the ever-looming threat of Bolshevism from the East. In her earnest missive to the Pope, “Marie-Marthe” presented two pivotal axes for the future prosperity of nations: the establishment of a global economic order and the pursuit of peace, both intrinsically intertwined with the fate of Europe. Yet, she implored the Pontiff to wield these levers of change in a novel manner—by venturing forth beyond the Vatican, into the world.

“We believe that the resolution of conflicts hinges upon the intervention of His Holiness, specifically through his presence within the League of Nations,” she ardently communicates to the pontiff. In a pragmatic suggestion, she notes that “the expediency of air travel could swiftly transport you from Rome to Geneva”, the seat of the League. Drawing a parallel with the actions of the “pilgrim of peace”, Jesus Christ, who ventured to the places where his transformative work was needed, she underscores the potential impact of the Pope’s physical presence in the global arena.  Pope Pius XI is encouraged to embrace the belief “that he can remind the governments of nations that Christ is the Master capable of rekindling in souls and consciences the righteousness, honesty, justice, brotherly love and spirit of peace that peoples demand and expect”.

It is improbable that the audacious propositions outlined in this anonymous Catholic's letter was ever presented to the Pope, given the unconventional nature of the ideas presented. The notion of a pontiff traveling by plane? Just five years prior, Pope Pius XI had navigated the intricacies of the “Roman Question”, reaching a resolution with Mussolini that effectively ended six decades of papal “captivity” within the Vatican. While it's true that Pius made a symbolic visit to the Holy House of the Virgin Mary in Loreto in 1933, the prospect of a Pope embarking on a journey to Calvinist Geneva to address assembled statesmen on matters of global peace and even advocating for a 'European Union' would have seemed implausible in 1934. The political landscape of the time, coupled with the established norms of papal diplomacy, rendered such scenarios difficult to fathom.

The notion of popes as “pilgrims of peace” found its genesis merely three decades later when Pope Paul VI inaugurated this epoch of Church history with his historic visit to the Holy Land. Remarkably, in that same transformative year of 1965, he embarked on a second journey, this time to the United Nations headquarters in New York. One might speculate: Could it have been the young priest serving in the Secretariat of State, Giovanni Battista Montini, who in 1934 first laid eyes on the letter from Paray-le-Monial, carefully perused its contents, and filed it away for future reference? In addition, could it be that, thirty years and a world war later, as Pope Paul VI, he honored the visionary suggestions articulated by 'Marie-Marthe' by boldly journeying to New York and delivering a seminal address at the UN? The vision of a “Union of the peoples of Europe” envisioned by 'Marie-Marthe' had indeed come to fruition in the intervening years, buoyed by the explicit endorsement of Pope Pius XII.

Today, it is commonplace for popes to embark on trips and deliver speeches to parliaments and multilateral organizations, while advocating for economic justice has become a consistent theme throughout papal history, extending beyond the pontificate of Francis. However, ninety years ago, a devout Catholic woman from the French provinces demonstrated extraordinary courage by proposing unprecedented avenues for the head of the universal Church to pursue peace. It is not that the world is now at peace, far from it. Yet, the courage inspired by prayer continues to illuminate the path forward, just as it did then.

by Gudrun Sailer
Journalist Vatican News