9. Oratio pro Pace: Pius XII and the Coming of the Second World War
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9 | || Oratio pro Pace Pius XII and the Coming of the Second World War In 1932 G. K. Chesterton, the foremost Catholic publicist of his day, predicted that the most terrible war in human history would break out before long on the frontier of the Second Polish Republic he lauded as the bulwark and hope of Christendom.1 Seven years later his prophecy came true, visiting ruin upon the country and plunging Europe into a nightmare half decade of violence and destruction. As the invading German and Soviet armies overran and partitioned the land Stalin’s foreign minister reviled as the “ugly bastard of Versailles,” the newly enthroned bishop of Rome, the pope of the Church most Poles regarded as their own, made anguished reference to the calamity in his first encyclical. “The dread tempest of war is already rising despite all Our efforts to avert it,” he wrote. “When we think of the countless disasters that are happening . . . the pen might well fall from Our hand. . . . The blood of countless human beings raises a dirge over Our dear Poland which, by its fidelity to the Church, by its exertions on behalf of Christian civilization . . . has a just claim on the generous and brotherly sympathy of the whole world.” The pontiff voiced his prayerful belief that Poland would attain “the hour of resurrection” through the intercession of Mary, Help of Christians, and added that none could doubt his own fatherly sorrow and care for his Polish flock in their affliction.2 But in fact great numbers of Poles in all stations of life shared a sense of dismay that their pope had denounced in plain words neither the evil done to them nor the evildoer by name. The disappointment damaged the prestige of the papacy in Polish opinion for years to come and played into the hands of Communist propagandists eager to blacken the reputation of the Church they saw as a political and ideological rival.3 Pius XII is the most controversial of modern popes; the debate focuses almost entirely on what he said or did, or did not say or do, in the face of the Nazi German genocide of European Jews. Often overlooked is the fact that the papal “silence”—if so it can fairly be called—in response to the Shoah was preceded and foreshadowed by the analogous and painfully cautious reaction of the Holy See to the German assault on Catholic Poland that touched off the Second World War. For reason of these similarities, examination of the approach taken by the Vatican to the shattering of European peace in 1939—well meaning, but helpless and ineffectual in the end— also can shed light on the more publicized disputes regarding his pontificate that have inspired the flurry of polemics some have called the “Pius wars.”4 As the cardinals of the Catholic Church gathered in Rome in February 1939 to designate one of themselves as successor to the deceased Pope Pius XI, some speculated that the choice might fall upon the primate of Poland, Archbishop Hlond of Gniezno-Poznań.5 This was flattery or idle chatter, as Hlond himself understood: to him it was obvious that the next pontiff would be Italian, and would have to be well versed in politics and diplomacy so as to deal with the challenge posed by the aggressive German dictator, Adolf Hitler, who was both “genius” and “madman.” In his view this could only improve the prospects of the odds-on favorite, the sitting secretary of state, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli.6 So stellar seemed the qualifications of this ascetic Roman aristocrat that Pius XI had openly groomed him for the papacy, contrary to established Vatican protocol, steadily building up his résumé to make his eventual elevation to the Chair of Peter a foregone conclusion. When the decisive moment arrived, the vote of the Sacred College was a mere formality. Pacelli received election as pope with near-record speed, on the first day of the conclave, and took the same name as his predecessor whose right-hand man he had been. Foreign capitals greeted the advent of Pius XII with approval or distaste , depending on their reading of his stance on matters touching their own interests, and in 1939 one issue, and one only, dominated the agenda of Europe: the mounting appetite of Hitler. As if to drive the point home, three days after the formal inauguration of the Pacelli pontificate on March 12, Germany swallowed the rump Czechoslovakia that...


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Subject Headings

  • Church and state -- Poland -- History -- 20th century.
  • Catholic Church -- Poland -- Bishops -- History -- 20th century.
  • Poland -- Foreign relations -- Catholic Church.
  • Catholic Church -- Foreign relations -- Poland.
  • Secularism -- Poland -- History -- 20th century.
  • Poland -- Church history -- 20th century.
  • Poland -- Politics and government -- 1918-1945.
  • Piłsudski, Józef, 1867-1935.
  • Catholic Church -- Poland -- History -- 20th century.
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