A strong leader, a holy man: Pope Pius XII

Raymond A. Lucker

Bishop defends record of pope who led church in troubling times

As I come closer to the end of my term of office as bishop of New Ulm, I have been led to reflect on the history of the church during these years of momentous change in church and society. One of the tasks of wisdom figures is to look back and, learning from the experience of our lives, hand on a vision to the present generation.

There is a controversy in the public media over the role of Pope Pius XII, who led the church during World War II. Some say he didn't speak out forcefully enough or even that he was silent in the face of the Nazi regime in Germany, especially in its mass slaughter of the Jews of Europe.

I always looked up to Pope Pius XII. He was the pope during my formative years of adolescence, of my seminary days and the early days of my priesthood. I remember his election on March 12, 1939, after one of the shortest conclaves in the history of the papacy. I was in the sixth grade, and it was one of the first times that our teacher brought a radio into the classroom. The local radio station was broadcasting a direct shortwave report from Rome in which the dear/of the College of Cardinals amidst the crackling static announced from the balcony of St. Peter's: "We have a pope. He will be called Pius XII."

Pius had a reputation for holiness. He had an ascetic, even an aloof look, tall, thin, with penetrating eyes. I admired him. I revered him. He was an engaging teacher, speaking out on many topics. In 19571 had the opportunity to meet him and speak with him briefly at a papal audience. A year later he died.

Pius XII was a great pope. He lived in a time of world-wrenching straggle, bringing changes that would continue until the end of the century. He combined a strong personal rule with a scholarship that helped to prepare the way for the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII less than a year after Pius died. In helping to prepare the church for the Second Vatican Council he contributed to and prepared for the development of doctrine, which is so hard for many people to understand and accept in the church today.

While the church is of divine origin, the Body of Christ with Jesus as its head and the Spirit of God as its giver of life, nevertheless it is made up of human beings, all of whom are sinful and on pilgrimage. It is hard for some of us to remember that all of us, including church leaders, make mistakes in teaching and in action. We are constantly in need of deeper understanding of the mysteries that have been revealed to us by God. We believe, of course, that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit and that in matters of faith the church cannot err, and that in an extraordinary way the Holy Father is guided in the teaching of truth.

I remember how deeply I was affected by Pope Pius XII during my seminary days when he wrote three encyclicals on major themes that would be dealt with at Vatican II. The first, published in 1943, was on the Mystical Body or the church of Jesus Christ. That encyclical became the basis for our course in the seminary on the church. It gave us a whole new view of the church; we are the Body of Christ, we share in the very divine life of God. God is our father. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters of one another and united in one body through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. I recall Benedictine Fr. Godfrey Diekmann speaking about this at National Liturgical Conferences. I responded, "Yes, this is it!"

Nevertheless, Pius XII did not go far enough. The nature and mission of the church became a major theme at Vatican II. Pius identified the church of Jesus Christ with the Roman Catholic church. The council, building on Pius' work, taught that the church of Jesus Christ is found in the Roman Catholic church, but it is broader than that and is found, although not fully, in other churches as well.

Likewise in 1943 Pius XII wrote an encyclical on biblical studies. It encouraged biblical scholars to go back to the original languages and to use the tools of historical and textual criticism in their work. This was revolutionary. The encyclical became a charter for a Catholic revival of scripture studies, reversing directives that had been made by the Pontifical Biblical Commission 50 years previously. Vatican II extended and clarified issues in scripture study in its Constitution on Revelation. This in turn had led to a widespread revival in the church in the reading of the Bible, a much richer selection of scripture readings in the liturgy, and the formation of thousands of faith sharing groups, including in my own diocese of New Ulm.

Then in 1947 Pius XII issued an encyclical on liturgy. I remember how excited the leaders of the National Liturgical Conference, liturgical scholars and theologians were about the encouragement of the pope, about active participation of the laity in the sacred liturgy and the call for the liturgical movement to be deeply rooted in patristic and theological studies.

Pius XII spoke on many topics of great concern to the church in dealing with issues in the public order. He gave these messages especially in conjunction with international gatherings held in Rome. He spoke to students, to business people, to scientists, to people in the medical professions. He defined the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma of faith, but only after worldwide consultation with bishops, theologians and the people of the church.

Yes, Pius XII was a great figure and because of his greatness he also made some mistakes. He opened up many issues for discussion in the church. Some of his teachings were later changed, added to or built upon by the Second Vatican Council.

Pius taught clearly and forcefully in his 1950 encyclical, "On False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine," that once a clarification on a debatable issue was made by papal teaching in an encyclical the matter is closed. Nevertheless, only 15 years later Vatican II was open to the development of doctrine on some papal teachings and took positions different from Pius himself -- on ecumenism, on the church, on religious liberty, the relationship of church and state, and on original sin.

To go back to the present controversy, I believe that Pius XII did in fact speak out against the Nazi and Fascist regimes as he also warned against the evils of communism and the Russian takeover of Eastern Europe. He did speak and act in defense of the Jews and in support of human rights, against racism and the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi government. Through him hundreds of thousands of Jews were protected in the Vatican and in the convents and monasteries of Rome and elsewhere, saving them from deportation and death. For this he was acknowledged and thanked by Jewish leaders throughout the world immediately after World War II.

Some of the slanders against Pope Pius XII and the Catholic church for its alleged silence about the Holocaust originated by the Russian communists who saw in Pius XII a strong voice against the dangers of communism and its push for world domination.

Could he have done more? Could he have been more explicit in his defense of the Jewish people and in his condemnation of the Holocaust? Perhaps. He had to make the best decisions he could in very troubling circumstances.

Pope Pius XII is a good example of the human side of the church. He was a great teacher, a strong leader, a holy man. He was a prophet who helped lead the church to reform and renewal. He made mistakes, yet the Spirit of God continues to build on his greatness.

Raymond A. Lucker is bishop of the New Ulm, Minn., diocese.

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