As the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XII approaches, errors regarding his life and involvement with the Holocaust continue to persist, says historian Sister Margherita Marchione.
Sister Marchione, an expert on the life of Pius XII, wrote the recently published "Crusade of Charity: Pius XII and POWs, 1939-1945" (Paulist Press).
In 2003 the Italian-American nun received the "Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice" Cross, a papal award, for her work in promoting the truth about Pius XII.
Sister Marchione described for ZENIT the Pope's tireless efforts to save Jews and reunite prisoners of war with their families. Part 2 of this interview will appear Sunday.
Q: "Crusade of Charity" is your sixth book on Pius XII and the role of the Vatican during the World War II. What new perspective on this Pontiff does the new book offer?
Sister Marchione: "Crusade of Charity: Pius XII and POWs" is an untold story.
It presents Pius XII as a compassionate, loving Pope -- a man for all seasons -- whose efforts to console and inspire people in all walks of life, of all ages and religious convictions, are expressed in the words of loved ones in letters addressed directly to Pius XII to whom they confided their dreams, sorrows, hopes.
During World War II, young and old, Jews and Christians appealed to Pius XII for help in locating missing sons, husbands, relatives and friends. In his name the Vatican Information Office dealt with the requests and provided information to comfort them.
I tell the fascinating story of the grieved and heroic people in their own words interspersed with letters, telegrams and reports of the apostolic delegates who, at the direction of the Pope, visited prisoners in camps spread around the world.
Q: The book has two sections: It talks about what Pius XII did to help save Jews, but then a much larger part on what he did to help the prisoners of war during World War II, on both sides. How did Pius XII involve himself in these activities?
Sister Marchione: Vatican documents describe Pope Pius XII's efforts to terminate the war and to mitigate the tragic effects.
My book reveals that the Vatican Information Office offered a powerful system for prisoners of war to communicate with their loved ones.
As a young monsignor, Eugenio Pacelli had acted as emissary for Pope Benedict XV during World War I. The young diplomat directed this network of relief activities for three years and gained international respect for his spiritual as well as material assistance to all, especially prisoners of war.
Working with the International Red Cross and the Swiss government, he began negotiations for the exchange of wounded prisoners and interned civilians. As a result of his tireless efforts, his negotiations allowed thousands of civilian prisoners unfit for military service, together with the elderly, children, physicians, priests, sick soldiers and hostages to be exchanged and returned home.
Benedict XV acknowledged Pacelli's work by consecrating him a bishop on May 13, 1917. As soon as World War II began in 1939, Pius XII re-established the Vatican Information Office.
Q: What was it that inspired 20 million people to write to the Vatican to locate their missing loved ones? Why did they put so much confidence in the Church?
Sister Marchione: Regardless of race or religion people throughout the world contacted the Holy Father for help. Some asked for his blessing, others for material assistance.
Yes, research in the Vatican Secret Archives revealed that there are 20 million documents; not only the original letters requesting help for prisoners of war, but copies of the responses and all other pertinent information recorded on file cards. Here one finds information on prisoners of war with the first name, surname, date of birth, parents, profession, rank, and domicile of each individual.
Of course, research was relatively simple if the addressee was a prisoner, an internee, or an exiled person who sent news to his family; but it was a difficult task when relatives had received no news from the addressee for a month or a year or more. At times, the search for information was etched in desperation. Hundreds of volunteers helped Pius XII in the Vatican Information Office.
Desperately seeking help, families from every social class wrote to Pius XII. Letters were written with little formality but much hope.
I love this undated letter, number 00425091, from a child: "Dear Pope, I am the little girl who sent you Christmas greetings last year. Now I am sending you greetings for this Christmas. But I want news about my uncle, my mother's brother, Tonino Mangano, who is in America on Avenue Gremponti -- Greenpoint Avenue -- Brooklyn, and I want to know how he is and send him many kisses. I pray every evening that all my uncles come home, and also that Jesus will bless you."
Nor did non-Catholics hesitate to ask for assistance. "I'm not a believer, but I'm turning to you, Mr. Pope," one letter began. To help in this mission, Vatican Radio broadcast 1.2 million shortwave messages asking for news about missing individuals.
The papacy rescued Jews by channeling money to those in need, issuing countless baptismal certificates for their protection, negotiating with Latin American countries to grant them visas, and keeping in touch with their relatives through the Vatican Information Office. News of Pius XII's acts of charity spread.
Nuncios, apostolic delegates, bishops, pastors, and priests offered their assistance and comfort to prisoners, to internees, to families. The Vatican magazine, Ecclesia -- a collection of articles concerning the activities of the Vatican Information Office during World War II -- was published weekly from September 1942 to December 1945.
Incidentally, in this magazine I found photographs of the Religious Teachers of St. Lucy Filippini who had joined the volunteers. They were answering letters addressed to the Holy Father. This confirms the response of our superior general who stated in an interview printed in a book, "The Church and the War," that each day the sisters carried their typewriters to the Vatican.