|Coat of Arms of Pius XII|
I remember the death of Pius XII. It was a Wednesday night—a school night—and we had just gone to bed, probably about 9:30. For some reason I had gotten up after about a half hour and gone back downstairs where my parents were watching television. I heard the news bulletin break through the television show they were watching. In those days, it was black and white, of course and I vaguely remember that the program may have been Bat Masterson, but I do remember clearly how startling an idea it was that the Pope was dead. I didn’t know any other pope, of course. When one is young, one does not think of a pope dying. The Pope was an institution, not a human being. Pius XII. There had been a Pius XI, but that was long before me. As a kid still in grade school, I had never given it much thought but presumed there had only been Piuses. Twelve of them. A link through the centuries to Peter and through Peter to Jesus, to God. I really was pretty unsophisticated, I guess but for a generation who only knew John Paul II, the shock was similar. Popes just seemed to be the bridge between us in this world and God in the world above. Of course, Pius XII was, or seemed to be, no mere mortal—he transcended the world of the simply human—this was a Pope who seemed to float above our everyday world, who represented the Divine to our spiritual imaginations. When it came to Popes, Pius had lulled us into a sort of monophysitism where his humanity had been absorbed into a papal divinity.
This was no accident. Pius was a man who invented the papacy for his age. He understood, at least at a subliminal level, the idea that the “medium is the message” long before anyone heard of Marshall McLuhan. And for those of us of his generation, no Pope would ever measure up to Pius XII. He set the bar as to what a Pope should be.
Now I don’t want this to be taken as a negative, and I am not trying to be funny or to ridicule, but in fact, Pius was somewhat of an ecclesiastical Sheldon Cooper. He was a brilliant man but a social misfit who was incapable of normal human relationships. He was all intellect and no conscious affect; a man of rigid protocols and compulsive routine. He was born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli on March 2nd 1876 to a Princely family of the “Black Nobility”—the Roman aristocracy that refused to recognize the Kingdom of Italy and its claims on the former papal states. The Pacelli were steadfast supporters of the Papacy and its lost claims to civil power, and family members were among the most active employees of the Holy See. Eugenio was one of four children—two boys and two girls and was educated as a day student in various private schools. At eighteen he enrolled in Rome’s most ancient seminary, the Collegio Capranica. The Capranica is not only the oldest seminary in Rome but perhaps the most exclusive, admitting less than a dozen new students each year. At the same time it has turned out a remarkable number of prelates for the Church.
There was no doubt that Pacelli was not to be a simple parish priest but would go on for a career in the Church. His family connections and social position guaranteed that, but still Eugenio could not handle life in the seminary. He had been a coddled child—not inherently delicate but much cossetted by his parents, particularly an over-devoted mother. He had never been encouraged to form friendships with other children at school. He had no peers—others lacked the impeccable social standing of the Pacelli. His inability to develop peer relationships made life at the Capranica impossible, but no other collegio was suitable—and, in any event, would have been no less disturbing to the introverted young seminarian. Yet it was unthinkable that he should withdraw from priestly studies. Permission was sought and easily obtained that he should live at home while continuing his studies. This, of course, only served to reinforce Eugenio’s isolation and retard his social development.
Now when I say that his social skills were arrested, I do not mean that he lacked the proper forms of etiquette. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like other families of the Black Nobility, protocol was very air which they breathed. The Pacelli, like other Black families, were rigid in maintaining their public appearance in matters of dress, speech, conveyance, entertainment, table-manners, and other aspects of social niceties. Frankly, they would have made Downton Abbey look like the Beverly Hillbillies. The honor of the disenfranchised papacy depended on the uncompromised social propriety of its nobility. But again, this very artificial living environment made Eugenio compulsive (at the least) in all matters of public persona.
When it came time for ordination to the priesthood, Eugenio was not ordained with the other candidates for the Diocese of Rome, but was ordained by himself in a private ceremony in the personal chapel of Archbishop Francesco de Paolo Casetta, Patriarch of Antioch and soon to be Cardinal, on Easter Day 1899. As ever, Eugenio was to stand alone—he had no peers. He had a brief assignment to his home parish, the Chiesa Nuova, allowing him to continue to live at home, but after two years was given a post in the Secretariat of State and given the assignment to be the personal representative of Pope Leo XIII to deliver condolences to King Edward VII of England on the death of Queen Victoria. This is an interesting assignment. Pacelli was 25 years old and a simple priest and yet was sent to a King on the personal behalf of a Pope. Rome and England had no official diplomatic ties of course—and English Law prohibited any such official ties—yet diplomatic niceties required the personal—if not official—condolences. The messenger obviously had to be totally unofficial—thus not a prelate—and yet a person of sufficient standing to represent a Pope and not be a slight to the King. Pacelli was perfect. While not a prelate, he was a noble. And he could be counted on to have the gravity and savvy to carry this off. It also was a clear sign that he was going to be someone.
Pacelli’s rise was quick. He received the Roman Doctorate and became a monsignor by 28. He stood in favor of Pius X’s Sectretary of State—and, for all practical purposes, vice-pope—Cardinal Merry del Val. He accompanied Merry del Val to London for an International Eucharistic Congress in 1908 and he was sent back to London to deliver the congratulations of the Holy See to George V upon his coronation in 1911. On these trips he met several Englishmen, including Winston Churchill, whose contacts would be invaluable during World War II. By 1917 he was an Archbishop and papal nuncio to Bavaria. As such he handled all diplomatic ties of the Holy See for the German Empire as Berlin and the Holy See did not have formal diplomatic ties. This was the final year and a half of World War I, so it was a crucial post at a crucial time. His post as nuncio was formally moved to Berlin and the Weimar Republic in 1920 and he continued in this post until recalled to Rome in 1929. He was prescient about Hitler and the evils of National Socialism, but he also had had to deal with the threat of a Communist Revolution in Munich after the German collapse of 1918. In 1929 he was created cardinal and named papal secretary of State to Pius XI, a post in which he continued to serve until h is election as Pope in March, 1939.
Pius was a skilled diplomat but, unlike his successor as Pope, Giuseppe Roncalli (later John XXIII) he owed his success not to personal charm but to his rigid rationality and aristocratic manners. Pacelli was not a man, he was a machine. Very atypical to the Italian personality, he was highly structured and manically organized. He was a stickler for detail and he never let down his guard regarding the dignity of the offices he held whether it that of the priesthood, a papal diplomat, or Cardinal Secretary of State. Not the slightest jot or tittle of protocol was overlooked. Ever. He was always dressed impeccably and to his rank. His manners were flawless. His residence, whether official or while in transit, was perfectly in keeping with the demands of his station. The guard was never let down. There was no personal life nor any personality—he was always exactly what he was expected to be whether in public or in private.
During his time in Germany he built a staff of very talented aids that were to remain around him for the remainder of his life: Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, Father Robert Leiber SJ, and the Franciscan Mother Pasqualina Lenhert. These were talented and competent people, and like Pius, people who were totally devoted to the institutional aspects of Catholicism and who tended to view the world from a structuralist perspective. They would have been totally unable to understand the personalist philosophy and policies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis would send them totally around the bend. Pasqualina was particularly interesting as she was cut of the same protective—and isolating—nature has had been Pacelli’s mother. Again, think of Sheldon Cooper.
Pius was elected Pope on his 63rd birthday, March 2, 1939. There was nothing of the Italian parish priest about him as there had been of his predecessors Pius X or Pius XI. (Benedict XV, Pope between the two Piuses, also lacked a personal warmth, but was not the automaton that was Pacelli.) As Pope Pius maintained the austere personal habits he had followed his entire life. Moreover, no detail of papal ceremony or prerogative was overlooked or abandoned. He took his meals in absolute privacy as he had always done. He ran his life by a schedule as rigid as the German railways. His housekeeper, the German nun Mother Pasqualina, served as bouncer to the Papal apartment, determining who had access to the Pope and when. No breach of lèse majesté was tolerated. Even senior Cardinals could not get past her. Appearing in public, Pius always had an ethereal look on his face. He could not look another person in the eye or bear to be looked at in the eye—this was all his inability to sustain human contact.
Allegedly Pius had once “vice”—and that was a love for speed. When travelling the road to the papal summer residence at Castle Gondalfo in the Alban Hills south of Rome, he would order his chauffer to go faster and yet faster.
So it was Sheldon Cooper in Papal drag. Sadly for many neo-trads this “otherworldly” figure has become the papal ideal. John XXIII and John Paul I were huge disappointments, for some even scandals. Paul VI and Benedict XVI came closer to the ideal, but still fell considerably short. Francis seems to them to be no more than a buffoon in what shambles of a papal vesture remain. This is what happens when we confuse eccentric with holy, arrested development with the “spiritual.” Don’t get me wrong—I am not saying that Pius was not a good man. He was an extremely complex man and a rigid moral code was part of that complexity, too rigid in fact. But we never saw the man—only the persona that he created to keep the man hidden. Pius may have been an extreme when it comes to this artificiality, but he is not unique. For many priests the persona or the mask of the perfect priest is the way that they keep from having to deal with the man behind the mask, or the penis beneath the cassock. Strange for a religion whose central doctrine is the incarnation? Good to have a Pope like Francis where what you see is what you get.