When I was a young priest, sometime in the 1970s, I was sent on a parish mission somewhere in the south of England. I visited an old lady, a widow, who in my memory was dressed in black lace. She had grown up in aristocratic circles, her family in the diplomatic service, and in the 1930s she had been in Berlin. There she often sat at table with the papal nuncio to Germany, Eugenio Pacelli, the man who was to become Pope Pius XII. It strikes me now as a very powerful human connection, that I met a lady who knew Pacelli and dined with him.


I am now re-reading a book about this pope by John Cornwell. He entitled his work Hitler’s Pope, a very provocative title, but not without reason. I am trying to get a picture of what Pacelli was like, just as I have recently been trying to get a picture, from Hilary Mantel, of what Thomas Cromwell was really like as a human being, and of the time in which he lived.


Pacelli died in October 1958, just as I had gone away to a junior seminary to begin the long road into catholic priesthood, at the tender age of 11 years. I remember watching the funeral on television in the seminary common room. Pacelli always looked gaunt and other worldly. He was private, yet sociable in his encounters, and he was all-powerful. He embodied and he lived in an age when what the pope says is all that matters.


I didn’t know whether I like him or not. He seemed too remote. His successor was the complete opposite, and the whole world loved John XXIII. If Pius was remote, John was convivial. Paul, who followed was lonely in the end. John Paul I seemed a happy man. John Paul II a determined man. Benedict XVI was a scholarly man, and now Francis one of us.


In the ordination ceremony it says that a priest is chosen and set apart for sacred duties. Pacelli lived out this calling to its extreme. Everything was centred on him alone. This aloneness contributed to the way in which he dealt with everything, and it seems that his great mistake in Germany was to think that by making a bargain with Hitler, a diplomatic treaty, he had done well for catholic Germany. In fact he had disabled every catholic institution in that country that might have opposed the rise of the Nazi party.


This is the danger of exercising power from within an isolated bubble.

Brian Fahy

1 October 2022


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