A WAY TO DIE
On that cheerless winter morning, February 10, 1939, Eugenio Maria Guiseppe Pacelli stood in the bedroom doorway, watching what was happening around the brass-framed bed. The two middle-aged nuns went about their work with the gentle movements he expected. Dealing with the dead was something years of experience had given them. For Pacelli dying was a guarantee of afterlife. Long ago he had learned that promise from his mother, Virginia, a pious daughter of the Roman Catholic Church.
Her son was His Eminence, the cardinal secretary of state of the Holy See, the second most powerful figure in the church. An hour ago, following the death of the old man in the bed, Pope Pius XI, Pacelli had become the most important figure in the entire Catholic world. He was now the Camerlengo, a position which combined the role of the Vatican treasurer and chamberlain of the Holy See. He would be responsible for organizing the funeral of Pope Pius XI and the conclave to elect a new pope.
Pacelli was sixty-four years old, of medium height, and slim with a typical Roman nose—straight with narrow nostrils and a slight bump in the middle of its ridge. Behind his old-fashioned spectacles was the look of a man who understood a situation at once.
Through the closed window of the bedroom high in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, from two hundred feet below, came the murmuring of the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, praying for the soul of Pope Pius XI, the church’s 261st supreme pontiff. For twenty years he had held numerous titles, offices, and power which had directly affected the lives of many millions of Catholics. For days Pius had been at death’s door, barely kept alive by the drugs his doctors administered. They had left the bedroom, their work finally over. Soon Pacelli would begin his.
Pacelli continued to watch the body, still clad in its white nightshirt. A nun had removed the bed socks the pope had worn because of his poor blood circulation, one of his many medical ailments. He was eighty-one years old, his skin taut on his skull, his hair wispy gray, and the veins stood out on the back of his hands. His eyes had been closed; no longer would they look with gentle inquiry.
Only days ago they had looked at Pacelli as he had sat at the bedside and they had spoken on a familiar subject, the fate of the Jews, or, more precisely, that of Guido Mendes and his family. To the pope and Pacelli they represented what was happening to Jews in Germany and Italy, in all those countries where anti-Semitism was spreading.
Guido Mendes was the son of a Roman Jewish family whose lineage went back to Fernando Mendes, the court physician to King Charles II of England. Eugenio had sat next to Guido at school and later in college. By then they were close friends; Eugenio was a regular guest at the Mendeses’ Sabbath dinners, Guido had his place at the Christmas Day Pacelli table. By the time Eugenio began to train for the priesthood and Guido had entered medical school, Eugenio’s circle of Jewish friends had widened to a dozen. They came to his ordination and watched him celebrate his first Mass. He had walked with them around St. Peter’s Square, pointing out the various statues of saints on top of Bernini’s colonnade. They had taught him basic Hebrew.
In a lifetime of travel when Pacelli returned to Rome he always made a point of inviting his Jewish friends to meet him. Increasingly they had questioned him about the treatment of Jews and he had told them what he had seen and heard had pained him and promised he would fight anti-Semitism with all the power he had.
That authority had reached its peak when Pacelli was appointed secretary of state in 1930. He had invited Mendes and his other Jewish friends to attend the ceremony and afterward introduced them to Pius XI.
On what was to be their last conversation before the pope had died, Pacelli had told him the Mendes family was now safely in Palestine. Until a year ago Guido had been a professor of medicine at the University of Rome medical school until Mussolini’s anti-Semitic racial laws had led to his dismissal. Pacelli had immediately asked the British minister to the Holy See, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, to provide the family with entry permits to Palestine, then a British mandate. Osborne’s readiness to help had started a friendship with Pacelli that would last.
Afterward Pacelli had also arranged for a number of other eminent Jewish scholars, doctors, and scientists to emigrate to the United States, South America, and other countries. He arranged for those who could not leave Rome because of family reasons—a seriously ill wife or a child at a critical part of his or her education—to have posts in the Vatican. They included a world-ranking cartographer, Roberto Almagia, who produced a monograph of the Holy Land. Since the racial laws twenty-three Jewish scholars were found positions by Pacelli in the Gregorian University, the Academy of Science, and the Vatican library.
On his deathbed Pope Pius XI had spoken of the need for Pacelli to continue his campaign against anti-Semitism.
One of the attending doctors would recall that Pacelli was close to tears as the pope said he must continue to be a defender of the Jewish people.
* * *
The nuns had completed their work and murmured the traditional words: “O Lord, I raise to you my prayer…” Below in the square came the sound of traffic and police setting up barriers to control the growing crowd gathering to mourn the passing of the pope.
Pacelli continued to gauge the moment for him to walk over to the bed. The emotions aroused by death were already settling over the bedroom. The faces of the two nuns were mournful, their voices soft as they prayed. Beyond the window the first rays of the sun passed above the limpid Tiber to touch the cross on top of the basilica of St. Peter. From the square the sound of prayer grew louder. Pacelli walked into the bedroom pausing only for the two nuns to leave. He stood beside the bed and delivered his own prayer.
* * *
As dawn began to lighten the sky beyond the bedroom window, Pacelli knew that before he could begin the funeral preparations and settle a thousand matters before a new pope was chosen in conclave, he must perform his first duty as a camerlengo. He removed the Fisherman’s Ring from the pope’s right index finger. Later he would use silver shears to break the ring in front of the assembled College of Cardinals before they went into conclave. When a pope was elected he would receive his new ring, a further symbol of his authority.
Pacelli bent over the body and kissed the forehead and hands before leaving the bedroom, closing the door behind him.
* * *
His office was on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace. At that early hour the view from any of its windows was impressive. Stretching into the distance were the domes, spires, towers, monuments, palaces, and parks of Rome. To the right of the windows rose the basilica; long ago, when Pacelli had become a fully fledged diplomat, he had memorized its proportions: 651 feet long, 535 feet high, with 71 supporting columns, 44 altars, and 395 statues. He found the details useful in making polite talk at official functions. To the left of the windows was the roof of the Sistine Chapel, offering no clue to the splendor inside. It was there that the cardinals would elect a new pope.
Pacelli sat at a sixteenth-century desk made in the days of Paul VI. It had a hand-tooled leather writing pad, a small clock in a solid-gold frame, a gold-top roll blotter, and a letter opener. They were gifts from his family to celebrate his appointment as secretary of state. One wall was covered with shelving holding leather-bound volumes of Vatican canon law and treaties Pacelli had worked on.
Pacelli placed his first telephone call of the day through one of the nuns who manned the Vatican switchboard. In moments he was connected to Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian foreign minister, informing him that the pope was dead. Having expressed his condolences on behalf of the government, Ciano told Mussolini. The duce had replied, “At last the obstinate old man is gone.”
Throughout the day the camerlingo had sent the same message to apostolic nuncios around the world. “Deeply regret to inform you Holy Father passed away. Inform all relevant. Yours in Christ, Pacelli, camerlengo.”
Across the world the first wire-service reports of the death were appearing in newspapers. In the office of L’Osservatore Romano in a featureless building near the Porta Sant Anna, one of the gateways to the Vatican, the editor, Count Giuseppe Dalla Torre, was preparing the next edition which would be entirely devoted to the pope’s death.
* * *
The winter sun had risen over the Vatican when the two Swiss Guards entered the bedroom of Pope Pius XI. They moved his body off the bed, onto a trolley, and draped it in a purple cloth. The two guards wheeled the gurney to a nearby service elevator and took the body down to the basement of the Apostolic Palace and through the corridors to a room beneath the basilica. Waiting there was the undertaker appointed by Camerlingo Pacelli to prepare the body for lying-in-state in St. Peter’s.
* * *
That night Pacelli sat at his desk and read the messages which had come from papal nuncios in Berlin, Warsaw, and Prague. All told the same story: Throughout the Third Reich the persecution of Jews not only continued but had increased. In the German capital Hitler had told a rally there was a need to find a solution for the “Jewish problem.”
When he finished reading, Pacelli drafted a message to all the nuncios in the expanding Third Reich. He had prayed for guidance before instructing them on an issue which had been raised on behalf of the German church: What should it do about the mounting terror? Pacelli had decided that, horrific though the persecution was, there must be no public denunciation by the church. To do so would, he believed, destroy an effective strategy he had devised to protect the Jews and give them an opportunity to escape the Nazi tyranny. It was a decision he recognized was the hardest request he could expect anyone to accept in the face of what was happening in Germany. But he himself would show it must be done. The strategy was silence. Any form of denunciation in the name of the Vatican would inevitably provoke further reprisals against the Jews.
His decision, he fully realized, would be misunderstood, since the atrocities already committed by the Nazis called for protest. Yet for him to do so would cause even harsher repression against the Jews. But silence would not preclude him from working behind the scenes to help the Jews. He hoped every priest would understand that his silence was also the only way to save the lives of as many Jews as possible.
The first link in Pacelli’s plan to save Jews had already been created on November 30, 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, a night of terror, when across Germany Nazis had burned down synagogues, houses, and businesses of Jews.
Pacelli had sent an encoded priority message to church archbishops around the world. He instructed them to apply for visas for “non-Aryan Catholics” to enable them to leave Germany. His choice of description of the status of the applicants was deliberately intended to try and ensure that the Nazis would not learn of his initiative and make propaganda against the Vatican as an ally of the Jews.
Pacelli had asked for the visas to be obtained under the concordat he had signed with the Nazis in 1933 which specifically provided protection for Jews who converted to Christianity. Pacelli intended they should be issued to Jews who were not converts.
Pacelli had the satisfaction of knowing that already the visas his bishops had obtained were allowing thousands of Jews to leave Nazi Germany. It would not be until 2001 that the figure of successful visa applicants would be revealed to be two hundred thousand who had left Germany in the weeks following Kristallnacht. None suspected the role Pacelli had played in gaining their freedom.
* * *
The Vatican became the focus of the world’s attention following the death of Pius XI. After the funeral there would be nine days of Novemdiales, the period of preparation for the start of conclave on March 1, 1939.
From dawn to late evening, soutane swishing softly in rhythm with his stride, Pacelli walked through the corridors of the Apostolic Palace. Each morning the camerlengo’s first stop was the Vatican Press Office to check how its staff were dealing with the hundreds of reporters and broadcasters who had arrived in Rome. Pacelli had ignored all but one for a request for a personal interview. The exception was Camille Cianfarra of The New York Times.
Long experience of how the church was portrayed in the media had made him cautious. All too often newspapers used the easy simplification of polemics and the pope was described as the head of a secret monotonic institution. Pacelli knew it was far from that. The Holy See was a disparate array of departments run by cardinals not always in agreement with each other. He knew that the coming conclave would show that. But in the meantime he left speculation to reporters as they tried to penetrate a closed world over which in the coming days he had complete control.
There were appointments to be made, telephone calls returned, telegrams sent. In between apostolic nuncios had to be seen on their return for the funeral; they would remain in Rome to brief the new pope on the situations in their host countries.
Britain had appointed a permanent minister to the Holy See at the outbreak of the First World War. When the war ended in 1918 the decision was taken to keep a diplomat in Rome to maintain a close eye on the Holy See’s support for Ireland’s demand for independence from British rule. In 1922, when Pope Pius XI was elected, Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the director general of MI6, reported “our envoy to the Vatican has still produced little of value.”
However within the secretariat of state Vatican diplomacy was on the move. Ireland had become a republic and a nuncio was appointed to Dublin for the country’s predominantly Catholic population. The problems of a divided Northern Ireland showed signs of deepening. In Canada, French Catholics and English Protestants were in open religious conflict. British colonies in Africa were in disagreement over denominational education. In Palestine the British mandate was in conflict over a date to be settled with the Holy See for the Easter holiday. Malta was another problem. The island’s population was fiercely Roman Catholic, but was governed from London. The island also had three Anglican bishops; the conflict between the Church of England and the Vatican had been exploited by Italian residents on the island.
It was one more reason for Britain to have a seasoned minister at the Holy See. In 1936 Sir Francis D’Arcy Godolphin Osborne was moved from his post in Washington to Rome. He was sixty years old, a sprightly figure, a devout Protestant, and the son of a noble English family, the dukedom of Leeds.
The Foreign Office had found Osborne a house suitable for a minister to the Holy See on the fashionable Via Mercadante. The tall, slim, unmarried diplomat had furnished it with fine taste: Antiques, paintings, and photographs were a reminder of a career which spanned periods in Washington, Lisbon, and the Hague. The library reflected his interest in astrology, telepathy, and astronomy. Wherever he was posted Osborne had sought out the most respected fortune-teller in the area. On his watch fob chain was a charm against cosmic rays. His circle of friends included the duke and duchess of York, soon to become king and queen of England.
A live-in Italian cook and an English manservant, John May, ran the house. Osborne’s private diary offered insights into the relationship between master and servant. They were on first-name terms when alone. “John told me we now have a plainclothes policeman watching the house. Intriguing and disagreeable.” Weeks later Osborne diarized, “Today John lost his temper and shouted at me which is intolerable.” Another incident compelled Osborne to note, “John’s rudeness gave me a bad night.” Among May’s duties was walking Osborne’s terrier, Jeremy. At night the dog slept at the foot of Osborne’s bed.
Osborne’s reports to the Foreign Office showed his eye for detail. “The pope is a likeable old man, very human, but a little long-winded.” “The secretary of state, Pacelli, has a lot of charm and a touch of the saint about him. He really is the intellectual power behind Pius, having drafted many of those documents which we admire.” “There is something sinister about Mussolini. All those Fascist students marching up and down outside my front door. And the Italian newspapers are full of gibes about Britain and Roosevelt.” “Had a good briefing from Francois Charles-Roux, the French ambassador to the Holy See. No doubt he has influence in the Vatican. Regards most of his colleagues as living for their pension. He wonders when the Americans will have someone in post. All in all a sound man, though his English isn’t that good.” Osborne spoke fluent French and had delighted Charles-Roux with his knowledge of French literature.
* * *
By the eve of the funeral of Pius XI, Pacelli had spoken to all of the nuncios and most of the Vatican diplomat corps. They confirmed that ecclesiastic circles in Rome were alive with gossip and intrigue about who would be the next pope. A great deal of it emanated from Monsignor Enrico Pucci. Balding, with restless eyes and a lisp, he had no post in the Vatican and had left the diocese of Milan shortly after Mussolini assumed power. There were rumors of a scandal involving a cathedral choir boy; more certain was that Pucci was a committed Fascist and anti-Semite. In Rome he had set up a news agency and claimed friendship with Pius XI from the time the pope had been in charge of the Ambrosian Library in Milan and had arranged for him to have access to the Vatican Press Office.
For visiting journalists coming to report the funeral and the outcome of conclave, Pucci provided credible-sounding information for which he was well paid. In the news blackout which Pacelli had imposed of never confirming or denying a story Pucci became an important source when he claimed to know the voting intentions of the thirty-five Italian cardinals. If they bloc-voted, Pucci indicated, it would provide the two-thirds majority required to elect a new pope.
* * *
Over lunch served by John May, D’Arcy Osborne learned from Pucci it was likely that in the first round of voting, the electors would very probably follow tradition and show Pacelli their appreciation for his work as camerlengo. But when it came to later voting, Pucci predicted it was unlikely that the secretary of state would gain overwhelming support.
The nine French cardinals led by Cardinal Henri Baudrillart had been summoned to meet Ambassador Charles-Roux who had made it clear who the French government wanted on the throne of St. Peter’s.
“Paris does not want another Pius or for that matter anyone influenced by Nazi propaganda. On the other hand Paris doesn’t want a weak pope,” Pucci had told Osborne.
The four cardinals from the United States, Pucci claimed, together with the five from Germany, could combine to push the candidacy of Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, the only non-Italian cardinal in the Curia. The Frenchman could also gain the votes of the Syrian cardinal and the Spanish cardinal of Tarragona who had fled to Rome from the Spanish Civil War.
Throughout the meal Pucci had worked his way through the list of potential candidates. “He was the showman I had expected, producing a name in between sips of wine, and pausing to pose a question. Should it be a religious or a political choice? It was good theatre,” Osborne noted.
The minister had asked Pucci again about Pacelli’s potential. From the British standpoint he would be an ideal choice, a pope who would continue to strongly challenge the Rome-Berlin axis. Pucci had sighed and spread his hands saying it was for that very reason Pacelli would not be elected. “Too close to Pius. There must be a change of policy. Conclave will go for a non-politician, a holy man.”
On that note the gossiping monsignor had left to go and peddle his predictions elsewhere.
* * *
Ugo Foa, the tall, silver-haired president of the Jewish community in Rome was breakfasting with his two teenage sons and daughter in their elegant apartment in Rome’s Prati district when their housekeeper announced there was a telephone call from the Vatican. A widower for the past three years, Foa had made breakfast a family occasion which could not be disturbed. Nevertheless, he could not quite hide his astonishment nor the children their excitement. In the past months there had been few calls for their father, let alone one from the Vatican.
The caller was a monsignor from the secretariat for non-Christian religions, announcing he was extending an invitation to attend the funeral of Pope Pius XI.
Foa found the request all the more welcome given his own position or, indeed, that of any Jew in Rome since the racial laws had come into force. Until then Fascism was virtually free from anti-Semitism and Jews were encouraged to join the movement. The Fascist Party was predominately middle-class and antiworker; its union-busting, strike-breaking tactics had found ready support among the professional classes the Jews increasingly occupied. But overnight Fascism became officially anti-Semitic.
Jews who held positions in the government were removed. Some had sat in the Chamber of Deputies or served as members of the Fascist Grand Council. One had been the deputy chief of Rome police, another a vice-governor of Libya. Margherita Sarfatti, Mussolini’s vivacious Jewish mistress for years and the editor of the Fascist Party’s ideological review, was replaced with the film starlet Clara Petacci, whose father, Dr. Francesco Petacci was the personal physician of Pope Pius XI.
Until a few months ago the fifty-three-year-old Foa would have worn his black gown and hat, symbols of his office as a magistrate of the City of Rome. He had his own courtroom in a pallazzo where he delivered judgements on cases which violated the Fascist legal code. His clerk regularly received invitations for him to dine at top tables in the city’s Fascist society. Mussolini had personally approved his appointment to be president of the country’s war veterans’ organization, Nastro Azzurro.
Decorated for valor in World War One, Foa had joined the Fascist Party in 1922 and qualified as a lawyer. His skills in prosecuting in the Tuscany courts came to the notice of the Ministry of Justice in Rome and he was offered a post in one of its departments in Rome. He was still deciding what to do—his wife preferred country life to that of the city—when she died. Foa and his motherless children moved to Rome, into the palatial apartment his legal funds in Tuscany had paid for. Within three months the minister of justice had appointed him as a magistrate. Foa’s fair judgments, his refusal to be swayed by what he called “courtroom tricks” had won him growing respect. Within the Jewish community its leaders saw in Foa the man they had long hoped to find. He not only had a brilliant legal mind, but was a scholar, a scion of a family who for centuries had been either bibliophiles or doctors. There was agreement among the community to appoint him its president.
Ugo Foa was one of the last to lose his position. Colleagues asked the justice minister to allow him to remain on the bench. The minister pointed out that the racial laws were not as oppressive as those introduced by Hitler and Foa’s skill as an advocate would ensure he could still make a comfortable living in private practice.
A number of Foa’s Jewish friends were leaving Italy to go to the United States and others were travelling to Palestine. They had urged him and the children to come with them. But Foa insisted he must remain in Rome. His children were at a crucial stage of their education and the community depended on him for guidance. Following the “Night of Broken Glass,” Kristallnacht, and the harsh treatment of Jews in Danzig and elsewhere in the Third Reich, he had advised them to remain in Rome because he was certain the Vatican would protect the community if the Nazis ever threatened them. Pius XI had always spoken up for the Jews and had shown respect for their faith.
Foa also met Cardinal Pacelli at various social functions and had found common ground when the secretary of state had revealed his own parents had been close friends with Ernesto Nathan, the first Jewish mayor of Rome. Foa had been astonished, and delighted, with Pacelli’s knowledge of Hebrew and they had often spoken the language together when they met. More than once Pacelli had expressed his admiration for the Jewish way of life.
Ugo Foa was filled with hope that the next pope would continue to speak for the Jews. It would be a question he would discuss with the community’s new spiritual leader.
* * *
Israel Zolli, the new chief rabbi of Rome, continued to follow the advice Ugo Foa had given him to get to know the people of the ghetto. Wrapped in a black topcoat and a black hat, he walked the length of Via del Portico d’Ottavia. Already the shops were opening—fruiters, bakers, clothiers, butchers—as their ancestors had done for a thousand years since the Emperor Augustus had dedicated the street to his sister, Octavia. A keen historian, Zolli saw that while the buildings dated mostly from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance there was still portions of Imperial Rome visible; decorative fragments of marble, pieces of an ancient sarcophagus, and the ruins of a portico where once the theater of Marcellus had stood. Along this street in the year A.D. 70 another emperor, Vespasian, had staged a victory parade for his son, Titus, on his return from his destruction of Jerusalem. Behind his chariots and the marching legions hundreds of Jewish slaves carried the precious artifacts Titus had stolen from the Second Temple. Zolli knew that some of those prisoners were ancestors of today’s people of the ghetto.
He was sixty-two years old, stocky, with a thick neck, and wore glasses which gave his bulging eyes the look of a man who sought approval from no one. He had arrived in Rome a few weeks ago with his second wife Emma and his daughters Dora and Miriam. His first wife had died after giving birth to Dora.
Responsible for the spiritual welfare of the city’s Jews, Zolli’s appointment made him one of the most important figures among Italy’s Jewish population of forty-five thousand.
Zolli knew he had been selected after a period of tension between the last chief rabbi, David Prato and the giunta, the Jewish committee under the presidency of Ugo Fao. Prato was a leading authority on the medieval Jewish manuscript, the fourteenth-century Haggadah and its liturgical poems. But he had found himself uncomfortable with some of the committee members who he felt “were promoting assimilation practices under the sway of Fascist ideology.”
The clash had arisen over how Mussolini’s racial laws defined who was Jewish. There were over seven thousand foreign Jews living in Italy and some had settled in Rome and married non-Jews. Prato insisted that children born from such unions were not “pureblood” Jews. The committee argued they were entitled to be raised in the Jewish faith, including their education. The racial laws banned all Jews from attending public schools. They must only go to Jewish schools funded by the local community. Prato insisted the Jewish school near the Tiber had no further room to expand to accommodate the children of mixed marriages. The committee proposed funds would be found to develop the school. The argument had continued until Prato had resigned his post and went to live in Palestine.
Zolli’s rabbinical career had been shaped by his mother, the daughter of a long line of rabbis. He had been born in the small town of Brody, part of Austria after the partition of Poland in 1795. His father ran a clothing factory and Israel Zolli, the youngest of five children, had studied at the University of Vienna and then the rabbinical college in Florence. His distinction grades include a degree in psychology and Semite philosophy.
In 1918 Zolli became rabbi of the Trieste community. Then came the offer to come to Rome in 1938.
He had brought with him to Rome a small library of his own published work. They included essays on Dosteyevsky and the Jews, and the role of Chaim Weizmann in history. He had authored a book on Hebrew literature which became a bestseller across the Diaspora.
On that February morning Zolli had cut short his walk around the ghetto to go to St. Peter’s Square. In a few days he would be a member of the basilica congregation celebrating the funeral Mass for Pope Pius XI. He would sit beside Ugo Foa, knowing that for the community leader it would be only a ceremonial occasion. To Zolli it would have a far greater significance—one he could not share with anyone.
* * *
From early morning crowds had filled across St. Peter’s Square into the basilica where Pope Pius XI lay in state. Swiss Guards were in constant attendance, one at each corner of the catafalque on which lay the triple coffin—the inner one of bronze, the second of cedar, and the outer coffin of cyprus to symbolize the request Pius had left in his will that his funeral should be simple, as he wanted to die un povero, a poor man. His other request had been that all his private correspondence should go to the Secret Archives, while his official papers were to be made available to the next pope. In between all his other duties Pacelli had supervised the collection of the documents and had them sealed in boxes.
The evening before the funeral the last of the mourners had made their way past the coffin and back down the nave, past the basilica’s twenty-eight altars and the statue of St. Peter whose right foot gleamed from constant kissing by the faithful.
Only when the great doors of the basilica had been closed had Pacelli slipped through a side door into the nave and made his way to the bier. A single candle burned with a steady flame in the still air. The four Swiss Guards stood motionless as the camerlengo knelt beside the coffin to pray in silent farewell. Close to tears, he rose and walked slowly out of the basilica.
In a side chapel near the basilica’s altar a nun, disarmingly petite with luminous blue-gray eyes, rose from kneeling, her prayers over, with a movement which made her appear a full generation younger. Pascalina was Pacelli’s housekeeper and confidante.
* * *
Next morning the great bells of St. Peter’s stopped their mournful tolling and the requiem Mass for Pius XI began. In front of the coffin sat the red-robed cardinals, led by the dean of their Sacred College, Eugene Tisserant. The gruff voice of the bearded Frenchman’s responses during the service would rise above the singing of the choir.
Behind the cardinals sat the bishops. Among them was Alfredo Ottaviani, the head of the Holy Office, the most powerful of the dozen Sacred Congregations. Behind him sat his staff, their black soutanes relieved by red sashes and red buttons. The tallest was a muscular, bespectacled Irishman, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. His ecclesiastical career had already made him a respected figure. Now it was his powerful baritone voice that impressed others around him as he sang.
The guests in the section reserved for the heads of state included the seventy-three-year-old King Emanuele III of Italy. Alongside him sat King Carlos of Rumania, and King Leopold of Belgium. Neaby sat Benito Mussolini and his cabinet. The duce wore his military uniform, the politicians black suits. General Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, wore a black arm band on his uniform. Joseph Kennedy, the father of the future president of the United States, represented the United States.
In an adjoining section were the ambassadors and ministers to the Holy See in morning dress. Behind them was a square-jawed blond-haired man with blue eyes and a polite smile dressed in a black suit with a small Nazi Party emblem in his buttonhole. He was Major Herbert Kappler, attached to the German embassy in Rome as a consultant on security.
In the section reserved for distinguished guests sat Foa and Zolli. With them were the leaders of Rome’s business community and industrialists who had made the journey from all over Europe. Other guests had come from the United States, South America, and Canada.
In a cordoned area reserved for Vatican staff sat Pascalina and other nuns chosen from convents in Rome. Among them were the Jews Pacelli had found positions for in the Vatican. They included Professor Giorgio Levi Della Vida, a world-ranking authority on Islam who Pacelli had placed in charge of cataloguing the Vatican’s collection of Arab manuscripts; Professor Tullio Levi-Civita, who had been Italy’s top physicist before the racial laws barred him from his research; and Professor Giorgio Del Vecchio, a close friend of Pacelli, who had been forced to resign his position at Rome University as its expert on international law—he now worked in the secretariat of state as a special advisor to Pacelli.
Ninety minutes after the Mass started the body of the pope was laid to rest in his tomb in the basilica crypt. As the mourners emerged into the great square the speculation resumed: Which of the cardinals burying Pius would take his place?
* * *
On March 1, 1939, Dalla Torre, the editor, arrived early at the office of L’Osservatore Romano. At his desk he removed his Roman collar and set to work. His desk was covered with paper: items clipped from the Italian press, call-back messages still to be answered, and the biographies of the sixty-two cardinals eligible to vote in conclave. He checked each one and sent them over to the Vatican Press Office to distribute to over two hundred reporters who had arrived in Rome to cover what was an event of international importance. This was the first papal election since the Lateran Treaty.
The energetic Monsignor Pucci had provided the press with his own latest analysis on the outcome. “If the electors want an intelligent pope they will favor Cardinal Luigi Maglione. If a handsome pope is required they will vote for Cardinal Federico Fedeschini. He is tall and slim with regular features, a noble air, and beautiful hands. If it is to be a ‘holy man’ then they might install Pacelli.” It was the first time the journalist-priest had tipped the secretary of state as a potential front-runner for the throne of St. Peter’s.
* * *
At four o’clock on that March afternoon four cardboard boxes were carefully loaded into a van outside 34 Via Santa Chiara, a small, nondescript square behind Rome’s Pantheon. This was where the House of Gammarelli, tailors to the Vatican, had its shop. Each box contained a complete set of papal vestments: extra-large, large, medium, and small sizes of a white-silk cassock, red velvet stretch slippers, with a small cross embossed on each, a white silk sash, a rochet, a mozetta, a red stole embroidered in gold, a white skullcap, and white cotton stockings. The cassocks were left with their backs and hems held together by long looping stitches. The sleeves were also deliberately unfinished. A set of garments would be sewn to fit the chosen pope before he stepped for the first time onto the central balcony of St. Peter’s to greet the world. From the time conclave began a Gammarelli tailor would remain in the Sistine Chapel side room waiting to be called to make the final adjustments.
* * *
At six o’clock the cardinals filed into the chapel and took their places. In a corner of the chapel stood the stove in which the results of unsuccessful ballots would be burned.
* * *
In L’Osservatore Romano Dalla Torre checked the different proofs of the newspaper’s front page. Each contained a photograph and potted biography of one of the cardinals the editor believed could be the next pope. If all the editor’s predictions proved to be wrong, he knew his carefully pre-prepared plans to obtain a scoop would ensure the nearest thing to a panic in a newspaper trying to meet a deadline.
* * *
At six-fifteen Pacelli, as master of ceremonies, called out two words. Extra omness. Everyone except the cardinals must leave. The doors of the chapel were locked from the outside by the commandant of the Swiss Guards. Conclave was under way.
* * *
In St. Peter’s Square the crowd steadily grew, everyone glancing frequently toward the smokestack jutting out of the roof of the Sistine Chapel. From there would come the signal: black for an inconclusive vote, white for a successful election.
Inside the chapel the voting began. Before each cardinal was a two-inch-square card which bore the words: “Eligio in Summum Pontificen”—“I elect as supreme pontiff.” Beneath the words was a space to write a name.
What would happen beneath the horrors of Michelangelo’s version of the apocalypse—where Jesus is portrayed as judge and king, shorn of enigma, ambiguity, and mystery—was supposed to remain a closely guarded secret. But this was 1939 and the election of a new pope was of great concern to secular powers, perhaps more than at any time in history.
The French ambassador to the Holy See, Charles-Roux, had his informer, the sardonic French cardinal Henri Baudrillart. How he conveyed the voting details has remained a matter of conjecture. One suggestion is that one of the nuns, a member of a French order who prepared the meals for conclave, was slipped the results of the voting by Baudrillart to pass on to the ambassador.
In the first vote Pacelli had led with twenty-eight votes, Luigi Maglione had come second with nineteen, and Elia Dalla Costa had achieved four less. After dinner the voters retired to their cells, furnished with beds borrowed from a Rome seminary. The following morning after celebrating Mass and eating breakfast the cardinals voted for a second time. Dalla Costa’s supporters had gone over to Pacelli, giving the secretary a significant lead.
At five o’clock that evening of March 2, the cardinals voted for a third time. Pacelli had the required majority of forty-nine votes to be elected. It had been the swiftest conclave in three hundred years. It was also Pacelli’s sixty-third birthday.
He chose to be known as Pope Pius XII and appointed Cardinal Luigi Maglione as secretary of state. Pucci, the tireless gossip, informed reporters that “the monk in Pacelli and Maglione’s liking for the good life will never make them compatible.”
On March 12, Pacelli’s coronation took place in St. Peter’s Basilica. It was estimated that over a million people gathered in St. Peter’s Square and spilled down the length of the Via della Conciliazione. It was also the anniversary of the Lateran Treaty, which Pacelli had helped to negotiate.
Among those in the basilica was Pascalina, joining in the applause as the procession made its way down the nave. First came the ambassadors and distinguished guests, then followed the Curial cardinals, the archbishops, bishops, and abbots. After a short pause, came the new pope, borne aloft on the sedia gestatoria, the traditional papal sadan chair. Pius XII bestowed benedictions left and right as the congregation sank to its knees as he passed. The voices of the Sistine Chapel choir filled the basilica. “Tu es Petrus, et super banc aedificabo ecclesiam meam.” Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”
Pascalina allowed tears to run down her cheeks. The previous evening Pacelli had told her she was to become housekeeper of the papal apartment. She had reached the pinnacle of her career.
* * *
That evening, after he had met all the heads of state and distinguished guests, Pope Pius XII had invited a gathering of family and close friends, including the Jews he had found sanctuary for in the Vatican, to join him in one of the Apostolic Palace’s salons. He chose as the theme for his first speech as pope a passage of the encyclical he had written for his predecessor, Mit Brennender Sorge (with burning anxiety).
“… Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the state, or a particular form of state, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community—however necessary and honorable be their function in the worldly things—whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds…”
In those words Pius had declared his position as a champion of the Jews against Nazi Germany. The “silence” he had urged his nuncios and bishops to obey would now be joined by what Pius hoped was the most effective weapon he possed—his words.
He intended to demonstrate their power in his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, which he would write in the coming weeks as the dark shadow of war darkened over Europe. He would ask for peace but reject Nazism and would remind the world “there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision.”
Those words were seen in Berlin as a clear-cut warning that the pope would fight to save the Jews.
Copyright © 2012 by Gordon Thomas