Defending Pius XII; A Pope for All Priests

«Fighting Nun» Publishes New Book on Wartime Pontiff

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JUNE 18, 2009 ( She may be 87, but Sister Margherita Marchione isn’t even close to retiring.

The indomitable sister of the Religious Teachers Filippini, and ardent defender of Pius XII, has just published a new book on the wartime Pontiff which she launched in Rome last month. Called «Pope Pius XII — An Anthology on the 70th Anniversary of Coronation,» the work is just one of over 60 she has written. Most of them are passionate defenses of Pius against accusations he did too little to save Jews in World War II.

Meeting Sr. Margherita is always a pleasure. A loveable, tiny nun whose broad New Jersey accent matches her tough resilience in clearing Pius’s name, she ardently defends Pope Pacelli’s holiness and innocence at every opportunity. And her historical research is supported by a growing number of prominent figures, including the highly reputed Jewish historian Sir Martin Gilbert and — increasingly — rabbis and ordinary Jews.

She began campaigning to clear Pius XII’s name after hearing of the many Jews who were saved through hiding in the convent of her Order in Rome. She also has especially fond memories of meeting the wartime Pope in 1957. «Just that one time I met him, I can still visualize him,» she recalls. «Just thinking about him, I can hear his voice — there was something about him that was so saintly.»

But this isn’t mere sentiment: She backs up these claims with hard facts. He was not silent, she says, as his condemnations of Nazism were regularly reported in L’Osservatore Romano and on Vatican Radio; she stresses that whatever the bishops or apostolic delegations did in Europe to save Jews was on the Pope’s instructions; moreover, she argues that all the convents, monasteries and the Vatican itself opened their doors to hide Jews because Pius XII had asked them to. «What more could he have done?» she asks.

What Sr. Margherita and many others have been trying to counter is the so-called black legend – a smear campaign masterminded by communists in the Soviet Union after the War to discredit the ardently anti-Communist wartime Pope. He was not silent during the war, says Sr. Margherita and others in his defense, but kept a low profile in order to avoid aggravating the situation of the victims.

Sr. Margherita also is quick to brush away one criticism which often comes up: that other Catholics who lost their lives to save Jews, and who have not yet been beatified, should be elevated to the altars before Pius XII who survived the war. She insists Pius XII did lay down his life — he risked his own self and was prepared to die (a recent testimony has given credence to rumors that the Nazis secretly planned to kill or kidnap Pius in 1943). «Can you picture the kind of fear he experienced day in and day out?» she says. «What would happen to him and the Catholic Church, the Vatican? He had a terrible responsibility.»

But according to the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, no convincing miracle attributed to Pius XII (necessary for beatification) has yet to been found, which is why Sr. Margherita is keen to press Catholics to pray for one. She gave me a 1958 prayer card in the hope that ZENIT readers will do their part. It reads:

«O Jesus, Eternal Pontiff, you deigned to elevate to the supreme dignity your Vicar here on earth, your faithful servant Pius XII and to him you gave the grace of being an intrepid defender of the faith and a courageous asserter of justice and of peace, a devoted glorifier of your Holy Mother and a luminous model of charity and of all the virtues. Deem worthy now, in view of his merits, to grant us the grace that we ask of you. We are certain of his efficacious intercession and we hope to see him one day glorified on your altars Amen.»

Sr. Margherita — nicknamed the «Fighting Nun» — remains ever hopeful that she will see Pius XII beatified in her lifetime. And it’s a hope coupled with characteristic good humor. In a recent telephone call to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, she told him: «I’ll be back in the fall for the beatification.»

«Pope Pius XII — An Anthology on the 70th Anniversary of Coronation» is published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana as a bilingual edition in Italian and English. For more information, visit

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Getting the «Little Picture»

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was proclaimed Pope, I vividly remember the joy of a priest friend standing next to me in St. Peter’s Square. «Cardinal Ratzinger,» he said, «was a «priest’s cardinal.'» It struck me then as an interesting insight, which now appears to be spot on.

Tomorrow, Benedict XVI will inaugurate the Year for Priests — the first time since the Congregation for Clergy was founded at the Council of Trent that the Church has paid such special attention to priests.

It’s just one of many examples of how much he values the priesthood. Elsewhere, Benedict XVI’s esteem can be seen most clearly in his addresses to priests and seminarians. Frequently, on such occasions he has spoken about reaffirming a priest’s identity, about being «a humble but real sign of the one, eternal Priest who is Jesus.»

More specifically, he has given them firm words of guidance and encouragement, especially in light of today’s pressures and challenges. Addressing clergy in Warsaw, Poland, on May 25, 2006, he reminded them that the faithful «expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists in promoting the encounter between man and God. The priest is not asked to be an expert in economics, construction or politics. He is expected to be an expert in the spiritual life.»

He added: «In the face of the temptations of relativism or the permissive society, there is absolutely no need for the priest to know all the latest, changing currents of thought; what the faithful expect from him is that he be a witness to the eternal wisdom contained in the revealed word.» He later stressed that Christ needs priests «who are mature, virile, capable of cultivating an authentic spiritual paternity. For this to happen, priests need to be honest with themselves, open with their spiritual director and trusting in divine mercy.»

But the most emphasized point of Benedict XVI has been for priests to live Christ-centered lives. In a speech he gave last year to young people and seminarians at the St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, New York, he urged them to deepen their friendship with Jesus the Good Shepherd, and talk heart-to-heart with him.

«Reject any temptation to ostentation, careerism, or conceit,» he said. «Strive for a pattern of life truly marked by charity, chastity and humility, in imitation of Christ, the Eternal High Priest, of whom you are to become living icons. […] Remember that what counts before the Lord is to dwell in his love and to make his love shine forth for others.»

His main concern is that priests be centered on the Eucharist — something that was clear from his first speech as Pope, in the Sistine Chapel in April 2005: «The ministerial Priesthood was born at the Last Supper,» he said. «All the more then must the life of a priest be «shaped’ by the Eucharist.»

Four years on since that momentous day when we watched Benedict XVI’s election in St. Peter’s Square, I asked my priest friend to expand on why he described the Pope at his election as being a «priest’s cardinal.» «He is obviously a priest first and a big cheese second — someone who doesn’t lose sight of the little picture,» he said. «Too many bishops lose sight of the little picture, and say «We can’t worry about that, we have a big conference/Mass/organization to worry about.'»

«Look how he has introduced kneeling for holy Communion,» continued the priest, who comes from Britain and serves in an Italian parish. «A very powerful gesture, but it is n
ot really a gesture, it is just normal if you respect the Eucharist… Look at his horror of child abuse: He looks at it from the position of a priest sullied by association rather than a CEO. Look at the way he preaches to parishes and children: He doesn’t grandstand for the cameras or for the press, he speaks directly and is not easily distracted.

«Look at the lifting of the [SSPX] excommunications: an act of profligate generosity, which flew in the face of fashion, but then a priest is always profligate with mercy. … Look at his idea of creating a smaller Church: Any priest who is not an administrator will know that to renew a parish there is much to cut away.»

The priest concluded: «He is obviously interested in Truth and wants others to be interested in the Truth too, not in him. Priests don’t have vocations to be bureaucrats, they just become them, weighed down and demoralized by relentless diocesan ‘big picture’ initiatives, and some bishops who want a quiet life. But he has never lost sight of why he wanted to be a priest, of what helps and of what doesn’t.»

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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