By Carmen Elena Villa
ROME, JUNE 7, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The future Pope Pius XII enjoyed spending his summer vacations at the beach of Santa Marinella.
Last Saturday, a bronze bust of him was placed at that beach, to honor the World War II Pope and all the “righteous of the world.”
Before being placed at the site, the bust was presented to Benedict XVI. The honor of this task was held by Sister Margherita Marchione, of the community of Religious Teachers Filippini. She is one of the world’s principal biographers of Pius XII.
“So many pictures were taken of me in a few seconds,” Sister Marchione recounted to ZENIT while she looked at the images of her brief meeting with the Pontiff.
This nun, born the daughter of Italian immigrants in New Jersey in 1922, has a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University. In the last 15 years, she has published 10 book in English and Italian on Pius XII.
ZENIT: You met Pius XII. What was this experience like?
Sister Marchione: I met him in fact in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1957; I came to Rome with his niece Elena Rossignani Pacelli. He approached us. We were in the first row. I held his hands in mine and kissed them, and spoke with him. He asked me questions. He wanted to know what I was doing in Rome. I was already a sister, but young, in a certain sense. I explained to him that I traveled and did research. I was writing my thesis on the poet Clemente Rebora. He asked me about the family. He gave me his blessing. It was such an impressive occasion for me that I can still see it again. He spoke to me as if we were friends of many years. I was struck by his kindness, his smile. The emotion I experienced, the impressions I have from this meeting are precious, indelible memories, which I have had my whole life. In fact, he exuded holiness.
ZENIT: Why did you decide to become Pius XII’s principal biographer?
Sister Marchione: In 1995, almost 40 years after my meeting with Pius XII, I was here in Rome for a general chapter and I learned that our sisters, the Religious Teachers Filippini, saved 114 Jews in three convents of Rome. I was amazed and I said: How come? These are things that no one speaks about, that no one writes about. I learned this by chance. I became interested in Pius XII. I spoke with the sisters [involved] who were still alive and I was impressed by the work they — as so many other Italians — had done to hide the Jews. On my return to America, I began to be interested in the issue, I interviewed Jews who had been our guests and I wrote a first book. I have [now] written 10. I was able to interview some persons who had suffered, who were here in Rome during that period. I abandoned all my other interests and I began to write only about Pius XII.
ZENIT: How were the sisters of your community able to hide the Jews?
Sister Marchione: The sisters in all the convents were very courageous in hiding Jewish women. Even if bread was lacking for themselves, they gave half of what they had to these women. There were 60 Jewish women. If the Nazis had not believed the sister who said that no one was there, not only these women but also the sisters who were hosting them would all have been sent to Auschwitz. Hence, much courage was needed. I admired what they did and I wanted to make these facts known.
ZENIT: Other works of yours speak of Pius XII’s silence.
Sister Marchione: Yes. Some Jews accuse him of silence, but it isn’t true. His silence was prudent. He did everything possible to save the Jews, it could be said “behind the scenes.” He could not start to fight America, England, Germany, the Russians. In the book “Architect of Peace” I reported important documents. Pius XII’s charitable work was universal, magnanimous, assiduous and, above all, paternal in Christian terms, in the most profound sense of the term.
Pius XII maintained a diplomatic network in the Vatican during the whole war. He was personally interested in every human case made known to him. Young people and old went to him to receive help and to find dispersed relatives. Innumerable requests arrived daily from all countries worldwide, and all received his attention.
To make possible correspondence with prisoners’ families, he instituted the Office of Information for Research, a unique archive that contained information on prisoners of war. The task of Holy See employees [there] was to inform the families on the state of prisoners.
ZENIT: What do you think of the negative judgments of Pius XII?
Sister Marchione: History must tell the truth, that the Catholic Church saved more than 5,000 Jews in Rome alone. It is a disgrace not to recognize it. For me it is necessary to tell the truth. In these books I have wished to make known Pius XII’s virtues, the theological and cardinal virtues. I will give a few examples: He ate very little, he did not drink alcohol or mixed it with water during meals, he did not eat deserts, he was very mortified and had a strong character. He demonstrated he had faith, hope and charity.
ZENIT: Can you tell us about this Pope’s personality?
Sister Marchione: He had the gifts of the Holy Spirit to a heroic degree, with all the virtues, theological and cardinal. He was prayerful — a serene, tranquil person dedicated to every duty as Pontiff. By nature he was a timid person, and preferred tranquil environments. Gentleness as opposed to severity, persuasion as opposed to imposition. He was very humble and sincere, for him everyone was equal. I remember him as a saint, that’s all.[Translation by ZENIT]