In times of strife, people have historically looked up to leaders in faith for guidance. Some figures tend to be overlooked when reflecting on major points in history. One such figure was Pope Pius XI. Much commentary focuses on the role of his successor, Pope Pius XII with the outbreak of WWII, but not much is discussed about the role of Pope Pius XI. He played a critical role in standing up to the emerging Axis powers that were threatening the world prior to the dawn of WWII. His papacy was from 1922-1939. The book, “The Pope’s Last Crusade” by Peter Eisner highlights a notable story about the work of Pius XI during this time. It was a very insightful read.
The story details how he commissioned a Jesuit American priest, Fr. John LaFarge Jr. to compose an encyclical that was to be titled Humani generis unitas (On the Unity of the Human Race) in the summer of 1938on his behalf that was to be focused on the growing anti-Semitism and totalitarianism erupting in Germany and Italy by Hitler and Mussolini. Fr. LaFarge was a notable Jesuit priest in America and was involved with Jesuit publications that gained worldwide attention. He focused much of his writings on the dangers of his racism.
The book discusses much of the challenges that Pope Pius XI and Fr. LaFarge were facing during this turbulent time before the official outbreak of WWII. One notable chapter discusses how Pope Pius XI refused to be present in Rome when Hitler paraded through Italy and instead opted to spend time at his retreat house outside the city. He also actively encouraged the newspapers in Italy that still remained influenced by the Vatican to publish pieces challenging the coming threats he saw emerging that were leading to the outbreak of war. President Roosevelt also had opened up diplomatic channels with the Vatican to help lend support to his work, as he too was aware of this growing threat.
There were also, however, divisive forces in the Vatican that did not support Pope Pius XI’s strong platform and aggressive style against Hitler and Mussolini. These forces ultimately contributed to the encyclical never being published, it was commonly called the lost encyclical, later to be published in draft form by a newspaper decades later. In sum, as elaborated on in the book, those forces disrupted the final service of Fr. LaFarge’s drafted manuscript of the encyclical to the Holy Father. By the time it was received by the Holy Father for review, he was in failing health and never had the opportunity to publish it. Those forces knew how strong the stance against anti-Semitism and racist rhetoric were incorporated into the work, with their familiarity of the Holy Father’s view and Fr. LaFarge’s writings. On the eve of a great speech that was to be made by the Holy Father on February 11, 1939, he passed away after succumbing to his heart ailments that had troubled him for years prior. Many in the Vatican had feared the backlash of the Axis forces against the church and priests. They had cautioned the Holy Father with his approach, but the Holy Father had persisted with his courage.
When Pope Pius XII, who had worked under Pope Pius XI was named pope, he decided to not proceed with publishing the encyclical, thinking it raised too many controversial issues. It was, however, later understood that Pius XII had in fact worked to support the Jewish people harmed by the Holocaust and sought to shelter them within the confines of the Vatican. His approach, however, was more of an underground approach, not one to the public stature of his predecessor.
While Humani generis unitas was never published, the project still reflected Pope Pius XI’s passion for challenging the growing threat of Hitler and Mussolini that threatened the world. He was not afraid of the consequences, but persisted by staying true to his values and embodying the mission of Christ. I highly recommend, “The Pope’s Last Crusade”. When we look to heroes in history, let us not forget Pope Pius XI and his courage.