Wartime diaries unveil more on Pope Pius XII

  • September 14, 2013

TORONTO - The only published diary of a high-ranking Holy See official from the Second World War will soon be available in English.

The Secrets of a Vatican Cardinal: Celso Costantini’s Wartime Diaries, 1938-1947 is a set of memoirs from the diaries of Cardinal Celso Costantini in the years leading up to and just beyond the Second World War. The book provides insight from an inside member of the Roman curia on issues of the day, including the Nazi occupation of Rome, the fall of Mussolini and the birth of republican democracy in Italy.

“It reveals perspectives and positions previously unknown or guessed at in relation not only to fascism and Nazism (but) also toward the allied powers in the conflict,” said Laurence B. Mussio, English translator of the diary and assistant professor of communication studies at Hamilton, Ont.’s McMaster University.

Bruno Fabio Pighin, a professor of Canon Law at the Faculty of Canon Law at St. Pius X Canon Law Institute in Venice, discovered and edited the cardinal’s diary. It was published in Italian in 2010 after the Vatican granted permission.

McGill- Queen’s University Press will publish the English version of The Secrets of a Vatican Cardinal, making it available for purchase by the end of this year.

The diary touches upon perhaps the most controversial aspect of the papacy of Pope Pius XII: did the pope do enough to protect Jews from the Nazis? Controversy has plagued Pius’ legacy, with historians asking could the pope have done more.

“The fate of the Jews of Rome come through in these pages,” said Mussio, adding that readers will gain an understanding and thought process of Pius XII and see that he was a “protagonist for peace.”

Readers will learn of some of the ways the Vatican worked to save Jews. He cites the example of a couple who knocked on the doors of the Propaganda Fidei (propagation of the faith, now known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) in the middle of the night, giving up their baby for protection. The parents ended up being sent to a death camp, but the baby was kept safe and would eventually be raised in the Jewish faith. Readers will also learn about the scale of operations by which the Church secured aid for displaced persons, victims of war, orphans, etc.

Costantini was “very close to Pius XII,” said Mussio. “He was meeting with Pius on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. They shared many of the same objectives. What is less known about Pius XII, he was very interested in the mission of evangelization.”

Costantini shared that interest in evangelization. He was secretary of the Propaganda Fidei. He was also the first apostolic delegate to China in 1922, helping shape the Catholic Church in China.

The cardinal’s family never knew about Costantini’s diary. After his death, it was kept in diocesan archives in Italy because those that knew of its existence thought its contents were too sensitive.

Through the diary, Costantini becomes a better known and understood figure, said Mussio.

“He was a reformer,” said Mussio, adding that the cardinal, before Pope John XXIII established the Second Vatican Council, wanted to open up the Church and make it less Roman, wanted to form an ecumenical council like Vatican II and would also have liked a non-European pope.

Robert Ventresca, a history professor at King’s University College at Western University in London, Ont., acknowledges Costantini as an important figure since “he reflects a Church starting to open the world beyond Europe.”

But he’s not so sure that Costantini was really in the innermost circle of Pius XII and said he was at best a marginal influence on the pontiff.

But Ventresca — who authored the Pius XII biography Soldier of Christ — said he is still looking forward to reading The Secrets of a Vatican Cardinal.

“He was a unique eyewitness to the events, especially during the Second World War when Rome itself was occupied after 1943, first by the Germans and then liberated by the Allies,” Ventresca said.

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