Wartime pontiff advised aides to relocate Vatican departments abroad and to elect new leader
BY SIMON CALDWELL
THE VATICAN drew up secret plans to appoint a new pope and relocate the Curia to a safe country if Adolf Hitler went ahead with his threat to kidnap the wartime pontiff, according to secret archives.
Pope Pius XII informed leading bishops that his resignation would become effective from the moment he was arrested by the Nazis.
The bishops would then be expected to flee to a safe country – probably neutral Portugal – where they would re-establish the Vatican departments and appoint a new leader.
The revelations were confirmed last week by German Jesuit Fr Peter Gumpel, the relator of the cause for sainthood of Pius XII, after rumours of the existence of the documents began to circulate in Rome.
Fr Gumpel had been granted privileged access to secret archive material to help him with his research into the Pope’s life and found the documents among the files.
The documents, which remain secret, are said to show that Pius was aware of a plan formulated by Hitler on July 26 1943 to invade the Vatican and arrest him and his senior cardinals.
On September 6 1943 – ust days after Italy signed the September 3 armistice with the Allies – Pius told key aides that he believed his arrest was imminent and that he would take the decision to resign at that point so the Church could continue to govern itself in exile.
“It is certainly true and it is equally true that Pius said: ‘If they want to arrest me they will have to drag me from the Vatican’,” said Fr Gumpel.
The Pope, he said, was recorded as saying that “the person who would leave under these conditions would not be Pius XII but Eugenio Pacelli”, his name before he was elected leader of the Catholic Church.
“Some measures were then taken to ensure the governance of the Church at the highest level,” said Fr Gumpel. “It would have been disastrous if the Church had been left without an authoritative leader.
“I know that this happened but I can’t mention any names of the people involved,” he said. “It is the period still covered by secrecy.” He added: “Pius wouldn’t leave voluntarily. He had been invited repeatedly to go to Portugal or Spain or the United States ... but he felt he could not leave his diocese under these severe and tragic circumstances.” Pius’s decision to resign once he became a captive would have been unprecedented in the history of the modern Church.
The last Pope to resign was St Celestine V, a hermit who, put off by the political and financial complexities of his office, quit just six months after his election in 1294.
Pius would also have been the first pope to be kidnapped since Pius VII was arrested at bayonet-point by French troops in 1809 after he defied Napoleon by allowing British vessels to use papal ports. He was held prisoner for five years until Napoleon abdicated in 1814.
Pius VII’s immediate predecessor, Pius VI, had also been taken prisoner by Napoleon and he had died in captivity.
According to leading Jewish and Catholic historians, the Nazis particularly despised Pius XII because he had shown himself to be repeatedly and openly hostile to their ideology as Vatican Secretary of State in the 1930s.
Joseph Goebbel’s diary shows that Hitler was so furious at the election of the “pro-Jewish” Pope on March 2 1939 that he considered abrogating the 1933 concordat with the Vatican.
Pius further angered the Nazis with his Christmas message of 1942 in which he denounced the unspeakable horror of “the hundreds of thousands who ... solely because of their nation or race have been condemned to death or progressive extinction”.
Adolf Eichmann’s Reich Security Main Office, the SS department responsible for the deportation of the Jews, noted angrily that “in a manner never known before, the Pope has repudiated the National Socialist new European order ... and makes himself the mouthpiece of Jewish war criminals”.
When Italy changed sides in autumn the following year, German troops occupied Rome and Hitler ordered the arrest of the Pope.
General Karl Otto Wolff, the SS chief in Italy, was instructed to “occupy as soon as possible the Vatican and Vatican City, secure the archives and art treasures, which have a unique value, and transfer the Pope, together with the Curia, for their protection, so that they cannot fall into the hands of the Allies and exert a political influence”.
According to the American Jewish historian Rabbi David Dalin, General Wolff talked Hitler out of the plan in December 1943 – at a time when 477 Jews were secretly sheltering in the Vatican; 3,000 had taken refuge in the Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence near Rome, and a further 5,000 Jews were being hidden by nuns and priests in the city’s many religious houses.
Pope Benedict XVI has opened the Vatican archives up to 1939 but it will take at least four more years before the wartime archives can be opened because archivists must first file some 16 million documents into thousands of folders and dossiers.