By Tony Humeston
Christmas day in 1942 was cheerless. The casualty reports grew longer daily. The German general, Rommel, was racing across Africa; the Japanese tide in the Pacific seemed irresistible.
Kids got wooden sleds for Christmas. One of my great-aunts had made orange-peel candy that even I couldn’t eat. Four of my uncles were in uniform, three of them in combat zones. My uncle Dan and my father were exempt: both had contracted tuberculosis from unpasteurized milk when they were boys.
We went to Mass Christmas morning and Father Heinen spoke of the terrible war and the bravery of our Pope Pius XII. He told us the pontiff’s Christmas Eve message had been a scathing denunciation of the Nazi treatment of the Jews, and that the pope had delivered this message while being in Rome surrounded by Nazis and Fascists.
After Mass, we filed out of the old St. Mary’s Church in Albia and stood in family clusters as Catholics always do, the December snow drifting down. An Italian parishioner had written the Holy Father a year before and got a perfunctory reply from a staff secretary, I suppose. She walked from group to group, the much-creased letter held high and said: “I gotta da letter from a da pope! We’re a gonna win now!”
The parishioners hid smiles behind gloves and scarves and nodded politely. Somehow, I knew at age seven that things were going to turn out all right.
The New York Times editorial for Christmas Day 1942 gave us further reason to smile. The editorial began: “No Christmas season reaches a larger congregation than the message Pope Pius XII addresses to the war-torn world at this season. This Christmas, more than ever, he is a lonely voice crying out in the silence of a continent …”
The Times praised Pius XII for taking a clear stand in condemning “as heresy the new form of national state which subordinates everything to itself” and for declaring that “whoever wants peace must protect against ‘arbitrary attacks’ the ‘juridical safety of individuals:’”
The pope’s Christmas message, the Times said, “assailed violent occupation of territory, the exile and persecution of human beings for no reason other than race or political opinion” and called for people to “fight for a just and decent peace, a ‘total peace.’” The Times viewed the pope’s stance as an impartial judgment, like “a verdict in a high court of justice.”
The editorial said Pope Pius “expresses as passionately as any leader on our side of the war aims of the struggle for freedom when he says that those who aim at building a new world must fight for free choice of government and religious order.”
After the war Pope Pius XII was hailed as the inspired moral prophet of victory and enjoyed near-universal acclaim for aiding European Jews. Numerous Jewish leaders including Albert Einstein, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, and Moshe Sharett praised him as a “righteous gentile.” Israeli historian Pinchas Lopide concluded that Pius XII saved at least 700,000 Jews, but probably 860,000 Jews from certain death at the “Nazi hands.”
Some say that Pope Pius XII did not do enough to save the Jews from the Holocaust, but as I reflect on his Christmas message of 1942, I believe this pope took a courageous, public stand on behalf of freedom and justice for all. It’s a message of hope that bears repeating in a troubled world today.
(Humeston is a member of St. Mary Parish in Albia.)