By NANCY SCHWERIN
CHARLESTON — Sister Margherita Marchione has been given many titles in her 80 years, but her favorite is “defender of Pope Pius XII.” The “Feisty,” “Literary,” “Crusader,” “Independent” nun has taken on the mission of educating Catholics about the pope that served from 1939 to 1958. Pope Pius XII is widely criticized for his silence during World War II.
Sister Marchione is working on her fourth book dedicated to spreading the truth of Pope Pius XII’s intentions and actions during a horrific period of time. She brought her truth-spreading to the Lowcountry last week and says she’ll go anywhere to tell the truth. She spoke at the Citadel, Bishop England, St. Peter’s in Beaufort and Stella Maris Church on Sullivan’s Island Nov. 5-7.
At Stella Maris, a diverse crowd of families, the old and the young, numbering about 175, listened to the story of a petite woman with a big voice.
In 1957, she met Pope Pius through a friend, his niece.
“I still feel his presence,” she said. “When I think of [him], I feel inspired. His piercing eyes penetrate my soul, and I still see his tall, dignified stature along with his brilliant glance, his loving smile, and animated gestures.”
Her order, the Religious Teachers Filipini, has been in Rome since 1707. Several years ago while in Rome, she learned from the older sisters how they hid 114 Jewish men, women and children in their convent. Amazed with their stories, she began researching and recording them. That was December 1994. In the late ’90s a barrage of literature, which garnered much media attention, condemned the pope for not publicly speaking out against the Nazis during the war.
Sister Marchione says it was impossible for him to do so without a retaliation that would escalate the already unconscionable killings. An instance in Holland, which is debated by both sides of the controversy, proved further killings were connected to the Catholic Church speaking out. A letter from the pope to the Dutch bishops condemning Nazism resulted in 40,000 deaths, among them, according to the sister, was St. Edith Stein.
Pope Pius before his papal election was Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, Vatican Secretary of State. As such he reportedly sent 60 protests to Germany between 1933 and 1939.
A major point of contention in the Pius XII debate is his signing of the Concordat with Germany as cardinal. The “Feisty Nun” said, “He signed the Concordat with Germany in order to protect Catholics and the church. Hitler signed the agreement on July 20, 1933, promising freedom of religion. Five days later he abolished the Catholic Youth Movement and forbade the publication of Catholic newspapers and religious processions. Supplementary decrees to the Nuremberg Laws of September 15, 1935, canceled civic rights of Jews, abolished voting rights, and Jewish civil servants were forced into retirement.”
The situation escalated after that, leaving Jewish professionals jobless, the handicapped sterilized, instigating “mercy killings” and eventually Hitler’s “final solution.”
Secular newspapers and Vatican radio repeatedly printed and aired statements of the pope’s condemnation of Hitler and Nazis.
Sister Marchione said, “The pope’s first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, condemned racism and totalitarianism. He sent many protests, personally signed, to the German foreign minister and to the German ambassador. One was so damning that is was included in the official documents used against the Germans on trial at Nuremberg.”
One dissenter claims that within this encyclical, Pope Pius never mentioned the Jews. The sister, to the contrary, said, “Paragraph 48 not only explicitly uses the word ‘Jews,’ but does so in the context of condemning Nazi racism by quoting St. Paul: … ‘Where there is neither Gentile or Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian or Scythian, bond nor free. But Christ is all and in all’ (Colossians 3:10-11).”
This same dissenter claims that there are no witnesses or accounts to the fact that the pope gave orders to help save Jews.
Sister Marchione said, “Did she not consult the over 900 pages of sworn deposition for Pius XII’s cause for beatification?”
The chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Anton Zollli, wrote in his 1954 memoirs, “Before the Dawn,” “… The Holy Father sent by hand a letter to the bishops instructing them to lift the enclosure from convents and monasteries, so that they could become refuges for the Jews.”
Sister Marchione had a Religious Teacher Filipini, Sister Domenica Mitaritonna, write her personal account for the record. She wrote: “… during the period of the war 1942-1943, I was living at 16 Via Caboto, Rome, and assisted two or three Jewish families who sought refuge in our convent. They were welcomed with immense hospitality by the Superior who had been solicited by the Vatican to help them.”
The accounts are endless. Sister Marchione has had people randomly contact her, upon discovering her work, to share their own story.
Her favorite was from a professor at the University of Rome: “He recalled a childhood memory from when he was 6 years old. His family was taken into a convent, and his parents warned him to be leery of strangers. One day he was saying his Hebrew prayers aloud. When a stranger entered his room, he immediately shifted to the Ave Maria.
“His family was there until June 5, 1944, when he went out into the streets and saw American soldiers giving out chewing gum and chocolates. It was the first time he saw chewing gum.”
For Sister Marchione, personal accounts and various records make up a truth that is indisputable.
She said, “During World War II evidence had to be destroyed lest the Nazis found it, but we have the testimony of thousands of people.”
She encourages education on church history for Catholics, beginning in schools.
“At Bishop England I could tell by their reactions they knew nothing about what the church did,” she said, but she was encouraged by their exuberance. “Their interest and enthusiasm is something I’ll never forget.”
This move toward education and truth is to combat what the sister called “an important issue affecting the magisterium of the church.”
“Without failing to be Christian, we Catholics must make a strong defense of Pius XII, who remains a target for what has been perceived by some as his ‘silence,'” said Sister Marchione, who listed some important statistics.
Sixty-seven percent of European Jews were killed during the Holocaust; in Italy, 85 percent of the Jews were saved. The number of Jews saved has been sited by historians to be between 860,000 and 2 million.
One Jewish survivor, Carlo Sestieri, who was hidden by the church said, “Only the Jews who were persecuted understand why the Holy Father could not publicly denounce the Nazi-Fascist government. Without doubt he helped avoid worse disasters.”
“I’m 80 years old, but I still feel I have a lot to do,” said Sister Marchione. “We have Catholics believing without investigating. We need a concerted effort (to amend this situation). With God’s help I’ve done what I can do. In unity there is strength; I challenge you and ask you to do something.”
For the spirited sister and defenders of Pope Pius XII, he wasn’t silent at all, but rather spoke loudly through his actions.