On this day: Pope Pius XI

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day in 1939, Pope Pius XI died.

Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti was born May 31, 1857. He was ordained in 1879. On February 6, 1922, following the death of Pope Benedict XV, Achille Ratti was elected pope.

"Benedict XV had been preparing the ground for a settlement of the Roman question, and Pius XI's first act as pope made it clear that he intended to carry this through. Having announced his papal name, he told the cardinals that he would give the blessing 'Urbi et Orbi' from the balcony in St. Peter's Square, and a window closed against Italy for fifty-two years was opened.

"The instant announcement that he would use the balcony in the square for his blessing was characteristic of the decisiveness of the new regime, a decisiveness soon revealed as nothing short of dictatorial. The mild and obliging scholar-librarian from the moment of his election became pope to the utter degree. He remained genial, smiling, apparently approachable. The Vatican filled with visitors, especially from Milan, he spent hours in public audiences, he met and blessed thousands of newly-weds, he had expensive display-shelves built for the tacky gifts the simple faithful gave him. Nonetheless, an invisible wall had descended around him. He ruled from behind it, and he would brook no contradiction. He accepted advice, if at all, only when he had asked for it, and he soon became famous for towering rages which left his entourage weak and trembling. Even visiting diplomats noted that the key word in the Vatican had become obedience."

--Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, by Eamon Duffy, Yale University Press, 2006.

Duffy describes Pius XI's suppression of Action Française, an "extreme anti-republican movement" with a newspaper edited by Charles Maurras, "Royalist, anti-Semitic, reactionary". When Pius XI told the superior of the Holy Ghost Fathers to fire the rector of the French Seminary in Rome, a supporter of Maurras, "the old man replied, 'Yes, Holy Father, I'll see what I can do,' upon which the Pope grabbed his beard and shouted, 'I didn't say, see what you can do, I said fire him.''

Pope Pius XI changed priorities for missionary activity. "At his accession, not a single missionary diocese was presided over by an indigenous bishop. By 1939, there were forty".

He wrote encyclicals, including Quadragesimo Anno, to mark the fortieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, and Mit Brennender Sorge, the only encyclical ever written in German, with the instruction that it be read from the altars "im Deutschen Reich vom 14. März 1937".

He canonized six saints: Albert the Great, John Bosco, Peter Canisius, Conrad of Parzham, Thomas More, and Thérèse of Lisieux.

He signed "a stream of new concordats . . . to secure freedom of action for the Church in post-war Europe".


For anyone unfamiliar with Pope Pius XI and his seventeen year reign between the two world wars, Wiki provides a good introduction. The article includes his comment to Mother Katharine Drexel about Uncle Tom's Cabin and his "labelling of two of his best bottles of wine to 'my successor in the year 2000.'"

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