The National Catholic Review

'Even the monsters Hitler or Stalin are fallen sinners, and we cry and pray for them.' In recent months, while a war-time pontiff’s attitudes toward mid-century European totalitarianism became a subject of written discussion (as in Hitler’s Pope and the response to it by reviewers and other readers), I have often remembered conversations on that issue with Dorothy Day, whom I was privileged to know. In particular I heard Dorothy Day talk at great length about Pius XII and, of course, John XXIII, whom (unsurprisingly) she much revered. She found her very own way of connecting with Pope Pius, who (so she once put it) "had to wake up every morning at the Vatican and pray for that terrible trio of dictators during the 1930’s and 1940’s." I recall being stunned by that comment, and told her why (I was tape-recording our talks then, at work on a biography of her). "Do you really think the pope prayed for those three mass murderers, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini?" I asked. A few seconds of thought, followed by a firm nod, and then this: "Oh, he must have prayed and prayed for them. You pray for the devil, and those three were agents of the devil!"

Yes, I understood her line of theological reasoning. I could see that she wasn’t being provocative or in any way inclined to overlook the murderous horror that descended on Europe in the name of Nazism or fascism or, too, the Stalinism that had killed decisively the so-called socialism Lenin and his cohorts had claimed to offer Russia and the world. Still, I was confused, maybe incredulousmaybe, even, more alarmed and irritated than I knew myself to be. Her eyes had taken measure of my stilled voice, my impassive face, and so this comment: "I have gotten into a lot of trouble saying what I just did to my old friends. They hated Hitler and Stalin, and so did Ifor all they did, all they stood for. But you see, we here [at the Catholic Worker hospitality house where we then sat] will be found praying for people on death row, on their way to the noose or the electric chairnot because we are at all on their side, as their supporters or friends, but because they weren’t born to do the evil they did, weren’t sent here by the Lord to do that. A moment ago we got close to what I mean to tell you, what I believethat even the monsters Hitler or Stalin are fallen sinners, and we cry and pray for them, for all of us who can stumble, do stumble."

I followed her, but I was unsatisfied. My mind visited concentration camps by way of pictures I’d seen and through the words I’d heard from a dear Jewish friend who had miraculously survived one of them. A nearby cup of coffee to her lips, a glance toward her books, all those novels of Dostoevski and Dickens that she so much treasured, and then a further explanation: "My friends tell me that it was wrong for the Pope to sign up with Mussolini and Hitlerthose pacts he made with them, the diplomatic agreements. They were a scandal’ [she had been told]and I see the point, though I remind myself of what Stalin said, that famous question: How many tanks does the Vatican have?’ There was a cold-blooded murderer [Stalin] who knew the basic tactics of power, and Hitler was another one. I ask myself what the pope should have done or could have done. He had no tanks to stop Hitler or Stalin, as they both knew. Who am I to say what was right for the pope to do? Oh, I suppose I am Catholic, a believer, and it’s up to me to pray for the pope, that he do what’s right to do."

There was much discussion of that last matter: What ought to have been done by the Vatican’s leader decades earlier in this century. I dare tell her that I never could have prayed for Hitler’s soul, were I old enough to do so when she was alive, as she said she had done. And pressed by her, I tell her I’d have prayed that he would get killed. Her look of disapproval in response prompts me to change the subject. Finally, I ask her directly whether she had ever imagined a course of action by Pius XII different from the one he took. She muses for seconds, shakes her head, then her face becomes animated: "Oh, I had some thoughts, yes (you folks [psychiatrists] call them fantasies’); I remember sitting in church and wishing (I wasn’t praying, just wishing) that the pope had thrown all caution to the winds, asked to go to a concentration camp and stay there, or that he had faced down the Nazis, the S.S., told them they could arrest him, jail him, shoot him dead with their guns, because he wasn’t going to surrender to their evil. He’d scream his defiance of it, die, if need to be, resisting it. But then I heard my mother’s voice saying, as she always did, Come now, Dorothy; be practical.’ Later, out of church, I had this realization come to me: The pope is not Jesus; the pope is not a martyr to truth and justice, to the good, as Jesus was. The pope is an officer in an organizationthat’s his tragedy, our tragedy, Christ’s. We fail the Lord all the timepopes do, and cardinals do, and we parishioners do. That is as far as my mind could take me thenor now, I’m afraid."

In a moment she had to leave to help make coffee and soup for the many "guests," the poor, the ailing, the down-and-out ones, whom she gladly and constantly servedmaybe her way of seeking salvation, and maybe her way, finally, of addressing popes and cardinals, never mind the high-and-mighty government officials with whom they, the august leaders of the Catholic church, deign to meet, bargain and deal.

Robert Coles

 

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