The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler

Posted on March 25, 2013
By Peter Eisner

Castel Gandolfo, June 23, 1938

Two days after the Eucharistic Congress, the pope cel­ebrated his eighty-first birthday. He had recovered so well from his illness a year and a half earlier that the Vatican doctors had suspended their full-time attendance at the pope’s rooms in Castel Gandolfo. Pius awoke daily at around dawn, had break­fast, and then conducted a range of meetings, reestablishing full control of church administration. As the weather warmed in late spring, he also resumed his daily walks behind the summer pal­ace, in the sculpted hedgerows interspersed with Roman statuary, copses where one could stop to meditate, and a balustrade from which one could look down on the Albano valley.

He was a most solitary figure on those walks and did not take counsel easily, not even from Pacelli, who came for meetings at least four times a week. Hitler’s anti-Semitic campaign had become the pope’s great preoccupation. the issue before him was not just the matter of protecting Catholics, but also the question of protecting humanity. This was the church’s moral responsibility.


* * *

As the Nazis increased their threats against the Jews, the pope realized that today it was the Jews, but then it would be the Catho­lics and finally the world. He could see in the day’s news that the Nazis would stop at nothing less than world domination.

Pius envisioned a gesture that would go beyond daily condem­nations of each atrocity uttered by the Nazis. He sought a verbal offensive with a major statement that would attack the underpin­nings of the Nazi machine. Pius appeared to have found the vehi­cle; he had received a copy of a book, Interracial Justice, written by an American Jesuit named John LaFarge. The book portrayed the lives of American blacks who lived in the poorest strata of society. It said the church had to establish itself as a moral force in combat­ing racism in the United States. The pope did not know LaFarge was in Europe and en route to Rome.

The similarities between the descriptions of racism in America and the threats of anti-Semitism in Europe were easy to see. LaFarge’s book was about the plight of blacks in the United States, but the concept applies, he wrote, “to all races and conditions of men . . . all tribes and races, Jew and Gentile alike. . . .” Pius saw that LaFarge’s writings could be applied to a new Vatican decla­ration that would attract international attention, a statement that would sound the alarm and warn world leaders about the Nazis and the Fascists in uncompromising terms.

This was the moment to strike. In March 1937, the pope had last issued an encyclical—the highest statement the head of the Vatican can make—condemning Nazism. But he felt compelled to do so again, this time with the words of an American Jesuit who understood the insanity of race. This time his encyclical would be broadcast throughout the globe, and it would answer the maniacal quest for conquest with basic truths.

* * *

Rome, June 24, 1938

The parched days of spring had been broken by occasional early summer rains, but nothing could dampen the spirit of Father John LaFarge on his first visit to Rome since 1905, when he was a young seminary student.

LaFarge was staying in a room at the Gregorian University, the four-hundred-year-old Jesuit college not far from the Spanish Steps. It was a privileged location, central to politics and the eternal nature of Western culture and the heart of Catholicism. As he strolled to the residence, he skirted the Quirinale Palace, several blocks at another level in the other direction, where just a month and a half earlier Hitler had been greeted triumphantly by Mussolini and by the titular monarch, Victor Emmanuel III. The recently completed monument to the king’s grandfather, Victor Emmanuel II, was downhill opposite the Piazza Venezia. It was a garish assemblage of columns that Romans jokingly referred to as the wedding cake.

LaFarge had arrived in Rome on June 5 via Yugoslavia, crossed the border at Trieste, and then traveled south from Venice. Immediately he saw Il Duce’s jaw-jutting image everywhere: Mussolini, the great leader, supporting the Italian army; Il Duce standing with the people; a joint profile of Hitler and Mussolini in their uniforms and Hitler’s swastika prominent on his shoulder. Viva, viva Mussolini! was plastered on the walls. LaFarge noted in his diary that, “Magnificent slogans exhorted the people to moral­ity, industry, loyalty, and other virtues, signed in each case with the mysterious letter M. Asking an Italian friend what the M stood for—it might stand for morality or Machiavelli or something else—I received only a shocked glance as a reply.”

One morning, a fellow American Jesuit at the Gregorian University arranged a VIP tour for LaFarge with a high-ranking member of the Fascist City Council. The official arrived late for the tour and said that he had been delayed in a meeting with Mussolini.

“You know, we were having the Council meeting and I told Mussolini that I had an appointment at eleven o’clock with Father LaFarge,” the official said. “But Il Duce said, let Father LaFarge wait. The affairs of state are more important.”

LaFarge was as susceptible to flattery as anyone, but he doubted the story. The official took LaFarge on an extensive tour of Mussolini’s signature welfare projects, including a rural recon­struction program, newly established towns built on drained and recovered swampland.

“Nothing that I had seen in the United States, even in the far West, was as new as these extraordinary constructions,” LaFarge said. The buildings were “splendidly built, all Italian style,” he said, “with broad streets, immense squares, imposing municipal buildings and elaborate churches, one of which, in good medieval spirit, included Mussolini as a toiling harvest-worker in the mosaic representing the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.”

When Mussolini visited his urbanization projects, he would recognize nothing short of perfection. Il Duce was reimagining Italy. On one occasion, touring one of the towns he had built on marshes, Mussolini demanded why the buildings had screens on the windows. When told they were a precaution against mos­quitoes, he replied, “Mosquitoes have been abolished.” Workers immediately removed the screens.

Mussolini’s construction projects were theoretically intended to relocate people from crowded urban working-class conditions to lower-density housing with good sanitation and social services. The projects sometimes fell below projections, forcing the trans­ferred workers to travel long distances to their jobs. And not all the housing projects were completed as well as the model LaFarge was shown. LaFarge had already gone out on his own and peered beyond these Potemkin Village undertakings for the stage set they were and had seen Romans on the periphery who were living in misery. One shantytown, nicknamed Shanghai, was worse than the worst slums he had seen in the American South. Another hovel housed forlorn Italian Army veterans of the recent Fascist con­quest of ethiopia. All were quarantined in squalid boxcars, waiting for further orders if they survived the pestilence some had brought back with them.

At the same time, LaFarge loved the eternal City of Rome, the ancient objects of the empire, the relics, and the churches. The dome of St. Peter’s, which was visible from many points of the city, reminded him of his faith and gave him solace and warmth. The Roman Forum was most prominent and the Coliseum was a bit far­ther down from the university. He was moved and inspired by the opportunity to say Mass at a chapel in the Santa Brigida Church on the Piazza Farnese. On tours around Rome, he delighted in the food, fresh meats, bel paese cheese, and fine wines.

On Wednesday, June 22, LaFarge was capping off his visit to Italy by attending a general audience with Pope Pius XI at Castel Gandolfo. It was not easy to obtain entrance for such group audi­ences, but Vincent McCormick, the Jesuit rector of Gregoriana University, had made this happen. McCormick had asked the pope’s chief of staff the day before if the pope might have time “to say a word in commendation of my work at the general audience,” LaFarge wrote in a diary note. The chief of staff met them on their arrival at Castel Gandolfo and said the request had come too late. “The only thing to do was to have a private audience,” the official said, but such meetings were usually arranged weeks ahead of time. LaFarge was to leave Rome by June 29, and the official held out little hope.

McCormick and LaFarge entered the pope’s summer quar­ters in time for the general audience and stood with a group of clergy while others teemed forward to wait for the pontiff. Four staff-bearing Swiss Guard Halberdier troops stood guard, dressed in their singular uniforms, traditional stripes in the colors of the Medici family, blue, yellow, and red, a metal morion helmet adorned with red ostrich feathers on their heads. Pius XI finally entered the room, smiling and apparently hardy and in good spir­its, despite reports he had been weakened by illness.

The audience was rather brief and impersonal and was over quickly. The pontiff spoke about marriage and family and the work of missionaries and blessed those assembled. When the crowd dis­persed, LaFarge and McCormick went to the fourth floor in the apostolic palace to visit the papal astronomer, Father Johan Stein, a fellow Jesuit. The Dutch scientist-priest showed them around proudly and advised his guests to step gingerly; the pope’s private quarters were directly below them.

LaFarge and McCormick then returned to Rome. LaFarge was content with the day, thinking no more of the event than adding one more pope to the tally sheet—he had now seen three popes, all from a distance.

Then two days later, on Friday, June 24, LaFarge was mak­ing preparations to wind up his European tour—he would make a quick trip to Spain where Francisco Franco was consolidating power, then double back through Paris en route to Rotterdam and home—when a messenger arrived with a sealed yellow-and-white envelope that bore the unmistakable mark of the Vatican. Only one person used this stationery with the seal of a crown and the crossed keys of St. Peter. This was a letter from the pope, more properly a summons from him. The Reverend John LaFarge, Society of Jesus, was requested to attend a private audience on Saturday, June 25, at 11:45 a.m.

LaFarge was overwhelmed and humbled. How could it be? “I was mystified,” he wrote in his diary. the summons brought “a sense of wonder which nothing else in the world could give.” How could a little-known American priest with neither pulpit nor sta­tion receive direct communication from the Holy Father?

The invitation was cause for analysis and a sleepless night. Pope Pius XI, now eighty-one years old, was said to be frail despite his healthy appearance the other day and was decreasing the fre­quency and duration of such private meetings.

LaFarge took advice from Father McCormick, who recom­mended that he jot down notes about his life and highlights of his missionary work that he could recite when asked, along with reminders that would serve to answer any possible question the pope might direct his way. It had been made clear that LaFarge was to come alone. He did not know what to expect.

John LaFarge could be excused for not sleeping well that Friday night. On the morning of the visit, he had coffee and breakfast and then at midmorning borrowed a car from the university motor pool for the drive down the new Appian Way. Hot summer weather had settled in across Italy and all Europe with temperatures exceed­ing 90 degrees. Open windows offered some respite. The winding road paralleled the route of the famous original Roman road of the same name that was still in existence, rutted and hardly passable for cars.

Leaving Rome to the southeast, he drove past Roman ruins and ancient churches, and then along a sloping portion in the Alban Hills shaded by stands of olive trees, and finally over the bridge named for Pope Pius IX. During an unusually long thirty-one-year pontificate in the 1800s, Pius IX had decreed papal infal­libility and rejected any move to accommodating to modern times in the Roman Catholic Church.

LaFarge was in an altered state of mind. He had expected nothing vaguely approaching a meeting of such import, and he was memorizing the little speech he would recite to the pope about his ministry and his writing. The Jesuit knew well that Pius was a man of letters. He also knew the folklore—the pope as mountaineer—and that Pius was the first pope to even set foot beyond the confines of the Vatican in more than half a century, the first pope to ride in a motorcar, and the first to have his voice transmitted by radio.

The pope had a reputation for being a tough, headstrong, with­ering presence. that was true—policy was directed by the pope not his subordinates, whatever their real opinions about church doctrine, and their politics, might have been. Not even the pope’s closest advisers, such as Cardinal Pacelli, the secretary of state who was said to shudder at merely considering contradicting the pope even on a minor matter, dared challenge Pius to his face.

LaFarge was surprised by the ease with which he could approach the papal residence, drive by well-known cardinals strolling on the cobblestone piazza, and then park unimpeded under olive trees that provided some respite from the blazing heat. Once inside the summer palace, he was directed across the central courtyard to a small elevator that led to the papal rooms. He was there well ahead of the appointed time and a monsignor told him the pope’s meet­ings were running behind. Three cardinals were ahead of him and he would have to wait for at least forty-five minutes.

The elevator door opened; perhaps the most prominent mem­ber of the College of Cardinals emerged—Cardinal Pacelli. The cardinal glared, barely acknowledged the priest’s presence, and walked off. Shortly afterward, Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, a close ally of the pope and one of the pontiff’s best friends, crossed the patio. The two cardinals were a study in contrasts. Pacelli was a gangly, pale, even ghostly presence; Tisserant, a Frenchman, was a burly man who sported a long bushy black beard flecked with gray. He did not seem to notice LaFarge.

After a while, an attendant ushered LaFarge into an anteroom, where he watched as various clergy and laypeople entered and left the pope’s study, which had a sign over the entry door, PIUS XI PONTIFEX MAXIMUSFinally it was LaFarge’s turn to enter; the pope must have used some silent buzzer to signal the secretaries that he was ready. This was to be a private meeting with the pope. LaFarge stood up nervously. “I was shown into the pope’s study by myself entirely,” LaFarge wrote. “No one [was] there with me, and [the] door shut.”

LaFarge stood for a moment before Pope Pius XI, the 258th successor to St. Peter, and then bent to the carpet to kiss the pope’s shoe. Pius motioned him to rise and take a seat before his desk. LaFarge looked around the room. A walking stick was lean­ing against a table near the pope’s desk, the pope’s white skullcap rested on the table. LaFarge had the impression that the pope had recently been strolling outdoors. He could see the sumptuous gar­dens and tree-lined paths beyond the balcony ahead of him and a distant view of the Mediterranean beyond.

The pope made small talk to put him at ease and spoke infor­mally. The first hurdle was to choose the language in which they would speak. Pius understood English, but spoke only haltingly; LaFarge’s Italian was not conversant. The pope was amused by LaFarge’s confusion. They alternated briefly between German and French and then settled on French. LaFarge was struck by the pope’s vigor, “a natural vigor which few who reach that age enjoy.”

Finally, the pope told LaFarge he literally could not sleep when he thought about the rise of Nazism. “He grieved over the present divided state of the world, over the growth of racism, condemned by reason, science and faith,” LaFarge remembered.

Pius told the younger man he had read Interracial Justice and considered it a triumph. LaFarge saw a copy of the book prominent on the pope’s credenza. Americans, the pope said, had a greater understanding of these issues in part because they had access to LaFarge’s book. But he had come to the conclusion that LaFarge’s book also helped explain the deteriorating situation in Europe, that “racialism and nationalism were fundamentally the same . . . the most burning issue at the present time.”

LaFarge was surprised the pope had even heard of his book, which was written in English, distributed mostly in the United States, and published very recently. Interracial Justice was an exhor­tation for the Catholic Church in the United States to accept and dedicate itself to the letter of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, that African Americans could not and should not be treated differently or deprecated or denied basic human and civil rights.

LaFarge went further in the book, taking quite an absolute progressive stance, writing that “modern anthropological and ethnological science overwhelmingly rejects the theory that even purely physical traits are permanently or fixedly inherited by any large determinable group of human beings. It is an analogy falsely transferred from an animal race: an analogy not unlikely when human beings are treated as animals.”

The pope asked about LaFarge’s views on race in America and discussed the relationship with the case of the Jews in Germany. Pius said he had been searching for just the right person to work with him on his next foray into politics and the most pressing, dan­gerous matter of the moment. And now, providentially, LaFarge has come to Rome. “We will issue an encyclical on these matters, one which you must prepare,” Pius told LaFarge.

LaFarge was to write an encyclical that would use the same rea­soning he employed when discussing racism in the United States. He needed to convey that Hitler’s increasing assault on the Jews was based on a myth. The myth and the barbarity and inhumanity being unleashed in Europe must be challenged. He was to write a papal declaration such as never had been seen before, one that firmly and categorically represented the church’s vision of the con­flagration facing Europe. This would be the church’s strongest statement ever, an encyclical that rejected anti-Semitism and the Nazi doctrine that espoused it. So doing, LaFarge would articulate church policy, and his thoughts and words about race and human­ity would be inscribed in Catholic doctrine and would be parsed for guidance worldwide. this was overwhelming, a step that a humble Jesuit from Newport could hardly dream of. LaFarge was dumbfounded and flooded with doubts.

How, he asked Pope Pius, could he do such a thing? The pope smiled and gave him free rein. He said: “Dites tout simplement, ce que vous direz si vous etiez Pape, vous-meme,” LaFarge wrote, recalling the pope’s exact words. “Say simply, just what you would say if you yourself were pope.” LaFarge said he felt unable and unworthy to carry out such a project. The pope would hear none of it. “I could have chosen someone else to write this, more senior, better known writers within the Church,” the pope told the Jesuit. He told LaFarge he certainly was capable of writing what needed to be said. And it was an assignment that might amount to the greatest opportunity the pope had to rally world opposition to the Nazis. “I decided you are the right person for the job,” he told LaFarge. “God has sent you to me to do this. You are heaven-sent.”

The pope expected the statement to be as strong and unyield­ingly direct as he thought LaFarge’s words were about racism in the United States. Pius made it clear that no one in the curia knew about his decision to issue the encyclical, likely not even Pacelli, and certainly not Wlodimir Ledóchowski, the leader of the Jesuit order and therefore LaFarge’s superior. “Properly, I should have first taken this up with Father Ledóchowski before speaking to you,” the pope said. But he had not. “I imagine it will be all right . . . after all a pope is a pope.”

The pope told LaFarge that he expected him to complete the job in secret and directly for him. “It is said that a secret of the pope in Rome is Punch’s secret,” a secret that everyone knows but no one admits they know. “But it should not be like that. And in this case, this is a true secret that we are sharing with you,” the pope said. the pontiff told him he would await the final document.

As Lafarge drove back to Rome that afternoon, the same words kept coming back to him: “I am mystified” by what has happened. LaFarge was now in the service of the pope. the time was short, and he was to begin work immediately. He was surrounded by a web of shadows and shrouded schemes, and he still could not even fathom how he had come to the pope’s attention. Now, the Vati­can was directly asking him to act on a dangerous world stage. “Frankly, I am stunned,” LaFarge told friends in confidence. The task was great and there was little time. “The Rock of Peter has fallen on my head.”



Excerpted from The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler by Peter Eisner.

Copyright 2013 by Peter Eisner.

Reprinted with permission from William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

PETER EISNER In his role as an editor and reporter for the Washington Post, Newsday and the Associated Press,Peter Eisner, author of The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler, has amassed thirty years of experience reporting on the Vatican. His 2004 book, The Freedom Line: The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During WWII, won the Christopher Award.  Eisner won the Inter-American Press Association Award in 1991 and was nominated for an Emmy in 2010 for his role as producer on the PBS news program, World Focus. Eisner’s other books include The Italian Letter: How the Bush Administration Used a Fake Letter to Build the Case for War in Iraq, written with Knut Royce, which traces fraudulent U.S. intelligence prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

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