June 24, 1938. Rome.
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 500-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 earlier Hitler had been greeted triumphantly by Mussolini and by the old king’s grandson and the titular monarch, Victor Emmanuel III. The recently completed monument to old King Victor Emmanuel II, downhill opposite the Piazza Venezia, was a garish assemblage of columns that Romans jokingly referred to as the birthday 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 was everywhere: Mussolini, the great leader, supporting the Italian army; il Duce standing with the people; a joint profile of Hitler and Mussolini, 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 wrote, describing what he saw. The buildings were “splendidly built, all Italian style, 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 re-imagining 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 the 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 spire 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 Friday June 24, LaFarge was making preparations to wind up his European tour – he would make a quick trip to Spain where Generalissimo Francisco Franco was consolidating power, then double back through Paris en route to Rotterdam and home –when a messenger with a sealed yellow and white envelope that bore the unmistakable mark of the Vatican. Only one person used this stationary 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 Rev. John LaFarge, Society of Jesus was requested to attend a private audience on Saturday, July 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 81 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 had no idea why he was being summoned. He 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 mid-morning borrowed a car from the university motor pool for the 15-mile drive down the new Appian Way. Hot summer weather had settled in across Italy, and all of 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 that pope’s unusually long 31-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. LaFarge was memorizing the little speech he would recite to the pope about his ministry and his writing. He knew well that Pius was a man of letters, and he knew the folklore: mountaineer, the first pope to even set foot beyond the confines of the Vatican in more than half a century and establishment of the impressive Vatican observatory that was attracting scientists and researchers from around the world. He knew Pius XI was the first pope to ride in a motor car and the first to have his voice transmitted by radio.
LaFarge also knew 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 politics might have been. Not even the pope’s closest advisers, such as Cardinal Pacelli, the secretary of state who was said to shudder with 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. Several cardinals were ahead of him and he would have to wait.
The elevator doors 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 ante-room, where he watched as various clergy and lay people entered and left the pope’s study, which had a sign over the entry door, “Pius XI Pontifex Maximus.” Finally 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 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 skull cap 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 LaFarge’s book on racism in the United States, 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, 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 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.
He went further, taking quite an absolute progressive stance, writing in the book 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. Hitler’s increasing assault on the Jews is 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, 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. He was dumbfounded and flooded with dubouts.
How, LaFarge 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 LaFarge. 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 plan for the encyclical, likely not even Pacelli, and certainly not Vladimir Ledochowski, the leader of the Jesuit order and therefore LaFarge’s superior.
“Properly, I should have first taken this up with Father Ledochowski 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, recorded in LaFarge’s notes. 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.”