The refugees, tens of thousands, teeming across Europe, sought nothing more than a safe haven and an end to violence, life for their children.
As soon as the pope recognized the scope of the looming refugee crisis, he appealed emotionally to European and American leaders. He called on Catholic dioceses to take responsibility and welcome a strong quota of people to save them.
Some leaders listened, others did not. The president of the United States agreed to admit some thousands of refugees — he faced opposition from ultra-conservatives in Congress if he tried to do more.
The year was 1938, seventy-seven years ago. Substitute the names and we go back to the future.
Pope Pius XI, a relative progressive, stood out from the conservatives around him decried attacks on the Jews.
Today, Pope Francis calls on every Roman Catholic parish, on all people of conscience, to aid Middle Eastern refugees:
“Facing the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees — fleeing death by war and famine, and journeying towards the hope of life — the Gospel calls, asking of us to be close to the smallest and forsaken. To give them a concrete hope,” he said. “And not just to tell them: ‘Have courage, be patient!’ ”
President Roosevelt was hamstrung by people in Congress and their constituencies: American xenophobia warned that there likely would be terrorist agents among prospective asylum-seekers.
On the eve of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, I was reminded about the parallels of history. I wrote about Pope Pius XI and his last minute attempts to challenge Hitler, Mussolini and anti-Semitism in The Pope’s Last Crusade.
A new generation of refugees faces slurs and racist attacks–and only occasionally a welcome sign. Jews then were fleeing Hitler and Germany. Among the ironies of history, Syrians, Iraqis and other Middle Eastern refugees now find Germany among the most welcoming and hospitable countries.
How does a papal message or a pope’s moral stance convert into real change?
Notes on Pope Francis’s visit.
Among the many opinion pieces on Pope Francis’s U.S. visit, George Will’s take on the pontiff is notable for its shrill, ultimately absurd complaints.
He writes in The Washington Post that the pope
“…stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.”
Will’s frothing rejection of the pope is an argument based on a ridiculous false premise, that Francis represents a rejection of modernity and all advancements in agriculture and capital development in the last century. Nonsense. Will sets up a straw man and then tries to beat it down as much as he would try to recreate President Obama as a socialist.
Gerald Posner, also writing in the Washington Post, does make an important point, when he renews his call for Francis to open the Vatican files on World War II:
“If Francis does not act to open the Vatican’s Holocaust-era files, they could stay sealed for a very long time. It took more than 400 years for the church to release some of its Inquisition files. And it was not until 2007 — after more than 700 years — that the Vatican cleared the Knights Templar of a heresy charge and opened the trial records.”
Pope Pius XI is little recalled for his bold stance against Hitler and anti-Semitism. But his secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, was elected in 1939 as his successor, Pope Pius XII. Pius XII was as different from Pius XI as Francis is from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
How much support did Pius XII give to the Nazis and at what profit? Posner asks.
Francis, progressive though he may be, has been equivocal on previous pledges to open the files.
“Those sealed records may help settle debate about whether the wartime pope, Pius XII, could have done more to prevent the Holocaust. They could also resolve questions about the extent to which the Vatican did business with the Third Reich, particularly whether it invested in German and Italian insurance companies that earned outsize profits by escheating the life insurance policies of Jews sent to the death camps.”
Pius XI then and Francis now spoke out for morality and change. Pius XI was praised by Jewish leaders in the United States at the time, even though his advocacy came late in his papacy. Pius XII muted his predecessor’s attempts to attack anti-Semitism.
Francis has hinted at major changes at the Vatican. But as George Santayana always reminds us: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”