He was gravely ill all through the Marian Year of 1954. It was the year he canonized St. Pius X, who died 75 years ago this past August. As he lay dying, something extraordinary happened...
He had always worked hard. And for nearly fifteen years as Roman Pontiff, eighteen-hour workdays were normal. He was rather frail and aesthetic, and it was generally agreed that his amazing superhuman strength came from outside his weak constitution. Strenuous is the word; up every morning at six, in bed past midnight—he kept this up until early January, 1954.
It was the first Marian Year, proclaimed in December, 1953 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma by Pope Pius IX. Pilgrims would flock to Rome in great numbers, just as they had during the Holy Year of 1950.
The Pope had told Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, "As a man, I am nothing." By his example, Pius XII would show the world in that Marian Year just what he meant.
As 1954 began, the Holy Father suffered a severe bout of hiccups. Along with other internal disorders, it weakened him even more. As he approached the age of 78, he was becoming a very sick man. But his amazing spirit was undaunted. Indeed, his pace would have been arduous for a young man; for nothing was too great or small for Pius XII.
In January, as the new Ambassador from Great Britain presented his credentials, the Pope was so ill his attendants had to half carry him from the audience. He was now suffering great pain, could hardly eat; and so his weight had declined greatly.
From his bed, on February 14th, he started to deliver a talk by radio to comfort those like himself who were suffering and confined to their rooms. He especially addressed himself to those who complain about the injustice of their ills, asking, "Why should a good God condemn me to suffer?"
God, he said, had permitted His Son to suffer on the Cross, yet what evil had He done? He also spoke of Mary's spiritual sorrows, and said: "She did not curse. She did not ask God why. She and her Son suffered voluntarily in full conformity with the Divine design. You may be suffering for others or for yourselves, so learn to utter the 'so be it' of resignation and patience." So weak was the Pope himself, that in the middle of a sentence, his voice failed. A priest in attendance had to finish the broadcast of the manuscript.
Yet, by early March, the Pope had completed writing ten major addresses. (He always researched and wrote his own speeches.) The first of these dealt with television, which had been on the market for only five or six years. (He would write an encyclical on television and motion pictures in 1957.) While considering it a great invention of science, he warned of its dangers quite clearly. It had the potential to bring the family closer together—or to ruin the home by discord and disruption. "Television is directed to family groups so that in any hour in any place it is capable of moving the emotions, particularly those of youth. It finds its rapt devotees among children and adolescents." He warned: "The family as the cell of society must be preserved, and public authorities have the duty of taking every precaution that the home in no way be offended or disturbed. Did not even pagan Juvenal say that 'for the child, one must have the utmost reverence!'" (What public authority today acknowledges such a clear duty?)
In May, Pius XII was a little better; but barely. Still, he was utterly determined to perform a most arduous two-day ceremony in which were combined love and duty. It was an act he felt to be one of the most important of his Pontificate: the canonization of Saint Pius X!
The saintly Pope had died forty years before, just as the guns of August, 1914 were overwhelming Europe. And a young Msgr. Eugenio Pacelli, working under Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, the Papal Secretary of State, had caught the eye of the saintly Pontiff. In fact, when the Catholic University of America in 1911 invited Pacelli to come to Washington, D.C. to teach in the Chair of Roman Law, Pacelli was only 35 years old. Both the Pope and his close friend, the Cardinal-Secretary of State, said they could not spare him.
Indeed, as July turned to that terrible August of 1914, St. Pius X received in audience, the Ambassador of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who wanted the Pope to bless his country's armies, in which there were so many Catholics, in the coming struggle. Standing on either side of the Papal throne were Cardinal Merry del Val and Msgr. Pacelli. Pius X had clearly prophesied a general European war just the year before, saying it would break out in 1914. And now—this! The saintly Pontiff was frail at 79, but he came to sudden life at the Ambassador's suggestion. His knuckles turned white, his blue eyes blazed, his voice resounded throughout the Hall of Audiences: "I bless peace; not war!" Then he arose and tottered out of the hall on Msgr. Pacelli's arm. It was something Pius XII never forgot. Just three weeks later, St. Pius X died, on August 20th, 1914 in the odor of sanctity.
The life of the peasant Pope had been rigorously examined. When his coffin was opened in 1944, his body was found to be incorrupt. He was beatified by Pius XII in 1951. His two miracles of healing had been attested, and the conclusion had been affirmed that Pius X was indeed worthy of being canonized. Pius XII had determined that now was the time to canonize one who had always considered himself "unworthy".
The Pope's doctor was horrified! How could his patient possibly find the superhuman strength to go through two days of such arduous ceremony—and with the heavy Tiara on his head? But a resolute Pius XII could not be dissuaded. Even if it were the last act of his life, this was something he must do! And since it was still worth the doing, God would give him the strength.
Pope Pius XII canonized St. Pius X on May 29, 1954.
The great day came: May 29, 1954. The ceremony had to be held in St. Peter's Square, so great was the throng. It took a full hour for the Pope just to be vested! This itself was a small miracle, as he sometimes swayed from fatigue. Surrounded by Cardinals, he prayed for some time in the Sistine Chapel. According to ritual, he was twice asked by Amleto Cardinal Cicognani to declare Pius X a saint. He made no reply, but intoned the Ave Maria Stella.
Now the Pope mounted the sedia gestatoria, and was carried in procession through the great throng in St. Peter's Square. Ahead of him were hundreds of prelates; from simple monks and priests, to cardinals. Then came the Swiss Guards, swords flashing in the brilliant sunlight, followed by the Noble Guard in golden helmets.
As the Pope reached the basilica's high door, Cardinal Cicognani asked a third time that Pius X be declared a saint. And this time Pius XII indicated, "Yes". The Pope was then enthroned on the terrace before the central door of St. Peter's.
Pius XII never talked about the stress he endured during that long ceremony, or the faintness that at times threatened to overcome him. His doctor, close at hand, had to give him restoratives on occasion. But the weak Pope's voice was clear and resonant as he sang Oremus, and read the decree of canonization. And he sounded no less full-throated later, when he praised St. Pius X in his panegyric.
Day two was equally arduous and impressive! The Mass of Canonization was celebrated inside the basilica. St. Peter's was filled to capacity; 100,000 people. And again, the frail and very ill Pope took full part in the ceremony. Who could have guessed how ill he was? For in his glittering vestments he seemed as strong as ever; remaining erect with the Triple Crown on his head.
At the end, the silver trumpets sounded the signal for departure. The bearers turned, and Pius XII gave a final blessing to the vast throng. With the help of God, and St. Pius X, the spirit had triumphed over failing flesh.
Soon after the ceremonies, the Pope took his usual summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, hoping that the good air of the Alban Hills would help in restoring his health. It was a long, hot summer in 1954, and the doctors urged Pius XII to ease up on his usual heavy schedule. But he smiled gently, replying: "A Pope must work until he dies." During his stay at the Papal retreat, he wrote another dozen major speeches on various subjects. In all, he wrote 22 long, thoughtful speeches during the first nine months of his illness.
It continued. The Pope did not return to the Vatican until November 27, much later than usual. Alas, he was now a physical wreck. He had been gravely ill for nearly eleven months. His normal 145 pounds was down to 105. He was violently hiccupping again, and could not eat or retain food. His breath was shallow, his skin was white and drawn—almost translucent. But his indomitable spirit shown through clearly in his black eyes. It was almost now as if he were all spirit.
The Pope's doctor of many years was ready to throw up his hands and throw in the towel. What could he do? He called in 18 other physicians for consultation. They spoke of kidney failure, which is usually fatal within 48 hours. They spoke of an impossible operation, and decided that medical science could do nothing. The Pope was clearly dying.
On the evening of December 1st, they gave up all hope—understandably. The Pope couldn't even lift his hand. The signs of life were faint, indeed. His heartbeat was like the flutter of a dying goldfinch's wing stroke. His breathing was hardly able to cloud a mirror. All the world knew he was dying. Orthodox and Protestant, knowing how Christ-like he was, joined Catholics in praying for the Holy Father. In St. Peter's Square they knelt in throngs beneath the windows of the Papal apartment. They bowed their heads in prayer, and looked up at the Papal apartment windows. And they looked for a sign.
The Pope also felt that he was dying. His mind was clear, and he was not one to indulge in illusions. If he had any hopes, it was probably the hope that he be permitted to lay down the heavy burden.
But—the Eternal Physician had other plans. Pius XII was strengthened in his expectation of death later that evening. He was very alone for a moment, when he heard a Voice say, "There will be a Vision!" Who can imagine how exalted the dying Pontiff became at these words? Certain that he had found favor in Our Lord's eyes, the Pope gave thanks, and fell into a childlike sleep.
Early on the morning of December 2nd, 1954 he awoke. There was enough daylight in the room for him to recognize all that was about him. Knowing that he was weaker than ever, and believing the time for death was drawing near, he started to recite the Anima Christi (Soul of Christ). At the very moment that he reached the part, "Call me when my life shall fail me," Pius XII saw the Savior standing by his bedside, "silent in all His eloquent majesty." It was the first time he knew of Our Lord appearing in such a way to a Pope since St. Peter asked, "Quo Vadis, Domine?" Like St. Peter, when he was first called, Pius XII thought Our Lord was inviting him to "Follow Me." With joy in his heart, the Holy Father said, with what strength he had: "O bone Jesu! O bone Jesu! Voca me; iube me venire ad Te!" (O good Jesus! O good Jesus! Call Thou me; order me to come to Thee!) But alas, Our gentle Savior had not come to summon Pius XII home, but to comfort him. And after a little while He went away.
The Pope soon recovered from his eleven month near-death illness. Two mornings after the vision, the doctors came to see their "hopeless" patient. He greeted them by saying, "Good morning, gentlemen! I am happy to see you." Three weeks later, he gave his Christmas message to the world. And soon thereafter, he was more vigorous than he had been in years.
He had never intended the story of the vision of Our Lord to become public during his lifetime. He apparently had told some who were close to him—but who would keep such a thing from every living soul? Nearly a year afterwards, on November 18, 1955, it came out by way of the Italian picture magazine, Oggi. Someone close to the Holy Father must have related the tale to the article's writer, Luigi Cavicchioli. On the day of publication, the Vatican's phones rang incessantly. "No comment" was the reply. The world furor was swamping the small staff with calls from reporters the world over. What could they say? The Vatican never chooses to reply to any statement made about the Pope. So, for two days, poor Luigi Cavicchioli was the most discredited reporter in the world.
Pius XII knew how many would react if the story became public. But he also knew that the account in Oggi was largely correct. He could not bear to see the writer ruined for reporting what he knew to be true. Even though he had wanted it to be kept secret. So, on November 21st he ordered the Vatican press director, Luciano Casmiri, to confirm the truth of the Oggi story.
A deeply hurt Pontiff was overwhelmed by a storm of 20th century skepticism. But he was ready for that. Alas, it was not universal. Far more people accepted it as simple truth. And now they addressed him as they once had the just-canonized St. Pius X. At his next public audience, the crowd exclaimed, "Viva il Santo Papa!" The December 4th, 1955 issue of the Vatican Sunday newspaper, L'Osservatore della Domenica, printed the official version of the event. It was probably written or authenticated by the Pope himself.
And when he died in October, 1958, he was acclaimed a saint—and not only by Catholics. Bernard Baruch, an American Jew from South Carolina and an emissary of Presidents, said it all: "He epitomized the heights of nobility to which the human soul can rise."