Heroes: Columbus and Pius XII

Remembering the Truth of Their Faith and Courage

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, OCT. 16, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Even the ancient Romans understood the importance of gratitude. Marcus Tullius Cicero, orator extraordinaire, extolled that "gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others."

Yet in our modern age we seem to have lost this virtue as revisionist history, cinema and popular literature have vilified those whose achievements have shaped the world we live in today.

This came to mind Sunday, Oct. 12, on what was once known as Columbus Day in commemoration of the day Christopher Columbus first sighted the New World.

This event, which opened the age of discovery, has been since renamed "Indigenous People Day" by some U.S. towns, thus casting into obscurity the courageous and visionary undertaking of the explorer and his patrons who equipped the mission.

Columbus himself has been recast as a greedy, social-climbing tyrant, and while his defects have been blown out of all proportion, his admirable qualities have been simply forgotten.

Ironically, Columbus, the first European man to set foot in America, was the first example of what would later be called "the American dream."

Born of poor parents in Genoa, he immigrated to Spain with only his hard-earned knowledge of seamanship, his desire to get ahead and his profound Catholic faith to sustain him.

Like the countless immigrants who would follow him, he had a dream and the drive to work hard and take risks to realize it.

Divine Providence decreed that he would find a sympathetic ear in the king and queen of Spain, and so Columbus fulfilled his life's ambition, did well for himself and paved the way for future generations to be able to excel through hard work and ingenuity.

A deeply devout man, Columbus was always grateful to God and dedicated his mission to the New World to the conversion of pagan peoples; like the apostles, he hoped to bring the Gospel to those who had never heard of Christ. Upon sighting land on Oct. 13, 1492, the entire crew prayed the Salve Regina.

Today, his contributions are masked by words like "exploitation" and "gold-hunger," but all those Americans who descend from families who hoped to live out their ambitions while freely practicing their faith, should be grateful to Christopher Columbus who was not only great navigator on the seas, but in life.

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Myth and Lies

Last Oct. 9, the Church offered a magisterial example of the virtue of gratitude while remembering the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XII, one of the unsung heroes of the 20th century.

The life of Pius XII seems to have certain parallels with this summer's blockbuster film "The Dark Knight." The hero, Batman, out of love for his fellow citizens, must sacrifice recognition for his relentless battle against evil and ultimately endure persecution by the very people he is protecting.

Pius XII, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, spanning the years of the Second World War, was universally lauded for his wartime efforts after the defeat of the Nazis. But revisionists of many stripes in the late 20th century have competed with one another to besmirch his name, culminating in the scandalous label -- or libel -- of John Cornwall's "Hitler's Pope."

Obscured by the flood of false accusations, from criminal silence regarding the fate of the Jews in Germany to active participation in their persecution, the brilliantly innovative aspects of this pontificate have been completely neglected.

But the tables recently turned for Pius XII as, in the words of Vatican reporter John Allen, Benedict XVI initiated a "full court press" to redeem the name of this great Pope and push forward the cause for his beatification.

An international symposium was held in Rome last September under the auspices of the Pave the Way foundation in order to shed light on the activities of Pius XII in favor of the Jews during World War II.

This organization was founded by an American Jew, Gary Krupp, who believes that in order to create a fruitful dialogue among religions, the accusations regarding Pius XII, a source "of friction between people," must be laid to rest through the discovery of the truth.

Among the findings of the conference was that those who "lived through the brutality of the Nazis and were saved by the church's actions" had a high opinion of the Pope. The Israeli Philharmonic orchestra asked to play for Pope Pius in 1955, and at his death Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir mourned "a great servant of peace."

Krupp noted that it has been the "subsequent generations born into the safety of the defeat of the Nazi regime" who have bought into the myth of the Pius XII as a Nazi collaborator.

During the three-day conference, the meticulous research of Sister Margherita Marchione, Rabbi David Dalin, Andrea Tornielli, Ronald Rychlak and many others was presented, refuting the spurious accusations against the Pope and demonstrating his tremendous role in saving Jewish lives.

Paolo Mieli, director of Italy's leading newspaper, "Corriere della Sera," who happens to be a secular Jew, added another interesting point in an interview published in L'Osservatore Romano when he noted that the hostility toward Pius XII did not originate among the Jews.

It was an Eastern European playwright, Rolf Hochhuth, apparently backed by the KGB, who started the ripple that turned into an earthquake with his six-hour play "The Deputy," in which the playwright accused the Pius XII of culpable silence regarding the persecution of the Jews.

The theatrical piece was quickly picked up by leftist promoters in Paris and London and soon enough, Anglo-Saxon "scholars" hopped on the bandwagon with bestselling books like "Hitler's Pope," "Papal Sin" and "Under His Very Windows."

But when Pope Paul VI announced the opening of the beatification process of both John XXIII and Pius XII in 1965, there were no objections. The Pope's decision to jointly open the two processes was a message of continuity within the Church.

The lies regarding Pius XII were welcomed and even abetted, however, by those who wanted to create a division in the 20th-century Church by drawing a line between the "good" John XXIII and the "bad" Pius XII, and between the "old" Church and the "new" Church of the Second Vatican Council.

But in this wonderful week, as Benedict XVI celebrated a Mass in honor of his esteemed predecessor in a packed St. Peter's Basilica, a giant step was taken toward putting to rest the fictitious legend and honoring the great contributions of Pius XII.

Earlier in the day, the Pope's secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone wrote in L'Osservatore Romano of Pius XII's material assistance to the Jews. He said that if Pius XII "had intervened publicly, he would have endangered the lives of thousands of Jews who, at his request, were hidden in the 155 convents and monasteries in the city of Rome alone."

During his homily, Benedict XVI offered a refreshing new view of Pius XII indicating "a great multitude of speeches, addresses and messages delivered to scientists, doctors, and representatives of the most varied categories of workers, some of which even today still possess an extraordinary relevance and continue to be a concrete point of reference."

The current Pontiff concluded with the thought: "As we pray the process of beatification of servant of God Pius XII proceeds happily, it is well to recall that holiness was his ideal, an ideal that he constantly urged for all."

At last, a hero's welcome for Pope Pius XII.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.