On 24 September 1934 Pope Pius XI sent his Vatican Secretary of State to Beuenos Aires to attend the International Eucharistic Congress.

At the time Eugenio Pacelli (who would become Pope Pius XII in 1939) was fifty-eight-years-0ld. He had served as Scretrary of State in the Vatican for four years and was Pius XI’s chosen protege to succeed him as Pope.

Pacelli’s trip is remarkable, not so much for any theological impact it had in the church or for its diplomatic importance in international affairs. It is important because of the position of the Roman Catholic church in the world that the trip symbolizes. The Roman Catholic Church in 1934 gave the impression of having a measure of power and influence that today is unimaginable.

In his book, Hitler’s Pope, journalist John Cornwell describes Pacelli’s trip. The description raises a number of questions.

How did any church committed to the simple austere life Jesus lived, ever become this imperialistic, grandiose, show? How, 80 years later, is the church to recover and function in a world where its influence, power, and prestige have all been so profoundly diminished?

Just think about this scene. And remember, although the picture below is Pacelli after he became Pope, the scene Cornwell describes is not a picture of Pacelli as Pope; it is merely the Pope’s Secretary of State:

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Pius XII

With the papal flag snapping form the masthead, he sailed from Genoa on September 24 on the Italian liner Conte Grande to peals of the city’s bells, the playing of bands, and the cheers of crowds that thronged the dockside to receive Pacelli’s blessing as if it were the benediction of the Pope himself. His quarters in the stern of the ship included a private chapel, an office, a drawing room, and two further staterooms. His office was fitted out with a huge desk and a portion of his personal library. A radio-telephone had been installed  so that he could remain in touch with the Secretariat. Quartered in other parts of the ship were a retinue of secretaries, four bishops, various Latin American diplomats, and representatives of religious orders. As well as Monsignor Kass, who had become a factotum in the extensive ambit of the Secretariat of State, he had brought along his nieces Elisabetta’s daughter. The press described the vessel as a “floating cathedral.”

According to reports of the voyage, Pacelli never showed himself once to the passengers, still less mixed with them, except for the day when the ship reached the equator. Instead of the usual ribald crossing-the-line carnival, Pacelli decreed a religious service. Emerging from below in robes of gold cloth, he processed the length of the ship with all his prelates and acolytes and paused to bless the four quarters of the Atlantic.

As the ship approached Buenos Aires after a voyage of two weeks, the Argentine president, General Agustin Pedro Justo, came aboard from the battleship 25 de May to greet Pacelli thus, “your Eminence, I salute in the person of a papal legate the foremost sovereign of the world, before whose spiritual authority all other sovereigns prostrate themselves in veneration.”

Drawn in a ceremonial coach and showered with flowers from every balcony, Pacelli entered the city like an emperor. In the five days that followed, he impressed the citizens of Argentina’s capital with his El Greco-like visage and concentrated piety. Conversations about the politics of the region with various government and diplomatic officials punctuated protracted processions and services conducted in the Parco Palermo, where see-through bulletproof screens sheltered the altar and Pacelli’s throne. A wheeled contraption drawn by hundreds of priests in white robes bore Pacelli through the streets of Buenos Aires as he knelt before the exposed Eucharist.

A revealing incident occurred on an evening when Pacelli was invited to attend a performance of Refice’s Cecilia at the Colon theater. Pacelli at the last moment decided instead to take a flight in an airplane over the city. As photographs of the incident attest, he sat bolt-upright during the flight reading his breviary. The following evening he repeated the experience, this time in a military aircraft, which he preferred for its speed. ….

On the return journey, he stopped at Montevideo to bless the faithful multitudes on the dockside, then proceeded to Rio de Janeiro where he was greeted as a visiting head of state by the president and government. Escorted to the summit of the hill above Rio on which stands the Redemptore statue – its arms outstretched, a posture Pacelli would emulate in years to come – he blessed the land of Brazi in the name of the Holy Father. His departure for home was attended by gun salutes from shore batteries, aerial fly-pasts, and squadrons of naval escorts sounding their horns.

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There may be those who long for a return to the days of Eugenio Pacelli. Some may yearn to recover the glory and influence the church once appears to have held in world affairs. While it is not entirely clear that the church ever actually exerted the degree of influence that Pacelli’s trip to Buenos Aires might appear to signal, it is certainly clear those days are now long past.

Whatever the historical influence of the church may have been in the early decades of the twentieth century, the church in the early years of the twenty-first century finds itself increasingly at the margins of society. This can only be good news for an institution that seeks to embody the values of Jesus who “had no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

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