Cardinal Mundelein and the Conclave of 1939



Thanks to the protest of Cardinal O’Connell to Pius XI after the Conclave of 1922, and the development of transoceanic air travel, all Cardinals not prevented by illness or extreme old age were able to participate in the Conclave of 1939, beginning on March 1, 1939 on the eve of World War II.  One of the American cardinals participating was George Cardinal Mundelein of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Born in 1872 on the lower east side in Manhattan, Mundelein broke the mold for most American Cardinals of his era in not being of Irish extraction,  He was only half-Irish on his mother’s side!  His father’s family was of German origin.   He spent all of his early career in the Brooklyn diocese, rising to Auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn in 1909.  He was made Archbishop of the Chicago Archdiocese in late 1915.

His introduction to Chicago was turbulent in that an anarchist dosed chicken with arsenic at a banquet held in his honor.  An emergency emetic prepared by a Doctor in attendance prevented any fatalities.

The Archbishop was made a Cardinal in 1924 by Pius XI.

For his day, Mundelein was viewed as a liberal and he certainly was in his politics.  He was an enthusiastic supporter of the New Deal and he made this comment which would not be out of place in a Catholic Worker  paper today:

The trouble with [the Church] in the past has been that we were too often allied or drawn into an alliance with the wrong side. Selfish employers of labor have flattered the Church by calling it the great conservative force, and then called upon it to act as a police force while they paid but a pittance of wage to those who work for them. I hope that day has gone by. Our place is beside the workingman.

His views on other matters reveal the limitations of political classifications when applied to Churchmen.  He was an uncompromising foe of contraception and campaigned against sexual suggestiveness in films.  On easy divorce he had this to say:  “that not war, nor famine, nor pestilence have brought so much suffering and pain to the human race, as have hasty, ill-advised marriages, unions entered into without the knowledge, the preparation, the thought even an important commercial contract merits and receives. God made marriage an indissoluble contract, Christ made it a sacrament, the world today has made it a plaything of passion, an accompaniment of sex, a scrap of paper to be torn up at the whim of the participants.”

He did not live long after his participation in the Conclave of 1939, dying of a heart attack at age 67 in October of 1939.

The 1939 Conclave was the shortest in the twentieth century, lasting only two days and having three ballots.  Eugenio Pacelli was elected on the third ballot.  Perhaps betraying a certain reluctance to assume the papal office, Pacelli insisted upon a final ballot to make certain that he was elected Pope.  His reluctance was further indicated when his housekeepers saw him arrayed as Pope and he told them with tears in his eyes, “Look what they have done to me!” With Europe being engulfed by Fascism and Communism and the world on the brink of another Great War after only a two decade respite, it is easy to understand  Pacelli’s reluctance to step into the shoes of the Fisherman at such a time.  However, reigning as Pius XII, he proved equal to all the many daunting challenges he confronted.

Pacelli was born into a family very well connected among the Papal nobility, with his father serving as dean of the Sacra Rota Romana, the highest appellate tribunal in the Church.  He early decided to become a priest.  Due to his fragile health he received special permission to do most of his seminary traing at home, a sort of home schooled priest!  Ordained in 1899, he began studies in canon law while serving as the curate of Chiesa Nueva in Rome.  He swiftly was chosen to work in the Vatican Secretariat of State.  In 1904 he received a doctorate in canon law and from 1904-1916 helped in the codification of canon law while continuing his work in the Secretariat of State.   He was made Under Secretary in 1911 and Adjunct Secretary in 1912.  World War I for him was an endless round of diplomatic missions.  In 1917 he was made a Bishop and sent as papal nuncio to Bavaria.  Appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Germany in 1920, he served there throughout the twenties during which time part of his duties included diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, as no direct relations existed between the Vatican and the Soviet State.

In 1929 Pope Pius XI made Pacelli a Cardinal as a prelude to making him the Vatican Secretary of State early in 1930.  As Secretary of State Pacelli was at the vortex of the diplomatic efforts of Pius XI to prevent another Great War and to stand against the totalitarian regimes.  Pacelli was the main author of  Mit brennender Sorge, the encyclical written in German in which Pius XI virtually declared war on the Nazi regime.  As Secretary of State, Pius traveled widely in the Western Hemisphere including an extensive visit to the United States in 1936 and a meeting with FDR.  After the meeting, FDR sent a personal representative to the Vatican to establish direct diplomatic relations between the US and the Vatican, which had lapsed after the fall of the Papal States in 1870.  Pacelli was the Pope’s right hand throughout the thirties.  Few men have come to the papal throne with more high level Vatican experience than Pacelli.

It would be folly to attempt to compress the reign of Pius XII into an already lengthy blog post:    He proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, he kept alive the Catholic faith behind the Iron Curtain, he prevented Italy from going Communist in 1948, he reformed the liturgy, he gave an impetus to Bible Studies, and such a laundry list could go on for another thousand words.  However, even in a compressed blog post one thing should be made very clear about Pius XII:  he was a hero.   I deem Pope Pius XII a hero because, confronting one of the cruelest tyrants in the lamentable chronicles of human crime, he saved hundreds of thousands of potential victims.  Millions of people alive today owe their lives to the actions of Pius XII.  Jewish historian Martin Gilbert, the world’s foremost authority on Sir Winston Churchill, and one of the most highly regarded historians of the World War II era, has stated as follows:

“Gilbert replied: “Please read my new book, ‘The Righteous.’ I’ve written extensively there about the Catholic Church, some of whose leaders played a remarkable part in the rescue of Jews, many of whose priests and […] ordinary Catholics played a remarkable part.”

“The Pope himself was denounced by Dr. Goebbels” — the Nazi propaganda minister — “for having taken the side of the Jews in the Christian message, in December 1942, where he criticized racism,” Gilbert said.

He continued: “The Pope also played a part, which I describe in some detail, in the rescue of three-quarters of the Jews of Rome, at very short notice, when the SS came in and tried to round up all 5,000, at least 4,000 of whom were given shelter in the Vatican itself and other Catholic places. …

“So I hope that my book can restore, in a way, on the foundation of historical fact, the true and wonderful achievements of Catholics in helping Jews during the war.”


Here are some of the accolades received by Pius XII for his efforts on behalf of Jews.

Rabbi David Dalin has a brilliant article here on Pius XII which he ends with this moving passage:

“The Talmud, the great sixth century compendium of Jewish religious law and ethics, teaches Jews that “whosoever preserves one life, it is accounted to him by Scripture as if he had preserved a whole world.”  More so than most other twentieth century leaders, Pius XII effectively fulfilled this Talmudic dictum when the fate of European Jewry was at stake.  Pope Pius XII’s legacy as a “righteous gentile,” who rescued so many Jews from Hitler’s death camps cannot and should not be forgotten.  Nor should the fact that the Jewish community, and so many of its leaders, praised the Pope’s efforts during and after the Holocaust, and promised never to forget.

These points are especially significant in evaluating Pope Pius XII’s enduring legacy for twentieth, and twenty-first, century Jews.  It needs to be remembered, as noted earlier, that no other Pope in history has been so universally praised by Jews.  So, too, the compelling reason for this unprecedented Jewish praise for, and gratitude to, a Pope needs to be better remembered than it has been in recent years: Today, more than fifty years after the Holocaust, it needs to be more widely recognized and appreciated that Pius XII was indeed a very “righteous gentile,” a true friend of the Jewish people, who saved more Jewish lives than any other person, including Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.  A new authentically Jewish history of Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, emphasizing his historic role and accomplishments as a “righteous gentile,” may help to bring some long-overdue recognition to his too little known and appreciated legacy as one of the century’s great friends of the Jewish people.”

The historical record in regard to Pius XII and his heroic efforts to protect as many people, Jews, Christians and the rest of humanity, as he could from the Nazi terror is crystal clear and has always been crystal clear.  Only fools and knaves think otherwise.  Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Conclave of 1939 chose very wisely indeed.

Published in: on October 17, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Cardinal Mundelein and the Conclave of 1939  
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