by Gianni Valente
Rome (Agenzia Fides) - Christmas 1951, like now, the world was at war.
At the time it was the Korean War. It began with the invasion of South Korea by the North Korean army (June 25, 1950). An immense war carnage (more than three million civilian and military deaths from the armies of 20 countries) that ended with the armistice between the parties signed on July 27, 1953 and the division between the two Koreas stabilized along the line from the front near the 38th parallel.
Christmas 2023, the year that marks the 70th anniversary of that Armistice, there are surprising analogies between that past and the present time. Analogies that also run through the words and gestures used by the Successors of Peter - then and now - in the face of the tribulations of the people and the intentions of the powers of the world.
“Recruitment” of the Churches
In June 1950, North Korea, supported by Mao Zedong's new communist China, invaded South Korea, which was in turn protected by the United States. The provisional world order sanctioned at Yalta seemed on the verge of breaking down in a nuclear apocalypse. During the conflict, American General Douglas MacArthur asked President Harry S. Truman to replicate the launch of atomic bombs already tested on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Chinese and Korean territory.
The military intervention was triggered by a UN mandate. And in the West the conflict was perceived and presented as an apocalyptic struggle against evil.
At that juncture, the US Administration accentuated its consideration of the "religious factor" in the global battle to stop communist expansion. This is abundantly attested by the papers of Myron Taylor, Personal Representative of the President of the United States (first of Roosevelt and then of Truman) to the Pope, studied by the Italian historian Ennio Di Nolfo and published by him in the precious volume 'The Vatican and the United States 1939 -1952' (Milan 1978).
Di Nolfo's studies shed light on the mission that US President Truman entrusted to Taylor in July 1950, sending him to Europe to contact church leaders and ecclesial communities. A few weeks earlier, Kim Il Sung's North Korean army had invaded South Korea. In the following months, Taylor met with leaders of the Anglican Communion, Orthodox Churches and Reformed communities. And on June 20, 1951, he wrote a letter addressed to Pius XII. In that letter, quoting words attributed to Pacelli himself, Taylor emphasized that the time has come when "all men and women of all religions" must unite "to combat and resist the evil tendencies of communism". In that battle - Taylor suggests - the Pope could have the honor of being recognized as the “spiritual guide” of the so-called free world. "It may well be that, if the hidden events of the future unfold," Taylor writes, "there will come a day when Your Holiness will find it appropriate to assume the leadership of such a worthy cause to save our civilized world from its greatest trials".
In those years, Pius XII was well aware of the persecutions against the Church that accompanied communist expansion in Eastern Europe. He knew about the arrests and trials against the Heads of the Eastern Churches: the Croatian Stepinac, the Hungarian Mindszenty, the Czech Beran, the Ukrainian Slipyj. In Italy, in 1948, La Civiltà Cattolica went so far as to affirm that the "Spanish solution", with the illegalization of the Communist Party, was in accordance with the doctrine of the Church.
In the months before Christmas 1951, the US Administration's strategy to involve communities of believers became more explicit. On September 28, receiving American ecclesiastics of different denominations in Washington, Truman reaffirmed that in the new international crisis "it is a question of preserving a world civilization in which belief in God can survive".
On the night of that Christmas 1951, both the President of the United States and the Pope addressed the men and women of that tragic time. With messages that are similar in some passages.
Truman recalls "the humble birth of the little child in the city of David, in which God gave his message of love to the world." After addressing his thoughts to the soldiers deployed on the Korean front, the US President concluded: "We will only be strong if we maintain faith, the faith that can move mountains and that, as Saint Paul says, is the substance of what is hoped for and the evidence of what is not seen. The victory we will achieve was promised to us long ago, in the words of the choir of angels singing over Bethlehem: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will".
In Rome, Pope Pacelli addressed his words to the microphones of Vatican Radio. He described the world of the time, divided in two opposing sides. But even at a time of such acute conflict, Pius XII did not identify the mission of the Church with the reasons of the “free world.” In the central passage, his words are unequivocal: "Politicians, and sometimes even men of the Church, who seek to make the Bride of Christ their ally or the instrument of their national and international political combinations - said the Bishop of Rome - They would damage the very essence of the Church, they would damage its very life. In a word, they would lower it to the same level on which temporary conflicts of interest are debated. And this is and remains true even if it occurs for purposes and interests that are themselves legitimate".
The New York Times, commenting on that speech, recognized that the papal message "did not spare criticism on both fronts in the confrontation between East and West".
At that moment in history, shattered by the clash of a divided world, Pope Pacelli reaffirmed that the Church and her mission in history had a nature of their own, incomparable with the civil orders and kingdoms of this world.
Today as then
Also today, faced with the no longer so "fragmentary" World War that massacres people, there are those who urge the Bishop of Rome to take sides, to say "which side he is on." Pope Francis, like so many of his predecessors, continues to show world elites the simple and obvious evidence that the Papacy and the Catholic Church are not against the West, but they are not the West. An elementary evidence, rediscovered with luminous evidence, especially in the last hundred years in the arduous historical journey carried out by the Catholic Church, also benefited by the end of the Papal State.
Before Pope Francis, Benedict XV, the Pope of the First World War, already said that the Catholic Church is not the West, especially with the Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud (1919). The same
fact - as the American analyst Victor Gaetan also documents in his rich volume God's Diplomats - was attested in different ways by Pope Roncalli, Paul VI, Benedict XVI and even John Paul II, who distanced himself from Western wars led by the US that began with Desert Storm against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. (Agenzia Fides, 23/12/2023)