Pope Pius XI on himself – “I’m a Polish bishop”

An academic with scholarly titles demonstrates an utterly ahistorical approach for the purpose of ridiculing the new mural in Powiśle, Warsaw. It shows Pope Pius XI, who over a century ago, as an apostolic nuncio, rendered considerable services to the capital.

Achille Ratti was already in his sixties when, in May 1918, he came to Warsaw as an apostolic visitor to reborn Poland. He had three doctorates: in theology, canon law and philosophy. He had an academic career, but not a diplomatic one. And yet he undertook this effort – apparently he liked challenges, he was otherwise an experienced mountaineer, he set new routes (one is even called Via Ratti-Graselli, at an altitude of 4634 m) – and as a result he became the first nuncio to the Republic of Poland. In connection with this, he also became a bishop, whose consecration – episcopal ordination – took place in Warsaw’s St. John the Baptist Cathedral in the Old Town. No wonder that later, as Pope, Ratti referred to himself as a “Polish bishop”. And no wonder that the inscription: “I found a second homeland in Poland” appeared on the mural.

Both of his confessions were also somehow confirmed by the practice of everyday life, as Achille Ratti put a lot of effort into – after all, not easy – work in the newly established state, merging the life of the three partitions, including the life of the Catholic Church. “Thanks to his reports, the Vatican was thoroughly informed about the turbulent events of the autumn of 1918, which, among other things, led to the rebirth of an independent Polish state on November 11” reads the interesting compendium “Poland – Holy See”, published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2019. Our country was officially recognized by the Holy See on March 30, 1919, which Ratti personally accelerated. The Pope was to solemnly recognize the Polish state in the presence of a special delegation, whose arrival, however, was delayed, and therefore Ratti acted: he communicated the formal recognition of the state and government to the prime minister. And only then did he become a nuncio, although he had already regulated the issue of filling the military ordinariate and skillfully avoided conflicts.
For the record, let me remind you that the Apostolic Nuncio is simply an ambassador of the Holy See in a country that has diplomatic relations with the latter. Although I wrote “simply ambassador”, the country must meet certain conditions to establish these relations – namely, it must be a subject of international law, a free and sovereign entity. In the case of the Republic of Poland in 1918, these relations had yet to be established, because for the previous 123 years our homeland – divided between three partitioning powers – was not a subject. If anything, it is an object brutally governed by the three partitioning powers. Nevertheless, the Vatican’s approach to the so-called “Polish question” under Pope Pius IX, in the years 1846-1878, took into account the difficult situation of the Polish nation. Representatives of the pro-independence emigration were somehow present there, th Polish College was established, also at the end of the 19th century Polish cardinals Włodzimierz Czacki and Mieczysław Halka-Ledóchowski played an active role there. To put in a nutshell, the fate of Polish Catholics deprived of their own state was not indifferent to the popes of that time. Hence the decision to send the Prelate Achille Ratti to Warsaw in May 1918.

He prayed with Poles during the Battle for Warsaw

The Polish-Bolshevik war must have been quite a shock for the nuncio, since in August – when the barbarians were already at the gates of the capital – Achille Ratti, as one of the two ambassadors, remained in Warsaw to support Varsovians, pray with them and strengthen them. There are testimonies that throughout the night from 14 to 15 under the windows of his seat – in the presbytery of the church of St. Alexander, in Książęca Street, right next to Plac Trzech Krzyży – crowds of people prayed, and so was Ratti. Therefore, already on September 24, during the session of the Sejm, Prime Minister Wincenty Witos publicly thanked both the Nuncio and the Holy See for their moral support in the days of danger. Ratti himself, already as Pope Pius XI, commissioned in 1934 for his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo a painting depicting the Battle for Warsaw, or the Miracle on the Vistula (it was painted by Jan Henryk Rosen, the creator of, inter alia, frescoes in the Armenian cathedral in Lviv; the pope also commissioned from him the Defense of Częstochowa against the Swedes – and this fresco is also in Castel Gandolfo). The University of Warsaw awarded him the title of doctor honoris causa, and the government honored him – a little later, but still before the conclave (6 February 1922) that elected him – with the Order of the White Eagle.

But Achille Ratti had rendered on more service about which little is known, especially since appearances were against him. And it was like this: in the plebiscite areas in Upper Silesia, in East Prussia and in Warmia and Mazury, the Nuncio acted between April 20 and December 12, 1920 as the High Commissioner of the Church. In the already mentioned compendium we find an intriguing account:

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Based on the sources stored in the files of the Nunciature, it must be concluded that his powers were limited by so many reservations from the Secretariat of State that he was in fact doomed to complete inaction. This is confirmed by the Secretary of State himself, who expressis verbis recommended the nuncio to speak and act as little as possible in performing this very delicate function. /…/ In his reports, Ratti tried to present the situation in the plebiscite areas very accurately and, if possible, to correct ereoneus information and opinions held by the Secretariat of State. He drew attention to the enormous dominance of the German side on all levels of socio-political and church life. He had his own point of view on the issue of impartiality in plebiscite matters, stating, for example, that a plebiscite conducted in such conditions may become one great hoax. He also asked the Secretariat of State to verify the information received from Card. Adolf Bertram, Bishop of Wrocław, because they were not complete and accurate. Cardinal Bertram, according to Ratti, was a zealous bishop, but he was German at heart and soul, which meant that he treated the plebiscite too emotionally. (Andrzej Szwarc, The Holy See towards Polish lands and independence emigration in the years 1795-1918).

It got to the point that the Commission Interalliée de Gouverment et de Plébiscite de Haute Silésie of which Nuncio Ratti was a member, refused the German cardinal a permission to go to the plebiscite areas. As if in retaliation, Cardinal Bertram issued a famous decree forbidding the clergy to conduct plebiscites without the consent of their own parish priest. The decree was made without the knowledge and consent of the Nuncio, but it was against it that a press campaign was launched, and the Sejm even demanded that relations with the Holy See be broken off. In addition, the Vatican prohibited the Nuncio from making any statements or comments. “These facts became a great test and a personal painful experience for the nuncio” – writes the researcher – and his popularity in the Polish society immediately decreased. He was soon recalled to Rome, and immediately became Cardinal and Archbishop of Milan. And on February 6, 1922, he became pope. And already as Pope in 1925 he signed a concordat with the Republic of Poland.

Encyclical letter in German. Banned by Hitler

The plebiscite experiences with the German Cardinal Adolf Bertram (who will leave an imprint on relations, including with Poles during the war) were probably very useful to Ratti when it came to negotiating the concordat with the German Reich, signed in 1933. And when it was necessary to refer to its frequent violation by the German side, which he, as Pope Pius IX, discussed in the encyclical Mit brenennder Sorge, in 1937, published in German! The only one in history in this language!

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The concordat, which is easily forgotten, even now in the arguments and discussions raised in Poland, is “an international agreement between the Holy See and the state, regulating the legal status of the Catholic Church in a given country” (Encyklopedia Katolicka, volume IX, Lublin 2002). Just that and as much as that.

That is why the Holy See signs concordats so that there is a legal basis – anchored in the international law – which can be referred to when something in mutual – autonomous and independent relations fails. This is why the authorities imposed on the Poles by Moscow in 1945 terminated the concordat of 1925 – so that there would be no legal platform to which the Church could appeal when its goods – especially people – were threatened. And so it happened.

On the centenary of the pontificate of Pope Pius XI, who gloriously and to the benefit of Poland spent several years in Warsaw, it was decided to commemorate him with a mural. It appeared a few weeks ago on a building at Lipowa Street, on the way to BUW (Warsaw University Library). And immediately An academic with scholarly titles writes in an accusatory tone that “a huge mural of a guy who signed a concordat with Hitler has just been created near BUW”. Accusations reduced to an ahistorical thesis rather discredit the author. After all, who in the world of that time did not make deals with Hitler? Who refused to come to the Olympics in Berlin? Who broke diplomatic relations with Germany?

But what does it matter? It is also difficult to assume that the author doesn’t know what he is writing, after all, he has a post-doctoral degree. Maybe he wants attention, even at the cost of embarrassment. Does he not mind the opinion that this is both senseless and ineffective? So what, let me repeat, even such action causes confusion here. So it’s about spoiling the image of Pius XI then, to stir things up.

After all, knowing that the papal encyclical Mit brenennder Sorge was banned in Germany is no esoteric knowledge. Distribution and promotion of the encyclical could result in losing your job, going to jail or ending up in a concentration camp – kit was supposed to be read in churches on Palm Sunday (March 21, 1937), but the authorities caught couriers who delivered it to parishes. The encyclical letter not only showed the contradiction of the Nazi ideology with the Church’s teachings, but also contained a defense of the human person.

At the same time, a week later, Pope Pius XI published yet another encyclical letter, Divini Redemptoris, then issued immediately in Poland under the significant title “On Godless Communism”. And it was not the only document in which this Pope – let us recall that he experienced the Bolshevik threat and the Battle for Warsaw – warned against communism and called for world solidarity. It’s about the two “Mexican” encyclical letters, Iniquis afflictisque of 1926 and Acerba animi anxietudo of 1932. Mexico was facing a Bolshevik revolution then, and the encyclicals showed the repression to which the faithful and clergy were subjected and called on the international community for help and solidarity.

And isn’t this by any chance the reason for this scorn on the part of the author with a post-doctoral degree?

– Barbara Sułek-Kowalska
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Mural with Pius XI painted in Warsaw's Powiśle. Photo: print screen from YouTube/Polska Zwycięska
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