September 2, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: Pius XII began to change the Church

John F. Fink(Sixth in a series of columns)

Last week, I wrote about Pope Pius XII during World War II. But this amazing pope should be celebrated for more than his wartime activities.

He was a great “teaching pope,” which he did through 41 encyclicals and nearly 1,000 public addresses and radio messages. He carefully dealt with specific points at issue, and brought Christian principles to bear on contemporary problems, as his successors have done.

He condemned communism, decreeing the excommunication of Catholics holding formal allegiance to the Communist Party.

Unlike other popes, he held only two consistories at which new cardinals were made. The first was in 1946, after World War II ended. By that time the number of cardinals had shrunk to 38, including only one in the United States: Cardinal Dennis Joseph Dougherty of Philadelphia. Therefore, 32 new cardinals were created at the “Grand Consistory” in 1946.

In the second consistory in 1953, Pius created 24 cardinals and brought an end to more than 500 years of Italians having a majority in the College of Cardinals. He named cardinals from China, India and the Middle East, and he increased the number of cardinals from the Americas.

As for dogma, in 1950 Pius XII solemnly and infallibly defined the doctrine of Mary’s assumption into heaven. Before doing so, he asked in his encyclical “Deiperae Virginis” if it was the desire of Catholics worldwide to have this doctrine defined. The question brought petitions to do so from 113 cardinals, 18 patriarchs, 2,505 archbishops and bishops, 50,000 women religious and 8 million laypersons.

The pope declared that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Thus the pope included the Church’s beliefs in Mary’s Immaculate Conception, that she was the mother of God, and that she was perpetually a virgin, but it left open the question of whether she experienced physical death at the end of her earthly life.

He taught that evolution might describe the biological origins of human life, but the soul was created by God. He accepted the “rhythm method” as a moral form of family planning, although only in limited circumstances.

Pius instituted numerous liturgical reforms, ahead of what was to come after the Second Vatican Council. For example, he made the first of several modifications of the Eucharist fast. Catholics were obliged to fast from food and drink, including water, from midnight until they received Communion, and Pius changed that to three hours prior to Communion. For those of us who grew up with that midnight rule, it was a big change indeed.

He also allowed evening Masses for the first time. Up until that time, all Masses, including weddings, had to be celebrated in the morning. And he revised the liturgy of Holy Week.

He encouraged biblical research, which had been limited ever since Pope Pius X condemned modernism, and he required bishops to provide biblical studies for lay people.

In short, Pope Pius XII gave his successor a great deal to build on. †

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