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Pius XI - An Active Pontiff

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Photograph of Pius XIAchille Ratti, like Pius X, had parents who were just plain folks. Born at Desio on May 31, 1857, he went to the seminary at Milan and then on to the Gregorian University to take his doctorate in theology. After a few years in a parish, Father Ratti was put to work at the Ambrosian Library in Milan. Here he made such a reputation that Pius X in 1912 made him assistant librarian at the Vatican and soon after head of the great Vatican Library. Scholar that he was, Ratti was no pale bookworm. He was an expert, indeed something of a champion, in a difficult and dangerous sport, mountain climbing.

In 1918 Benedict XV sent Ratti from his research to serve first as visitor and then as nuncio to stormy Poland. For a scholar in his sixties to go on his first diplomatic mission to a country coming to life after over a century of partition was something of a task. But the old historian successfully handled a situation perplexing enough to trouble a supreme court full of Solomons. He showed courage too. When other diplomats fled before Trotsky's onrushing Red Army, Ratti remained to hear the thunder of Soviet guns in threatened Warsaw. He had the satisfaction of seeing the heroic Poles strike back and rout the Communists.

In 1921 Benedict made Ratti a cardinal and archbishop of Milan. A few months later Benedict was dead and Ratti succeeded him. He chose the name Pius XI.

Pius XI faced a sadly disturbed postwar world, a world threatened and tempted by fascism and communism. Far from yielding to discouragement Pius strove mightily to rally the forces of good and to remedy the times' evils. To remind a materialistic world of the primacy of the spiritual, Pius established the beautiful feast of Christ the King. In thirty encyclicals he shed light on the difficulties of the day. Outstanding were his encyclicals on education, marriage, and above all, on the social problem.

Though he fought manfully for principle, Pius was quick to extend the hand of friendship, and his pontificate is notable for a whole series of concordats. The outstanding event of this kind was, of course, the Lateran Treaty of 1929, which put a long-desired and satisfactory end to the Roman question.

Pius XI deeply appreciated the oneness of mankind. He ardently fostered mission activity and was eager to see native clergy, headed by native bishops, take over as many mission fields as possible. In what has been called the Magna Carta of the missions, Pius allowed certain customs which, once open to superstition, had become secularized with the centuries. He was keenly interested in the separated Eastern churches and yearned for reunion with them. His great heart was angered by base attacks on the Jews, and he bluntly told the world that to be antisemitic was to be un- Christian. It is characteristic of the man that one of his first acts was to continue feeding starving Russians in spite of Soviet ingratitude, and one of his last was to lash out at racist laws.

Pius had much sorrow. He grieved over the sufferings of his children in Mexico, Russia, Spain, and Germany. But he was not soured. Just before he died on February 10, 1939, Pius offered his life for the peace of the world.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.


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