“Wake Up, Brothers!” A Prophetic Warning at Notre Dame From the Future Pope Pius XII
Two years before he became pope, Cardinal Pacelli told a Paris gathering to avoid the “gesture of Lucifer,” and declared that it is the “substance of Christianity, the very substance of religion, that is at stake.”
Just two years before his election as Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli gave a stirring and prophetic warning in the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris using words that could just as easily apply to today.
But on July 13, 1937, on the eve of Bastille Day, a future pope would give the homily in the cathedral, on a topic fitting for the venue: “The Vocation of France.”
The cathedral, which suffered major damage by fire on Monday, has been central to French identity for centuries. It has always had strong links to the papacy ever since Pope Alexander III symbolically laid its first stone in 1163.
Cardinal Pacelli, at the time Vatican Secretary of State, warned of a coming dark age, but not before waxing lyrical about the “soul of today’s France” and the profound role Notre Dame cathedral has played in the nation’s history.
He remembered the nation’s great historical figures of the past, and praised the cathedral as a “masterpiece” of French “genius” and “loving work.”
He singled out the cathedral altar on which “God descends under the veils of the Eucharist” to welcome “all of us together under Mary's maternal mantle.”
The two West towers, Cardinal Pacelli added, “seem to probe the serene horizon or threaten the capital as watchmen.”
And amid the “incessant noise” of the French capital, Notre Dame de Paris is “always serene,” he said, and “seems to repeat incessantly to all those who pass by… a perpetual invitation to prayer.”
For centuries, he said, the cathedral had born witness to “the luminous doctrine of truth, the holy morals of the Gospel, God's love for the world, repentance and necessary resolutions.”
He then exhorted “all the sons and daughters” of France to be “faithful to your traditional vocation” before remarking on how many were repeating the “gesture of Lucifer” in proudly showing their absence of belief.
Just two years before the outbreak of World War II and at a time when the Nazis were on the rise, he called on the French faithful to “contemplate a world today that has perhaps more need of redemption than any other era of history.”
In particular, he called on the French people to wake up from their slumber to recognize what was happening, and enemies within the Church that were seeking to destroy her.
“Notre Dame de Paris, witness in past centuries to so many experiences, so many disillusionments, of so much sadly misguided zeal, directs you to … her exhortation to vigilance, an exhortation filled with maternal goodness, but also with gravity and solicitude,” he said.
“Wake up, brothers! Be vigilant, fratres! Be vigilant!"
Today, Cardinal Pacelli added, “it is no longer a question, as in the past, of supporting the fight against deficient or altered forms of religious civilization which in large part still retained a soul of truth and justice inherited from Christianity or unconsciously drawn from it.
Now, he said, it is the “substance of Christianity, the very substance of religion, that is at stake,” adding that its “restoration or its ruin is at the center of implacable struggles that upset and shake at the foundation of our continent and the rest of the world.”
Man, he went on, was no longer able to distinguish between the temporal and the eternal, nor “sense and enjoy the harmony in which dissonances are resolved peacefully.”
And he observed how “intelligent technical” advances have “appeared to make man finally master of the forces of nature” but which at the same time have made him afraid of “passing his own life onto others.”
“Watch out!,” Cardinal Pacelli exhorted.
He recalled how in the Garden of Gethsemane, “at the very moment their Master was about to be arrested,” the apostles “seem to be falling asleep in their blind unconsciousness that the threat to the world does not concern them.”
They believed they had no responsible part to play “in the crises in which the universe is struggling with anguish,” he said.
“How many remain deaf and inert to Christ's warning to his own Apostles,” Cardinal Pacelli said in closing.
“Be vigilant et orate ut non intretis in tentationem [pray that you not enter into temptation]! Be vigilant!”